HOME AGAIN, WITH THE BEATLESby Rip Rense
(Originally published in L.A. Weekly in 1995.)
The Beatles often sang of going home again---almost as often, it seems, as they sang of love.
The home theme crops up in the Beatles' body of work the way doom recurs in the poems of Edgar Allan Poe, dusty roads in the songs of Woody Guthrie. . .It's there, poignantly in John Lennon's words to "In My Life" ("though I know I'll never lose affection/ for people and things that went before . . ."), jauntily in Lennon and Paul McCartney's "Two of Us" ("on our way back home . . ."), implicitly in quasi-homages to landmarks of youth, "Strawberry Fields Forever," and "Penny Lane," eeriely in the throwaway, unnamed fragment, "can you take me back where I came from?" from the so-called "white album," overtly in the half-spoken lament of "Golden Slumbers," "once there was a way/ to get back homeward. . ."
And it it also, poetically enough, turns up as the centerpiece of one of two new "reunion" Beatles songs, the group's first recording since 1970, "Free As a Bird":
"Like a homing bird I'll fly
A bird on the wing. . ."
I'm not sure what Thomas Wolfe---he who decreed "you can't go home again"---would think about the ongoing "return" of the Beatles---in the form of a massive film autobiography, three double-CD sets of unreleased studio outtakes, live recordings, rejected songs, and two new "reunion" songs (the second, "Real Love," was released in February) built around homemade Lennon solo tapes.
What I am sure of is that the Beatles' music remains such an enduring touchstone for untold millions that having the group "back," even though one member endures solely in spirit, takes a touch of finality out of Wolfe's words. It seems that for those whose youth was entwined with the artistry of the four Liverpudlians, well, to embellish the cliche, maybe you can't go home again, but a little bit of home is liable to come back to you, once in a while.
"Jojo left his home in Tucson, Arizona. . .Get back to where you once belonged. . ."--- from "Get Back."
The most useful descripton of the Beatles I have ever encountered came from their longtime friend and press officer, Derek Taylor, who called them "an abstraction, like Christmas" that offered "optimism, wit, lack of pretension. . ." It's hard to imagine---you had to be there, I suppose---but Taylor doesn't exaggerate. In their day, the Beatles provided the most consistently uplifting, innovative, hopeful and downright happy works of art that humanity had the pleasure of anticipating. The next album, single, movie, even remark, were awaited by much of the western world (and not a little of the eastern; Japan was the Beatles' second-biggest market after the States) with a childlike, Yuletide-esque excitement. Every single and album after 1964 was a wild, almost unbelievable departure from its predecessor. The Beatles were nothing if not perpetually, reliably, gloriously unpredictable. They furnished one of life's great treats, the surprise. How much of an element of suprise is there in popular music of today?
For many, when the Beatles bitterly dissolved in 1970, it felt like losing a piece of home---and rather abruptly, like being kicked out by a wicked stepmother. Disillusionment and dejection abounded. In a pre-tabloid era, the break-up was international page-one headlines in the regular press. Something that had been such a joyous part of life---something that seemed to prove the possibility of creative human cooperation, something that had inspired so many---had gone up in a cloud of acrimony. Pfft! It was like the power cutting out in a theater, Oz revealed behind the curtain, Santa Claus with his beard off, Christ on a 3-D postcard. The dream is over, as Lennon later sang on his first post-Beatles album. It wasn't, of course. Demand for a reunion dogged the four guys like rabid paparazzi. Lennon's comment about the Beatles having given "everything in God's earth for ten years" was indisputable, but earthlings still wanted more. Hard to blame them.
"When I was a boy, everything was right. . ." --- from "She Said She Said."
Hope for a second coming of the Beatles died with Lennon in 1980 (although the popularity of the music certainly lived on.) Like the premature deaths of Mozart, Schubert, Bizet, Jimi Hendrix, Charlie Parker, Mario Lanza, it seemed so. . .wrong. . .that the Beatles' story should end so soon, and so tragically. Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans, as Lennon sang just before being murdered. Jeff Lynne, who produced the two "reunion" tracks, said that much of the motivation for the current "return" was simply to put a happier ending on the whole story.
What a lovely gesture. It's really the most outrageous surprise the Beatles have ever pulled off---two new songs when no one even thought it possible, conjured through technical trickery and, at long last, a spirit of cooperation prevailing among the remaining band members (and Yoko Ono, who furnished the unfinished Lennon tapes.) Not the least remarkable part of the story, it should be remembered, is the participants' efforts to override their grief at the loss of their old mate, and join his disembodied voice in song. There was plenty of Kleenex in the studio.
Of course, naysayers are popping up. A member of the celebrated group, R.E.M., recently declared the Beatles' music irrelevant (without, he curiously declared, ever having listened to a Beatles song all the way through.) One wonders if this sort of sentiment might exist prevalently among other members of post-Beatles generations, and if it might changed with a little historical context. Like this. . .
Perhaps it's enough to say that the Beatles were totally new; their likes had never been seen or heard from before. The idea of pop musicians who played their own bombastic, electric instruments and collaborated to write clever and original music was novel. The idea of such a group combining traditional Tin Pan Alley-based songwriting ambitions with an array of influences that had not hit mainstream American society--- mainly soul, rhythm and blues, folk---was unimaginable.
"I've got a whole lot of things to tell her/ when I get home. . ." ---from "When I Get Home."
It is worth pointing out that in the Beatles' day, there was: no MTV, no cable TV, no mammoth music industry drooling over every kid screaming or wailing manic-depressively into a microphone in some pseudo-beatnik coffee shop, no home computers, no internet, precious little graphic sex and violence in movies, no synthesizers to speak of, no digital recording, no home studios, a lot of great black pop music (mostly available locally by listening to the late, great Wolfman Jack on XERB, the "mighty 1090," beamed from Mexico), a lot of very tame and often very inane non-black pop music. There was no FM radio! There were no flesh-piercing magazines filled with photos of skewered genitals on the newswracks of your neighborhood record store. The Smothers Brothers Show was cancelled over mildly expressed opposition to the war in Vietnam. . .
Into this decidedly less crowded, somehow more civilized and hopeful world (despite the parade of well-known catastrophes of the decade) entered four high-energy, bright, witty, irreverent (a quaint quality, by today's standards), musical kids from glib, sardonic Liverpool---landing, therapeutically enough, smack in the middle of an American nervous breakdown called the assassination of President John Kennedy.
The fad portion of the phenomenon lasted a couple of years, a few tours, a couple of daffy movies (the first of which turned out to be a genuine piece of cinematic art), and a few dozen catchy, even artful pop tunes that happened to be about the best stuff on radio. In 1965, just when it seemed the Beatles might go the way of yesterday's papers---surprise!---the quartet came out with the sumptuous and poetic "Rubber Soul," followed in 1966 by the comparatively stunning experimentation of "Revolver," and in 1967 the shockingly colorful enterprise of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Even detractors recognized that a pop group creating such diverse musical worlds as "A Day in the Life" and "Within You Without You" for the same album was something highly ununusal.
It brings up the most staggering, unbelievable aspect of the Beatles' tale: they absolutely rejected fame and touring at the height of their career in order to retire to the studio, where they worked like fiends for about five years to produce some of the most original music in history.
"When I'm home, everything seems to be right. . ." ---from "A Hard Day's Night."
The electronic reunion? It strikes me as hardly more bizarre than musicologist Deryck Cooke's completion of Mahler's tenth symphony (no, no, I'm not likening Mahler symphonies to Beatles songs in terms of artistic quality.) In both cases, here was a potentially great work of art destined for triviality (I've got no time for triviality!) unless the right person could rescue it. Cooke was right for Mahler, scholars agree; who could be more right for orchestrating a barebones Lennon song than Paul, George and Ringo?
And yet there are those like singer Marianne Faithfull, who reportedly said of the "reunion," "Whatever next? Virtual reality?" Well, sure! Why not use any means available to respectfully and intelligently revive something wonderful? If it turns out that deceased actors from other eras can actually be computer-animated from their original images, why not do it? I'd love to see some new W.C. Fields movies, or a finished version of Charles Laughton's "I, Claudius." And should the three remaining Beatles feel moved to assemble a whole album from unfinished Lennon tapes, it's okay with me.
There are defensible arguments that Lennon is not here to approve completion of the demos Ono gave his old mates. Yet, in legal documents opposing "Beatlemania," the 1970s theatrical Beatles "tribute," Lennon committed to the idea of reuniting the "Fabs" (as Harrison likes to call them) in order to assemble a film autobiography, and, as a lark, to record some new tunes. One can safely assume that he would be greatly touched by the gesture of his old friends to see these projects through in his absence (I believe that was their main motivation for the "reunion," not money---naive enough?). As for Lennon's critical assessment of the two new songs, well, he was always tremendously self-critical, and often proclaimed that he would redo most of his old Beatles compositions. So maybe that is a moot question.
No matter one's feelings on the subject, The Beatles have been omnipresent around the planet again, throughout 1996---thanks to the old guard buying new product, and Capitol's most-ambitious-ever marketing campaign (hundreds of millions were spent) aimed at heavily targeted younger generations. (Better that they be seduced by the Beatles than Joe Camel.) Certainly, the group's appeal has never been restricted to its 1960s fan-base. Long after the Fabs were grown men engaged in spotty solo careers, their albums were being so consistently rediscovered by fresh audiences that their monetary worth is incalculable (doubters may consult Michael Jackson, who, obscenely enough, owns most of their songs.) So those who "meet the Beatles" this time around need not feel any more like outsiders than they might while discovering George Gershwin, Frank Zappa, Duke Ellington, or other towering figures who aren't here anymore. (Possibly less so, as three members of the group are still with us.)
As for all of the original fans, who, as it turns out, wound up waiting 25 long, strange years for a reunion, there does suddenly seem to be a way to get back homeward ---or at least to feel something old and familiar in the heart, as the new Beatles pose an old, touching question on "Free As a Bird:"
"Home, home and dry. . .
Whatever happened to the life that we once knew?"
© 2002 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.