Book Review: Meet The Beatles Bar Band In Hamburg In 1960
In a new novel, an aspiring poet and American exchange student finds unexpected inspiration through the influence of a ragtag group of musicians from Liverpool - the pre-fame Beatles.
Dan Greenberger is a television writer and producer who has made part of the "origin story" of The Beatles the basis of his debut novel "The Boys Next Door" (Appian Way Press). It's historical fiction, with the first-person narrative told through the letters and diary entries of a young American foreign exchange student named Alan Levy.
Greenberger admits to being a diehard Beatles fan and demonstrates his knowledge of their history by creating a character who pretty seamlessly interacts with the band and their milieu in 1960 Hamburg, Germany. John, Paul, George, Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe were in this famously seedy and rowdy part of the German city to play marathon sets of rock 'n' roll music in bars, primarily the Kaiserkeller. (The only recordings known to have survived from this era in Hamburg are from The Star Club in 1962.)
The story takes place over the course of less than three months. Alan Levy finds himself renting a cheap room right next door to the room where all five Beatles are staying. For the first third of the book, the boys next door are peripheral characters in Levy's life, a noisy and vulgar gang that ruins Alan's sleep.
He stays in the room for reasons having to do with his attraction to Astrid Kirchherr, a good friend of the band. Kirchherr, who just passed away in 2020, is a main character in the novel. She is known for the early photographs she took of The Beatles and also for being instrumental in changing their hair styles.
Alan gradually meets the individual Beatles, and by the second part of this three-part novel he goes to the Kaiserkeller to hear the band play. This is where the book really kicks into gear, as Alan changes from a pompous intellectual Columbia University student who fancies himself a poet (and has an ignorant dislike of rock 'n' roll) to a habitue of Hamburg nightlife and all that entails. Alan even gets a "Beatle haircut" from Astrid before any of The Beatles do!
The fun of "The Boys Next Door" lies not only in Alan's transformation, but also in the many factual details of The Beatles story that Greenberger weaves into his tale. The characters of John (nasty, but deep), Paul (the most friendly), George (the youngest), Pete Best (amusingly portrayed as dull and not really fitting in), and Stuart Sutcliffe (the Artist) are well-drawn. Ringo (in another band at that time), Klaus Voormann and others also have scenes as the plot unfolds.
Throughout the novel Greenberger adds Beatle references that portend the future, or perhaps are just a timeless part of the myth. Referring to Astrid, Paul tells Alan "You've found her now go and get her," a lyric he would write years later. Ringo is described walking along the river, taking photos, as he does in his famous scene in the film "A Hard Day's Night." Then, late in the book Alan is walking with three of the Beatles, crossing the street single file; John leading the way, Paul with a cigarette, George last in the line.
There is also a very unexpected reference. In the novel, Alan corresponds occasionally with his friend from Columbia University, Artie. Later correspondence reveals more about this Artie. He's decided to seriously pursue folk music, and he's working with a partner. Perhaps to make sure we get it, Greenberger has Alan gently advise his friend that "Garfunkel" might not be the best show biz name.
By this time in the story, Alan is encouraging The Beatles to write their own songs, and he's also learning to play the guitar, which he buys from John Lennon. Part of the deal is Alan granting the "rights" to one of his pretentious poems to John, a poem Lennon later will turn into one of his best-loved Beatles songs. Lennon's reminiscence of places he remembers turns Alan's poem into something much more direct and powerful.
As the novel ends, there are personnel changes afoot in The Beatles. Stuart has left the band to pursue painting. There are also some legal troubles developing in Hamburg. Alan is somewhat responsible for George being deported (due to being underage). In a climactic scene, Alan actually plays with The Beatles, in a rooftop concert no less!
"The Boys Next Door" is a fun ride, allowing us to vicariously spend some time at the bar with The Beatles. You don't need to know all the details of those long ago days in Hamburg to enjoy this book.