Very scattered thoughts on The Beatles
I’m watching the “Get Back” documentary, more slowly than everyone else on earth because I find it almost impossible these days to sit still long enough to watch a screen for long unless I’m typing things into it.
First off, this is totally wrong.
I guess that’s a predictable end if you’ve gone off the deep end as the author clearly had. But only a trivial fan of music says ‘no’ to the opportunity to watch musicians he admires in the workshop, which is what this doc is.
I’m a little more than two thirds in. Some observations and moments.
A parenthetical thing, to try to make sense of how I can think at the same time what I think generally about the cultural revolution of the ‘60s and about at least some of the pop music of that period. Had a long phone conversation with my father recently about this, and that gave me a chance to clarify my thoughts a bit. (I have written a tiny bit about this online, with reference specifically to the Stones and the Altamont concert—the latter was of course a disaster, and it represented something larger in ‘60s culture that is toxic, and yet I seriously doubt that anyone with a pulse can hear the chords to “Jumping Jack Flash” here and not want to jump joyously around—i.e., this is complicated).
There is no doubt in my mind that much of what the Beatles and virtually all the rest of the rock stars of the ‘60s believed about how to morally organize a society cannot be taken tremendously seriously. I imagine even some of them would have admitted it then. They were 25 years old, first of all. That alone makes serious thought difficult. It just does. It’s not your fault, 25 year old people. We were not designed for this. We’re good at other things when we are 25, many of which become nearly impossible in later years. The biggest thing weighing against young people on this topic is that they have not had enough time on the planet to spend enough serious time reflecting on such matters to have well-formed perspectives. A sane society would have paid no attention to what they said about such matters and concentrated fully on the thing in which they had some demonstrated talent. That we did pay attention to them is an indication of a bigger cultural problem than their insistence on talking about stuff they didn’t understand well. The celebrity cult that currently dominates our culture got underway in a big way in that generation, and this is something that exercises a truly toxic effect on American society.
That is, however, a set of problems that can be to some degree separated from their music. So long as we can appreciate the art of individuals who were undesirable characters as people, we can appreciate the music of ‘60s rock stars who believed nonsense about politics and lived lives of debauchery. My view is that those on my side of the political aisle who would reject the Beatles because of John Lennon was apparently some kind of communist, rather than making a criticism of the music itself as the grounds for rejecting it, is playing the same game the identitarian left plays when they reduce everyone they don’t like to one fact about their complicated lives. I’m uninterested in that game. People are complicated, and someone can perfectly well be a political moron and a maker of interesting music at the same time. All sorts of other things too—a dog rather than cat person, say—all at once. Weird, huh?
OK, so a few scenes that have stuck in my head.
Any young person who doesn’t know who they are and who watched this would have no difficulty figuring out why they were so huge. It’s magnetism and charisma all over the place. They are spontaneously funny, and quite talented.
At one point, Ringo is talking to the director about what footage they’ll put in the documentary while Paul is goofing around on piano, and Ringo says “ I would watch an hour of him just playing piano, he’s so great.” And the look on his face is of utter admiration.
On Friday, January 10, 1969, George abruptly quit the band. On camera, Lennon is heard saying “If he isn’t back by Tuesday, we’ll get Clapton.” In this same segment, Paul jokingly tells Mo Starkey, Ringo's wife at the time, after George left "A7, D7, G7--get ‘em off over the weekend and you're in!"
Mo and Linda McCartney are so fresh-faced and beautiful here. What magic to see those faces all so young again, all these years later. And suddenly it hits you that George and John and Linda and Mo are all gone now.
Another bit: Paul is in the studio in the morning by himself, no one else has shown up yet. He’s showing one of the techs how to play something on piano. Ringo comes in. He and Paul beam at one another, Paul chirps “Good morning, Rich!’ They immediately start playing duo barrelhouse piano. Joyous.
There are long segments where they’re working tabloid commentary about them (e.g., George allegedly physically attacking a reporter, fistfights between John and Paul, other such hysterically false stuff) into practice versions of songs, uproariously funny.
An assistant asks them about the lunch order. Ringo says “Some steak.” John: “Sparrow on toast” in a hilarious faux-aristocratic accent. Paul: “Boiled testicle.”
What a vocal superstar was the young McCartney. He can do seemingly innumerable vocal registers, from bass to falsetto, and he can move from one to the other in microseconds, and he’s always on pitch. Always.
George and John suggest that they should add Billy Preston and Bob Dylan (!) to the band, half-seriously. Paul: “It’s already hard enough with four.”
Billy Preston is pure magic. They do a jam version of “I Want You” with altered lyrics: “I had a dream, I had a good dream.” It breaks down quickly, as such things do, but delicious for a minute or so.
After watching some bit or other, I had a conversation with my 16 year old about it. She knows the Beatles, loves some of their music as I do (even some of the same songs—”Something” and “While My Guitar”—two “Harrisongs” as Lennon puts it somewhere in the doc—are close to the top of both our lists). She asked me which one was the best songwriter. Without hesitation, I said “Paul.” Which one was the best musician? Same answer. Which one was the best person? Same answer. She asked me what I had against John Lennon.
Probably like many other young persons who didn’t actually live through Beatlemania, and who have signs of infection with ‘cool artist sensibilities,’ I was sure it was Lennon who made them as a young person. I liked his songs the best, his attitude, etc. I even carried on the tradition—which I got once removed from Robert Fripp—of wearing those little circular granny glasses Lennon wore when I was a youthful would-be outside-the-box musician. (Of course, nothing more inside-the-box than that).
Then I got older.
I can still remember the first time I heard some of those recordings John made with Yoko after the Beatle split, in which Yoko is making noises no human ought to make except perhaps while being ingested by a predator.
I also remember the first time I actually heard the lyrics to “Imagine.” Even still in the throes of ‘cool artist sensibility’ mode, I thought: “That’s not even remotely plausible.” Only later did that change to: “Even if it could be done, the consequences would certainly not be what JL apparently believes they would be.”
Paul’s politics are almost certainly much closer to what John’s were than they are to mine. I was not startled to learn—how did I not know this previously?—that the song “Get Back!” a Paul favorite of mine, in part b/c Billy Preston’s electric piano is so irresistibly tasty in it, has roots in a rote and vapid ‘60s counterculture jeer at Enoch Powell, who is hated by so many people because he said things about immigration in Britain in the late ‘60s that were perfectly defensible and made dire predictions that have turned out frighteningly accurate.
But of the two main Beatles, Paul always seemed the more loyal person, the kinder person, the better friend, the better father by a long shot. There are scenes of him with Heather, Linda’s then 7 or 8 year old daughter from her previous marriage who Paul had only just adopted at the time of “Get Back!” that are just wonderful. She sits on his lap while he plays piano, with her head on his shoulder. He tosses her playfully into the air. She tugs at his beard while he beams. As the father of two girls, I am a total sucker for that kind of stuff, I admit, but I don’t know that we’ve ever learned anything about him to suggest it’s not an accurate representation of the man. I’ll forgive him that he stuck out his tongue at Powell because of “Hey Jude” and “Blackbird” and “Let It Be” and “Got to Get You Into My Life” and “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby” and…
Just got to start of the rooftop concert. Haven’t seen this footage in years; I’d forgotten how good it is. Reporter on street asks a grey-haired, stern-looking woman: “What do you think of it? It’s the Beatles.” She says, “I think it’s jolly good! Nice bright thing to see at the end of the day!” Jolly good, indeed.