It's a Tuesday afternoon, and I have to go see....
The Beatles' bus. It's out there, laughing its primary colors from the back of a flatbed trailer in Gatlinburg out front of the Hard Rock Cafe. I have a class to teach, a column to write, but I have to go see. It's as if the Magna Carta came to town, the Apollo 11 moon capsule. "Or the Rosetta Stone," my daughter Alexis chimes in as we rap while driving up to see it. You would need a Rosetta Stone to decipher the 60s, but for better or worse, they became part of who we are. The music of the Beatles entered my marrow bones in the early 1960s, when I was about 10, and stood barefoot in front of our black and white TV while the Fab Four strummed their instruments from the set of the Ed Sullivan Show in New York and sent magic waves bouncing off the ionosphere all across America.
Thirty-five years later I'm reminded how they became a part of our lives every time I see a certain neighbor walking about his yard in bluejeans and work cap.
We call him the Egg Man, because he raises chickens and sometimes sells us fresh eggs. When my boys were around 10 or 12, they discovered the Beatles, and for about a year there, each time we'd pass the Egg Man's house they'd both sing out "coo-coo-ka-choo, coo-coo-ka-choo," the chant from the chorus of "I Am the Walrus" ("I Am the Eggman,") on the Beatles' landmark album, The Magical Mystery Tour.
I have to see this bus. I once sat behind the wheel of another magic hippie bus. Maybe the first, in fact. When driving around the country with my wife, Jeanne and sister, Kathleen, I had found myself in the hometown of Ken Kesey, my favorite writer in those days. Kesey was the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, a novel that made me want to be a writer. But he was just as famous for traveling all across America in 1964 with other artists and musicians who called themselves the Merry Pranksters. Tom Wolfe's landmark book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, details how they influenced the Beatles.
"Be here now," I tell myself as I set aside my work and drive up with Alexis, who is in from college. We pass the Egg Man and we both sing out "coo-coo-ka-choo."
Driving to Gatlinburg can be its own magical mystery tour. We pass giant plastic dinosaurs and space aliens and billboards featuring that unlikely concoction of anatomy and style that is Dolly Parton. There's a huge picture of a singer who looks like Elvis, and we recall how the Beatles would always utter his name in reverent tones.
Even the Smoky Mountains are surreal today. An iron-blue blanket sculpted and folded on the sky, tucked into the creases of the horizon, highlighted in snowy white... the color that is not a color but contains all colors--like those that burst from the prism in Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon or open out from the central fold in the cover to Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beatles look so happy there, laughing in their band uniforms, pupils wide, hands splayed as if casting confetti or blessings. By the time Magical Mystery Tour came out, the Beatles were past satori, and like the Merry Pranksters before them they soon were scattered by RPMs--Revolutions Per Minute--leaving the world to spin in a vortex they helped create. Their next album, The White Album, as its known, refracted darker tones. But in 1966, such darkness was still in the future.
We park to meet family and friends in Gatlinburg, and walk down to see the bus. It is vivid from a block away, shining yellow and royal blue, obviously repainted. Psychedelic lettering on both sides reads Magical Mystery Tour.
We climb aboard, my family, and stand under-whelmed for a moment. Where are the guitars? The incense and love beads? Those crazy Lonely Hearts Club Band uniforms? The interior has been reupholstered. There's no graffiti, no stickers, just a Combine/Establishment slate gray fabric covering all.
Still, we sit where Beatles sat and imagine it when the seats were yellow and orange and the bus, bristling with cameras and costumes and lights, exuded music and a Liverpool patter from John, Paul, George and Ringo.
Later, we walk all around the bus, as I walked around the Merry Pranksters bus 22 years before. Its mission statement had been painted on the front. Above the windshield in squiggly psychedelic lettering was the single word "Further." It was the motto of a merry band intent on seeking out the limits of sensation, thought and psychedelic art.
I wonder will hold a similar seat of honor on The Magical Mystery Tour bus?
There it is, framed above the front windshield in neat, corporate lettering: Hardrock.com..
O.K.. All things must pass. Still, this is the bus John, Paul, George and Ringo immortalized in song and film. You can tell by the dings and scratches on the chrome bumper in back. You can tell by the looks on the faces of those who have made the pilgrimage to see it. Take Susan Rush Igoe. She's my age. Forty-seven, and she's glad to be in the presence of faded magic.
"I drove down from Cincinnati to see this," she says. "My husband, his name's Larry Igoe, called from California, where he was on a trip, and he phoned me at 7:30 in the morning--4:30 his time--just to tell me about this. He said, 'Get your butt out of bed and go see the Beatles bus.' I drove five hours just to get here."
She's glad she took the tour. You can tell from that nirvana smile.