Cry Baby Cry…darkness in the nursery

“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

In My Life: Lennon remembers…

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

Music and Popular Culture

Carole, Joni, and Carly: sometimes it’s hard to be a woman…

“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 – the first one…

“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

A Hard Day’s Night…in search of the lost chord

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

Live in a rural area? Can you find a doctor when you really, really need one?

The vascular surgeon who removed my gangrenous gall bladder last month received his early medical training in Lahore, Pakistan. He’s been a member of the medical community in my rural valley for more than three decades.

eimyxgertMy primary-care physician for the past 20 years received his medical training in Taiwan. My urologist for a decade was an Iranian-American. The surgeon who removed a subcutaneous growth from my right elbow is a Pakistani-American. So is the internist who treated a pulmonary issue. He’s been here more than two decades.

Those who live in rural areas likely know, or have, doctors with surnames they might think uncommon. Yet all my foreign-born physicians are American citizens with deep ties to the community in which I live. They’ve taken good care of me.

But why have these wonderful doctors settled here, in rural America?

Continue reading

Good Day Sunshine…ah, spring, when one’s fancy turns to…

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

A few words about Pete Shotton…

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

Unnamed sources? Journalists should teach readers why they were used

On Thursday, four journalists for CNN reported:

The FBI has information that indicates associates of President Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, US officials told CNN.

CATEGORY: JournalismInformation. Indicates. Associates. Communicated. Suspected. Operatives. Possibly. Coordinate. Information. US officials.

Huh? Could this lede be any more vague? This lede is all may have — which leaves open the possibility of may not have.

The story, reported by Pamela Brown, Evan Perez, Jim Sciutto, and Shimon Prokupecz, contains unnamed sources in 10 of the story’s 18 paragraphs. The FBI director is named, but only in reference to stories reported earlier. White House spokesman Sean Spicer and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov are named, but only in chiding the findings of the story. Two paragraphs near the end of the story contain no sources and appear to be the conclusions of the reporters.

Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

Jane Austen, alt-right heroine…say what…?

“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

Music and Popular Culture

Dancing about architecture: trying to read Paul Morley’s Words and Music…

I could offer several excuses for why I quit Words and Music, a book I had high hopes for (Morley is one of the great experts on contemporary pop), but the simple truth is I hated it.

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” – attributed variously, most likely by Martin Mull

Martin Mull (image courtesy Wikimedia)

As I have explained previously, my 2017 reading list is devoted to reading books about music. I have covered only three books so far, Larry Kane’s latest Beatles’ book When They Were Boys, the Billie Holiday memoir Lady Sings the Blues and Peter Guralnick’s excellent study of roots music, Lost Highway. (I’ve also written a number of essays about Beatles’ songs and a book review or two.)

I’m currently about 100 pages into a very good book on Bob Dylan, Joan and Mimi Baez, and Richard Farina, David Hajdu’s Positively 4th Street. I turned to this book after spending several days trying to read another book, a book I looked forward to reading, as I noted in this description from my reading list essay:

Paul Morley, Words and Music: A History of Pop in the Shape of a City – Morley is one of rock’s most trenchant critics and in this book he speculates about whether pop is at the end of its lifespan. Any book that calls for opinions from both Madonna and Wittgenstein is must reading.

I read about 40 pages of Morley’s book before putting it aside and taking up the Dylan/Baez book. I could offer several excuses for why I quit Words and Music, a book I had high hopes for (Morley is one of the great experts on contemporary pop), but the simple truth is I hated it. Continue reading

No Reply: the Beatles write a breakup song…

The scream at the end – “no reply!” – is one of the bleakest moments in the breakup song genre.

Beatles ’65 (image courtesy Wikimedia)

“It was my version of “Silhouettes”: I had that image of walking down the street and seeing her silhouetted in the window and not answering the phone, although I never called a girl on the phone in my life. Because phones weren’t part of the English child’s life.” – John Lennon on “No Reply”

This was going to be another essay.

I had planned to write about what I am convinced is the greatest single ever released – “Strawberry Fields Forever” b/w “Penny Lane.”  But that was going nowhere (though I can see what I want to say, I can’t quite seem to say it yet, which betrays a lot about my love of the Fabs) so I turn to another favorite, the opening song on both the British release Beatles for Sale or, if you were an 8th grade nerd like me, Beatles ’65.

“No Reply” opens both albums. This is one of those rare times that the British album and its American counterpart agree. That makes me very happy. Let’s leave it at that. Continue reading

David Bowie and Paul McCartney: boats against the current…

Successful artists feel constant commercial pressure to repeat their sales success – a pressure that can make any artist choose a safe route.

…so we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past. – F. Scott Fitzgerald

David Bowie and Paul McCartney (image courtesy Pinterest)

I watched a couple of documentaries (thank you Open Culture) this week featuring rock stars from the classic era, one about a living musician, the other about one who has, alas, shuffled off this mortal coil. What I found most interesting about each of these films is the reminder that it is very difficult for any successful artist, especially for a David Bowie or Paul McCartney, who have enjoyed success at the highest level of their art, to move forward. In a popular art form such as rock music has been, part of the problem is commerce; one who is successful and whose art is embraced by a wide public sells much “plastic ware,” as Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman wrote. They feel constant commercial pressure to repeat their sales success – a pressure that can make any artist choose a safe route.

Another, perhaps even greater part of the problem, especially for an artist like Bowie or McCartney, comes from those whose admiration (and money) made them acclaimed, and wealthy: fans. Any artist like Bowie or McCartney with a long career arc (given that the average length of a popular musical star’s career is 18 months, the nearly 50 year career of Bowie and the 50+ year career of McCartney are by any measure remarkable) is bound to have to deal with one of the strongest desires of fans as they, like their heroes, age – nostalgia for past works which form, after all, the soundtracks of their lives. Continue reading

Rolling Stones

I Wanna Be Your Man…Beatles or Stones?

If what Lennon says is true, “I Wanna Be You Man” has a special place in rock history.

“It was a throwaway. The only two versions of the song were Ringo and the Rolling Stones. That shows how much importance we put on it: We weren’t going to give them anything great, right?” – John Lennon

Ringo during his Jean Paul Belmondo look period (image courtesy Pinterest)

Ringo sporting his Jean Paul Belmondo look (image courtesy Pinterest)

The composers of “I Wanna Be Your Man,” John Lennon and Paul McCartney, thought so little of the “Ringo song” on the British release With the Beatles (the American release came on Meet the Beatles) that they “gave” the song to the Rolling Stones who released it as their second single.

Neither John nor Paul thought much of the song, though it’s a nifty Beat music rave-up. Paul’s “I Saw Her Standing There,” from the same period, is a song of the same sort – much more familiar to (and popular with) the casual Beatles fan, but “I Wanna Be Your Man” has its own charm. As a tune it hearkens to the early days and is reminiscent of the Beatles’ Cavern shows in its rowdiness and “cellar full of noise” jocular machismo. Continue reading

I Want to Hold Your Hand…and then, America….

It was the first Beatles record I bought, but it wasn’t my favorite Beatles song.

“We wrote a lot of stuff together, one-on-one, eyeball to eyeball. Like in ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand,’ I remember when we got the chord that made the song. We were in Jane Asher’s house, downstairs in the cellar playing on the piano at the same time. And we had, ‘Oh you-u-u… got that something…’ And Paul hits this chord and I turn to him and say, ‘That’s it!’ I said, ‘Do that again!’ In those days, we really used to absolutely write like that – both playing into each other’s nose.” – John Lennon

Paul and John in 1964 (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Paul and John in 1964 (image courtesy Wikimedia)

I’d heard “She Loves You” in the fall of 1963, and, while the buddy I first heard it with (a story I have related before) mocked the song (as did the deejay who introduced it), I’d been immediately smitten, though I diplomatically kept my opinion to myself. Thereafter, when I listened to far away radio stations in big cities like Chicago and New York on my transistor radio at night when I was supposed to be going to sleep, I listened for “She Loves You.”

I think I may have heard it twice between that first time and the advent of what we know as Beatlemania. I freely admit that my memory of this period is fuzzy. I was in my 12th year and between the time I first heard “She Loves You” in mid-November and when I began hearing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and other Beatles songs November 22, 1963 happened. Like most Americans I walked around in a dull daze  for a while, so I hope I may be forgiven for an imperfect memory of the timeline of events. Continue reading

George Harrison’s Don’t Bother Me…and then there were three….

And so The Beatles acquired a third great songwriter…

“‘Don’t Bother Me’ I wrote in a hotel in Bournemouth, where we were playing a summer season in 1963, as an exercise to see if I could write a song. I was sick in bed.” – George Harrison

George Harrison, 'A Hard Day's Night' period (image courtesy imdb.com)

George Harrison, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ period (image courtesy imdb.com)

John Lennon and Paul McCartney have long been ranked among the premiere songwriters of the 20th century. That the pair both wrote for the same band is certainly a central element of the The Beatles’ standing in rock history.  Any band with two great songwriters is certainly very, very lucky.

As we all know, the Fabs didn’t have two great songwriters – they had three. The emergence of George Harrison’s songwriting talent only serves to reiterate that, as in so much of their lives and career,  The Beatles were winners of whatever history’s equivalent of the Powerball is.

George, who was given the moniker “the quiet Beatle,” might better have been denominated “the independent Beatle.” Because he was younger (and remember, Paul, and George got together when they were very young and Paul had to sell John on allowing George to join the band that eventually became THE band), his status was predicated on 1) his guitar playing (which was better than anyone’s, not excluding John or Paul) and 2) his absolute commitment to the cause (which equaled John’s and Paul’s). Continue reading

The Fool on the Hill… McCartney’s ode to differentness

In “The Fool on the Hill” McCartney was writing about the Maharishi. And perhaps himself.

“He never listens to them… He knows that they’re the fools” – Paul McCartney

Paul McCartney, Fool on the Hill (image courtesy beatlesbyday.com)

Paul McCartney, Fool on the Hill (image courtesy beatlesbyday.com)

Here’s the thing about Paul. As I have written before on more than one occasion, McCartney rubs a lot of people the wrong way. He’s the most musically gifted of The Beatles (though George Harrison fans would likely argue) and in some ways the most creative force in the band (which will likely make John Lennon fans see red). He has even been accused of being an occasional threat to Ringo’s self-esteem (unjustified) which seems unconscionable, especially to the most lovable Beatle’s fans.

Here’s some truth that I doubt anyone would deny: Paul was and is the most driven Beatle, the one who wanted/needed to achieve. In a very real way, that has made him odd man out, even within The Beatles. Even within that close knit band of brothers, he felt his differentness. Continue reading

The Beatles remind us: there’s a place…

“There’s a Place” anticipates the musical breakthrough that would come for the band with 1965’s Rubber Soul.

“There…is a place/Where I can go/When I feel low/When I feel blue…” – John Lennon, Paul McCartney

The Beatles in all the Edenic glory (image courtesy Time.com)

The Beatles in all the Edenic glory (image courtesy Time.com)

The English composer and musicologist Wilfrid Mellers, in his now classic scholarly study of the Beatles, Twilight of the Gods,  calls the early Beatles period, the period of screaming girls and “yeah, yeah, yeah,” their “Edenic” period. In his study, Mellers give particular attention to “There’s a Place,” the American “B-side” (there’s a quaint old term for you) to their iconic cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout.”

Given that the song wallows in obscurity in the Fabs’ canon, you must be wondering why Professor Mellers chose to give it serious scholarly attention and why I would choose it as the subject of of an essay. Other sources report that while John, Paul, George, and Ringo originally had high hopes for the song, that they themselves lost interest caused possibly by its having been a bit of a struggle for them to record. From being a song they expected to be their next #1, “There’s a Place” ended up as album filler and a B-side to a popular cover song.

As both Professor Mellers and I will argue, that’s a bad underestimation of what really is one of their finest early tunes. Continue reading

Why our anti-Trump marches matter: the counterintuitive lesson of Africa’s “big men”

trumpRecent anti-Donald protests are hugely important, although maybe not for the reason you think.

I keep wanting to write an article on how similar Donald is to the Big Men of Africa, and I keep losing the will to live whenever I start … After all, the South African Truth Commission final report is a public document. If you want to know how this ends, go read it.

However, don’t think that he’s starting a new fascist state. This is about ties of blood.

If you look to Zimbabwe, Kenya, Nigeria … any of the places ruled by Big Men … they work with what they have to create a support base. The best way to do that is tribalism. Create an in-group derived from your own tribe. Then bind that tribe to you. And you do that through violence.

The in-group must be told they are superior to the out-group. Change the law to subject the out-group to brutal discrimination and suppression. Ensure that there is real violence.

Let it simmer. Continue reading

John Lennon reaches Across the Universe…

Lennon once said that he likes the lyrics of “Across the Universe” perhaps the best of all the songs he wrote with The Beatles.

“When you’ve seen beyond yourself, then you may find, peace of mind is waiting there.” – George Harrison

John and Yoko (image courtesy Vanity Fair)

John and Yoko (image courtesy Vanity Fair)

Recent news reports have noted that the best selling book at Amazon is currently George Orwell’s classic novel of dystopian horror, 1984. Given our national circumstances, I suppose this could be seen as a positive, an effort on the part of at least some of the populace to educate themselves, even if a significant number of others in the populace (including me) wish that this sudden urge toward historical and cultural literacy had occurred before a certain November event.

Such, such is life, as the poet says. We seem only to want to listen to our poets and sages in times of distress.

There are some who, in the face of what certainly feels like imminent disaster, keep telling us that, to quote the mystic, “All shall be well.” It is difficult to the level of impossibility, however, to emulate the purity and power of a Julian of Norwich’s faith which is roughly the level of faith needed these days.  What are we of little faith to do?

Well, we can listen to “Across the Universe.”
Continue reading