Words and music<BR>

Words and music

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In article <3nma7r$1vd@newsbf02.news.aol.com> sjf35@aol.com (SJF 35) writes:

>Any thoughts on the article about the Beatles in this week's issue of "New
>Yorker" magazine?

Adam Gopnik's review of two new Beatles books (in the May 1 1995 issue of the New Yorker...well worth getting IMHO) is a curious mix of mismatched revelations. But like any circumstance where someone writes about the Fabs---the more cleverly, the better---it's irresistible in its own curious way, and its author inadvertently offers more insights than do the books he's reviewing. It's also a pretty amusing piece of writing...even when the author is wrong. :-)

Mr. Gopnik notes (and this takes no great perspicacity to divine) that Beatles books are rarely exquisitely-complex musical analyses; instead they're very like chronicles (hence the name of one of Lewisohn's own tomes)---Mr. Gopnik calls this "fan literature". Frankly, the fan-style writing of yore...Datebook, Sixteen Magazine and all the others... has thankfully long since disappeared. But he's right that what usually comes forth from the minds of Beatles' analysts is a type of historical dissection.

Mr. Gopnik suggests that Mark Hertsgaard's "A Day In the Life" and Ian MacDonald's "Revolution In the Head" are independent of this trend, providing a commentary on the meaning in the music of the Fabs, not just session archaeology. The authors try mightily to accomplish this. And perhaps their greatest attribute is that they weave plain historical annals into more digestible narrative. Those familiar with all the sources will see them pop up an intervals in Hertsgaard's and MacDonald's books. The distinction is that both authors have their *own* spin on Lewisohn et al...and that sometimes changes perspective. Worse, sometimes it's plain inaccurate when translated and reinterpreted by someone else.

The problem is that neither tome succeeds, ultimately, in revealing what it is in Beatles music that attracts us so keenly. Mr. Gopnik notes this point, and he suspects it may simply resist revelation....which would tend to make it damn hard for anyone to ever accomplish it!

The attraction, for listeners, is embedded in a music/lyric combination--- the creative whole, the indivisible art. We hear it, feel it; but we cannot always perceive it through words purporting to decipher it...not even mine, much as I try. :-) Hertsgaard, in fact, quotes a lovely comment from John Lennon in his book introduction, which you'd *think*---had Hertsgaard taken it to heart---would have stopped his project cold. "Writing about music", he quotes Lennon, "is like talking about fucking. Who wants to talk about it?"

But words can be a mirror of admiration...the closest way the critic can explore, if not celebrate, what he/she hears. Mr. Gopnik compares Hertsgaard's and MacDonald's works to a kind of latter-day Wilfred Mellers'---the fellow who (along with William Mann) first examined the Fabs as musical artists...aeolian cadences, tonic submediants, and all.

There really has been no in-depth delineation of the Boys' works from a *strict* musicological standpoint (though one may be in the works even as we speak). Even so, laudatory as such analyses may be, they don't help the non-musicologically-inclined to perceive what's going on. We common folk are word-based. We've used language since we were babblers, and if there's any part of the Beatles' output we're likely to be competent to describe, it's the lyrics. Music may be intuitive, but lyrics feed into our already-hardwired semantic competence. As a result, words (except for "cranberry sauce") rarely need explanation.

But music, for the greater numbers of us, requires a road-map if we are to understand what's happening. Even then, for the average Joe, it's virtually an impenetrable exercise (one of Mr. Gopnik's better points) to use classical methodology to explain pop songs.

This doesn't mean it can't be done...but that it seems the long way 'round. It strikes one as an odd route, translating the music (which communicates so deftly!) into academic terms and then back into English. We had it right before we'd even begun. :-)

I think Mr. Gopnik gets a little tired of both authors' analytical postures, for this very reason; but the critic (not a Beatles scholar, clearly) finds Hertsgaard's book more laudatory: "He seems", says Mr. Gopnik, "to have read everything any of them [The Beatles] ever said, and sifted out its truth and relevance". But anyone familiar with the sources Hertsgaard has consulted will see where the writer deviates from good sense. There's been some chat here in r.m.b. about Hertsgaard's shortcomings---his acceptance of illogical or questionable history (to wit, the genesis of "Yesterday"), his curious interpretations of of song metalyrics (viz., the sigh in "Girl").

That's minor compared to Mr. Gopnik's comment that the authors' evidence *contradicts* their own adherence to standard theories about the Fabs' significance---the 'Revised Standard Version' Mr. Gopnik calls it, where the Beatles reinvented American pop and brought to it a new sophistication. Mr. Gopnik says that actually the Fabs remained inherently innocent, that they *reversed* the sophistication of pop music. If that's the case, both Hertsgaard and MacDonald would seem to have widely missed the mark. That's no small criticism (and no small pun).

I don't accept Mr. Gopnik's thesis that the Boys were so good because they were funny. Of course they were funny, but that's hardly all of it. Correctly Mr. Gopnik cites the Goon influence as well as the Beatles' own indigenous irony, but this, he says explains how they kept an "ironic distance without disdain" from all that pop had previously held dear. Mr. Gopnik is convinced that the Fabs meant nothing of what they said and sang, "detached", he says, from any one person as well as any "consistent emotion". This explains, he says, how the Fabs could invent an oeuvre of "emotionally generalized but infinitely applicable" works.

Nonsense. The Beatles did not pull such stunts. Their works are accessible to the listener *not* because they are mere patterns of love, lust, passion, pain and all the other multiplex emotional ranges of humankind. Patterns are as gossamer as paper, utterly tenuous in their shadowy evocation of what's real.

The Fabs wrote about common reality; it was not rarified high-tragedy. They were palpably in tune with the intricacies of love. Lennon and McCartney didn't write about shadows. They wrote about 20th-centuryeveryman' s romantic adventure: how love can buoy the spirit but how love can stun it, too (and if you look at love ballads through the ages, you'll realize that past poets hit upon the same themes...how little we've changed). No wonder there's so much moving around in the Fabs' lyrics! Happy one moment, sad the next, Mr. Gopnik complains, with none of the tortures of the damned as revealed by Sinatra or Patsy Cline. As a result, Mr. Gopnik has decided that the Beatles were impressionistic writers, fakes almost, whose success was borne from their alluring (but ultimately imitative) oeuvre.

Of course he admits, too, that their very popularity is what made the Beatles so universal. Or was it the other way around?

For all we knew about them---all the thousands of pages of newsprint, the stock photos and candid poses, the recycled quotes as well as the rare intimate pronouncements---we *did* know very little. And in that sense there's an artistic firewall of sorts surrounding them, perpetuating the enigma of their craft. How *did* four guys from Liverpool manage to tap into a collective lyrical subconscious? How *was* this gift realized? If they were so detached from their emotional core, why then do their songs hit the very heart of home in *us*? And why, in doing so, do their songs unfurl new meaning for us as we grow more or less lovelorn, as age or circumstance dictates?

Mr. Gopnik assigns this to their commercial cleverness, to their investment in detachment. I think it's likely their only mode of self-preservation, but it's not what makes their art universal.

Just as they agreed secretly to say certain things on tour, to give only prearranged answers to the press, they wrote and played their music as if it were the only clue to their inner selves. They kept that part of themselves hidden from us but their music gives them away.

They felt what we have felt. And through some process still invisible to excavators like Hertsgaard and MacDonald and Riley and most music critics, the Fabs turned their music into reflections of *our* souls, as well as their own.

It's one of Mr. Gopnik's revelations that we love talking about these unknowable features of the Fabs' genius, even if it's just to remind ourselves that they *remain* unknown. Like chroniclers of old, like history-tellers whose tales merge with legend, we too indulge in words about the Beatles---repetitively, relentlessly---if just to savor the marvelous mystery of their music...if just to honor, with our dim words, the incandescence of their sound.

--
"I asked Bobby Dylan, I asked the Beatles, I asked Timothy Leary, but he couldn't help me either."


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