The Beatles: Mass Hysteria!
By Jun Hidalgo
Eighty thousand hysterical fans cramped into Rizal Memorial Stadium to watch the Beatles, the largest crowd Manila has seen since the Elorde-Ortiz boxing match in the same stadium.
While traffic snarled to a standstill along Dakota Street, 720 policemen, 35 special detectives and the entire contingent of the Manila Fire Department stood guard as the Liverpool quartet performed their hits before thousands of cheering and screaming fans, many of whom had waited to get inside the stadium since early morning…
WHEN THE GATES finally opened, all hell broke loose. I held on to Delphi, who held on to Jun, and the three of us braved the onslaught as we squeezed past security and found ourselves, miraculously intact, on the front row beside the Vox speakers.
“I don’t want to sit here,” Delphi protested. “We’re going to blast our ears off!”
“Relax,” Jun said. “Everybody’ll be screaming anyway. We have the best seats in the house.”
Everyone in the stadium was a mophead, except the Vietnam volunteers sitting in our row, whose heads had been cleanly shaved. They were young men plucked from the provinces, and many of them were never coming home again. I was so relieved I had grown my hair longer that summer. My hair was a clear sign that, despite my young age, I had gained honorary membership in the exclusive cabal of this generation. You could tell who the pigs were: they were the ones who roamed around, their ears pink and their heads shaved clean like the Vietnam volunteers. Some of them had guns under into their belts; they had been warned that a riot could break out.
…Soaked in sweat, Beatles fans impatiently heckled the opening acts, and emcees had to threaten the crowd that the Beatles would not perform until the audience simmered down.
And when the Beatles finally opened with “I Wanna Be Your Man,” you could feel the excitement ripping through you, a detonation of such magnitude your entire being seemed to explode. I couldn’t hear anything except a long, extended shrill—the whole stadium screaming its lungs out. I looked at Delphi. She was holding her head between her hands and her eyes were bulging out and her mouth was stretched to an 0, and all I could hear was this long, high-pitched scream coming out of her mouth. I had never seen Delphi like that before, and I would never, for the rest of her life, see her as remorselessly young as she was that afternoon.
THE MORNING AFTER the concert, Jun asked Delphi if we could take the Ford to Manila Hotel.
“Why do you have to take us along?” Delphi asked him. It was clear that for her the concert had been the high point of our adventure.
“We still have to get that interview, don’t we?” Jun reminded her. “Besides,” he added, “I need you to cover for me,” Jun said.
“Cover?” asked Delphi. “As in war?”
“Looks like war it’s going to be,” said Jun.
Jun had bribed someone from room service to let him take a snack to the Beatles. I was going to pose as a bellhop. Delphi was going to be a chambermaid. Apparently our plan was to swoop down on them in the name of impeccable service, with Jun secretly recording this invasion with the help of a pocket-sized tape recorder. As usual, he had the uniforms ready, rented for the day for half his month’s wages. “The hotel laundry boy’s a childhood friend of mine.”
“You’re the company you keep,” Delphi teased him, because she knew it tortured him whenever she did that.
I wore the monkey suit perfectly, but somehow it still didn’t feel right. I looked at myself in the men’s room mirror and knew I was too young for the role. And Delphi looked incongruous as the chambermaid: her bob cut was too in.
As it turned out, all my misgivings would be proven true. We crossed the lobby to the service elevator. Jun walked several paces ahead of us, nonchalantly jiggling the car keys, but I kept glancing nervously around.
“Hoy, where you going?”
Jun didn’t seem to hear the house detective call us, or maybe the detective didn’t notice him walking past. I felt a hand grab my collar and pull me aside. Immediately, Delphi was all over the detective, hitting him with her fists: “You take your hands off my brother or I’ll kick your teeth in!” Struggling out of the detective’s chokehold, I could see Jun hesitating by the elevator. I motioned for him to go. The detective dragged Delphi and me out to a backroom where several other detectives were playing poker. “Oy, got two more right here!”
AS HE RECALLED LATER, Jun wheeled the tray into Suite 402 expecting to find telltale debris of a post-concert party (and hence an excuse for us to mop up). What he came upon was something less festive.
“Compliments of the house, sir,” he announced cheerfully as he came in.
George Harrison and Brian Epstein were sitting on the sofa, and Paul McCartney was precariously perched on the TV set, brooding. The three of them apparently had been having an argument and they all looked up, surprised, at the intruder.
“All right,” Epstein said, curtly. “Bring it in.”
“I’ll have to mix the dip here, sir,” Jun said, to prolong the intrusion. “House specialty.”
Nobody seemed to hear him. George Harrison continued the conversation, “We came here to sing. We didn’t come here to drink tea and shake hands.”
“That’s precisely the reason we’ve got to pay customs the bond for the equipment,” said Epstein.
“Let them keep the money then,” Paul said. “Everyone says here come those rich mopheads to make more money. We don’t care about the money.”
“We didn’t even want to come here,” George reminded them.
“The only reason we came here,” added Paul, “was because these people were always saying why don’t you come over here? We didn’t want to offend anyone, did we? We just came here to sing. You there,” indicating Jun, who jumped with surprise. “Do you speak English?”
“Fairly well,” replied Jun.
“Does the government control the press here, as they do the customs people, the airport managers, and the police?”
“Not yet,” said Jun.
Paul then observed that everything was “so American in this country, it’s eerie, man!” He also remarked that many people were exploited by a wealthy and powerful few. Epstein wanted to know how he knew that, as the others had simply not heard of the country before, and Paul replied that he had read one of the local papers.
“What are we supposed to do?” he asked. “Show up and say, ‘Well, here we are, we’re sorry we’re late!’ We weren’t supposed to be here in the first place. Why should we apologize for something that’s not our fault?”
At that point John Lennon and Ringo Starr, who had been booked in the adjacent suite, walked in. Ringo, sweating and tousled, plopped into the sofa between Epstein and George Harrison. John Lennon, wearing his dark glasses, walked straight to the window and looked out. “We’ve got a few things to learn about the Philippines, lads,” he said. “First of all is how to get out.”
THE MANILA HOTEL DETECTIVES deftly disposed of Delphi and me with a push via the back door, where a sign said THROUGH THIS DOOR PASS THE MOST COURTEOUS EMPLOYEES OF MANILA.
We walked back to the Ford in the parking lot and waited for less than an hour when Jun, struggling out of the hotel uniform and back to mufti, sprinted toward us and hopped into the driver’s seat. “Get in!” he shouted. “We’re going to the airport!”
“Did you get the interview?” Delphi asked.
“Better,” Jun said. “The Beatles are going to try to leave this afternoon. They’re paying something like forty-five thousand dollars as a bond or something. Customs is charging them so much money in taxes for the concert.”
“Wait a minute,” Delphi protested. “Is that legal?”
“Who cares?” Jun said. “All I know is they’re paying the bond and now all they want to do is to get out. But they think something’s going to happen at the airport. There’s been talk of arrest and detention.”
“Who said that?” Delphi asked.
“John Lennon, I think. I don’t know. I was mixing that stupid dip.”
We were driving toward the south highway now, past the mammoth hulls of ships docked at Manila Bay. “You know all those people who’ve been trying to get the Beatles to go to the palace? You know why they were so keen on bringing the band over to Imelda’s luncheon?”
“Can’t waste all that food, right?” Delphi said.
“Bright girl, but no. There’s going to be a major revamp soon. It’s all over the papers, if you’ve been paying attention. All these guys are going to get the top posts. Well, most of them were, until the Beatles screwed everything up.”
“What guys? Who?”
“That Colonel Fred Santos, the one who led the group to talk to Epstein, he’s being groomed to head the Presidential Guard. Real heavy-duty position, accompanying the First Family all over the world, luxury apartment at the Palace, the works. There’s one Colonel Flores, Justin Flores I think, who’s bound to be chief of the constabulary. Then there’s Colonel Efren Morales, most likely head of the Manila Police.”
“But these are junior officers,” Delphi said. “Marcos can’t just promote them to top posts.”
“That’s the point. Marcos is going to bypass everybody and build up an army of his own. All these new guys will be licking his boots and there’s nothing the generals can do about it. That young mophead, the son of Balatbat, he was there for his father, who’s going to be reappointed secretary of state. And if I’m not mistaken, Salvador Roda, the airport manager, wants to take over customs. The man’s going to be a millionaire, kickbacks and all.”
“How do you know all that?” Delphi demanded.
“Homework,” Jun said, swerving the car toward the airport, his reply drowned out by the droning of jets. “I’m the best damned reporter in the city, and everybody’s going to find out why.”
SALVADOR RODA was briefing the press agitatedly at the VIP lounge of the airport that afternoon, explaining why the republic was withdrawing security for the Beatles and why customs had slapped a hundred-thousand-peso tax on Liverpudlian income. “Too much Filipino money wasted on such a paltry entourage, gentlemen of the press, and not one centavo of the profits going to the nation. Puta, that doesn’t make sense, di ba?”
We walked up the escalators to the second floor to change into our porter uniforms, which we had lugged in backpacks.
“This airport gets worse every time I come here,” Delphi complained. “Nothing’s working.”
“And there’s nobody around,” observed Jun. The entire second floor was deserted. “Lucky for us,” he said, pushing Delphi into the ladies’ room and then pulling me into the adjoining gents’. We changed into the uniforms and stuffed our clothes above the water tanks.
“You think there’s going to be trouble?” I asked Jun.
“Will you guys back out if I told you there might?”
I had to give that some thought. In the past Jun had taken Delphi and me on some insane adventures, mostly juvenile pranks that left us breathlessly exhilarated, but with no real sense of danger. For the first time I was afraid we were up against something, well, real.
“We’ll stick around,” I said, tentatively.
He put his arm around me and said, “Kapatid! That’s my brother!”
JULY 5, 2 P.M. THE BEATLES arrived at the airport in a Manila Hotel taxi. They weren’t wasting any time. They ran straight up the escalators, their crew lugging whatever equipment they could carry. At the foot of the escalators a group of women—society matrons and young college girls—had managed to slip past the deserted security posts and, seeing the Beatles arrive, they lunged for the group, screaming and tearing at the band’s clothes. Flashbulbs blinded the band as photographers crowded at the top of the stairs. It would have taken a miracle for the band to tear themselves away from the mob and to reach, as they did in a bedraggled way, the only booth open for passport clearance, where Roda had been waiting with the manifest for Flight CX 196.
“Beatles here!” he hollered imperiously, and the band followed his voice meekly, almost contritely. Behind the booth a crowd that had checked in earlier restlessly ogled.
“Those aren’t passengers,” Jun observed as we stole past a booth. “They look like the people we saw earlier with Roda.”
“Beatles out!” Roda boomed.
And then it happened.
As the Beatles and their crew filed past the booth, the crowd that had been waiting there seemed to swell like a wave and engulfed the band, pulling them into an undertow of fists and knee jabs. There was a thud—Epstein falling groggily, then being dragged to his feet by security police. Someone was cursing in Tagalog: Heto’ng sa ‘yo bwakang inang putang inang tarantado ka! Take that you m*#f@%ing*@^*r!!! Paul McCartney surfaced for air, his chubby face crunched in unmistakable terror. He pulled away from the crowd, and the other three staggered behind him. Somebody gave Ringo Starr a loud whack on the shoulder and pulled at John Lennon, who yanked his arm away, tearing his coat sleeve.
That was when we started running after them—the three of us, and the whole mob.
The crowd overtook Delphi, who was shoved aside brusquely. They were inching in on me when the exit doors flew open into the searing afternoon. From the view deck hundreds of fans who had been waiting for hours started screaming. The band clambered up the plane. I kept my eye on the plane, where Jun was already catching up with John Lennon.
“Please, Mr. Lennon,” he pleaded. “Let me help you with your bags!”
At the foot of the stairs a panting John Lennon turned to him and said, “A friendly soul, for a change. Thanks, but we’re leaving.”
“I’m sorry,” Jun said, trembling.
John Lennon made to bolt up the stairs. At the top he stopped and took off his coat and threw it down to Jun.
“Here,” he said. “Tell your friends the Beatles gave it to you.”
A FEW WEEKS after the Beatles’ frantic egress from Manila, Taal Volcano erupted, perhaps by way of divine castigation, as happens often in that inscrutable, illogical archipelago. The eruption buried three towns and shrouded Manila in sulfuric ash for days. A month later a lake emerged from what had been the volcano’s crater—a boiling, putrefied, honey-yellow liquefaction.
The Beatles flew to New Delhi, where they were to encounter two figures that would change their lives and music: the corpulent, swaying Maharishi, and the droning, mesmerizing sitar. Back in London later, they were greeted by a swarm of fans carrying placards with mostly one message:
Manila’s columnists took umbrage, and the side of the offended First Lady. Said Teodoro Valencia, who would later become the spokesman of the Marcos press: “Those Beatles are knights of the Crown of England. Now we have a more realistic understanding of what knights are. They’re snobs. But we are probably more to blame than the Beatles. We gave them too much importance.” And columnist Joe Guevarra added: “What if 80,000 people saw the Beatles? They’re too young to vote against Marcos anyway!”
Imelda Marcos later announced to the lavishly sympathetic press that the incident “was regrettable. This has been a breach of Filipino hospitality.” She added that when she heard of a plot to maul the Beatles, she herself asked her brother and her tourism secretary to make sure the Beatles got out of the airport safely.
But her magnanimity did little to lessen the outrage. The Manila Bulletin declared that Malacañang Palace had received no less than two hundred letters denouncing the Beatles by that weekend. Manila councilor Gerino Tolentino proposed that the Beatles “should be banned from the city in perpetuity.” Caloocan City passed an ordinance prohibiting the sale, display, and playing of Beatles records. And Quezon City passed a law declaring Beatles music satanic and the mophead hairstyle illegal.
Jun Hidalgo wrote his story about the Beatles’ departure, with insider quotes taped, as an editor’s introduction to the story revealed, “while undercover as a hotel employee.” A few weeks later he was accepted into the Manila Times, where he played rookie, as was the custom then, in the snake pit of the local press: the police beat. He gave John Lennon’s coat to Delphi, who dutifully mended the sleeve, and they went steady for a while. But like most youthful relationships, the series of melodramatic misunderstandings, periodic separations, and predictable reunions finally ended in tears, and many unprintable words. My sister, older and more healthily cynical, later immigrated to the United States, from where she sent me postcards and books—and once, a note replying to one of my continuous requests for records, saying she had lost interest in the Beatles when they went psychedelic. I myself, being the obligatory late bloomer, only then began to appreciate the magical, mysterious orchestrations and raga-like trances of the band.
Delphi left John Lennon’s coat with me, and I became known in school as the keeper of a holy relic. Like the martyrs, I was the object of much admiration and also much envy. One afternoon, armed with a copy of an ordinance recently passed in Manila, directors of the school rounded up several mophead boys, including myself. In one vacant classroom we were made to sit on hardboard chairs as the directors snipped our hair. I sat stolidly under the scissors, watching my hair fall in clutches on the bare cement floor.
Back in my room that evening, I stared at myself in the mirror for a long time. Then I folded John Lennon’s jacket tightly, stuffed it in a box, and tucked it under my books and clothes. I felt no bitterness at all. I knew that something irrevocable in my life had ended.
From Empire of Memory, Anvil Publishing, 1992. To read another excerpt, click here.