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"

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