Alone on the moon

A Beatles fan retells an out-of-this-world experience with the boys from Liverpool 50 years after their Red Rocks concert

Chet Carman with a cluster of teenaged girl Beatle fans
Courtesy of Chet Carman

It was as though he had walked on the moon, and spent the rest of his life looking up in the sky, knowing he could never get back there. Chet Carman was a 17-year-old teenager from Colorado Springs, shuttling between separated parents and an older brother. In 1964, he found a style worth embracing as his own in a magazine and music to go with it on the radio waves. And as result, he found himself, as unlikely as it seems, not just watching the Beatles on their first U.S. tour from a dozen or so rows back at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, but whisked away to Dallas to see them again a month later and even spend time with them at their hotel and backstage. In Dallas, Carman would be given the chance to peel back the veneer of the smiling faces, the jokesters, the bowing band mates that they showed the world and see a little bit of the rest of it — the hair-pulling mobs, the screaming and fainting girls, and then other things, things the band’s tour manager carefully camouflaged, even from a young man from Colorado as he sat in their hotel suite.

There is no one left who can corroborate his story.

The two Beatles he spent any amount of time with are dead, as is the tour photographer, and the woman who made it all happen has, he says, left for a life of missionary work, handing out Bibles to children in Africa. She burned all the photos and any other trace of their trip before she left. The press officer who coordinated the trip, Derek Taylor, is also dead. Carman is in the background of a couple photographs shot by Curt Gunther, one of which appears in Beatles ’64: A Hard Day’s Night in America. His face is just barely visible between the hip and the elbow of Brian Epstein, Mr. Beatle himself, as he leans in to say something to George Harrison, who seems fixed on something else. There was a row of mirrors on the wall Harrison was facing, Carman says, and the Beatles’ eyes were on him, making sure this suburban kid, so stunned and nervous he was speechless and sweating, was all right.

“I said it makes you crazy, and it does,” Carman says. “About the worst thing you can do to a 17-year-old, to any adolescent, is drop them in the place of any of your idols. … I used to compare it to sending a kid to the moon. Don’t tell anybody in advance, just grab him in the middle of the night, send him to the moon, let him walk on the moon like the astronauts in the moon suit and everything, put him back on the thing, send him back home, and say ‘Now, you won’t have any proof. There’s no film of it. It wasn’t covered by the news. You can’t prove to anybody you were ever there. For the rest of your life, what you’re going to do is look at the moon and know you can never go back, and all you can do is try to convince people you were actually there, and they’re not going to believe it.’ And that’s partly what makes you nuts. … People were friends with the Beatles. They belonged there. You didn’t belong there. You didn’t belong on the moon, but you went anyway.”

In 1964, the Beatles had come to America for just a couple of weeks, making a quick tour and that stop on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964. August and September of that year saw them careening from coast to coast, performing some 25 concerts in a month.

Carman was just relocating from his brother’s house in Boulder, where he’d gone to live when his parents separated, back to living with his newly reunited parents in Colorado Springs at the start of the summer. His brother wanted him to get a job to help pay the bills, and Fairview High School staff had told him not to come back unless he could meet their dress code — both a job and school would have required a haircut.

The winter before, he’d seen a photo in a weekly news magazine with a paragraph-long story on some guys in England who were creating quite a stir, setting off riots and requiring police protection, he says.

“That phenomenon kind of caught my attention — what’s that all about? Since Elvis we didn’t have anything remotely like that,” he says.

Driving around in a car a couple months later, cruising for girls, “I Saw Her Standing There,” came on the radio.

“Do you remember that song?” he asks, and sings a few bars. “It was a real rock and roll, loud raucous, jangly, raw voice, like a punk band, that came on and I was telling the guys to shut up, listen to this. I was just blown away … I was like, wait, this has got to be those guys I read about. I saw the picture. This is the guys with the hair. Somehow, I knew from the sound and what I had read. Nobody else could set off riots that didn’t sound like this. The two had to go together.”

Then the album Meet the Beatles! was released in the U.S. in January 1964, with that iconic image of the band in round, collarless suits and hair with bangs to the eyebrows and over the tops of the ears, and boots with heels. To this day, Carman has hair that comes over the tops of his ears and wears heeled boots, pinstripe dress slacks and an all-black brocade vest with a bit of shine.

He lived in Oklahoma for a while early in 1964 and hated it, he says. Desperate to distinguish himself as from anywhere but there, he started dressing a bit more like the Beatles — wearing turtlenecks, wearing his hair a little longer, curling it a bit. The influence was instantly recognizable, he says.

By the time he moved in with his brother in Colorado, Beatlemania was starting to catch on. As it did, the John Lennon lookalike started getting notes in his locker at school and was asked to attend a later showing of A Hard Day’s Night because girls had rushed his car when he arrived for an earlier show — like they thought a Beatle was going to show up in Colorado Springs for the film premiere, he says — and the theater manager was concerned someone was going to get out into traffic and get hurt. When he saw Hard Days Night, he says, he was impressed by how much he looked like John at the time.

“I did try to look like John, but not to fool anybody, not to be a lookalike, to get the girls to squeal and chase me, that just happened,” he says. “By the time they played at Red Rocks, I had the look down, and was used to signing autographs and posing for pictures, parents bringing their daughters up to me ‘Can we have a photo?’ Yes. ‘Will you sign an autograph?’ Yes, would you like my name or John’s name or what would you like?” By the time they came to Red Rocks, he says, absolutely he was going to go see them.

In the days before the concert, he kept getting surrounded by teenaged girls on the streets who thought he was with the band. A friend snapped a photo of him with a gaggle of girls around him. He’d just stopped at a 7-11 in Denver for a few minutes, he says, but that’s what started to happen whenever there were teenaged girls around.

“It’s the flying saucer effect. You really want to see a flying saucer, you want it so bad, that when you see some strange, blurry lights in the tree, you actually see a flying saucer and windows with little creatures inside them,” he says. “I’d take my glasses off and say ‘I’m not one. I’m not who you think.’ And I could see it start to sink in, but by that time they didn’t care.”

The Beatles concert on Aug. 26, 1964, was among the first rock and roll concerts at Red Rocks, and Denver was the only stop on the tour that didn’t sell out. Carman had seen other rock and roll shows, he says, and “some of us knew the Beatles were bigger than that, but we weren’t expecting anything like the Red Rocks experience. We hadn’t been in there. We didn’t know what the place was going to be like, just going in with those big red rocks of the outdoor arena as the sun went down in the afternoon, just the whole thing was really taking on a whole new atmosphere and picking up the enthusiasm of it. … People were really feeling something in the air like we had never felt before.”

Tensions built as the crowd filled the stands, he says. The opening acts came and went in the glow of a single spotlight.

“When the rest of the lights came on and you know that moment of excitement that all concerts have: ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ echoes everywhere and you see the Beatles walking out and plugging in their guitars, if there had been a house to come down, walls, it would have come down,” he says.

He had seats a dozen or so rows back, but even from there, couldn’t hear much clearly from the sound system, a set of 50-watt amps that might make a basic home stereo setup now. If you knew the music, he says, you knew which song was being played, and who was singing, but the lyrics were muffled. The Beatles have talked about it, too, that “Why play if nobody can hear us?” Carman says, “It was getting to the point that they couldn’t hear themselves play.” 

The crowd screamed nonstop, not just at certain moments but from the minute they took the stage to the time they left. The ground shook, and from the crowd came a wall of sound he says was like an idling jet engine. They were taking off — away from the Kennedy assassination that had left their parents in a funk and the palm trees and beach scenes of all the other rock and roll of that era, away from allwhite and safe suburbs and the father who knows best coming home from the office to a wife in heels and pearls with dinner waiting on the table.

“We felt something was changing in the world,” Carman says. “My whole generation was just getting carried along in history.”

The Beatles played no more than 30 minutes, bowed and left the stage. Carman still has most of the set list memorized. They finished the concert with “Long Tall Sally,” the same song that would be the last they played in 1966 at their final concert together in San Francisco.

“We felt like we’d gotten a full evening’s worth of entertainment,” Carman says. “You felt sort of sonically beaten to a pulp.”

A few weeks later came the truly remarkable. Carman walked into the record department of a Colorado Springs appliance store, where a woman named Pat Massaro was managing the record department in her father’s store (attempts made to locate and Massaro were unsuccessful). She approached him and asked “Has anyone told you that you look like John Lennon?” He said yeah, he’d heard that a time or two. Girls outside were tapping on the glass. She asked if that happened a lot, and asked for his phone number.

What happened next is murky. Massaro had been doing some work as a concert promoter, including some work on the Beatles tour that put her at their press conference and behind stage at Red Rocks. A group of staff working on the Beatles tour, which may have included Beatles press officer Derek Taylor and Epstein, crawled up onto the rocks behind the Red Rocks stage to look out over the crowd in the late afternoon hours. Carman could see the outline of their heads from his seat. They’d climbed up, other reports say, in part to investigate the probability of a threat of throwing hand grenades instead of “jelly babies” mailed from a “Beatle hater.”

From there, Carman surmises, they could have looked down and seen him and the intermittent swarms of girls clustering around him, and heard about a Lennon lookalike in the audience signing autographs. Someone on the tour might have asked Massaro if she knew about the lookalike who was creating his own kind of stir in the audience at the Red Rocks concert and she’d identified Carman as the guy. She called him the day before the Beatles concert in Dallas, one of their last stops on the tour, and asked if he’d like to come with her. The tour bought him a plane ticket, and the two flew to Dallas.

Through the flight — as they sipped champagne sent back by the airline for the “special guest” — she coached him along, instructing him to keep his sunglasses on and not to say a word and expose his American accent. People sent napkins back from first class for him to sign. He did, with his own name. She intervened when someone approached, saying, “We’re with the entourage, but he’s not who you think he is.”

It was true, but the response it earned was winks and smiles. They’d just tell him, “Love the music,” Carman recounts.

His haircut was all the ID he needed. At the doors to the Cabana Motor Hotel, they were ushered from their mobbed cab car immediately to the elevator that went just to the floor with the suite the Beatles were in, cops giving them the same kind of cover the Beatles were getting because, Carman says, they just seemed to think he was another member of the band. It wasn’t like they knew whether there was a fifth Beatle.

They were shown in to a living room and seated on a couch where Brian Epstein politely chatted them up while women in lingerie passed from one set of closed doors to another — models, Epstein said, showing them gifts they could buy for their wives. Even Epstein was astounding, Carman says. He was stunned to sit there with the guy who invented the Beatles.

It was George Harrison who first came out and said hello. Then John Lennon joined, introducing himself with first and last name, as if there might be some confusion as to which John he was otherwise.

“John put his arm around my shoulder and would walk me around the hotel room and the dressing room and would take the time to come up with questions for me — ‘What do you plan to do? What are you going to do with your life? I wonder about young people in America, you know, you’ve got so many opportunities here. What do you think you want to do?’” according to Carman. “And I said something like, ‘What you’re doing.’” He spent the afternoon with them at their hotel suite. As they prepared to head to the Dallas Memorial Auditorium for the concert, there was talk of sending him out the front of the hotel as a decoy. That’s because when the Beatles were on the way in, the press of fans had gotten so intense they’d broken one of the glass doors. He shrugged, he says, he’d have done what they needed.

Watching them in the moments before leaving for the auditorium, they seemed, to him, like race horses, wound up, bound into their stalls until just the moment someone pointed them in the direction of the show and set them loose.

He stepped out into the hallway ahead of them, in time to hear a “Hello then?” from Paul McCartney and spot four laundry carts at the end of the hallway. Legend has it, crawling in under a pile of laundry was how the Beatles snuck down the freight elevator and out of the back of the hotel into a rental truck that would take them to the auditorium.

Carman loaded into a car that afforded more of a view, and drove the route that passed the hospital JFK had been taken to when he’d been shot in the previous year, like two profound moments in his life passing over one to get to the other, he says.

He went with them to the dressing room backstage at the Memorial Auditorium, sat down in a corner, nervous and sweating, he says.

At one point, Harrison came and sat down and just looked at him for a quiet minute.

“It was sort of like, ‘Here I am.

You’ve got a Beatle to yourself. What do you want to do? Are you going to own this moment or not?’” Carman says. “I was too nervous to ask them anything. What do you say to a Beatle? Twentyfour hours before, I had no idea I was going to meet them. ‘I’ve got all your records’? ‘I really like your music’?” Harrison and Lennon seemed to know how much power and charisma they had, and were aware of the situation Carman found himself in.

Harrison, especially seemed to have a keen memory of the nervous moments in which he’d met some of his own heroes in music in the not so distant past. He kept delivering Carman drinks, making sure he was comfortable and that he’d found his seat for the show.

To get from backstage to the VIP section for the concert, he had to cross a corner of the stage. His face in the wings had triggered the opening band to wrap up their set and call for the Beatles, who weren’t yet ready to go on stage. Passing within a few feet of Ringo Starr’s drumset, he says, he met with a diamond of flash bulbs from some of the 10,000 fans filling the auditorium for the sold-out show. A girl, crying as though she were in agony, tried to jump over the cops — a ring of about 200 police officers surrounded the stage. He reached out to take her hand, and she fainted.

From the VIP section, 10 feet away from where the Beatles performed, he could actually hear them singing.

He shook hands with each of them at the end of the day, and got a “Oh, Colorado? Cowboys and Indians.” from Paul McCartney.

He and Massaro had expected to spend the next day with the Beatles, but the band took an unexpected trip to a ranch in Missouri. They spent the day there riding horses and lounging around, one of few days off in the duration of the tour. Carman and Massaro flew home.

He always thought some greater portion of the memorabilia from that trip would come to him. But he’s heard that Massaro has since become a bornagain Christian and in the process, decided to burn all her Beatles memorabilia, including photos, because she saw it as idolatrous, he says. Up in flames went any other kind of record of the trip and the Christmas card the Beatles sent to her a few months after meeting in Dallas, instructing her to “say hello to the lad.”

By then, he was inflamed with the fire of having been the kid who met the Beatles. He’d been kicked out of high school for refusing to cut his hair, and never did go back.

“I thought, I’m destined to be a rock star, I don’t need a degree,” he says.

He got a drum set instead of a diploma and played in bands for more than 30 years. His music career never did take off. For a while, he worked as a magazine editor for various dirt bike magazines, raced motorcycles up Pikes Peak, trained elephants and tigers.

The spine in his copy of Beatles ’64:

A Hard Day’s Night in America is broken at the chapter on the Dallas show, the pages turned so often they come loose from the binding. Over the 50 years that have passed since those concerts, he’s put a lot of thought into what made the Beatles, the Beatles.

“There are certain people who are so overdosed with charisma and personal magnetism. … Certain people can walk into a room and the conversation just stops,” he says. “You take four of those people, combined with their songwriting talent, take any four people with that kind of charisma, at the same room, at the same press conference, and you have an overwhelming powerful force that amounts to social change. An entire generation got sucked into their charisma, that’s what the concerts were about. … Everybody just fell in love with them because they were so lovable from this almost supernatural kind of thing. … No mere mortals could generate that kind of excitement and enthusiasm, that’s why I keep saying, it was history, it was a turning point. The world changed.”

He wasn’t the only one for whom the Beatles changed everything. The 1960s made an indelible mark on American culture, fashion and art. Now, TV anchors have that haircut that opened so many doors for him 50 years ago.

He goes years sometimes without retelling the story of meeting the Beatles. It’s heartbreaking, to have been there with all that acclaim, signing autographs for adoring girls, hoping you find a way to work your way back to that place and have earned it, and to want so badly to go back to those moments in the hotel suite and dressing room, and know there’s no way to return.

But nobody even gets to visit the moon anymore. There’s no one who lives there now.