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).

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