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Shake It Up, Baby

· The Lede

Brian Cullman

“They’re over!” he said. “Finished.”

Ed Sullivan leaned over my father, and he knocked me on the shoulder. It was more than a tap and was meant to be. Making a point. He smelled like hand soap and luncheon meat.

“I’ll never have The Beatles on again. Never.”

We were sitting at Jimmy’s Shoe Repair on East 59th Street getting our shoes shined. Sullivan lived across the street at Delmonico’s. We lived around the corner on 58th Street. My dad had known Ed Sullivan from years before. My father was good with numbers, with saving floundering businesses, and during the depression, when The Roxy Music Hall was about to go bankrupt, he’d been brought in to try and salvage it.

He cut admission down to 25 cents, and - during times when the banks were closed - instituted an honor policy: you could simply sign an IOU and go see the show on the promise that you’d return with a quarter sometime later, when the banks opened up again. He claimed he didn’t lose a dime that way. In any case, The Roxy started turning a profit within three months, and my father soon went on to other pursuits, a mix of government and business.

“I don’t know who they think they are. Big heads. Big hair. Too big for their fuckin’ britches. Pardon my French.”

Jimmy’s brother Charlie was shining Sullivan’s shoes, a pair of brown Oxfords with little air holes around the tips, by the toes. Ash from Sullivan’s smoke fell onto Charlie’s newsboy cap.

“First time they came on, seemed like nice enough boys. Eyes wide. Taking in everything, never been to New York, never been to America before, and it was all ‘yes, sir,’ ‘no, sir,’ ‘three bags full, sir.’ Jackets and ties. And respect. Respectful. In the dressing room, someone brought them cups of tea, and when they’d finished, they brought empty cups over to the sink. Tidied up. Nice boys. Not any more.

“Now, they’re saying they’re bigger than God. You believe that?”

I didn’t.

“My people are getting calls from church groups and advertisers. Sponsors. Both at once. Seems they’ll be lucky to play bowling alleys couple months from now. No one’s going to play their records, book their concerts. It’s true. Get used to it. They’re over.

“You like their music?”

I nodded.

“Six months from now, three months from now, you’ll have forgotten. They’ll mean nothing to you, less than nothing. Gone from the radio. Gone from the world.”

Charlie finished spit-shining Sullivan’s oxfords, and snapped the shoeshine cloth once, twice, then moved over to my father’s shoes and leaned down to rub some polish in. I couldn’t tell if he’d been listening, and if he’d been listening what he’d been hearing.

“What is it you like about them?”

I couldn’t say. I didn’t say. I didn’t say that they made joy an option, a choice you could make. That they’d opened doors that I’d never even known were there, much less closed. They made walking down the street into a dance, and made dancing seem as simple as just walking down the street. They made me feel like I belonged.

“You heard what happened in the Philippines? How they disrespected President Marcos, caused a riot and were lucky to get out alive.”

I’d heard something about a party at the palace that they hadn’t attended.

Miscommunication. Or maybe they were tired after the concert. I hadn’t thought much about it.

Charlie continued to shine my father’s shoes. Sullivan folded the paper he’d had on his lap and continued to smoke, the ashes drifting onto his jacket and his pants. He brushed them off casually, then carefully, and nothing was out of place.

My father looked at his watch. It was later than he'd thought, and he stood up. Charlie hadn’t quite finished, but he made as if he were done and snapped the cloth, money changed hands and everyone smiled.

Ed Sullivan looked up as if seeing me for the first time. He re-folded the paper, then thought better of it and left it face up on the shoeshine chair, and he returned to the earlier conversation.

“You think things go on forever. They don’t. You won’t remember The Beatles next year. You’ll be into something else.” The words were almost avuncular, but there was a hint of malice behind them.

“The circus never stays in town for very long.”

But I’d stopped listening.

The circus wasn’t going away.

He was.

Brian Cullman is a musician, producer, and writer. His work has appeared in Crawdaddy, Musician, Rolling Stone, The Paris Review, Spin, and Details, winning the ASCAP/Deems Taylor award three times. He is the Journal's West Village Editor and Keeper of the Playlists.

Brian's Getting the Last Word Playlist

Ed Sullivan (Hymn To A Sunday Evening) :: from Bye Bye Birdie

We Love You Beatles ::: The Carefrees

Please Please Me ::: The Beatles

This Boy ::: The Beatles

Shoeshine Man :::: Tom T Hall