Sunday, March 29, 2015

Where Dreams Don't Go to Die: John Lennon's "God" and The Beatles' Love

Eight months after The Beatles broke up in 1970, John Lennon released Plastic Ono Band, named after his new group. But rather than being a utopian vision from a collection of musicians shaping the future of a Seventies counter-culture, it was instead a solo autobiographical record which began as a stark recollection of Lennon's traumatic childhood. One listen to the album’s intensely austere songs made it clear that the world of possibility Lennon once heard in Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel," or the inclusive spirit he once proclaimed with The Beatles on "There’s a Place," he was now refuting. Lennon stripped the songs of their quixotic power for the purpose of discovering the naked truth about himself. "Mother" opened the album with the peeling of funeral bells, as Lennon ranted angrily at the father who abandoned him as a boy and at the mother who was killed soon after. "I Found Out" expressed his angry contempt for religion and the pop culture The Beatles helped inspire. "Working Class Hero," a mournful old-fashioned folk ballad, despaired of an authoritarian society that stripped its citizens of their souls. Critic Albert Goldman, in his controversial biography The Lives of John Lennon, compared the theme of Plastic Ono Band to The Who’s rock opera Tommy. "For what is the famous rock opera about?" Goldman asks. "A boy traumatized by his mother’s cheating loses all his senses but the most primitive, the sense of touch. He employs this mute yet passionate faculty to become a pinball hero—a symbol of rock ’n’ roll. Acclaimed by the world’s youth as a pop star, he continues to evolve, becoming first a guru and ultimately a saint. There is the legend of John Lennon to a T." On Plastic Ono Band, Lennon set out to reveal himself as a new man who was reborn.

The music was different from The Beatles, as well, their colorful sound turned into monochromatic black and white. Besides Lennon, the record featured only Ringo Starr on drums, Klaus Voorman, an old friend from The Beatles’ Hamburg days, on bass, and an immensely talented young black pianist who had played on the Let It Be sessions named Billy Preston. On Plastic Ono Band, Lennon tore away what he perceived to be the illusory symbols of being a Beatle—but that wasn’t going to be easy. "The Beatles not only incorporated all the elements of John Lennon’s fragmented personality but they harmonized these elements perfectly, which enabled them to achieve total self-sufficiency," Goldman wrote, explaining the difficulty of Lennon’s task. Since the self-sufficiency of The Beatles was partially inspired by the image of John Lennon, in order to destroy The Beatles, Lennon had to find a means to destroy their image. He did so in a song he called "God."

For a man who once claimed in 1966 that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus and had himself claimed to his mates to be Christ at a business meeting while tripping on acid, addressing God directly in a song wasn’t far-fetched. But "God" wasn’t simply a Lennon riposte. He used the song to peel away not only the illusions of religion but also the illusions of pop deities who, Lennon felt, paraded like gods. "God" begins with Preston’s stately piano introducing a gospel dirge. Lennon’s voice speaks over the melody, suppressing the appealing melismas that once drew such affection for his Beatles songs. He tells us that God is nothing more than a concept we use to measure our pain. As if to convince himself of that notion, he repeats the phrase, seizing bitterly on the final words "our pain." At this point, the sermon begins. "God" presents the inverse of a gospel song’s affirmations. Reading from a laundry list of injustices, Lennon begins to tell us what he doesn’t believe in anymore: magic, I Ching, Jesus, Hitler, mantras, yogas and kings all make the cut. After kings, he mentions Elvis, obviously no longer worthy of being considered royalty. When Lennon denounces Bob Dylan, another key figure in the Beatles’ musical and cultural evolution, he calls him by his true name of Zimmerman. (His ploy becomes confusing here since the name Dylan is that artist’s disguise, the illusion that Lennon means to strip away.) Then he comes to the key line in the song: "I don’t believe in Beatles," he states, his voice rising in the mix over the piano, which stops cold on "Beatles." After this deathly silence, Lennon returns to tell us what he does believe in now: himself—and Yoko.

Throughout the song, Lennon bites hard on the lyrics, careful not to allow the lyrical beauty of his voice to come through. He saves his best singing for a single pensive moment toward the end when, announcing that The Beatles’ dream is over, he insists that he’s no longer the dream weaver, but a man reborn. He proclaims that he isn’t the walrus, alluding to the character he playfully portrayed in one of his best songs, but John. Lennon’s voice rises beautifully here, and then lightly falls like a leaf caught in a quick breeze, as he divulges the simple truth that we have to carry on. In what sounds like an irrepressible sob, a final somber glimpse back at an era of great promise, Lennon softly cries out once again that the dream is over, and his brittle voice breaks into tiny fragments swallowed up by the song’s silent decay. The sound of Elvis Presley’s voice once altered John Lennon’s life. And despite all his intentions in "God," by the end we can still hear Lennon’s voice accumulate the power that Presley’s had for him. When he recovers the radiance in his voice, when he’s letting it all go, he thinks he’s ending the Beatles’ utopian vision, closing the book on its promise. But what he fails to see is that the dream is still there, and it’s no longer his alone.

In the years following The Beatles' break-up, the world didn’t become any easier, or easier to understand. When you looked out into it some days, you don’t see anybody wanting to hold anyone's else’s hand. In 2006, a divisive war was raging in Iraq, where the American government had toppled a vicious dictator with the expressed desire of restoring democracy. What they unleashed instead was more religious and sectarian violence than Iraq had seen under Saddam Hussein. In one day, 130 Shiite pilgrims were killed by a suicide bombing in Karbala. On another, an American private was accused of raping an Iraqi teenager and murdering three members of her family, bringing back horrifying echoes of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam a few decades earlier. Bombs killed hundreds on a commuter train in Mumbai, India, in yet another example of fanatical religious terrorism while Russia continued to exert its force by cutting off gas to the Ukraine over a pricing dispute. Iran continued its nuclear research while declaring the demise of Israel. Not to be outdone or left out, North Korea decided to start testing nuclear missiles. Bin Laden continued to send death-cult videotapes from his hideout, warning of more terrorist attacks. Inquiries began into the CIA over 1,000 detected secret flights over Europe transporting terrorist suspects to countries that allowed torture. Before the year is at end, Saddam Hussein was executed but religious violence continued to tear Iraq apart. Soldiers of the coalition countries were coming back in an endless parade of caskets. 

One dull November day, in the face of all this turmoil, among the endless bad news, dull commercials, and impersonal patter, an old Beatles song, the gorgeous John Lennon number called "Because" appeared on the radio. Filled with that blinding romantic spirit Lennon set out to end on Plastic Ono Band, "Because," originally heard on Abbey Road, broke through the aural clutter. But this version was different from the one on the record. It was stripped of the lovely baroque harpsichord instrumentation, so the group’s rich a cappella harmonies shone forth—as it also sounded on Anthology 3, the CD box of alternate takes. In the midst of reports of death, recrimination, corruption, the opening lines jumped out: "Because the world is round/It turns me on." Was this somebody’s idea of a sick joke? Yet somehow, despite all the horrible news dominating the airwaves that day, in a world that wasn’t turning anybody on, you couldn’t resist the sentiments expressed in the song; those voices were just too achingly gorgeous to write off. Listening to the song made it easier to dismiss all the cheap sarcasm on talk radio, the monotony of the political pundits, the self-righteous reflexiveness of ideologues. The number seemed to blow away—momentarily—all the horrors of the present and took the listener to an eternal place where it was once again possible to experience the pleasures of harmony. Even with carnage everywhere, the shimmering beauty of romantic possibility was again in view. Lennon hadn’t ended the dream back in 1970, only the reality of the group. The renowned pop melodies were still an inseparable part of our own dreams. The real world around us might not be changing as we hoped it would, but the artificial paradise of The Beatles’ music remained. 

As it turned out, "Because" was the opening song on a new Beatles CD simply called Love. The music included was the soundtrack for the Cirque du Soleil Beatles tribute that had opened at the Mirage in Las Vegas earlier in June. The theatrical acrobatic dance troupe, founded in 1984 and noted for combining surrealism and tent-show theatrics, had been eager to mount a show based on The Beatles’ music and first considered it in 2000 when George Harrison and artistic director Guy Laliberte, both racing car fanatics, became friends on the Formula One circuit. At the Montreal Grand Prix, Harrison told Laliberte that he thought the Cirque should contemplate a show based on Yellow Submarine, The Beatles’ 1968 animated film. Once Apple and the Cirque reached an agreement, however, they moved away from the idea and concentrated on creating a fantasia on the themes in The Beatles’ music. The $27 million production would feature 60 performers in costumes that would combine sixties’ pop art with the dusky industrial look of Liverpool. Characters from their songs—Lady Madonna, Mr. Kite, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Eleanor Rigby, and Father McKenzie—would also flit through the show. For the music, the Cirque du Soleil contacted George Martin, the man who had produced most of those great records, who (due to his age and hearing difficulties) brought his son Giles on board to produce a series of remixes and mash-ups of Beatle songs to shape the show. These tracks would provide a panorama of soundscapes whose common thread was the theme of love, the focus of many of their songs. In 2003, father and son prepared close to an hour and a half of music for the show, 80 minutes of which would fill the CD. They approached the project as if scoring a film, and indeed the Love album resembles a movie for the ears.

On first listen, Love is rather jarring because it toys with our memories of the songs and their original context. But as much as the individual tunes have their place on their individual albums, and in our memories, Love is something different: a scrapbook of song fragments, an elaborate Beatles mosaic created out of an impressionist painting. While it enhances The Beatles’ mystique, the CD is essentially the soundtrack of the stage show. But it has its own thematic coherence as an album. Love draws for us a picture of The Beatles’ utopian vision as a convoluted reverie we have now claimed as our own. It is conceived primarily as our memory of the Beatles, not the band’s. In spite of Lennon’s efforts on "God," Love proves that the dream isn’t over. Love opens with the soft cries of nature, sound effects borrowed from a recording of "Across the Universe," before the harmonies of "Because"open the album. Dominic Champagne, the director of the stage show, had been listening to "Because" on the Anthology 3 CD and adored the a cappella harmonies so much he wanted to include it in the program. On the final relieved sigh of the vocal harmonies comes the final piano chord from "A Day in the Life," only played backward. "I guess we thought that as it made such a great ending, turned around it was bound to make a great beginning," Giles Martin wrote in the CD booklet for Love. That monumental chord crashes right into the memorable G eleventh suspended 4th on George Harrison’s 12-string Rickenbacker which opens "A Hard Day’s Night." As that chord lingers in the air, Ringo’s rare drum solo from Abbey Road (on "The End") plays over it until the opening riff from "Get Back" propels us directly into the song. In just these opening few minutes, Giles and George Martin unravel a tapestry of conflicting fragments, a Beatles hall of mirrors that reflects back to us splinters of distant sounds, of fleeting memories, both happy and sad, that we’ve stored for years. The effect is anti-nostalgic because rather than ask us to harken back to the golden days of the Sixties, the album instead tests the worth of these songs today. By daring to break them apart and reconfigure them, Giles and George Martin are letting these sounds loose, as if they were I Ching coins being thrown to see what they might say to us today.

As "Get Back" rolls toward its conclusion, Lennon’s cries of "Oh yeah" from The White Album track "Glass Onion" creeps over the top of McCartney’s shouts of "Hello, hello" from "Hello Goodbye," providing a vivid contrast between Lennon’s despondency and McCartney’s bright optimism. At this point, the Renaissance horns from "Penny Lane" begin to adorn Lennon’s cry, "Nothing is real," until the creeping strings that end the song turn into the chamber melody of "Eleanor Rigby." With a spirited theme out of Vivaldi, by way of Bernard Herrmann’s trepidatious score for Psycho (1960), the chamber string arrangement leads us into tragedy—the lonely people whom the solitary Eleanor Rigby laments. At the song’s conclusion, the clamor of children playing in the street is met by the sound of an ambulance going by. Since the melody played over this section is the guitar line from "Julia," a song Lennon wrote about his late lamented mother, the ambulance might be invoking her death. As it departs, we hear the count in of George Martin in the studio leading us to "I Am the Walrus," a Lennon song whose roots are found in his childhood love of Lewis Carroll, which brought solace to this bereaved motherless boy.

Cirque du Soleil perform in Love.

As the chorus chant that concludes "I Am the Walrus" mixes in with the spinning dial of a radio, picking up snatches of Shakespeare, the screams of the early Beatles concert crowds return us to the world of Beatlemania, back to those first shows, when their world was a stage. We catch the eager introduction of the group at the Hollywood Bowl in 1964, as the band launches into "I Want to Hold Your Hand," the song that first seduced American audiences with the Beatles’ music. As the portion of the song concludes with the audience screams fading behind them, the Martins give us a clever mashup collage featuring three songs from the middle of the Beatles’ career. Starting with "Drive My Car," the opening song from Rubber Soul, the Martins capture the group at the height of swinging London in a number with a clever role reversal. The guy in the song plays chauffeur to his girlfriend who wants to be a star. Martin adds some lovely touches, including McCartney’s Indian-flavored guitar solo from "Taxman" which replaces the original one in "Drive My Car," plus the blues-drenched horn shuffle from Harrison’s "Savoy Truffle" that underscores the girl’s request to have the guy drive her car. The track then moves quickly into "What You’re Doing," an underrated McCartney track about his relationship with actress Jane Asher. Almost magically in the same beat as "Drive My Car," "What You’re Doing" serves as the guy’s answer to the girl’s request in "Drive My Car," a response that quickly resolves itself in the third section, "The Word." And the word, of course, is love.

As the sly and sexy "Beep, beep, yeah" returns us briefly to the conclusion of "Drive My Car," the drone of the Indian sitar, associated with Harrison’s incorporeal "Within You Without You," takes us into a different love: the mystical kind The Beatles soon embraced. While taking Lennon’s vocal "Sun King" and playing it backward as "Gnik Nus," Love develops a soothing ambiance that draws us right into Harrison’s airiest love song, "Something." As his joyous song of devotion concludes, under the encircling organ of his "Blue Jay Way," we hear traces of Lennon singing "Nowhere Man," leading us into the macabre circus atmosphere of "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite." Lennon’s carny-barker vocal announces a splendid time guaranteed for all, but we’re thrust into the biting, bluesy organ of "I Want You (She’s So Heavy)," Lennon’s obsessive love song to Yoko Ono, while McCartney shrieks out his desperate lyrics from "Helter Skelter" under it. In track after track, the preeminence of their music is balanced by the urgency of its darker components.

After the appropriately imperative cries of "Help!" the soft acoustic guitar of Paul McCartney’s lovely "Blackbird" moves seamlessly into "Yesterday," his lament of loss which hasn’t lost any of its poignancy through the years. The question of whether to include it in the show apparently caused some concern for Giles and George Martin, because the song is so iconic, so well known; they feared it would be too obvious a choice. But while Giles was in Montreal helping the Cirque sound designer set up another show, Martin began playing around with the PA system and while testing the board, he decided to play "Yesterday" on it. When it was over, he looked up to see that all the other workmen had stopped working to listen. Martin knew then that "Yesterday" could still captivate an audience. It had to go into the show. McCartney rarely revealed himself so nakedly in a song, though in "Yesterday," where he looks back into the past to comprehend what happier, much less complicated times meant to him, he was uncovering a coveted theme he’d return to many times throughout his songbook. Perhaps to provide a parallel concept, but from an opposing sensibility, the Martins follow up "Yesterday" with Lennon’s "Strawberry Fields Forever." Lennon’s tune also delves into the past, but if the past gives solace to the contemplative McCartney in "Yesterday," for Lennon, the past he draws upon in "Strawberry Fields Forever" is a malediction. The song’s origin is a Salvation Army orphanage Lennon, his friends, and his Aunt Mimi used to attend to hear marching band music. Martin begins the song with Lennon’s original acoustic demo of "Strawberry Fields," which now stripped of its psychedelic adornments, becomes a much more plaintive ballad. As the tune progresses, though, the producers use an aural equivalent of time-lapse photography, as "Strawberry Fields" gradually evolves into the orchestral embellishments of the finished version we remember. But rather than repeating the merry-go-round effects of the original conclusion, they incorporate an elaborate mix of horns from Sgt. Pepper (the album "Strawberry Fields" was originally destined for), George Martin’s Elizabethan piano solo from Lennon’s autobiographical "In My Life," the French horn from McCartney’s nostalgic "Penny Lane," the baroque harpsichord from Harrison’s "Piggies," and finally the celebratory chorus from "Hello, Goodbye." What begins as a destitute portrait of childhood out of Dickens now becomes a childlike collage of colorful melodies that take us into an enchanted kingdom. The childhood despair of "Strawberry Fields" is magically cured. 

The drone of an Indian tamboura is met by the whooping cries of Paul McCartney from the tape loops he provided for John Lennon’s most radical musical experiment, "Tomorrow Never Knows" on Revolver. But just as Lennon exhorts us to turn off our minds, relax, and float downstream, George Harrison arrives on the rhythm track with his Hindustani influenced "Within You Without You." The mix of the two songs is probably the best mash-up on the CD. "At the beginning of the project, I knew that no one would ever hear my mistakes as we’d been secretly shut away," Giles Martin recalled. "So I thought I’d start by trying to combine a few tracks to see what the result would be." Besides the kindred spirit between the two songs, where Lennon's and Harrison's spiritual views merge, the melodies also converge as if part of a portable mobile where every disparate piece connects. As the song fades with whooping trills, like that of seagulls flying overhead, the tentative sound of a harpsichord comes out of the mix as if the player were still trying to find the melody. The track begins to establish itself as "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," and the harpsichord sets up a blanket of shimmering stars in the sky. Based on a drawing Lennon’s son Julian did in school, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was tainted in 1967 with the controversy of whether it was about LSD (the initials of the title, the surreal imagery in the lyrics), but while drugs had become a habitual part of The Beatles’ music by then, ironically, the song was not enhanced by chemicals. From up in the sky, we move down into the depths of the ocean for Ringo’s children song "Octopus’s Garden." Since it is a close cousin to "Yellow Submarine," the producers cleverly add a musical reference to that song here. They begin with the maudlin Mantovani-like strings used in "Good Night," Lennon’s tune to Julian (which Ringo sings), but Ringo’s voice is slowed down to match the melody of his song while the rival melody is played by the orchestra. Originally Giles Martin wanted to use the morose string movement that ended "Glass Onion," but he found it too creepy and wisely rested on "Good Night" instead. 

For the next song, "Lady Madonna," both Martins have fun with its structure. Opening with the bridge as a lead-in, the track is reminiscent of George Martin’s early experiments with the group, like having them open "She Loves You" with the bridge instead of the verse. Harrison’s majestic "Here Comes the Sun" is a folk mantra that Giles Martin cleverly links to his earlier spiritual tome, "The Inner Light" (which was the B-side of the "Lady Madonna" single). Lennon’s anthem "Come Together" has far more presence here than on Abbey Road and toward the end the producers mix in elements of "Dear Prudence," "Cry Baby Cry," and McCartney’s song fragment, "Can You Take Me Back," all from The White Album. Out of the competing melodies, which sound like a mixed chorus of nursery rhymes, comes a blast of distorted guitar that opens Lennon’s incendiary "Revolution." The chastising of violent revolutionaries astutely segues into "Back in the U.S.S.R." which uses the musical spirit of Chuck Berry to lampoon the pioneer revolutionary state of the Soviet Union. 

After writing the orchestral arrangement for both "Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby," George Martin was called upon to write a new score for an alternate acoustic version of Harrison’s "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." The released version, from The White Album, was a rock anthem featuring Eric Clapton on lead guitar. But the earlier demo, which featured just Harrison on his acoustic guitar and McCartney on a harmonium, is more satisfying. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" was always a catchy, if overly dramatic expression of self-pity, but in this much simpler version, the tune is less ostentatious and more pensive lament. Martin was initially resistant to writing another string score. But encouraged by his son and Harrison’s widow, Olivia, he went ahead. "‘Yesterday’ was the first score I had written for a Beatle song way back in 1965 and this score forty one years later is the last," Martin remarked in the documentary All Together Now.With the addition of his understated and elegant string arrangement, the song finally achieves a ripe poignancy that permits it to serve as the mirror opposite of "Here Comes the Sun." If the latter celebrates the rebirth of the spring, the former now sadly contemplates mortality. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" on Love becomes a deeply touching epitaph for Harrison.

If death underscores "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," it becomes the subject of "A Day in the Life." Based on the death of the young socialite Tara Browne, an Irish friend of the Beatles killed in a car crash, "A Day in the Life" explores the fragile, fleeting nature of the moments that make up a life. Out of the rising orchestral din of the concluding note in the song, McCartney follows with "Hey Jude," the most majestic anthem in their catalog. Although the song today raises as many groans as cheers, "Hey Jude" (which was written for John’s son Julian, after his parents divorced) is a huge affirmation of hope. Unlike Lennon’s explicitly political anthem "Revolution," which was the B-side of the single, McCartney’s song, with its extended chorus, was taken up as the chant among Czechs protesting the Soviet invasion in August 1968. After the reprise of "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band," Love concludes with another anthem, the rather naive "All You Need Is Love," which brings the album full circle to the opening track of "Because." In "All You Need Is Love," like "Because," The Beatles seek to surmount the travails of everyday life. When they first recorded this song in 1967, it had that effect on George Martin. One week before he recorded the song for a national television broadcast, Martin’s father took ill and died shortly thereafter. "I was shattered, devastated," Martin remembered. "Perhaps the work on ‘All You Need is Love’ was my lifeline."

The Beatles’ music over the years had become a lifeline for many people, as well, just as "Heartbreak Hotel" had been for Lennon when he was a boy. What Love proved upon its release was that their musical wizardry had retained a distinctly hopeful quality with traces of tragedy running beneath the surface. But it was always a hope that lives in the realm of our imagination. The Beatles’ music didn’t, nor could it, make our lives and the world around us better—it could, however, change our outlook on the world for the better. Judging from the continued interest in the group, from remastered CDs to vinyl releases, not to mention the collection of tribute bands performing to sold out houses, many still hear a promise in The Beatles’music. But it was a pledge that the group (which broke up acrimoniously) couldn’t keep. While all promises that don’t come true can’t be considered equal, the story of The Beatles and their quest for an artificial paradise was the best kind of cultural fairy tale. "[It’s] something that begins with great promise [but] bitterly shatters, and everyone who cared about it has to somehow find a way to preserve its best elements for themselves—and go on," wrote critic Anthony DeCurtis. That summarizes the Beatles’ utopian dream, and probably its aftermath, but as quickly as it fades beyond reach, we discover that it always comes back in a song.

(An edited and rewritten portion from Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream, Greenwood-Praeger, 2009.)

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. 

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