Saturday, February 23, 2008

It was 40+ Years Ago Today

On January 24 I referenced the Maharishi on this blog, and less than two weeks later he was dead. But if I were Herschel Walker, I wouldn't be too worried. I think the fact that the Maharishi was 90 had more to do with his death than the fact that I happened to mention him. And I'm inclined to believe that his death got more attention than Bobbie Fischer's. In any event, I think one of the tributes I ran across gave him a little bit too much credit for supposedly revitalizing the Beatles. The commentator remarked that John Lennon was in a lyrical funk before going to India, and as proof cited the fact that a couple of his Sgt. Pepper efforts were based on mundane encounters: "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" came from an old circus poster, and "Good Morning" was supposedly inspired by a cereal box.

While it has become fashionable in critical circles to mount a backlash against Pepper in recent years, I still maintain that it is the finest Beatles album (and if "Strawberry Fields" and "Penny Layne" had been included, I don't think there would even be a debate). Setting aside the music, it stands to me as an important cultural monument--the first thoroughly post-modern artifact to achieve popular success. The cheeky irony that pervades the album, from the iconic cover to the high-pitched whistle at the end (that only dogs can hear), from the self-referential elements to the repetitive groove (that sadly is lost in the translation to digital formats), is enough to make it noteworthy. The melodies, as with any Beatle album, are sufficiently potent to use as a basis for claims of greatness. But far from being great in spite of lyrical content, I assert that it is because of the lyrics that the album is a tour de force.

Although the Beatles critical reputation rests upon their revolutionary impact on music (and pop art in general), and in spite of my previous assertion that Pepper accomplished something new in the pop realm, it is actually a re-connect with a great English poetic tradition that allows the album's lyrics to become transcendent. Taken as a whole, the album is a new Lyrical Ballads. When Wordsworth described good poetry as a "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings from emotions recollected in tranquility," he could never have envisioned how uniquely situated the Beatles were in 1967 to do just that. When they quit touring after the unfathomable whirlwind of Beatlemania, the lads were in a place that allowed for just what Wordsworth prescribed. Somewhat amazingly, their gaze at this point didn't turn inward, but outward. Many critics have marvelled that the Beatles were able to completely re-invent themselves after the "moptop" phase and revitalize pop culture for a second time. What is amazing to me isn't necessarily that they invented new artistic vistas, but that they didn't become the prototype for British emo and navel gazing. By all rights, Sgt. Pepper should have been Weezer's Pinkerton.

Yet instead of bemoaning his fate of becoming one of the most recognizable faces in the world, Paul McCartney chose to meditate on the possibilities offered by senior citizenship. And "When I'm 64" is the most introspective song on the album! In further contrast to what one would expect to find, George Harrison's lone contribution is about how when "you've seen beyond yourself...peace of mind is waiting there."

Yet the fact that the Beatles weren't singing about themselves has somehow turned into fodder for critics. I suppose this would be a valid criticism if what they were singing about didn't have value. But once again, I think the content of the album does have value because of its Wordsworthian elements. They were able to find the romantic and the grotesque in the mundane, in the everyday. In "Being From the Benefit of Mr. Kite," Lennon manages to simultaneously venerate and mock the spectacle of the circus, creating the kind of tension that critics like M.H. Abrams would laud in the Romantic poets. And though the vast majority of the words may have been lifted from a poster, it's the subtle and ingenious way in which Lennon delivers them that conveys this tension. (Also, I'm particularly fond of the ironic use of "of course" in "of course Henry the Horse dances the waltz.")

McCartney's ironic detachment shines in a song like "Lovely Rita," which brilliantly mocks the kind of lyrics the group was writing only a few short years before, but crouching that mockery in a kind of celebratory exploration of the bourgeois lifestyle they had left behind. His "Fixing a Hole" invokes the kind of stolid, noble, and pathetic hero that Coleridge sometimes depicted. His darkly comedic and clueless narrator in "Getting Better" is nicely (and once again ironically) juxtaposed with John's cynical backing vocals. "She's Leaving Home" might come close to bathos, but I believe it is redeemed by the detached double-consciousness with which Paul delivers the lyrics. Although the lyrics on the page seem to privilege the runaway daughter, the plaintive vocal delivery casts doubt and blame all around, and the end result is to inspire multiple emotions in the listener. The album's title track, in tandem with Ringo's turn at the mic, is yet another instance that conveys an ironic double-consciousness: they somehow manage to acknowledge and dismiss their importance in shaping the cultural zeitgeist, all while creating enough space (in assuming an alternate guise) so as to not seem self-indulgent.

The Lennon contribution "Good Morning" would be an adequate ending to the album. It successfully encapsulates the record's main theme by finding poetic ambivalence in the everyday. Yet the lyric "I've got nothing to say, but it's O.K," belies the strength of the record in two ways. First, the admission that he has nothing to say draws too much attention to the fact that he knows he is expected to say something. The rest of the album (save the George contribution perhaps) succeeds in distracting the audience from this expectation, all the while managing to "say" something anyway. Once he acknowledges the burden of expectation, rather than escaping it, he finds himself compelled to actually say something, and under this burden, can manage nothing more than a hollow re-assurance.

Fortunately, "Good Morning" is not the last song on the album. Sgt. Pepper would be great even if it were, but the Beatles were able to top off their masterpiece with their greatest song of all. Next Week: an analysis of "A Day in the Life."


Blogger MarkL said...

I actually believe "Within You Without You" is the best song to capture the album's theme- awakened to the benevolent engery underlying everything.

3:42 PM  

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