When Brad Delp committed suicide one year ago, the members of his wildly popular Beatles cover band decided to play on without him. But during their search for a new lead singer, a deeper struggle arose: How do you replace a legend?
IT'S A PRETTY TYPICAL LETTER, JOHN MUZZY SAYS - sorry for your loss, but I love this music, and I'd hate myself if I didn't at least try.
We're sitting in Muzzy's Subaru Outback, in the parking lot of the Bertucci's in Woburn, going through a package he pulled that morning from PO Box 2409 up the street. Outside, a torrential January rain is playing an icy percussion on the hood. Muzzy turns the heat on, fishes his hand down into the envelope, pulls out a CD, and slides it into the car stereo.
"This could be our new singer," he says. Muzzy is normally a barrel of positive energy, but in his eyes I see a wet mix of hope and doubt.
The music starts and you immediately know you're listening to a Beatles song. It's like looking at a color. And this unknown singer, whose voice is about to come through the speakers, has chosen from the sacred end of the Beatles' arsenal, because the angelic guitar solo at the beginning of "Here Comes the Sun" has begun to waft through the car. This is the Beatles song Carl Sagan wanted on the Golden Record they shot into outer space aboard the Voyager, a representative to some alien world of all that is mankind. It's a song so familiar, such a part of our shared cultural literacy, that anything other than George Harrison's voice is going to feel like drinking milk and tasting orange juice.
Little darling, it's been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It's all right
After about a minute, Muzzy reaches out with his right hand, skips the CD forward a couple of songs, and then turns it off. Pretty good singer, we agree, but Muzzy has already decided: The long cold lonely winter is not over yet. It's not all right.
One year ago today, on March 9, 2007, Brad Delp sealed himself in the bathroom of his home in Atkinson, New Hampshire. He lit two charcoal grills, clipped a note to his shirt that read, "Mr. Brad Delp. Je suis une ame solitaire. I am a lonely soul," and waited for the carbon monoxide to extinguish his life.
Delp was best known as the lead singer of Boston, the voice behind some of the biggest rock anthems of the 1970s, songs like "More Than a Feeling," "Amanda," "Foreplay/Long Time," and "Rock & Roll Band." For the last 14 years of his life he had also, quietly, been the lead singer of Beatlejuice, a Beatles cover band. Delp was a fanatic for the Beatles' music, and after his death, Beatlejuice decided that the music should go on. The band members believe Delp would have wanted it that way. Muzzy, who is Beatlejuice's drummer, tells me it's part of their mourning, and part of their healing. So Beatlejuice began accepting audition tapes for Delp's replacement, though replacement is not quite the word. For the past six months, I've followed this process. They've received about a hundred tapes. They've auditioned a handful of singers. They're still looking.
The job description, as one of the would-be contestants pointed out, is ominous: Vocalist needed to replace a rock legend. Must be able to perfectly re-create the music of four super-legends. Audience will accept nothing less. Emotional baggage everywhere.
The bar is high. Maybe too high, Joe Holaday, Beatlejuice's bass player, told me once. "I don't know," he said, "if I'm in the right emotional space right now where if the guy walked in the door, I'd recognize him."
IT'S THE LAST WEEK of summer, and a couple hundred young white professionals who have just run 4.2 miles in a road race called "Twist and Shout on the Charles River" are standing next to an old American Legion post in Cambridge, along the banks of the river, beers in hand, waiting to hear some Beatles music. "If you have energy left," Holaday says as he steps to the microphone, "maybe we'll dance a little. We're Beatlejuice. Let's have some fun."
Brad Delp's genius, as I've repeatedly heard, was that he didn't try to be Brad Delp when he was singing with Beatlejuice. He tried to be John, Paul, George, or Ringo. The Beatles were his desert-island favorite band; his muse for becoming a musician. And when he stepped to the microphone, it was to re-create that experience for others like him, that indescribable magic of listening to this music that means so much to so many. As Delp himself sang on his biggest hit, "More Than a Feeling," "I lost myself in a familiar song/I closed my eyes and I slipped away."
Delp refused to allow his name to be used to promote Beatlejuice. He wanted the audience to be able to close their eyes, forget about Brad Delp, and slip away with the lads from Liverpool; every Beatlejuice fan I've spoken to - and there are many - said he had the talent to do it.
As Mike Girard, the first of six singers at the show along the Charles River, steps up to the microphone, I forget all of that and get lost in the lyrics of "From Me to You."
I have the urge to grab the person next to me and tell them how much I love this song and this band and this moment under a setting sun along the banks of the Charles. Yet as I look across the crowd, I see dozens of people doing exactly that. Who can be critical of this? It's the Beatles, man. The Beatles! Remember love?
Girard is an old friend of the band. He's the lead singer of The Fools, and one of the pinch hitters who have helped Beatlejuice continue to play while they keep looking. For a short time, he kind of wanted the Beatlejuice gig. He's got a sandy voice, but he knows he can't hit the high Paul McCartney stuff, so he's just happy to sing a few tunes. He finishes with "In My Life," the great ode to bittersweet recollection written by a 24-year-old John Lennon, the one that Mojo magazine named the best song of all time. Wives drag their husbands onto the dance floor and tell them how much they love them.
When the song ends, Holaday, tall and thin with piercing eyes, steps to the microphone. "Please welcome to the stage, everyone," he says, and then his face takes on a sly smile, "vocalist . . . number two. Mr. Peter Singer."
Singer wants the job bad. Before the show, he told me he'd been practicing every night for the past month. He's a small guy with dark hair, a good voice, and a fitting name. Muzzy told me his audition tape was maybe the best they'd received, a solid John-type voice.
As Singer comes on, comparison is now on the table. It starts with: Is he better than the first guy? But as the night moves on, through the singers - a woman; a man with outlandish karaoke moves doing the whole romance-the-ladies-in-the-audience bit; a big frontman type; and Singer, who has a good voice but tends to disappear on stage - a natural criticism occurs. The band is painstaking in its effort to re-create the music as it appeared on the original albums. This is what they expect from their vocalist. Close your eyes, hear the Beatles. That's it.
At the gig along the Charles, the singers were all good in their own way, and had at least one or two songs they could nail. But on that night, and many that have followed, the deeper question was always there: Is there really one person out there who will allow Beatlejuice to be able to close their eyes and forget about Brad Delp?
JOHNNY D'S, IN DAVIS SQUARE in Somerville, is a classic dinner-and-live-music joint. For the last dozen years, it has been Beatlejuice's home base. Every eight weeks or so, they play both nights of the weekend, and they're such a hot ticket that Johnny D's has created a special Beatlejuice reservation system that usually opens at 9 a.m. on a Saturday two weeks before their show. If you sleep in that Saturday, you're not getting a table.
On the evening of March 9, 2007, most of the band was at Johnny D's doing a sound check when they got a call from Muzzy. Pack up, he told them, and come to my house. Something has happened. Later that night, as the news broke of Delp's suicide, fans turned the sidewalk outside Johnny D's into a memorial.
In January, 10 months after Delp's death, I sat with the band at a table in Johnny D's to talk about their decision to go on without Delp. In early May, Beatlejuice had played three sold-out nights at the Regent Theatre in Arlington. The shows were billed as "In My Life . . . A Concert for Brad Delp." They were long nights of music, emotional nights, and the band brought out a ton of Delp's friends to sing with them. It was here, they say, that the idea to continue as "Beatlejuice and Friends" first entered their minds. They had healing to do, and the music helped. "To say those first shows were cathartic is an understatement," Holaday said. But they also had fans who were healing, and the music helped them, too. "It's funny to say this, but it's like a public service in a way," Dave Mitchell, the lead guitarist, said. "People would say, 'We're stressed out, and this is our release. It brings us back to childhood.'"
Playing is one thing. Playing without Delp is another, especially at Johnny D's. As we sat around the table, they took turns reminiscing about particular songs where Delp could make their hair stand on end, looks he would give them when they'd harmonize, the supreme talent that always kept them in awe. It was an emotional conversation, and it got quiet for a few moments when I asked them if they were, in fact, ready to settle down with one singer; if Beatlejuice and Friends is not easier for them than committing to Beatlejuice 2.0?
"Brad's shoes will never be filled," Mitchell said.
"We're going to have to be floored," Holaday added.
"It has to be important," keyboard player Steve Baker said. "The nuances have to be important."
"What we've had," Holaday said with a palpable sadness, "is so important to us that we don't want to replace Brad with anything but what it was."
That night, before a packed house, Beatlejuice delivered a strong set with some of their core friends - Mike Girard, Buddy Bernard of Aces & Eights, and Jimmy Rogers, who fronts Velvet Elvis, a cover band that features most of the Beatlejuice members.
When they played "Twist and Shout," near the end of the first half, pandemonium ensued. Women who were young when John Lennon first sang it, and women who were young when Ferris Bueller lip-synched to it, and women who are young now . . . they all lost their mind. Guys who don't dance were dancing. I heard a woman behind me say to her friend: "Whitney, we should start a band." At the microphone was a fair-skinned 42-year-old guy with impossibly sensitive doe eyes named Bob Jennings.
A few days after the show, I got an e-mail from Muzzy. "I thought you might find it of interest that we so enjoyed Bob Jennings' performance at Johnny D's that we're going to have him start doing full sets with the band." For the first time, the band was issuing a maybe. Definitely, maybe.
ON A SLUSHY SATURDAY NIGHT in February, I drove to the Acadien Social Club in Gardner to watch Jennings do his first full set with the band. I had never spoken with Jennings before now, but I had seen him sing three times with Beatlejuice. What always struck me is that he seems fragile. Not in a wimpy kind of way; there's just something in his eyes, a deep sensitivity.
What I really wanted to know was how much weight he felt on his shoulders, standing up there where Brad Delp had stood before.
"I feel pressure," he told me before going on. "But he's Brad Delp. If someone said, 'You're not as good as Brad,' I'd say, 'I know.'
Jennings is the only one of the core singers who didn't know Delp; he's the outsider, something he said he sometimes feels at rehearsals. Beatlejuice - as they often point out - is a family. They celebrate Christmas together. Delp was the godfather to Muzzy's son. Holaday's kids sometimes play with them. The whole Beatlejuice thing started 15 years ago because they were old friends who would go bowling every Sunday and then go back to Muzzy's house, watch a movie and sing Beatles songs.
Like Jennings, I had never met Brad Delp. But when I'd ask people about him, I would always get the same answers: sweet, kind, sensitive, devoid of the rock-star ego. In the media reports of his death, he was often referred to as "the nicest guy in rock and roll." On the night he took his life, I found it telling that he left a note on the door of his house warning that there was carbon monoxide inside.
It was a sell-out crowd at the Acadien Club. About 280 gussied-up middle-aged folks ready for drinking and dancing. There was no stage to speak of, and by the fifth song the dance floor had swallowed the band. So I closed my eyes and listened to Jennings sing "Drive My Car." It tasted like milk.
To close Jennings's set, Beatlejuice had decided to try something they'd never done - a song from one of the post-Beatles records. They chose a significant one. Delp had sung it a few years back during a tribute show organized by George Martin, the Beatles' legendary producer, and considered it one of his special musical moments. It's a Paul McCartney song, from his Wings days. With all that has happened to Beatlejuice, it's hard not to read some significance into the title: "Live and Let Die."
I made my way up to the left of the drum kit. Muzzy looked at me, gave me a smile, and nodded his head. Jennings grabbed the mic and turned back to look at Muzzy. They had stumbled through the song twice during sound check because it feels a lot faster than it is, especially at the beginning. Muzzy stood up and clacked his drumsticks together slowly in the air, laying out the tempo. There was no turning back now. Jennings began to sing.
When you were young and your heart was an open book
You used to say live and let live
You know you did you know you did you know you did
But if this ever-changing world in which we live in
Makes you give in and cry
Say live and let die
The audience sang along with him, and then the musical free-for-all began. Muzzy hammered on the drums. Baker's fingers slid across the keyboard. Holaday leaned back on the bass. Mitchell put his knee into it and got down deep with the guitar. A middle-aged mosh pit broke out on the floor. "Live and Let Die" is about three minutes, but it shifts five times between two big emotions. The vocals are reflective. The music is all about release.
When the song was over, the band took a break and an old friend approached Muzzy and asked him how he was doing.
"I'm playing drums in a band with my friends," he said. "What more could I ask for?"
Billy Baker is a freelance writer in Cambridge. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.