The Beatles Marathon is Columbus’ Greatest Cultural Event.
Those of us of a certain age recall Columbus’ various efforts over the years to leave its footprint on the cultural landscape. Spurred by an unhealthy inferiority complex that comes from living halfway between Cleveland and Cincinnati, city leaders made their play for the big leagues time after time. Perhaps the most infamous of these were the Son of Heaven Chinese art collection that came to Columbus in 1989 (which, while providing a handful of cool exhibits, failed to live up to the hype or the expense) and, three years later, the AmeriFlora exposition (or, as I dubbed it, Grandson of Heaven). Both of these ploys bet on waves of visitors coming to see floral displays and lost badly. In fact, one could argue that the best things to come out of those efforts were what emerged from the rubble and the bailout checks: the updated COSI building and the refreshed Franklin Park Conservatory.
Which is why it's all the more worth noting that Columbus’ greatest cultural event – the annual Beatles Marathon - grew out of little more than a barroom dare.
Regular readers of Pencilstorm likely don’t need the details of the Beatles Marathon rehashed. Born in the mind & soul of Joe Peppercorn staggering through just one Beatles album - Abbey Road - alongside CD102.5's Andy(man) Davis at a holiday party, it completed its fifth annual performance last weekend. For the uninitiated, the show is now a 12-hour celebration of the entire Beatles catalog performed in chronological order, all spearheaded by Peppercorn and his ever-growing band of merry men & women.
That I am making such broad proclamations about the artistic and cultural merits of Peppercorn’s undertaking – which I suspect he would classify as simply a fun tribute to great music and a great friend – will probably earn me a eye-roll and a drawled “aww, man” the next time I see him. And, before I start dropping some think-piece truth on the subject, let me also say that, above everything else, the performance is unequivocally one of the most joy-filled days of the year. Need proof? <Click here >
Still, having attended four of the five performances - including my stint this year that ran from “Michelle” on Rubber Soul until, literally, "The End” (plus “Her Majesty”) - a theory has been gestating in my brain that the Marathon embodies all the qualities that the greatest art and culture should possess.
The first quality is accessibility. Look, I’m not one who thinks that art should be judged by box office receipts and download totals, nor do I think popularity erases any artistic validity. But it’s undeniable that the music of the Beatles lured a full house that pulled in audience members born in at least seven different decades, coming from untold ZIP codes, and representing who knows how many tax brackets. The songs go beyond public domain; they are virtually ingrained in our cultural DNA.
This broad acceptance, rather than watering things down to the lowest common denominator, however, allows space for each individual to affix some individual memory, opinion, or thought to the songs. It’s not just that the players and fans present at the Bluestone all loved Beatles songs. They all loved them for their own reasons beyond the melody and rhythm. For example, did anyone else in the room love hearing “She Said, She Said” as much as I did? Maybe. Or perhaps that was a highlight reserved for me and others reveled more in “Hello, Goodbye” “Help!” or “A Hard Day’s Night.”
Meanwhile, some in attendance could have found the portion of the night dedicated to the Magical Mystery Tour album as a good chance to get a bite to eat. For me, however, it brought back memories of checking the vinyl album out of the old Columbus library Whetstone branch week after week after week, renewing it as often as the librarian would let me. There were more than 200 memory-spurring songs to choose from, ensuring that the room would be filled with memories of past lovers, current lovers, new mates, lost friends, high jinx, low points, bar rooms, bedrooms, road trips, head trips, and so much more.
A second quality is transparency. Virtually all art arrives to its audience fully formed. Even most other concerts, plays, or performances have been polished and prepped so that the audience views the presentation of - rather than the creation of - the art. And it’s not that Peppercorn’s show hasn’t been planned or practiced (more on that later) but the tribute that these musicians give to the Beatles’ music isn’t just about how good it is, but also how difficult it is to make. As the old saying goes, it’s hard work making it look this easy.
There’s a reason the Beatles quit performing live. Sure, a song like “Hey Bulldog,” “Lady Madonna,” or “Paperback Writer” sounds effortless when it comes out of your speakers, but watch Chris Bolognese’s fingers move around his bass as he plays them and it becomes a different experience. Want to deride Ringo’s contributions to the band? Watch Jesse Cooper’s nuanced playing on “Rain” or the work of Paul Headley on other tracks. Let your eyes scan across the stage to see how many voices it takes to replicate the harmonies you hear on the records (not to mention the additional guitarists needed). And even if Matt Peppercorn (aka “The Quiet Peppercorn”) did nothing other than just knock the George Harrison lead solos out of the park on tunes like “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Revolution,” and “Let It Be” (which he did), it would have been accomplishment enough.
Near the completion of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band when Peppercorn shouted “we’re almost done with this album, which is great because these songs are a bitch to play,” it wasn’t a call for sympathy. It was an acknowledgement of what had been accomplished back in 1967. Not only does the audience get to enjoy the finished piece, we get to see the brush strokes used to fill the canvas.
The third characteristic is the transformative nature of the art. To me, art is transforming one thing (or, in the case of a literal or figurative blank canvas, nothing) into something else. And while the Beatles’ music had already been created, the act of playing all the songs -including the German and posthumous singles - in their chronological order serves the same purpose as Monet’s series of haystack paintings.
Just as I’m sure Peppercorn has been asked, “Do you really need to play all the songs?” I’m sure Monet’s friends were like, “Claude, love what you’re doing. But does anyone really need that many paintings of the same freaking field?” I think the answer is that, just as those paintings show how the same items (i.e. haystacks) changed based on the time of day or season, this marathon performance shows how the same items (i.e. Beatles’ songs) changed over the life of the band.
Think about the fact that the same four guys covering “Please Mr. Postman” would in two years' time be writing “Norwegian Wood”; two years later they would be penning “I Am the Walrus”; and finally, two years after that, calling it a day with songs like “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” Compare that to the lack of output or evolution of some of the largest rock & roll acts on the planet over the last decade. (I’m looking at you, U2.) It is amazing enough that this growth happened in one band’s career. To see it time-lapsed into just 12 hours makes it all the more intense. Again, the performance serves as testament.
It’s also worth noting that the musicians and their performance undergo a transformation of their own as the night progresses. At the start, the stage is a well-organized collection of guitar racks, power cords, laptops, keyboards, and microphone stands set up to handle the choreography of sharp-dressed musicians. But with each song as the players switch, shirttails are untucked, hair is frazzled, eyes get wild, shoulders slump, and voices turn to gravel. Instruments rest at odd angles. The stage floor is littered with the detritus of their effort in the form of empty bottles, cans, and plastic squeeze tubes of honey. This is the way it should be. Nobody wants to see the runner cross a marathon’s finish line looking the same as when he or she started. This is supposed to be difficult and that effort should be evident.
Finally, there is the performance itself. One of the most amazing aspects of the Marathon is the balance the group has found between replicating the songs while also making the performance decidedly unique. This isn’t a bar band armed with a Beatles fakebook banging out the chords. At the same time, if the group was to come out and deliver a rote, Beatlemania-esque performance it would be impressive, but in the end would be little more than a parlor trick; like those people that can recite pi out to dozens of decimal places.
They have captured the thin line between imitation and inspiration. The collective rehearses for about three months a year so they can capture the songs' intricacies as well as put their own stamp on them. I think the biggest step was taken the year Samantha Kim was asked to contribute her violin playing in the obvious spots ("Eleanor Rigby") as well as others, where it subs for horn parts and adds a welcomed texture.
This year the group admittedly challenged themselves even further. There was more interplay between Matt Peppercorn and Jake Remley’s guitars and they did an amazing job of replicating the different tones, down to the sitars. More voices took their turn front and center, which gave Peppercorn’s vocal chords a rest, but also added additional dimensions. Phil Cogley belted the songs that needed belting. Tommy Young led the crowd through sing-along's of the Ringo tunes. Nate Rothaker got to “sing the pretty ones.” Carrie Ayers was a force of nature, blasting out McCartney ravers like "Long Tall Sally." And her incendiary vocal face-off with Joe on "Birthday" was more akin to a battle than to a duet.
Throughout the night Peppercorn repeatedly noted that he couldn’t find notice of another event like this anywhere in the world, and praised Columbus for its ability to host such a unique occurrence. And it may be true that no place other than Columbus holds such a confluence of talent, spirit, and support. But let’s remember that it was the collection of people involved (and I’m counting players AND audience) that generated the enthusiasm, skill, tenacity, joy, love, and community necessary to create this art. The Beatles Marathon is art and culture that celebrates art and culture. It is not the attempt of city leaders looking to boost their egos or coffers.
I’ll resist the urge to close by saying that all you need is love, or a little help from your friends. But let’s work to make sure that great art of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from this earth. Long live art. Long live music. Long live the Beatles. Long live Joe Peppercorn. Long live the Beatles Marathon.