Monday, September 27, 2010

Nowhere Land: "Heartbreak Hotel" and "There's a Place"

On the 40th Anniversary of the release of The Beatles' Let it Be album, here is a lengthy excerpt from my book Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream (Greenwood-Praeger, 2008):

When rock 'n' roll first began its promise was pretty basic: good times lay ahead. With that primary assurance, a captivating pact was also struck with listeners. The world was going to be a different place than it was today. As early as 1954, Bill Haley's simple pledge told us we'd find our freedom by putting our glad rags on and rocking around the clock. But the song did more than just rock around the clock. Youth riots broke out in movie houses after it was featured in the opening credits of The Blackboard Jungle (1955), an otherwise cautionary story about juvenile delinquency. In the same year as Bill Haley, The Penguins, a quietly graceful doo-wop group with ultimately only one hit up their sleeve, promised us a world of feasible pleasures when they asked us in "Earth Angel": Will you be mine? In answer, people danced with their hips moving just a little bit closer to their partners'. When Elvis Presley first decided to shake his hips on national television, nations of eager teenagers were given permission to do likewise -- and shake them they did.

But for the 15-year-old John Lennon, from Liverpool, England, there was something more to the promise rock offered than just putting your glad rags on and wiggling your hips. Lennon was looking for a way out of his frustrated life in his indigent seaport town. Often he found himself dreaming of being in a plane, flying over Liverpool, escaping altogether. Other times, he was on a giant horse, galloping unfettered, until his own fears detained him and he ended up home feeling frustrated and defeated. One night, though, in May 1956, Lennon discovered a way out, a possible means of escape, when he caught something extraordinary on Radio Luxembourg, which played all the American rock, blues and R&B music that the BBC didn't allow. Lennon was listening to "The Jack Johnson Show" when he first heard the voice of Elvis Presley singing "Heartbreak Hotel."

Lennon had first heard of Presley through his friend Don Beatty, who had shown him Elvis's photo in a copy of New Musical Express, and told him how great a song "Heartbreak Hotel" was. Lennon had only heard Bill Haley's songs to that point. He would even remember his mother Julia dancing to Haley, but the music did nothing for him. As for "Heartbreak Hotel," the title alone came across as phony and corny to the demanding Lennon. But the great benefit of radio then, now lost to generations used to strictly formatted playlists or Ipods, was that on occasion it offered you the serendipity of discovery. There was always the chance you'd hear something you expected to find or perhaps might never find again. That's how Lennon finally encountered "Heartbreak Hotel" and he knew he had to own that record. "When I first heard 'Heartbreak Hotel' I could hardly make out what was being said," Lennon recalled. "It was just the experience of hearing it and having my hair stand on end. We'd never heard American voices singing like that." And more than Elvis's voice, which to Lennon sounded like Frankie Laine, Johnny Ray and Tennessee Ernie Ford rolled into one; he realized all at once that nothing existed for him but rock 'n' roll. From that day onwards, he thought of little else. Besides containing a sound that encompassed him, it spoke to him of freedom, sex and youthful rebellion. "Heartbreak Hotel" also opened up something else to Lennon. But he wasn't sure what it was exactly.

After Elvis launched his meteoric career at Sun Records in Memphis a couple of years earlier, in 1954, with his startling and still unmatched performances of "That's All Right" and "Mystery Train," "Heartbreak Hotel" became Presley's debut single for RCA Records. The origins of the song began with a steel guitarist from Georgia named Tommy Durden, who had been playing country music in Florida since the forties. In 1955, Durden met Glenn Reeves, a Jacksonville DJ and singer, who promptly introduced him to Mae Axton, a schoolteacher, also an eager publicist for local country music performers. Durden told Axton a story about a man who committed suicide and left a note that said, "I walk a lonely street." In trying to imagine why the man in the story walked to the end of that lonely street, they decided to write a song about where he might have ended up had he not killed himself. That place with no known address became Heartbreak Hotel. Axton went to the annual DJ convention in Nashville in November 1955 and pitched the song to Elvis, who was enticed to record it when he was given a share of the writer's credit. Jack Strapp, who owned Tree Music (and sponsored the convention), purchased the tune and Elvis recorded it in his first RCA session.

Despite the popularity of "Heartbreak Hotel," which would get to Number One on April 21, 1956, it is not one of Elvis's best sides. He puts so much melodramatic affectation into his performance of this torch ballad that it inadvertently comes across as a parody of the blues. But maybe what Lennon heard in the song was what Leonard Marnham, the English post office technician stationed in Berlin, hears in Ian McEwen's 1990 novel, The Innocent. Bored with his routine life, Marnham turns on the radio one night and, like Lennon, suddenly finds "Heartbreak Hotel." McEwen describes Marnham's reaction to the song this way:

"It spoke only of loneliness and irresolvable despair. Its melody was all stealth, its gloom comically overstated. He loved it all, the forlorn, sidewalk tread of the bass, the harsh guitar, the sparse tinkle of a barroom piano...The song's self-pity should have been hilarious. Instead it made Leonard feel worldly, tragic, bigger somehow."

No question that the song tells an alluring tale capable of pulling you out of your ordinary life. It's about a man who is abandoned by his girl, as Lennon himself was by his own mother when he was five. He has found a new place to abide, right down Lonely Street, there at Heartbreak Hotel. But the hotel gives the singer no comfort; it's a phantom residence. The singer is alone, and so destitute he wishes he could die. The idea of this metaphorical hotel of the heart, this "new place to dwell," spoke deeply to the young Lennon, who would hear his own loneliness and desolation in the song. But also out of that pain, he would hear his own possible, brighter future. By traveling in his mind to Heartbreak Hotel, John Lennon started to imagine a place beyond it. There's a place in this sound, he thought, to find one's salvation. Of course there is. There's a place, don't you know that it's so?

It was February 11, 1963, almost seven years after Lennon had his life changed by hearing Elvis sing "Heartbreak Hotel" on Radio Luxembourg. Now his group, The Beatles, were about to record their debut album Please Please Me at EMI records, not realizing that they too were about to change the course of popular music. After the moderate chart success of their 1962 single "Love Me Do," the follow-up "Please Please Me," recently released, had quickly become a monumental Number One hit. Riding that success, The Beatles were about to record an album of cover songs and original material to try to replicate their dynamic stage performances. After a notable stint in Hamburg, Germany, playing some of the seediest nightclubs, rhythm guitarist John Lennon, bassist Paul McCartney, guitarist George Harrison, and their new drummer, Ringo Starr (who had replaced original percussionist Pete Best), had now become legends in Liverpool. This album was designed to capture not only the excitement everyone was hearing in their music, but also the excitement that was building around the group.

The first song they began recording that day was called "There's a Place," an original Lennon and McCartney composition that took thirteen takes to nail down. Lennon was trying to get the black R&B sound he loved onto the record. Meanwhile, his writing partner, McCartney, came up with the idea of lifting "There's a Place For Us" from the Original Broadway Cast LP of Leonard Bernstein's 1957 hit musical West Side Story. The dream place Bernstein and his lyricist Stephen Sondheim created was an obvious, literal metaphor, invented to accompany the play's rather banal civics lesson that meekly tackled racial and generational discord. Lennon and McCartney's concept turned out to be far more radical. "There's a Place" laid the groundwork for The Beatles' musical and philosophical foundation, and it held all the secrets to the potency of their appeal. Oddly enough, however, many would never realize it: the track became their most underrated song. Perhaps because it was sandwiched on the album between the quaintly romantic ballad "A Taste of Honey" and the forceful album closer "Twist and Shout," "There's a Place" went unnoticed by listeners. But it seems to have also been invisible to the group as well. The Beatles never performed it live during the heyday of Beatlemania. The tune never appeared on any compilation albums, plus it was rarely ever covered, except by the now forgotten The Kestrels and Bobby Sansom & The Giants. In the U.S., Capitol Records ignored "There's a Place" altogether until they released the Rarities LP in 1980. While some critics drew significant attention to the track over the years, most scribes barely acknowledged its existence. Yet this abandoned song, with Lennon and McCartney's most urgent, beautifully sung harmonic pleas, paved the way for some great material to come, like "She Loves You," "All My Loving," "Anytime At All," "What You're Doing" and "Eight Days a Week."

"There's a Place" essentially fulfilled the promise of "Heartbreak Hotel," while simultaneously surpassing it. Like "Heartbreak Hotel," "There's a Place" finds the singer in a blue funk, but the place he takes us to isn't found down some lonely street. Rather than inventing a metaphorical place, Lennon locates it in his mind. Here was a place with no boundaries, no clear definition, a space within which his endless imagination could take flight. In his mind, Lennon could transcend his sadness. For in his mind, he states, he finds no sorrow. Tomorrow won't be sad, either, because there's a place, a place where he can realize love. Coincidentally, the reclusive Brian Wilson also wrote of an alternate place where he could go. But where Wilson goes, in The Beach Boys' beautifully understated "In My Room," is clearly at a remove from a threatening world he sees closing in on him. And despite the song's arresting and seductive harmonies, it's clear that we're not invited to join Wilson in his room.

By contrast, the joy and invention we hear in Lennon and McCartney's harmonies tell us that not only are we are invited to this place where there's no sorrow, but that true happiness is contingent only on our presence. The sole pleasure we take from "In My Room" is the relief the singer finds in getting there. The ecstasy underscoring "There's a Place" is wisely tempered by the singer's anguish as he declares his euphoria. You have to know what you're transcending, he seems to be saying, before you can reach transcendence. "In 'There's a Place,' blue states are expressed with minor triads...rather than a pentatonic blues style," explains music critic Walter Everett. "Perhaps this is because in this song, Lennon does not have the blues; he has retreated to his mind, and we suspect that once there, happy memories of his beloved have let him forget whatever it was that brought him 'low' in the first place. Blues aside, both the lyrics and their tonal world express an unusual mix of happiness and melancholia." What Everett describes here is the underpinning of all the ambiguities of The Beatles' utopian dream in the sixties. The track’s mix of happiness and melancholia, where heartache adds depth to pure joy, and pure joy adds relief to heartbreak, sent "There's a Place" past the manufactured posturing of "Heartbreak Hotel."

In less than two minutes, the time it takes to listen to this song, The Beatles take us to Nowhere Land. But this isn't the Nowhere Land of "Nowhere Man," a Lennon song that describes an alienated state of mind. Rather it refers to the Greek meaning of utopia -- “no place” – a vicinity that doesn't exist yet still remains a perfect locality. In Utopia, an ironic treatise on the Elizabethan social order written in 1518, Sir Thomas More defined utopia as a fictional island. Through the character of Rapheal Hythloday, More travels to this paradise where he finds perfect political, social and legal systems. Since More, whenever people think of either utopias or even dystopias, they usually find them in a real world we can all recognize. The Nowhere Land of The Beatles' music, though, has no literal location. It is sustained by a delicate balance held between the band and its audience, dependent on a common mind created by the diverse group of men who make up The Beatles. The Beatles were part of a different kind of revolution than most of their contemporaries. "The true revolution of the sixties...was an inner one of feeling and assumption," wrote author and critic Ian MacDonald. He called that revolt "a revolution in the head," the title for his own book on the group.

Perhaps it could be argued that The Beatles' artistic progress could not have truly evolved without the audience as their muse -- and their adversary. "If The Beatles had ever embodied any principle beyond the transformative power of rock 'n' roll, it was that every step in their progress would entail the inclusion, through engagement, of yet another community," suggests Devin McKinney in Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History. "First they would form a community among themselves; this would grow into a community that encompassed an imagined mass, an ideal audience, and after all the dues were paid and the foundations laid, the community would include, or at least invite, everyone who wished to play a part." As a result of this dynamic between The Beatles and their fans, the implicit message of "There's a Place" can be heard only one way: Nowhere Land exists, and the love it offers is only palpable, if we play our part in sharing the experience of going there with Lennon. John Lennon had always made himself the pivotal figure in The Beatles' utopian dream. With them, he proposed the possibility of community, the plucky idea that by joining one, you could free yourself. "The Beatles and their fans played out an image of utopia, of a good life, and the image was that one could join a group and by doing so not lose one's identity as an individual but find it: find one's own voice," critic Greil Marcus wrote in a tribute to Lennon shortly after he was murdered. "This was an image of utopia that could encompass every desire for love, family, friendship, or comradeship; while The Beatles were The Beatles, this image informed love affairs and it informed politics. It shaped one's sense of possibility and loss, of the worth of things."

Over time, though, things changed, for both the culture, and for The Beatles. Nightmares grew out of dreams. Promises couldn't be kept. For some devotees of the band, some were deliberately broken, tilling the ground for the murderous impulses some felt justified in acting upon. The screams of fans were at one time the sharing in the unbridled thrill heard in the group's best music. But soon it would become either screams for blood, or the screams of bloodied victims. Nowhere Land would in time become a ghost town, abandoned even by the ghosts. Over time, The Beatles were no longer shaping history, but becoming it, their utopian hope turning into a lamentable loss. In their later music, like "All You Need Is Love," they tried to supply answers, rather than pose open questions. In the end, we were left wondering what the dream was worth. Is a dream a lie if it doesn’t come true, Bruce Springsteen once asked in a song, or is it something worse?

"The durability of The Beatles surpasses pretty much any other music I know," critic Dave Marsh wrote in 2007. "And as much as it belongs to the waking world, it belongs to dreams." It's been close to forty years since the demise of The Beatles, yet they continue to exist in an ethereal place existing somewhere between the waking world and the world of our dreams. From there, The Beatles continue to operate in the realm of our imagination, no matter what shape the world happens to be in. Yet because of The Beatles, we still try to imagine, as well as desire, better worlds to live in. The Beatles' music over the years had become a lifeline for many people, as "Heartbreak Hotel" had been for Lennon when he was a boy. What their music provided was the durability of hope. But it was a hope that lives only in the realm of our imagination. The Beatles' music didn't, nor could it, make our lives and the world around us better. Even so, there was a promise made all the same, but it was a promise that the group (which broke up acrimoniously) couldn't keep. All promises that don't come true, though, can't be considered equal. Film critic Pauline Kael once concluded her consideration of Warren Beatty's Reds (1981), a movie about the ultimate betrayal of political ideals, by saying that promises broken are not the same as promises that can't be kept. In the years ahead, when it came to The Beatles, we also came to learn the difference between those types of promises. So did The Beatles.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

1 comment:

  1. "There's a Place" was the B side of "Twist and Shout", a single released on Capitol in 1965. There were a number of B sides that never made it to a Capitol Album until Rarities. In the 60's most US Beatles fans bought the singles and we even played the B sides.