I Saw a Film Today, Oh Boy

Institutionalized Beatlemania is everywhere, it seems. The Anthomology project has just pumped out the book to match its CDs and videos: gargantuan and yet strangely non-comprehensive. Yellow Submarine was restored and rereleased last year, along with a whole line of rather frightening psychedelic rubber toys. The twentieth anniversary of John Lennon's murder occasioned a fair amount of twinned nostalgia -- half for day of his death and half for his heyday. And now A Hard Day's Night is back in theatres, with all of the attendant whoop-de-doo.

There's a huge amount out there on the existential meaning of the Beatles, on their symbolic and social importance to an era, a generation, and music itself. It's hard for me to say anything to such commentary: I wasn't there for the first go-round. I missed the Beatles when they were happening for real, through no fault of my own. And sure, I may look with incredulity on claims that the Beatles of 1964 are the complete embodiment of innocent faith and of the social moment that would become flower power -- but what do I know? I have only what the Beatles left behind: a double handful of albums and the screaming faces of their fans during the concert that closes A Hard Day's Night.

I've been listening to some of their music a bunch recently, and the more closely I listen, the more blown-away I get. I've settled into a pattern with them: I buy another album, on the strength of all the other ones. I listen to it once or twice and think it okay, but not at the level of the rest. And then I'm unable to listen to anything else for a few days; it goes on endless repeat and my jaw drops more and more to the floor as my new favorite songs come up. Perfectly shaped songs, not a note out of place, vocal harmonies exactly right, the song ends and you can't possibly imagine it having been any other way. "Yesterday" is the most-covered song in the world, but why? What could anyone else add to it?

When you listen to Beatles songs, they fit together -- the sound of their harmonies, the feel of the playing. There is a certain texture to all their work, a certain expectation for what the wonderful elements of the song will be. What really spins my head is the way that almost every Beatles song then takes those expectations and goes beyond them. Everything about the Beatles is recognizable, earthly, human, familiar -- so that my thought, every time I hear the quiver in John's voice during "A Day in the Life" is is "I didn't know humanity was capable of that." The Beatles didn't fall to Earth like a gift from another musical planet; they started out on Earth and never left it, and their gift was to show what unexpected musical richness this plain old Earth had within it.

Listening to their albums historically, what amazes me is not so much what they accomplished as how quickly they did it. Between Meet The Beatles and Abbey Road (the last-recorded of their albums, even though Let It Be came out later), including everything in between, slightly less than eight years went by. That's a pretty tough journey to make in the course of a lifetime, but the Fab Four made it in under a decade. But what is more, every time the Beatles tried out something new for them, it was new for everyone, which raises the bar maybe a hundred times higher. They invented rock for the better part of ten years, reinventing it -- and themselves -- something like every year or two. Just look at the trail of evidence.

In '62 and '63, they're putting out high-energy unpolished raw American rock, covering Chuck Berry and remaking your basic bass-drums-guitar two-minute rock song into something stripped-down and pure. By '64, they've figured out that classic pure "Beatles" sound, with their rich vocal harmonies and perfectly structured songs. Within two years, they're already deconstructing that sound, adding session players and pushing outwards musically. In '67, they record and release Sgt. Pepper, redefining the genre of the rock album with unprecedented studio techniques, and nothing will ever be the same. The White Album - in the very next year - makes Sgt. Pepper sound like a quaint and oddly naive curiosity. Two years and two albums later, it's all over, but not before the continuous cavalcade of music that closes out Abbey Road has called into question even the very idea of a "song." And not once, not even for a minute, did they stop recording songs that would bring a tap to your toe and a tear to your eye. The Beatles spent the '60s locked in a musical arms race with the entire rest of the world.

Such was their music, their legacy to me and to other musicians. Seeing A Hard Day's Night made me, for a moment, feel that I might understand their presence and their image, their legacy to their fans. The film pulses with energy, with the dry and childish glee of the Beatles themselves, jamming in a baggage compartment, romping in a field, goofing on one another and all around. It's the musical segments in which the film genuinely explodes, when the power of their music rubs up against the vitality of their presence. The pure state of Beatle-dom comes across as a beatific condition. The screaming at last became comprehensible to me, the response of the fans to being as close as they could ever come to that impossible-to-reach state, the pure frustration of being so close and realizing that nothing in this world would ever let you cross that ineffable barrier into the heightened state of grace that shrouded them.

For, although the Beatles were very much of and for this world, there was something to them also that polished and refined and purified worldliness into a singularity, to something you could never stare directly at or think too carefully about. Look at George's Vulcan face when he steps to the microphone, those ears and eyebrows and the focused eyes -- there is something there that cannot be faced directly. All you can do is give it a mop-top and a guitar and hope to hide it. Perhaps the entire history of the Beatles after the Beatles has consisted solely of this: everything, from Paul McCartney's symphonic works to Ringo's star turn as a foot-high train-conductor, has all been an elaborate project of dilution, an attempt to take that dangerous spark at the Beatles' core and somehow bring it back into the world without destroying the world in the process. Which, you might say, if you were so inclined, explains why Lennon had to die.

Back in 1964, though, so much was still yet to come, and if you look at A Hard Day's Night, it's all there, all the contradictions and all the potential. The self-contained revelry as they romp in a field to "Can't Buy Me Love," John's playing with toy submarines and disappearing act from the bathtub, Ringo's goofy wanderings, the proto-postmoderninty of the pre-concert setup and the telecast, the mixture of peaceful unconcern and sharp subversion in everything the foursome do, and, above all else, the tear-stricken face of that one screaming fan, the rawness of her emotions. Their musical oddysey is in there, waiting to happen, the drugs and the love, the optimism and the rebellion.

Taking the joyous pulse of the world that surges around the Beatles' antics in A Hard Day's Night, I am almost ready to believe some of the wilder claims. Perhaps this was the magic of their social moment and their impact, that they came into a world that was essentially straightlaced (even if laced with the language of youthful disobedience) but profoundly optimistic and, partaking in that optimism, joined to it a strain of something more meaningful: mods and rockers joined together to become mockers. The Beatles, perhaps, helped a generation towards a fleeting engagement with the world-historical because they themselves were world-historical.

I never know where these things are going until I write them. Nor how long they'll take, which is invariably at least an hour more than I expect, often far more. BS quotient high, but 1) They really are that amazing. I lack the words to explain. 2) I can't resist a neat idea or a good line. Play me backwards to see whether Paul's dead. 11'12'00