WASHINGTON — When the city editor told me I was going to cover the first Beatles concert in D.C., I was flattered and very surprised, not to mention a little nervous, too. I had just become a reporter for The Washington Post and was both the youngest and newest (i.e., dumbest) person on staff.
When the mission was explained a day or so later, I was less honored and flattered and mostly just nervous.
My assignment was not to write a review or to interview John, Paul, Ringo and George. My job was simple: I was to serve as a bodyguard, a human shield, for a more experienced reporter, Leroy Aarons. He would get the glory and the byline. In the best-case scenario, I would be a footnote to history. Worst-case, I could wind up on a slab at the D.C. morgue.
Aarons was at least a dozen years older than me and much more experienced. My job, as it was explained, was to gather color – I’m still not sure what that means – and make sure Aarons got into the Coliseum, which old Washington hands like me still called it the Uline Arena from its pro hockey days. Even more important than getting Aarons inside the building was getting him out in one piece when the event was over.
Enter the dragon – that part would be played by me. I would be the Bodyguard. The Enforcer. I was starting to feel a little better. Being the toughest guy in The Washington Post newsroom may not have been much, but it was something. Also, I would get overtime.
We in America knew little about the Beatles at that point. But we were pretty certain that there would be big crowds for their D.C. visit and maybe a riot, too. In that case I was to lay down my life, if that’s what it took to get Aarons to a telephone or, better yet, a cab so he could get back to the Post building at 15th and L Street in Northwest. Either way, I would fight a rear guard action should the frenzied fans, mostly 12-year-old girls, start trouble.
On the night of the concert, we arrived early by taxi, as I recall. I had intended to get an expense advance, but the lady who handled petty cash was missing. I was broke, cold – and hungry, too. It had crossed my mind what kind of an obit the Post would give me.
In a way, I was the paper’s Beatles expert. Acting on a tip, a Post photographer and I had gone to Pitt’s Barber Shop on Wisconsin Avenue one weekday afternoon. I was to interview three American University students who were getting Beatles haircuts! Oh, those wild and crazy kids. What would their families say? Would they get kicked out of AU? It made for a fun-to-read story and made me temporarily the Post’s resident Beatles authority.
Frankly, I don’t remember much about the concert itself. I went back to the place in 2004 to take part in an anniversary TV tribute. The Washington Coliseum was pretty much gutted. It was smaller than I remembered. That happens, I guess.
I do remember that, not having heard much live music up until then, I was very, very impressed with the Beatles and the warm-up acts, too. I resolved to attend more live music events if I got out of this one alive.
The screaming from the audience was, as you can imagine, deafening, especially from a group of young girls who arrived from the British Embassy. I figured if there was to be a riot, they would start it. Would they drape the Union Jack and the American flag on my coffin? It was a thought.
Mainly, I was concerned about how I was going to get back to the Post late on a cold, snowy, very dark February night. And if I made it there, how to then get to my apartment in Glover Park? As I said, I was a little cash-strapped that night. Had ATMs existed, my account would have been bare.
The main thing was that Aarons had made his escape. I did not, but I was still alive, which was something. I had to walk back to the Post, and it was very cold and dark. At least it was too cold for muggers to be out.
When I finally got to work, the sad-looking nightside crew, who seldom saw daylight, were as spry as ever. I spotted one of the editors and went over to ask for cab fare so I could get home to Glover Park. Before I could say anything, he hit me up for a loan. Not a good sign.
I finally found somebody – a Harvard grad copy boy and remittance man, who was flush with cash. He was prepared to loan me up to $7. I accepted.
When I got home, my then-wife was still up. She was accustomed to me working late, and she worked days herself. Our son, who was about to turn a year old, was sacked out. My birthday was the next day.
Being a general-assignment reporter in those days could mean covering a fire or shooting one day and an airplane crash or a suicide the next. In other words, there was lots of action. My wife was used to hearing some pretty wild stories. She asked me why I was so late and what I had been doing?
I told her I had a night assignment with Aarons. I was so cold and tired I forgot to mention I had been out covering the Beatles.