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The Beatles Songs “In Their Lives” And Ours

June 19, 2017
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The Beatles performing on The Ed Sullivan Show

About 2/3 of the way through Robert Draper’s fine book Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History, he writes about a meeting between Jann Wenner and Charles M. “Chuck” Young at the magazine’s New York City office following the memorial for John Lennon. Wenner, of course, was the co-founder, magazine editor and publisher of the magazine (he’s still the publisher), and while he had been a rebel in his teen years and turned to rock music as an outlet for that rebellion, he was now embracing, and publicizing, rock music as celebrity. Young, another teen rebel in many ways, embraced a type of rebellious music (the punk music of the 70’s, in New York but especially in Britain) that offended Wenner, and sought to distance the music from celebrity worship, which he thought cheapened it (one of the few tastes the two of them shared was a love of the Rolling Stones, but even here, Wenner was more a Mick Jagger guy, while Young was more Keith Richards). At the meeting, Wenner, who was still teary-eyed, gushed to Young about the music played at the ceremony. Young, not a Beatles fan in general, said he hated it because, “They played his most insipid shit, and they didn’t play a single rock-n-roll song.” Wenner, who was left speechless at first, replied that he thought it would have been inappropriate.

Draper was obviously using this as a way to illustrate the difference between the two on this and rock music in general, and was clearly on Young’s side. When I first read the book (not long after it came out), I have to admit, though, I was on Wenner’s side; at a memorial service for a giant such as Lennon, what was wrong with being sentimental? Now, however, I’ve come back to Young’s and Draper’s point of view, though for different reasons. As with all other pop culture from the 1960’s (as well as before and after), the Beatles, and Lennon, have been placed in a nostalgia box, with all of the rough edges sanded off, so people can feel comfortable with them. There’s something more particular about the way it’s been done with the Beatles, however, as if those who are guarding the legacy of Lennon and his former group are trying to purge any hint of Charles Manson or Albert Goldman from memory, lest it taint the group. While this is understandable, it’s also resulted in some bland tributes over the years (case in point; the Grammy’s 50 year tribute to them, enlivened only by Dave Grohl’s rousing version of the rarely-played Beatles’ song “Hey Bulldog”). So I was skeptical in checking out In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs, edited by Andrew Blauner (with a note from Paul McCartney), as it might have been just another example of this. Fortunately, the book is much more idiosyncratic, and enjoyable, than that.

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Blauner, who has edited other anthologies (on baseball, Central Park, and Boston, among other topics), was able to get 28 writers (and one add-on; author Francine Prose, of Household Saints and other works, also included a contribution from her granddaughter Emilia Ruiz-Michels), and from a wide variety of backgrounds. Rosanne Cash and Shaun Colvin are singer-songwriters, Bill Flanagan, David Hadju, Alan Light, and Jon Pareles are music critics (for Flanagan, Hadju and Light, among other things), David Duchovny is an actor, Prose, Peter Blauner, Amy Bloom, Pico Iyer, Rick Moody, Joseph O’Neill, Elisa Schappell, Mona Simpson, and Jane Smiley are novelists, Roz Chast is a cartoonist, Chuck Klosterman and Touré are cultural commentators, Gerald Early is a college professor, Thomas Beller, Nicholas Davidoff, and Alec Wilkinson are non-fiction writers, Rebecca Mead writes and oversees the “Talk of the Town” section for The New Yorker (several contributors, including Wilkinson, either are contributors to the magazine or have written for it in the past), Maria Popova is a blogger about books, Ben Zimmer writes about language for The Wall Street Journal and other publications, Adam Gopnik is a book critic for The New Yorker, and John Hockenberry is a journalist for NPR. So they each bring their own experiences to the Beatles songs they write about.

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Playing their last concert at Shea Stadium

Many of the people writing in the book were children when the Beatles first came to America, so we get a lot of personal reminiscence. Chast writes about how “She Loves You” felt like an introduction to a world she didn’t even know existed (she was almost nine years old when it came out), Bloom (who writes about “Norwegian Wood”) and Smiley (who tackles “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”) both talk about seeing the band on The Ed Sullivan Show the first time, Mead writes movingly of how she links “Eleanor Rigby” with her childhood friend Chrissie and her family (likewise, Beller partly associates “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” with a friend named Brian and his family, though whom he first heard the band). Popova mentions “Yellow Submarine” was a song her parents used to sing to summon her, Early remembers “I’m a Loser” as a song he latched on to even though the African-Americans he grew up with largely dismissed it (as well as the band in general), and Zimmer links his love of “I Am the Walrus” with his childhood love of “inspired nonsense” such as Lewis Carroll (whose works inspired the song).

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Their animated characters in Yellow Submarine.

But you also get people diving into the history of the songs they write, or looking at the structure of the lyrics and music. Of course, from the critics, this is expected, and you get some ace work here. Pareles, the music critic for The New York Times, talks about the way “Tomorrow Never Knows” was put together, from Lennon’s lyrics being inspired by Timothy Leary and Gandhi, to the Indian instruments George Harrison contributed, to the magnetic tape sound Paul McCartney came up with, to Ringo Starr’s drum work. Light mentions how McCartney’s bass line in “I Saw Her Standing There” is derived from Chuck Berry’s song “I’m Talking About You”. And Hadju writes how “You Know My Name (Look Up My Number)” was inspired by Lennon and McCartney’s shared love of “The Goon Show”, as well as them making fun of the entertainers of their parents’ generation. But they’re not the only ones who break down the songs like this. Mead, in her chapter on “Eleanor Rigby”, also discusses the real people the song was based on, as well as mentioning the different parts each band member came up with (Starr was the one who came up with Father McKenzie “darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody there”). Simpson discusses the article that apparently inspired “She’s Leaving Home”, as well as the fact Lennon’s chorus in the song (“We struggled hard all our lives to get by”) was inspired by things his Aunt Mimi (his guardian growing up) said to him. And though Iyer says he isn’t a particularly big fan of the band (Van Morrison, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell – three artists I personally revere as well – he says are more his speed), he’s able to dissect how the simplicity of the lyrics and music make it work for him.

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On the Magical Mystery Tour.

“Yesterday”, of course, is one of the Beatles’ songs that’s always talked about, and the book does hit some of the more obvious songs, like “She Loves You”, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, “Eleanor Rigby” (which is my personal favorite of their songs), and “A Day in the Life”, among others. But the book also includes songs that aren’t as well-remembered. In addition to “You Know My Name (Look Up My Number)” (which Hadju admits is usually listed among the worst songs they ever wrote and recorded by the band), there’s also Touré writing about “The Ballad of John and Yoko” (inspired partly by Lennon’s newfound love of Yoko Ono, but also of his weariness with life in the band after the backlash caused by his notorious “we’re more popular than Jesus” remark), Blauner tackling “And Your Bird Can Sing” (one of the best and most overlooked songs from Revolver), Wilkinson discussing “She Said She Said” (another one of the underrated songs on Revolver, and inspired by something Peter Fonda said to Harrison after a bad LSD trip), and Duchovny writing about “Dear Prudence” (from my personal favorite Beatles’ album, The White Album; it was inspired by Mia Farrow’s sister “Prudence”, who had gone to India the same time as they did, to meet the Maharishi). And while there’s no mention of Albert Goldman, Klosterman goes head-on with the issue of Manson in discussing “Helter Skelter”.

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Performing on the rooftop while recording the Let it Be movie/album.

Along with songs that aren’t as well remembered, you also get aspects of the band that aren’t as well remembered. The image of Lennon that’s pushed today is the peace lover, the one who sang “Imagine” and “Instant Karma” (two songs I like a lot, btw), but we forget the impish humor Lennon had, as well as the wordplay (as discussed in the chapters on “I Am the Walrus” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”), and the incisive social observer of “A Day in the Life”, as Davidoff points out in his chapter. With the sentimentality of his solo works (which isn’t always earned), it’s easy to forget not only McCartney’s brilliance as a songwriter with the band, but also the technical sharpness he brought to the studio work (as Blauner admits, McCartney only contributed about 20 percent to “And Your Bird Can Sing”, but the song wouldn’t work nearly as well without it). When Harrison is mentioned in the context of the band, it’s often about the Eastern influences he brought to the table, but he could be as simple, direct, and powerful as McCartney and Lennon, as Prose discusses in her essay on “Here Comes the Sun”. Finally, Starr may have been the one who was most overlooked in the band, but as mentioned above, he contributed a key lyric to “Eleanor Rigby”, he sang a few of their most enjoyable songs, such as “Yellow Submarine” and “Octopus’ Garden” (as Schappell discusses in her chapter), and it’s his voice leading the chorus in the middle of the medley that gives Abbey Road its climax (as well as the drums that dominate the first part of the final part of the medley); “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End” (as Moody illustrates in his chapter).

Many books have been written about the Beatles, and doubtless many more will be written about them in the future (Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn recently released the first of what is to be a trilogy of books about the band). It’s important to remember, however, they should be treated as a band, not as an institution, and books like In Their Lives go a long way towards making sure that happens.

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From → Books, Music

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