Monday, June 19, 2017

Not worthy

My second Beatles book in this month of Sgt. Pepper's 50th anniversary is a collection of essays called In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs, edited by Andrew Blauner. There are some fine pieces here, the best of which—Jon Pareles on "Tomorrow Never Knows," Peter Blauner on "And Your Bird Can Sing," David Hadju on "You Know My Name (Look up the Number)"—combine personal reminiscence with musical analysis and interpretation. Essays that come down too heavily one way or the other tend to be on the weak side. And some of the lesser essays still make interesting points, as when Thomas Bellar, in an otherwise lackluster piece on "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," refers to Elton John having made the song "wholesome" in his cover version. Gerald Early turns his essay on "I'm a Loser" into a thought-provoking reflection on being a black kid grooving to the very white Beatles—though he pads the essay out with unnecessary lists of pop culture artifacts.

I'm sorry that some great songs like "Norwegian Wood" and "She Loves You" get essays that feel knocked off in a weekend on assignment. And I wish that someone had written about some lesser-known songs like "Blue Jay Way" or "Things We Said Today." But my main beef is with the infrastructure. No disrespect is meant here for Pareles or Hadju or anyone else, but these essays are not really by "great" writers. Great writers are Thomas Pynchon or Toni Morrison or Stephen King or Haruki Muakami or Ta-Nehisi Coates or Hilton Als. None of them are here. Jane Smiley, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, may be a great writer, and I've heard lots of praise for Rick Moody and Joseph O'Neill though I've not read their works. But the subtitle should have been "Writers on Great Beatles Songs." Aside from the pieces by Hadju, Blauner, Pareles, and Early, I doubt any of these musings will stick with me; maybe John Hockenberry's ode to "Let It Be" (and to his daughter Olivia) and Chuck Klosterman's deconstruction of "Helter Skelter." The rest have already left my mind, and while only a couple of essays are total crap, these great songs should have inspired better material. Read this book, but check it out of the library--it doesn't need to be on your permanent Beatles bookshelf.

And, just to show how petty I can be, the order of essays is faulty. In the intro, it's stated that the songs are presented in chronological order of release, but the songs from Sgt. Pepper come between songs from Revolver (wrong!) and "Strawberry Fields Forever" comes in the middle of that muddle (wrong!). This seems to have been not a labor of love but just a labor.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

A year in the life

Steve Turner's Beatles '66: The Revolutionary Year is a solid addition to my Beatles bookshelf (who am I kidding, bookshelves, at this point). It's been a given that 1967, with the release of Sgt. Pepper and "Strawberry Fields Forever," was the year in which the Beatles truly solidified their legacy and weren't going to fade away. But in this mix of reportage (second-hand) and interpretation, Turner explains how, in the his mind, 1966 was truly the turning point year in the Beatles' career.
Among the reasons he presents: 1966 is the year of Revolver, the album they spent the most time working on (almost three months) and which featured music that would be difficult to reproduce onstage (most notably, the psychedelic masterpiece "Tomorrow Never Knows"); for the first time, the Beatles ran into controversy and protests, due mostly to John Lennon's out-of-context remark about being more popular than Jesus; drugs became a major influence in the creation of their music; and this was the year they quit touring, which opened them up to spend nearly unlimited amounts of time in the studio.

To his credit, Turner is pretty good about sticking just to 1966, ignoring what must have been a strong urge to write at least a bit about Sgt. Pepper, which they didn't start to record until the beginning of 1967, though he does get to cover the gestation of Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane, which pointed the way to Pepper. Turner succumbs at times to that unfortunate trend of including everything he dug up, whether or not it's crucial to his argument; for example, a mention of Ray Davies's published review of Revolver leads to three unnecessary paragraphs about the relation of the Kinks to the Beatles. There is much that should have been trimmed away but I can't complain too much when the rest of the book is so interesting. I've another Beatles book on deck for next time.