The following is an exchange on the subject of
Get Back, Peter Jackson’s exhaustive recalibration of film footage—by Michael Lindsay-Hogg and his documentary team—of The Beatles preparing for the recording of
Let It Be, and the famous rooftop concert of January 30, 1969. The three participants in the exchange were all alive on the day in question and are all lifetime enthusiasts of The Beatles. As with many people in our demographic, we the contributors found that
Get Back was a near constant subject of conversation in December of 2021, and so I aimed to catalogue some of this chatter, among these three close friends, so that, at some point in the distant future, perhaps on or near to the 100th anniversary of the rooftop concert, there would be a record. The contributors are: Adam Braver, novelist, teacher, editor; Marc Woodworth, poet, songwriter, teacher, editor; Rick Moody, novelist, teacher, music columnist. These email exchanges took place from December 2021 to January 2022.–Rick MoodyRick Moody:
How did everyone do with the Twickenham section (episode one) of Get Back?
As a person who has strong feelings about George Harrison’s contribution to the band, there was lots to be sad about in episode one. It establishes the pacing of the whole, the glacial, cinema verité pacing, and establishes a lot of the dynamics. Among the agonies of the Twickenham section is: George is being treated like a session musician, and a session musician of whom Paul (and perhaps John) doesn’t think very much. (Though George just finished writing and recording “While My Guitar Gently Sleeps” and “Long, Long, Long,” etc.) What do you think? Any special thoughts about episode one?Marc Woodworth:
George in episode one is fascinating. He’s entirely self-possessed no matter what the others may think of him as a songwriter or how they may be used to relegating him to a secondary status in the band. He’s pushing back against the location, the idea of a performance as a culmination to the sessions and is very forthright in his often-contrary opinions. At one point, he says “I think we should forget the whole idea of a show,” obscuring a puckish smile when he immediately takes a full-grip drag on his cigarette after floating that thought. But he’s not really kidding. The premise of getting the new material worked up in time and then presenting it in some showcase, TV-broadcast-ready concert seems to him—more than to the others—beside the point: “We’ve only run through about four [songs] and haven’t learnt any at all.” Why worry about the big finish when you don’t even have any songs down? Paul seems most alert to George’s push-backs but doesn’t really engage him on the ones that take the air out of the project as a whole.
We also get the George of “Taxman” with a few more years under his belt, someone who sees where the power lies and calls it out. Paul asks George how they could get an 8-track recorder if they wanted one and George answers, “EMI should do it. If Benjamin Britten wants to do an album in Paris, EMI will get all that shit over to him. We subsidize EMI.” George ends up lending his own 8-track recorder – we see it coming out of the van and into the studio — while noting its cost and wondering if security is good enough at Twickenham to keep it safe.
But for all his hard-headedness, he’s also the George who is writing the profound songs that will appear on the first post-Beatles solo masterpiece any of the four members of the band would make, All Things Must Pass
. The first moment in the film that the performances take on any Beatles-like dimensionality and magic occurs when George brings in “All Things Must Pass.” The harmonies George and Paul sing on the chorus, John’s spare organ progression and Ringo’s familiar fills make it work right away. At this distance from that moment, it’s clear that this song is as strong or stronger than anything that came out of these sessions. It’s easy enough to see the kind of dismissiveness you note, Rick, when Paul, for example, later speaks to George like he’s a session player but I’m not sure that sequence is beyond what happens when most bands work together on songs. Paul hears a certain thing that he doesn’t want in the song he’s written and tells George so. Paul, for example, also suggests what John should sing and in what order during the bridge for “Don’t Let Me Down.” There isn’t really a difference between the tone of that instruction and his interaction with George. It’s Paul being Paul (something that clearly wears most on George). John suggests George change a line of “All Things Must Pass” to “a mind can blow those clouds away,” an edit George accepts. So, some of these interactions are quite functional and equitable. It’s a little hard to tell what’s fraught and what’s not given what we now know about the unravelling of the band. For me, the interactions around the arrangements – which of course become the immediate cause at one point of George leaving the sessions – don’t carry as much weight as a more general and unspoken dismissiveness. If you’re really looking for worthwhile songs for the project, why revisit a handful of apprentice tunes John and Paul wrote when they were 14 and 15 just after George showed you the masterpiece “All Things Must Pass”? Wouldn’t you want to work on that one and hear the other new songs George says he’s written instead? Perhaps it’s a result of the editing of the film that we go from that first version of “All Things Must Pass” to a sense that they’ve forgotten about the song almost immediately and are so desperate for material that they revisit their juvenilia at some length, as entertaining as that proves to be for us. And all the while, the George who is writing his best songs and wants to play a full role in this project is sitting right in front of you.Adam Braver
: It is tempting to think of it as a family matter – John and Paul treating George as though he is the younger sibling in the backseat, forced by their parents to be taken to the drive-in with his older brothers and their dates. But in Episode 1, John and Paul don’t come across as “older brothers” acing out their little brother. Nor is George hardly an appendage. Rick, as you note, not only is this the person who only recently had recorded “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” but he also, in real time, is working out songs like “Something,” as well as revealing the stash of songs that will culminate into All Things Must Pass
, surely one of the greatest, if not the
greatest, post-Beatles album ever recorded. And I’d hope that anyone would be struck by watching just how
musical he was; that is, how much he breathed music. During the down times, say, when Paul is rightfully trying to manage a situation or work out an arrangement, and John might be fooling around, or the film crew is fussing about, we always see George off to the side playing, lost in his guitar. I was especially moved during the well-documented scene when “Get Back” begins to emerge seemingly out of nowhere on Paul’s strummed bass, and George, who along with Ringo is sitting beside Paul, begins to yawn, unconsciously in harmony with McCartney’s burgeoning melody.
But without making excuses, and at the risk of being overly simplistic, what really came across to me was the world within a world in which John and Paul lived with each other. To watch them is to see them occupying a universe separate from everything (and everyone) around them. It’s clearly bigger than each of them, especially when you consider that on the surface, it would be hard to make the case that the two men we’re watching on screen should have such a unique connection. But look at them: I’d swear you could see the impenetrable force field rising up around them, especially when they are working out songs or playing or even sitting quietly in the same space. (Ironic to think that they’d recently been in India to search out the “truth” when it existed between them all the time.)
Nevertheless, it is easy to find it frustrating, especially at the expense of their bandmates—not only with George, but also in the way they seem to leave Ringo out of conversations altogether. Knowingly or not, they are pretty shitty to George, and he knows it. But on the other hand, I still found a beauty in their connection. It is a love at its deepest levels—almost at a theological level, in which their mutual existence transcends circumstance, place, and time into a shared space of purity and truth—all this in spite of the resistance (John) and the desperation (Paul) that is happening in the everyday world of Twickenham Studios. Not only was it so much bigger than them, but it also seemed so intrinsic to them that (in the moment, at least), they couldn’t even recognize the degree of George’s value (“We’ll just get Eric Clapton”), nor the depth of his wound. Yes, it’s so frustrating that they can’t see what is taking place around them. But isn’t it always the case with people deeply in a state of a love?RM:
I’m writing back to you guys now on the date of the announcement of the death of Ronnie Spector. The Beatles toured with the Ronettes, and I think the Ronettes went from being co-headliners on one tour to, later, opening for The Beatles, a sign of their lamentable fortunes. George dated Estelle, Ronnie’s sister. And, later on, George wrote a couple of songs with Ronnie’s voice in mind, and one of them is pretty astounding: “Try Some, Buy Some.” George’s version (with a ridiculous and dazzling and over-the-top orchestral arrangement) is good, but it’s not till you hear Spector’s voice on it that you understand how that melody was supposed to work: https://open.spotify.com/track/4bYpOfPbNe6J8X7ZzPNrA6?si=9b8ee87f456f4dd7
This version comes from an Apple Records compilation that showcases a bunch of things that the band worked on by other people during the waning days. It also includes what I think is another truly standout track, “That’s the Way God Planned It,” by Billy Preston. This is sort of a Derek and the Dominoes track, really, with a healthy dose of gospel and retains the All Things Must Pass
band sound too. It’s just a deeply moving thing. (I just checked the personnel: Preston on organ, Harrison and Clapton on guitars, Keith Richards on bass, and Ginger Baker on drums!)
This reminded me, listening to these songs, to ask you about Preston’s sudden presence in episode two of Get Back.
I think you’re both right about the psychodynamics in Twickenham. It’s deep, and complex, and bigger than they are big. And one of the really arresting moments in the film, after George walks out, is when Paul and Ringo are alone in the studio and Paul looks into the camera, in silence, and then mutters “And then there were two.” He really looks like he’s going to cry, as if only the camera is keeping him from crying.
And yet in episode two, the move back to the Apple headquarters changes the mood a great deal, relieves the claustrophobia, but there’s also the sudden presence of Billy Preston. As a kid, I sometimes disliked Preston’s playing on the album, because all the blue notes, the accidentals, the gospel feel, seemed so different from the harmonic vocabulary of the band. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that I sort of disliked the song “Get Back,” and in some ways still do (I don’t like John’s guitar part!). That said, in the film, when Billy shows up, the vibe changes instantly.
The conventional wisdom has always been that the band didn’t want to look bad in front of him, and they therefore pushed aside some of their quarrels. But from my point of view, based on this footage, it’s the playing
that changes everything. Preston is so generous as a player, so adaptive, so inspiring, so instantly there
providing support for the songs, that it changes the whole outlook for the project. That he’s Black makes it even more inspiring, in a way. We all know that The Beatles supported Black artists, made their indebtedness to Black music plain and refused to perform in segregated venues when touring in the South, but it’s a sign of their responsiveness, and their intuitive progressiveness, that they seem to know instantly that the sound was better with Preston there, and they welcome him in a very gracious way. It’s amazing how he just swung by to say hello, and instantly got drafted in. From the moment that Preston is present, it becomes possible to imagine the rooftop concert, or some concert, as a possibility, whereas before their giving up on the “Get Back” experience did not seem impossible at all.
I want to append a thought onto Adam’s lovely and welcome observation of the warmth between John and Paul here. I agree with what he says. But I also think John is sort of a punk in the Twickenham footage, and later too. Almost all of the unfocussed bullshit in the film, of which there’s a fair amount, is instigated by John, though everyone goes along willingly and there’s apparently also the heroin problem that is barely concealed. (I want to say, of course, that I don’t mind Yoko, don’t find her intrusive in the footage, and love the part where she and Linda are happily chatting with each other!) John just seems to have the attention of a flea. And his songs are markedly diminished in the finished product. I actually like “I Dig a Pony” best, just because that riff is a monster. (I can’t even believe that they are able to play that riff! It’s really proggy and sophisticated!) “Don’t Let Me Down” feels derivative, and John complained the whole time while playing bass on “The Long and Winding Road,” which notwithstanding the underproduced version they play in the film, is one of the great later Beatles songs, in my view. It’s as if John doesn’t know how lucky he is. Which is fine, I guess. He was about to go write “Imagine,” after all. But for my money, one of the weak links in the Get Back
project as a whole is that John Lennon is no longer that focused, productive guy he was just a year or two before.
Thoughts about Preston, the second episode, Lennon?MW:
Listening to those two tracks – Ronnie Spector’s “Try Some, Buy Some” and Billy Preston’s “That’s the Way God Planned It” (that lineup! Holy shit …) — are revelations. And, yes, it does seem that all the bullshit is instigated by John. To wit: under the guise of fraternal joking, he responds to George’s run through of “I Me Mine” in a way that might seem flippant but is pretty harsh in its dismissiveness. As I watch the interactions between The Beatles in the film, I can’t help but remember working with bandmates on songs and recalling how fragile those interactions can be, even at the best of times. The way someone’s eyes look away for a moment at a certain point when you’re trying out new lyrics can make your sense of the song’s – and your own – worth collapse. Of course, George is no wilting violet and shows a lot of self-confidence throughout the film, but here’s John responding to George WHILE he’s playing him a new song: “Just run along son. We’ll see you later. We’re a rock and roll band, you know” (the song is in waltz time and at this point bears no trace of rock and roll—the band later added the heavier “I me me mine” rave-up section). It’s a tune John might place in the category he invented, still being a punk, for Paul’s ‘granny music shit.’ George has already played “I Me Mine” for Paul earlier that morning. He’s written it the night before. For Paul, George is able to play with the excitement he feels for a brand new tune. But playing it later for John, George hams it up and throws the song away even as John talks over him. George quietly responds, “I don’t care if you don’t want it; I don’t give a fuck"— but it’s in the ready casualness that you can feel the affront.
Billy not only brings his beautiful energy into the studio along with his embodiment of the Black American music The Beatles love, but also facilitates a collective memory of ‘the old days,’ as Paul puts it, while John introduces Billy to George Martin. Billy, here, in one sense, IS the ‘old days.’ George Harrison remembers that Billy used to ask them to play "A Taste of Honey” in Hamburg and The Beatles open up immediately, John taking over the song from George to wide smiles all around. Why is it so moving to see The Beatles one by one greet and embrace Billy when he arrives? Have we been starved for an expression of simple, unguarded affection watching the interactions between The Beatles for all the hours leading up to this moment? I’m tempted to say there’s simply an aura of goodness around Billy and this reunion brings an energizing kind of love into the room: love for a past they shared, love for the American music Billy represents and the passion each Beatle has for it, a recognition on some level of the love the four of them have for one another, as well as their love for Billy himself. Immediately, they all want him to play with them and to take on a central role in the project—that itself seems magical. Nothing like that’s ever happened before in the history of the group. Who else could have walked into the room and been embraced like that without a single note of uncertainty or discussion?AB:
I was thinking this evening about having seen Ringo and his All Stars on what I think was their first tour. A pretty amazing band with Joe Walsh and Nils Lofgren on guitars; rhythm section was Ringo, Jim Keltner, and Levon Helm, with Rick Danko on bass; Clarence Clemmons on sax; and on piano, Dr. John and … Billy Preston. As was characteristic of those shows, everyone got a song or two to sing. I can still feel the chills when Billy sang “Nothing From Nothing,” and then “Will It Go ‘Round In Circles.” Early 70s pop to be sure (but early 70s pop that still holds up), but that same energy and presence that we witnessed in the film was on that stage, as well. He not only turned up the passion of the evening, but he also infected it with energy to the point that I remember feeling as though I was no longer observing and/or listening to music, but that I was inside it, rising and falling with each note. Total exhilaration. RM:
Perhaps the last question has to be about the rooftop concert itself. I saw the old version of the film in college, and I think I watched some footage of just the rooftop portion on YouTube at some point not that long ago, which I assume was just excised from the original. All of this earlier material is substantially different from what we see in the Peter Jackson version. Somehow Michael Lindsay-Hogg had an idea of story that I can only assume was sort of BBC-ish, i.e., that any interpersonal drama, no matter how grim, constituted “good story.” But it’s as if he decided this fraught version of the story (based, perhaps, on the band not being much interested in his version of the project) ahead of time, or was unyielding about changing it, so grim is the original version, compared to what we see now. Maybe it’s the man-on-the-street footage that Peter Jackson preserves? Whatever causes it, in this version, there’s something intensely joyful about the rooftop concert. Also, we see them just before, and just after, and even George, who is sort of just being the rhythm guitarist (because John has his awful slide guitar that he has to play on “Get Back,”) is full of joy about the stolen moments on the roof. To me, the whole of Get Back
, in the end, for all its tedium, is about the joy of following through on a creative idea, and it’s all there, in that moment. The performance is electrifying, really, especially the first version of “Get Back,” and also “I’ve Got a Feeling,” which I think is one of the jewels of the set, the singing of the two of them across one another in counterpoint, also George’s amazing lead part on the break. It’s wonderful. Just the fact that they’re performing! That they decided to perform and they performed! This version, the Peter Jackson recut, really captures that creative accomplishment, and the cinema verité six hours that precedes episode three, is really to establish the magnificence of this footage, in this edit. Also, I feel like this bit is a summa
for the reissue project of the last five years. That is, what else is there for them to do now? To make the catalogue fresh? I assume there is not that much left to do. They have issued all the outtakes (and here we have the really great Glyn Johns mixes of Let It Be),
and anything else is sort of in the category of leftovers. It’s now fifty years since this music happened, and kids don’t really give a shit in the way that we do. So what’s left? That they step out on the roof, and with great spirit play these songs live, it’s sort of the last thing that we have of them now. Maybe it’s for us to let go now, too. The McCartney lyrics book really does something similar. Yes, this is high art, and it’s art that we all care about, it’s a cultural product of enormous importance from the time in which it was produced, and the time of this art is now passing away. Maybe this is how we say hail and farewell.AB:
The Rooftop Concert generates so many thoughts, some of which already have been covered in this dialogue. First, I need to say that I did not love the triptych person-on-the-street stylings. While it has been a while since I watched the original Let it Be
film (I think I have a VHS copy in a box in my basement), I do recall that technique also was pervasive in that version. As an occasional cutaway, I suppose it helped to show both the larger perspective of the actual moment at hand, as well as a somewhat heavy-handed validation that The Beatles still mattered — a slightly odd decision, as one imagines that watching them play and seeing them again be “The Beatles” already tells us that. From a filmic perspective, it seemed an odd choice to keep that style to the degree that it did. Again, in small doses it opened up the world beyond the secured bunker we’d been in for the previous seven hours or so, and it gave a little dramatic foil to the two cops trying to follow up on the complaint, but, in truth, by this point, I really just wanted to see The Beatles play. It was the culmination of what the the film had been building to, and although much of the drama of the studio (at least in this film’s version) was a little more subtle and technical, nevertheless I’d been looking forward to the concert being free from that. Yes, one could make the case that despite what I wanted, there was inherent drama in the businessmen’s complaints, the confusion of the cops and their effort to shut it down, etc., but I think there is an argument to be made that from The Beatles’ perspective that there was little drama besides the weather. In fact, watching them play might be one of the purest moments in which we see them being their best. For us, it’s no longer about eavesdropping or getting to be part of the process or even feeling as though we’re part of the crew (all of which I absolutely loved), but it is the moment when all the disparate parts and perspectives and disagreements and respect and love and history come together into the very thing that makes us even want to talk about this fifty years after it happened.
During much of the film, among the band members, Paul is represented as being the most desperate to make a public concert work, with the idea of reminding the others of the passion of playing together, and, at its core, as a way to save the group. True, at various times the other three recognize the need and value, but, at least for the narrative of the film, Paul is cast as the one with the most at stake. And yet watching the Rooftop Concert, it made me think that the desperation to be the group that formed purely from the thrill and love of making music (and especially with each other) must have been shared by all of them. On top of the roof, not only do they all look so happy, but they also seem so together as a band, if just for a few songs. I found myself focused on George (perhaps because the film cast him as the most aggrieved by the process). I’m thinking of “Get Back.” As Rick makes the case, John’s guitar lead and riffs musically don’t really help the song (despite it now being unimaginable to hear it any other way), and momentarily I found George’s talents underused. But then watching him chug the rhythm line (and thinking back to the many rehearsals of it we’d witnessed), I came to realize not only how essential his contribution is to the song, but in a way how much it is
the song, taking it from being a fairly simple progression based off a standard riff into being among the most unique and recognizable pop/rock songs from the era. And yet George is so understated in his presence on the roof, content for maybe the first time since we’ve watched him throughout all the sessions, perhaps even fully aware of the monumental contribution he is making in taking this once smallish McCartney song into becoming a massive Beatles song. I found a real beauty and symmetry in that moment; one that encapsulated the thrill of seeing the five of them finally playing without any of the internal bullshit, and seemingly, and thankfully, unaware of the external bullshit. (Maybe that is the insistence on showing so much of the outside drama taking place during the playing?)
That they didn’t get to finish the concert is, from a fan’s perspective, a disappointment. But from a literary eye it also is the defining image of the narrative. It is the external world intruding. It is what we know will be lawsuits; Allen Klein and other opportunists masquerading as Brian Epstein with the only goal of filling their own coffers, Beatles be damned; the caring and collaboration of George Martin being switched out for the despotism of Phil Spector; the ginned-up wars of Paul and Yoko; the public airings; and on and on. And from all the hours we watched of Get Back
, one thing can be clear: this was a fragile situation. And so, in a way, I keep thinking that the abrupt termination of the concert was emblematic of the dream really breaking. And that is hard to take within a moment of so much camaraderie and joy. It would have been much easier to accept if, say, George had never come back after he walked out. Even when they return indoors to finish out some of the other songs (“Two of Us,” “The Long and Winding Road”), I’d already felt like the moment of them organically being the Beatles had started to pass. Although the performances are stunning, and who could take their eyes away from watching the perfection of their playing, and hearing the actual versions that, at least for some us, are seared into our consciousness, it seemed to be a return to the consciously created, somewhat scripted way of trying to be The Beatles that original project had been after.
Where I’m going, and this probably is a response to your question of is it time to say hail and farewell, is that it is hard to reconcile the struggle of trying to preserve something so meaningful with an ending that almost literally comes with having the plug pulled. Very mixed emotions. Much as Paul (and I have made the case for the others) so badly wanted The Beatles to work out and continue, I too have wanted that, even knowing how it ends — from my geeky lists of solo songs that might have constituted an imaginary later Beatles album to the thrill of hearing all of the various outtakes and alternate mixes that of late have been emerging. But John told us “the dream is over.” George reminded us that it was a “Long time ago when we was Fab.” And Paul’s recent book of lyrics asks us to reflect on the songs as works of art, not as cultural artifacts. So yeah, part of me understands this might be the calling to say “hail and farewell,” but I’m not sure yet exactly what I would be saying farewell to. And perhaps that is because after a lifetime of being so devoted, moved, and intrigued by The Beatles, I’m no longer sure exactly why or what it is that spoke to me at the depth it did. All I know is that listening to The Beatles still makes me feel good, and still has the power to reverse a shitty feeling or a lousy mood. Even after all this parsing, trying to sort things out, working out feelings about John’s representation in the sessions, George’s role, John and Paul, I can still say that the abject purity of hearing Paul’s voice, and/or the raw honesty of John’s, and/or the aching vulnerability of George’s still consistently moves me in a way like so few other things. Maybe farewell to the mythology and the drama and the crap. But that, I think, is far as I can go. At least at this moment.MW:
There’s a certain sharp sadness to the idea of this music getting lost or not remaining a significant communal reality at the core of the experience of future generations, but somehow—and a little unaccountably—this sadness feels intensely personal, like the loss you feel when you recognize that a certain stage in the lives of your children has passed and can’t quite accept it. As with such a recognition, you often don’t come to understand the stage fully until it is past or know that it’s passing until it’s already gone.
Maybe it’s harder for us to reconcile with ‘the end’ of The Beatles given our ages—the very specific fact that we weren’t 14 or 16 but 1 or 2 when the Beatles performed on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964; we didn’t grow up with them in the same way our older siblings might have or a somewhat senior Boomer cohort did. The Beatles have somehow felt always before me and beyond me, a little out of my grasp. Maybe it’s the displaced and de-eroticized version of what the screaming adolescent girls of Beatlemania felt — they wanted them so badly but couldn’t have them. Our being a little younger than those fans whose adolescence synched perfectly with The Beatles’ debut and rise might be a factor in the strangeness you describe, Adam, of recognizing that the ‘old days’ The Beatles talk about in the film are only a few years earlier, not a mythic time eons ago, as I think of them.
Why have I placed in this entity called The Beatles so much power to imagine myself and make myself feel more human and perhaps more whole? I guess that’s at least part of what we do with art, what we need from it. Maybe your idea of letting go, Rick, or acknowledging that The Beatles are becoming irrelevant is a sign of health—better if we don’t
need this music or these stories quite so much anymore to make us feel what we want to feel. Maybe we have come to feel OK without them.
But the rooftop concert is still a vivid and rich myth for me—mountaintop apparition, last gasp, final display of brotherhood, a moment of shared artistic brilliance, emblem of an improvisational and shambolic time I can only imagine through the performance. It all gels there in the three-part harmonies, in Paul’s forceful joy singing “I’ve Got A Feeling,” in George’s lead work, evolved and essential here, in John’s flip and buoyant asides, even Ringo’s red slicker. There, on the rooftop, astonishingly and, at the same time, unsurprisingly (of course we should have known all along that despite everything our boys could pull it off) these songs and that moment take on a full life. “It’s a love that lasts forever / It’s a love that has no past,” John sings from the rooftop and those lines carry the idea of desire complicated by time, two things that continue to define this long attachment to the band for me.RM:
You both have written some really inspiring lines here. I suppose I am thinking out loud about a different kind of relevance, the way, you know, that Bing Crosby is relevant now—utterly important, historically essential, but no longer capable of being a top ten artist. What is miraculous to me is how this entire reissue project, from, say, the Sgt Pepper
reissue unto the present moment, and the super deluxe Let It Be
, is the continued ability of The Beatles to be at the center of cultural debate, even decades later. I just can’t imagine that that can continue forever. And at some point the enormous musical gulf between a Cardi B., to take one example, and the band that recorded “I Want to Hold Your Hand” has to come into view. And it’s certainly not the case that I personally would stop wanting to listen to or think out loud about The Beatles. I listened to the #1
album in the car yesterday, and only got as far as the singles from Help!,
but it was a thrill. I hadn’t listened to “Eight Days a Week” closely in a while. I again went to that space of trying to figure out what was the first song I heard by the band. I can really remember hearing “She Loves You,” and “I Feel Fine” as a very small boy. Somehow, that fuzz note at the beginning of “I Feel Fine” seems really memorable and significant to me, and reminds me of Maplewood Drive, Darien, CT. If I wasn’t hearing it at age three, I must have heard it very soon thereafter. Although the first album by the band that I held in my paws, and gazed upon, was The Beatles,
when I was, I guess, six.
Anyway, my point is that it’s hard to imagine for me that this kind of cachet continues indefinitely. Maybe it has to do with Paul’s appetite for it. Would a hundredth anniversary of Sgt Pepper
have the same colossal impact that a fiftieth had? (Context: an artwork published 100 years before my own birth, roughly speaking, was The Marble Faun,
by Nathaniel Hawthorne.) Will an absence of Boomers affect the context of a hundredth anniversary? The very theme of Get Back
is related to the subject, in that the album had a Renaissance idea about it: the music will be truer
if we get back to its source, to an earlier, simpler time. The film, in a way, pursues the same idea: that our returning to the rooftop will be to restore us to a less fraught idea of this band. But, as we know, the meaning is never the same the second time around (this was true of the Renaissance itself!), the context changes the meaning, and, by the by, Get Back
did not/does not exactly get The Beatles back. They went from there to make Abbey Road,
which was anything but backward looking, with its synthesizers, and stacked harmonies, and its eight-track recording.
So, when I said hail and farewell,
I didn’t mean we would never have this discussion again (it’s been too much fun), but, perhaps, will my son have this discussion? Should I expect him to want to have it? Or should he be free to have it about To Pimp a Butterfly
Let me throw out this related question that I’ve been thinking about since we’ve been having these discussions. Given that we got to spend an unprecedented amount of time with The Beatles (in our homes, nonetheless), did it help to cement the mythology or did it, in some perhaps unanticipated way, undo the awe of The Beatles? I ask because there is a part of me that wonders if (beyond the music, of course) part of the allure and ongoing attraction of them is the mystery of them. That is to say, until recently these are four people who we’ve never really had access to (beyond how they want us to) as they somehow managed to create a kind of art like no other, seemingly out of thin air. I guess I am thinking about the enigma of van Gogh and others who always are portrayed as existing on another plane. But does it diffuse the larger cultural appeal of The Beatles to see them engaging like any other hard but extremely talented workers, making missteps, at their worst interacting with the pettiness of family, even at times not sounding all that good? The three of us, as writers, know that interest in seeing drafts of manuscripts in archives, tracking how a great work was developed and made, as it informs what we do and what we aspire to do, and to quote Elvis Costello on Get Back
, “It gives great comfort to anybody who’s ever stumbled around on the guitar to see this very famous band at times be really exposed as just making anything up to fill the space until the really inspired line came. It wasn’t all done with a quill pen and flourish of poetics.” But that seems unique to the occupational. Thinking into the future, of our next in line, some fifty more years down the road, does the revelation of The Beatles in this film being shown as four people who spent days and weeks on end slowly working out songs bit by bit, as well as being portrayed as people we “get to know,” and perhaps even suggesting identifiable traits, undermine the mystery that has made them magical (even, I might suggest, for those who don’t necessarily like the music)? In McCartney’s Lyrics book, he meditates quite a bit on the notion of fate, often expressing amazement at the small coincidences in his life that led to so many great things, such as turning a corner one way that led to his meeting John, to musical doors that swung open at the right moment, and so much more. So maybe the heart of the question: Is all of this insight welcoming people into the world of Beatles myth and lore and devotion, or does it risk undermining it by its intended celebration of the extraordinary inadvertently showing the ordinary?MW:
I think we’re right to think about how The Beatles’ relevance has changed and will change, even if the music continues to find new listeners. It’s remarkable that this relevance has lasted as long and remained as strong as it has. Two anecdotes: at Skidmore College, there was for over twenty years an annual concert called Beatlemore Skidmania that developed from a Music Department course on The Beatles. It became the biggest event on campus, selling out three shows over a weekend at a 600-seat hall at a college with a student body of 2400. Student musicians competed for the chance to play Beatles songs for the show and each year was tied to a given Beatles’ album, year, or event. I brought my kids to this concert every year from the time they were old enough to attend until they left home for school. And they know The Beatles’ music from playing it at home and in the car. That concert event lapsed after last year and I don’t know if it will be resurrected — another ending for me involving The Beatles. And here’s a related, second piece of anecdotal evidence about the inevitable change in The Beatles’ reputation and, for that matter, the change in the relevance of rock music itself. At 14, my son, who went with me to all those shows, would no more think of playing a Beatles’ song in the car or at his school on a Saturday night in the dorm than one by Bing Crosby — it’s for him at his current age just old music, his dad’s music, without an edge and lacking whatever charge most boys his age want from their music. That’s not a new story. Even Kendrick is pretty old news to him at this point. Will he come back to those Beatles’ songs he knew so well as a younger child? I wonder. [Addendum: since the time of this conversation, reports confirm that Beatles’ music has been added to playlists by said son at said school for the pleasure of the young teen set there without any paternal advocacy whatsoever] My daughter at 18 again puts rock music of the 70s—a lot of Fleetwood Mac lately—in the mix and has a soft spot for McCartney’s New
which was his current album when we saw him play in 2014 (I love the fact, whatever we could say about those songs versus the ones on Let It Be
, that New
is as much inside her consciousness as any classic Beatles’ record—she’s part of the last generation of listeners who will have had a contemporaneous experience of a record by one of The Beatles). But that long period of relevance – from the late 60s through the late 80s, maybe – when ‘classics’ like The Beatles, Stones, Led Zeppelin and The Grateful Dead still had currency from generation to generation of teenagers is long-gone now.
Your question, Adam, made me think about how the film shows the ordinary right next to the sublime. This depiction shifts my sense of The Beatles’ myth, but, in the end, heightens my awe for the music they made and how gifted they were. You watch the band order toast and tea and before it’s half eaten or half drunk, you’re watching them sing for the first time that perfect harmony you’ve been listening to all your life. I’m with Ringo when he says of Paul: “I’d watch him for an hour just playing the piano—he’s so great.” The film lets us do just that.