A Place For Us

Place, Intaglio, 4/5, 2011
Place, Intaglio, 4/5, 2011

I wrote this post a year and a half ago, but never published it. It seems to fit in well with the Sgt. Pepper’s 50th Anniversary post of a few weeks ago, so here it is:

 

I made the above etching for very practical reasons- its a small work that might  provide a little cash at shows here, where the art-buying public is often living with small crowded walls, or small budgets. It has also turned out to be just ambiguously meaningful enough (to me) to use as a gift- I like to bring a small piece of art to house warming or holiday parties, and was actually able to convince myself that its simpe dichotomy between absence and presence made it appropriate for friends who’d lost a loved one.

So it’s become a small symbolic token of life stages for me, anyway, and a fairly successful creation after first being concieved of as an simple, expressive sketch of a plain subject. It has taken on complexity, which is how I enjoy my works best. It has reminded me that “place” can be a very evocative concept.

The song “There’s a Place” does not get mentioned alot when anthologizing, or  mythologizing the Beatles. But it occupies a unique spot not only in their development, but in the progression of popular Rock and Roll music as a whole.

It serves only a minor role in their history- it comes between their breakthrough no. 1 single “Please Please Me” and the monster releases that brought them world fame: “She Loves You” and  “I want to Hold Your Hand.”  At the time of its recording, their record company was eager to rush them back into studio for their first album, to capitalize on the success of ‘Please’, and its predecessor, “Love Me Do”, which reached Number 5 in England. But LPs were not the central product of the singles-driven music industry then, not the art form that the group would later make them. They were given only 10 hours (?!) to record the collection of George Martin-approved covers of ravers and schmaltzy pop ballads that along with their own songs would become Meet the Beatles, but having fought to get the privilege of recording “Please Please Me”, it was only a matter of time before their very unique muse would push out.

George Martin’s genius for propulsive, immersive song intros, later manifested in classics like “Eight Days a Week”, and “Tomorrow Never Knows”, makes an early appearance here as McCartney’s one strangley neutral bass downbeat launches a nervously rolling guitar /drum backbeat, leavened only by Lennon’s keening harmonica. At the end of the first stanza we don’t know anything about what the song’s about, or where the referred-to “place” even is. But the second reveals much, in the span of eight urgently ascending words : “And it’s my mind/ And there’s no time/” while the next three sum up what’s at stake: “when I’m alone”.

Ironically, as Lennon intones this curiously flattened phrase it sounds less like joy and suspiciously like lament. In Martin’s production the song’s central paradox emerges: he is in fact, utterly alone as the rest of the supporting voices drop off. Into this jarring emptiness, from somewhere distant but achingly real, one single wail of the keening mouth harp intrudes. A stumbling, stuttering, inarticulate ensemble of bass drums and guitar introduces another emotional disjunct- a curiously unconvincing self assurance in the second, less exalted refrain. “In my mind there’s no sorrow/”, Lennon declares plaintively, as the background chorus doggedly stands by his story: “Don’t you know that it’s so?”

Observe that the song names no love object: no Donna or Peggy Sue. It is ambiguously enough written that we can’t really be sure who is loving who. “I think of you,” in the context of its era, and the Beatles’ personal history, seems to suggest a beautiful woman. In subject matter, it can be compared productively with both “All I Have to Do is Dream”, by the Everlys and “Dream Lover” by Bobby Darin. Neither of these song makes an attempt at the existential complexity at work in “There’s a Place”. It is not unusual to sing about dreams of nameless women. The difference is in the palpable sense of sonic disjunct in the rollicking guitars, lonely harmonica and alternately rasping and ethereal vocal harmonies; the nagging sense that the singer is creating his lover from the whole cloth of alienation and existential longing.

There is poetry here, and not only in the raw, street level conjunction of sex with rhythm that elevates the delta-born poetics of the body in early rock’s opposition to the infantilized prudery of 50’s pop. Neither Darin nor Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, writers of  ‘All I Have to Do’ achieve the evocative economy of words that Lennon (with McCartney, but Lennon seems to claim the words, at least) does. ( For the record: 219 Dream Lover (not counting (Yeah, Yeahs), versus 181 All I Have to Do , and 101 Place) “The things you said/Like, I love only you/” is the only place in the song that comes close to describing a specific person, and the lyrical context is not clear whether the words exist on the lips of a real lover, or in the mind of a fantasizing narrator. So who is loving who? And why the unmistakeable tone of melancholy? Is it the love of a man for a woman, or given the Beatles’ still precarious career state ( the song originated in their early live set), a muse, or even the bitch goddess fame? No one, not even Dylan, in ’62, was writing songs like this. On the cusp of becoming part of the biggest musical act the world had ever seen, Lennon brings home a very basic truth about why we sing -and dream- at all.

None of these songs, in fact, names names. But only Lennon tells us what’s at stake- the yawning abyss between happiness (creative fulfillment) and death (loneliness). Although The Everlys sing flippantly “that I could die,” the real problem, as the song sees it, is ( gee whiz! ) he’s “dreaming his life away”. Dreaming and not being married is the problem. With Lennon, loneliness is the problem and dreaming is the solution.”There’ll be no sad tomorrows”, he insists, but his voice betrays his doubts.

In its complex abstraction of what it means to dream- what is its purpose, and who lives in that interior “place,” and the emphasis on the existential loneliness of the “I,” the song can probably be argued as a debut of the modern pop singer-songwriter aesthetic, as Dylan did not release Freewheelin’ till a couple of months later. Lennon, of course was not a singer/songwriter, he was in a group,   but it’s a very personal song. He would return to the approach in “Norwegian Wood”

The song also anticipates the end of album as pure packaging of hits and covers, though the album as artistic concept, also a Martin/Beatles innovation, in their Sgt. Pepper’s incarnation, was still a few years away. The place that this song yearningly describes is not a place at all, but the soul.The real subject of the song is a quest for connection, whether with the self, or another. And its central narrative, framed in relentlessly discordant parts of an ineffably sad whole, is that the soul dreams alone. Lennon and The Beatles were to explore vexing human problems like this long after the cover songs had disappeared. Lennon, who died pretty much alone, albeit in the middle of a small crowd, never got a chance to resolve the basic question of why we dream at all.

The 50’s were over, the 60’s, a decade of Mutually Assured Destruction, moon landings and assassinations, were beginning, and the reassurance of safe havens for the soul, as the Fabs and all of us were about to realize, were becoming harder and harder to find, even in dreams.

I Hope You All Enjoyed The Show.

I have a post I didn’t have time to finish and post last week, on the Beatles’ 50th anniversary of the release of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP, June 1. I didn’t post it with the rush to prepare for the annual Summer Art Market show. That went okay, with the main news being I won “Best In Show.” I’ll put up an album of photos soon. But here’s the Beatles post, and I’ve got another that I never posted, so I’m going to finish that, too.

 

It was 50 years ago today. We’ve been seeing that almost obligatory headline a lot recently, as the media return to a longtime, can’t-miss subject: The Beatles, and the anniversary of the release of their ground-breaking Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

Everyone old enough will have memories of this release, which was a watershed in both artistic and cultural, even political history. Its effect is probably emotional for some people who lived it, and difficult to describe to those who weren’t there without using hyperventilated superlatives. The Beatles were sort of magical at that time; the hair- a big issue then, the flippancy, the “more popular than Jesus” defiance. There were some Goldwater Republicans and what we then called “Jesus Freaks” who hated them, but no one else did. It’s important to note- you young whippersnappers! -that no later artist, no Prince, no U2, R.E.M., Beyonce or Katy Perry, has ever had that grip on the imaginations of the young.

Suffice it to say, I’ll never be all that distant from Sgt. Pepper’s. It seems a part of me, and retains its immediacy. For one thing, at that time Sgt. Pepper’s was the only show in town. But it’s become fashionable to place it behind Revolver in the Beatles’ canon.

Like many, I’ve read a lot of books on the Beatles. My two go-tos, musically, remain Tell Me Why, by Tim Riley, a song-by-song analysis of the musical and lyrical structures of all their albums, and The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, by Mark Lewison, a day-to day record of their studio work with George Martin. Both provide critical analysis, as well as cultural and biographical context for their many moods and innovations. As I’ve mentioned here before, The Beatles Anthology albums (Vols. 1-3), with their out takes, creative progressions and studio half-steps, are an indispensable companion. Also search out The Atlantic’s The Power of Two, (July 2014) by Joshua Wolf Shenk, a shorter analysis of what made the Lennon and McCartney collaboration so effective.

In 1967, others, notably rivals The Rolling Stones, were still standing on the shoulders of blues giants. The Beatles however, had leveraged their unassailable chart postings by quitting touring, and had unlimited studio time to explore pop, folk and psychedelia.

On Pepper’s, the sheer power of George Martin’s control room vision can no longer cover up the centrifugal motion of Lennon and McCartney’s artistic intentions. On Revolver, we hear McCartney’s R&B masterpiece “Got to Get You Into My Life” moments before one of the first great 60’s psychedelic/mystic songs, Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows”. They are clearly moving apart musically. But with Pepper’s, their ideas are still engaged in metaphorical dialog, thanks in part to its loose concept (faux Victorian psychedelic nostalgia, which quickly became the rage for pop bands, and eventually informed steam punk genre fiction and fashion). Three songs epitomize the Pepper album’s failures and its triumphs. One is on the album, two are not.

The first is “A Day In The Life”. It is the emotional core of an album that has been criticized for not having one, when compared with the worldly love songs and social realism of Revolver.  But its disjunct between bouncy pop and existential questioning is part of its brilliance, and the Atlantic article defines this as part of Lennon and McCartney’s collective genius, the tendency of John and Paul to respond to each other’s ideas, in the same way that the dreamy search for identity in Strawberry Fields plays off against the uncannily superrealist nostalgia of Penny Lane, the other two songs I allude to above.

This is the real problem with the record: it’s not complete. In early 1967, their record labels Parlophone and Capitol, anxious that a cash cow single had not been seen for all of 10 months, were pressuring the band, just liberated from brutal touring schedules, for a new 45. The fireman rushes in, indeed. The labels’ release schedule was out of sync with their creative one. Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane were two of the few songs ready. But by custom, these midterm singles were not included on the subsequent album. By late April, work had begun on several other songs, and only a month after Pepper, the “All You Need Is Love” single is released. No song was ever released from  SPLHCB as a single, in fact. “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane” are included in December on another Capitol mash-up, the “Magical Mystery Tour LP.  It’s treated as a trivial oddity if mentioned at all, but is in fact a pop artistic tragedy on a par with a lost Shakespeare play. Or perhaps it’s enough to state that George Martin called the songs’ omission from the record “a dreadful mistake”. He’s right- only those two songs refer both to the floating anxiety of Lennon’s distant, ironicized dreamscapes brought together with McCartney’s photorealism in one disturbing “Day”, between morning newspaper and first cigarette.

In A Day In The Life, the Beatles themselves puncture their own nostalgic Victorian band conceit before the record even ends. As Riley points out, in a useful discussion of the song’s metaphoric soundscape, the spare acoustic guitar opening of Day emerges from the fading illusion of Sgt Pepper’s (Reprise), and Lennon’s dreamy absurdity ( “4000 holes”) asks us to ponder what is real and what is illusion. We hear an alarm clock; the dream is over-  a studio alarm clock included in an early take as a time marker inspires McCartney’s man on the bus smoking segment, which plays what is in this context, as quotidian zombie horror, as his working stiff rushes for the bus. This daydream plays off perfectly against Lennon’s existential nightmare.

Without Penny Lane, however, The crystalline nostalgia of McCartney’s hyperrealist suburban vignettes (When I’m 64, Lovely Rita) can sound gratuitous and superficial next to the anxiety-prone absurdity of Lennon’s hallucinogenic Victoriana ( Good Morning, Mr. Kite). These songs, in turn, sound like LSD fripperies without the primal identity quest (“No one, I think, is in my tree”) of Strawberry Fields to anchor them. “Fields”- about an orphanage grounds, and “Lane”, about an everyday intersection, center the ideas of the Pepper sessions as no other song, other than “A Day”, can. The metaphoric backstory of the album begins with these childhood memories and ends with Paul and Martin’s orchestrated crescendos, knitting disparate sounds and leading to a note of attenuated anticipation, a sort of definitive ambiguity. What’s next, the long closing note asks? Martin was excited by the creative effusion, and anxious to return to the studio. But the band, in retrospect, suddenly seemed adrift.

“A crowd of people stood and stared” referring perhaps, to the just-exited Sgt. Pepper’s audience? Or to the Beatles themselves? Nobody was sure what exactly they were seeing. The disjunct between Lennon’s dark apocalyptic dreamscape; and the sunny clarity of McCartney’s blue suburban skies is explained, as a dream within a dream. It all adds up to a kind of existential, hallucinogenic identity crisis,  one that mirrors the one many of us, in large parts of society as a whole, experienced then. But the Beatles, now without Brian Epstein, might’ve been having one, too.

It brings up the question of what might have been released instead of these two songs, and the correct answer is, really, “Who cares?” “When I’m 64” was the other song ready in February 1967, and would be no great loss to the album, where it’s more of a breathing space between more meaningful songs. Same with “Within You Without You” which fits only by virtue of geography into the album’s loose concept. But that brings up band politics, as it was Harrison’s only song on the album. So why not include them all? Recording technology was apparently an issue. Sgt. Pepper runs 39 minutes, Revolver, 35. Mostly, though, it was commerce triumphing over art.

For the Beatles’ part, they’d made themselves clear on this issue with the “butcher” cover to the spurious Capitol Records release Yesterday and Today, but never seemed to have returned to the issue. “Well I just had to laugh” is, as Riley notes, a token of resigned disillusionment.

By the time Pepper’s was released, they’d recorded several sessions for Magical Mystery Tour. Self indulgence was rearing its head. On the very day of the Pepper album release, Lewison reports the Beatles in studio, recording unplanned and “frankly tedious” jams. Perhaps it was the Beatles themselves who had lost their emotional core. Did they have an inkling that some element of magic had gone mysteriously missing? Had hubris set in? But if the album does fail, it’s a failure of execution, not of artistic vision. Sgt. Pepper’s, always great in terms of its cultural influence, if not in terms of its artistic cohesion,  was sacrificed to an already outdated business plan.