McGinn: Local woman knew the young Beatles — for real

Before the interview, one of my editors warned — “strongly suggested” is more accurate — that I ought to ask for some sort of photographic proof, “Because everybody from Liverpool of that age probably says they lived next to John Lennon.”

But when Diane Nickell welcomed me into her Burt Street home and offered to pour a cup of tea, I found myself feeling like that Stormtrooper under Obi-Wan’s spell in “Star Wars.”

“We don’t need to see his identification.”

Besides, Nickell didn’t actually live next to John Lennon all those years ago across the pond — her grandparents lived directly across the street from Julia Lennon, his mom, on Blomfield Road in the Liverpool suburb of Allerton.

And why would she have taken a picture of the budding young musician who frequently visited his mum across from her grandma, anyway?

Do you have any pictures of the people who live across the street from your grandparents?

“He was just one of the lads,” Nickell, now 64, insisted. “None of us knew he’d go that far.”

In the case of Nickell, a Springfield resident since 1977, the proof that she was a teenager in a cool city at the coolest possible time — Liverpool, England, 1962 — isn’t photographic.

It’s sensory.

A couple of years ago, Nickell and her husband, William, attended “Rain: A Tribute to The Beatles” at Kuss Auditorium.

“I closed my eyes and said, ‘It’s all here except the smell of the Cavern,’ ” she said. “The Cavern had a certain smell. A musty smell. The smoke used to hang from the ceiling.

“My dad hated me going there. He’d always yell, ‘You’re going to end up with pleurisy.’ ”

Yes, the Cavern she speaks of is that Cavern — the famed Cavern Club in Liverpool where The Beatles played 292 shows before conquering the isle, then the remainder of the world.

Of course, the Cavern also played host to other hometown beat groups who either became big or were left behind with similar aspirations, from Gerry & The Pacemakers to The Merseybeats on down to The Undertakers.

Basically, like an underground bunker in a thermonuclear war, the former fruit cellar served as the command center for the first offensive in the British Invasion.

And, to think, this seemingly ordinary English lady on Burt Street, who retired a year and a half ago from Assurant, just happened to be a teenager a half-century ago in Liverpool.

But, once upon a time, The Beatles were just a local band.

“They were just guys who were playing good music,” Nickell said.

“My grandmother,” she added, about to imitate the voice of what I always assumed the Queen Mother would sound like, “used to say, ‘They’ll fizzle out.’

“ ‘They’ll fizzle out.’ ”

Nickell and her first husband eventually followed family to the States in the ’70s — former Enon mayor Clifford Vernon is her former brother-in-law — but her recollections are fascinating to anyone remotely interested in rock history.

In its own weird way, learning that she listened to pirate radio under the covers of bed with a transistor radio is no less awe-inspiring than being able to talk to someone who once walked the Oregon Trail alongside a yoke of oxen.

Stories about smoking unfiltered Woodbines and wearing out her mom’s living room carpet from dancing to Cliff Richard records with friends are of no real significance — yet they signify that she came of age in a unique time and place.

And then there’s the Cavern Club.

“There was no ventilation,” she said. “You could wring your sweater out.”

To be brutally honest, though, Nickell was more partial to The Merseybeats than The Beatles.

Her friend had a thing for their lead guitarist, Tony Crane.

“I liked John Banks, the drummer,” she said.

In the days before The Merseybeats cut their first record in 1963, the girls even traveled to gigs with them in their van.

“It was such a long time ago,” Nickell chuckled, looking a trifle embarrassed, when asked if she ever dated her favorite Merseybeat.

“Probably just kissy face. Just in the van.”

And what of The Beatles?

The group’s original drummer, Pete Best, lived down the street from her in the suburb of Speke.

“I don’t broadcast it,” she said. “I just knew ’em. They were the guys.”

Growing up, she played with Lennon’s younger half-sisters, Julia and Jacqui, and once shared a birthday cake with John.

They shared an Oct. 9 birthday, although John was seven years older.

As for the rest of the Fab Four?

“To be honest,” she said flatly, “I didn’t care much for Ringo.”

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