Author: Womack, Kenneth
Date published: April 1, 2010
I suppose all is reminiscence from womb to tomb.
- Samuel Beckett
Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book?
It took me years to write, will you take a look?
- The Beatles, "Paperback Writer"
The Beatles unashamedly believe in a form of moral center that exists in sharp contrast with postmodernism' s subjective elevation of personal and cultural malaise. Yes, the Beatles are modernists alright, and - whether we care to admit it or not - their modernist stance is one of the factors behind their lasting popularity and influence. While we may look outwardly at an endlessly complex and nihilistic postmodern world, the Beatles afford us with a comforting firmament from which we can awake from our golden slumbers, bask in the glory of the morning sun, and simply let it all be. Time and time again, we can revisit their unifying vision of love, hope, and community. From their earliest work through the waning days at EMFs Abbey Road Studios, the Beatles imagined themselves to be creating a coherent body of work. For Western culture, the Beatles clearly function as a master-text, as a sociohistorical touchstone, as a grand narrative. And make no mistake about it: the Beatles believed in the existence of a grand narrative, albeit not an exclusionary macronarrative for understanding the world. The Beatles' modernism involves the invocation of a universal, unifying ethical center and a persistent optimism about an unknowable future in contrast with a lingering nostalgia for the past. In Sinking Island: The Modern English Writers (1988), Hugh Kenner identifies nostalgia as a distinctive feature of modernism that involves a turning-away from contemporary life and a subsequent retreat into the soothing interstices of memory. The Beatles accomplish this end through an explicitly nostalgic reverence for the past that evinces itself in nearly every nook and cranny of their remarkable musical canon.
The Beatles' overarching textual nostalgia assists us in exploring the remarkable musical arc that characterizes the band's progress from such adolescent-oriented love songs as "I Saw Her Standing There" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand" through the more verbally mature "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" and the unabashed nostalgia of the symphonic suite that marks the zenith of their career. How, indeed, do the Beatles make such an astounding musical and lyrical leap in the space of only a few scant years? The vocabulary of family systems therapy, Jerome Bruner's concept of "life as narrative," and James Olney's theories of autobiography afford us with a valuable interpretive matrix for revealing the manner in which the band's familial structure predicated both their artistic evolution and their creative demise. In many ways, the band's musical forays from Please Please Me (1963) through Abbey Road (1969) represent the very act of life- writing itself: by authoring the text of their lives via their music in the 1960s, the Beatles engaged in a self-conscious effort to tell their own stories about the inherent difficulties that come with growing up and growing older.
As a created family of sorts, the Beatles served as each other's "fictive kin," in the parlance of marriage and family studies, for at least a decade from the late 1950s through 1969, their bittersweet final year as a quasi-family unit. Yet, as with so many families-of -origin, their irrevocable ties-that-bind would continue to resound for years to come. In addition to denoting an absence of blood ties, the concept of fictive kin refers to a group of nonrelatives who accept each other as de facto family members. As Nijole V Benokraitis observes in Marriages and Families: Changes, Choices, and Constraints (2001), such families "may be as strong or stronger and more lasting than the ties established by blood or marriage." In short, these units "emphasize affection and mutual cooperation among people who are" - for all intents and purposes - "living together" (4). From their earliest, post-boyhood days in Liverpool and their traumatic initiation into adulthood in the sex clubs and saloons of Hamburg to the simultaneously exhilarating and nerve-wracking nature of international superstardom, the Beatles shared a series of experiences that clearly challenged (yet also validated) their individual and collective senses of self at nearly every turn. As George Harrison famously quipped during the band's Anthology documentary series (1995), "the people gave their money and they gave their screams, but the Beatles gave their nervous systems." The Beatles' expansive musical text serves as a record of their self-emergence from their incipient moments as recording artists through the sonic heights of their studio years in the late 1960s. Their lyrics and musical textures underscore their growing self-awareness about the significance of their artistic achievement, as well as about their evolution as storytellers and their development into thoughtful observers regarding the peculiarities of the human condition.
But how did the Beatles evolve from their early days as lyricists into more reflective commentators about the rigors of self -awareness in such later works as The White Album (The Beatles; 1968) and Abbey Road! InNarrative Knowing and the Human Sciences (1988), Donald E. Polkinghorne contends that "we achieve our personal identities and self-concept through the use of the narrative configuration, and [we] make our existence into a whole by understanding it as an expression of a single unfolding and developing story. We are in the middle of our stories and cannot be sure how they will end," Polkinghorne adds. "We are constantly having to revise the plot as new events are added to our lives" (150). Hence, the idea of an embryonic self, in Polkinghorne' s estimation, involves a decidedly static concept that presupposes the historical configuration of personal events into a contiguous narrative unit. Bruner's "life as narrative" paradigm usefully abets our larger understanding of the nature of selfhood and our general interest, as human beings, in narrating the quality of our experiences. Bruner's project focuses in particular upon the notion of selfhood as its driving force. For Bruner, the achievement of selfhood connotes self-knowledge and a given individual's capacity for accomplishing a bounded sense of personal self-construction in relation to the larger world in which that individual lives. ' In addition to arguing that people establish selfhood by "narrativizing" their experiences, Bruner maintains that individuals negotiate their sense of self through the act of autobiography, even if they are merely publishing their findings to an authence with but one member, themselves. "The larger story" of a person's life - consisting of a host of considered and reconsidered "narrative episodes," Bruner writes in Acts of Meaning (1990) - "reveals a strong rhetorical stand, as if justifying why it was necessary (not causally, but morally, socially, psychologically) that the life had gone a particular way." In Bruner's postulation of "life as narrative," "the self as narrator not only recounts but justifies. And the self as protagonist is always," he adds, "pointing to the future" - that place where the self -that- will-be resides (121).
Bruner's interpretive system for understanding "life as narrative" involves two principal areas of autobiographical inquiry, the idea of the transactional self and the notion of self -making narratives. For Bruner, the transactional self functions in a pointedly social fashion in which individuals engage in various forms of psychosocial commerce with their peers. In such instances, group psychology impacts the emergence and development of a given individual's sense of self. As Bruner observes in Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (1986), "People act in accordance with their perceptions and their choices, and they reciprocate accordingly." Group interaction produces "astonishing stability" as interpersonal relationships impinge upon the ways in which we think and feel about ourselves (59). Bruner's theories regarding the construction of self-making narratives merit particular attention in terms of the ways in which we approach our personal autobiographies. "A selfmaking narrative is something of a balancing act," Bruner remarks in Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life (2002). "It must, on the one hand, create a conviction of autonomy, that one has a will of one's own, a certain freedom of choice, a degree of possibility. But it must also relate the self to a world of others - to friends and family, to institutions, to the past, to reference groups" (78). Desperate to preserve this balancing act between the self and the world, we create self -making narratives in a determined effort to fulfill deeply personal needs related to our often conflicting desires for commitment and opportunity.
In this manner, the human impulse to generate autobiographical narratives finds its origins in our innate need to situate ourselves in relation to the world, as well as to revivify the past, reconcile ourselves with the present, and plot a course for a seemingly unknowable future of possibility and change. In his valuable work on autobiography and life-writing, Olney contends that understanding this drive for self -narrative affords us with a means for comprehending the nature of other selves, as well as our own. As Olney observes in Metaphors of Self: The Meaning of Autobiography (1972), "Each of us is still, with experience incorporated into character, what he [or she] was inpotentia at birth, which is what each of us will still be, only then fully realized, in the moment of death" (280-8 1). Olney identifies three distinct stages of "auto-emergence" - the human inclination for recording experience via life-writing exercises - including metaphor, memory, and narration, which he frequently describes as the autobiographer's "narrative imperative." "Metaphor," he reminds us in Metaphors of Self, "is essentially a way of knowing. New sensory experiences - or their consequence, emotional experience - must be formulated in the mind before one can grasp and hold them, before one can understand them and add them to the contents of knowledge and the complex of self (31). In Olney's paradigm, the metamorphosing process allows us to comprehend the unknown by organizing, incorporating, and ultimately exploring what constitutes the known in our personal universes. Olney's second stage of auto-emergence involves the relationship between personal memory and the inner worlds in which we live. In Memory and Narrative: The Weave of Life-Writing (1998), Olney describes autobiographical memory as the product of a "specifically adult memory that imagines life not as a heap of snapshot-like moments but as constituting a connected narrative sequence" (315). In short, this form of autobiographical memory concerns the ways in which life- writers reflect upon their memories in order to examine the emotional significance of the past in context with the ongoing evolution of the self. Olney 's final stage of auto-emergence involves the act of narration - or the narrative imperative, according to Olney's terminology. The narrative imperative refers, of course, to the human autobiographical desire. For Olney, the narrative imperative manifests itself in a process that he astutely compares to the act of weaving. In Memory and Narrative, Olney defines autobiographical weaving as a procedure in which the life-writer maintains a "free and adaptable, mediatorial position between the inner and the outer, the private and the public, the fixed and the changing" (419). Simply put, the autobiographer constructs a self-conscious tapestry that reflects the text of his or her life by weaving back and forth among a selection of metaphors and memories; in so doing, the life-writer attempts to establish a more expansive vision of the self in relation to the world of countless other selves trying to make sense of life's fragmented journey.
Olney's three stages of auto-emergence provide us with a powerful tool for creating an autobiographical map of the Beatles that accounts for their remarkable creative development as recording artists cum life-writers between 1963 and 1969, a frenetic period in which they produced a dozen ground-breaking albums and recorded more than 200 original songs. Not surprisingly, a study of the Beatles' early work finds them directing rudimentary, first- and second-person gestures at their listening authence, while an analysis of their latter albums underscores the band's more expansive comprehension of their various selves in terms of the universality of human experience. In contrast with their early works, the Beatles' later efforts reveal them to be fully engaged as storytellers in the act of meaning-making, the metatextual result of their auto-emergent travels.
Reading such early albums as Please Please Me and With the Beatles (1963) in terms of Olney's theory of autobiographical metaphor demonstrates the manner in which the Beatles developed the language-acquisition skills, for lack of a better phrase, that would assist them in the creation of their greatest achievements during the latter two- thirds of their career - the moments, in short, that most closely correlate with Olney's memory and narrative-imperative stages. Released in March 1963 and recorded in a single, whirlwind 16-hour session, Please Please Me features several numbers that define the Beatles' initially vaunted, albeit thematically insubstantial role in the postwar British music scene. The vast majority of the band's songs on their first two albums concern love's trials and tribulations. Rather significantly, nearly all of their early tunes address romance as a low-impact sport, as a venue for fun and games as opposed to a pursuit that might produce emotional anguish or interpersonal misery. Two songs on Please Please Me in particular - "I Saw Her Standing There" and "Love Me Do" - underscore the nature of the Beatles' metaphorical emergence. Both numbers depict the speaker in the act of discovering love and just as quickly taking the beloved's place in his world for granted: "Now I'll never dance with another / Since I saw her standing there," Paul McCartney sings in the former song. In "Love Me Do," the speaker effortlessly promises to "always be true" with nary a care in the world. As Tim Riley observes, songs like "I Saw Her Standing There" consider nothing more (or less) than "the simple but penetrating rush of adolescent desire" (51).
By concocting one-dimensional metaphors for narrating youthful experience, the Beatles engaged in a series of language games - verbal experiments, if nothing else - that derive little, if any, genuine meaning. Released in November 1963, With the Beatles includes "Little Child," in which John Lennon sings the line, "I'm so sad and lonely," with pure gusto and abandon. As if his bombastic vocal weren't enough, the music's upbeat phrasings belie his lyrics' faux melancholy at nearly every turn. As Lennon recalled during a September 1980 interview, "We were just writing songs à la [the] Everly Brothers, à la Buddy Holly, pop songs with no more thought to them than that - to create a sound. And the words were almost irrelevant" (qtd. in Dowlding 23). Olney's metaphorical self attempts to give shape and to construct a forum for self-expression. The metaphorical self exists, moreover, from moment to moment and announces, with sheer exuberance and a touch of narcissism, "this is my universe." It mediates between, in Olney's words, "ourselves formed and ourselves becoming" (Metaphors of Self 34, 35). Songs like "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You" reveal the embryonic Beatles at their most lyrically guileless. Each song features a wide-eyed speaker fearlessly knocking on love's door. Without a hint of irony, Lennon and McCartney sing about a genial world in which "you'll let me hold your hand" - a place where love won't make you sad, "and you know that can't be bad." For the metaphorical self, aglow with post-adolescent possibility and unflinching sincerity, love is indeed the answer - the only answer.
Released in July and December 1964, respectively, A Hard Day's Night and Beatles for Sale find the band in a transitional stage where their collective metaphorical self begins to establish a more distinct perspective in relation to the world. In addition to engendering a new sense of individuation, Lennon and McCartney 's lyrics depict various speakers in the throes of one personal crisis after another - often involving the loss or diminishment of love, as well as the emergence of various attendant identity problems. The gently nostalgic "I'll Be Back," the final song on A Hard Day 's Night, offers a singular hint of things to come despite the album's assortment of gleeful love songs. The tune's speaker, supported by a clutch of bristling acoustic guitars, offers what appears to be a fairly routine dirge about the emotional traumas of lost love. Yet, rather interestingly, the speaker learns an excruciating lesson about the fleeting nature of romance; claiming that "I'll be back" because "I'm the one who wants you," he discovers the agonizing truth about his lover's immutable discontent. Believing all the while that she would reciprocate his love, he "got a big surprise" instead. Will the speaker finally prove to his beloved that he has changed emotionally, or will he proffer an engagement ring, or is he referring to something sinister - her desire for a vengeful break-up perhaps? Ian MacDonald fittingly describes the song as "a surprisingly downbeat farewell and a token of coming maturity" (94).
The songs on Beatles for Sale explore even more complicated aspects regarding human identity construction (and, in some cases, its deconstruction and reconstruction). In "I'm a Loser," Lennon explodes the narcissistic mask of the metaphorical self. "I'm a loser," the song's speaker reports, "and I'm not what I appear to be." While the track loosely concerns romantic dissolution, Lennon's lyrics suggest something even more conflicted: "My tears are falling like rain from the sky / Is it for her or myself that I cry?" Often considered to be merely another sunny chestnut among McCartney's vast catalogue of silly love songs, "I'll Follow the Sun" similarly concerns itself with the nature of sorrow and loss. The song brims with a sense of deeply felt nostalgia, as if the speaker were intensely selfconscious about his fleeting place within the temporal moment: "One day you'll look to see I've gone," McCartney sings. "For tomorrow may rain, so I'll follow the sun." While Lennon's "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party" depicts its speaker in the act of wallowing in self-pity, the manner in which the lyrics question the narrator's place in the world ultimately speaks volumes about the Beatles' transition into more expansive ways of thinking about existence and identity. "There's nothing for me here," Lennon sings, "so I will disappear."
By the summer of 1965, the Beatles had already crisscrossed the globe on concert tour after concert tour. Their lives had changed irrevocably, if for no other reason than because of the inevitable highs and lows associated with international fame. Their albums during this period reveal more mature lyrical voices, as well as more advanced musical textures. As Olney's theory of auto-emergence indicates, the band shifts, during this era, from a metaphorical perspective to a worldview that memorializes the past in order to make sense of the present. Their next trio of albums - including Help! (1965), Rubber Soul (1965), and Revolver (1966) - depict the Beatles in the act of realizing a state of interpersonal crisis before reflecting upon the past in an extended musical journey across the staves of time and memory during their psychedelic years. Released in August 1965, Help! features a selection of throwaway numbers written expressly for the movie soundtrack. But the album also includes two significant forays into the more intricate autobiographical universe the likes of which the Beatles began crafting on Beatles for Sale. On the album's title- track - Lennon' s literal cry for help and an immediate precursor to Rubber Soul's "Nowhere Man" - the speaker twists in the throes of insecurity, a state of mind in which he no longer feels "so self-assured." As with "Fm a Loser," "Help!" explores the manner in which human beings evolve into pseudo-selves, or those individuals, according to Charles R Barnard and Ramon Garrido Corrales, who remain unable to maintain any real stasis between their inner feelings and their outward behavior (85-87). The song's musical phrasings contribute to the band's unnerving depiction of the speaker's malaise. As Riley astutely observes, "Since Paul and George anticipate nearly every line Lennon sings in the verse, the effect is of voices inside the same head, prodding, goading [the listener] to chilling consequences. By the time Lennon sings 'open up the doors,' the voices are completely caught up in the nightmare" (139).
With "Yesterday," McCartney's masterpiece of sorrow and simplicity, the Beatles enjoy a turning-point of sorts. In addition to being their first string accompaniment, the song demonstrates the band's interest, time and time again, in performing nostalgia, a key ingrethent in their progress toward realizing the narrative imperative of which Olney speaks. The concept of "yesterday" itself denotes a sense of looking backward into an increasingly distant past, as well as a self-consciousness about a certain "shadow hanging over me" in the irreducible present. William Faulkner famously remarked that "the past isn't dead. It isn't even past." The Beatles' musical effusions for the balance of their career demonstrate that they understand the spirit of Faulkner's words intuitively. On Rubber Soul, released in December 1965, the band continues to experiment with the interstices between memory and narrative. With "In My Life," Lennon deftly examines the power and inevitable failure of memory.2 While some places and people remain vivid, others recede and disappear altogether. "Memories lose their meaning," Lennon sings, although he knows that "he'll often stop and think about them," referring, yet again, to the past's fecundating layers of character and setting. Fittingly, the song's singular interlude features a wistful Elizabethan piano solo by the band's brilliant producer, George Martin - the real fifth Beatle, if ever there were one. With "In My Life," Lennon recognizes his inherent narrative instinct: "That was the first time I consciously put [the] literary part of myself into the lyric," he later remembered (qtd. in Dowlding 124). For Rubber Soul's, "Norwegian Wood," George Harrison's sitar lines accent the flourishes of Lennon's haunting acoustic guitar. They also provide a curious palette for Lennon's confessional tale about an extramarital affair. Lennon's lyrics - far from underscoring love's everlasting possibilities - hint at something far more fleeting, even unromantic: "She asked me to stay and she told me to sit anywhere / So I looked around and I noticed there wasn't a chair." Compare the words of "Norwegian Wood" with such earlier phraseology as "I ain't got nothing but love, babe / Eight days a week" and the Beatles' intellectual development becomes resoundingly clear.
Released in August 1966, Revolver finds the Beatles in full flower as they emerge as vibrant and imaginative storytellers with a particular interest in investigating the philosophical nature of pastness as it relates to the simultaneously more and less pressing dilemmas of the here and now. On tracks such as "Eleanor Rigby," "For No One," and "Tomorrow Never Knows," the band creates vivid memorial images that ask pointed questions about the failure of interpersonal relationships as a tonic for revivifying the soul. In "Eleanor Rigby," McCartney's timeless elegy for an aging spinster, loneliness consumes his protagonist, whom society has ignored - even deplored for her inability to conform. In the end, the narrator reports, "no one was saved" - not Eleanor, not society, not even ourselves. As with so many other McCartney tunes for which nostalgia performs a central function, "For No One" concerns the aftermath of lost love. Yet the song's lyrics rather intriguingly consider the interpersonal transformation that such loss engenders in the former lovers: "And in her eyes you see nothing / No sign of love behind the tears / Cried for no one / A love that should have lasted years." Originally entitled "Why Did It Die?" the lyrics of "For No One" examine the ways in which the erstwhile lovers' change in status defines their feelings toward each other - the warmth of their romantic connection is tellingly replaced with the coldness of post-romantic distance. The meaning of their relationship has become transfixed by the present and dispersed among an impenetrable sense of pastness.
In "Tomorrow Never Knows" - Revolver's final track and, for all intents and purposes, the birthplace of the Beatles' well-known experiments in psychedelia - the band explores the role of consciousness as a transformative phenomenon, as a way of simultaneously imagining one's place in the present, past, and future. Loosely based on passages from the Tibetan Book of the Dead and overloaded with chemical overtones, "Tomorrow Never Knows" reminds us that the act of living implies that the past never really dies. When you "turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream" - when you truly "surrender to the void," the lyrics tell us - the self comes to recognize that the past is not necessarily a "foreign country" where "they do things differently," as L. R Hartley would have us believe in The Go-Between (1953).3 For the Beatles, the past never ceases to exist in the first place. No two Beatles songs underscore this point more than "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever," the classic pair of tunes that the band produced after abandoning life on the road forever in favor of a schedule more sympathetically oriented to their work as recording artists. Named after a Liverpool bus roundabout, "Penny Lane" offers a shrewd reading of the manner in which we frequently reconceive the past in our memories in order to imbue it with idyllic hues. With its over-arching "blue suburban skies" and perpetually convivial environs, the song effects a Utopian neighborhood where life borders on perfection and even the banker eschews a raincoat despite the "pouring rain." In "Penny Lane," McCartney's dreamlike refrain - "very strange" - suggests the ways in which the stuff of memory might be all too easily manipulated in order to conform with our most palpable desires about the past's irrevocable course. Lennon investigates similar terrain in "Strawberry Fields Forever," a song that takes its name from a Liverpool Salvation Army home. A place where "nothing is real" and where there is "nothing to get hung about," Strawberry Fields emerges as a peaceful space where "living is easy with eyes closed," a sea of tranquility in dramatic contrast with the reality of the past, which autobiographers so often blur, whether intentionally or unintentionally, during the act of life- writing.4
The Beatles' studio years are characterized by an increasing interest in storytelling and rudimentary ethical philosophy, a narrative posture that diverts rather purposefully from the idealism of their earlier forays into the mystical land of memory. Their pursuit of a narrative imperative of sorts finds its roots in their post-touring lives, a radically different environment in which they self-consciously removed themselves from the entertainment world's high-profile treadmill in an explicit attempt to concentrate on their art. This latter period of the Beatles' career features a number of significant attempts by the band members - either separately or as a group - to engage in activities devised specifically for intellectual or spiritual growth. In the mid-1960s, McCartney embarked on a personal program of reading the classics and theatergoing in order to broaden his literary and artistic intellect. "I vaguely mind anyone knowing anything I don't know," McCartney reported. "I'm trying to crowd everything in, all the things that I've missed" (qtd. in Schaffner 65). Lennon had already authored two books of witticisms - In His Own Write (1964) and A Spaniard in the Works (1965) - and Harrison continued to pursue his studies in Eastern mysticism and religion. The Beatles ventured collectively to India in 1967 in a highly publicized effort to divine spiritual transcendence at the feet of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. When they discovered the Maharishi's personal ethical stance to be the stuff of sham and pretence, the Beatles left the country in defiance - but not before writing literally hundreds of songs that would serve them well for the balance of their career, particularly on The White Album.
Olney helpfully instructs us that, for life-writers at least, a narrative imperative functions as an expectation of sorts that drives autobiographers - by virtue of an innate and seemingly unquenchable desire - to textualize their memories, cultivate the present, and record for posterity the nature of their sensory impressions. "The winding round and round in present memory is the precise linguistic and structural analogue of the going round in a circle of errors of the past, and a narrative that would be adequate to the experience of present memory as well as the experience of past erring," Olney writes in Memory and Narrative, must address "the continuity of identity between past experience and [the] present memory of that experience" (11). Only then, Olney reasons, can we truly come to know ourselves. Released to international fanfare in June 1967, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band demonstrates the band's interest in establishing, although somewhat ineffectively at this juncture, a more concrete narrative structure in their work. In this way, they begin to fulfill the promise of Olney's narrative imperative, the final stage in his theory of auto-emergence. Fans and critics alike often refer to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band as popular music's first "concept" album. In truth, though, the Beatles ' notion of a fictitious ensemble peters out after "With a Little Help from My Friends," the album's second track. The concept "doesn't go anywhere," Lennon later remarked. "But it works 'cause we said it works" (qtd. in Dowlding 160). Perhaps even more significantly, Sgt. Pepper saw the Beatles erasing the boundaries that they had been challenging since Rubber Soul said Revolver. "Until this album, we'd never thought of taking the freedom to do something like Sgt. Pepper," McCartney recalled. "We started to realize there weren't as many barriers as we'd thought, we could break through with things like album covers, or invent another persona for the band" (qtd. in Dowlding 161).
For "Within You Without You," Harrison's lone contribution to the album, the speaker draws upon Indian philosophy's metaphysical outlook in an explicit attempt to address the spiritual vacancy of contemporary interpersonal relationships: "We were talking about the space between us all /And the people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion." With "A Day in the Life" - the album's dramatic climax - the Beatles virtually re-imagined themselves as recording artists. Filled with variegated sonic hues and other assorted sound effects, the song contrasts Lennon's impassive stories of disappointment and remorse with McCartney's deceptively buoyant interlude about the numbing effects of the workaday world. The song's luminous, open-ended refrain - "I'd love to turn you on" - insinuates a sense of interpersonal salvation on a universal scale. Yet Lennon and McCartney 's detached lyrics seem to suggest, via their nuances of resignation and unacknowledged guilt, that such a form of emotional release will always remain an unrealized dream. As the music of the Beatles and a studio orchestra spirals out of control and into oblivion, a massive piano chord punctuates the song's melancholic ambiance. "In the end," Martin recalls in All You Need Is Ears (1994), "the microphones were so live that you could hear the air-conditioning. It took forty-five seconds to do, and we did it three or four times, building up a massive sound of piano after piano after piano, all doing the same thing" (212). The chord's metaphorical open-endedness suggests - in dramatic contrast with the self-contained love songs of the Beatles' musical youth - the proffering of a larger philosophical question for which there is no immediate answer. "A song not of disillusionment with life itself but of disenchantment with the limits of mundane perception," MacDonald observes, " A Day in the Life' depicts the 'real' world as an unenlightened construct that reduces, depresses, and ultimately destroys" (181).
Released in November 1967, Magical Mystery Tour provides yet another example of the band' s interest in crafting Active worlds from which to narrate larger philosophical critiques regarding the nature of contemporary life. As with Yellow Submarine (1969), Magical Mystery Tour offers a generally ineffectual attempt to rekindle Sgt. Pepper's narrative magic. While "The Fool on the Hill" drowns its textual potency in a sea of unfettered idealism, "I Am the Walrus" provides listeners with one of the album's few moments of artistic forcefulness. Written at the apex of the Summer of Love, Lennon's self-consciously psychedelic "I Am the Walrus" functions - at least on a lyrical level - as a brilliant tirade against the ills of enforced institutionalism. Adorned with stunning wordplay and linguistic imagery, "I Am the Walrus" pits Lennon's bitter vocals against a surrealistic musical tableau comprised of McCartney's hypnotic bass, Harrison and Ringo Starr's playful percussion, and Martin's exhilarating string arrangements. Inspired by Lewis Carroll's nonsensical poem "The Walrus and the Carpenter," "I Am the Walrus" opens with Lennon's Mellotron-intoned phrasings designed to replicate the monotonous cry of a police siren. As the song's spectacular lyrics unfold - "I am he as you are he and you are me and we are altogether" - Starr's wayward snare interrupts the proceedings and sets Lennon's intentionally absurdist catalogue of images into motion. While an assortment of cryptic voices and diabolical laughter weave in and out of the mix, Lennon's pungent lyrics encounter an array of ridiculous characters - from a "crab locker fishwife" and a "pornographic priestess" to the "expert texpert choking smokers" and that madman of literary effrontery himself, Edgar Allan Poe. When "I Am the Walrus" finally recedes amongst its ubiquitous mantra of "Goo Goo Goo Joob," the song dissolves into a scene from a BBC radio production of Shakespeare's King Lear. Described by MacDonald as "the most idiosyncratic protest song ever written," "I Am the Walrus" features Lennon's most inspired verbal textures, as well as the Beatles' greatest moment of musical diaphora: in one sense, "I Am the Walrus" seems utterly devoid of meaning, yet at the same time its songwriter's rants about prevailing social strictures absolutely beg for interpretation.
In many ways, Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour exist as mere warmups - psychedelic diversions, if you will - in advance of The White Album's, more considerable achievement as a compelling act of extended storytelling. Released in November 1968 and the product (in contrast, most notably, with Please Please Me) of thousands of hours of studio time, The White Album affords its listeners with a host of literary figures, from Dear Prudence, Bungalow Bill, and Rocky Raccoon to Sexy Sadie, a sty of political Piggies, the ghostlike Julia, and a pensive Blackbird "singing in the dead of night." Conceived when albums existed as the self-consciously imagined "sides" of long-playing records, The White Album's, rollicking second side reveals, and perhaps more so than any other Beatles album, the ways in which the band's musicality contributes to the lyricism of their narratives.5 With their dizzying array of musical styles, the nine tracks from "Martha My Dear" through "Julia" loom as masterworks of artistic virtuosity. They also illustrate The White Album's stunning eclecticism - the true measure of the album's resilience. McCartney's baroque-sounding "MarthaMy Dear," with its crisp brass accompaniment, introduces the sequence, which meanders, rather lazily, into Lennon's bluesy "I'm So Tired." Lennon later recalled the song as "one of my favorite tracks. I just like the sound of it, and I sing it well" (qtd. in Dowlding 232). Written during the Beatles' visit to the Maharishi's retreat at Rishikesh during the spring of 1968, McCartney's folksy "Blackbird" imagines a contemplative metaphor for the United Status's civil rights struggles during the 1960s. The sound of a chirping blackbird eventually segues into Harrison's edgy political satire, "Piggies." Interestingly, the songwriter's mother, Louise Harrison, composed the tune's signature lyric - a punishment suitable for misanthropic politicians everywhere: "What they need's a damned good whacking!"
The White Album's song cycle continues with McCartney's countrified "Rocky Raccoon," a track that shifts, rather astonishingly, from the disquieting universe of cowboys, gunplay, and saloons into a gentle paean about nostalgia and loss. Starr's "Don't Pass Me By," with its barrelhouse piano chorus, steers the sequence abruptly into the sudsy world of the beer hall. Originally entitled "Some Kind of Friendly," the song became a number-one hit, rather fittingly, in Scandinavia. One of McCartney's finest blues effusions, "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" explodes from the embers of "Don't Pass Me By" and brilliantly sets the stage for the side's final two numbers, "I Will" and "Julia." A soothing melody about the tenuous interplay between romance and commitment, "I Will" remains one of McCartney's most memorable experiments in brash sentimentality. Arguably his most powerful ballad, Lennon's "Julia" memorializes the songwriter's late mother while simultaneously addressing his spiritual deliverance at the hands of his new-found soul mate, the "ocean child" Yoko Ono. In addition to its musical brilliance, The White Album finds the Beatles engaging in a spate of self-reflexivity in which referentiality emerges as one of the band's literary touchstones. Songs such as Lennon's "Glass Onion" and Harrison's "Savoy Truffle" pointedly feature intertextual references to yet other Beatles songs in a growing effort to imbue their larger musical narrative with a sense of coherence and continuity.
Recorded in early 1969 and released in May 1970 after the band members had already gone their separate ways, Let It Be includes a number of songs that, rather fittingly and in context with Olney's narrative imperative, concern themselves with the fleeting nature of human interconnection, as well as with the comfort that nostalgia affords us when it acts as a balm for the aching soul. In "Two of Us," McCartney's nostalgic impulse manifests itself in the speaker's contemplative refrain, "You and I have memories / Longer than the road that stretches out ahead." The song's singular recurring lyrical image - "we're on our way home" - suggests that the band has come full circle, that they've arrived at some inevitable destination from whence life as they know it will be different. Lennon's "Across the Universe" picks up McCartney's nostalgic baton in one of the songwriter's most poetic accomplishments. With "Across the Universe," Riley notes, "the free-floating imagery determines the musical flexibility - the words evoke the creative process as much as a creative state of mind" (296). The song's chorus of "nothing's going to change my world" complements McCartney's regretful tones throughout the album about the manner in which the past continues to elude us despite our best efforts to memorialize it and render it into permanence through the auspices of language. "Let It Be" and "The Long and Winding Road" provide similarly minded excursions into nostalgia's death-defying limbo, a place in which disillusionment and anguish commingle ad infinitum. While "Let It Be" counsels us to meditate upon "words of wisdom" during our hours of darkness and to embrace the gentle consolation of peace, "The Long and Winding Road," in many ways, knows better. For the speaker, nostalgia's circuitous road "will never disappear." And while it always leads us back to the memories of lost friends and loved ones, the long and winding road never quite gets us there. For the song's speaker, the panacea inherent in "Let It Be" merely produces "a pool of tears" in the harsher reality lost amidst the restless and unconvincing hopefulness of "The Long and Winding Road."
There is little question that, even during its production, the Beatles regarded Abbey Road, released in September 1969, as their final studio album. Their growing interpersonal and financial tensions were exacting a seemingly immutable toll on their artistic relationship. As the workmanlike Beatles went about the business of recording their musical finale, McCartney and Martin began assembling the medley that would conclude the album. "I wanted to do something bigger, a kind of operatic moment," McCartney remembered (qtd. in Lewisohn 14). In contrast with the popoperas of that era by the Who and the Small Faces, the Beatles' medley essentially consists of an assortment of unfinished songs. Yet McCartney and Martin's inspired post-production efforts ensured that the medley enjoyed a cohesiveness from which we can draw larger musical and lyrical motifs. While the medley highlights the Beatles' penchant for balladry via such literary characters as Mean Mr. Mustard, Polythene Pam, and the eccentric female protagonist who meanders in and out of the narrative of "She Came in through the Bathroom Window," the sequence reaches its most profound instances during such poignant numbers as "You Never Give Me Your Money," "Golden Slumbers," and "Carry that Weight." In "You Never Give Me Your Money," McCartney's plaintive piano strains give way to Lennon and Harrison's dueling rhythm guitars. As Harrison later observed, the song "does two verses of one tune, and then the bridge is almost like a different song altogether, so it's quite melodic." The lyrics bespeak the tragedies of misspent youth and runaway fame: "Out of college, money spent / See no future, pay no rent / All the money's gone, nowhere to go." As "You Never Give Me Your Money" comes to a close, the song's bluesy guitar riffs segue into the chorus of a children's nursery rhyme: "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven / All good children will go to heaven."
Later, in "Golden Slumbers," McCartney resumes the medley's earlier themes with a deft reworking of Thomas Dekker's four-hundred-year-old poem of the same name. As the medley progresses toward its symphonic conclusion, the song's bitter nostalgia - "Once there was a way to get back homeward / Once there was a way to get back home" - yields itself to a larger realization, in "Carry that Weight," that we inevitably shoulder the past's frequently irredeemable burden for the balance of our lives. In "Carry that Weight," McCartney acknowledges his own culpability in the Beatles' dissolution, yet his rather humbling, self-conscious lyrics extend an olive branch to his increasingly distant chums: "I never give you my pillow / I only send you my invitations / And in the middle of the celebrations / 1 break down." In its highly polished, final form, the Abbey Road medley encounters the Beatles at the height of their literary faculties. In many ways, the medley functions as McCartney 's clever reconfiguration of Shakespeare's "seven ages of man" in As You Like It. From "You Never Give Me Your Money" through "The End," his lyrics impinge upon the inherent difficulties that come with identity transformation along life's journey from post-adolescence through genuine adulthood and beyond. Only the power of memory, it seems, can placate our inevitable feelings of nostalgia and regret - not only for our youthful days, but for how we lived them. Appropriately, McCartney concludes the medley with a quasi-Shakespearean couplet - "a cosmic, philosophical line," in Lennon's words (qtd. in Dowlding 292): "And in the end the love you take / Is equal to the love you make." In The Beatles as Musicians: Revolver through the Anthology (1999), Walter Everett perceptively reads the medley as "a very personal final gift from Paul McCartney to his mates, as well as from the Beatles to the world" (271). As the moving coda to a brilliant career, the Abbey Road medley - perhaps more than any other moment in the Beatles' unprecedented musical catalogue - witnesses the band's creative powers in full bloom.
Life-writing, Olney tells us in Memory and Narrative, is rarely a tidy and altogether coherent process. "What does this reverie of the artist produce but broken dreams on the one hand, a coherent body of work - sequential, integral, and summative - on the other?" Olney asks. "Let the broken dreams go with [the] other detritus of short-term memory; the body of work remains as the story told and retold, the creation and the complement of long-term memory, and finally, actually, almost miraculously brought to its end" (404). The Beatles' career as life-writers is no different. Although their passage through Olney's phases of auto-emergence may seem vaguely uneven and indeterminate at times, from their earliest moments as recording artists through their magisterial efforts during their waning days together at Abbey Road studios, the Beatles fashioned an enduring legacy based upon our innately human needs for hopefulness and reconciliation. As McCartney remarks in the final reel of the Beatles' Anthology documentary, "I'm really glad that most of [our] songs dealt with love, peace, understanding. There's hardly any one of them that says: 'Go on, kids, tell them all to sod off. Leave your parents.' It's all very All You Need Is Love' or John's 'Give Peace a Chance.' There was a good spirit behind it all, which I'm very proud of." Perhaps even more significantly, the Beatles' body of work emerges from the shadows of cultural history as a generatively driven lyrical and musical fusion. Family studies scholars define generativity as an adult-developmental phenomenon that occurs as people approach midlife and become concerned with the notion of "maintaining the world." "In early adulthood, the individual is involved with establishing her or his own identity and intimate relationships," Lee Ann De Reus observes, while "the establishment and guidance of the younger generation begins as the adult turns her or his focus away from the self to others" (24-25). In short, generativity finds its origins in the individual's successful attainment of some semblance of healthy selfhood - that era when the individual comes to enjoy an effectual relationship between her- or himself and the world. The dissolution of the Beatles, although disconcerting for legions of music lovers, makes perfect sense when understood in an adult-developmental context. Indeed, how many people complete the developmental tasks commonly associated with adulthood - including marriage, child-rearing, and the assumption of more expansive leadership positions in work and family life - in the company of their childhood mates?6 In this sense, isn't the break-up of the Beatles more usefully understood as the result of four men going in decidedly different directions as they approach midlife and all that growing older entails?7 While the Beatles may have gone their separate ways in the waning months of 1969, their music, as the product of an increasingly mature sense of generativity, leaves us with an abiding legacy of peace, wisdom, and hope. "No autobiography is completed, only ended," Bruner reminds us in Making Stories (74). For tomorrow's generation of listeners, the Beatles are only just getting started.
1 Bruner' s concept of selfhood can be usefully equated with the notion of individuation, family systems psychotherapy's term for denoting the process via which individuals emerge from functional families and establish healthy senses of personality and autonomy in relation to the world, as well as to their familiesof-origin.
2 Lennon's knowing commentary regarding the disquieting power of memory underscores the similarly prescient words of Beat novelist Paul Bowles in The Sheltering Sky (1949): "Because we don't know [when we will die]," Bowles writes, "we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can' t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless" (248).
3 Hartley's oft-quoted remarks from The Go-Between are frequently misattributed to George Eliot, who writes in a similar vein in Daniel Deronda (1876): "A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of earth, for the labors men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amidst the future widening of knowledge: a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection, and kindly acquaintance with all neighbors, even to the dogs and donkeys, may spread not by sentimental effort and reflection, but as a sweet habit of the blood" (III: 1).
4 As James M. Decker notes, "All that autobiographers omit, all that they think trivial, forget, or cannot face, paradoxically remains embedded within that which they commit to paper. In telling stories about earlier selves," Decker adds, "autobiographers tacitly tell stories about their current selves because their decisions - conscious or otherwise - betray the way(s) in which they perceive themselves, and, by extension, the world" (3-4).
5 The White Album's magnificent stylistic diversity offers yet another inroad - along with the lyrical qualities of the band's songs - into our larger understanding of the Beatles' musical journey of self -emergence. As Decker remarks, "How an autobiographer relates an anecdote informs readers about the writer's personal 'cosmology' as well" (4). The nature of a given work's style affects the ways in which readers - or, perhaps more accurately in the Beatles' case, listeners - engage a text. Stylistics impinge upon narratives by affording them with a sense of order, no matter how fragmented the text may be, that ultimately shapes the manner in which readers receive the text. And in receiving the life- writer's text, the reader enjoys a window into the autobiographer's selfhood. "The self reveals itself through style," Herbert Leibowitz writes in Fabricating Lives: Explorations in American Autobiography (1989), for "style, memory's ally, strives to make whole the split between the sentient self and the observing ego" (4, 28).
6 In a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine's John Harris, Starr offers additional commentary on the Beatles' dissolution and its relation to life choices: "I think the reason the Beatles split up was because we were thirty, and it was, 'Hey, I've got married, I've got kids, I've got a few more friends.' We didn't have the energy to put into it" (44). When asked about her own ostensible role in the band's demise, Yoko Ono suggests that they were responding to internal forces - perhaps even involving individual needs and desires related to growing up - rather than to external pressures: "I don't think you could have broken up four very strong people like them, even if you tried. So there must have been something that happened within them - not an outside force at all" (All We Are Saying 144).
7 In the parlance of family systems therapy, such functionally driven life changes result from the psychological phenomenon of differentiation, or emotional and psychological separation, that allows individuals to evolve into relatively autonomous selves. In Families and Larger Systems: A Family Therapist's Guide through the Labyrinth (1988), Evan Imber-Black observes that "all families engage with larger systems." Healthy, differentiated families, moreover, "are able to function in an interdependent manner with a variety of larger systems, utilizing information from these systems as material for their own growth and development" (14). Differentiated family members have the transgenerational potential for producing yet other selves with full senses of identity (Barnard and Corrales 36-37).
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Penn State Altoona
Kenneth Womack (firstname.lastname@example.org) is professor of English and integrative arts at Penn State University's Altoona College, where he also serves as associate dean for academic affairs. He is the author of numerous works of nonfiction, including Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles. His first novel, John Doe No. 2 and the Dreamland Motel, is forthcoming from Switchgrass Books.