Every so often, no matter how far I stray, something will happen to remind me I still give a massive hoot about rock rock rock and roll. At least about those parts of it I still give a hoot about.
Back in February, I was asked to participate in a George Harrison’s birthday whatsit, an interminable event featuring a bunch of bands doing covers of George songs. For the first couple hours I was something of an emcee, reading texts and “testifying” for George while people set up and replaced strings and what-all. As it turned out, I really got down.
In taking the gig, howev, I can’t say I’d felt all that keen on celebrating rock-roll anciency, or rock-roll eternity, or rock-roll (qua rock-roll) at all. Though for years I lived inside it, couldn’t breathe or smile or shit without it, and I wrote about the damn thing from ’65 to, well, heck, I still write about it, I no longer think of it as a prime metaphor for much that matters, and for all intents and purps I’ve jettisoned it as a mode of relating to much of anything, period. With a gun at my head, I couldn’t pass a blindfold test for more than a handful of current bands (i.e., from the last 10-12-15 years). I seldom step inside clubs anymore.
I signed on for the event mainly ’cause I had some things to read–a riff on ashes and the Ganges written when I heard George’s would be spilled there, some of them anyway, and a piece by a friend of mine ’bout her family’s Thanksgiving with George in 1970, when his strict vegetarianism couldn’t stop him from eating turkey served by her dying mom (he didn’t even wince): no way would this saintly s.o.b. think of spoiling her day. To a greater extent than I coulda guessed, reading ’em stoked me, really did, and I tossed myself with great zeal into the ongoing goofiness of the evening. Somebody lit incense (“George’s funeral pyre”) while off in a corner a sitarist noodled through a generic raga. Bands visited, celebrated, denigrated George’s musical oeuvre with a wide gamut of agendas, from cheesiness and kitsch to total solemnity.
Every time anyone did a decent turn on a tune I cared about (“You Like Me Too Much,” “Blue Jay Way,” “I Need You”), I felt wow, and I yelled “YEAH!” and once or twice (“Piggies,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”) I actually sang along. There was plenty I didn’t recognize (having unplugged from the repertoire somewhere around “Crackerbox Palace”), and one band flat-out made me sick, ending “Isn’t It a Pity” with a big chunk of “Hey Jude”–what a travesty. When the chunk kept goin’, I stood up and yelled, “FUCK YOU! GO HOME!”
For most on board, this was a “retro culture” thing, where mix-&-match is cool, y’know?–and here I was the oldest bozo in the house. Hey, I was 21 when Revolver came out (and I spent the first 48 hours internalizing it). The guitarist in the band playing “Taxman” was TWO…and he himself was well above tonight’s median age.
Not much of a retro-ist myself (the notion of people in their 20s and 30s even studying this stuff–enough to ape it or deconstruct it–strikes me as an absurd calisthenic, like if George in the 60s had cut albumsworth of Rodgers & Hart material…or even Jimmie Rodgers), I responded viscerally to the proceedings, and soon realized how deeply “invested” in such biz–emotionally, historically–I for better and worse still happen to be.
Though all it meant in context was adding my own absurdities to the stew, it seemed mandatory, whenever the mike was free, to throw in a dose of not so much piety or purity as non-kitsch topicality, so I ran up and these rants just oozed out of me. On his first acid trip, I jabbered, George found God, in any case discovered the divine. Jerry Garcia, meantime–“Captain Trips”–didn’t score a divine encounter till his seventh or eighth or ninth. So as cosmic etceterists go, uh, George has Jerry beat…like dig it. Then I rambled about George’s ten-second appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the Sunday after the U.S. release of the Beatles’ White Album, and how appropriate it was for him to be their rep, and what he said (“Cue the clap now”), and blah blah blooey.
At one point I went crackers and basically REVIEWED A SONG, ‘splaining like a rockwrite clown how “I Want to Tell You,” which had just been played, had to be one of THE great songs about (and from) psychedelic confusion. “It’s only me, it’s not my mind, that is confusing things”–how do ya top that, eh? ‘S no less dazed and doddering, I insisted, than “Strawberry Fields.”
Hey, I made a fucking fool of myself.
And I was pissed that nobody did “Norwegian Wood.” Okay, it’s a John song, but the sitar guy coulda learned the George part…and I tried to remember, to compute how much real time could’ve passed between the rock crowd at large hearing Ravi Shankar and the Beatles, in hybrid sonic overdrive, “going Eastern,” four months? six?…which for ’65 was practically instantaneous…and I realized that what I’d been thinking all night was not so much George thoughts as BEATLE THOUGHTS.
Whoops–sorry!–I’ll try not t’ turn this into a Beatles puff piece… but hearing even crappy covers can trigger vast galaxies of primal association. Hearing is crucial–w/out the sound there’s not only no occasion but no REASON to contemplate any of this. ‘Tain’t like the Mop-Tops are “precious” to me, and I hardly ever play their albs at home these days, but their music and their plethora were formative for me, seminal, a component in who the hell I was and am and how I view the structure of things…formative for the whole damn ongoing ANYTHING, for better and worse, since right after JFK got shot.
Look, for anybody under 45, this may not have too much existential, experiential oompah–it’ll sound like dizzy archaeology–but the Beatles were the source of the rock-roll Nile. Well, not of all its water and its wildlife, not even close, but certainly of there being a Nile at all. A dam was being built, see, it was built, and they showed up and whammed the fucker down.
Let’s go with the SHORT VERSION:
The much-vaunted rock & roll 50s, for all they did to salvage the human condition, staggering on what surely seemed a terminal gimp, lasted only about two years–from Elvis’s first appearance on Ed Sullivan in ’56 to not much later than his desecration by the Army. Rock was dead in the water before Buddy Holly went down…you could even make a case for its being over by late spring ’57, when Elvis cut “Teddy Bear.” Yeah, sure, there were things you’d get on the radio through the early 60s that still made it–“Do You Love Me?” by the Contours, “Louie Louie,” “Two Faces Have I”–but trust me, rock & roll as such was no longer happening…was no longer a factor in the world.
What the Beatles (and the Brit Invasion to follow) pulled off was nothing short of ROCK’S SECOND COMING, its resurrection, reanimation, whatev you wanna call it. Second comings of anything–you don’t see many o’ those, and this was the last one anybody in ’63 would’ve/could’ve expected…a masser mass get-down than the previous. (I was 18 and it came as a frigging miracle.) This was BEFORE DRUGS, y’understand, before the whackiest of longshots became mass-thinkable and even feasible.
Whackiest of all, perhaps, was that THOUGHT this time was part of the package. A rock-roll animal with its mind as foreground as its heart, and as potent ‘n’ unfettered as its libido, the Beatles delivered solutions galore to the Mind-Body Problem (believe it) and had the chops and staying power to keep on delivering. (To this day, they’re the only rock-rollers at the top of the heap who once on top only got better…and for three-four years, by golly.)
Populist Prometheans bearing gifts that were legion, they were also the first band where everybody actually had a NAME. Most folks in the 50s couldn’t’ve told you the names of both Everly Brothers.
Lyrics? Well, the Beatles produced–and produced in PROFUSION–the first non-R & B-derived rock-roll love songs to have a genuine post-adolescent edge, to go more than skindeep into the ache and throb of romantic meat-thrall. A friend my age says, “There should’ve been a law against it. Those songs were dangerous. They duped wretched innocents, hordes of normal young misfits and not-so-misfits, into buying a bill of goods that mangled their reasoning and retarded their growth.”
Hey! “Thank You Girl,” “Yes It Is,” “I’ll Be Back,” “Tell Me What You See”…these songs FORMED my romantic overkill; etched it in my stones. My sense of boy-girl lust and frenzy, twist and squirm, hasn’t budged an inch in 37 years. (I wouldn’t have it any other way.)
There’ve gotta be another 30-40 things–BIG, long FORGOTTEN things–to say about this shit, but that’s enough for now, I’m done. It feels kind of absurd to have to make a case for the Beatles, but history and Paul McCartney have fucked with the record, fucked with it royally, y’know? It’s absurder still for this stuff to be less than 40 years old and already feel so paleolithic, but what the hey.
Formative music. For my friend Jimmy, it was Leon Russell; for Ed, Graham Parker; for Chan, Patti Smith; for Michael, Joy Division; and for me, the goddam Beatles…so fuck me.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/AP/Wide World Photos.