It begins with a tiny spark. Maybe there's a VH1 documentary, or possibly an anniversary: John's murder, Dec. 8; Feb. 9, the Ed Sullivan appearance; 1970, the breakup.
Or possibly a drive down the highway, flipping through the stations and you catch the very beginning of "A Day in the Life," and realize your journey will last long enough to hear the four pianos strike the final chord. Perhaps, instead, you find yourself in a loud, obnoxious out-of-key group sing-along of "She Was Just Seventeen." Remixed releases like the concert at the Hollywood Bowl or obscure tapes cleared somewhat by digital magic force a fantasy of being 18 at the Cavern in Liverpool, at the beginning of it all.
True Beatles fans are no longer obsessed. The years have added layers of wisdom to past notions of a godlike eminence lent to the lads of Liverpool. But when the spark hits, we pull out "Anthology," or maybe a dusty 30-year-old album, resplendent in its skips and crackles of aged vinyl, or even, if time allows, "Abbey Road," the second side of which must be listened to in its entirety.
For a week or a day or a month, we get into full Beatles groove. We take a series of albums or a segment of the years, the Beatlemania phase, the acid/ Maharishi phase, the early rockabilly years, and we think about it, we transport ourselves into their time and place or even into the time and place where it all first came to us. We focus one month on Paul or John, sometimes George and Ringo. Ultimately we put it back in its place, stored amongst the collection, glad for another taste of the most extraordinary music ever created.
When George Harrison died the other day I played one song. It's on the "Anthology" No. 3 CD, a rehearsal version of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" with no electric guitar, no drums, no backing vocals or keyboards. It is simply George Harrison and his guitar.
My big brother, Rob, who is responsible for introducing me to the coolest people on earth when I was about 4 years old, alerted me to this disc and its unique version of the song and reminded me again of that song today. It's simple, it's elegant, and if you want to get the true essence of George Harrison and his music, just listen to it. One lyric that's left off the popular song from 1968's White Album (actually titled "The Beatles") but included in this version shows a talent that transcends the musical.
"I look from the wings at the play you are staging while my guitar gently weeps/ As I'm sitting here, doing nothing but aging, still my guitar gently weeps," as fine a lyric as any laureate has ever penned. It also happens to be a sorrowful reminder of just how fast 40 years can fly by.
Moments like this one remind us to ask: Why did the Beatles enchant our society like they did? The answers are complex. The Fab Four emerged while America was mourning the JFK assassination. They were an amalgamation of blues, rock, Elvis and the new age of television mass media.
The baby boom generation was enormous in number, just over 13 years old, thunderous in its revelry, and therefore able to empower their heroes.
There is, however, another, subtler underlying principle at play here. Each Beatle, George, John, Paul and Ringo, possessed a powerful energy that was distinct from the others.
John was clearly the most volatile, especially in his younger days, full of explosive creativity and more than a bit of anger from losing his father to abandonment and his mother to sudden death after she was hit by a car. Paul was fluid, possessed a songbird's voice and was romanced by a vaudevillian showmanship. George was quiet, sullen, gentle and ultimately spiritual. He felt the claustrophobic pain of fame more than the others and resented it longer.
Ringo was a crisp drummer but smart enough to know that his talents lay not in his musicianship but in his ability, like a drummer should, to keep the band in concert, to remind them they were there to have fun. There were times when John was furious with Paul, Paul with John, George with Paul. No one ever lashed out at Ringo. When he threatened to quit during one of the bad weeks in their remarkable 14-year run, they pulled together and promised to be nice to each other. Ringo in many ways was the glue.
Combine those talents and disparate energies, place them in the right time and context, and you have the Beatles energy. It's playful like Paul, angry like John, deeply moving like George and harmonious the way Ringo helped them to be. In other words, they mirrored all that we feel in a given lifetime because they wrote and sang and played whatever was true to them.
I remember a scene in "Imagine," the breathtaking documentary about Lennon by Andrew Solt, where a fan tripping on LSD shows up at John's mansion in England, believing John called him there in one of his songs. Lennon being Lennon, John reminded him that the Beatles and John Lennon were just four guys who put their pants on, went to the bathroom, had sex, had success, had failure, had fear just like all of us humans. If the song reached the man and had an effect, fine. But in the end they're just songs, written by men, reflective of their feelings and thoughts at the moment pen hit paper, hand struck a chord.
Beatles energy and Beatles music were not magic. They were not gods. They did pull us together. They got us to talk. They got us to think a little. They got us to sing and to reflect. Like Ringo they have been a glue to friendships and a reminder that we all feel and we all love and we all fear.
And for that they deserve our thanks. And for that we are sorry there are only two of them left.
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