I opened Debbie Greenberg’s new book, The Cavern Club: The Inside Story, with a hefty dose of skepticism. What could this book possibly tell me that Spencer Leigh’s The Cavern: The World’s Most Famous Club and Phil Thompson’s The Best of Cellars hadn’t already covered in great detail? I assumed there was only so much one could say about Liverpool, England’s limestone-walled, underground nightclub — the famous “cellar full of noise” that had launched greats such as Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Swinging Blue Jeans, Cilla Black, and of course, The Beatles.
But I was mistaken. You see, Debbie Greenberg’s father, Alfred Geoghegan, (and later, Debbie herself) owned and managed the Cavern Club from 1966-1971, and so, she possesses a wealth of information to which outsiders and even historians have no access. This book is singular in its vast detail — including a map and descriptions of the Cavern’s myriad rooms…rooms in addition to the main domed vault in which The Beatles performed. Greenberg also supplies new stories that no one but the owner of the club could know: stories about Chuck Berry’s arrival in Mathew Street in the pouring rain and Cilla Black’s earliest Cavern performances.
And of course, as a first-generation fan who never missed a Cavern performance, Debbie Greenberg is rich in first-hand observations about The Beatles as they made the transition from obscurity to fame. Replete with rare photos, funny episodes, and touching moments, Greenberg’s Cavern Club introduces readers to a venue that soared to fame, struggled against demise, and re-emerged stronger than ever, thanks to the love and devotion of one Liverpool family.
As a close friend of the legendary Cavern Club compere, Bob Wooler, Debbie Greenberg uses interviews with the deejay to recreate the club’s magical past. A master of the spoken word, Wooler brings the Cavern to life with quotes such as, “It is difficult to get the scene across now. The years have changed it, but I shall never forget the happy faces of those youngsters as they rocked and stomped their lunchtimes away. Remember there was no booze; they drank pop or Coke…They were fascinating days. Something new and unbelievable…brought a lot of fun into a lot of lives.” (p. 53) And of The Beatles themselves, Wooler told Greenberg, “It’s true The Beatles played their hearts out for a quid each night, but there was nowhere else for them to play anyway and they and the groups that followed were glad of the chance. I compered exactly 292 Beatles shows down in that sweaty hole. They loved every minute of it…”
Similarly, Greenberg calls upon the vivid memories of Cavern doorman, Paddy Delany, and Merseyside rock’n’roll promoter, Sam Leach, who served as one of The Beatles’ first managers. She also shares her own precious recollections of events such as the last time that The Beatles performed on the Cavern boards and the bittersweet moment that followed when fans returning home on a double-decker bus began extemporaneously singing “She Loves You” in a poignant tribute to their four lost loves.
Greenberg recreates fab Liverpool during the “British Invasion decade.” She acquaints you with the magical town that we will never really know. But she does it so well that you can see the Empire Theater and imagine the great live shows there; you feel as if you are standing in New Brighton’s Tower Ballroom. And most of all, you experience the snaking queue of “punters” in Mathew Street, waiting patiently for admittance down those 18 dark steps into the original Cavern. It all springs to life as Greenberg weaves the story.
But her remembrances are not all happy ones. Greenberg also documents the decline of Liverpool’s rock’n’roll scene as Swinging London began to woo so many successful groups away from their artsy hometown on the Mersey River. She faithfully recounts the heartbreaking events that led to Ray McFall’s loss of the Cavern and her father’s brave acquisition of the malingering building so in need of repair and care.
As a reader, I became a part of the Geoghegans’ 1966 renovations of the once-famous night spot — witnessing comprehensive changes to the dangerous ventilation system, the horribly rustic bathrooms, the fire-trap entrance (without a single rear exit), and the performance stage. I stood with Alf Geoghegan in his struggle to save the floundering nightclub by introducing alcoholic beverages to more sophisticated club-goers of the mid-Sixties. When the Cavern — complete with a facelift and high hopes — reopened on 23 July 1966, I felt as if I were there, fingers crossed and breath held. When Prime Minister Harold Wilson cut the red ribbon and wished the Geoghegans well, I cheered. Greenberg lures the reader into the midst of the action. You’re there!
By coupling her stories with original documents, old letters, archived newspaper articles, and the brilliant photography of Liverpool’s gifted Les Chadwick (who took early professional photos of The Beatles and many other groups), Greenberg resurrects the limping mid-Sixties club on Mathew Street that her family adopted, rebuilt, and recreated. You’ll smile as stars such as Bill Haley and the Comets and Ben E. King take the reconditioned, expanded stage. You’ll hold your breath as the crowds return. And you’ll snicker when The Who show up unexpectedly at the Cavern door one evening, only to have Debbie’s mother adamantly insist that they pay admission! (“It’s The Who, Mrs. Geoghegan! The Who!!!!”)
Bob Wooler once quipped, “If you’ve never seen the Cavern, you’ve never lived!” I’ve seen the Cavern. Between 1993-2000, I visited the famous haunt in which John Lennon used to belt out “Money” and “Too Much Monkey Business” many, many times. But I never lived the history of this “swingin’ place” until I read Debbie Greenberg’s touching, bright memoir.
From her late-night spiritual conversation with The Goon’s Spike Milligan to her colorful tales of Bruce Channel, Ben E. King, and an ingenue group known as The Iveys (later dubbed Badfinger), Debbie Greenberg takes you back to the days when “the music [almost] died.” And then, she will introduce you to a forward-thinking entrepreneur — a smart Liverpool butcher-shop owner named Alf Geoghegan — and to his wonderful wife, Laura Wilson Geoghegan, and his hard-charging daughter, Debbie, who “by working all the hours God sent us and by the skin of our teeth,” remade the Cavern Club into a grand success.
In 1967, Debbie offered to take over full-time management of the Cavern from her father, and while I won’t spoil the moving conclusion of this book, I will say that the final chapter will touch your heart. You will devour this book about the passionate and determined family who worked together to save an historic icon and to make sure that in Liverpool, the music played on.
For more information on Debbie Greenberg’s The Cavern: The Inside Story, go to: https://tinyurl.com/ap8j969y
-Jude Southerland Kessler
Photo: Beatles at the Cavern Club (Getty Images)