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Knee-Tremblers & Mystery Cults: The Cavern
There may be a deeper truth about the Cavern's authenticity that's even more elemental than earth and stone.
Hello, everyone. This piece is a longer read — a full chapter from the memoir-in-progress on my journeys to Liverpool and Hamburg.
“[I dreamed that] I found myself in a dirty, sooty city. It was night, and winter, and dark, and raining. I was in Liverpool. ... In the center was a round pool, and in the middle of it a small island. While everything round about was obscured by rain, fog, smoke and dimly lit darkness, the little island blazed with sunlight... Everything was extremely unpleasant, black and opaque – just as I felt then. But I had a vision of unearthly beauty, and that is why I was able to live at all. Liverpool is the “pool of life.’” — Carl Jung
Liverpool ~ March 10, 2023
It's dark and drizzling and cold, and I'm in the queue in the alley behind the Cavern waiting for the doors to open. This is — I really want to emphasise here — not the plan, which is to say this is not the loose and bendy vision of how things were going to go that, as all pilgrims know, is the only sensible way to make a plan while on a pilgrimage.
My loose and bendy Cavern non-plan was this — descend into the resurrected subterranean Temple of the Early Fabs, inhale some sacred air molecules, order a ritual Beatle Scotch & Coke, reverently touch all the touchable things, maybe buy a T-shirt, and absolutely for damned sure do not stay to watch some lame-ass tribute band stand on the stage of the fucking Cavern and pretend to be the Beatles.
Tribute bands — and especially Beatles tribute bands — are in the same category as Velveeta cheese, gluten-free bread and that bizarre Eiffel Tower replica in Vegas. Nobody can be the Beatles except the Beatles and even they could only manage it for about ten years or so. So no, I’m not going to defile the sanctity of my Liverpool pilgrimage by participating in the blasphemous delusion that something is what it definitively cannot be.
No. Just... no.
... at the entrance to the Cavern, I glance at the schedule of performances, and there they are. Not the actual They, of course, but... "The Cavern Beatles live, Friday 9 p.m.”... and this is Friday and 9 p.m. is in about two hours and okay, so it turns out that “Beatles” and “Cavern” and “live” isn't a word combination I’m equipped to resist, even if my rational mind knows those words don't mean what my irrational Beatle heart wants them to mean and fuck a pig, this is why my non-plans are always loose and bendy.
I buy the ticket. We who are about to feast on a gluten-free Velveeta cheese sandwich beneath the Vegas Eiffel tower salute you. But it’s fine. If it’s awful — which of course it will be — I’ll just count it as an Experience, write a snarky piece about it, and repress it from my memory the way I repress the 1963 Christmas pantomime, India, and most of what all four of them got up to in the ‘70s.
All of which is why I'm in the queue in the alley behind the Cavern waiting for the doors to open.
It’s the sort of very British queue that people don't seem to mind being in, despite the drizzle and the cold and the fact that a lot of people in the queue aren’t British, and there's that particular kind of muted anticipation punctuated by sharp laughter that happens before live events. Most everyone is wrapped up in black macs so it's hard to tell, but at least half look to be under 30.
The round-faced silver-haired woman in line ahead of me is not under 30. She tells me she was a Cavern girl in the '60s but, no, she didn’t see Them here because by the time she was old enough to be allowed to come, They were singing “All You Need Is Love” for an audience of four hundred million people. She's here tonight to celebrate her 70th birthday with her daughter and granddaughter. She waves in their direction as she talks, but both women are focused on their phones, which is presumably why she's talking to me instead.
I ask her what the Cavern was like back then. I've had the privilege of talking with a fair number of former Cavern Girls, and her story is similar to theirs. It was loud and hot and madly crowded and the distinctive “Cavern perfume” of sweat, smoke and rotted fruit from the warehouse above was so strong it clung to their hair and clothes afterwards. Oh, and that it was glorious and unforgettable and she’d happily do it all again if she could. Which is why she's here tonight, over fifty years later.
And what of the Cavern as it exists now? “It's not the same,” she shrugs, and for the first time, there's a trace of sadness in her voice. "But it's what we have, innit?"
Authenticity is a matter of some controversy when it comes to the Cavern. It's a bit of a flashpoint in Liverpool's evolving rediscovery of itself as the flamekeeper of the Beatles' origin story. As I write this, there’s a post on the Paul McCartney Facebook group arguing the issue of whether the rebuilt Cavern is the "real” Cavern or just a fraudulent, exploitative cash grab. No one who’s commented so far has actually been here, mind you, but they all have an opinion anyway because of course they do.
Earlier in the week, I met with Cavern director Jon Keats, who is fervent enough about setting the record straight on the authenticity question that he's just finished making a documentary about it.
The history turns out to be fairly convoluted, but here is what he would like you, dear reader, to know: That the Cavern as it exists now occupies 70% of the original footprint, as much overlap as is possible while still conforming to modern safety codes. That the main room and its iconic archways have been painstakingly recreated to the precise dimensions and built from the salvaged bricks of the original club. And that — with the flourish of a seasoned compère, he pulls out a flyer to illustrate his point — the Cavern today has the identical street address as the original, 10 Mathew Street, Liverpool L2 6RE, UK.
All of this is persuasive and demonstrably true insofar as I can tell. None of it, however, makes me any less dubious about what I've signed on for tonight. In some ways, it makes the whole thing even more dodgy. If the Cavern is as authentic as Keats insists, then the question of who gets to stand on the hallowed ground of its stage and call forth the spirit of the Beatles becomes even more potentially heretical.
The doors open and the soggy lot of us heretics produce our e-tickets and are admitted inside by a pair of burly security men who, possessing some quality I can’t put my finger on, do indeed appear to have stepped out of 1961.
As I approach the entrance, I can just see the Carl Jung Pool of Life mural at the far end of the alley. The drizzle and the mist and the multi-colours of the neon pub signs on Mathew Street flicker over the fragmented, surrealist imagery, giving the scene a dreamlike quality — though it's one of those dreams where everything is just off enough that it feels like more of an acid-drenched Orphic descent into the Underworld.
I push away my lingering doubts and step through the door, reminding myself that it will all be fine.
Before we make our descent, though, a meta note. The actual layout of the Cavern is a glass onion labyrinth of two stages, multiple rooms, alcoves, doors and archways that defies any ability to describe it without creating more disorientation than not describing it at all. My suggestion from here on is that, unless you want your brain bent into a Lennon-esque pretzel, you abandon all hope of constructing any sort of mental map, turn off your mind and follow the girl with kaleidoscope eyes through the turnstile and down the rabbit hole.
Director Jon Keats told me his north star for the Cavern is the reaction people have when they get their first glimpse of the iconic vaulted main room. If they stop and gawk, wide-eyed and transported, then the Cavern is doing it right.
By this standard, the Cavern is doing it right. I do indeed stop, wide-eyed, at the sight. It looks like, well, it looks like what I hoped for and probably like what you’d hope for, too. Like the pictures, more or less.
In the category of less, the bricks are covered in a Pollack-like collage of signatures and graffiti, presumably not from the original go-round. There’s the inevitable memorabilia, too, which obviously wasn’t there then, and the first display to catch my attention is a collection of photos of Them playing the Cavern.
I’ve seen these photos before, of course, in books and online, but they land differently now, because now I’m in the Cavern seeing photos of Them in the Cavern. It’s a Hall of Mirrors effect, and I slip a little further into the fractured reality of the Pool of Life mural, which in turn reinforces the feeling of being in a dream where everything is not quite what it is.
And then, of course, there’s commerce. The bar area is lined with museum-style cases selling the requisite merch, including a Beatles-themed ukulele I'll never be able to unsee. A bright red British telephone booth replicates the one in the opening sequence of Hard Days Night, which, also of course, functions as a selfie station. A video promoting International Beatle Week, of which the Cavern is a major sponsor, plays on a loop over the bar. The overall effect is part Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe, part Hard Rock Cafe, part... well, Velveeta cheese.
I work my way as Brit-politely as possible through the crowd to the bar and order a Scotch & Coke. This part, at least, is still going according to non-plan.
As I wait for my drink, I’m crushed up against a college-aged guy from Greece. He’s wearing shorts and a t-shirt, which even though it’s March in Liverpool, is probably more sensible than my jeans and leather jacket because the show isn’t for another hour and it’s already packed enough that the temperature is creeping up as body heat and sweat accumulate. Even absent the cigarette smoke and rotten fruit odour from overhead, I wonder what my hair and clothes will smell like tomorrow.
The only thing Shorts-Wearing Greek Guy knows how to say in English seems to be “I love the Beatles,” but that’s enough, really, because it means we agree 100% on everything we’re able to discuss. We smile and nod at each other until the bartender brings me my drink, after which I extricate myself from Greek Guy’s involuntary embrace and squeeze away from the bar in search of a less claustrophobic part of the club.
Down a mercifully less crowded connecting corridor there’s a floor-to-ceiling sized bas-relief sculpture of four giant Fab heads bulging out from the wall. I blink at the heads and blink again, but they're still there — eight football-sized eyeballs staring at me reproachfully like those giant statues on Easter Island. It’s possible this is intended as some sort of post-modern commentary on celebrity — the stared-at doing the staring — or maybe it’s just a crafty method for keeping the corridor clear. Either way, it’s effective because I don’t linger.
It's no good changing location, though, because in the next room, there’s another set of disembodied Beatle heads. This time it’s a display of original bronze castings of the Fab Four statue — but again, just the heads — installed at the waterfront.
I nurse my Scotch & Coke and contemplate the circus freak-ish irony of four severed and spot-lit Beatle heads trapped zoo-like behind glass in what might be the last place they ever felt free, just starting to get a sense of their power, and, mercifully, with only the faintest glimmer of how it will all turn out.
No doubt there are further existential musings to unpack about both sets of heads, but I’m distracted by a framed painting set unobtrusively in an adjacent alcove. It’s a semi-representation of the original stage backdrop, and a small plaque at the bottom notes that it was commissioned by John Lennon’s sister Julia, and marks the site of the original stage.
The original archways made an impression, certainly, but this marker is the first thing that really takes my breath away — maybe because it’s hiding in an alcove and not made a thing of and is therefore an unexpected discovery. I get as close to the marker as I can, take in a deep breath of sacred air molecules and close my eyes, searching for some wisp of something... a faint echo of their guitars, a stray bass note... some palpable trace of Their presence, because that’s what I’m after here at the Cavern, and I haven’t found it yet.
There’s nothing, though, beyond a bone-deep longing for what I’m not — quite —finding and a sense of it slipping just out of reach before I can quite catch hold of it. Maybe there’s just too much else going on, too many people, too much distraction, for that kind of subtle experience.
Resolving to return when the club is quieter for another try, I turn my attention instead to a full-wall display commemorating Paul McCartney’s 1999 “return to the Cavern” gig. I’m marveling that such is the power of Macca that a replica of the guitar he played that night constitutes glass-case worthy memorabilia, when a well-coiffed sartorial man appears at my side. He and I exchange greetings and “this is how much I love them” credentials, this time with more detail since there’s no language barrier.
I’m ahead by a fair margin — he’s just up from London for the weekend, whereas I flew across a whole ocean and therefore outscore easily on the distance metric — when he asks me what I do.
It’s one of those increasingly frequent moments since all of this started, when I feel some kind of cosmic tumbler slide into place. “This,” I answer, with more clarity than I can ever remember having about anything in my life. “I fell in love with them and my whole life rearranged itself and now this is what I do.”
I’m not yet sure what “this” is, mind you, but right this second, it doesn’t matter. I win our “this is how much I love them” contest in a knockout punch, and it’s a legitimate victory because it’s the truth. This journey, as pilgrimages are meant to do, is slowly but irrevocably changing my life in ways I can’t yet discern the full contours of.
He asks me for contact info, but it's not a pick up. He’s here with his boyfriend, and just seems to want to know when this piece is published, presumably so he can see if he’s in it, and yes, Sartorial London Man, you are.
During the anticipatory lull before the appearance of Not Them, I claim a spot leaning against a pillar (I feel I may need the support). It's getting hot enough now that I'm willing to sacrifice style for comfort, so I ask the 40-something businessman in front of me if I can stash my jacket under his table.
After we’ve managed jacket storage logistics, I notch up another win in the “this is how much I love them” competition. He’s American, too, so it’s a draw on distance, but I’m Writing a Book About Them and he’s not, at which point he understandably deflects from the crushing humiliation of his defeat by asking me what I think of... Oasis.
It’s a not-uncommon conversation starter in Liverpool, and I know what he wants to hear, but even though he now has my jacket hostage, I cannot give him the answer he seeks. I couldn't name an Oasis song if my life depended on it and what little I know about them comes from reading a Beatles/Oasis crossover M/M slash fic, which I’m guessing isn’t going to go over. But Paul McCartney says Oasis is derivative, and #InMaccaITrust so that’s the answer I give. Judging by the look on Oasis Man’s face, it’s possible I may never see my jacket again
While he nurses his battle wounds, I have a brief exchange with a local kid standing next to me who tells me he’s only here because his dad couldn't use the tickets and he plans to leave after the first half hour to go somewhere “better”.
It's an easy if unsatisfying victory in the "this is how much I love them" game, and this is around the time when — and I swear I'm not making this up — Kenny and Dolly’s karaoke-classic duet “Islands in the Stream” comes on over the house PA. Which... I mean...
This whole night is feeling like a Very Very Bad idea.
I consider asking Dad’s Tickets Kid to take me away with him to better places, like, now, but it's too late. The song cuts off (praise be), the lights dim, and after a brief video catching us up on the history, the “Cavern Beatles” take the stage.
They're wearing the sanitised Brian Epstein suits rather than Hamburg/early Cavern black leather, and I'm still processing my disappointment over the missed opportunity, when “Paul” (who, to his credit, is playing his Hoefner violin bass left-handed) mimics music’s most famous count-off — "One! Two! Three! four!" — and kicks the Fake Fabs into “I Saw Her Standing There".
And now I need to stop arsing around with the telling of this story, because this is where everything — and I do mean everything — changes. I'm stunned at how quickly it happens. I was hoping, at best, for a gradual erosion of my cynicism into the-night-not-completely-sucking. But there’s nothing gradual about what happens next.
One minute, I'm contemplating my escape from an escalating absurdist Fab fever dream and the next I'm screaming my lungs out like a 15-year-old girl at Shea stadium, something I’ve always sworn I would never have done had I actually been at Shea Stadium, much less here and now and being, well, not 15.
I wrench my eyes from the stage, scanning the crowd to make sure it's not just me.
It’s definitely not just me.
It's not 100% everyone, either, because nothing like this ever is. Even in the footage of Shea, there are people sitting on their hands, clearly lost as to what the hell the madness is about and determined to resist it. But here, as at Shea (and everywhere else), the resistors quickly become irrelevant.
It's also not 1961, of course, and it’s not Them, though every person in this room, no doubt including the band, wishes it were. I mean, fuck, of course we do. But the band is good and they play hard and hot and loud and fast — faster than the record — and there's a bite to the music when it’s played live like this that even the best studio recordings of the best band in the history of music can't capture. This is how this music was built to be heard, the way most of us never got to hear it — live in person at ear-splitting volume in a dark sweaty cramped underground club filled with people who get it and who are willing to collude with the band and the situation to turn this into what we all want it to be.
Oasis Man's wife is holding up a phone and live streaming for someone back home. Behind me, a 20-something blonde in a sequined minidress twists and shouts and screams her head off, every fertile curvy inch of her as legitimately a Cavern Girl as anyone’s ever been. Dad’s Tickets Kid is shouting “wow! wow!” over and over again and he’s not leaving anytime soon, that’s evident. Silver-Haired ‘60s Cavern Girl has tears in her eyes, her arms wrapped around her daughter and granddaughter and three generations sing along and know every word. Across the room, Sartorial Man and his boyfriend dirty dance their asses off. I don’t see Shorts-Wearing Greek Guy, but I’ve little doubt he’s caught up in it, too, probably still trapped at the bar shouting “I love the Beatles!” at the top of his lungs.
I’m swept away along with everyone else and if that makes me an enthusiastic consumer of gluten-free Velveeta cheese sarnies, then so be it, but — and maybe I’m rationalising — I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. Anywhere else, maybe this is cheesy camp, but the thing is I’m not sure this could happen anywhere else, because I swear the music isn’t coming from the Not Fabs at all, but from some combination of the band and the crowd and... stay with me here... the Cavern itself.
It’s not as implausible as it might seem. We know sound waves can change the molecular structure of matter, and we know that two hundred ninety-two times, They played here — the original stage was just a few metres from where I’m standing — and that every bass note and backbeat was absorbed into the bricks and earth that have been so carefully resurrected to create this space. In a certain subtle but unmistakable way, Their music sculpted the Cavern as literally as it did metaphorically.
It’s a leap, I know, if only because lots of other artists have played here, too, since 1961. Some of them famous, some of them very famous, some of them even named Paul McCartney. But the thing is, none of them would have played here if They hadn't played here first, and that leads us to what may be a truer truth about the Cavern's authenticity — something maybe even more elemental than earth and stone.
Since the beginning of history, we’ve had an instinctive need to honour our encounters with the divine by repeating intense, focused rituals over the span of generations in the places where those encounters happened.
The pattern is always the same. Something transcendent happens in an ordinary place — a revelation or a vision, or the arguable miracle of four boys on a tiny stage in a dank hole in the ground stinking of sweat and rotten fruit and making music that will remake the world. Word spreads. Pilgrims arrive. Rituals evolve. Grooves are worn in the collective unconscious. The once-ordinary place slowly, over time, becomes sacred in and of itself.
By any even remotely open-minded definition, the Cavern is sacred space. What makes it unusual is that it's sacred space of a kind that many of us have been — erroneously — taught not to recognise as sacred.
The Cavern is the full-throated ecstatic... and erotic... counterpoint to the more easily recognised sacredness of St. Peter's Church Hall. If St. Peters is a whispered thank you proferred in solitude down on one’s knees, then the Cavern is a frantic knee-trembler up against a filthy alley wall, a lust-charged encounter with the Big Bang sexual procreative force that made Them what they became.
Like two lovers intertwined and incomplete without one another, the Cavern and St. Peters are the yin and yang of the Beatles’ origin story. Dark and light. Sex and spirit. Earth and sky. (And if that also sounds like Lennon/McCartney, well, you're not wrong.)
If you’re vaguely unsettled by these comparisons, it might be because this isn’t the way most Westerners have been taught to recognise worship, which we’ve bound almost exclusively to silence and stillness and solemnity, whether it’s silent prayer or meditation or the sombre cadence of hymns and chants and mantras.
But worship is exactly what’s happening at the Cavern — a collective, ecstatic rite in which everyone knows the catechism and the correct posture isn’t on one’s knees but fuck-dancing to the lusty thrusting backbeat of “Please Please Me" — come on! come on! — and the object of worship is the music that sprang from the hearts and hands and pricks of John and Paul and George and Ringo, and if the onstage sexual chemistry between John and Paul is notably and inevitably absent here, it's still forever embedded in the music they wrote together. John and Paul were right, y’know, when they told us it was always all about sex.
And that’s when I get it.
This isn’t a tribute band at all. Or maybe I'm just wrong about what a tribute band is. The four musicians on this stage in this place aren’t — I don’t think — playacting or pretending. They're not a copy, they're a conduit, summoning the spirit of Them through music in exactly — not almost, not sort of — but exactly the same way ancient shamans gathered in caves (caverns!) and cloaked themselves in animal skins and howled at the moon to ward off the demons and petition the gods for fertility and successful hunts.
In the moment, I'm not thinking much past that, which is of course the point of ecstatic religious experience like it’s the point of orgasm — to lift us temporarily out of our heads and into something greater than ourselves. Later, when I do think back on all of this, I recognise what happens at the Cavern as being rooted in the (often literal) underground mystery religions of ancient Greece — a modern incarnation of the Dionysian Mysteries or the Bacchanalia or the Rites of Orpheus in which maenads tore the flesh from the pipers as their music drove them into lustful frenzy. And if that sounds like Beatlemania... well, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Mind you, it's not a perfect experience. “John” is so convincing I can’t take my eyes off him, right down to his brutal mocking of the audience. But the real John’s mockery — and arguably his lyrical genius — was delivered with the finely-honed blade of a truth teller. This “John”’s... isn’t.
Faux John’s insults too often focus on mocking the age of the crowd, turning “acid” jokes into cringy cruise-ship “antacid” jokes. They don’t land, as the uncomfortable laughter demonstrates, mostly because they break the spell, but also because they’re a fundamental misread of what’s happening here. Well over half the audience is too young for the jokes to apply, though in his defence, it's possible “John” can't see that because the stage lights only spill over as far as the older and demonstrably less engaged crowd sitting at the tables in the front.
It’s an unfortunate configuration because the tables and the demographic they attract put a hard barrier between the younger, more vibrant audience and the band, and the lack of that more immediate and youthful connection is the biggest thing keeping this from being everything it so clearly wants to be (not to mention fucking up my every attempt at good photos/video, which is why there are none in this piece).
It’s not everything it could be, but the flaws don’t keep it from being what it is, and thankfully the occasional tone-deaf joke and poor audience configuration are no match for the potency of the greater magic being conjured, as the sacred and the sexual merge together into a pulsing spiral of love and longing and grief and joy and sweat and sex that you’d have to go a ways to convince me doesn’t reach straight up into the firmament, lifting us right along with it.
After the show. I talk with the mini-skirted blonde who danced ecstatically next to me. She’s twenty years old and her name is Harriet and she tells me that she loves Them “more than anything ever,” that “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is her favourite song, The White Album her favourite album, and that her ambition is to be the next Brian Epstein so she can discover the next Beatles.
“I’ve never felt anything like it,” she says, her voice raw from screaming and sounding like she’s just had the best shag of her life. “They make me feel sensual... electric, out of this world. I wish everyone could feel what I’m feeling right now.” Her words tumble out now, urgent and intense and passionate. “I wish more people of my generation could understand how things could be, if we all came together through this music.”
For the first time tonight, I notch a loss in the “who loves them more” competition. If love is a verb, and in its most powerful form, that's exactly what it is, Harriet wins by virtue of the scope of her vision and her ability to love them further into the future than I can. She doesn’t quite realise it yet, but she’s a flamekeeper — a temple priestess, really — vowed to transmute the magic into the next generation, which is why it’s not really a loss at all, to concede this round to Harriet, the thoroughly modern girl with the vintage name.
Harriet gets it, but what she doesn’t yet get is how crucial she is to all of this. Director Jon Keats emphasised in our conversation that as much as the Cavern is a temple honouring the past, it also needs to embody the future if it’s to remain — and my words now, not his — a living sacred space.
That’s why the Cavern needs to — and does — host bands that aren’t (consciously) channelling Them. Famous bands, indie bands, as-yet-unknown bands. The Cavern needs to — and does — connect with new generations, so that “John”’s flat-footed “boomer” quips remain inaccurate misreads and don’t become self-fulfilling prophecy. So that Dad’s Tickets Kid doesn't want to leave for better places (he didn’t, btw, he stayed the whole night) and instead discovers the magic of it all in the best possible place and the best possible way. So that the Cavern can keep inspiring Harriet and her generation to carry the flame of this transcendent, incomparable music into the future.
None of that happens if the Cavern stays frozen in time. For a brief shimmering era, the Cavern was the dazzling pool of life at the centre of the birth of a new world. But if the Cavern were to remain as it was in 1961, it would, paradoxically, lose the power of what it was in 1961. And if that happens, Harriet’s — and my — worst fears about all of this come true, and the Beatles and their music and their extraordinary story become an artifact and the Cavern becomes a museum, rather than a living sacred source of the world-changing power that music — and especially this music — can be.
It's the part of pilgrimage we rarely focus on, pilgrimages being overtly about a journey to a place where Something Happened Before. But to be meaningful beyond the experience itself, to change us in the fundamental way that a pilgrimage — and an ecstatic experience — is meant to do, it needs to be as much about how it changes us moving forward as it does about connecting us with the past. A successful pilgrimage offers us a piece of itself to take home, and if that piece is just a relic of a long-ago past, then it’s not much more significant than a t-shirt or a Beatles-themed ukulele.
Nostalgia can be quenched by a visit to an old place and a fond memory of what was. But passion, the kind of lifeforce elemental creative power contained in this music and in this place, is unquenchable and eternal and a world-altering force unto itself. It hurls itself into the future as powerfully as it does into the past and in doing so, becomes exactly what Jung dreamed... the Pool of Life pulsing eternally at the centre of the world.
All of which is to say that on the way out, I buy a t-shirt, send up a quick prayer in thanks for bendy plans, and buy a ticket for the following night.
Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this article, here’s the companion piece on my visit to St. Peter’s Church Hall.
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