I know: the question has been asked many times before. But I’ve been thinking about the Beatles lately because I had a call recently from one of America’s great writers on contemporary music, Tim Riley, who wrote an a near-perfect book called Tell Me Why, which is really a series of brilliant short essays about Beatles songs.
Gracefully written essays that treat the songs with a trained musician’s ear, not just as poetic texts to decode but as songs that achieve that evanescent alchemical fusion of word and music in which the lead and leadenness of type on a page is transmuted into gold on the stage. Or in the groove.
Riley amazingly both knows how this works and can articulate it better (on the Beatles anyway) than anyone I’ve read. While so many other writers (surprise!) reduce musicians to their words.
Anyway, he was telling me he’d completed a draft of his much anticipated John Lennon book, seven years in the making, and if there’s anyone I want to read on the subject it’s Riley because he knows the music inside and out.
In the course of our discussion he spoke almost ecstatically about the remastered reissues of the classic Beatles albums and how much there was to discover in them, so as soon as we hung up I hied myself to my next door Borders (no product placement fee), found the remasters, and decided to buy one at a time. But which one? It came down to Revolver, Rubber Soul, or Let It Be.
I have an indelible memory of seeing the film Let it Be when it was first released. An experience that’s imprinted itself on my soul, it was that movie, more than the album, but on the other hand, “Two of Us” may be one of the greatest Beatles songs ever. One of the most beautiful love songs, one of the greatest road songs. And I love Rubber Soul. “Nowhere Man.” “”In My Life.” “If I Needed Someone.” But there’s the obstacle of the impossibly syrupy “Michelle,” which I just can’t stand.
So I bought Revolver and I’m glad. I’m just thinking of two songs that comprise the pure heart of Beatlism, or the heart of pure Beatlism, or the most Beatlistic; don’t make me decide.
It’s Lennon singing lead on “And Your Bird Can Sing” followed by McCartney singing lead on “For No One” — this is truly the pure thing they had. What pure thing it’s hard to define. I lack Riley’s musicological vocabulary, but it’s interesting that both songs are very different kinds of love songs. Even though Lennon in his way is putting down the girl who says she’s “seen seven wonders,” portraying himself trying to act superior to a woman whose indifference and independence have driven him crazy.
And McCartney’s “For No One”: maybe his best song. So spare, heartbroken, unembellished like “Michelle” or “Yesterday.” “The day breaks/Your mind aches…” The two songs would somehow communicate what the Beatles were to an alien race a thousand years in the future.
I have a fond memory of being in the same room with John Lennon once. In the control room of an East Village studio where he and (yes) Bob Dylan were both at the sound mixing board trying to make a pop song our of David Peel’s rant “The Pope Smokes Dope.” They did it too.
There was something genuinely touching about the tenderness with which Lennon treated the crude ballad of the self-proclaimed street singer. No condescension. Just a working man doing a job for a mate.
He was crazy, sure. But I admired the guy. Can ‘t wait to get Riley’s take on him.
Meanwhile, anyone want to make a case for a different best Beatles album? Or best Beatles song?