Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Power of "White Christmas" (from Jody Rosen's book on the subject)

I recently checked out Judy Rosen's loving tribute to Irving Berlin's perennial classic so that I could write a proper blog post on this massively popular classic before Christmas. But here it is, one week before the big day and to make matters worse, I haven't so far gotten past the long paragraph on page eight that beautifully distills the power of this song. Perhaps I'll get around to reading the entire book before Saturday but until then, here is something to tide you over:

"The song's power transcends it's sales figures [31 million "copies"] and commercial ubiquity. With "White Christmas," Berlin created an anthem that spoke eloquently to its historical moment, offering a comforting Christmastime vision to a nation frightened and bewildered by the Second World War ["Holiday Inn," the song's first vehicle, premiered late summer, 1942]. But it also resonated with some of the deepest strains in American culture: yearning for an idealized New England past, belief in the ecumenical magic of "merry and bright" Christmas season, pining for the sanctuaries of home and hearth. Its dreamy scenery belongs to the same tradition as Currier and Ives's landscapes and Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." The song's images of sleigh rides and falling snow and eager children capture the mythic essence of the American Christmas. "White Christmas" seems to have always existed, lurking, as one Berlin biographer has written, "just beneath the surface of national consciousness." Indeed, in writing "White Christmas," Berlin lit on a universal idea;: the longing for Christmas snowfall, now keely felt everywhere from New Hampshire to New Guinea, seems to have originated with Berlin's song. It can safely be said that London bookmakers didn't offer odds on the possibility of a white Christmas prior to "White Christmas."

From White Christmas: The Story of an American Song by Jody Rosen, page 8.

When I'm Sixty-Four (ninth in a series)

Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Concept Album that Never Was -- or Was It?

The ninth in a series by John Atwood, a thinker and guitarist who was inspired as an 11 year-old to learn the instrument after seeing the Beatles perform in 1964 on the Ed Sullivan Show and who followed their career assiduously through his high school years when he formed a garage band just so he could play their songs within a group. He's had a few decades to ponder the import of the Fab Four's music. On the face of it, this just seems like Paul trying to capture the feel of British dance hall music, the British equivalent of America’s Tin Pan Alley.  He does a good job of it.  I know, because my parents liked it, and adults sang it on TV variety shows in the Sixties.  And Paul himself says (if reference to this song) that his earliest visions of being a songwriter had him writing stuff for Frank Sinatra, not writing rock and roll songs.

But even back in the Sixties people were pointing out that this song wasn’t what it seemed.  Although it begins as if it is an older man talking to his wife of so many years, thinking about the future and planning for retirement, the last verse lets the cat out of the bag:

Send me a postcard, drop me a line stating point of view.
Indicate precisely what you mean to say, yours sincerely wasting away
Give me your answer fill in a form, mine for evermore.
Will you still need me will still feed me, when I’m sixty-four.

In other words, the whole thing was a lonely-hearts advertisement.  What is a lonely hearts club, anyway?  It is the pre-internet pre-computer version of something like E-Harmony, or an internet portal dating page.  People who through normal channels were not succeeding in connecting with a life’s partner would join a club—or advertise in certain kinds of magazines—that promised to increase their chances of connecting with that certain someone.  And by the very nature of this, the participants in these clubs tended to be somewhat older than the usual dating crowd.

So the voice here is of a gentleman providing the details for his dating profile—his tastes, his habits, even the names of his grandchildren.  He seems a widower or divorcĂ© in his mid fifties: he is a grandfather, but doesn’t anticipate losing his hair until “many years from now”.  And in the same quaint, slightly-coded fashion, he is asking any potential respondents (who will “be older, too”) to reply with similar information.  It is enormously clever, and all tongue in cheek, but imbued with a kind of sadness, if nothing else just because it is so chipper. 

The dance-hall gimmick actually hid the truth pretty well, because at the beginning the singer is saying things that we would have thought our oldsters would have said.  And when compared to old, old standards like “Silver Threads Among the Gold”, with the sense that growing old together was the height of romantic expectation, the ruse probably even took in our parents.

What is fascinating is that it seems to have taken in even the Beatles themselves, including Paul, who both wrote this and came up with Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band idea.  This song is noted as the earliest of the Sgt. Pepper songs recorded (December, 1966).  It even predates "Penny Lane" (though not “Strawberry Fields”). If, as they say, they had a concept in mind at the beginning, but later abandoned it, it stretches credulity to think they didn’t see a connection.

But none of them has ever admitted such a connection.  This song is always explained as just a simple ditty of Paul’s that he had been playing around with for some time.  I guess we must conclude one should never underestimate the power of the subconscious mind, both to carry on ideas as well as block awareness of them to the conscious mind.

Next: "Lovely Rita" 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Within You Without You (eighth in a series)

Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Concept Album that Never Was -- or Was It?

The eighth in a series by John Atwood, a thinker and guitarist who was inspired as an 11 year-old to learn the instrument after seeing the Beatles perform in 1964 on the Ed Sullivan Show and who followed their career assiduously through his high school years when he formed a garage band just so he could play their songs within a group. He's had a few decades to ponder the import of the Fab Four's music.

The second side doesn’t begin with a strong note or downbeat.  The music eases in, creating an ambience, until finally the tabla drums start, and then comes the tune.  It is not unlike the first side, which began with ambient sounds, then a rhythmic, pounding intro and finally a melody.  In both cases, it has the effect of getting you in the mood for what is coming, of getting you absorbed in the setting.  But this side takes about 10 seconds longer to do it.   

The album so far has been like going down a long hall in an ornate building, opening one door after another taking in what you see in the rooms, and maybe being blown out.  But when you opened this one, it was different.  It is more peaceful, and the voice that eventually begins to sing is almost like a genie or prophet floating in the room, who welcomes you and bids you be at ease.  He speaks in a voice that is plain and direct, not in figures, not in ‘negative narration’, completely easy to understand.  And he begins to explain to you what you have been seeing and experiencing: 

“We were talking, about the space between us all,
and the people, who hide themselves behind a wall
of illusion, never glimpse the truth, …” 

In my youth, when rock and roll was everything, I suppose we all put up with George’s Indian thing—the sitar and all that—as well as we could.  Maybe we congratulated ourselves that we were being open minded and exploring new musical ideas, etc.  But it reminds me of Christmas Eve church services we attended as kids.  We were OK with giving Jesus and God their portion of the celebration, but deep down inside we couldn’t wait to get home and get at the presents.

You will surmise that I do not at all feel that way now, and it is not because I have converted to George’s religious persuasion, nor because I have a hankering to return to hippiedom.  Things change, as they say.  Now I am not at all anxious to leave.  I want to remain in this room and try with all my heart to see if he really knows the answer, and to see if I can gain from it.  Plus, now that I am actually listening, I realize this is arguably the greatest composition George Harrison ever did, and I feel it does not get near the credit that it deserves. 

But back to the story.  You had seen some disturbing—though brilliant—things in the previous rooms.  Your mind is troubled, and you don’t know what to make of it, but George explains it all to you in measured, peaceful tones.  He speaks of space, and illusions, of truth and love, and saving the world, and losing your soul.  And he artfully stages an egregious ‘conversation’ between the sitar and violins, and entertains you to the utmost.  And finally he leaves you with these parting words:

When you’ve seen beyond yourself than you may find peace of mind is waiting there.
And the time will come when you see we’re all one and life flows on within you and without you. 

You quickly wake up from the trance in which he has held you, and though you know you understood what he said, you don’t retain it.  Maybe it is too easy, maybe it is something you don’t want to deal with right now, but whatever it is, you take his parting words, stuff them in your pocket and go back out in the hall to explore the remaining doors.  But as you leave, for the briefest moment you think you hear the sounds of people happy in a social context, and it stirs an unconscious hope that there is, somewhere, a world of happy relationships. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite (seventh in a series)

Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Concept Album that Never Was -- or Was It?

The seventh in a series by John Atwood, a thinker and guitarist who was inspired as an 11 year-old to learn the instrument after seeing the Beatles perform in 1964 on the Ed Sullivan Show and who followed their career assiduously through his high school years when he formed a garage band just so he could play their songs within a group. He's had a few decades to ponder the import of the Fab Four's music.

I always thought was one of John’s best songs: it was inventive, unusual, and fun to listen to.  I always took as the musical equivalent of a man’s business card.  It is at least advertising copy, written in a day when the English language was still being used, as Henry Higgins would say.  But it always seemed to me that John meant it as social comment, given the way he executed the “in this way Mr. K will challenge the world” at the end of the first verse.  He gives a kind of shimmering emphasis to the last word. 

Of course, at the time, we didn’t all have internet access to a copy of the poster that was his inspiration for this.  I thought maybe he added that line, but it is clearly on the original poster, though in a different sense.  On the poster, the challenge is in relation to “this branch of the profession.”  But I believed at the time—and still feel—that John meant it in an absolute sense.  At a time in life where I was figuring out what I wanted to do, this song moved me to hope that I could hand out a card that said I did something more meaningful than jump “over men and horses hoops and garters, lastly through a hogshead of real fire.”

Over the years I have reacted to “Messrs. K and H” in different ways.  There was a long time when I viewed them with a kind of pity.  The whole picture being presented had a very “much ado about nothing” feel to it.  Sometimes I would think of them as being puffed up and self-important over basically doing nothing more than a bunch of somersaults.  But on other occasions I would think of them more charitably, as people trying to carve out a little something for themselves as best they could with the skills they had.  I wonder which way John meant it?

But from any angle it seems we are looking at the spectacle of a couple of blokes whose jobs have swallowed their personalities whole, and what they are now is the litany of the various acrobatic stunts they are able to perform.  A splendid time may be guaranteed for all, but how about for them?  Is this a life?  Someone familiar with the circus acts of this era can comment on whether such work was degrading, or not, etc., But it would seem there is a more universal question in all this, about whether we are able to maintain a perspective in which “what we do” is only a subset of  “who we are”.   

This song concluded the first side of the original LP, and I would point out an interesting part of the experience of the Sgt. Pepper LP that those of you who only ever heard it on CD or tapes may have never experienced. 

Back in the day, you had to get up and turn the record over after “Mr. Kite”.  There really was no way for it to happen automatically.  There were record changers, to be sure.   You could stack up to about 5 LP’s on the spindle, and after one side finished, it would drop the next one onto the turntable and start it.  But unless you had two copies of the LP and arranged them just so on the spindle, the record would stop and you had to walk over and turn the record.  (Most discriminating buyers avoided those devices by the late 60’s: they could damage your precious records).      

And the break in the action brought about by this allowed you time to reflect.  The first side of the album had proceeded at a relentless pace.  Sgt. Pepper didn’t have the usual long breaks between tracks that were typical on albums of this era—the tracks flowed together as one.  I don’t mean it was hasty, but it was just gripping, compelling, and it barely gave you time to digest it all.  By the time you got to the end of the first side, with the heady trailing off and final echo of the calliope, you became aware of two things.  First, you were breathless or speechless (or both), and secondly, there was the first silence you had experienced in about 20 minutes.  Now all the thoughts, questions, and images of the characters, kept at bay during march of the music, had an opportunity to flood back into your mind as you walked over, lifted the cover and turned the record.

Next: "Within You Without You."

Sunday, December 11, 2011

She's Leaving Home (sixth in a series)

Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Concept Album that Never Was -- or Was It?

The sixth in a series by John Atwood, a thinker and guitarist who was inspired as an 11 year-old to learn the instrument after seeing the Beatles perform in 1964 on the Ed Sullivan Show and who followed their career assiduously through his high school years when he formed a garage band just so he could play their songs within a group. He's had a few decades to ponder the import of the Fab Four's music.

This is the hardest one to write about, not because it is a stretch to fit it in my proposed theme, but because I have mixed feelings about who is really to blame in this story.  Paul McCartney probably meant in this that the parents were uptight and selfish, and as a teenager/college student, I felt, as I am sure many did, that “she” was justified in leaving.  Yet now as a parent of teenagers, I wouldn’t say I have done a 180 in my thinking, but I can probably take the side of either one of them, depending on the mood I am in.

A minister once pointed out to me that the process referred to as “leaving the nest” can often be a stormy one.  Many things transpire over the 18-odd years of raising a child, and by the time it is all over, the departure can be rancorous.  And there is often blame on both sides.  I have seen a lot of this in different ways over time, a bit in my own circles as well as in many others.  One develops a deep respect for families where the kids find what they want to do in life, and though it may or may not coincide with what the parents thought or wanted, it transpires with a degree of peace, support and respect on all sides.

The parent’s perspective is voiced by John in the backup vocal parts.

We gave her most of our lives, Sacrificed most of our lives,
We gave her everything money could buy.

We never thought of ourselves, Never a thought for ourselves
We struggled hard all our lives to get buy.

The first time through, the couple sounds like the classic materially-obsessed, over-protective parents. But the second time through, they sound like children of the Depression, as if they were living it all over again.  But, of course they really weren’t, because the mid to late Sixties were times of tremendous growth and prosperity.  But even if they weren’t, that the parents carry on so about their struggle is embarrassing.  Life is a struggle, and there is that old “if you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen” comment that is rightfully directed at the parent who doth protest too much on this point.   

On the other hand, the attitude of the daughter seems kind of lightweight.  We are given one very clear statement of what the problem was to her: “Fun is the one thing that money can’t buy.”  Something in me pictures an emcee pointing a microphone back at the daughter and asking, “Are you sure you really want to go with that answer?”  Can Fun really be the significant “something inside that was always denied” that justifies leaving one’s parents as if they were total creeps?

As a parent, I realize I can answer to the law if I don’t provide proper food, clothing, shelter, upbringing and education to my children.  My World War II generation parents could barely even expect that from their parents, given the Depression, and for the last decade or so here in America there are many families for whom it is a challenge.  I suppose it is only the Boomers and the Xers who expect “Entertainment Coordination” to be on the list of parental essentials.

But that all being said, I still can’t quite acquit the parents in this.  Were they truly avaricious people, smothering their child with materialistic expectations, or were they basically well meaning parents whose past experience was working against them?  Jane Austen notes in Pride and Prejudice that it is hard to determine "where discretion ends and avarice begins".  Similarly, it is hard to classify these parents.  But in either case, "discretion" was overplayed, and in their preoccupation with making ends meet they deprived the daughter of something important for life, leaving their “baby” to live alone in their suffocating world. In fact, the mother’s use of that term suggests she never saw her daughter as someone whom she was charged with helping to become a woman who could think for herself.  

We are not told if there had been any discussions of the situation—her leaving comes as a surprise.  One assumes there probably were, but that neither side ever succeeded in successfully conveying to the other how they saw things.  So the situation built up over “many years” to the point where both sides developed their own interpretation of matters.  Since the parents are supposed to be the older and wiser players—we do speak of parents as ‘raising’ children—we should expect them to be more insightful, more cognizant of the need for good communication and thus the ones who could have intervened to prevent all this.

John’s voice poses a very pertinent question the last time through:

What did we do that was wrong?  We didn’t know it was wrong.

Our culture depends heavily on the family for healthy social formation.  How homes are formed, how children are raised and how they cross over into adulthood are extremely serious issues in terms of their effects on society.  And yet, it seems we go at this in England and America as if it were as perfunctory as buying paper towels.  The lack of training and understanding afforded to new parents is better now, but it was terrible in the 50’s and 60’s.  One wonders how our culture has survived as long as it has, or how some parents were able to do as good a job as they did.

And this chronicle of where this thoughtless approach to family development can lead is done in a musical package that is movingly ironic.  The strings were arranged by Mike Leander, who had worked with Marianne Faithful (and orchestrated a lush version of Yesterday, oddly enough), and his arrangement gave this song an exquisite elegance.  Thus you have a family breakdown set forth with a delicate, classy arrangement and a beautiful soaring melody.  A family should get elegance, class and a beautiful theme, but, sadly, not for a matter like this.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

"Fixing a Hole" (fifth in a series)

Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Concept Album that Never Was -- or Was It?

The fifth in a series by John Atwood, a thinker and guitarist who was inspired as an 11 year-old to learn the instrument after seeing the Beatles perform in 1964 on the Ed Sullivan Show and who followed their career assiduously through his high school years when he formed a garage band just so he could play their songs within a group. He's had a few decades to ponder the import of the Fab Four's music.

This is another favorite song from the guitarist point of view.  What George does with the lead work on this always intrigued me.  I wondered how he got the tone he got, how he came up with the idea for the descending chords, and that solo in the middle is just perfection. 

The words on this one didn’t bother me too much at the time, I suppose.  It seemed a song about needing to get away from people, which is something we all have to do from time to time.  There certainly are times when other people’s egregious exertions toward us can bend us around ourselves, and we need time to unwind. 

But listening to it now, I realize this isn’t just about someone taking a retreat.  The singer is building a fortress against other human contact, both physically and mentally. 

The verses themselves are not quite clear on this. The holes are being fixed and the cracks are being filled because “the rain gets in, and stops my mind from wandering, where it will go.”  But the middle section makes it plain what is going on.
And it really doesn’t matter, if I’m wrong I’m right,
Where I belong I’m right, where I belong.
See the people standing there who disagree and never win
And wonder why they don’t get in my door.

The second time around, they are called ‘Silly People’.  Paul was quoted as saying this expressed his reaction to carried-away fans who hung around outside his house.  I do not fault him for his feeling on this point, since it is evident that well meaning but terribly foolish fans caused them all a lot of personal grief.  But without knowing that background, it strikes one that here is a fellow with the means to establish life on his own terms.  He need never subject his opinions to open discussion and can shut out everyone else who won’t see it his way. 

In other words, this is the song of the hermit or the social recluse.  And as it is presented in the form of a dreamy reverie, the unreality of such an approach to life is reinforced.   It is something we all have probably thought about from time to time, and maybe would do, if we didn’t have to go to work, didn’t have to work together with a spouse, didn’t have to deal with people in order to accomplish necessary things for living. 

Is this what Paul was intending this song to say and represent?  Probably not. While the song would have resonated well with someone like Howard Hughes, it doesn’t seem to fit what I know of the life of Paul McCartney.  So in a sense, it probably represents more a secret wish or passing fancy than it does an actual determination to do something.  And certainly Paul is not the only person to have entertained this idea.

However, one senses that it is possible to act out this idea more in concept than in actual construction projects.  So the “space between us all” can get larger not so much in a physical and geographical sense, but in a psychological and conceptual one.  It is regrettable that our often thoughtless actions to one another can create the tendency to respond in this fashion.  And maybe we don’t always realize that we are constructing such retreats in our head.  But perhaps a song like this—another example of unconscious negative narration—can help us to appreciate that, tempting as either a physical or psychological hermitage might be, in the end all it amounts to is a self-imposed form of loneliness.  

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Two Early Galvanizing American Songs of WWII

Almost immediately after Pearl Harbor was bombed and the United States joined the Allies, American songwriters began their attempt to produce the song that would be the rallying cry, the “Over There,” for the current world war.  Although no single song achieved this, there were many martial songs that did become intensely popular during this time.  One was “We Did It Before and We Will Do It Again,” written by Charles Tobias and Cliff Friend and ostensibly performed by Eddy Cantor (Tobias’s brother-in-law) on December 10, three days after Pearl Harbor. That’s some quick performing and even quicker composing.  Dinah Shore sang it on her show exactly one week after Pearl Harbor and Cantor interpolated it into his musical – “Banjo Eyes” – that opened on December 25th.

Enormous amounts of radio airplay and sheet music sales followed but record sales didn’t.  In his book, The Songs That Fought the War, John Bush Jones explains this by saying “We Did It Before” was the type of song people wanted to sing, not listen to.  And although it was most likely the song’s length that kept it from becoming the “Over There” of WWII, it was certainly one of the big ones and Bush explains why:

What makes “We Did It Before” stand out among over one hundred professionally written militant war songs is its direct yet clear lyric set to a catchy, singable tune in march tempo; it avoids the usual clichĂ©s of expression in such songs while retaining the message that with the United States in the war, the Allies will quickly defeat the Axis.

Another militant song that achieved immense popularity was based – loosely, as it turns out -- on an event which occurred on December 7th, 1941.  Pearl Harbor Fleet Navy Chaplain, William Maguire, was helping transport ammunition during the Japanese attack when he was reported to have made the comment, “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.”  Apparently, Maguire wasn’t so sure he’d said it.  He explained later, “If I said it, nobody could have heard me in the din of battle.”  But he admitted the phrase accurately expressed what he was feeling at the moment.

Lyricist Frank Loesser saw Maguire’s supposed statement in a newspaper clipping and wrote some lyrics in which "the sky pilot" -- the chaplain -- lays aside his Bible to man the anti-aircraft gun of a dead gunner.  He set his fictitious lyrics to a dummy melody, fully intending to hand over the job of tunesmithing to a professional.  But his friends urged him to retain his own melody and the song went on to sell millions via sheet music and recordings (and Loesser went on to great success as a composer).

As the song’s popularity soared, so did its controversy.  While some clergymen incorporated the song into their services, others balked at its linking of a man of the cloth with ammunition (and Maguire was apparently not pleased either). This controversy only increased the song’s popularity which caused it to hit the radio like a tidal wave which in turn caused the song’s publisher, Famous Music (and to a slightly lesser extent, the civilian branch of the Office of War Information), to request the stations to play it only once every four hours.  Both of these institutions had a personal stake in keeping the song popular for as long as possible and wanted to insure against listener burnout.

Why was the song so popular?  Time and place obviously had everything to do with it but for the specifics, I’ll let Jones have the final word:

The tune is robust, muscular, and just repetitive enough that it’s easy to remember and hard to forget, and the lyrics are just as touch and energetic, yet filled with a playfulness that keeps the song entertaining, not just belligerent.


All the Years of American Popular Music, by David Ewen, 1977.

The Songs that Fought the War: Popular Music and the Home Front, 1939-1945, by John Bush Jones, 2006.

Quotes taken from The Songs That Fought the War, pages 125, 155, and 157.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

"Getting Better" (fourth in a series)

Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Concept Album that Never Was -- or Was It?

The fourth in a series by John Atwood, a thinker and guitarist who was inspired as an 11 year-old to learn the instrument after seeing the Beatles perform in 1964 on the Ed Sullivan Show and who followed their career assiduously through his high school years when he formed a garage band just so he could play their songs within a group. He's had a few decades to ponder the import of the Fab Four's music.

This to me was always the high point of the album. I loved the driving guitar part coupled with Paul’s octave jumps on the bass. I could never get enough of it, and frankly still cannot. Every time this comes on, I stop what I am doing just to listen. But, I am a guitar player; and this is a great example of how the Beatles were not only good songwriters, but a great guitar band.

The words, however, are something else entirely. Originally, I took this to be a guy in the process of improving himself, or begin improved. He admits from the get go that in the past he was something of a malcontent, and angry, etc. But he claims he sees that now and is moving on, and that is due to his relationship with the person to whom the song is addressed. And if that was all there was to be said, this would still fit in with the theme I am proposing.

But there is another element that creeps in on the last verse. I occasionally like to sing along with records, and as I truly enjoyed the music on this, I would often find myself joining in. But even when I saw this as an upbeat, positive song, I would kind of drop off when it came to “I used to be cruel to my woman I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved.” It felt weird on the tongue, if you know what I mean. And the music at that point is different—it is set off from the rest of the song in a way.

Later in life I went through the experience of helping a female acquaintance get free of an abusive relationship, and I learned some things that shed more light on this—and changed my thinking. One key idea is that abusers go through a cycle of violence, then regret, then apology and reconciliation. It happens almost like clockwork, and those who work in the field have learned to treat such protestations of repentance with a great degree of caution.

In this song, who is the speaker talking to? He is taking to another woman. As the chorus repeats “I have to admit it’s getting better, It’s getting better, since you’ve been mine.” (And to the American ear it sounds like “since you’ll be mine”—I had to double check it with the word sheet.) While this could be just a statement of turning over a new leaf, the odds are in favor of the idea that it is a guy who has destroyed one relationship and is attempting to woo (or keep?) a different woman into a serious commitment. In hearing this again, something inside of me wanted to pull this new woman aside and say, “Run, don’t walk, away from this relationship as fast as you can. Don’t wait for him to change, nor believe you will be his salvation. For him to have any hope of getting better, he has to do it on his own first. His improvement cannot be tied to his relationship with you.”

The singer is clueless as to the nature of his true condition, as is often the case with men of this type. And they often find excuses for their problems in others and in their circumstances:
“I used to get mad at my school, the teachers who taught me weren’t cool.
You’re holding me down, turning me round, Filling me up with your rules.”

No argument that teachers and schools sometimes do more damage than good, but does anyone else think it might be a good idea to at least let the teachers tell their side of the story in this case? And who is the ‘you’ referring to? Are these quotes from prior conversations with teachers, or is this evidence that this tendency is already bleeding over into this new relationship? Has she maybe questioned his drinking habits, or the way he handles certain matters, etc.?

Again, it seems a chilling scenario. And the singer’s positive take on things has the power to convince many people. But that would fit the scenario to a tee. Most men are in a blind about the factors involved in abuse. Many are too easily persuaded that the guy must have his reasons, nor do they conceive what a hellish situation the woman finds herself in, so would not find such expressions a sign of danger. But as an example of the delusional, almost psychopathic, outlook of the abuser, it is a brilliant bit of writing and performance.

Next: "Fixing a Hole"

Monday, December 5, 2011

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (third in a series)

Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Concept Album that Never Was -- or Was It?

The third in a series by John Atwood, a thinker and guitarist who was inspired as an 11 year-old to learn the instrument after seeing the Beatles perform in 1964 on the Ed Sullivan Show and who followed their career assiduously through his high school years when he formed a garage band just so he could play their songs within a group.  He's had a few decades to ponder the import of the Fab Four's music.

The record really switches gears in the next track.  Beginning with the opening organ-sounding-like-a-harpsichord line, and the strange way that John’s voice is mixed, you feel like you have been ushered into something completely different, as Monty Python would say.  Now you are making your way through a fantasy land, or in George Martin’s words, “a weird world of strange people”. 

And at the time, it was entrancing.  I recall that all the interest in poetry I ever developed stemmed from hearing this song.  The music augments the effect, but John essentially with words alone paints a world that is fascinating, shimmering, colorful and hypnotic. 

But that is just it, it isn’t any kind of real world that a person can inhabit.  And the protagonist of this world walks through it without connecting to a soul.  There is no interaction with Lucy; she just appears, doing nothing but manifesting her “kaleidoscope eyes”.  And the plasticene porters, the rocking horse people and everyone who is smiling have no more humanity than the boat, the river, the newspaper taxies, the bridge, the fountain or the turnstiles. 

Much has been written about whether or not this song is about drugs.  On the one hand, everyone admits the idea came from a childhood drawing by Julian Lennon, and the fact that Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds spells out LSD is nothing but a coincidence.  Yet Paul did state in one interview that the drug connection was obvious, and anyone who ever inhaled or swallowed will tell you that the song has a tremendous empathy for the druggy state of mind.  But whether it is or isn’t is not really the point here.

Whatever may be its inspiration, what is being put forward here is a dreamscape, a world devised out of our own imagination.  But as to that, I am reminded of what CS Lewis pointed out in the third installment of the Chronicles of Narnia, the Voyage of the Dawntreader, that we don’t think of our dreams properly. 

In his story, the ship begins approaching a menacing island hidden in a fog of darkness, and as they do, each member of the expedition begins to find that their imaginations are running wild.  They rescue a sailor who has been marooned there for years, and though they are bent on exploring the island, he begs them to leave, telling them it is “the island where dreams come true.”  The crew is at first exited about the prospects of this until the man wakes them up with:

            Do you hear what I say?  This is where dreams—dreams, do you understand—come to life, come real.  Not daydreams: dreams.
It takes about half a minute for the import of this to sink in, and then the entire crew rushes to the oars to get out of there as fast as they can.

Ever thought about the content of your dreams?  I don’t mean the nightmares, that is obvious, but how about your more normal ones?  Is it a place you would want to inhabit? 

It was one thing as a teenager or even 20-something college student to listen to this and think it was charming.  As my Dad always reminded me, “nice for you to say, you don’t have to pay any bills or answer to any responsibilities.”  As an older person, upon more serious thought, what is being described here, though beauteous, is empty.  The protagonist in the story is very alone—almost stranded—in what amounts to nothing more than a beautiful, sterile painting.  The world we conjure from our own fancy may have bad guys but it seldom allows for equals with independent thought.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

"With a Little Help From My Friends" (second in a series)

Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Concept Album that Never Was -- or Was It?

The second in a series by John Atwood, a thinker and guitarist who was inspired as an 11 year-old to learn the instrument after seeing the Beatles perform in 1964 on the Ed Sullivan Show and who followed their career assiduously through his high school years when he formed a garage band just so he could play their songs within a group.  He's had a few decades to ponder the import of the Fab Four's music.

This song, along with Title and Reprise of the Title, is the only song the Beatles admit that was part of the original concept.  So we don’t have to look too far to find the connection, and indeed it is not great stretch to see from my friends relating to lonely hearts. 

This song with its positive energy, unbelievably cool bass guitar lines and interesting, crisp guitar fills was what grabbed many people and drew them to the album.  The sincere and plaintive voice of Ringo expresses the “what should be” of human existence.  Beginning with a notion of uncomfortable insecurity (“what would you think if I sang out of tune, would you stand up and walk out on me?”), and admitting life as a challenge through which one must obtain help, Ringo asserts a confidence in his friends.  It is through them that he will prevail, it is through their help that challenge and uncertainly will be turned into pleasure. 

We all know there is a kind of dependence on other people that is not healthy, a sense where a person needs others because they have no identity of their own.  But the singer here is not that.  He answers questions—tricky ones, in fact—with certitude.  Some have tried to suggest some kind of weird or lewd sense to his answer “I can’t tell you, but I know its mine” (to the question, “what do you see when you turn out the light?”, I think it is just a rephrasing of Descartes “I think, therefore, I am.”  In the dark, one sees nothing, but one does have a sense that it is me that is not seeing anything.  So though there is no sight, there is at least something happening, and it involves me, of that I am sure.  “I can’t tell you, but I know it’s mine” is thus a statement of personhood, sensory confusion notwithstanding.

Thus, this song states what any person desiring social maturity would want: a defined sense of self, the ability to form one’s own opinions, but at the same time, a necessary dependence upon and interaction with others.  He even has a healthy distinction between loves and friendship; he has both, and the two can coexist comfortably.  

But this song doesn’t get away with just being a simple statement of a truth.  It is interesting that Ringo sings this, not John or Paul, or even George.  And he does it in the guise of Billy Shears, the singer of the lonely hearts club band.  So is this a voice to take at face value, or is there something else going on?

I think the reason why the theme of the album has been so confusing over the years is because we were all expecting, in the vein of 60’s protest songs, that the values would be stated in direct terms, kind of like a sermon, by a ‘narrator voice’.  But try flipping it around.  Instead, for the bulk of the album, the narrator voice is not advocating the theme, but various versions of the opposite.  Misunderstanding on this point, I think, is what made the theme hard to see, and gave rise to many complaints that the Beatles were promoting drug use, leaving home, or other counter-culture values expressed in some form of code.  So someone suggested a ‘meter maid’ might be a hooker and who knows what Mr. Kite is all about. 

That primary, converse narration is provided by John and Paul, whether alone or together.   And they actually do have a role in this song, in the questions that are asked, and as such, it seems to me that they maintain the narrator perspective, offsetting what Ringo is saying.   As a result, rather than being a statement, the sentiment of this song is being set up as something to be examined, a hypothesis to be tested.  I don't mean that they are mocking his statement, but rather that they are displaying it for observation and evaluation. It could just as well be in the voice of a museum display: “here is 20th Century man expressing his belief in a healthy social environment..” 

At any rate, the song ends on a great high note with marvelous vocal backing, and neither Ringo or this point of view are heard from for the rest of the album.

Next: "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds"