Saturday, March 24, 2012

"A Day in the Life" (Thirteenth in a Series)

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

The  thirteenth in a seies 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.

With the end of the Reprise and the beginning of this last cut, the Sgt. Pepper band clears the stage and a lone performer remains, strumming a guitar.  This is John Lennon, without his Day-Glo costume, without all the contrivances that made up his prior songs.  He has broken through the 4th wall, so to speak, and now is singing from his heart, with a voice that, in George Martin’s terms, sends a chill down your spine.  Paul adds some class to the affair with nice piano chords and bass accents added later, and Ringo punctuates it all with interesting drum fills.  (George played maracas, we are told.)

Much has been written about “A Day in the Life”, covering how the orchestral parts were done and explaining the people to whom the 3 different vignettes refer.  I won’t repeat that material here.  I only point out that—including the speaker in the ‘middle eight’ (Paul’s part)—we are again presented with people who seem disconnected, or perhaps more specifically situations of futility and meaninglessness.  It is interesting to note his inclusion of himself in the second one, “I saw a film today, oh boy.”  He is referring to his part in Richard Lester’s How I Won the War, which was not released until after Sgt Pepper.  Did he anticipate people would “turn away”, as they in fact did, it seems.  (Has anyone actually ever seen this movie?) 

Whereas in all the prior character sketches the social disconnection seems unperceived by the singer, in this one John is seeing, and in a sense, bemoaning it.  I’ve always thought that “I’d love to turn you on” meant more about understanding life than it did about getting high.  (Although at the time there was a serious belief in some circles—now discredited—that the two things were connected.)  Yet the singer also seems detached, his voice dreamy and out of reach due to the echo effect applied to it.  In other words, he sees it, but realizes that he too is a victim of it.  This makes his inclusion of his own disconnect issue so fitting. 

But it doesn’t seem to me that the words and stories are as important in this song as the music which encases it.  With the dual incidences of the mighty orchestra crescendo, and the multi-piano final E Chord, there is a kind of apocalyptic sense to the song.  As the last phrase of the Wikipedia article on this song says, the final chord creates “a feeling of tragic inevitability”.  And this is, I think, what has always made “A Day in the Life” so fascinating.

The most emotive moment in the song to me actually has no words associated with it.  It is not the crescendo, or the final chord, but a mere Ahhhhh sung by John on the tail of Paul’s little ditty.  “Found my way upstairs and had a smoke, and somebody spoke and I went into a dream.  Ahhh-ah-ah-ahhhh” etc.  Even at the time I felt this grip my chest, as if something profound had just been realized.  I could almost feel a tear forming in my eye, and a deep sense of regret.  At the time I could never quite articulate why I felt that way, but it always seemed important.  It would connect in my mind to the image of Charleton Heston at the end of Planet of the Apes pounding his fist into the sand of what turned out to be the Atlantic Coast and groaning, “You maniacs, you blew it up!”  I still feel that when I get to this point in the song.

What this whole album has been about has been the risk we face in our world of losing ourselves and our humanity in the culture we create.  We are either compressed under the weight of the all of its pressures, or we lose our moorings and go into a meaningless drift on top all of the ebb and flow of it all.  It is kind of a poetic statement of the theme of the book Culture Against Man by Jules Henry.  And the album seems to be suggesting that this breakdown shows up in our relationships most of all, as we become isolated, alienated and in a way deadened. 

This was not an original notion on the Beatles part, nor even unique to them.  It was a special concern of people in the Sixties, and next to Civil Rights, was the most significant tenant of the counter culture, more important than the oft-caricatured free love and drugs of the time.  Other examples of it were the “Don’t Fold, Spindle, or Mutilate” motto (a phrase that was imprinted on IBM punchcards) that came out of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement or the Malvina Reynolds/Pete Seeger song “Little Boxes”.  Although the danger of this concern no doubt still exist, I don’t know if people today realize how bad all this was circa 1960 - 1965.  It is almost as if people were trying to literally have 2.3 kids, because that is what the reports said a normal family had.  People like to talk about the good old days, and while I remember many good things from those years, that incredible pressure to conform is not something I am in hurry to return to.

Of course, this penchant for boxing people up in stultifying strictures was not just limited to that time period, nor merely to “the Establishment”: parents, businesses or to folks on the Right in general. As someone who was an undergrad at the University of Chicago between 1970 -1973, I saw that even on the left there is a kind of enforced conformity.  I grew up in the conservative west and experienced all that, as mentioned above, but the experience at U of C had a feeling about it that was for me incredibly captured by Pete Townsend’s line: “Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.”  And as my own children have grown I’ve watched how kids, teenagers, young adults, all like to do it to one another.  “Make up your own mind and do (or think) what you want” is one of the hardest things for a young person—or any of us—to do, it seems.

When John says, “I’d love to turn you on”, it is almost wistful, but when he cries out, it is as if we find there was a repressed passion being masked by the wavering voice.  The cry expresses beyond the capability of words the need for us all to try to learn these lessons and stop doing these things to each other before—well, before it is too late.  When you find your own life has been reduced to one or another version of:

            Woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head…..
            Found my way upstairs and had a smoke and somebody spoke and I went into a dream

then it is time to scream “Ahhhhhhh”.  Do it long and hard until you wake up out of your stupor, before you ruin or alienate your kids, before you become insensitive to things that really matter, and before our culture becomes so toxic from the accumulation of wasted hours and lives that no one can survive in it anymore. 

That, at least, is my free-form, idiomatic translation of the phrase and of John’s cry.  But if you listen to how that progresses, the orchestral back up (the “tragic inevitability”) grows until it drowns out the cry.  It reminds me of the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony, where the Fate theme overtakes, overwhelms and finally beats the ‘optimism’ theme to a pulp.  Is this implying that, in the end, sending out warnings about the dangers will probably be futile?  “We can cry all we want, but in the end nothing will change.”  Or is it merely a further argument that if action is not taken, the tragic might ultimately prevail?

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