Category: The Beatles


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.”

The Beatles – Let It Be – 5/8/1970

January 30th, 1969. It was chilly and damp; not rainy, but there was a dreary moistness to the air like there always is in January in London. It was noon, lunch time, when the four Beatles emerged from the hatch in the roof of 3 Savile Row, the Apple Corps headquarters. With them was a cadre of crew, both sound and film, as well as producers and engineers. Yoko was looking down to the street, and John was plugging in. He was visibly cold, so Yoko lent him her fur coat. Amused by this, Ringo also donned his wife Maureen’s red mac. They tuned up and did a few sound checks, then went right into “Get Back.”

It was about noon, coinciding with lunch hour for the lawyers and accountants populating the buildings surrounding Apple headquarters. This idea for a live, unannounced concert to premiere their new material – and simultaneously record their new album – had been around for awhile. Some grand locations were thrown around, like a peak in the Himalayas and even the moon. But in the end, they didn’t feel like hauling all their stuff around, so they just went upstairs instead. After only 42 minutes (not enough time to perform all the new stuff), the police intervened and shut the concert down.

The sessions and rehearsal for the Get Back album in the closing months of 1968 were fraught with disaster. Personal and professional problems reared their ugly heads around nearly every corner. The egos of all four Beatles had grown to mythic proportions. The capstone was when John insisted that Yoko, whom he had married only a few months before, was to be physically with him at all times. His rationale was that Yoko was a part of him now, in every sense of the phrase.

After the experience of The White Album in which each of the band members had functioned almost independently, nobody was willing to work for the greater good. There was no compromise, no give-and-take, and no understanding. In truth, they weren’t really a band anymore; the Beatles were over.

After that rooftop concert, Get Back was scrapped. The concert idea hadn’t really panned out seeing as they hadn’t gotten enough good material on tape to construct a full album. That lark on the Apple rooftop would prove to be the final public performance that all four Beatles would give together – they broke up just a few months later, but not before recording a one-last-hurrah album of new new material, called Abbey Road.

It quite often seems impossible and unthinkable to me, but the entirety of the Beatles’ meteoric rise to the absolute pinnacle of pop stardom and then their implosion and sad demise… took 8 years. While they were together, they released 11 albums of new material, a bevy of singles, and were without a doubt bigger than sliced bread and the wheel combined (though not Jesus). No band today could accomplish all that in less than 20 years; the Beatles did it in 8. Hell, some bands don’t release 3 albums in 8 years!

I’m not done. Adding amazement to amazement, the Beatles even released an album of original material after they had broken up. And it wasn’t “unreleased studio material” or “archival studio footage,” leftovers and snippets never meant to see the light of day assembled piecemeal by some studio hotshot in an effort to squeeze the last tiny drop of milk from that dried-up, crusty teat. What became Let It Be was the pieces of an almost-album that didn’t quite make it to release. All it took was impresario producer Phil Spector to swoop in and finish what the Fab Four had started; it turned out to be one of their best, most enduring releases. Even the wasted ashes of the former Beatles are beautiful; they just need the right lighting.

Back in the 60s – the middle part of the decade in particular – you could only be on one of two sides: the Beatles, or the Rolling Stones. There was no crossover, and fans of one passionately hated the other. Both were British, both were composed of young, white heartthrobs, and both played rock and roll, a form of music that had only been birthed in the public consciousness about 10 years ago. To a casual observer not deeply invested in the struggle, it was hard to tell the two apart.

Of course, that was only true for a relative sliver of the population. To hear my parents tell it, those people were crazy. Which side did my mom or my dad land on? Neither; they both liked the Beach Boys.

Fast-forward approximately 30 years. Now in the latter half of the 90s, you could only be on one of two sides: The Backstreet Boys, or NSYNC. There was no crossover, and fans of one passionately hated the other. Both were American, both were composed of young, white heartthrobs (though “young” is a relative term), and both played teen pop, a form of music that was totally corporate-minded and money-hungry, and created by record company executives and image marketers rather than musicians. To a casual observer not deeply invested in the struggle, it was hard to tell the two apart. Sound familiar?

Here’s the thing: with the Beatles/Stones struggle, one could hear differences in their sound and character. The Stones from day one were more blues-based than the Beatles, who were more pop. Also, the Stones appealed to a rougher breed of teenager, one who drank, swore and disobeyed their parents. But with the BSB/NSYNC war, there was absolutely no difference. Not in their music, their lyrics, their look, their composition (five guys, none of whom plays instruments), their marketing tactics, or the character of their fans. It’s like telling the difference between Hutu and Tutsi, or between Amish and Mennonite. They don’t exactly wear a sign.

And which side did I land on in the epic Battle of the Boy Bands? Neither; to start with, their music didn’t appeal to me at all. To finish with, I found the way the boy band machine duped teenage girls around the world into spilling out all their disposable income to be morally repugnant.

But after the smoke cleared, there still stood the actual members of those boy bands, one of whom went on to become a very successful actor (and a darn good one at that). While there’s a jumbo jet’s worth of blame to be handed out here, the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC themselves probably deserve the least of it. The same is true for the Rolling Stones. Not only did they break away rather quickly from their teen heartthrob beginnings, but they evolved into a real band that made real music. In short order, their music didn’t even resemble its recent past.

1967, a year of incredible upheaval in American culture, saw the release of Sgt. Pepper from the Beatles, and Their Satanic Majesties Request from the Stones (ironic, I know, that both of them are British, not American). While one is a landmark album that tops nearly every magazine’s list, the other is really for Stones completists only. Both bear a psychedelic and boundary-pushing aesthetic, but Satanic Majesties is considered by many to be a lame answer to the success of Sgt. Pepper, despite that the Stones were already recording Satanic Majesties when Sgt. Pepper came out, and that it’s an intriguing record in its own right and undeserving of so much scorn.

By the end of 1968, after many court cases for Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones, the Stones had left the extreme direction-shift of Satanic Majesties behind them and returned to their roots. While the Beatles were breaking down, the Rolling Stones were finally getting rolling.

Bad pun, I know. Forty lashes.

New Year’s Eve, 1968. In the hills above L.A., some people are gathered around a campfire when a bearded man among them explains that a war between blacks and whites in America is coming. More than that, the people around the campfire are going to start that war. More than that, the people around the campfire will not only be saved from this war, but will come out on top once the war is over. More than that, this war has been prophesied, and the prophets are speaking directly to the people around the campfire in a coded message.

The bearded man: Charles Manson. The people around the campfire: the Manson Family. The prophets: the Beatles. The coded message: The White Album.

Manson called this race war “Helter Skelter,” after the Beatles song. It’s quite appropriate, because a “helter skelter,” in British slang, is a descent, usually pretty rapid and dramatic. Under Manson’s prediction, the whites would have a descent (being exterminated by the blacks), and then the blacks (being exterminated by the Manson family). In a larger sense, Manson meant “helter skelter” to mean that (pardon my French), “shit was gonna go down” – and Manson and his followers were going to start it.

But the most bizarre, freak-out thing in this entire scenario – aside from the brutal and devilish murders of Sharon Tate and company – is that Manson took his walking orders from The White Album. Manson believed – and his followers believed – that the Beatles were speaking directly and exclusively to them in subtle messages laced all over The White Album. Every song had a significance that applied only to Manson and his “family.” Among the more interesting ones:

“Blackbird” – Black people are going to “arise” and slaughter the whites.

“Rocky Raccoon” – “Coon” is a pejorative term for a black person, so Rocky is black. Rocky’s “revival” meant that black people were going to come into power soon. Further, the prominence of “Gideon’s Bible” in the song – more specifically the line “Gideon checked out” – meant that the entire scenario was told about in the book of Revelation.

“Revolution 1” – In the lyric “When you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out,” John includes a subtle “in” right after he sings the word “out.” This indicates – in reality – that John was actually undecided whether revolution was needed or not. In Manson’s mind, this indicated that the Beatles all favored violent revolution, but had to keep silent because they were on a “peace-and-love trip.”

“Happiness is a Warm Gun” – Black people are supposed to arm themselves with guns for violent revolution.

Linda Kasabian, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Susan “Sadie Mae” Atkins

“Sexy Sadie” – A reference to Manson follower Susan Atkins, who had been redubbed Sadie Mae Glutz even before The White Album had come out.

“Revolution 9” – Many things. Despite the fact that it’s a musical collage and thus has no lyrics, Manson thought he heard John shout “rise!” in several places (John was actually saying “right!”). The repeated words “number 9” are a reference to the ninth chapter of Revelation, which is when the “locusts” are released to torment mankind for five months. Also, Manson believed George was saying “Charlie, Charlie, send us a telegram,” which Manson and the other family members tried to do. In one section of the track, George actually does say something about a telegram.

“Honey Pie,” “I Will,” “Don’t Pass Me By,” and “Yer Blues” – The Beatles were searching and calling for Jesus Christ (because they love him). Manson had a huge Jesus Christ complex, believing himself to be the second coming of the man. Thus, the Beatles were calling for Charles Manson himself to join them in London. Manson family members were trying to get a message to the Beatles telling them to join Manson in Death Valley.

“Helter Skelter” – The whole thing in miniature. In the lyric “she’s comin’ down fast,” “she” would be America, and the “comin’ down” refers to the race war that the country will soon descend into. The song also contains a reference to the Manson family emerging from their supposed Death Valley underground hideout, which Manson called the Bottomless Pit (a reference to Revelation chapter 9).

 With his “The White Album is forecasting the future” thing, Manson is creating what’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy. He wants it to be true, so he’s going to make it true. Fortunately for everyone except Sharon Tate and the others who happened to be there the night of August 8th, he never got to. Manson, like the true megalomaniac he is, also thought the entire White Album was directed exclusively at him, that the Beatles were purposefully trying to tell him something in code. Once again, because he wanted it to be true, it was.

Let’s hope I can make this next comparison without being drawn and quartered by my fellow Christians.

Charles Manson started with a supposition and then found support for it in The White Album, despite the fact that support simply wasn’t there. Through creative arranging and sheer force of will, he made it say something that it just doesn’t say. He did the opposite of what scholars and seekers of truth do. He arrogantly supposed that his truth was more important than the truth his source (in this case The White Album) was trying to convey.

Is this not very similar to what we sometimes do with the Bible? The Bible, by the admission of the apostle Paul, was meant to teach us, rebuke us, correct us and train us (2 Timothy 3:16). It is NOT meant to be used as an irrational justification for what we already think. Yet this is what so many Christians do. They start with a firmly held belief that comes from themselves, search the Bible for a verse or passage that seems, without context, to support it, and then claim that that firmly held belief is biblical. This is NOT how we should read the Bible; we should actually do the opposite, as in start with the text, then earnestly seek the truth contained therein, and let your firmly held beliefs be formed and shaped by that truth.

We’ve seen it over and over again. “Hey, it’s not me; it’s the Bible.” The subjugation of women has “biblical” support, according to some complemetarians. Creationism has “biblical” support (and evolution suffers “biblical” refutation), according to hardline fundamentalists. And countless pastors have written books saying they have the key to a “biblical” marriage. You can find support in the Bible for any opinion you want.

In my mind, this is very similar to what Charles Manson did with The White Album. However, there are two notable differences. One is that Christians don’t use the Bible to support murder. Another – and one that makes what some Christians do even worse than what Charles Manson did – is that it’s easy to argue with The White Album. It’s much more perilous to argue with the Bible.

I’ll leave you with that.

The White Album is an exercise in “kitchen sink” mentality, being that during its production, the Beatles threw everything they could think of at it, including the kitchen sink. After “Revolution 1” comes the second cheesiest song on the entire album, “Honey Pie.” It’s a tribute to British music hall of the 19th and early 20th century. It even features crackles from a 78 RPM record in the intro. This song doesn’t appeal to me. Not only am I too far removed from the music hall era for the homage to work nostalgia in my ears, but it’s so heavy-handed that it just comes off as cheap.

George makes his final appearance as vocalist and songwriter on “Savoy Truffle.” It was written about George’s dear friend Eric Clapton, who both guest starred on guitar on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and was simultaneously pining hopelessly away for George’s wife, Patty Boyd. But “Savoy Truffle isn’t about any of that; it’s about Eric’s love of sweets. About 50%of the lyrics are directly derived from a box of Mackintosh’s Good News chocolates. Clapton is a passionate man, and his passions translated directly into addictions: for chocolate, for sex, for drugs, and for romance. He was a man that was truly at the complete mercy of his vices. “Savoy Truffle” is just about one of those vices, but can be viewed as a character study of Eric Clapton in miniature.

Interpretations of “Cry Baby Cry” are few, and most are met with the furrowed brow of skepticism. My own is somewhat lame, but here it is. The King, Queen, Duke and Duchess, all being adults, do things that the children think are ridiculous, and the behavior of the children makes the adults “sigh.” It puts the dissension between the generations that was so prevalent in the late 60s (see Bookends by Simon & Garfunkel) in fantasy and allegorical words.

the “cry baby” from TV’s Firefly

Interesting geek side note. In Joss Whedon’s stupendous but short-lived sci-fi TV series Firefly, there is a device the crew of smuggling ship Serenity uses to distract government ships from their presence by sending out a fake distress signal from the opposite direction. It’s called a Cry Baby. To order its use, Captain Reynolds radios the pilot and says, “Cry baby cry,” to which Wash the pilot responds, “Make your mother sigh!” It probably flies by a lot of people, but I always notice it.

After “Cry Baby Cry” comes the secret song that’s appended to it, called by most fans “Can You Take Me Back.” Then comes “Revolution 9” and its 8 and a half minutes of strangeness. Finally, The White Album comes to a close with “Good Night.” It’s right in front of “Honey Pie” as the cheesiest song on here, purposefully made so by John. It features Ringo’s second turn as lead vocalist, which fits the maudlin feel. John wrote “Good Night” as a lullaby for Julian, though it’s mostly the work of producer George Martin. He made the orchestration full-bodied and incredibly over the top, like a Golden Age of Hollywood musical number. And with that, the White Album is over.

As you can see, John and Paul are taking a wide scatter-shot approach with this record. In a way, it’s very disjointed, jumping from one style to the next and to the next in a wild, unpredictable fashion. It may seem like disjointedness at times, but the real genius of The White Album comes when you take a few steps back and look at the entire picture. This is the first album (and there have only been a few since) that has a “kitchen sink” mentality, truly counting nothing as an impossibility. The vast majority of musicians limit themselves to what they can do well and what is comfortable for them. This is not a bad thing; I don’t say to Lady Gaga or the Kings of Leon, “you didn’t make the White Album, so why’d you even bother?” But the fact that the logical standard for an album is fairly limited makes albums like The White Album even more remarkable. The Beatles dared to stretch themselves beyond their apparent capacity and found that they hadn’t even hit the ceiling yet. Just by itself, that’s inspiring.

Tomorrow: Charlie Manson’s crazy-talk

1 and 9

The Beatles’ retreat to India didn’t mean they were insulated from the happenings of the world. Early 1968 saw not only the march on the American Embassy in the U.K. because of the Vietnam War, but also other major acts of protest around the world. The Beatles were never a band to get into politics or activism; “Taxman” was the extent of their political commenting, and George only wrote that because of how the government affected him directly. But John thought it was time for them to cease their silence. As the biggest band in the world, people were looking to them for a voice, whether they wanted to be that voice or not.

Nowadays, rock musicians of every stripe are airing their unqualified opinions on wars and presidents to the point where it’s “unhip” to not do so. Anti-war stances are a matter of course, and the more vocal the better. For whatever reason, rock and roll has always been the music of the anti-establishment, the rebels. All too often, that means people are standing against authority not because they disagree with anything specific, but merely to have something, anything to stand against; authority just happens to have a target painted on it. As time went by and rock musicians became more distant and removed from everyday society, that activism didn’t decrease; it increased. So now we have rockers talking loudly about an issue and knowing very little about it. More than that, rock musicians are expected to take the anti-government, anti-establishment position. When they don’t, things get ugly.

When the Beatles released “Revolution” as a single slightly before The White Album came out, there was naturally some fervor. One would think by the title that it was a rallying call for the end of “the War,” but it was actually a stinging indictment of people who use anti-war activism as a different means for destruction. Many on the political left saw “Revolution” as a betrayal. What they miss is that despite some biting language, it has a very positive message. John’s rationale behind the chorus of “Y’know it’s gonna be alright” was that God is in control of all things, and it will all work out in the end.

John thought it was time the Beatles spoke up, but Paul wasn’t so sure, and was hesitant to spark controversy, which he knew “Revolution” would do. When John said he wanted it to be a single, Paul sided with George in saying it was too slow, to which John responded in kind by recording a version that was fast, aggressive and single-worthy. Paul and George couldn’t argue with that. The original, which was bluesy and soft-sung, was retitled “Revolution 1” and remained as an album track. It was also separated from its musique concrete second part, which was expanded and dubbed “Revolution 9.”

what's with the bunny?

Now, thanks to Wikipedia, I know that musique concrete is an established recording style (I can’t call it a “musical style;” though some may disagree with me, it’s not music), but I haven’t heard anything other than “Revolution 9” which is called musique concrete. There’s probably something to get, but I don’t get it. It eludes me, and I’m pretty sure I’m not losing anything by being eluded. Listen to the track and you’ll see what I mean.

On Sunday: George writes a song chiding Eric Clapton about his love for… chocolates?

Facebook has a feature that notifies you when today is the birthday of one of your friends. In the morning, if there’s anyone who’s celebrating the anniversary of their entering into the world, I post on their wall a link to a YouTube video that I have bookmarked. It’s a silly, ridiculous Flash music video to the Beatles song “Birthday.” I’ve become rather dissatisfied with just posting the words “happy birthday” on someone’s wall and leaving it at that; my reasoning is “everybody does that, and I wanna be different.” Here’s a place where my desire to be different merely for the sake of it has good results, because it will almost assuredly bring a smile to someone else’s face.

Right after the exuberant burst that is “Birthday,” the second half of The White Album goes into the second true blues John offering, aptly called “Yer Blues.” John wails that he’s lonely and that he wants to die like any blues singer should. It doesn’t end there, though. The song also has an extra beat during one measure of the chorus, setting it just slightly off-balance.

The Dirty Mac

It’s worth mentioning the Dirty Mac here. That’s a supergroup that formed for one night only to perform “Yer Blues” and a jam called “Whole Lotta Yoko.” It consisted of John Lennon on vocals and guitar, Eric Clapton on lead, Keith Richards on bass, and Mitch Mitchell on drums. John put them together for the celebrity-studded Rolling Stones TV special Rock and Roll Circus. The Dirty Mac is an example of a philosophy I try to live my life by: be aware of moments, enjoy them, and let them pass. Some moments are like wild birds that can’t be caged – they’re feather are just too bright. (shout-out to my boy Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption)

“Mother Nature’s Son” is about a lecture the Maharishi gave while the Beatles were in India. The whole song boils down to “Paul likes nature;” it is pretty, though.

Then comes “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey.” This wins the award for the Beatles song with the longest title. I was recently at a New Year’s Eve party thrown by my wife’s parents. Franz, one of their friends, told me a story of a professor he had in college who was obsessed with the Beatles, and defied his students to ask a Beatles-related question that would stump him. If they succeeded, he would give them some reward, like changing their lowest quiz score to a 100% or something. Anyway, Franz did it with the longest Beatles song title. He was very impressed that I guessed right with “Monkey.” If I was that professor’s student, it would be really cool if he taught something I’m horrible at so I could coast through on my Beatles knowledge alone.

The Beatles with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

In “Sexy Sadie,” originally titled “Maharishi,” John unleashes all his vitriol from the India experience, namely his disillusionment with the Maharishi himself. Sometimes I think their trip to Rishikesh was less of a spiritual awakening and more of a soap opera.  The main beef was that John believed (at the time) that Yogi had made sexual advances to more than one woman at the retreat. John even confronted the Maharashi about it, to which he responded simply, “I am only human.” Not exactly damning evidence, but not a denial either. “Maharishi” was written right when John got back to England. He demoed it for the other Beatles, apparently with different and much angrier lyrics. George insisted that if it was included on the album, it have a different title, to which John agreed.

The next song, “Helter Skelter,” is another pinnacle for the Beatles, being their hardest and most metal-like song. It stands out very starkly not only on The White Album, but in Paul’s songwriting altogether. Just think about other Paul songs on the White Album: “Martha My Dear,” “Honey Pie,” “I Will,” “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “Rocky Raccoon.” They’re all cutesy and upbeat. Then, factor in some of Paul’s other work: “Hold Me Tight,” “All My Loving,” “Here, There and Everywhere,” “Hello, Goodbye,” “P.S. I Love You,” “The Long and Winding Road.” Seeing a pattern? Paul wanted to prove (not sure to whom, but probably to himself, chiefly) that he could write a song outside the scope of a ballad, a song that was the utter opposite of a “silly love song.”

Helter skelter” means in British slang “confused” or “confusedly,” and is also a falling from a high place to a low. The fall of the Roman Empire is a good example. It’s also a popular British spiraling slide amusement park ride. I think Paul did a pretty good job; “Helter Skelter” adds a new dimension to an otherwise pretty tame band volume-wise.

We’re on the third side, so a George song is nearly perfunctory. Also perfunctory is the actual third George song, called “Long, Long, Long.” Too quiet in the beginning, too inconsistent throughout, and tuneless on the whole, it’s a wholly forgettable moment.

I imagine you’re spitting out your drinks that I haven’t mentioned Charles Manson yet. Don’t worry, I will.

Get it? I will? “I Will?” …Anybody? Is this thing on?

In our exploration of The White Album, we come again to George. His side two offering, “Piggies,” is a baroque-esque tune (kitchen sink, much?). It features a riff played on a harpsichord, and the song has cutting and satirical lyrics. The term “piggies” refers to the rich, not to the police. “Pig” as a pejorative term for a policeman has been around since the 19th century, though it rose in popularity during the 60s and 70s among the anti-establishment movement. For the most part, though, it’s an American term. Here, much is made of the ridiculous and harmful behavior of the corporate-minded. It’s even a little violent, though the line “what they need’s a damn good whacking” was added by George’s mother. The song uses a mocking tone both lyrically and musically, even having John make pig snort sounds at points. Frankly, it’s hard to take seriously.

Speaking of hard to take seriously, the next song is “Rocky Raccoon.” It’s even sillier than ”Piggies” and has much less serious subject matter. Here’s another instance of Paul talking out his ass. It’s about a cowboy (honestly) named Rocky Raccoon, who’s named that simply because Paul thought it sounded like a cowboy name. Once again, a lot of the things I don’t like about Paul’s songwriting coalesce into one incredibly infectious tune. Like with so many other Paul songs, it just wore me down. It’s the Oreos all over again.

Another irritating/endearing quality of Paul’s songs is at work in “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?” Going to India must have been a singularly huge experience for all four Beatles. They must have seen and experienced things they wouldn’t get in any other time or place. Such occasions are simply bursting with potential art for the right mind. John wrote many songs based on his time in India, and so did Paul. But while John wrote about a plea for a friend to rejoin the living and the destruction of nature, Paul wrote about monkeys screwing.

The lyrics of “In the Road” don’t actually take us by surprise considering its dunderheaded title and near-complete lack of lyrics that aren’t in the title. But as is commonly the case with Paul, it’s not about the song but the song-craft. The music and the vocals more than make up for the lack of other elements. I really don’t know why; it’s nothing more than a 12 bar blues repeated 3 times. Against all odds, it gets under my skin with alarming speed, and I can’t help but sing along at the top of my lungs (provided no one is listening, of course).

The sole Ringo moment comes between “Rocky” and “In the Road” with “Don’t Pass Me By.” It’s a pleasant surprise. Most other songs with Ringo on lead vocal are cute and harmless at best, groan-inducing at worst. But here, Ringo puts on a pretty good show. Even more impressive is that it’s the first completely Ringo-penned song the Beatles released. Maybe that was all he needed, to take the reins and have total control.

John with his mum Julia

“I Will” and “Julia” close out the first side, two tender love songs from Paul and John respectively. Paul writes a heart-warming yet exciting pop tune with “I Will” that features some great guitar work. “Julia” is the only Beatles song that John recorded completely on his own with no involvement from the other Beatles. It’s a tribute to his mother who died when John was 17. In a naked and unguarded moment, which was rare from John until Plastic Ono Band, I think he’s trying to explain his relationship with Yoko to the spirit of his mother. John was always very close to his mother, and I think her death changed him into the person we’re all familiar with. Had she not died at that crucial time in his life, we would indeed have seen a very different John, the Beatles, and music history in general.

On Wednesday: can you imagine Paul as a heavy metal rocker?