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When Jim Berkenstadt first heard about the Beatles, he thought they were a comedy troupe. There they were, four grown men, cavorting together in a bed to advertise their 1964 TV debut on the Ed Sullivan Show. Berkenstadt tuned in to learn who the Beatles really were, and he never tuned out.
Though he's hobnobbed with rock royalty, James Berkenstadt, 54, is as Midwestern as they come. He was born in Illinois and attended Northwestern University before relocating to Madison, Wisconsin, where he took the job of corporate lawyer for—get this—a cheese company. While outwardly he became "the man" his musical idols railed against, life never hardened his rubber soul.
His ability to stay youthful and connected probably has something to do with his addiction: He began mainlining records and bootlegs before most of our readers were fetuses.
"I walked into a head shop in the late '60s," says Berkenstadt. "This was the Macy's of head shops, a huge building in Chicago. As I was looking around the store, I saw a wall of albums behind the counter. I noticed a few Beatles albums I didn't recognize. They were early bootlegs. The clerk said the best was a double LP of unreleased Beatles material called the Black Album, so I had to have it. To me, it was better than any drug."
For the next 20 years, Berkenstadt chased the high that was music collecting. He amassed an enormous library of the Beatles' official recordings, rarities, bootlegs, articles, interviews, and broadcasts.
"Around '89 or '90, I realized I seemed to know more about lost Beatles recordings than anybody else," Berkenstadt explains. "I was so adept at listening to these recordings and identifying things like the month and year, if not the actual day, of the interview."
Over the next few years, Berkenstadt wrote articles for Goldmine, Vox, Musician, and other magazines. This experience primed him for his first book, Black Market Beatles, a project with Beatles historian Scott Belmer. The book documents over 1,600 bootlegs and their creators, and was apparently such a good resource that the Beatles camp used it themselves.
"Somebody had been to Apple Corps to meet with [Beatles road manager and Apple Corps Ltd. CEO] Neil Aspinall," Berkenstadt says. "They saw a copy of our book on his desk. A chapter in the book highlights the most significant black-market Beatle releases. The Beatles Anthology box set, released later, aligned closely with our recommended recordings. I think they had a reference there. When they hired me in the late 1990s, it proved to be true."
For Berkenstadt, the invisible wall separating him from his heroes finally cracked, and then shattered. The Beatles hired him to dig up audio, video, and other artifacts for projects including LOVE, the Las Vegas Cirque de Soleil show, and the box set George Harrison: The Dark Horse Years 1976-1992.
Though Berkenstadt is a Fab-Four phenom, his musical interests don't end there. He's connected with a more recent generation, thanks in part to his friend, fellow Madisonite Butch Vig, who produced albums for Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins.
"I realized early on that Nevermind was the Sgt. Pepper of Generation X," Berkenstadt says. "My co-author Charles Cross and I wanted to write the definitive book on the definitive album of the '90s."
Nirvana: Nevermind follows the making of the album, serving up geeky production details and musical insights. Vig, the book's key source, sat in Berkenstadt's living room running down remembrances of the historic sessions. During one interview, he tore a ride cymbal that had once belonged to former Beatle Pete Best from Berkenstadt's wall. He later played it on Garbage's platinum-selling Version 2.0.
In 2007, Berkenstadt hung up his lawyer's hat and founded Rock and Roll Detective, LLC. He performs research for industry clients, verifies and documents the provenance of rock memorabilia, and acts as a straw man for artists attempting to buy back their memorabilia at auction. He even has a rock-themed TV show in the works. "It's pretty much ready to launch after the first of the year," he says.
On the other side of the business, Berkenstadt will don his co-executive producer's hat for an upcoming project by Bandallamas, a new group featuring Jane Wiedlin of the Go Gos and Victor DeLorenzo of the Violent Femmes.
As a superfan, Berkenstadt has lived his dreams.
"We were at the opening of LOVE," Berkenstadt says. "Over the years, I'd given Sir George Martin and Giles Martin, who were doing mash-ups, 10 or 15 hours of spoken-word Beatles audio to be peppered into the show. It had been so long since I'd worked on it, and my wife asked, 'What did you do for this? Why are we here?' I said, 'I don't really know.'"
It's a curious statement, coming from a man who seems to know exactly why he's here.