The Beatles Were the Jim Brown of Pop Music

They stormed barriers that haven’t been breached since.

 

They quit while they were ahead. Well maybe not ahead so much as ready to bust apart from interpersonal squabbling. And yet, like the great running back Jimmy Brown of the Cleveland Browns, the Beatles’ accomplishments have never been eclipsed.

I just spent over $600 so my wife and I can see Mick and Keith and Charlie and Ron (and a very good supporting cast) in the Phoenix area in May. The Rolling Stones are in their way an unparalleled achievement, their legacy assured. What moves out like a Stones rocker? Nothing.

But the Beatles are the penultimate accomplishment of pop music in the last century.

You want to do yourself a favor? Feeling blue? Find a Vevo or YouTube rendering of “End of the Line.” You won’t stay blue for long.

Seems it’s jointly penned by the Traveling Wilburys, a serendipitous throw-together if there ever was one. The main guitar hook is George Harrison, not to mention lead and ending vocal solo. The warmth and cheer fill you. The song feels distinctly Dylanish, though Bob is the only band member who doesn’t sing; he’s happy to sit and play with such eminences. The band are two English cats by birth, and three born-Americans (if you count the empty chair of Roy Orbison). And yet somehow George Harrison feels central here. Architect of “Here Comes the Sun” and “My Sweet Lord,” rockabilly picker who studied at the altar of Carl Perkins, a spotty 17-year-old when he joined the most important musical forging of all time in the crucible of Hamburg — George Harrison required years to get past the censorship bureau of Lennon and McCartney. “Who knew?” as George Martin remembered.

That happened because John Lennon and Paul McCartney were an exquisite song writing team. Lennon was brash and acerbic, nasty; McCartney was lyrical and sweet. They needed each other. Maybe they didn’t like each other, but they needed each other. This was, if you’ll excuse the cliché, synergy.

Ever wonder how rock ‘n’ roll eroded into an irrelevancy? It forgot itself.

Get out your Hard Days’ Night and listen to those first seven tracks. None is over three minutes, and there is not a dull second. (I once wowed a party karaokeing “I Should Have Known Better,” which nobody was expecting, and is about as catchy as you can get, even with me singing.) Even if they had remained Early Beatles, their legacy would be unassailable. The Beatles may not have had the sexual menace of the Rolling Stones, but they rocked as hard. And there was a magic nobody else had. “It has something to do with the construction of the song,” Roger Kleinman, bass player of Wild Horses, Cleveland’s greatest ever bar band, once told me. Put on “I Saw Her Standing There.” If you don’t feel like jumping around the room, you’re dead. Rock ‘n’ roll never got better.

That’s not to say it didn’t evolve. The Beatles evolved it. I believe it was Rolling Stone magazine that once had a poll in which Revolver came out the top rated rock album of all time. I see why. Listen with fresh ears to “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Be amazed. Be very amazed. There is more pure psychedelia in this one song than in the entire oeuvre of the Grateful Dead. And don’t get me wrong. The “skull and roses” Grateful Dead competes for the distinction of My Favorite Record of all time. Some have called the lyrics of “Tomorrow Never Knows” very Yeats. They are. It’s not seagulls creating that otherworldly, scratchy soundtrack, but tricks John Lennon achieved in the recording room. The result takes you out of yourself. “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream / It is not dying …” It is dying … to your ego-realm. It is transcendence, a finding of spiritual life. By the way, there’s an award-winning film available on YouTube, a trippy video in which aboriginals in a seeming vision trance disport themselves, with this playing as a soundtrack. Check it out.

The Beatles never stopped rocking out. “Birthday” and other tunes off the White Album, “One After 909” off of Let It Be, and so many other songs continued to electrify with that original Beatles energy.

Nor did they stop being mystical. I was driving around and called into a college radio station in Cleveland on a trip back there a few years ago. When “Across the Universe” (the original one, from Let It Be) came on, I had to pull over to wipe my eyes. “Nothing’s gonna change my world” is unspeakably ironic and poignant, double entendre having become John Lennon’s stock in trade. The emotional power of the song overwhelmed me.

I’ve got The Beatles, aka the White Album, going around and around on heavy rotation in my car. Got the whole package lashed together, the busted-apart plastic casings for the two CDs, and the little paper booklet with words and pictures of the players, all secured, a sacred artifact. Here is contained the Beatles’ unmatchable, diverse artistry. “Back in the U.S.S.R.” rocks out fresh as ever. Was there ever anything as catchy as a Beatles song? And “Honey Pie”! I used to think this was a Twenties standard reworked by McCartney. I went online to find McCartney wrote it. It’s dreamy, funny, with its scratchy old-sounding backing, just like a song from the Jazz Age. What genius.

The Beatles’ accomplishment ranges from the silly-sweet “When I’m Sixty-Four” off of Pepper to the acid “Yer Blues” off of the White Album. You can go on and on finding marking-points by which to identify the range: push pins on the sonic timeline.

One of the things I loved about becoming a high school teacher in middle age was the ability to discover young people love the Beatles. Kids at Chino Valley High School, where I had my rookie season, wore Beatles T-shirts. The girls had Beatles purses. I queried them. “The Beatles are great!” they said.

The Beatles have legs. The Beatles will live forever.

We owe much to this trailblazing quartet, two of whom survive. McCartney helped us heal with his benefit concert for New York firefighters after 911. He is an honorary American if there ever was one. That was consistent with the whole Beatles accomplishment. We staggered through the Sixties. The Beatles were the only reliable guides we had. They brought us in on a note of boy-girl rebellion; they steered us through with artifacts of mind-altered consciousness that were not only beautiful but culturally validating. And when they split the scene, leaving us feeling a little jilted and confused, maybe there was something perfect, if painful, in that too.

I would never again see Jim Brown take a handoff and run for an 80-yard touchdown with that unmatchable synthesis of balletic grace and sledgehammer force. I would never again experience the marvel of a new Beatles album.

The Sixties were over.

It may be argued that the departure of the Beatles and the departure of the Sixties — with all its storied rebellion and idealism — were in fact the same event.

I Am Learning the Art of Happiness from My Dog

Rosa with the snow rake

 

We had some snow here in Prescott on New Year’s Day. It was a gorgeous blizzard. Flagstaff couldn’t have done much better, though I know they did.

Cars fishtailed on the roads, some slid out. People stayed in.

I had to help Barb shovel her way clear into the garage. Her Honda Accord hybrid almost didn’t make it. Good thing it crunched its way up the hill that far. It was one of those days you tell yourself you didn’t need to go to the gym. Shoveling’s hard work. Old guys, even muscular, fit old guys, have to pace themselves. Heart risk, you know.

Barb helped. We found ourselves short of shoveling supplies. I used the fairly effective plastic shovel. She deployed a rake; if you find the right pulling motion you can do some good with it, especially with the powdery snow we had.

I got mad at one point. Barb had her front tires in the garage; she was home, she was in. I’d busted ass shoving her out of the rut to get her in. Then in her infinite wisdom she decided to pull back out so I could knock the snow off her car roof, lest it puddle the garage.

“No, honey. Please. Bad idea. You’ll get stuck again!”

“But there’s no drainage in our garage.”

“It’ll evaporate!”

She backed out and got stuck again. Normally, the next sentence would be, “I could have killed her.” But I was in too good a mood. After knocking the snow off her car I threw carpet down around her tires and she crunched her way out of it and back into the garage.

I was feeling so fine I even wound up helping the neighbor down the lane shovel out.

The snow cheered me and my wife.

And our dog loves snow. She’s a maniac for snow.

We let Rosa out. We’re not supposed to let her run loose but we did. She tore out the door like a bull out of a rodeo gate, went ripping and snorting and snuffling and charging and romping and just generally tear-assing around, not just our property but the whole immediate neighborhood, up and down the rock hills on which these crazy houses are built. We live in the foothills of the Bradshaw Mountains. Some of these homes give onto a gully, stilt footings digging into the mountain side.

It’s one of those Home Owners Associations. Bunch of rich or comfortably retired people writing letters to the president of the HOA about loud dogs on the loose, though many people love our dog. Rosa’s quite popular. She’s the kind of dog you’re walking her and people stop their car and ask about her.

I often feel I don’t fit in here with these Republicans in multimillion dollar houses, refugees from the liberalism of California or the swelter of Phoenix. Here I am rumbling down the drive at three thirty in the a.m. to get to a stocking job at Walmart. What am I doing here?

Rosa has snatched burritos and food bits from construction guys, and, shamefully, she’s nipped people. There are good reasons to keep her on the leash. Tired though we both are at our age, my wife and I try to leash her up to give her the exercise she needs in a way that won’t incur the wrath of these somnolent retirees.

But on some occasions we do let her loose. Neighbors who were outside New Year’s Day laughed with me and Barb watching Rosa romp. She’s affectionate if high strung. When I roll the garbage down the drive Wednesday nights I let her loose. It’s hilarious to see her prancing like a stallion down the long drive as I roll the barrels down. She celebrates the ritual as if she’s on some proud mission.

In the photo Rosa’s grabbed Barb’s rake, putting a temporary stop in the action. Barb thought to capture the moment. Just look at how keen that dog is!

Which brings me to my point.

There always has to be a point, boys and girls.

What do we regard as important? That the bills be paid? That our sons and daughters qualify for the right college and make enough money to keep us in Depends come the time of our own decrepitude? That the Browns do even better next year than they did last?

None of it even comes close to mattering the way something matters to a dog.

She sees those big black birds wheeling around in the sky as she patrols the deck and erupts in electrifying feral barking; she’s in the visceral moment. You put down a plate of food – let’s say Canidae bison-based kibble decorated with bacon I just fried as part of my own breakfast – and the way she attacks that meal shows me this is important. She cavorts in the snow and grabs the rake because, let’s face it, the future of the Western World is at stake and she’s doing her bit.

If I could enjoy my life with the unthinking immediacy and sense of purpose Rosa brings to hers, I’d have it made.

I had a realization that was profound at my therapist’s. I said after the miserable experience last semester I decided to retire from the education biz in May. It’s given me a heavy heart along with a light one to have seen I don’t have the will to go through this again, to deal with the intransigence of oppositional-defiant kids.

So what’ll I do? Go long at Walmart.

Been doing it during Winter Break from school. I took on more hours, maybe to not think about what a shit teacher I am.

I am up to the Walmart challenge. This can be what I do. It sure looks like my employment future till I start collecting Social Security checks at 70 1/2. That’s right, I’m gutting it out that long. Working at Walmart will be fatiguing, even tedious, but I won’t have to deal with abuse from hostile teenagers. I’ve loved much of this career. I still get Facebook postings from former students, the best kids anyone ever had the honor to teach. But the down side of serving the at-risk community, I just can’t bear anymore. I guess, thinking back, I was an angry, screwed-up teenager myself. I shouldn’t have been so surprised. As ever worrying about my own hand in this nightmare, I commuted some nervous F’s to D’s, left the school for Winter Break showered in abuse, and had nothing but time to ruminate on Failure.

I know now that stress relating to teaching angry kids has led to two panic attacks, à la Tony Soprano. One was on December 8, 2014, in my bedroom, during a time I still worked for the Yavapai Accommodation School District. The other fainting fit was four years later to the day, me lying on my back on the shipping dock of Walmart. Anxiety had been chipping away at my jaunty resolve. It’s broken through into my consciousness.

How does Rosa deal with stress?

She has it, to be sure. She whimpers and twitches in her sleep. Whines to be let out of her caged-in area and be with Barb and me in gen pop. But it seems to me she lives far more skillfully than does the angst-ridden Bob Gitlin. Rosa lives her Emersonian truth. She follows her inner drummer. Leads an authentic life. While I’ve been getting bags under my eyes stressing about whether I’ve made the right decision with these teenagers, my Airedale is in the moment. I see now a good deal of the art of living is not about right or wrong but about the lower chakra business of survival. Consumed with anxiety, I do not savor my life.

I wrote about belief in God. When I pull through a tough spot, I thank God. But I’ve been operating under this remorseless, bitter personal philosophy. There is nothing for stress but to suffer through it.

What is that? Stoicism? Existentialism? Rugged individualism?

Rosa has no isms. Just a rake handle in her mouth and another adventure to be lived.

Forecast calls for more snow tomorrow! We’ll let her romp again.