Midshipmen on the yellow submarine

Like a lot of people my age, I had to learn to love the Beatles. Growing up in the 1970s, it was hard to separate their actual merits from the incessant moping of their fans, who were always lamenting that nothing as musically consequential had happened since the moptops called it a day -- nor would it again. With that kind of fatalism in the air, it's no wonder many of us threw the walrus out with the bathwater and ignored the Beatles entirely.

I didn't share that shameful history with the crowd at last weekend's Beatlefest '99 convention; somebody might have called me a Blue Meanie. In the ensuing quarter-century, I had realized what they had known all along: John, Paul, George and Ringo really had been the finest group in history. No contest. And after 25 years' worth of events in such major markets as New York and Los Angeles, the Beatlemaniac love-fest had finally made it to Orlando's Caribe Royale Resort Suites Hotel, eliciting a rapturous response from the Southern strain of the Abbey Road faithful.

Admittedly, the lineup of guests was somewhat less than stellar. They included George Harrison's sister; a former Wings guitarist; the members of John Lennon's first combo; and an original cast player from Broadway's "Beatlemania." Oh, and a ventriloquist whose Ringo Starr puppet told diarrhea jokes through a felt face that looked more like Bette Davis' than Richard Starkey's.

No, you won't be seeing any of these folks on A&E's "Biography." But as far as we were concerned, anyone who had come into the Beatles' orbit was inherently more interesting than those who hadn't. I think we would have sat still for a lecture by The Lorry Driver Who Used to Run Paul 'Round His Auntie's had the program offered one.

A trip to the Lou

Louise Harrison embodied the lighthearted tone, informing us that her sibling was currently at home "remastering all those albums that nobody bought." She meant his solo records. A funny, friendly English grandma, "Lou" was continuing her convention tradition of issuing Harrison Hugs -- embraces that would welcome us all into "the Beatle family." Those who wanted one were told to visit her at her booth. Like all things Beatle, the offer was both patently silly and charming at the same time. Don't expect anyone to take Kid Rock's sister up on a similar one 35 years from now.

The guest who really needed a hug was onetime Wings six-stringer Laurence Juber. Strapping on an acoustic guitar to pick out some succulent instrumentals, Juber made the mistake of opening the floor to questions, thus exposing his fuzzily remembered place in the canon.

"Were you in Ram?" one guy puzzled. "Ram" hadn't been a band, Juber corrected, but the title of a Paul McCartney album.

"I was out of the country at that time," the armchair historian apologized.

Memory lapses should have been the province of the Quarrymen, the positively ancient quintet of Lennon mates who were touring the U.S. as the world's oldest skiffle group. But their keenly recalled anecdotes -- including washboard player Pete Shotton's admission, "I ran Apple into the ground for a few years" -- were a delight. Their innate humor stood the poor codgers in good stead as they wrestled with some extremely shaky renditions of their old repertoire, including a highly tentative run-through of "Blue Suede Shoes." No one requested anything by Gerry and the Pacemakers.

Their masters' voices

Musical accuracy was instead the province of Liverpool, a soundalike act featuring "Beatlemania" veteran Mitch Weissman on bass. The four-man outfit handily re-created the diverse timbres of the Beatles songbook, symphonic swells and all. Despite Weissman's uncanny resemblance to The Cute One, Liverpool didn't attempt to imitate the visual side of the Pepperian experience. Wise choice: Even from far in the back, drummer Chris Camilleri was the spitting image of Steve Buscemi.

But not even the finest fab-mongering could compete with the real thing -- or at least its two-dimensional equivalent. The biggest cheers were reserved for an outtake from the animated "Yellow Submarine," shown in preview of the film's Sept. 14 rerelease on VHS and DVD. Not seen in three decades, the clip was almost lost again when the video projectionist pressed "record" instead of "play." The tension was all too much for a fan behind me, who cried out "Give it to me, Ringo!" in a voice as rough as sandpaper.

The days when I would have scoffed at such fervor are long gone. Even second-hand approximations of the Beatles' wit, wisdom and talent had amounted to five hours well spent. My only regret was that I didn't get a hug from Harrison -- just a sturdy British handshake. I'm not in the family yet, but at least I've learned to pick Juber out of a lineup. And baby, that's a start.

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