The Fire Alarm (A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #30)

firealarm

We were in the middle of a dorm war. Every morning between one and three a.m., a resident of some enemy dorm pulled our fire alarm. Presumably someone from our dorm was doing the same at some dorm across campus.

In this war I was a mere civilian. A pacifist, a bystander, a protestor. And every night I was part of the collateral damage.

I was as young and stupid as anyone else, and I vaguely regretted that I was not out there, scheming, pranking, doing college things. Going to parties, meeting new people, heading out on unplanned road trips, horsing around in creative and astonishing ways. I did none of that, and part of me felt I was missing something important.

Frankly I was barely surviving at this place, and I was on the verge of losing my academic scholarship. Pranks were a luxury I could not afford.

And so after ten days of dragging myself out of bed, alarm horns blaring in my ear, I had had enough. Dorm wars? Not for me. I was one of the ones who demanded some action from the administration, which started with an angry meeting with our resident head, Brian.

Brian was a PhD student with a Dutch wife, a beard, and a baby, all of which impressed me. Brian was known as a hands-off resident head who didn’t care about the students experimenting with illegal substances as long as they did it in their rooms and kept the doors closed. (“I”m not a policeman,” was his resident-head mantra.)

We didn’t expect answers from Brian. Brian brought in the director of campus security, who gave us no answers either. Taking the issue seriously, measures were being taken, perpetrators would be brought to justice, penalty would be swift and severe, anyone with any information blah blah blah.

And then, on the eleventh morning, as we groaned and cursed and dragged ourselves out of bed for yet another two a.m. trip to the night streets of Chicago, a thought jumped into my head. Not even a thought. An impulse. But one with a whole wave of thoughts behind it.

The alarm was already going, the fire truck was on its way. Students were already walking out the exits. There was an alarm in our lobby. It was unpulled. And that was my thought:

I should pull it.

What compelled me to think of such a thing? In a strange way I saw it as my reward. Hadn’t I gotten up every morning for ten days straight?

A reward? Let me explain. Continue reading

The Beatles and You: Finding Inspiration in Abbey Road’s “The End”

Ugh, my big plans for the blog this year have run into some real-life snags. More posts soon, I promise!

On the other hand, I’ve been enjoying this trip through the Beatles catalog and exploring the genius and creativity behind it. So here we go with another spin of our Jacke Wilson Randomizer… the wheel spins… the marble drops into place… and…

Oh no. Really?

The End (Lennon-McCartney, Abbey Road)

(The clip is of three final songs* of Abbey Road, Golden Slumbers, Carry That Weight, and The End. This is the recommended way to listen to The End (it builds, it builds, it builds!). The End starts at 3:07 if you want to skip ahead.)

*Yes, I’m aware of the mistake-snippet Her Majesty that got tacked onto the end of Abbey Road. And no, I’m not counting it. In this post, we shall end with the proper end. The End.

THE SELECTION

Never has it been more difficult to stick to the song chosen by the gods! If I was doing this in any sort of order that made sense, The End would come last. Because, of course, it was The End for the Beatles: the final song on the final album they recorded, the majestic triumph Abbey Road. The story goes that after the bitterness of Let It Be, they agreed to close out the Beatles with a real album, a spectacular one, one with George Martin at the helm and the four of them applying their powers in a final unified way. An album by a band, not just four individual musicians working sort-of-together a la the White Album.

So Abbey Road was the end. And The End was the end of the end.

How do you cap off such a preternatural run of brilliance? For a brief period these guys owned the world. Music and inspiration flowed through them like the spirit of God flowing through four angels.

Yes, I can get carried away. But come on! Here’s a list of the 100 greatest Beatles songs, presented by Rolling Stone. Number 100 is Hello, Goodbye. Number 100! A catchy, compelling song that beat out I Am the Walrus to be the A side!  (For more Walrusing, check out our last choice of the gods.) And perhaps most to the point, a song that was a number-one hit.

What other band has a song that went to number one as their 100th-greatest song? Really, you have a band in mind? Well, tell me: did they write all the songs themselves? In seven years ?

For that kind of whirlwind achievement I think you need to look across centuries. Who else is comparable? Keats? Shakespeare? Picasso? Mozart? Bach? Alexander the Great?

CLIMBING THE FINAL PEAK

So what do you do when you’ve done everything possible? For the Beatles, you top yourself, once again, with something new. That’s The End.

Oh, sure, you say. The End isn’t even the best song on the album! There’s Oh! Darling, for example, and Here Comes the Sun, and of course the Medley from Heaven, and the criminally underrated You Never Give Me Your Money (listen to this podcast episode for a brilliant and amusing defense of the song). Come Together was on this album! And Something!

Where does The End fit among all this genius?

Those other songs are like the brilliant plates brought out near the end of the seven-year feast we’ve all had together. The End is the little cup of espresso at the end. The perfect finisher. A last burst of taste for the palate, a last bit of energy for the road.

The other songs on Abbey Road set the table. The End clears it.

The End tells you exactly why the Beatles were brilliant. It tells you that the phenomenon of the Beatles are finished. And it tells you what it means that the finish has arrived.

People. It’s The End.

THE MESSAGE

These were rough days. Filming the Let It Be movie had been a disaster. Things were falling apart; the center did not hold. Bickering had set in. The four of them knew the band was breaking up—had already broken up, essentially—and that things would never be the same. It was a time for looking back on what had just happened. The people inside the maelstrom, the only ones who could really know what it was like to be in the middle of all that chaos, all that creative fervor, were about to tell us what it had all meant.

What is the essence of the Beatles? How about this (actual lyrics):

Oh yeah, all right
Are you gonna be in my dreams tonight?

Love you, love you
Love you, love you
Love you, love you
Love you, love you
Love you, love you
Love you, love you
Love you, love you
Love you, love you
Love you, love you
Love you, love you
Love you, love you
Love you, love you

Twenty-four love yous! They loved us! They loved us all! It’s love, baby, it’s what we need, and it’s All We Need!

Years later, Ringo would talk about how proud he was that the ultimate message of the Beatles had always been (and will always be) Love. Their trajectory could have gone a lot of different ways. It arced toward Love. It culminated in The End.

Here’s the final word. The philosophical lesson they’ve learned. Our words to live by. Our example to follow:

And in the end, the love you take
is equal to the love you make.

That’s the message from the Beatles:

That’s it, people! That’s what we were! That’s what we stood for! Now get out there and share the love! You’ll be a better person for it!

IN THE END IS A BEGINNING

Here’s one of my favorite Abbey Road stories. On Because, the Beatles sing in a beautiful, all hands on deck harmony. Actually, the song is sung by John, Paul, and George. They then triple the voices, so the three of them are singing in nine-part harmony. It took the three of them all day to do it. Do yourself a favor: put in headphones and listen to this for two minutes:

Love is all, love is new. Love is all, love is you. Beautiful. And very John.

But wait: what about Ringo? No drums on this. And he wasn’t part of the harmonizing. So where was he?

This is the part of the story I love: Ringo sat in a chair as the other three sang. He was there just… well, because.

Several people commented that when all four Beatles were in the same room, the atmosphere changed. One Beatle was powerful enough, two or three was almost intimidating. But when all four were together, something magic happened. A kind of electricity. A powerful, otherworldly force surrounded them all. People who experienced it often—like George Martin—would warn new employees that it was about to happen. You’re about to enter a room with all four of the Beatles, and when that happens, something powerful occurs. Be ready. Brace yourself. Hang on.

And so Ringo sat there with the others as they harmonized for the last time. They didn’t need his voice, but they needed his presence. He was part of the special chemistry they had. Without him, the others might not have blended. Without him, the electrochemical reactions might not have occurred.

He knew he was part of the magic.

That’s all in the song Because, which kicks off Abbey Road‘s second side, the side that runs through the Medley, and culminates in The End.

And in The End, as in Because, the band is tight, the musicianship is perfect, the magic is happening. But there’s a difference. In Because, you can’t pry the Beatles apart with a crowbar. But in The End, you hear all four of them as individuals.

What do they do? They trade solos. And yet it’s a perfect act of togetherness.

What do Romeo and Juliet do when they first meet one another?  They speak these lines:

ROMEO [To JULIET]

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

JULIET

Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.

ROMEO

Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

JULIET

Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

ROMEO

O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

JULIET

Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.

ROMEO

Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.

Do you notice what that is? They are speaking lines separately, of course (soloing!). But taken together, their lines form a perfect Shakespearean sonnet, fourteen lines with three ABAB quatrains and a rhyming couplet at the end.

So here the Beatles are, trading solos and yet uniting one last time, in a two and a half minute rock-and-roll version of a sonnet.

Did Shakespeare think his audience would catch that? I think he felt it was right, and he trusted that the audience would feel what he felt. So too the Beatles.

Here we are, they seem to be saying. All four members of this divine supergroup. And all four have our own personalities, and can do our own thing, and yet we can make this happen together. That’s what we feel right now, and that’s what we feel that you’ll feel when you hear it, even if none of us are thinking this through.

Paul claimed that you could hear the personalities of each Beatle in their solo, and it’s easy to do once you know what to listen for.

Listen again to those solos (they start at 0:53 of this clip).

First comes Paul, fluttering in the window, first to arrive, like a bird who chirps nine different melodies before breakfast, just because the sun is rising, he’s happy, and song is what he was put on this planet to do. George is next, the quiet one soaring to the heavens, lifting himself spiritually, doing more with less, exercising restraint, shedding the ego in a search for higher meaning. And then John: caustic, driving, grungy, dirty, selecting a dark palette of notes and pushing them forward in a sneering melody, making his guitar go, making it move, insisting. Each of the three gets three chances. Nine voices started the album side. Nine guitar solos end it. (Oh, how they loved that number.)

That’s what we got from each of them as Beatles: the combination of those talents that together made everything sing. And now, looking forward, we would be able to hear them in their solo careers, where they would give us the purer version of each of the three talents. That’s what the song is. It’s a reminder of the past and a look to the future, all at once.

And Ringo? Ringo has a drum solo. He hated drum solos—he liked being in the group, supporting the others, blending in. But the others encouraged him to add a solo, his first and only solo with the Beatles, and he came through perfectly: eight bars of his metronomic timekeeping, in his left-handed-unique-style drumming.

The others made him do it because they knew what was happening.

Yes, Ringo. A solo. You too will need to be on your own soon.

A POP QUIZ

Q: Who was the only Beatle to release two full-length solo albums in 1970 (the year the Beatles broke up)?

A: Ringo Starr.

A QUOTE

I’ve talked before about John’s honesty, and about how his generous admiration for Paul. Yoko once compared Paul to a Salieri envious of John’s Mozart, but John didn’t see it that way. He knew genius when he saw it, and his honesty compelled his recognition that Paul’s gifts were at least equal to his own and in some ways probably exceeded him (just as his own genius at times surpassed Paul).

Even in the area typically thought of as John’s strength—that he was the deeper thinker, or the better lyricist—John’s honesty compelled him to recognize that Paul could be just as good. Here he is talking about The End:

“That’s Paul again … He had a line in it, ‘And in the end, the love you get is equal to the love you give,’ which is a very cosmic, philosophical line. Which again proves that if he wants to, he can think.””

The Beatles would never have happened without John’s honesty and willingness to recognize Paul’s greatness.

Listen for that as those guitar solos trade off against each other: the admiration the three have for each other. The admiration, the excitement, and the love.

It was the spirit that had formed them since the beginning. Had John been envious and protective of his own superiority and smaller-souled than he was, he’d have kept the others out altogether. The Beatles would not have happened.

ANOTHER QUOTE (A COMPILATION)

John Lennon on the day he met Paul McCartney:

“It was through Ivan that I first met Paul. So one day when we were playing in Woolton, he brought him along. We can both remember it quite well. The Quarry Men were playing on a raised platform and there was a good crowd because it was a warm , sunny day. We talked after the show and I saw he had talent. He was playing guitar backstage, doing ‘Twenty Flight Rock’ by Eddie Cochran. I was very impressed by Paul playing ‘Twenty Flight Rock’. He could obviously play the guitar. I half thought to myself, ‘He’s as good as me.’ I’d been kingpin up until then. Now I thought, ‘If I take him on, what will happen?’ It went through my head that I’d have to keep him in line if I let him join. But he was good, so he was worth having. He also looked like Elvis. I dug him. Was it better to have a guy who was better than the people I had in? To make the group stronger, or to let me be stronger? Instead of going for the individual thing we went for the strongest format-equals.”

Equals. The strongest format of all.

ONE MORE USE FOR THE END

Surprise!

(Listen at the 2:00 mark.)

ONE QUICK TAKE FROM IAN MACDONALD

On the song’s final few seconds:

In conclusion, McCartney touches for the last time on the poignant A minor of You Never Give Me Your Money for the famous line ‘The love you take is equal to the love you make,’ landing unexpectedly – if, in terms of the Medley’s overall key-structure, logically – on a sadly smiling C major.

A sadly smiling C major! That’s so true!

I’ve cued it up here:

Here’s Christian Schubart, an eighteenth-century music theorist on the personality of C major:

C major: Completely pure. Its character is: innocence, simplicity, naïvety, children’s talk.

Using C major—C major—for the final chord of the album side, but bending all that simple, naïve innocence into a sadly smiling triumphant farewell…good lord, could anything be more perfect?

It reminds me of the day I watched my oldest head off to kindergarten. And he climbed the bus, with his little backpack and its note telling people his name and who his teacher was in case he arrived at school and forgot, and he climbed right on board by himself and didn’t even turn around to wave. He was ready. His independence was beginning,. And our five-year stretch of parenting, where he was dependent on us for everything and where our most important job was to keep him healthy and happy, and which we alone were responsible for, was ending.

That’s what we did, I realize now. His mother and I waved at his smiling silhouette in the window, the silhouette that was looking forward and not back, the two of us choked up by the ending of the five-year cocoon we had provided for him, and which had felt so important and vital and essential to his development. But we were also smiling with pride at the butterfly with the little blue backpack who was more than ready to fly.

Proud, teary smiles. A sad and smiling C major. That chord has in it everything I felt that morning. Years of my life culminated into that one moment on the sidewalk, and all of it captured and expressed in one perfect chord.

Man. Is there any doubt that these guys were channeling the music gods?

AND ONE FINAL QUOTE

Ringo Starr:

Yes, I was in the Beatles. Yes, we made some great records together. Yes, I love those boys. But that’s the end of the story.

Sometimes it has to be over. All things must pass. It is the nature of stories, and bands, and people. It is the essence of time. It is what it means to be human.

It is The End. And that is all right.

UNLOCK YOUR INNER BEATLE!

Something in your life is not working. Don’t be afraid of change. Instead, use all your creative gifts to put the finishing touches on the thing you know must end. End it with a flourish, end it with something new and perfect you’ve never created before. And then, look to your new future with anxiety (but not fear), with sadness (but not sorrow), and above all with courage and excitement and the joy of new experiences. And love.

Happy Monday, everyone! Be creative! Love one another!

Embrace Your Inner Beatle! (“I Am The Walrus”)

Whoa. The dice tumble, the dial spins…and the gods have chosen!

Oh, ye gods. What a sense of humor you have.

A work of genius? Yes. It’s a big one this time. A landmark in weird, mindblowing creativity. In context, maybe the strangest song ever written, and yes, I’m including Revolution 9 in that calculus. I think this song is stranger.

Yes, that’s right, we’ve landed on…

“I Am The Walrus” (Magical Mystery Tour, Lennon-McCartney)

Man. This is the Beatles in full flower. In fact, it used to scare me a little, when I was ten and listening to these songs for the first time. Not just because of the drugs, although I sensed that something was going on, something that grownups had warned me against. But because it felt to me insane.

There’s a great piece in the Anthology where they talk about John going insane at Shea Stadium. (“A little bit mad,” was Ringo’s quote, I think.) Look at him in this video, especially at the end:

That look—wild, exhausted, exhilarated, sweating, grinning, tipped out of our normal world and entering into some strange manic place—I’m not sure John intended to travel to this place, but whenever he found himself there, he knew what to do.

(Was it because of all the pain he had repressed? Maybe! And on top of all the pain we looked at the last time, there was new, fresh pain to deal with (or not). This song was recorded eight days after their revered manager Brian Epstein suddenly died.)

Onto the Walrus! What the hell is the walrus? Or semolina pilchard? Crabalocker fishwife? Yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye? What did any of it mean? Or was the meaning that there was no meaning? You could scribble, scribble, scribble all the speculation you want on this (and I’m sure many others have), but what did the Beatles think of it?

One thing seems clear: they knew it was crazy. You don’t wear a 18th-century madman’s cap (that white egglike thing on John’s head) or dress up in fuzzy animal costumes and masks if you’re singing a normal song.

You don’t wear the madman’s cap for “In My Life.” You don’t put on the costumes for “Yesterday.”

What an evolution. In 1962 the Beatles were nervously flubbing their audition with Decca,, running through Buddy Holly and Phil Spector songs.

Listen to Paul’s voice quiver on the Broadway chestnut “‘Til There Was You”:

He sounds terrified! And now, by the time they get to Walrus in 1967, they’ve got Hard Day’s Night and Help! and “Penny Lane” and “Nowhere Man” and Sgt. Pepper and “Michelle” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” and a hundred other songs you’ve heard of in their rear-view mirror.

They sang “Besame Mucho” at the Decca audition. Besame freaking Mucho.

From that to Walrus in five years.

You’ve come a long way, baby.

THE MUSIC

Ian MacDonald frames this song in the context of drug raids and a general establishment crackdown on youth in general and the Rolling Stones (who were facing trial on drugs charges) in particular. The droning “semitonal seesaw” was apparently inspired by a police siren heard in the distance as John was sitting down at the piano. He then turned it into “a perpetually ascending/descending M.C. Escher staircase of all the natural major chords.”

You just KNOW Paul had to admire this one. I love that look on his face when he’s playing the bass in the foreground while John’s playing the piano in the background. So serious, so focused on his instrument. Knowing what his partner was up to while he was working on “Your Mother Should Know” and “Hello, Goodbye.” Lovely songs, both, but still. Kind of tame by comparison.

Let’s see, what was Paul’s next recorded song after they recorded Walrus? Let’s take a look. Maybe it will shed some insight into Paul’s view of what was going on with his comrade in arms.

Hmm. Hmmmmmmmm. [looking it up]

Wait, what?

You’re kidding me. “Fool on the Hill”?

You can’t make this stuff up. But there it is. “I Am The Walrus” from John. Then comes Paul with “Fool on the Hill.”

Poor Paul. Sometimes you jump in. And sometimes you can only stand back and marvel.

THE WORDS

Childhood rhymes, playful nonsense, nods to Lewis Carroll (the eggman is Humpty Dumpty, the Walrus is from The Walrus and the Carpenter)—much of the time this is viewed as a druggy, tripped-out, meaningless, childish. I think more than a few people dismiss this as just goofing around. There’s an often-cited story in which John heard that people were starting to analyze his lyrics seriously, and so he threw out a bunch of nonsense just to keep them guessing and to make fun of people who overanalyzed them. That’s there, I suppose, but there’s also a much stronger point. This is a boy who had always chafed against the rules. And now he was a man, and the rules were still there.

MacDonald again:

Gradually turning into an angry sequel to the darkly melancholic “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “I Am The Walrus” became its author’s ultimate anti-institutional rant – a damn-you-England tirade that blasts education, art, culture, law order, class, religion, and even sense itself.

The Rolling Stones were on trial. John himself was a few years away from being spied on by the FBI and harrassed by the U.S. government. And it all goes back to the little boy, facing down the “expert-textperts” who crammed pointless facts into his head while missing what was going on his heart.

I’m crying.

Does nobody care?

THE PRODUCER

From engineer Geoff Emerick’s book:

“That one is called “I Am The Walrus” John said. “So, what do you think?”

George [Martin] looked flummoxed; for once he was at a loss for words. “Well, John, to be honest, I have only one question: What the hell do you expect me to do with that?”

So they gave it a score, and added the hee hees and ha has and years later George Martin talked about how he loved the anarchy of John’s mind and tried to enhance it as part of the recordings. And he did, and it was brilliant. But even so: bizarre.

While they were recording John turned on a radio and started fiddling with a knob until he landed on a version of King Lear going out over the BBC. So hey, why not record that and throw it into the mix? You can hear it better here (cued up to the radio fiddling and the play):

This is SUCH a strange song.

A POP QUIZ

Q: In the play King Lear, which character asks the king for an egg?

A: The Fool.

(I did not make that up.)

DOES IT EVER END?

Walrus has spawned all kinds of crazy on youtube. There’s the Frank Zappa version, the Jim Carrey(!) version, the backwards version with its multiple encoded messages, the slowed-down 800% version. There’s some meaning in all of the madness, people are certain. Some communication from other realms. Some larger mysteries revealed.

You can explore all those for yourself. But here’s one I’ll throw in.

What’s the randomly generated shortlink for the I Am The Walrus youtube video? The one I myself chose at random and linked to above?

It’s “youtu.be/eCALeCZe_gg”

Take a look at those last three letters. E underscore GG. Egg.

Yes, we are really through the looking glass on this one.

UNLOCK YOUR INNER BEATLE!

This week, find a safe, quiet place to do your best creative work. Once you are there, take all your inhibitions, ball them up into a fist, and fling them out a window. Leave that window open and see what flies in. Maybe it’s something new and slightly crazy. Or maybe it’s something new and very crazy. Maybe it’s a whole new person, coming to visit. Make friends with that person. Invite the crazy person in, push out a chair, and listen to what he or she has to say. It might be nonsense, but then again it might not be. It might be something that no one else is saying but that needs to be said. It might be you.

Happy Monday, everyone! Koo koo ka choo!

Embrace Your Inner Beatle! Nowhere Man by John Lennon

nowhereman

THE SELECTION

Aha! This week we use the perfect randomizer: four spins of a Life board game dial. Szzzzzzzzz-tika-tika-tika…. and the gods of creativity have chosen!

NOWHERE MAN (LENNON-MCCARTNEY, RUBBER SOUL)

Oh, wow. Once again, the gods seem to have looked out for themselves. Here’s another divinely inspired song, or at least divinely delivered. More on that later.

“Nowhere Man,” from the album Rubber Soul, was written in what John later called his “fat Elvis” period, when he was unhappy, bitter, isolated, troubled, uncertain. Oh, you never knew that? You never knew he was suffering? Here’s Paul:

I think at that point, he was a bit…wondering where he was going, and to be truthful so was I. I was starting to worry about him.

(Gee, Paul, you think? I mean, the guy only wrote a song called Help!) Continue reading

It’s The Jacke Wilson Show! Life’s Unanswerable Questions (Episode 2.1)

jackewilsonshowimage

ONE…ONE ONE…ONE ONE… IT’S THE JACKE WILSON SHOW!!!!!

Season Two! We’re off to a GREAT start with the new Jacke Wilson Show season. New producer, new studio…and a much more professional sheen. In episode 2.1 we cover Life’s Unanswerable Questions, as contributed by you, the listeners.

Hope you enjoy the show!

You can stream the show here:

Or directly download the mp3 file: The Jacke Wilson Show 2.1 – Life’s Unanswerable Questions (part one)

You can also find previous episodes at our Podcast page.

And subscribe to the whole series at iTunes by following this link:

SUBSCRIBE TO THE JACKE WILSON SHOW ON ITUNES

Let me know what you think! Thank you for listening! Continue reading

The Account (A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #29)

intern5

And during those drifting years, when the peaks were low and the valleys were deep, my futility found a particular nadir during my stint on Capitol Hill, where I briefly worked for a United States Senator. I believed in government in those days, and in politicians, and in myself and other young people, and—well, you’ve heard this story before. Young idealist goes to Washington, loses ideals. Ho hum.

This is not that story.

Not exactly, anyway. I could say that this story raises some deep issues about personal identity, origins, and longing for the unattainable, the unrecoverable. I could say it’s about the permanent absence we all hold within us, from the moment we leave the womb to the walk across the high school gym floor to receive our diploma…

I could say that, but we don’t need to be that pompous about it. This is a story about fitting in and not fitting in. That’s it.

(Eh, who am I kidding? I wish it was only that. The truth is that’s it’s a story about more than that. The truth is something much worse.) Continue reading

Embrace Your Inner Beatle! Long, Long, Long by George Harrison

BeatlesWhiteAlbumPortraits

EXPLORING THE TAO TE BEATLES

As with your consultations of the I Ching, trust the gods to select the song to serve as the basis for your creative contemplation. Close eyes. Breathe deep. Open eyes. Work out elaborate system to guarantee randomness that is harder than hell to actually get right. Fill Post-Its with numbers. Throw out. Try again. Try twelve-sided die. Try twelve-sided die and six-sided die in combination. Rip Post-Its into tiny pieces. Say, “F–k you, numbers, start cooperating, this is a spiritual thing!” Finally devise system to produce one song from the Beatles catalog, chosen at random. The gods are pleased: they shall select the song. It is the Way. Move on quickly before mathematical flaws in randomness system become apparent.

Close eyes. Inhale. Exhale, whispering jai guru deva om.

Open eyes and prepare to throw dusty Tibetan coins. Realize you’ve misplaced Tibetan coins. Use two Hungarian forints and a Canadian quarter instead. Trust that it is the Way.

Produce randomly generated song.

#152 – Long, Long, Long (from the White Album)

THE CHOICE

Oh, wow! The first installment and the gods have chosen a George Harrison song! Then again, is that such a surprise? The gods look after their own.

George Harrison was of course the Quiet Beatle. And “Long, Long, Long” is the Quiet Song. Literally, it has to be the quietest song in the entire Beatles catalog. I used to struggle with this as a kid, lying in bed in the darkness in my crackerbox palace listening to the White Album. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if I were asleep or awake. The middle part of the song grows louder, and the ending rises…but for the most part the song drifted in and out of my consciousness like a quasi-dream. The song ends the album’s third side; the needle lifting from the vinyl was louder than the song.

Well, maybe that’s as it should be. The song is addressed to God, and it’s as quiet as a prayer. Not one of the chanting Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep prayers, with a little boy kneeling at the edge of his bed and shouting out what he wants and who he wants blessed. No, this is not that. This is an aching, agonizing search for meaning, full of humility and gratitude and hope. It’s the hushed cry of someone on a lifelong spiritual journey. An imploration. A humble entreaty. Supplication set to music.

It’s been a long, long, long time
How could I ever have lost you
When I loved you?

It took a long, long, long time
Now I’m so happy I found you
How I love you

So many tears I was searching
So many tears I was wasting, oh oh

Now I can see you be you
How can I ever misplace you?
How I want you
Oh, I love you
You know that I need you
Oh, I love you

Wow. Just beautiful.

The Beatles started recording the song at two thirty in the afternoon, worked through the night, and stopped at seven the next morning. There is something so right about this. It’s the long night of a soul not at rest. Or coming to rest, just before dawn.

GENIUS IN THE SHADOWS

What was it like to be George!? Imagine you’re creating something with your closest childhood friend. You’re fourteen or fifteen years old. What do you do together? Play sports? Program computers? Write plays? Okay, let’s say the two of you write plays.

You meet another kid from across town who writes plays too. The three of you write plays together. You’re having a blast. You dream that someday you’ll have a play on Broadway. Why not? Kids are allowed to dream.

You put on a play by, say, August Wilson. Maybe Tony Kushner. Wendy Wasserstein. Throw in a Shakespeare or two to impress the grownups. David Mamet for some street cred. People start coming to the plays! This is fun! The three of you take turns playing the lead parts. People around town start asking when you’re going to be putting on the latest from Suzan-Lori Parks or Tracy Letts. Well, no, you hear your friend say, we actually thought we’d write our own plays. That’s our plan.

Really? you think. Write our own plays? Wow.

And then, by the time you’re twenty, your friend, that kid you knew on the bus when the two of you were anonymous teenagers riding to school, turns out to be THE GREATEST PLAYWRIGHT EVER. Well, maybe except for THAT OTHER GUY YOU MET, who is JUST AS GOOD. And the two of them HAVE DECIDED TO SHARE CREDIT AS CO-AUTHORS OF EACH OTHER’S PLAYS. And THOSE PLAYS ARE SUDDENLY HAILED AS THE MOST POPULAR AND SUCCESSFUL AND CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED PLAYS OF ALL TIME, LEAVING YOU TO WONDER JUST WHOSE IDEA IT WAS TO HIT THE ALL-CAPS BUTTON ON THIS STRANGE CRAZY LIFE YOU’RE SUDDENLY LIVING.

So that’s your new reality: your friend is a genius, as is your other friend, and everyone in the whole world suddenly knows it. But hey, they tell you, you can still be IN our plays, we need actors after all, so we might as well use you, we have some residual loyalty toward you.. And guess what? We’ll still play parts in your cute little plays, when we have some extra time. It’s one of the great satisfactions we have, to see how much success we’ve bestowed upon you! Chin up there, old friend. You’re still one of us. Just, um, don’t forget how lucky you are, ha ha, did we say that? Well, we didn’t have to, because the newspapers are saying it for us. Boy, there are alotta talented actors around who’d love to be in our plays, wouldn’t they? I mean, if you ever decided you wanted to do something else, there would be TONS of actors who…just kidding! Chin up, chin up!

Sound crazy? It’s basically what happened to George. And here’s the thing: GEORGE WAS GREAT TOO. He had to keep up with John and Paul, first of all, which he and Ringo don’t get enough credit for. Paul and John could come strolling in with some brilliant idea for a song as if they had angels humming tunes in their ear (and who knows, maybe they did), but it’s not like they came in with full arrangements and handed out sheet music. They came in with tunes, or ideas, or vague general descriptions (John), or demanding technical specifics (Paul). Imagine if that was you in that band, asked to learn a new song, AND learn to play it in a way that meets the approval of one of two very different creative geniuses, AND come up with a solo or something of your own—something that doesn’t irritate the creative genius but manages to strengthen the song without ruining it. Oh, and of course, you can’t let it sound like anything you’ve done before, because originality is prized. In fact, you might need to do all this on an instrument you just started playing a few days ago.

How long would it take you to come up with your part? What would seem fair? A couple of months? A few weeks?

Well, what if you had a day? Or an HOUR? What if you had to do it on the spot with the tape rolling and John or Paul ASSUMING you could play it right? That was how it was for George and Ringo. And they came through.

But we don’t need to limit George’s genius to his playing, because he himself was a brilliant songwriter. I’m sure we’ll cover those in future weeks (it is the Way) but let’s just note his songs on Abbey Road (“Here Comes the Sun” and “Something”) are as good as anything else on that album. But of course, it was their last album. The Beatles broke up before they could fully harness George’s power as a songwriter. He had just turned twenty-seven.

Read that last sentence again. What have you done with your life?

THE WAY, THE WAY, THE WAY

The mysterious ending of the song was completely fortuitous. Apparently Paul hit a low note on the organ, which caused a bottle of wine sitting on a speaker to vibrate, and…well, listen to this part again. I’ve cued it up to the 2:25 mark:

That’s Paul holding the note, the wine bottle rattling, George wailing, and Ringo rolling with the tremble before George strikes a jangly chord (the minor version of the chord that starts “A Hard Day’s Night”), and Ringo caps things off with the deadening snare drum beat. The coda expresses the theme of the song: it’s the sound of searching and self-annihilation, of life and of death, of questions begetting more questions and resolution without resolution but with resignation and relief—all in one beautiful and eerie and devastating thirty-second stretch. This is where song stretches into sound, just as life stretches into suffering which stretches into understanding and peace. The Beatles didn’t plan any of this (the vibration), but they knew what they had when they heard it. You can almost sense their excitement as they recognize the gift from the sound gods (the divine tremble) and jump on board, as they did whenever the Cosmic Harmony Bus swung by their stop. The Beatles never waved the bus past to wait for the next one. They jumped on and rode as far as they could.

One more time for the tremble:

Man, these Beatles were tapped into something holy. And to think my randomization process, which was designed to allow a spiritual force to select a song from the Beatles catalog, chose THIS song first? The hair on the back of my neck is standing up.

It’s 6:21 a.m. where I am. Time to wrap this up. Something very bad could happen if I don’t finish by seven. Something will be angry. So let’s jump to…

UNLOCK YOUR INNER BEATLE!

This week, apply your creative energies to the deepest and most powerful questions of your personal spiritual journey. Don’t be afraid of exposing emotional vulnerability; recall that only through humility and honesty can you achieve your greatness. Embrace cosmic harmonies and karmic accidents.

(And when all else fails, a little triple-time boogie piano with some aching chord changes (inspired by Dylan’s Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands!) can’t hurt.)

Feel free to share this post with all your creative friends. And if you turn out to be particularly inspired by George and his Song of Search, let me know. Share your thoughts in an email or the comments. Together we can say our quiet thanks to the saintly (and much missed) George Harrison. Spiritual Quester. The Dark Horse. The Quiet One. And our genius in the shadows.

Happy Monday! Have a good creative week, everyone!

(Note: while most of my sources have stretched over too many years for me to try to trace them all, I’m particularly indebted to the excellent book Revolution in the Head by Ian Macdonald.)