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.

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