The Beatles’ playfully creative upbeat tunes buoy my spirits as I grade student essays. Mostly I play late albums, usually Abbey Road or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Sometimes The Beatles (aka The White Album) or Magical Mystery Tour. Since I’m a boomer, this choice is freighted with nostalgia. One of these days, I’ll burst into tears. I’m getting choked up right now, listening to John Lennon’s surreal reminiscence, “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Oh, that tender musical intro by Paul McCartney . . . his Mellotron keyboard a ghostly calliope.That is you can't, you know, tune in But it's all right That is I think it's not too bad —“Strawberry Fields Forever”
And how is it possible that McCartney follows “Strawberry Fields” on Magical Mystery Tour with his own masterpiece musical memoir, “Penny Lane”?
It’s not possible. But there it is.
So mostly my listening experience is characterized by my amazement of the band’s artistry and output. They became such sophisticated musicians (a nod here to their great teammate, producer George Martin), and as they grew they created songs of delicious musical complexity and thematic richness.
With the Internet at my fingertips as I grade (students’ longer essays are in digital form, so I’m using my laptop), I can look up lyrics. Or more often, I peruse the songs’ composition histories and recording accounts on Wikipedia. I grew up listening to the Beatles and other great music of the 1960s and ’70s, and so it seems to me now that I couldn’t have known how great they were. They just were. There. In the air.
Yet I recall how special they were to us. I wrote once here about listening to their first albums in my big sister’s bedroom and feeling a portal to adolescence and art open. With age and Wikipedia, my admiration of the Beatles is, if nothing else, more informed.
And I have a new, embarrassing admission. Having written a book, I feel my appreciation for their constant creation is deeper than it used to be. One book—though seven years of endless writing—and I identify with them. With their use of stray bits, stuff grabbed from the news, their passing moods and odd encounters. Their lives.
The word for them, I believe, is protean. Me, maybe not so much. Yet my memoir, all six versions, one glitch fixed after another, was my own Magical Mystery tour into my past.
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Bill Roorbach pointed out in a recent post, “Art is the solving of problems.” And boy, were the Beatles always solving problems in their decade together. Like 67 takes to get a song right (George Harrison’s “Long, Long, Long” in the White Album sessions). Always trying stuff, they were. More cowbell! Handclaps? Sure.Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes There beneath the blue suburban skies —“Penny Lane”
In their wild messy crucible, the only constant was constant work. They were working hard, when they were. And they were loose too, getting each other in the mood, goading each other on.
McCartney was incredibly prolific, and I think he helped Lennon by pressuring him to produce. Of course their talents were complementary. McCartney’s seem more diligently worked, and recognizably draw on various traditions; Lennon’s appear more artistically intuitive, and more often their result is abstract, elusive. The prime example being “Strawberry Fields” vs. “Penny Lane.” I’m drawn constantly to the mazy former song, though probably I love more of McCartney’s songs than Lennon’s.
After their intense recording sessions, Lennon suffered creator’s remorse. In later years he’d accuse McCartney of being careless with his songs—and even of sabotaging them (including, incredibly, given McCartney’s sensitive playing on it, “Strawberry Fields Forever”; Rolling Stone ranks it number three on its list of 100 greatest Beatles songs, so Paul didn’t hurt it too badly). Now, I doubt I’d like either genius Beatle as a person—my hypothetical personal affection goes to George and Ringo—but Lennon and McCartney were too much the pros for such nonsense. They sang together, for a time, when they were hardly speaking.
Here’s a discussion, from Wikipedia, about Lennon’s waffling over his great song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” inspired by his son Julian’s drawing:
In later interviews, Lennon expressed disappointment with the Beatles’ arrangement of the recording, complaining that inadequate time was taken to fully develop his initial idea for the song. He also said that he had not sung it very well.
In the end, the work you make transcends the effort you make. If you are lucky. Anyway, what you got when you were trying hard is what you got. Whether it takes seven years to write a book or 67 takes for one song. Lennon couldn’t accept that. And maybe to a degree anyone who creates feels that way.
Perfection is not only elusive, it’s impossible. Art is a handmade, human thing.
Or so I think today, grading these essays, one Beatles tune at a time. Gettin’ by with a little help from my old friends.