Wednesday, August 21, 2013

"Nilsson! Nilsson for president!"

If you don't have the time or inclination to read Alyn Shipton's new biography of Harry Nilsson, you can still get your fill of the incomparable singer-songwriter through the superb reviews, commentaries, and excerpts that have accompanied the book's release. I've posted a handful below. Tie-ins with The Beatles are plentiful of course.
- Slate: "Lennon + McCartney = Nilsson"
- The New Yorker: "The Ten Best Lesser-Known Nilsson Songs"
- Daily Mail: "When Harry met... John, Paul, George and Ringo: The American Beatle's 18-month 'lost weekend' with Lennon." It's an excerpt from Shipton's book. I love this quote by Harry: "Ringo and I spent a thousand hours laughing." Those two shared a special and lasting bond.
- Grantland: "Deconstructing Harry"
These articles reinforce and deepen what Nilsson lovers (like myself) already know: Both as a person and an artist, Harry Edward Nilsson III contained multitudes.
For more on the American Beatle, go here.

Monday, August 19, 2013

"Revolution 20"

From The Onion's A.V. Club:
In 1968, The Beatles released three versions of "Revolution." "Revolution 1" is the mellow, mostly acoustic version that leads off side four of The White Album. "Revolution 2," released as the flip side of "Hey Jude," is the anthemic, guitar-driven version you're most familiar with. "Revolution 9" is the self-indulgent marathon of found sounds and tape loops, also from The White Album.
Still, rumors have abounded for years that the group recorded as many as 22 different takes on the song, each as different to each other as the three we're familiar with. But, as none were included on The Beatles Anthology, it was assumed they would never see the light of day, if they existed at all.
But yesterday, Open Culture posted almost completely unheard—albeit, uploaded to YouTube in 2009—material from 45-year-old sessions by the most scrutinized band of all time. "Revolution 20" is a 10-minute long alternate take on the song. After some chatter from the band (a snippet of which you'll recognized from "Revolution 2"), the song starts off in a similar vein to The White Album version, but gets progressively stranger as it goes, with a few clips also used in "Revolution 9" making an appearance. It may not replace the single version in anyone's iPod, but it's a fascinating glimpse at The Beatles' process as they attacked the song from all angles before settling on the versions they wanted to release.
What I find so interesting about "Revolution 20" is that it represents a rather unlikely bridge between "Revolution 1" and "Revolution 9" - a pair of songs situated on opposite ends of the musical style and accessibility spectrum. "Revolution 20" doesn't exactly make sense of the radical disparity, but it links the two "White Album" entries in a way that we likely couldn't have imagined on our own.
There's a subtle sense of balance about the recording that caught my ear. The first four minutes or so hew somewhat closely to "Revolution 1," with one major exception being the squealing Mellotron line inserted at many points. It plays like a cautionary intimation of the madness to come. But when the chaotic experimental jam does kick in, it's leavened to a certain degree by the background "shoo-bi-doo-wahs" that recur throughout the entire track. Amidst a heated avant-garde digression, these classic rock 'n' roll garnishes stand out, almost as if they're waving the flag for familiarity and conventionality.
To be sure, "Revolution 20" is still a very first-half vs. second-half kind of construction, but the break isn't perfectly clean. The pop side and the experimental side interact with one another for the full running time, creating symmetry where it doesn't seem to belong.
A shorter description: "Revolution 20" is weird, serious, playful, and indulgent all at once (sounds like John, no?). Have a listen below. If nothing else, what a fertile and creative period for The Beatles, despite the friction and infighting. Somehow, their art was still soaring.
(If the video is removed, go here.)

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Book review: "Lucy in the Mind of Lennon"

While reading Tim Kasser’s Lucy in the Mind of Lennon, a slim but detailed “psychobiography” about John Lennon and the disputed meaning behind “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, I kept veering between two poles.
At many turns, I wanted to follow Kasser down the rabbit hole into Lennon’s messy, complex, deeply scarred psyche to glimpse behind the curtain of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. As much as the late Beatle has been written about and lionized over the years, he remains an extraordinarily compelling figure. Beyond the astounding talent and personal magnetism, Lennon was just so human (“insecure, anxious, and vulnerable” in Kasser’s sober estimation), and his life was riddled with fascinating twists and turns.
And then there’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. What a song! Weird, eerily cryptic, and bursting with psychedelic whimsy, “Lucy” is a first-ballot Beatles classic. In contrast to much of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it has aged quite well.
If these winning elements are in place, then what accounts for my other reaction, which was wariness of Kasser’s analysis? The problem is an off-putting interplay that’s central to Lucy in the Mind of Lennon. Kasser isn’t some run-of-the-mill rock historian or professional Beatles fanatic. He’s a professor of psychology at Knox College in Illinois. Per the practices of a research psychologist, his approach to scrutinizing why Lennon composed “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” relies on statistical comparisons, the promiscuous use of charts, and data sets with names like “Standard Deviation of Recent Hit Songs”. It often has the feel of a plastic glove.
In essence, Kasser applies very clinical and invasive methods of inquiry to something that falls into the category of art. It's rock 'n' roll meets a psychology lab. For reasons that shouldn’t be hard to grasp, this jarring clash frequently left an unpleasant aftertaste.
The long and short of Kasser’s theory is that, when connected with Lennon’s distant and recent past, everything from the story, linguistic style, and word selections of “Lucy” to its key signatures and chord progression suggests that Lennon was addressing (though obliquely and at an emotional remove) his long-standing but long-suppressed hang-up with being abandoned by women. (“And she’s gone…”). This stemmed not just from the premature death of his mother, Julia, but in fact went all the way back to Lennon’s early childhood, when Julia was an on-again/mostly off-again presence in his life. The well-worn theories that involve LSD and the fanciful picture that Lennon’s son Julian drew aren’t dismissed outright, but Kasser instead ascribes them more of a facilitating function.
It’s a testament to my frustrating ambivalence about this book that, even as the form and feel of Kasser’s research steadfastly rubbed me the wrong way, I couldn’t shake how convincing and at times even illuminating parts of his argument were (his conclusion being no exception). The section that compares “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” to songs that Lennon wrote in subsequent years, from material off The Beatles to John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, is especially insightful. It appears to demonstrate the significant degree to which Lennon’s changing circumstances – Cynthia to Yoko, LSD to heroin, etc. – influenced if and how he confronted his separation demons. In novel fashion, Kasser makes sense of the tortuous journey from “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” to the bleak, raw, and harrowing likes of “Mother” and “My Mummy’s Dead”.
At the same time, there are many moments when Kasser overreaches in his examination or leans too heavily on a very mechanical and insular understanding of the songwriting process. Take his observation that because the imagery John chose for “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” doesn’t better reflect the “typical” experience of an acid tripper, it undermines the LSD theory. Even if you accept the notion of a “typical” acid trip, who’s to say one or more of Lennon’s wasn’t wildly different because of any number of random variables? Or, even if “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was based on a “typical” experience, maybe the words he decided on for the lyric were the product of multiple influences operating on him at once. Like too much of the book, it’s all so overdetermined, so biased toward order, so A must yield B must yield C. Kasser rarely gives any weight to chance, chaos, and the unpredictable.
Some interesting questions arise: How comfortable are you with the idea of an artistic creation being so thoroughly probed and explained away that it can be reduced to a series of chartable findings? Does this rob art of its distinct magic? And, contra the conceit that everything has to bear deeper meaning and we should leave no stone unturned in arriving at a final interpretation, is there perhaps value in deferring to mystery for why specific words were chosen or how a melody was constructed? The overarching question seems to be: What is the appropriate intersection of scientific inquiry and art?
How you respond to these questions may be a reliable gauge for how much stock you’ll put in Lucy in the Mind of Lennon.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

"It's contrapuntal, man!"

I'm open to correction, but it strikes me that the most talked-about Beatles song of 2013 has been "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!." Weird, no? It owes to Paul's (questionable) decision to dust off the Sgt. Pepper's circus curio for his current tour. In my humble opinion, it ill-fits the stage (follow the appropriate link here to arrive at your own conclusion). But I do salute Macca for keeping his set-lists fresh. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, he elaborated on the history of "Kite!" and the thought process that led to its resurrection. Interesting remarks.
You've added a few new Beatles songs to the set – "Lovely Rita," "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" and "All Together Now." What's it like playing those live for the first time ever?
That's challenging. I mean, something like "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" is hard to do. Ask a bass player who sings. It's contrapuntal, man! It really is. I've got to sing a melody that's going to one place, and then I've got to play this bassline that's going to other places. It's a concentration thing. But that's half the fun of the show. I'm still practicing, still trying to figure it out, particularly on the new numbers. It's like, "How does this one go again?"
What made you want to revisit those particular songs?
Well, for instance, "Mr. Kite" is such a crazy, oddball song that I thought it would freshen up the set. Plus the fact that I'd never done it. None of us in the Beatles ever did that song [in concert]. And I have great memories of writing it with John. I read, occasionally, people say, "Oh, John wrote that one." I say, "Wait a minute, what was that afternoon I spent with him, then, looking at this poster?" He happened to have a poster in his living room at home. I was out at his house, and we just got this idea, because the poster said "Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite" – and then we put in, you know, "there will be a show tonight," and then it was like, "of course," then it had "Henry the Horse dances the waltz." You know, whatever. "The Hendersons, Pablo Fanques, somersets…" We said, "What was 'somersets'? It must have been an old-fashioned way of saying somersaults." The song just wrote itself. So, yeah, I was happy to kind of reclaim it as partially mine. But like I said, you've got to look what you're doing when you play that one.
Does it feel like you're coming full circle when you sing those words in front of these huge crowds after all those years?
You know, it's more a question of what a delight it is to finally play it. We played it when we recorded it – for instance, "Mr. Kite," when we recorded it, we laid down the track as a group, and then I put the bass on afterwards, as I often did in those days. So that gave me the opportunity to really think about the bassline and make it melodic. But, of course, if I'd have thought, like, "Tomorrow you're going to have to play this live," I don't think I'd have made it so complicated! "Day Tripper" was another one. I thought, "I just can't do it." It's like patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time. It's not that easy to do. You've got to practice up on that. I goofed it a million times in rehearsal. Then, finally, I just thought, "OK, wait a minute, I'll do that . . ." And I worked out how I was going to do it. So it's great for me, reviewing the past, and just thinking, "This is cool." It's still up-to-date. The combination of all of that makes it quite a joy to do.