“No one I think is in my tree…” John Lennon
“Strawberry Fields” shouldn’t work – but it does. Brilliantly. The intriguing question is – why?
John Lennon (image courtesy 100.7 KOOL FM)
Adulthood is all mixed up, as almost everyone reading this knows. Not that childhood isn’t all mixed up, too, but in childhood we find coping mechanisms. It can be as simple as finding one’s happy place and going there.
John knew this. He also knew how important that finding coping mechanisms is for us.
“Strawberry Fields Forever,” arguably his finest song as a Beatle, is about remembering. Remembering had become a favorite lyrical theme for John (“In My Life,” “Norwegian Wood,” “Girl”). An equally important theme, and one that John sometimes explored in tandem with the remembering theme, is differentness, especially differentness in how one looks at the world (“Rain,” “I’m Only Sleeping,” “She Said She Said”).
It is that combination of those themes – remembering and differentness – that makes “Strawberry Fields Forever” the masterpiece it is. Continue reading
St. Paul and Sir Paul were trying to tell me pretty much the same thing as I said goodbye to someone I loved very much and will miss for the rest of my life.
“And in the end the love you take
Is equal to the love you make…” – Paul McCartney
And in the end… (image courtesy Wikimedia)
My favorite uncle died a few days ago.
Rational, objective description sometimes is inadequate to explain people. Any such description of my Uncle Carl would use terms such as hard-working, plain-spoken, no-nonsense, tough-minded, straight-ahead.
Such a guy would not seem to be one who would inspire an outpouring of love and affection from large numbers of people. But Uncle Carl did. His visitation was packed and went on well past its scheduled two hour period. His funeral, a rite held in the Friends (Quaker) church he attended (his decision to join the Friends late in his life probably also seems anomalous given the above description) was a love fest of expressions of love and affection for a hard-working, plain-speaking, no-nonsense guy. Continue reading
The album was king, thanks to male singer-songwriters (Crosby, Stills, Nash, James Taylor), female singer-songwriters (King, Simon, Mitchell) and bands like Pink Floyd (Dark Side of the Moon) andThe Eagles (Hotel California).
“You take the risk of being rejected. If you have pretensions to be an artist of any kind, you have to take the risk of people rejecting you and thinking you’re an arsehole.” – Roger Waters
(Read part 1, part, 2, part 3)
Pink Floyd suggested that Newton’s theory of light composition has validity (image courtesy Wikimedia)
After the artistic (and influence) success of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the stupendous artistic and commercial success of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, the appetite of record buying audiences for “full length works” was well whetted. Musical artists of the next decade or so found themselves faced, however, with a choice. Did they, as many bands did, follow the “concept” approach introduced to rock audiences by Brian Wilson? Was there another path?
Under normal circumstances that “other path” might have been to follow the example of Bob Dylan, choosing to record albums of original songs without any overt conceptual framework. Certainly Dylan was pointing out that “other way” with his albums Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.
Dylan had retreated from the world after his motorcycle accident in mid 1966, but his work still cast a long shadow. Continue reading
Sgt. Pepper’s gets a lot of credit for launching the “concept album,” but it never would have happened without Brian Wilson and Pet Sounds.
“We were fed up with being the Beatles. We really hated that fucking four little mop-top approach. We were not boys, we were men … and thought of ourselves as artists rather than just performers.” – Paul McCartney on the impetus behind Sgt. Pepper
(Read Part 1, Part 2)
Brian Wilson (image courtesy imdb)
Once the Beatles’ Rubber Soul moved the rock audience to begin buying albums rather than singles, artists felt emboldened to make their own attempts to create albums with thematic unity and all original material. Record companies, impressed with Rubber Soul’s sales figures, felt emboldened to allow artists to attempt to duplicate the Beatles’ sales.
And thus rock’s album era was born.
The term most people throw around when discussing thematically unified music collections from this era is concept album. It can be a tricky term, and critics sometimes argue about whether a particular album qualifies or who did/did not implement the form in rock history (it is widely conceded that Woody Guthrie created the genre with his 1940 album Dust Bowl Ballads).
There is consensus about one fact: whether rock’s first concept album was Little Deuce Coupe (1963) or Pet Sounds (1966), the guy who deserves credit for making the concept album rock music’s statement of choice is Brian Wilson. Continue reading
Not enough songs make use of the harmonium.
“In ‘We Can Work It Out,’ Paul did the first half, I did the middle eight. But you’ve got Paul writing, ‘We can work it out, we can work it out’ – real optimistic, y’know, and me impatient: ‘Life is very short and there’s no time for fussing and fighting, my friend.'” – John Lennon
I have reached a conclusion. Not enough songs make use of the harmonium. Some may find this conclusion baseless. They would be mistaken.
Take, for example, “We Can Work It Out.” One side of the Beatles’ first “Double A side” single (b/w “Day Tripper”), it’s always been one of my favorite Beatles’ songs, partly because of that harmonium John added to the track. One of them (John or Paul) spotted a harmonium in a corner of one of the studios at Abbey Road and John suggested that they add it to “We Can Work It Out.”
The result is a song with a feel that reminds one of a French cafe. A suggestion from George, the time change from 4/4 to 3/4 time adds a lilting quality. Combined with the harmonium sounding much like an accordion – in a French cafe – the effect suggests a chanteur working – it’s Paul channeling his inner Jacques Brel and John enabling him with that damned wonderful harmonium sound. Continue reading
Dylan gonna be Dylan. But in his memoir he reminds us why he’s Dylan.
“I’d come from a long ways off and had started a long ways down. But now destiny was about to manifest itself. I felt like it was looking right at me and nobody else.” – Bob Dylan
Early Bob Dylan (image courtesy CBS News)
Bob Dylan’s memoir Chronicles: Part 1 is a book I came to with a good bit of skepticism. One reason for my skepticism that comes from having read Dylan’s novel Tarantula, a book I found self-indulgent and (perhaps) purposely off-putting.
Another reason for skepticism comes from having read David Hajdu’s Positively 4th Street, a well researched book whose view of Dylan is less than sanguine, portraying Dylan as opportunistic, self-centered, and callous.
My last reason for skepticism comes from having seen a number of interviews with Dylan where he is evasive, defensive, and at times downright hostile to reporters and interviewers asking him questions about his life and work. Continue reading
“Don’t Pass Me By” is a rollicking faux country blues honk and the fiddle part is as crazy as Ringo says. It’s charming, funny, and totally Ringo. For a first effort, it’s pretty impressive.
“It was great to get my first song down, one that I had written. It was a very exciting time for me and everyone was really helpful, and recording that crazy violinist was a thrilling moment.” – Ringo Starr
Ringo around the time of the White Album (image courtesy Drummerworld)
There’s that scene from Family Guy, of course. Ringo comes into the studio and informs his band mates that he’s written a song. John, Paul, and George talk sweetly and encouragingly to him, then take his lyrics and stick them on the refrigerator (as one might for a kindergartner).
Seth MacFarlane’s snark about Ringo’s talents is part of the long history of criticisms that have been leveled at Ringo over the years; the running gag has always been that Ringo is the luckiest guy in the history of rock. While his acting ability has received praise, Ringo’s musical ability has been knocked repeatedly – and as a songwriter, he’s sometimes been treated by critics as he is in MacFarlane’s cartoon.
Perhaps that is what makes “Don’t Pass Me By” so interesting in retrospect. As a first song, and it was his first, it’s got charm – and goofiness. In other words, it’s pure Ringo. Continue reading
“Full grown men, full of emotion and on top of the world. Meet the Beatles.” – Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone
Bob Dylan and the Beatles, dedicated followers of fashion (image courtesy Jewish Currents)
(Part 1 here)
When Bob Dylan met the Beatles in late August of 1964, the exchange was significant for both artistic and cultural reasons. The artistic reasons should be obvious: the two most significant artistic forces of the sixties cross pollinated in significant ways. For Dylan, the seed was planted that led him to shock the folk music world by going electric, and making his decision to do so public, at the Newport Folk Festival, folk music’s most prestigious event. Dylan’s act freed him from the traditions and restraints of the folk genre and allowed him to embrace rock stardom (whether that was in his best interest is open to debate).
What did Dylan give the Beatles?
Well, he gave them marijuana (whether that was in their best interest is debatable). And he also fascinated them as they fascinated him.
The result of that mutual fascination changed the record buying habits of their target audiences.
“Cry Baby Cry” is exactly what we would expect a nursery rhyme to be: a charming sing-a-long with a dark message at its core.
“…I think I got them from an advert – ‘Cry baby cry, make your mother buy’. I’ve been playing it over on the piano. I’ve let it go now. It’ll come back if I really want it. I do get up from the piano as if I have been in a trance.” – John Lennon speaking to Hunter Davies
John said that a commercial gave him the idea for “Cry Baby Cry.”
John, White Album period (image courtesy Eyeglasses Warehouse)
That may be true. We know, however, from both In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works that Lennon was attracted to both fairy tales such as those of the Brothers Grimm and nonsense verse like that of Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll. What “Cry Baby Cry” gives us is John playing with the conventions of the nursery rhyme.
All of these forms – the fairy tale, nonsense verse, and nursery rhyme – come from the need ordinary people have to comment on political, social, and psychological issues peculiar to the cultural contexts in which they were written. Fairy tales were ways for children to learn about life’s dark and sad events such as kidnapping, murder, and deadly accidents; nonsense verse allowed writers to explore complex – and often taboo – subjects such as sexual deviance and mental illness; nursery rhymes most often provided common people with clever ways to comment on political issues (such as the tempestuous rule of Henry VIII’s daughter Queen Mary in”Mary Quite Contrary). Continue reading
…and how the invention of vinyl changed music forever.
“I agonized about making a record, but I wouldn’t have wanted to make singles, 45’s – the kind of songs they played on the radio. Folksingers, jazz artists, and classical musicians made LP’s, long-playing records with heaps of songs in the grooves – they forged identities and tipped the scales, gave more of the big picture. LP’s were like the force of gravity.” – Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Vol. One
Bob Dylan (image courtesy Mojo Magazine)
I’m about 50 pages into Dylan’s memoir Chronicles, Vol. 1. The quote above leapt out at me last night as I was reading. It seems a prescient comment from our latest literature Nobelist, given that he was one of those about to usher in the record album as art form.
Dylan’s preoccupation with making LP’s rather than singles (we still use the term album, though the operative word for a single is “track” these days) seems, on the face of it, in line with his preoccupations: he didn’t see himself as, nor did he want to be, a “hit maker.” That would have been selling out to commercial forces (stop me if you’ve heard that one before) that, as a budding artist (stop me if you’ve heard that one before), Dylan disdained. It might cost him that “force of gravity” he desired.
Serious music fans know that “force of gravity” as authenticity. According to Dylan, authenticity lay in the album format. Continue reading
There’s something Shakespearean about Lennon’s meditation on life and meaning.
“I think ‘In My Life’ was the first song that I wrote that was really, consciously about my life, and it was sparked by a remark a journalist and writer in England made after In His Own Write came out. I think ‘In My Life’ was after In His Own Write… But he said to me, ‘Why don’t you put some of the way you write in the book, as it were, in the songs? Or why don’t you put something about your childhood into the songs?’ Which came out later as ‘Penny Lane’ from Paul – although it was actually me who lived in Penny Lane – and Strawberry Fields.” – John Lennon
Outtake for the Rubber Soul album cover (image courtesy “Yer Doin’ Great”
The marvelous Beatles Bible offers four John Lennon quotes about the composition of “In My Life.” Lennon considered it one of his most important songs for several reasons. It was the first song, he says, written about his life – the result, Lennon told multiple interviewers, of a comment by British journalist Kenneth Allsopp concerning Lennon’s first book, In His Own Write.
Another concern Lennon has was his ability to write melodies – something that his writing partner, Paul, was and is particularly adept at. “In My Life” is predominantly John’s melody (though he says Paul wrote the middle eight). Continue reading
“A young woman in the spring and summer of 1967 was walking toward a door just as that door was springing open. A stage was set for her adulthood that was so accommodatingly extreme—so whimsical, sensual, and urgent—that behavior that in any other era would carry a penalty for the daring was shielded and encouraged.” – Sheila Weller, Girls Like Us
Girls Like Us by Sheila Weller (image courtesy Goodreads)
Sheila Weller’s triple-decker biography (and I use this word advisedly) Girls Like Us gives readers a look inside the lives of three of the singer-songwriter era’s biggest stars: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon. Weller’s book is well-researched and the reader learns a great deal about each of these major figures. What becomes a question for the astute reader as he/she progresses through the book is whether what is being learned is always useful or meaningful.
This is not to say that Weller’s book isn’t compelling reading, especially for music buffs, fans of any of these particular music legends, or Boomers nostalgic for the era in which King, Mitchell, and Simon did their finest work. It is.
What may not work for some readers is the focus of Weller’s biographical studies. That may be because the work of these three songwriters are feminine (and feminist) concerns. One certainly cannot argue that three writers known for highly personal and confessional songwriting are treated unfairly by the author’s looking at their artistic careers through the lens of their personal lives. What might be giving me (and may perhaps give other readers) pause is the level of detail that Weller goes into in exploring King’s, Mitchell’s, and Simon’s private lives. Continue reading
“Love Me Do” was their first song, but it was far from perfect…
“‘Love Me Do’ is Paul’s song. He wrote it when he was a teenager. Let me think. I might have helped on the middle eight, but I couldn’t swear to it. I do know he had the song around, in Hamburg, even, way, way before we were songwriters.” – John Lennon
“‘Love Me Do’ was completely co-written. It might have been my original idea but some of them really were 50-50s, and I think that one was. It was just Lennon and McCartney sitting down without either of us having a particularly original idea.” – Paul McCartney
John, Paul, George, and Ringo (image courtesy Wikimedia)
We know now (at least those of us who are American) that it was their first.
Most of us learned about it in that tidal wave of spring 1964 when it seemed that the Beatles released a new record every week. Many of them were fantastic – “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “She Loves You,” “Please Please Me,” “From Me to You,” “Twist and Shout,” “There’s a Place,” “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” It seemed like an endless stream of great song after great song, the releases of new singles coming sometimes only a week apart thanks to the Beatles’ tangled history of American deals.
So it was Tollie, a Vee-Jay subsidiary, that released “Love Me Do” in the US in April 1964. Continue reading
There are some laudable choices: Alabama, Misissippi, Montana, Missouri, New York… But Nicholas Sparks?
“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” – Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
Nicholas Sparks (image courtesy Wikimedia)
I saw an article this week that’s a pretty good explanation of where we are as a culture. Business Insider published an article called “The most famous book that takes place in every state” that purports to provide readers with – well, the information indicated in its title. On the face of it this seems like a clever idea – it promotes reading and gives a little shout out to each state. Given the culture we live in, promoting reading is certainly a good idea, and giving every state a nod for its literary contributions is democratic in a way that we need more of.
Well, as Robert burns said in “To a Mouse,” “The best laid plans….” Though perhaps, given the BI article, Dave Marsh’s observation about Kiss Alive II is more apropos: “Here’s a bad idea gone wrong….”
Some of the results offered for “most famous book that takes place in every state” are laudable. Some are arguable. Some, however, are atrocious – ill-informed in ways that make one despair for the future. Continue reading
One chord can change your life.
The Fabs tormenting the posh gent in A Hard Day’s Night (image courtesy Neatorama)
“There was no reason for Michael to be sad that morning, (the little wretch); everyone liked him, (the scab). He’d had a hard day’s night that day, for Michael was a Cocky Watchtower.” – John Lennon, In His Own Write (published March 1964)
“I was going home in the car and Dick Lester suggested the title Hard Day’s Night from something Ringo’d said. I had used it in In His Own Write but it was an off-the-cuff remark by Ringo. You know, one of those malapropisms. A Ringoism, where he said it not to be funny, just said it.” – John Lennon (1980 interview)
“”Well, there was something Ringo said the other day’… He said after a concert, ‘Phew, it’s been a hard day’s night.’ John and I went, ‘What? What did you just say?’ He said, ‘I’m bloody knackered, man, it’s been a hard day’s night.’ ‘Hard day’s night! Fucking brilliant! How does he think of ’em? Woehayy!’ So that came up in this brain-storming session, something Ringo said, ‘It was a hard day’s night.'” – Paul McCartney (1997 interview)
They began filming the movie A Hard Day’s Night only ten days after returning from their frenetic, triumphant first visit to America. Continue reading
Bob Dylan will pick up his Nobel Prize shortly while on tour in Sweden. Joan Baez was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. Whether they ever got over each other is a question that may never be answered.
“I think women rule the world and that no man has ever done anything that a woman either hasn’t allowed him to do or encouraged him to do.” – Bob Dylan
“Instead of getting hard ourselves and trying to compete, women should try and give their best qualities to men – bring them softness, teach them how to cry.” – Joan Baez
Positively 4th Street by David Hajdu (image courtesy Goodreads)
Joan Baez and Bob Dylan have had a long and complicated relationship.
There have been a number of books written about that relationship (including memoirs by both Dylan and Baez themselves) which try to get at what drew them together and what drove them apart. To save you any apprehension, the upshot is that nobody, not even Dylan and Baez, will ever understand. That doesn’t mean that writers and scholars won’t try to understand, of course.
One of the most interesting attempts to explore the Baez/Dylan axis of complexity is David Hajdu’s fascinating Positively 4th Street. Hajdu doesn’t get any further than any other scholar or writer (or Dylan or Baez) with explaining the complexities of the Dylan/Baez relationship, but his book is fascinating because he takes an unusual tack in his exploration. In a plot device that is positively Shakespearean, Hajdu uses the microcosm of the relationship between Joan Baez’s sister Mimi and Richard Fariña to parallel the macrocosm of Bob Dylan/Joan Baez.
Songs like “Good Day Sunshine” indicate that the wit and whimsy that originally endeared the Beatles to millions would not disappear.
“It was really very much a nod to The Lovin’ Spoonful’s ‘Daydream,’ the same traditional, almost trad-jazz feel. That was our favourite record of theirs. ‘Good Day Sunshine’ was me trying to write something similar to ‘Daydream.’ John and I wrote it together at Kenwood, but it was basically mine, and he helped me with it.” – Paul McCartney (as told to Barry Miles)
John and Paul (image courtesy People magazine)
Ah, spring, sweet spring. The sun shines, trees and flowers begin to blossom. It feels great to go outside. It also feels like weather for, as John Sebastian urges us in the song Paul refers to above, “blowin’ the day to take a walk in the sun.”
Great Britain is not a sunny place. The warm waters of the Atlantic coming north from Africa mingle with the cool air of Great Britain’s northerly latitude and produce the fog for which the island is justly famous as well as clouds and rain. Lots of rain. John even wrote a song about it. Sunshine, as you’d guess in such a climate, is prized.
The summer of 1966, when the Fabs were working on the songs for what has been called at times their greatest album, Revolver, was exceptional for being sunny and hot.
Paul found that inspiration. As he did The Lovin’ Spoonful song. Continue reading
It wasn’t easy being John Lennon’s friend, and Yoko didn’t make things any easier.
“If anyone was doing the hanging on, it was John. He hung on to me, always had done. He always made me feel special, made it clear he was desperate for my company, especially when he was depressed and fed up, which he was for many years. He used to say to me: ’I don’t want to be a Beatle any more, stuck in a bag marked Beatle. I want to open the bag and let the Beatles out. I want to be myself.’” – Pete Shotton (as told to Hunter Davies)
John Lennon and Pete Shotton (image courtesy Beatles-Freak’s Reviews)
As anyone who’s ever tried it will tell you, it’s hard to be a friend. However close or long term a friendship, there are always moments when a friendship is tested by actions or circumstances that make or break the friendship. In many, if not most, cases friendships fail these tests. Those few that survive (one hesitates to use the word pass, as friendships are acts of endurance rather than one-off events like tests) can reach a level of intimacy and trust that provide the persons involved with comfort on the long, hard road of life.
But how does one stay that kind of friend when that friend becomes one of the most famous people in the world? Pete Shotton knew. He was John Lennon’s closest friend (outside the other Beatles) from the time they met at age six until Lennon’s death – 34 years.
As you have likely guessed, John was not an easy friend. Continue reading
“I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” – Jane Austen
Various news sources, both here in America and elsewhere, are claiming that Jane Austen, doyenne of English respectability, has become a heroine to the despicable group called by the all-too-euphemistic moniker the alt-right.
Jane Austen (image courtesy biography.com)
For any rational person (and my beloved Miss Austen
was nothing if not rational) her embrace by such loathsome characters
is both horrifying and bizarre. Conservative as she was (Austen found her contemporary Byron’s behavior wild and reprehensible, for example, violating as it did the established social mores of Regency England
), Austen undoubtedly would have found the behavior of a number of the more well known figures of the alt-right movement equally reprehensible. One has a difficult time, indeed, imagining Miss Austen feeling able to tolerate being on the same planet, much less in the same room with creatures such as Richard Spencer
and Milo Yiannopoulos
The alt-right loves them some Jane, though – for reasons that mystify anyone capable of reading Austen’s work intelligently. Continue reading
According to one source, the Beatles covered at least 15 Chuck Berry songs.
“If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.” – John Lennon
Chuck Berry (image courtesy Rolling Stone)
I had planned to write an essay this week about George Harrison’s brilliant synthesis of rock and Indian music, “Within You, Without You.” That plan changed suddenly with the sad news of Chuck Berry’s death.
What made me change my mind was the Chuck Berry obituary/tribute posted at Rolling Stone. In an essay of several hundred words, the Rolling Stone writer gave a long list of bands who covered Berry songs and who were influenced by him. While the Rolling Stones and Beach Boys got plenty of mention (and rightfully so), the Beatles weren’t mentioned at all. That is an oversight, to paraphrase (possibly) Churchill, up with which I cannot put.
See the above John Lennon quote. We can go from there. Continue reading