Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Whole Wide World Within the Grooves

By the time I was four, I had developed a promiscuous interest in music. Without understanding the meaning of the first songs I discovered, such as Frankie Laine's romantic confession "Moonlight Gambler," or Marty Robbins' fateful ballad "The Hanging Tree," I was drawn by the unusual texture of the sound in those tunes. Laine, a hyperbolic performer, used a number of strange effects in his song. A high-pitched whistle, drenched in reverb, opened the track. To my young ears that whistle seemed to be signalling forlornly to some distant train arriving into a lonely, abandoned station. It was soon followed by another voice making click-clop noises, as if a majestic horse were coming over the hill to intercept that oncoming train. And all of this was taking place before Frankie Laine opened his mouth to sing. It was clear that I was responding to more than just a song – but instead to a whole other world of sound reverberating around me, creating a spot in my imagination, and inviting me to share in the music's distinctive peculiarities. But these were my parents' and my relatives' records. I didn't really discover rock 'n' roll until my mother's cousin, Jimmy Mahon, came to live with us in 1959.

Jimmy had a huge collection of 45s, by such performers as Buddy Holly ("It Doesn't Matter Anymore"), Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks ("Southern Love"), rockabilly artist Jack Scott ("Patsy"), the Mills Brothers ("Till Then"), some Elvis ("Don't Be Cruel"), and Little Anthony & the Imperials (their wonderfully eerie voodoo hit "Shimmy, Shimmy, Ko-Ko-Bop"). He also owned a portable 45 rpm record player with a built-in cone to stack each record on top of the others. When one finished, the next song would drop down and begin to play. I used to sit in the middle of my room, stack the singles, and while leaning against my bed, I'd listen to the songs for hours. And there it was: my first love affair with music. Of course, even though I fell hard for Jimmy's rock collection, the records and the songs were his, not mine. (All I owned was "Popeye, the Sailor Man" and "Blow the Man Down," sewing the seeds for my future love of sea shanties.) At five, I even asked myself when I would find my own music. It came four years later.

Word of The Beatles reached Canada before it did in America. In 1963, some of their songs were getting radio airplay and many of my school friends were starting to take notice. When I saw a photo of the group, four guys in matching suits and cereal-bowl haircuts, they looked too precious for words. My parents complained about their long hair and, adorned with my own razor-shorned brushcut, I found no reason to argue. But a sharp guy in my grade three class seemed to know a thing or two about music. Brian Potts was older than his years. When The Beatles were about to make their historic appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, Brian was telling all within earshot to watch. He already owned their new album and he promised us that their TV performance would be worth it. A contrarian even at the age of nine, I scoffed and refused to watch the show. So the next day, Brian invited me over to his house to hear With The Beatles. It was their second UK album (called Beatlemania! With The Beatles in Canada) and it had a black-and-white photo on the front cover with the group in half-profile. The picture was startling – half in light, half in shadow – and their faces revealed no desire to please anyone. The music, on the other hand, was immediately arresting. From the opening track, the boldly appealing "It Won't Be Long," featured John Lennon declaring his desire to be by his lover's side, as Paul McCartney and George Harrison backed him up with affirmative "Yeahs!" I was instantly hooked.

There was a quality of feeling in this music that told you immediately that it was yours to possess. And as joyful as it was, it had a bottom end, a certain sadness at its core. The Beatles' songs seized me dramatically because the pleasure in their sound tugged at some inarticulated, buried sorrow. The seductive "All My Loving," for example, was the happiest song on the record, but it was about the singer going away, leaving his girl behind. Most popular artists, like Bobby Vee in "Take Good Care of My Baby," made it clear that there was nothing about the absence of a lover to feel happy about. Paul McCartney's song, on the other hand, made a candid promise. He'll write every day he's away, so although he's gone, don't worry, he'll be back, just as Lennon would be in "It Won't Be Long." When The Beatles covered Motown, as in their version of The Marvelettes' lovely 1961 hit "Please Mr. Postman," they act out an emotional tug-of-war. The Marvelettes coyly beg the postman for that letter, perfectly confident that the boy will come through; "Please Mr. Postman" anticipates the joy the singer will feel when that letter arrives. In The Beatles' version, John Lennon sounds like a man on death row waiting for a reprieve. The elation in his voice at the thought of this letter arriving is also paired with anguish that it may never come. This equivocal characteristic of their music wasn't a simple divide between pleasure and pain, right and wrong, or an unassuming claim asserting that pain would lead to pleasure (as the woman in "Girl" believes). The Beatles' records had transcendence in them, a belief that even in the most despairing moment, hope was possible; that even at the most painful time, enjoyment could be around the corner. With The Beatles was the first Beatles record I bought with my saved allowance in March 1964 – though my parents warned me not to get any ideas about growing my hair long.

In September, my mother bought me a ticket to The Beatles' first concert at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. I was somewhat surprised since she had to put up with Brian Potts and me at the drive-in earlier that summer watching A Hard Day's Night, The Beatles' first film. Bored out of her mind, clueless to the Liverpudlian humour in the script, she also had to listen to Brian pontificate on the type of acoustic guitar Lennon was playing during "If I Fell." Nonetheless, she roamed the downtown streets seeking out a scalper so I could attend the concert. She could only get one ticket so I had to go it alone. I walked gingerly past scores of young girls screaming, tearing at their hair, their clothes, some dropping to the ground in a fainting fit in front of me. One female I recall was hitting her head – hard – against the Gardens' brick wall screaming out for Paul, who, of course, wasn't there to answer. He didn't yet know that the generous promise he offered in "All My Loving" would generate such desperate responses.

The Beatles in Toronto 1964
Inside the hockey arena, the sports palace that housed the storied Toronto Maple Leafs, my grandfather and I had watched many games together, but I was now entering it by myself for the first time to see The Beatles. It was a rite of passage. My first rock concert. Many performers took the stage before The Beatles, but in my fervent anticipation, I didn't register any of them. I was in the cheapest seats in the building, up in the grey area near the roof, so I could barely see the stage. When DJ "Jungle" Jay Nelson of the local CHUM radio introduced The Beatles, the din was frighteningly intense. I knew the tunes, but I could barely hear the melodies for the screams from the crowd. An older gentleman beside me lent me his binoculars from time to time through the group's brief half-hour set. Dressed in their matching suits, like elegant bachelors at a ball, they withstood the barrage from the crowd. Singing "She Loves You," they dug their black heels into the floor, as if fighting back hurricane winds, yet smiling happily, knowing that the vivacity of that song could match, perhaps even surpass, the devoted shouts the song earned. At times, it was as much a battle of wits between the band and the audience that I particularly remember the excitement during The Beatles' performance of "Please Please Me." The plea from the stage was to come on, share this love, an urgent appeal that was greeted with a desire in the crowd to become one with this young and exciting group. Nothing could compare to the emotional force in the stadium that afternoon. As The Beatles left the stage, once they had completed their mandatory mannerly bows, the air was thick with exhilaration. My ears rang for days.

When I saw them again at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1965, the music was becoming a little more sophisticated and I was sitting a lot closer, on the floor, and mere feet from the stage. With the majority of the screaming behind me, the intensity of the music was now before me. Lennon played a Hammond organ at this show, and as he sang Larry Williams' exuberant 1958 bar boogie "Dizzy Miss Lizzy," he'd alternate his fingers and his elbows, madly stroking the keyboards. Yet as exciting as the concert was, it lacked the impact of the 1964 performance because it was clear to me – even at my callow age – that The Beatles' show was starting to become routine. Certain of what to expect from the crowd, they knew now what to feed us. Yet despite the predictability of concerts like this one, they were never content to repeat their success when it came to their albums. As they scrambled through their second film, the James Bond parody pastiche Help!, they also released the introspective Rubber Soul, and later offered us the dazzling eclecticism of Revolver. On these records, The Beatles challenged us to hear music in new and exciting ways. The artistic risks they were taking in the studio were replacing the excitement once heard in their concerts. In 1966, their most dangerous risk, however, took the form of John Lennon's remark about The Beatles' being more popular than Jesus Christ. Despite the outcry over his comment, what Lennon argued was nothing more than a simple truth: popular culture, the paganism of the Sixties, was becoming the new religion.

In 1966, the year of their final tour, that's where the violence that had been lurking under the surface of the happily screaming throngs fully materialized. Facing death threats in Japan for daring to play at the Budokan, being assaulted in the Philippines for snubbing Imelda Marcos's state dinner, their albums burned in the American Bible Belt as a protest against Lennon's Jesus remark, The Beatles were now targets of hatred rather than just entertainers of adoring crowds. When I saw the group for the last time at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1966, I sensed a different dynamic in the audience. The spontaneity of earlier shows was no longer present in either the crowd or the group. For that show, I decided to bring a tape recorder my parents had recently bought me. Nobody bothered checking my machine since bootleg albums were a concern for the future, and copyright infringement was an issue for publishers and libraries only. My seat wasn't quite as good as it was in 1965, but I was close enough to get a reasonable recording of the show. The screaming was also nowhere near the pitch it had been during the heights of Beatlemania. If there was frenzy in the audience, it seemed rehearsed, as if people were acting out roles in a movie reeling in their minds, and no longer responding to the performance on stage.

The Beatles in Toronto 1966 

I took my friend Doug Smith to the show and afterward, as we were exiting, the crowd turned towards us, thinking they saw The Beatles and began stampeding. I quickly pulled myself to the wall, clutching my tape recorder for fear it would get broken. Unfortunately, I wasn't as cautious about my feet and someone stomped over my ankle spraining it slightly. Doug wasn't as fortunate: he got mowed down so fast I didn't see where he went. When the paramedics asked me for a description of Doug, I told them what he looked like before he was clobbered by the crowd. But I was afraid to consider what he might resemble now. I remembered the scary pitch of intensity in the audience in 1964; the mood this time was more potentially dangerous. The crowd was less responsive to The Beatles, or to their music; they were now becoming conscious of their own power. The harmony between the group and the audience was no longer synergistic.As I sat on the stairs waiting for the paramedics to find Doug, with my ankle gently throbbing, I stretched out my legs. As I did, I heard voices and footsteps coming down the steps toward me. Most of the crowd had left the building by now so I found myself wondering who it was. As I looked up, I was stunned to see that it was them. It was The Beatles. Here at their final Toronto show, they were right before me. I was so startled that I couldn't decide whether to pull my legs in so that they could walk around me, or leave my legs stretched out, so they could just jump over me. Confused, I moved them up and down like an out-of-control drawbridge. Paul laughed as he jumped over me, while George briskly walked around my feet towards the wall. I brought my knees up and Ringo gingerly stepped around my feet, but John had already decided to leap over me, and his foot caught the edge of my knee. He started tumbling down the stairs, but quickly caught his balance towards the end, with George's help. Horrified, I tried to say I was sorry but the words wouldn't come out. I was caught in one of those paralyzing moments that resemble a dream where you try to run, but you can't because your legs won't move. Lennon quickly shot me his trademark look: an angry pose replaced by a quick smile that caught you off guard and told you it was alright. It was the same disarming smile you could clearly hear in his voice on "Eight Days a Week" or "I Feel Fine." I stumbled down the stairs to watch them enter the press lounge for what would be their final Toronto press conference.

When Doug was finally found, he certainly wasn't smiling. Although he was physically fine, he was emotionally shook up. He was even less pleased when he heard that I got to "meet" The Beatles. But I was the one who soon had little reason to be smiling. Assuming The Beatles would come back the next year, I decided to erase my tape of the concert because buying reel-to-reel audio tape was pretty expensive for an 11-year-old. And, of course, The Beatles never returned. Years later I combed The Beatles' fan sites for some documented audio record of that Toronto show and I discovered that I was evidently the only one to have recorded it. Until a few years back when someone had auctioned off his father's original tape of the entire show. As for my tape that had once contained The Beatles' final Toronto concert ... it was soon filled with the voices of my grandmothers taunting each other as they played cards.

For me, music has always created the possibilities for friendship, a shared passion that can also lead to a sense of community. Which is perhaps why American music always held out a particular fascination for me, as it had for The Beatles who, despite being British, heard their own lives hidden within it. The American character always has idealism at its core and The Beatles' idealism took the form of American rock and rhythm and blues music. And why not? "[They resurrected] music we had ignored, forgotten or discarded, recycling it in a shinier, more feckless and yet more raucous form," once wrote music critic Lester Bangs. And they chose the most appropriate music in which to lift our spirits: "In retrospect, it seems obvious that this elevation of our mood had to come from outside the parameters of America's own musical culture, if only because the folk music which then dominated American pop was so tied to the crushed dreams of the New Frontier," Bangs went on to write.

This endless struggle to define community pops up almost everywhere in American culture. In 1928, in the wake of a horrible depression, folk singer Harry McClintock proposed an alternate world in "Big Rock Candy Mountain" where one's worst trepidations could happily vanish. On Bruce Springsteen's Magic (2007), the narrator on "Radio Nowhere" desperately scans the radio dial looking for a song that will pull it all together, make sense of the turbulent tenor of contemporary American life, but he can't find it. He's not just clamouring for some current hit to tap his toes to; he's searching through time to find some meaning that's lost to him, a song that reminds him that he's part of something bigger and not at the mercy of transient tastes, the whims of the moment. His goal, as the song states, is to be delivered from nowhere. "[T]he covenant between Springsteen and his audience remains strong, in part because he gives them permission to go on believing in trust, even when the world seems to offer so few things to deserve it," Robert Everett-Green once wrote in The Globe and Mail after a 2007 Springsteen concert in Ottawa, Canada.

You can see the cost of that pursuit of a covenant to trust in Tommy Lee Jones's Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, as he walks through the indifferent murderous American landscape in the Coen Brothers' laconic thriller adapted from Cormac McCarthy's novel No Country For Old Men (2007). "[His] last speech is a contemplation of hope, a dream, about however dark and cold the world might be, however long the ride through it might be, that at the end you know that you will go to your father's house and it will be warm, or to a fire that your father has carried and built for you," Jones told a journalist in 2008. "The last sentence of the movie is, 'And then I woke up.' It's a contemplation of the idea of hope, is it an illusion? Is it just a dream? And if it is, is the dream real?" The question of whether it is all real or an illusion, a question John Lennon also posed explicitly in "Strawberry Fields Forever," always remained at the heart of The Beatles' vision. Those of us seeking the covenant they offered were searching for something outside the world we were fated to live in.

Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood 
But the America that The Beatles bonded with in the Sixties, despite the Vietnam War and racial iniquity, still had a covenant worth believing in. In the wake of the recent Iraq War, profoundly hysterical anti-Americanism replaced a critical distinction between what's rich and true in the culture and what's empty and false. You can see that lack of distinction, too, in the fatalistic world of Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood (2007). The picture is a pose, a preordained polemical statement offering little insight and no surprises. Anderson's epic tale of American betrayal has nothing at stake because it implies that there was no American Dream to betray since it was already a nightmare to begin with. So his movie provides no tragic dimension to the teeming avarice of the oil man played by Daniel Day-Lewis. If Walt Whitman had once distinguished between an art that decided presidential elections and an art that made those elections irrelevant, There Will Be Blood is art that is too busy counting ballots. There is no grandeur to the deceived dream to even care about its loss. But by marrying themselves to the most vital and exciting aspects of American culture, the kind that outstrips partisan polemics, The Beatles gave the lie to the kind of narrow assertions Anderson deals in. They built a dream world based on America's conflicting temptations – its promises and its failings – which offer us a wider definition of community, one that also attracts many diverse citizens. That would include a young Canadian spinning 45s on a tiny record player and hearing a whole world called up between the grooves.

Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. In January 2012, at the Miles Nidal Centre JCC in Toronto, Courrier began a lecture series (film clips included) based on Reflections. Check their schedule. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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