I was listening to The White Album in my car, bathing in a double disc package whose technical name is The Beatles and that I might have paid three or four bucks for at Recordland when it came out; listening to the two CDs, cruising around, when I came to realize — yet again, and in a new way — just why the Beatles have magic. There is no way to appreciate this multifarious foray into new zones without remembering how they started, with “Yeah yeah yeah” and “I saw her standing there.” How far they ranged!
You can trace the dissolution of the band through the gestures and key moments of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. McCartney may be set on sweet nonsense (his “Silly Love Songs” was a dud), but “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” makes you happy! Whereas I always associated Lennon with the confusion and violence, the dissonance and horror: “Yer Blues”; “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey”; and “Helter Skelter,” even though it turns out that was a McCartney composition!
But despite the dissonance, there’s an artistic integrity in Lennon, a poignancy, that outreaches anything else in the Beatles canon. He challenges you in his obstinate divagations from the pop songbook. I guess in the Lennon/McCartney pairing, it all gets mixed together, and that’s what made those songs great.
Is there anything weirder than “Revolution Number 9”? From the English gentleman’s “They are standing still” to the doomed and sonorous cantorial warbling, from the young woman’s “You become naked” to all the scratchy crosstalk of studio sound effects used against the laws of aesthetics and harmony, it’s a dissection of the whole mess of the human psyche. The Beatles produced songs that were downright scary! This one is rather in the footsteps of “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” off of Sgt. Pepper, a song whose carnival music elicits a prickle of dread. One thinks of William Burroughs’s cutup theory, how the books he crafted that way are unreadable but for discrete, congruous patches; the avant garde weirdness of “Revolution Number 9” was crafted that way yet is all of a piece! I feel the John energy on this one, just as he was with that masterpiece of psychedelia “Tomorrow Never Knows” off of Revolver, and what many call his best work, the climactic chapter of Sgt. Pepper, “A Day in the Life,” a combination of dreamy narrative and mounting orchestral riot.
There is no Lennon without McCartney. The White Album would be flat and unpalatable without Paul’s whimsy. Perhaps my favorite number on the whole record is his reproduction of a nineteen-twenties dance hall ditty. With its scratchy backdrop and way of singing, and its overall lilt, “Honey Pie” had to be a faithful rendering of an existing song, I thought, till I Googled it and found that Paul wrote it! Randy Newman identified McCartney as one of a handful of geniuses at concocting melody. Recreations of old Swing Era ballads tend to be disturbing, in fact created for that purpose, like the Gold Ballroom soundtrack of The Shining or the pop hit of Johnny Favorite in Angel Heart. But Paul’s song is different; it warms and consoles. Paul rocked hard, but he also sang us lullabies.
George Harrison’s contributions are far from negligible. I once cringed at “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” indulging in Nik Cohn rock-dreams speculations I had no right to, relating to the unplasant detail (to me) of Clapton pirating George’s wife. And here’s Eric contributing those agonizing riffs! But I dig the song now. Those men re-cemented their friendship to build another monument to Beatles magic. It has the cosmic energy of a blues classic, as affirmed by anybody’s YouTube perusal of the Rock Hall tribute pending George’s passing, with its input by all manner of rock luminaries including Prince’s jaw-dropping guitar finale. George Harrison was a genius. “Who knew?” George Martin would muse. We knew he was “a magical guy” (Clapton’s words) ever since “Here Comes the Sun” and “My Sweet Lord.”
Oh, and speaking of the Beatles longtime producer, Howard Stern is a little off the mark to badmouth George Martin as an intrusion, an afterthought, unworthy of being mythologized with the four Beatles. His contribution was immense. Martin’s traditional sensibility, manifested in those symphonic productions and arrangements, enlivened and expanded the Beatles palette. “Eleanor Rigby” is but one early example of the debt we owe George Martin. And it was Martin, the “old straight guy,” who would say, about his having heard the raw tapes of what became Revolver, “They were starting to hand me much more interesting work.” He was as hip as they were.
A schismatized magic gleams out from The Beatles. As do some pure, stand-alone nuggets that stand any test of time. “Dear Prudence” is still gorgeous. A folk singer named Colette used to play and sing it at the Barking Spider in Cleveland with such fealty to the original I would listen with something near rapture. I still jump around in my seat to the flat-out rocker “Back in the U.S.S.R.”; Russians love it too, have a whole cult and party scene around it. Nobody rocked like the lads from Liverpool. “Birthday,” same thing. Hold onto your fucking hat, and what about that galactic ending?
It’s a shame the band is no more, but you can read history in the runes. You can see, in the White Album, the pieces of a mosaic representing this astounding breadth of artistry. Just as you can see how the pieces, once separated, would never come completely back together again.