In My Ears and In My Eyes (Part 1), by Elayne Riggs
Last week we were casting about, as usual, for something interesting to watch in the 100-200 channel range of our cable system. The local PBS stations were hip-deep in pledge drives, which meant 20-minute breaks between segments of shows that would otherwise have been enjoyable but which we’d mostly seen anyway by this point. (Did anyone else think it just a tad disconcerting that WLIW, the Long Island-based PBS station, could afford to send its two high muckety-mucks out to broadcast from Innsbruck during the pledge breaks for Visions of Austria, but made sure to keep reminding us that Viewers Like You made all that possible? Oh great, I should give to their station to sponsor their executives’ vacations?)
The few writers’ strike-delayed shows that we usually watch on the networks haven’t begun running new episodes, and in their place were the same tired crop of cringeworthy reality shows. Keith Olbermann and MSNBC are turning into FOX-lite (but that’s another column). And how many times can I watch the Ghana episode of Tony Bourdain’s No Reservations? (Not including subconscious reruns during REM sleep, approximately ten, but not consecutively; give me a break, Travel Channel!)
So it was that we found our way up the dial to a delightful programme all about amber hosted by "Dickie-Love’s" brother David Attenborough — and now little impressionable ol’ me suddenly wants some new amber earrings — which we then followed up with a Biography Channel episode on The Beatles’ Wives, which itself preceded two recent Paul McCartney concerts, one from 2005 and the other from 2007, on that same channel, both horribly chopped from the originals. And suddenly there I was, fascinated all over again.
Not that I’ve ever stopped. I can’t remember when I became a full-fledged Beatlemaniac. I recall seeing their last appearance on Ed Sullivan, where they performed "Let It Be," thinking, "wow, I wonder why they’re breaking up, they seem like a really good band." Seriously. And my folks and I watched Ed Sullivan every Sunday. But I don’t remember any Beatle-related interest until 1970, when I started getting into music in general, buying albums with my allowance (first purchase: Carole King’s Tapestry, which I still own). Somewhere along the way I picked up an old Beatles tray from a neighbor’s trash, ’cause I thought the faces were cute and the tray was usable. Later on I was told it was worth a hundred bucks easy, but a cursory glance at eBay shows me those folks were greatly exaggerating. That people are letting this go for as low as $15 including shipping tells me I was right to continue using it for its intended purpose!
But I didn’t get into the Beatles music for its ancillary attractions. I don’t think I ever had any Beatles posters on my walls (which were pretty much all taken up with David Cassidy photos). But in college I started listening, really listening to their music. And I fell, hard.
As with anything else, when I develop an obsession I play a mean game of catch-up. Whilst everyone else was stocking up on Elvis Costello and Supertramp and Graham Parker, I was also furiously purchasing 10-15 year old northern songs from lads from Liverpool. I had all the essential albums within weeks (thank goodness for cheap used record stores in college towns!), then moved on to various solo efforts. I guess my first Beatle crush was probably on Paul, which made sense coming from my bubblegum-pop youth. Then when my worldview hippified a bit more I turned on to George, who seemed so enlightened and all-knowing. I finally settled on John, the art student and writer, whom I always considered the genius of the group. (Never took to Ringo, crush-wise; sorry, Ringo fans!)
The way Paul McCartney can put together a brand-new pop song that sounds instantly familiar, his intricacies of warm melody and willingness to push boundaries, his intense knowledge of his craft never cease to amaze me. Lennon was credited with saying, when asked if Ringo was the best drummer in rock and roll, that he wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles, a direct reference to McCartney’s talent in that area. Paul lived one of the world’s great love stories, married for 30 years to a woman who only got the immense credit she deserved for all her own accomplishments toward the end of her life. Fellow billionaire Steve Jobs bows at his altar; I understand he bought God last week. Not saying that’s something admirable in and of itself, but it always seemed to me he earned it. And no matter what weird nastiness occurred with wifey #2 (who really did a number on his physical health, if you compare the ’05 and ’07 concerts), I’m inclined to believe his version of events as, for all his wealth and worldly accomplishments, he still seems pretty rooted in his no-nonsense Liverpudlian working-class background.
Ringo Starr, contrary to his goofy persona during the Beatles years, seems to be respected by everyone. His All-Starr band lineups continue to be impressive and eminently listenable. He’s been married to a former Bond Girl for a quarter of a century now, and according to the Bio special he was at his ex-wife’s side when she passed away from leukemia. I like that other people besides me can still be friendly with their exes! He also appears to have come out of the Beatles experience the least affected by it.
George Harrison was always, for me, a contradiction wrapped in an enigma with mango chutney on the side. I adored his sense of humor and ability to participate in self-mockery (see The Rutles and other collaborations with Idle & co.), as well as the seriousness with which he applied himself. He was terrific at making lemons from lemonade, as the "My Sweet Lord"/"He’s So Fine" controversy (and c’mon, the riff was a clear ripoff, he was too knowledgeable about music for it not to be) led to "This Song" and its amusing video. Dang, I loved his videos. "Crackerbox Palace" was probably my favorite, but I also adored "This Is Love" and "Got My Mind Set on You". He was a Willbury of the finest order. His constant embrace of Indian philosophy could get a bit draggy — I never thought he quite practiced the simplicity and non-materialism he preached — and he was reportedly a randy scouse git in his misspent youth, but he seemed to get it together a bit more in his second marriage. And I loved his songs. He was so damned overshadowed by the best writing team in rock and roll history, but he more than held his own, and really blossomed afterwards. And of course he practically invented large-scale benefit concerts, back when Sir Bob Geldof was still a schoolboy.
John Lennon. My gosh, just saying his name evokes all sorts of might-have-beens, so much anger even after all these years that his singular talent was taken from us so suddenly and viciously. His assassination affected me more than those of JFK, MLK, Bobby Kennedy — his I remember. I recall going to bed the evening I’d heard he was shot, praying for the best, then suddenly waking up around 11 PM knowing he was gone. I was devastated. I felt like I’d lost a personal friend whose work spoke to me on a subconscious level I couldn’t even access.
I will never stop believing that Lennon’s murder and Reagan’s accession were the two major events whose confluence precipitated the downward societal and economic spiral in which our country’s still mired. It’s like we collectively stopped believing a better world was possible and decided to give in to the cynics and greedheads and bad guys, and except for a few blips here and there that hasn’t changed. Yes, Obama is impressive. No, Obama is nowhere near progressive, or even liberal. The political pendulum swung so far to the right thanks to the Reagan years that centrists are considered ultra-leftists now. John Lennon was an ultra-leftist. His sensibilities about women went from "Run For Your Life" to "Woman is the Nigger of the World" in a remarkably short time. Yes, in major part thanks to Yoko (I sometimes wonder if the word "soulmate" was invented for their relationship), but I believe he was already tending in that direction. His facility with language and wordplay was delightful, and I liked his art. He was one of those people who would have been successful at any number of things, and the world is lucky he chose music and activism. He was able to "write a swimming pool" and at the same time have it be so subversive that even today (especially today, when we’ve regressed so much!) many people who sing his songs like the standards they’ve become have no idea what they’re singing. Imagine no religion? No possessions? No countries? That’s so revolutionary it’s unthinkable. And he thought it, and wrote it, and made it a hit.
Four remarkable individuals, and collectively they were even better. But I have to save something for Part 2. Hey, with luck I could even turn this into an Anthology!
Elayne Riggs still follows the Beatles’ music and legacy nearly daily, can be found blogging about all sorts of things here, and would love to be adopted by Paul McCartney, although she’s old enough to be maybe his niece at best.