Archive for May, 2012


David Bowie – The Man Who Sold the World – 11/4/1970

David Bowie’s development into the beast he was in 1970 was pretty rapid when you consider where he was a mere 3 years before. His self-titled debut album is the work of a child, sounding kinda like old English folk tunes spun by a kid with licorice in his teeth. His look was kid-like, too, since he was only 19 when he was recoding it. In my opinion, David Bowie isn’t David Bowie, at least not in the way that the world would perceive him on his next release. He was almost 23 when his 2nd album came out. Its name is complicated; it was called David Bowie in the UK (almost as a repudiation of the first David Bowie), and Man of Words/Man of Music in the US. When RCA rereleased it in 1972, they renamed it after its lead single, Space Oddity, and then changed it back to David Bowie in 2009.

“Space Oddity” the song would be Bowie’s first hit, and the album it was on bridged the vast gap between his ’67 and ’70 albums. By the time The Man Who Sold the World was released in November of 1970, ‘67’s David Bowie may as well have not even existed.

For one thing, TMWStW is as close to a heavy metal album as Bowie ever made, a far cry from the folk parody of David Bowie and the introspective weirdness of Space Oddity. The distorted electric guitar that starts “The Width of a Circle” marks a new beginning for Bowie. Out with the old, in with the awesome. The song is the first place where Bowie is really facing himself and questioning his very nature. In the first half, the narrator’s search for answers takes him to sex, to drugs, and to rock and roll. He finds them all to be unfulfilling. And then, the second half begins, in which the narrator has sex with Satan. If you can explain that part, go right ahead.

“All the Madmen” is doomy and weird. It strikes just the right balance of weight and playfulness. His half-brother, Terry Burns, was diagnosed as mentally ill and put in an asylum in Surrey; this song is about that. The roles of sane and insane have been reversed in this dystopian future, and the narrator wants to appear insane because a life among the “madmen” would be far preferable to the apparently normal life he lives now. From Bowie’s perspective, who’s to say Terry’s crazy? Aren’t we all a little crazy, to varying degrees?

Next is “Black Country Rock,” a crunchy and fairly straightforward rock and roll number. Bowie can’t resist displaying some vocal weirdness in the last verse, impersonating Marc Bolan from T. Rex because he ran out of lyrics. His vibrato sets it off-center, much like the album in general, and the song is a breath of fresh air before taking a plunge into the black water of “After All.”

In movies, the best horror is created when we see a little and imagine what more horrible things we might see. They succeed when they keep our imagination one step ahead. When the psychotic killer is stalking the teenage girl through the house, the terror is always at its best before he finds her, when she’s crouching in the shadows trying to be silent. “After All” is like a good horror film; the sense of unease this demented circus waltz has mastery of is heightened by its restraint, elevating it from unusual to creepy.

It details Bowie’s dissatisfaction with his own humanity. He longs for a transcendence beyond his human body, both in the physical and the spiritual sense. It’s reminiscent of Nietzsche and his Übermensch philosophy. Indeed, this whole album is about Bowie hoping beyond hope that there’s something beyond this temporal life. He’s right in his thinking; God has something much greater for us after this life. Where he trips up is where Nietzsche tripped up before him; he thinks some of us are destined to become greater than God, rendering God unnecessary, or impotent, or “dead.” Also, it doesn’t seem like the best thing for Bowie to be constantly at war with his own humanness. He never did get rid of that whole space alien thing, but today he seems more comfortable with just being a person.

Aleister Crowley

Besides Nietzsche, “After All” also draws inspiration from Aleister Crowley. The line “Live till your rebirth and do what you will” echoes Crowley’s famous “do what though wilt” saying. At first glance, this philosophy may seem like libertinism or license, but “do what though wilt” doesn’t refer to satisfying the everyday desires of the id, but fulfilling your ultimate divine purpose. I agree with Crowley there, but where we disagree is the source of that purpose. In a general sense, I think everybody’s purpose is to bring glory to God, but on the individual level, that purpose is given to us gradually by God, and we need to stay attuned to God’s voice everyday to get an idea for what it is. I’m not sure what Crowley thinks, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t believe in God, considering his whole Aeon of Horus thing. Perhaps if there are any Thelemites out there who read my blog (if any exist…) they can educate me about his position on that. Not holding out a whole lot of hope, though…

More about The Man Who Sold the World tomorrow!

Bowie’s On TV!

Here’s a young man named David Bowie, on this new-fangled invention called the television! Enjoy!

Bowie’s In Space!

Bret and Jemaine

I was spending a weekend in the Boston area back in 2007 or so. A bunch of us were hanging out when my friend Nancy said I just HAD to see something. She got her laptop and went to YouTube, excited as a schoolgirl, and searched for “Flight of the Conchords.” Then I saw Bret and Jemaine performing “Robots” live. My first thought was that it was a little hard to take seriously (it’s a parody, so you’re probably not supposed to). I rolled my eyes infuriatingly, looked at Nancy with smirking condescension and said, “Really?” She ignored me, bless her heart, and just laughed hysterically.

Nancy’s always been on a different wavelength than me, which makes her completely indispensible. She’s more than a friend; she’s a sister. Even though you may disagree with your sister over some pretty big things, your relationship never disintegrates because you love each other, and nothing is big enough to change that.

It took a little while, but by the time their TV show had finished its first season, Flight of the Conchords were my favorite musical comedy act behind Weird Al. Without question, my favorite song of theirs is “Bowie,” a moment where David Bowie (played by Jemaine) comes to Bret in a dream to guide him with his out-of-this-universe wisdom – while suspended in mid-air, ‘cause it’s awesome. The song is a trip through the ever-shifting styles of Bowie’s prodigious career, and the lyrics are about Bowie traveling through space to meet his doppelganger, hitting the most ridiculous aspects of his personality (spaceships, jumpsuits, “that’s pretty far out”) in a mocking yet reverential and adoring way. It’s great.

this is David Bowie

I’ll admit that Bowie’s an entity that I still don’t completely understand. Recently, my wife asked me, “So why do you like David Bowie?”, and I couldn’t come up with a good answer. His weirdness and spacey mysticism are at once bizarre and appealing to me. A large part of that is his androgyny. He challenges the conventions of gender in a complicated way, not like his imitators who think gender-bending means simply a man wearing makeup or a woman shaving her head. For him, gender seems to melt away, becoming of no consequence. He’s almost a third gender, one that sees no distinction between male and female, or at least sees the differences as not important.

This androgyny is just a piece of what 70s Bowie was really about, which was transcending his humanity to become something greater. Bowie (or at least his public character) didn’t fit in with any of the “normal” people; it got to the point where he started asking himself some fundamental questions. He somehow went from being an “abnormal person” to not a “person” at all. If not a person, what was he? That question is what he spent the entire 70s trying to answer.

this is also David Bowie; I know, right?

He’s not the first person to explore this theme. Friedrich Nietzsche, Aleister Crowley, and Franz Kafka are all cited by Bowie as influences during this period. He takes it to a different place then them, though, because his presentation is more visual, easier to grab hold of. His conclusions are different, too. Kafka, for instance, saw the transformation of man to end with something gruesome, but Bowie has a more open-ended outlook.

During the 70s – and even beyond – Bowie was on a journey to discover who he was. That journey’s most dramatic period is in ’72 to ’73, when he was playing the character of Ziggy Stardust. But it begins with The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory, where we see Bowie at war with his own humanness. More than this, though, is that he made some astoundingly good music during this period. Strip away everything else and that still remains.

Thursday: the many phases and faces of Bowie

Paranoid deals chiefly with three subjects: depression, drugs, and social issues relevant to the day. Two songs out of eight don’t fit the pattern, those being “Iron Man” and “Planet Caravan.” The latter doesn’t fit any pattern established by the rest of Paranoid, and is a very odd duck amidst the heaviest album ever, coming right before the two most metal songs on here.

“Planet Caravan” is a quiet, ethereal dreamscape. Its’ lyrics speak of the moon, the skies, starlight, and even the planet/Greek god Mars, supposedly being about a journey through the universe with your loved one. The one pattern this sets up is metal artists having one quiet, subdued, or sensitive number on their albums. Black Sabbath was consistent, having “Solitude” on their next record Master of Reality, “Changes” on Vol. 4, and “Fluff” on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.  While I think metal musicians generally suffer from insecurity about the size of their male organs, a lack of a “Planet Caravan” track somewhere in their catalog seals the deal.

The peaceful calm of “Planet Caravan” only lasts a few minutes before it’s utterly shattered by the stomping inevitability of “Iron Man” in what’s one of the most famous riffs in all of rock and roll. But “Iron an” arguably isn’t the heaviest track on here. In my estimation, that honor goes to the opening song of the vinyl flip, “Electric Funeral.”

Loud, doomy and quivering, “Electric Funeral” has the same element of impending destruction “Iron Man” does so well. Like “War Pigs” does with war, it deals with the topic of nuclear holocaust through horrifying imagery. Musically, this is even more terror-inducing than their Satan opus “Black Sabbath.” It’s not enough to tip me over into actually believing this, but “Electric Funeral” makes a pretty strong case for some music (regardless of lyrics) being inherently evil.

It’s also an example of a motif that’s present in much of Black Sabbath’s early output; the heaviest songs are often the slowest. Heavy metal acts from the 80s onwards took the approach that faster is better, more notes equals more awesome.  Metallica in particular developed early on a hard-charging musical personality. For them, it came out of playing in L.A. clubs where no one was listening to them, so they decided to play louder and faster in order to get the crowd’s attention. More and more, I’m realizing that while fast songs translate anger better, slow songs have much more doom. Doom is the most dangerous weapon in the heavy metal arsenal.

hey, fairies DO wear boots!

I mentioned drugs as a subject of Paranoid, and it gets two songs as well. “Hand of Doom” is a fairly straightforward song about the dangers of hard drugs, particularly heroin. It’s long and meandering, featuring an extended solo in the middle that has Tony self-indulging, like “Warning” from the previous album. At the cap, there’s “Fairies Wear Boots,” a more subtle treatment of hallucinogens. The fabled story goes that Geezer wrote the lyrics to this after he and Ozzy encountered some skinheads wearing combat boots. Geezer mocks them in the song calling them “fairies.” BS had a tendency to sensationalize themselves, and I have a feeling the skinhead story is simply that. Even a cursory analysis of “Fairies Wear Boots” tells me it’s about drugs, particularly the last 3 lines. “So I went to the doctor to see what he could give me / He said ‘son, son, you’ve gone too far / ‘Cause smokin’ and trippin’ is all that you do.’”

Two of my closest friends are practicing psychologists. One of the things in the shrink’s bag of tricks is the word association game. If a psychologist played that game with me and they said “Metal,” I would have to respond with “Paranoid.” Led Zeppelin are responsible for the genesis of the genre with II, but Black Sabbath wear the metal crown by having the single greatest and most influential statement in metal’s entire history, even to this day. Paranoid did 90% of the work that was started by II and brought it to full fruition by perfectly capturing what it means to be heavy metal, defining that term in a way that’s lasting through the ages. When musical scholars talk about heavy metal, they’re talking about Paranoid.

Paranoid – Black Sabbath – 9/18/1970

Things were barreling along for Black Sabbath since their first album. Black Sabbath didn’t do it for the critics at the time, but it sold well. The band was like lightning, and they did their best to capture that lightning in a bottle with their first two albums. They returned to the studio just a few months after Black Sabbath was released, and they again did a recording at hyper-speed. It was 6 days and Paranoid was ready for the presses.

In 3rd century BCE, the Macedonian author and war strategist Polyaenus wrote an account of Macedonian king Antigonus II Gontanas’ siege on the Greek city of Megara. Antigonus came with an impressive array of war elephants, but they failed because the Megarians outsmarted them by doing a simple but ingenious thing. When the fearsome elephants approached, the Megarians took several pigs, doused them with pitch and resin, lit them all on fire, and sent them out the city gates where they ran pell-mell, screaming and squealing. They ran right into the elephants. Instead of crushing the much smaller animals under their feet, the elephants panicked and fled in terror of the killer pigs, quite often killing the soldiers driving them. Antigonus had to admit that he had lost to a bunch of pigs.

This could be seen as the Little Guy (the Megarians) using pretty ingenious methods to overcome the Big Guy (the Macedonians) who was pushing him around. It’s kind of a cool underdog story, but what about the pigs? Any way you spin it, it pretty much sucks to be them.

From there we go to “War Pigs.” In Black Sabbath’s narrative, the “pigs” are reversed to mean politicians who carelessly and arrogantly send others off to die. BS must have been feeling the injustice of the powerful making unilateral decisions that have no effect on them, but a huge effect on the powerless. But the song was originally about witches and satanic rites, a darker but less sophisticated subject. The original lyrics can be heard on The Ozzman Cometh, a retrospective of Ozzy Osbourne’s solo career released in 1997.

Whereas their record company generally ignored them the first time around, they were slavering dogs for Paranoid. Executives paid it very close attention, meddling only a little in the scope of record companies’ involvement in the creative process. The album was originally supposed to be called War Pigs, but label bigwigs thought that would cause too much controversy about the ongoing Vietnam War. The band members had to be saying, “What’s wrong with controversy? It is about Vietnam!”

The title track comes next, though it almost didn’t exist. Near the end of the recording process, they found they didn’t quite have enough material. They also didn’t have a punchy, radio-friendly single, as the record company reminded them. Tony Iommi started playing a guitar riff, the rest of the band joined in, and Geezer penned lyrics on the spot. “It took twenty, twenty-five minutes from top to bottom,” drummer Bill Ward explained.

Twenty or twenty five minutes to give birth to what is largely thought of to be one of the greatest heavy metal songs of all time. In Finland, its name is even shouted out at concerts, regardless of who’s playing or what style of music is being performed. The riff is one of the easiest guitar licks to play, and the legacy of “Paranoid” has grown so that for nearly every young rock guitarist, this is one of the first songs they learn.

no, not THAT Iron Man… jeez

Amazingly, this album houses yet another iconic and uber-classic metal song, “Iron Man.” When Tony first played the riff for the rest of the band, Ozzy said it sounded “like a big iron bloke walking around.” Lyrics were again written on the fly in the studio, and recording of it couldn’t have taken that long. Again, this is foundational stuff for rock guitarists. In the movie School of Rock, Dewey Finn is introducing classical guitar prodigy Zack to the electric by playing him rock licks and seeing if he can copy them. And what’s the first riff Dewey plays for him? You guessed it.

Tomorrow: can music be evil?

Punks

I’m often frustrated by punk and the punk attitude. I’m cool with rebellion and not following the rules. But the rules need to be bad in order for rebellion against them to be good. So many punks see the enforcement of societal norms to be oppressive, regardless of what those norms actually are. When the question “What are you rebelling against?” is asked, “What’ve you got?” is not a valid response. Wanna hold a Bible study in Communist China? Thumbs up. Don’t like that your parents set a 10:30 curfew? Boo frickin’ hoo. Sit down and stop wasting everybody’s time.

 In 1970, the attitude and aesthetic known as punk didn’t have a name yet. As far as the fashion goes, there were no multi-colored mohawks or safety pin nose-piercings; those things wouldn’t come around for another six years, heralded by the Sex Pistols and The Clash. But the founding principles of disorder, rebellion and misanthropy are to be found on Fun House.

That’s the main reason I like Fun House: it perfectly captures the mindset, attitude and emotional color of an entire movement 6 or 7 years before the movement even existed. It’s the quintessential punk album, but it doesn’t have all that ripped shirts, spiked hair, DIY fashion foolishness.

James Franco as Daniel Desario

There’s a scene from the show Freaks & Geeks where Daniel (played by the indomitable James Franco) is hitting on a convenience store clerk with corpse makeup and a 12-inch high haircut. Putting on airs, he says he’s “a punker,” but she responds with this. “You know what punkers don’t do? Call themselves punkers.” Punks don’t really have a need to prove to everyone that they’re punks. From my own perspective, the same is true for Christians. You don’t need to tell everyone you meet that you have the light of Christ in you; they should be able to see it anyway, if they’re paying attention.

Fun House doesn’t put on any airs. Everything you get from it comes from a place of unflinching honesty, the ugly truth. And sometimes it’s really ugly, like on the song “T.V. Eye.” At first glance, everyone thinks it stands for “Television Eye,” but it doesn’t. Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton’s little sister Kathy and her friends used a term for when guys would stare at them, laughing and saying “he’s got a twat vibe eye on you!” I’m familiar with that look; I think I’m guilty of inadvertently using it one or twice. Mouth open, face relaxed, eyebrows lifted the slightest amount; it’s the 50-yard stare of someone dumbstruck and incapacitated by what they’ve just seen. Iggy thought the phrase was funny, but then he flipped it to say, “hey, girls get the twat vibe eye, too.”

Then comes “Dirt,” a slowed-down number that’s almost hypnotic in its groove. You wouldn’t expect it due to the raging intensity of the first 3 tracks, but the Stooges display exceptional prowess here. Whereas the rest of the album is heavy-handed, “Dirt” is just the opposite. It lulls you into a false sense of security, only to have it dashed with the next song, “1970.” Borrowing its name from the year of Fun House’s release, it’s cursorily akin to the opening song on their first album “1969,” also the year of that album’s release. That’s where the similarities end, though. “1970” is like being beat over the head repeatedly with a shoe. Iggy snarls “I feel alright!” over the chorus; he may, but his voice sounds anything but “alright.” It actually sounds like if he goes on much longer like that, he’ll need surgery.

Steve Mackay w/ the Stooges on sax

“1970,” as well as the next two tracks, features the novel addition of a saxophone. While the sax is historically a part of the jazz tradition, it works here as a source of wildness and cacophony. Jazz, while smoother and subtler, has the same free-form chaos element to it that Fun House uses as its centerpiece. The sax lends even more of an unpredictable air to the album, as if Fun House didn’t already have loads of it.

If you want ugly truth, it doesn’t get any better (or worse) than the last two tracks, “Fun House” and “L.A. Blues.” These two songs are over 12 minutes of chaos and disorder. “Fun House” at least has form and a beat, and actual lyrics. They’re probably improvised by Iggy on the spot, but he says actual words.

That’s more than can be said for “L.A. Blues.” I think it’s nothing more than five people doing their best to destroy their instruments, which includes Iggy and his voice. What you’re meant to get out of these songs, though, is the unbridled joy and wild ecstasy of music, and the complete release it brings. “L.A. Blues,” if you’ll pardon the somewhat base phrase, is a musical orgasm. When the tingling electricity and overwhelming rush have passed, the participants are utterly spent.

Fun House is the sound of a garage band if they were in the final stages of radiation poisoning. There’s vomit, headaches, a seething fever, and a gurgling mass of bile. It might even be a bit much for some punk enthusiasts, and definitely too much for the posers. And I’ll admit it’s not for everyone. But for a dose of messy, unmixed passion and overwhelming force, Fun House is a good place to go.

Thursday: IIII AAAAAMMMM IIRROOONNN MAAAAAAAAANNNN…….

The Stooges – Fun House – 7/7/1970

Let’s be honest: rock and roll is a dirty business.  I try as much as I can to elevate it to its true height, emphasizing its beauty, grace and transcendent nature. But I often forget or ignore that rock has some rough edges. Not even rough, though; sharp, dangerous. If you get a cut from one of them, it could become infected and before you know it your foot is being amputated. Sometimes rock and roll is just a great big pile of crap.

Did that sound negative? It’s not, really. I have to admit that I like the crap of rock and roll at times. It feels good to rub it on my skin, to feel the waste circling back to me, and find that it’s not waste at all. When an animal takes a crap on the ground, the ground is nourished. It doesn’t smell that good, but it takes that crap and says “thank you.” We should all be so grateful.

Wow. I just disgusted myself a little; I can’t imagine how you must be feeling.

Iggy Pop is someone who must understand the excrement nature of rock music better than anyone else. Watching one of his live shows, even archival footage, is like sitting square in the middle of a pit bull’s brain. He’s shirtless, unwashed, sweaty and gross. He leaps around wildly and ungracefully. He spits, growls, shouts and verbally abuses his audience. The climax comes when he unzips his jeans, loosens them a little, then leaps up and down wildly, letting gravity do the rest. Sometimes he’s wearing underwear, sometimes he’s not.

When Fun House came out in 1970, few people knew or cared about Iggy and his band, the Stooges. But just enough people cared that they could operate, release albums, do shows and the like. They were satisfied with that. It took quite some time, but Fun House eventually became one of the most respected albums ever, and if you have even the smallest spark of punk in you, it’s easy to see why.

What do I mean by punk? It’s difficult to explain, but I’ll try. “Punk” has been around much longer than the term or the genre of music it lends its name to. Any time you are being told what to do and not do and you feel the fire of anger in response, that’s punk. In the musical sense, it could be said that punk rock is the boiling down of rock music to its most elemental form, stripping away every added social aspect until what’s essential remains. And what remains is rebellion – often for no apparent reason.

The Stooges’ self-titled first album was relatively tame. It was produced by John Cale of Velvet Underground fame, about a year after he split from that group. Despite a good pedigree, The Stooges didn’t have the grit and grime of their second album, Fun House, and also didn’t capture even an iota of the energy of their live shows. But for Fun House, Don Gallucci was at the helm, and he took a very simple approach: just let them play and get in on tape.

Consequentially, Fun House has an untamed and dangerous tone from the first seconds of the lead-off track. Lyrically, “Down On the Street” is pretty clumsily written, as all Stooges songs are. It wasn’t until Iggy teamed up with David Bowie and went solo that “real” lyrics emerged. “Down On the Street” is about an acid trip, but the real gold is in the music. Iggy hoots and growls like a caged animal, and his voice has a primal, untreated quality to it. Then the chorus comes, the cage disappears and the animal is loose.

“Loose” is also the name of the very next song. It continues the wild and dangerous musical motif that is present for most of Fun House. It’s hard to miss the meaning of “I’ll stick it deep inside.” As the chorus declares in forceful tones, Iggy is indeed loose; loose on your daughters, on your morals, and on the youth of America. Protect your family! The Stooges will destroy the very fabric of our society!

Oh, come on; who doesn’t love moral panic jokes?

Tomorrow: what is a T.V. eye?

Mother Mary

My own novelization of Let It Be might center on Paul, John and Yoko and the triangle of love/hate there, but that certainly wasn’t the only thing going on. Over the course of Beatles history, what commonly happened was John and Paul getting all the attention, both because of their individual brilliance and their feud. Because of that, George and Ringo get pushed to the side. Ringo seemed fine with that, but it had to be a disappointing thing for George.

He did actually have contributions to make, and he made them. Sgt. Pepper would have been very different (and not even close to as great) had “Within You Without You” not been there; it’s the peaceful eye that the storm of the album revolves around. Likewise, Let It Be would be incomplete without a word (or two) from George.

The first is “I Me Mine.” The popular theory is that George wrote it about Paul’s increasing control over the Beatles, and his troubling obsession with himself. The second is “For You Blue,” a bluesy ditty that’s both simple and beautiful. The whole thing follows the I-IV-V pattern, commonly called a twelve bar blues. George wrote it for his wife Patty Boyd.

Patty Boyd w/ George

If you wanna talk about love triangles, there’s one that’s even better than the Paul/John/Yoko one, and that’s George/Patty/Eric.  George Harrison and Eric Clapton were best friends; Eric played lead guitar on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in ’68, and George played rhythm guitar on Cream’s “Badge” in ’69, co-writing the song with Eric. Patty, in the course of time, was married to both of them. At the time that “For You Blue” was released, George and Patty had been married for 4 years, and Eric was desperately, pathetically and devastatingly in love with Patty. This produced the album Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs from Derek & the Dominos later in the year. I’ll talk more about the Patty Chronicle when I cover Layla.

Right smack in the middle of the album, there what I think would have been a very fitting closing song to both the album and the Beatles’ career in general. The song “Let It Be” is gentle and melancholy. The lyrics speak of letting things go and moving on with a smile, and learning what you can from experiences. On Let It Be… Naked, Paul resequenced the album, and put the title song last.

My mom hates “Let It Be.” The mention of “Mother Mary” and the fact that she “comes” to the listener (as if in a dream), is something she finds laughable and ridiculous. Personally, I tend to agree with her about Mary. I don’t want to speak ill of Catholic traditions, since Catholicism is something I respect deeply, but I’ve never understood the deification and worship of Mary. The Bible warns up down and sideways against idol worship – it didn’t work out too well for the Israelites in Exodus, for instance. As far as I understand it (and any Catholic can feel free to correct me), the logic is that since Jesus is sinless, his mother must also be sinless, thus Mary is of equal standing to Jesus, and is worshipped. The problem I see with that is that Mary’s mother must also be sinless, and her mother, and HER mother, and so on. How many sinless people can there BE, for crying out loud??

Anyway, if “Mother Mary” actually referred to the mother of Jesus, I would agree with my mom; but it doesn’t.  Paul wrote “Mother Mary” to mean his mother, whose name was actually Mary. He must have thought the double meaning was pretty cool, but John didn’t. He thought the Christian overtones and the obviousness of them to be beneath the Beatles. He did two things about it. First, he recorded a snippet of him saying in a mocking voice “and now we’d like to do ‘Hark, the Angles Come!’” just before the recording of “Let It Be,” and made sure it got on the album. Second, he also made sure “Maggie Mae” got on the album, too, and immediately followed “Let It Be.” “Maggie Mae” is a traditional piece, the unofficial anthem of the Beatles’ hometown, Liverpool. The central character in the song is a prostitute who steals from her johns.

For the Beatles, the end really came earlier, and was signaled by the song “The End,” the penultimate track on Abbey Road. It may have come out 7 months before what was arguably their “last” album,” but the material on Abbey Road was recorded after all the stuff on Let It Be. So in reality, Abbey Road is their “last” album; Let It Be is merely a look back. However, that look back is quite the look.

Farewell, Beatles; you served us well.

The Story of the Beatles and Let It Be is one I can really get into. It’s drama that’s perfectly crafted, like a good play or movie. It has several strong characters, a man vs. man conflict, a very compelling MacGuffin (or series of MacGuffins, being the albums Get Back, Abbey Road, and Let It Be), and a kind of resolution. It even has a fake ending. Peter Jackson would be proud.

Like it or not, that story revolves around the tension between John and Paul. For a long time, that tension served them well – one acted as a foil for the other. Their pessimism/optimism thing worked in a paradigm quite nicely, most notably in the song “Getting Better.” But the problem was that as people change, paradigms change as well. At a certain point, that tension between them turned from a simple paradigm to an actual conflict. They never wrote songs together anymore, and that element of give-and-take was gone from both their songwriting and their personal relationship.

Quite poignantly, we have a chronicle of the disintegration of the John and Paul bond (and thus the disintegration of the Beatles) in Let It Be. Abbey Road was their swan song, but Let It Be revealed why that swan song had to come about in the first place.

It starts off with audio footage from the rooftop concert; John saying some nonsense to introduce a song (“Two of Us” on the record, but something else in the actual concert). You can try to figure out who “Charles Hawtrey” is, how this is “phase one,” or what it means for “Doris [to] get[s] her oats.” Honestly, I don’t think it’s worth it. In the end, that doesn’t get you any more results that just smiling and saying, “oh, John, you so crazy…”

“Two of Us,” was written by Paul McCartney, supposedly about his near-future wife Linda. Beatles fans the world over interpret it as being about John and Paul, though. That’s helped along by the fact that, except for one line in the bridge, the whole thing is a duet between John and Paul. What seals the deal for me is the line, “You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead.” It’s a rather melancholy testament of a friendship that has a lot of mileage on it. It’s been stretched and warped, smashed and battered, but despite everything, it’s still holding on.

Next up is a beautiful and tender moment from John, a simple guitar piece with little adornment called “Across the Universe.” As with most pieces of great art, John acknowledges that he can’t lay complete claim to its ownership. Here’s what he said on the matter.

Cynthia Lennon, John’s first wife

“I was lying next to my first wife in bed and I was thinking. It started off as a negative song and she must have been going on and on about something. She’d gone to sleep and I kept hearing, ‘Words are flowing out like endless streams…’ I was a bit irritated and I went downstairs and it turned into a sort of cosmic song rather than, ‘Why are you always mouthing off at me?’… The words are purely inspirational and were given to me – except for maybe one or two where I had to resolve a line or something like that. I don’t own it; it came through like that.”

The song’s lyrics are the most poetic John has ever written. They represent a moment where the entire cosmos clicked into perfect order for John, and for a second, he understood everything. Then, the moment was gone, and all he had was the memory, which he made into a song. Good thing he did, too, because now we as listeners can have the same experience of the entire universe making absolute sense when we listen to it.

The phrase “Jai guru deva om” from the lyrics is a Sanskrit saying. It is most commonly paraphrased in English as “victory to God divine,” and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi commonly invoked this phrase meaning “all glory to Guru Dev,” referring to his spiritual teacher. But I find the literal and dry translation to English to be the most beautiful: “glory to the shining remover of darkness.” This is a marvelous statement about the God I know as an illuminator, a gracious giver of knowledge and understanding.

I’ll also mention Fiona Apple’s marvelous cover version. It’s pretty different from the original; it employs some mechanized techno beats and electronic motifs. Fiona’s vocal delivery is slow and spacey, emphasizing the childlike wonder to be found in the lyrics; that combined with the trip-hop music create something new and exciting. I think John would like Fiona’s cover very much.

Also beautiful (if a little cloying) is “The Long and Winding Road.” Paul’s tendency to tip over into the sentimental is in play here, but it’s completely forgivable in this setting. After all, the Beatles were dead, and their fans all dressed in 7 shades of black. Where’s the harm in a little bittersweet nostalgia? The “long and winding road” the song speaks of most easily matches up to the road the Beatles’ took, the crazy journey they went on since John and Paul first got together with their guitars as teenagers. The song is important, if for no other reason, because it moved every mourning Beatles fan from the Depression stage of grief to the Acceptance stage. They go from thinking, “there’s no point in carrying on” to, “farewell, Beatles; you served us well.”

Producer Phil Spector, genius though he was, added unnecessary window-dressings to “The Long a Winding Road” and “Across the Universe.” Orchestral swells and dramatic embellishments work on some songs, but they only interfere with the beauty and grace inherent here. Pure and simple versions can be heard on Let It Be… Naked, Paul McCartney’s 2003 version of Let It Be that preserves the original spirit of the Get Back sessions. By subtracting what Spector added, they lend more grace and wonder to what was already great.

More on Let It Be on Friday!

The Beatles started out that rooftop concert with “Get Back,” followed immediately by another run-thru of the same song. It’s a driving and catchy ditty with great guitar moments. Like a lot of Beatles songs, the lyrical interpretation is pretty loose. I don’t think Paul wrote with specific persons or situations in mind, but things could have been going on subconsciously that came out in the lyrics. Fans talk out of their asses all the time saying “Jojo is really John Lennon” or “Loretta is really Yoko Ono” or “Paul was looking at Yoko every time he sang ‘get back to where you once belonged.’” While that’s a case of fans creating things that probably weren’t there, I do think there was probably something  churning under the surface, as is fitting the Paul pattern.

After two versions of “Get Back” comes “Don’t Let Me Down.” Even though it wasn’t included on Let It Be, it deserves a quick mention here. It’s yet another chronicle of John’s sexual preoccupation with Yoko, but less adolescent than “Happiness is a Warm Gun.”  It’s sweeter, too, and reveals that John’s a colossal romantic sap. While John and Yoko’s relationship wasn’t particularly healthy, they enjoyed an extremely intimate connection and had a passion that a lot of couples could learn from.

After that comes “I’ve Got a Feeling,” a rapturous, soul-filled number. Paul sings like a southern Baptist preacher filled with the Holy Spirit, jittering in a seizure-like spasm. George’s guitar matches him, his notes seeming to quiver with passion. John even contributes, interjecting his own lyrics over Paul’s chords right in the middle. As the song fades out, John and Paul are singing their own individual lyrics to make a pretty gorgeous soup. It reminds me of the “Hard Day’s Night” years, when their collaboration was a wondrous thing to behold. The lyrics are pretty unspecific, but I think “I’ve Got a Feeling” is one of the most spiritual songs the Beatles ever did. It taps into something wild and free, something unknowable.

Next comes a blast of glorious blues, noisy and reckless, filled with smiling abandon. “One After 909” is a song written by John and Paul when that wondrous collaboration was first beginning, when the Beatles were still the Quarrymen. It had been kicking around since then, and was even recorded back in the Please Please Me days, being scrapped shortly after. Finally, it saw the light of day on Let It Be. I don’t think the Beatles were really intending for it to be one of the new Get Back songs, but were enjoying playing live again and the spontaneity it yields.

“Dig a Pony” is next, a song with meaningless lyrics that, as John put it, “sound good together.” I remember one moment from a documentary that’s stuck with me. It’s from the film Imagine: John Lennon that came out in 1988, chronicling the making of John Lennon’s second solo album, Imagine. Like the album that gives it its name, the film is an incredibly honest glimpse into John’s inner workings, personality, and work habits.

The moment: John recorded the album secluded in a mansion off in the forest, and a Lennon fanatic made his way to that very house. He was dirty, unshaven, shabbily dressed, and a little crazy. John and Yoko met him in the driveway, and there they had a discussion/argument with him in which it really came to bear that John was not all the things his fans expected him to be. This was something John had struggled with ever since he became famous, his public persona being something that he couldn’t quite control. This fan quoted some lyrics from “Dig a Pony,” citing them as inspirational and life-changing. John shook his head in dismay and said, “It’s just words! Words that sound good together!” Clearly, the fan was incredibly disappointed in the man who, until a few seconds ago, had been his idol. The scene ends with John inviting him inside for a bite to eat.

Next comes a snippet of “God Save the Queen,” yet another example of the Beatles being energized and a little giddy at the anything-goes live setting they were in. Then just comes more versions of “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “Don’t Let Me Down” and “Get Back.” The police then promptly shut them down.

Thursday: “glory to the shining remover of darkness.”