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)
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.)