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.