Monday, January 05, 2009

My Music Retrospective - The Beatles

The Beatles were my first: first musical obsession, first time defining myself by the music I listened to, first time being an enthusiastic consumer of some product offered by my culture.

Discovering the Beatles in early 1981 was not inevitable for me, but it involved a timely convergence of factors. John Lennon had just been shot and killed, which put not only Lennon but the Beatles on the front page of the newspaper. And with Lennon gone, the Beatles were now irrevocably part of the past.

At 10-11 years old, I was at an age when learning to define and express my identity was important. Music was one way for me to assert myself by my tastes. Finally, and this shouldn't be underestimated, the contemporary music scene generally stank. It was an opportune time to listen to the Beatles because no current act on the radio seemed quite as good.

Abbey Road was the first Beatles album my family had in the house – yes, we owned it as an actual record on a turntable – and it became an almost endless source of critical discovery for me. I didn't know then that it might have been their best record. I spent hours listening to each song on both sides. Every tune offered layer upon layer of artistry. The vocals, the lyrics, the instrumentation, the changes, the hooks, the fades and transitions, the album cover – all of it allowed for grand archaeological exploration.

At one time or another, almost every song on the album became a favorite. "Come Together" is heavy and lyrically cryptic. In the break, the hand off from keyboards to guitar is at once polished and almost dirty, although I wouldn't have known at the time to characterize it this way.

"Something" immediately registered with me as intensely beautiful. George Harrison's voice is controlled and gentle, but the group's vocal layering in the bridge is simply fantastic.
You're asking me will my love grow,
I don't know, I don't know.
You stick around now it may show,
I don't know, I don't know.
The harmonization here makes the emotional power of the song three-dimensional. Without it, the song is just pretty.

"Here Comes the Sun" is another Harrison gem. Recordings by other artists never seem to measure up to the original. For me, the sound is exquisite, as it is on the entire album. While the song is optimistic, it is so in a way that I would call mature. When George, Paul, John and Ringo sing "It's all right," they mean it. They know it could turn out otherwise. They've seen darkness and light, and they have reason to think light will finally prevail. In other words, they are supremely credible. I might add that I feel not this way at all about so many current artists. Even Nirvana, a band that seemed to ooze authenticity, always appeared more about the chic of pain than working through it.

Until much later, I thought almost the entire album was sung by Paul. Even when I learned this was not the case, I remained knocked out by the whole sequence from "You Never Give Me Your Money" to "The End." Ringo's drum solo on “Golden Slumbers” is a high point. "Her Majesty" has always amused me. It comes after a 20-second or so break and then is so upbeat yet short. It's an odd fragment at the end of an album that is otherwise so coherent.

* * *

At one point, I may have I owned every studio album the Beatles ever recorded. I had most of the lyrics memorized. I bought very many of their solo albums. More than all this, I had plenty of books on the Beatles. I wanted to know their personal lives, their histories, their significant dates and milestones. I wanted to know what smart people thought about them, their music, their impact and their legacy. With the Beatles, as with all my other musical obsessions, music was only part of what I sought.

I can hardly do justice to the real significance of the Beatles on my early adolescence, as a music listener and as someone developing an identity. In many ways, the Beatles were like starting at the top. Listening to their catalog influenced my view of other artists and songs. Even the Rolling Stones very often fall short of the artistic standard that I absorbed from listening to the Beatles over and over, but of course the Stones have (almost) always been about something other than artistry, or at least they have focused on a different kind of artistry.

By my recollection, I was immersed in the Beatles from about 1981, just after Lennon's death, through 1984-5. Now, I don't think I listened to the Beatles exclusively, as I would later with Dylan, to some extent, and with the Stones, to a great extent. I guess in this way the Beatles were like a gateway drug for me. I started with them and became addicted hard-core later to others.

I don't really listen to the Beatles much anymore. Recently, I played Abbey Road in the car, but I never stocked up on Beatles CDs. I had them on record and cassette tape, but never pursued their recordings on CD. Why don't I listen much today? I'm actually not sure. It's as though I burned myself out on the music, as if my obsessive listening then sucked dry all my enjoyment. Perhaps if my children wind up interested in the Beatles, I'll re-discover them.

However, I suspect the real problem is that I'm no longer innocent. The music and story of the Beatles brought a certain light and color into the interior world of my adolescence. The music was new to me, it was expansive, and it had a depth - a charm and intelligence - that resonated with me. I cannot imagine another artist's music reaching me in the same way at that time in my life.

I still have that music in my mind. Quite a few songs bubble up in my mind as the real greats - "Michelle," "Norwegian Wood," "Ticket to Ride," "She's Leaving Home," "A Day in the Life," "Strawberry Fields," "Hey Jude," "Revolution," "Blackbird," "Let It Be," "Two of Us," "Girl," "The Long and Winding Road," "Good Day Sunshine," "I'm Only Sleeping," "I'm Looking Through You," "It's Only Love," I'm a Loser," "Hey, Bulldog," and probably many others.

For me the Beatles were great because they rewarded the kind of listener I wanted to be. I didn't only want to snap my fingers and know the words: I wanted to play and to learn. I wanted to be surprised with a neat bass line and by a sense that several things were happening at once. I wanted to believe the music was important and was saying something important. And I suppose I took all of this as related to whatever I felt about my own importance. Perhaps whatever this was still is, and perhaps it is also captured in a poem of mine from the past:
This music
as life:
its detail
simple moments unrepeatable
the players
changes –
I surround myself in it
and always am an honest person.

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