Monday, November 16, 2009

Nowhere Land (Part Four)

Here is the final installment of the excerpt from my book Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream:

When Lennon recorded "God" with the purpose of ending The Beatles' storied myth, he didn't consider that he'd eventually become a casualty in the process. In 1980, he was murdered by a deranged fan who felt the former Beatle had betrayed him. Tragically, he wasn't alone. George Harrison succumbed to cancer in 2001, but he had also been mortally wounded in his home a year earlier by another obsessed fan hearing voices. Contemplating Lennon being killed by the gun, and Harrison nearly by the knife, Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones confronted the sick irony of "such pleasant guys, who made such beautiful music and never did harm to anybody, [having] to go through that kind of violence." Richards seemed to be implying that The Stones, not The Beatles, had always been identified as the bad boys.

In the years following, the world didn't become any easier or easier to understand. In fact, when you looked out into it, you didn't see anybody wanting to hold anybody 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 by Iran, North Korea decided to start testing its own 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 was over, Saddam Hussein was executed yet religious violence continued to tear Iraq apart. Soldiers of the coalition countries were coming back in an endless parade of caskets.

One grey 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 its lovely baroque harpsichord, 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, and the self-righteous tone of ideologues. The tune seemed to blow away -- momentarily -- all the horrors of the present, and took the listener to a timeless place where it was once again possible to experience the pleasures of harmony. Even with carnage everywhere, Nowhere Land was once again in view. John 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. While the real world around us wasn't changing as we'd hoped it would, the artificial paradise of The Beatles' music remained.

If one rock band in the history of rock music had captured the hearts and souls of an audience, plus the spirit of a decade, it had certainly been The Beatles. Unlike that of any other group, their music found ways to change our expectations of what pop culture could be. They also helped to bring about a cultural revolution that altered our perceptions of what the world around us might become. The Beatles essentially offered a promise that we could all share in. Beyond being a significant part of the cultural history of the sixties, they were a force that shaped that history. Their musical innovations set high standards among their peers, but as a group, they went far beyond the status of being great pop stars. They were pop artists who deliberately gave voice to their time while allowing others, in the process, the means to find their own voices.

The relationship The Beatles developed with their fans over eight years, twelve albums, and dozens of singles became an intense explosion filled with desire. "What The Beatles touched off was dreamlike in particularly deep and intricate ways," Devin McKinney explains in Magic Circles. "Their mania became a huge, open arena for the unregulated discharge of submerged energies -- their own, and the audience's." The explosion they touched off echoed the New Frontier promised by John Kennedy in his 1960 inaugural speech when he implored, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." Kennedy's address, which asked America's citizens to become part of a larger dream, made possible the utopian spirit of The Beatles. When Kennedy's idealistic plea was answered with the gunshots in Dallas in 1963, the country's mournful mood was the answered by The Beatles' new hope a few months after his assassination.

Although they were British, 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," 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." From the moment The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, they seemed to resurrect the possibility for a better world. "[It was] the last time we can remember believing that life got better every day rather than worse," Beatles biographer Philip Norman recalls. Author and critic Steve Turner, in The Gospel According to The Beatles, confirms Norman's view, while defining our own complicity in The Beatles' hopes. "During such a time of uncertainty The Beatles represented the best of what people longed for," Turner writes. "They represented laughter rather than tears, hope rather than despair, love rather than hatred, life rather than death."

The joy we heard expressed in The Beatles' best music offered us a binding connection to the group. But while that identification brought both the pleasure and belief those two writers describe, in time it would also bring pain and disappointment. The unending riddle of The Beatles' stamp on popular culture is basically this: how did a band so devoted to love, also attract, and occasionally inspire, such hate? "Within [Beatlemania] the symbolisms of desire, fear, and foreboding ran wild," Devin McKinney asserts. "Under its proscenia, acts were committed which could not be consciously acknowledged for what they were. And under its sway, the dreamer had no power over its components, its direction, or its outcome." Within an open-ended dynamic, the contours of their vision housed a passionate love that was riddled with paradoxes. Although the strong fervor of this romance promised better days, it also carried within it the roots of disillusionment, rage, and ultimately murder. The innocent invitation of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" in 1964, which cast a bright reflection of deep love would, within a few short years, is answered by the shadow of death formed by the grim prescience of "Helter Skelter" in 1968.

To imply that there is a dark side to The Beatles' utopian dream is by no means to say that the dream is false or inherently corrupt. It isn't either/or. Out of this dream grew hope, an honest desire for change, and perhaps a sense of fulfillment that comes with the realization of what that change can mean. From the moment we heard our very first Beatles song, so unlike any other pleasurable form of pop, many of us believed that the real world, if not our own lives, could change into something much finer than we knew. The joy expressed in a composition like "Eight Days a Week" made us believe that love could indeed extend the calendar, even though we knew it couldn't literally be done. Through the confluence of four disparate men coming together at the time they did, with the songs they imagined, we invested hope that the world they invented in those songs was inherently possible. But we then woke up one day to discover that the world hadn't changed for the better. In time, we had to recognize that The Beatles' greatness lay in the way they changed our perspective on the world, rather than their impact on the state of the world.

Some experienced a profound sense of loss over the fact that something so grand, so powerful, could change so little of the world's poverty and the hatred among nations. For others, the end of The Beatles' dream was a betrayal and that no promise would ever again be great enough to make them feel as hopeful again. The void at the heart of this kind of despair would be seen in the actions of a Mark David Chapman. "In one way, or another, this longing for community -- the dream of self-willed equity and harmony, or at least tolerant pluralism in a world where familiar notions of family and accord were breaking down -- would haunt rock's most meaningful moments for the remainder of the decade," writes Mikal Gilmore in his book Night Beat, about the dashed hopes inspired by The Beatles. This specific longing, though, ran deeper and much longer than the decade Gilmore refers to.

That endless struggle to define community is integral to American culture. Back in 1928, just before the dawning 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 in "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 clamoring for some current hit to tap his toes to; he's searching through time to find some meaning that's lost to him, a timeless 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," writes Robert Everett-Green in the Toronto 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 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.

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 Iraq War, profoundly hysterical anti-Americanism had replaced a critical distinction between what was rich and true in the culture and what was 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 strikes an empty pose that's devoid of a vision. It offers up a preordained polemical statement that provides little insight and no surprises. Anderson's epic tale of American betrayal implies that there was no American Dream to betray since it was already a nightmare to begin with. The movie provides no tragic dimension to the teeming avarice of the oil man played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Where Walt Whitman once distinguished between an art that decided presidential elections and an art that made those elections irrelevant, There Will Be Blood became art that's too busy counting its ballots. There is no grandeur to the deceived dream to even care about its loss. The Beatles give the lie to the kind of narrow assertions that Anderson deals in by marrying themselves to the most vital and exciting aspects of American culture, the kind that outstrips partisan polemics. 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.

"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 the re-emergence of "Because" proved was that the music had still retained a distinct quality where The Beatles' spellbinding musical wizardry could always provide 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 in The Beatles' music, 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 came to learn the difference between those types of promises. So did The Beatles.

Excerpt from the book Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream (Praeger, 2009).

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Nowhere Land (Part Three)

Here is today's third installment from Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream:

"The Beatles had nothing to do with hope," John Lennon suddenly declared at a June 1970 press conference at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, Canada, to announce plans for a peace-and-music festival in the city with his wife, Yoko Ono. "The Beatles made it, they stopped touring, and they had all the money they wanted, all the fame they wanted, and they found out they had nothing." Two months earlier, Paul McCartney had announced his split from The Beatles and released his first solo record, McCartney, a dramatic move that made clear that The Beatles were officially over. McCartney retreated to his Scottish farm to record a stripped-down collection of love songs written for his wife Linda, playing all the instruments, i.e. portraying all of The Beatles. But Lennon had abandoned the band privately before McCartney did publicly; having found that rock 'n' roll itself was no longer living up to its promise. "The idea of being a rock and roll musician suited my talents and mentality, and the freedom was great," Lennon recalled. "But then I found that I wasn't free. I'd got boxed in. It wasn't just because of my contract, but the contract was a physical manifestation of being in prison. And with that I might as well have gone to a nine-to-five job as carry on the way I as carrying on. Rock 'n' roll was not fun anymore."

By 1969, The Beatles were not much fun anymore either, nor did they inspire in each other much in the way of hope. Their manager Brian Epstein had died of an accidental drug overdose two years earlier, leaving them stranded. Managing their own affairs, starting their own company, Apple Corps, had only bitterly divided the band. After leaving the road in 1966, they had retreated into the studio to record their Summer of Love totem Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. By 1968, their double-LP The Beatles, the contentious "White Album," had inadvertently ushered in a Summer of Hate. A psychopathic fan named Charles Manson heard the record as a call to murder. On August 9, 1969, with his cult followers, known as the Family, Manson murdered five people in Los Angeles including actress Sharon Tate, citing the album as a coded message inspiring him to bring on the apocalypse. On the walls of the murder scene, the title of two songs from The Beatles, "Helter Skelter" and "Piggies," were written in blood.

With the horror of the Manson murders simmering that summer, death hovered in the air. In October 1969, two months after The Beatles finished recording their last album, Abbey Road, a fan phoned a Detroit radio station to inform the DJ that Paul McCartney was dead and, in fact, had been for some time, having been killed in an accident in 1966. An imposter was now playing his role. Since The Beatles were no longer on the road, their clandestine lives in the studio were now clearly inspiring different kinds of dreams from the ones that dramatized Nowhere Land. Citing clues from a variety of Beatles songs and their record covers, the caller insisted that the man claiming to be McCartney was being used as a decoy to keep The Beatles myth alive. Within the month, the University of Michigan newspaper, The Michigan Daily, featured a mock article by Fred LaBour that was picked up by a number of international papers and immediately taken to heart by many Beatles fans who had abandoned all common sense. It became clear at that moment that the promising courtship of the early days of Beatlemania had deteriorated into violence, bitterness, and crackpot conspiracy theories. Within a year of Lennon's Toronto press conference, while the counter-culture was continuing to regress, The Beatles, citing the irreconcilable differences, broke up.

After the collapse, each member embarked on a solo career. George Harrison uncorked the triple-LP All Things Must Pass in 1970, featuring a number of songs he couldn't get on Beatles records. Ringo Starr put together an album of sentimental standards for his mother called simply Sentimental Journey. Lennon, the man who first dreamed up The Beatles, didn't want to quit the group quietly. After entering psychotherapy with Primal Scream therapist Arthur Janov, Lennon didn't just abandon the dream like the others; he decided it was time to end it. In December 1970, he gave a bluntly dismissive interview to Jann Wenner, editor of Rolling Stone Magazine, in which he put down his former mates, asserting that The Beatles changed nothing in the world. South Africa still had apartheid, he ranted, people lived in poverty and corrupt governments had quelled positive change. By protesting -- quite rightly -- that The Beatles could never enact the social change many fans thought they would, he was now going on to deny that their vision had any worth.

That same month, he released his own autobiographical record, named after his new group, Plastic Ono Band, which began as a stark recollection of his traumatic childhood. And one listen to the album's intensely austere songs made it clear that the world of possibility Lennon once heard in "Heartbreak Hotel," the inclusive spirit he once proclaimed on "There's a Place," he was now refuting, denying its 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. Culture critic Albert Goldman, in his controversial biography The Lives of John Lennon, aptly 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. 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 on drums, Klaus Voorman, an old friend from The Beatles' Hamburg days, on bass, and an immensely talented young pianist who had played on the Let it Be sessions named Billy Preston. On Plastic Ono Band, Lennon set out to tear 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 also 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 the 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 tear 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 Beatle songs. He tells us that God is nothing more than a concept we use to measure our pain. As if we were too shocked to take in the idea, 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, yogis 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 the artist's disguise 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 wistful 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," at 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 Nowhere Land. But what he fails to see is that the dream is still there -- and it's no longer his alone.

Excerpt from the book Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream (Praeger, 2009).

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Nowhere Land (Part Two)

Here is the second installment from Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream:

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, and nobody had ever covered it. In the U.S., Capitol Records ignored "There's a Place" altogether until they released a 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 located 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 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, when people think of either utopias or even dystopias, they usually locate 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?

Excerpt from the book Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream (Praeger, 2009).

Friday, November 13, 2009

Nowhere Land (Part One)

Over the next four days, I'm going to be running a four-part excerpt from my book Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream. These installments will give, for those interested in taking the course at the LIFE Institute at Ryerson in January, an idea of the theme of the lectures. For everyone else, hopefully it might raise interest in your reading the whole book.


When rock 'n' roll first began its promise was pretty basic. The music told us that good times lay ahead. And with that primary assurance, a captivating pact was struck with listeners: The world was going to be a different place than it was today. As early as 1954, Bill Haley proposed a simple pledge when he said we'd find our freedom by putting our glad rags on and rocking around the clock. The song did more, though, 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?

Excerpt from the book Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream (Praeger, 2009).

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Return From Stasis

Sorry folks. It was a longer hiatus than I had planned. Yet it was unavoidable due to some unfortunate circumstances that ultimately led me to retire from active film reviewing (more on that in a later blog). While I’m going to miss the daily flow of excitement and disappointment that comes with responding to new work, I’m not going to miss the business of film reviewing itself (more on that later, too). In the meantime, much is afoot. In December, myself, plus a few former critics, will be launching a blog site called Critics at Large. Our hope and desire is to provide views on a variety of subjects that are untainted by the rampant patronage and blatant careerism so much in evidence in certain professional reviewing circles today. Updates will follow as the site is now being assembled.

On Sunday November 15, 2009, the CBC Radio documentary series "Revolutions Per Minute," which John Corcelli and I conceived, continues with an incisive look at Symphony in Effect by Maestro Fresh Wes. Released in 1989, this was the first Rap/Hip Hop album in Canada. Maestro's "Let Your Backbone Slide" and "Drop the Needle" became the inspiration for many Canadian Hip Hop artists over the past 20 years. Guests include, Wes Williams, Farley Flex and Classified. I invite you to tune in your radio sets to Inside The Music with Patti Schmidt CBC Radio 2 at 3PM. CBC Radio One at 9PM. You can also listen on line in a variety of time zones, in case you miss the local broadcast, at

In the winter, I’ll also be teaching a course at Ryerson’s LIFE Institute based on my book Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles’ Utopian Dream. My decision to do this is partly due to a need to try something new away from teaching film. Being forced into retirement as a professional film critic has currently tainted my relationship to movies in much the same way that a sour love affair can sometimes affect your outlook on love. In order to reclaim and redefine that passion, I’ve decided to momentarily move in a different direction. Secondly, since the book publishing world is becoming as addled as the world of print journalism, I needed to make more people aware of Artificial Paradise than the publishers (Greenwood-Praeger) have been doing. Although I’m grateful for their generosity in allowing me to write a longer work on The Beatles than originally agreed, they have sadly done little to actually publicize it. (One critic, who did review it, had to spend over a month begging them to send a copy – which they finally did, only leaving him to cover the cross-border duty expenses.)

Part of the problem of availability and poor publicity is due to the fact that Greenwood-Praeger is an academic press rather than a trade publisher. Basically, they do expensive hard-cover books destined for libraries rather than the commercial market. Secondly, just as my book was coming out, they were bought up by a West Coast group called ABC-CLIO. When I contacted those folks recently about the possibility of negotiating cheaper paperback rights with a trade press, they asked me to let them know if I find somebody. (Isn’t “finding somebody” supposed to be the marketing department’s job?) I originally went with Greenwood-Praeger because I couldn’t find one publishing house in Canada, despite having published four previous books, to consider it. Even with the massive response to the recent remastering and re-release of The Beatles’ recording catalogue and the continued fascination with the band in literature, the reaction was mute (and, I fear, moot). I wrote a book about the world’s most popular rock band, attempting to consider how and why The Beatles, who were objects of intense love and adoration, also drew towards themselves hatred and murder. I provided a view on the band that I believe is a unique addition to the canon of Beatles material out there, and yet nobody is interested in making it more readily available. (Is it any wonder more and more people are turning to self-publishing?)

So in the spirit of the termite philosophy I’ve embraced, I decided to shift my position in the wood and adapt the text to an 8-week lecture series in January (exactly one year after the book’s “release”). For those interested in taking the course, Artificial Paradise is currently available at the Ryerson Book Store at Victoria & Gould, but good luck in finding it. (They have it stocked in the fashion (?!) section. Don’t ask.) As a teaser for the course, I’ve constructed a sampler from Artificial Paradise which I’ll post tomorrow. It’s called Nowhere Land, the original title of the book, the current title of the LIFE course, and metaphorically the constituency in which the book itself now resides.