Toast and Tea

Returning to plain old 2021 after visiting the Beatles’ 1969 is bringing me down with a pretty hard bump this week.

For one, I leave Peter Jackson’s eight-hour Thanksgiving weekend Disney+ juggernaut The Beatles: Get Back with an overwhelming desire to consume tea with milk, toast, and marmalade. Even as I type this. Because the first thing we learn in these films is that, whatever other addling or clarifying substances they may have on board, tea and toast is home base for these lads. Their small staff includes one young man whose entire role seems to be ensuring tea and toast appear at their elbows every hour or so. When they decamp from Twickenham Studios to the basement of the Apple building on Savile Row, he is briefly joined by two young women similarly tasked — perhaps part of some Beatles-tea-and-toast-provision candystriping program. It is a serious commitment for them, and they clearly know something I don’t know. So let’s have some, and see what unfolds.

More seriously, the film is really doing chronological violence to me. Mainly because the fractious events of “Get Back” take place in January 1969. I was born six months after these events, eleven days after the moon landing and two weeks before Woodstock. Am I alone in dividing the events of the world between the unknowable past and the present I was nominally part of, even as a mewling babe? I remember being obsessed with “when” I was in the world from very young. I quizzed my parents about the period depicted in “Happy Days” (oh early boomer nostalgia), and whether or not our plain-old seventies could ever be as musically and fashionably cool as apparently “the fifties” were (oh apparently yes, little me).

So none of this location / dislocation is helped at ALL by having one series of important-to-me musical events obsessively documented and digitally intensified until they roar into an uncanny resemblance to my current life. The enhancement of this fifty year-old footage is so high-res, in such creamy and vivid colors and textures, that I really feel I am meeting these four young (so young) men as easily as I might meet the members of Foo Fighters on a televised Grammy stage, or the members of Metallica in their own closely-filmed encounter with vanity and demons and hopes and fears. I feel like I am watching contemporary people discussing things they are very angry about with unfailing English reserve. And then an antique Coke bottle comes into frame, and I am reminded I am also watching men from an age when therapy meant analysis on a couch or ECT, and notions like “passive-aggressive” and even “resentment” weren’t really in play yet. Even though everyone involved is expert in their uses.

The reminder of “when” we are matters a lot to me as I watch their process unfold. Because for me the film is more than anything about how creating stuff really works, at least sometimes.

For one thing, the technology we accept so easily as being “rock and roll”…wasn’t. I look at George Harrison’s gorgeous chocolate Telecaster and remember the thing had been invented not twenty years earlier. It was as old as the iPod is to us; already with a rich history, for sure, but Keith Richards’ “open G” revolution on the same instrument wouldn’t happen until later that same year, I don’t think. It was still what Buddy Holly held strapped up high, not what gunslingers wore way down low (I know, he played a Strat, but still). The Fender Rhodes piano was just a couple of years into mass production. When the one Billy Preston plays on the date is unboxed, Lennon fiddles around on it and mentioned he has one from a a couple of years ago. but this one sounds better. It is breathtaking for a gearhead like me to see a new one; folks of my generation are used to seeing them, in the rare moments when we do, with bashed corners and dicky keys from decades of road wear.

And a brief conversation about how to tune one, with Preston pawing ineffectually at the front of the cover before giving up, is a touching reminder of how new the whole electrical music project really was. Eddie Van Halen wouldn’t hot-rod his Frankenstrat for another ten years. Who actually knows how this stuff works? Hendrix’s great leaps forward were two years old, barely assimilated even at the edge of the avant-garde. The huge pots on the state-of-the-art cobbled-together eight-track mixing desk; the primitive soundproofing and separation of tracks (“there’s amp in the PA, Glyn”); even the guitars left stacked around or falling off chairs (was the guitar stand not invented yet? Or are these youngsters just not good at taking care of their things?) — all suggest the unwieldiness of the technology. A naïveté about what it was, and what it could do.

It also points out that these musicians, in these moments anyway, were mostly unencumbered by the culture of studio manipulation and innovation that they helped create. They had already wandered into the deep dark endless woods of studio experimentation, starting just four years earlier. And a year for the Beatles was a decade for normal people. Consider: the release of “Sgt. Peppers” was a more recent event to 1969 them than the start of the COVID pandemic is to us. And they had already shrugged off both its psychedelic pretenses (well, some of the clothes were apparently still in their closets) and its studio tricks in favor of seeking something grittier and more alive than its exquisite corpse of tape loops and distortions.

This realization — that the stakes were super high for these sessions, and also that they cared not a bit for them (except Paul, who comes off as caring quite a lot about most things) — recasts their established genius as something both less and more than what it actually was.

First, that their “process” was extremely loose at this point, to put it charitably. Part of this is that they are hardened pros with unlimited resources and unconstrained time (the looming deadlines are regularly blown through, very little flop sweat in evidence). For these cats, in these weeks, hanging out IS working. This was certainly not the case in early days, when Epstein required them to lay down “Love Me Do” with another track in a three-hour evening session. Nor would it be the case in the “Abbey Road” sessions that start just a few weeks following these events, which George Martin agreed to produce only if more discipline was imposed.

But in Jackson’s storytelling choices, the looseness and endless meandering of old friends and musical colleagues usually seems an important part of what they are subsequently able to do in the live sessions that yield so many iconic performances. It is assumed that everyone knows a core of about a hundred fifties and early-sixties American rock and roll and English skiffle. These were the songs they played in the Cavern Club and Hamburg days, after all, and is the core DNA of their work as sure as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf was for the Stones. So John starting “Milk Cow Blues,” with both the original’s frame and Elvis’ Sun Sessions boogie take in play, and everyone else jumping in on it, is just assumed. It is part of being “an actual Beatle, don’t you know,” as John proclaims himself at one point. “Actual Beatles” know American rock and roll intimately and wear it like their own skin, Ike Turner and Everly Brothers and Chuck Berry and Bill Haley. And when you have nothing else to play, that’s what you play.

So much of what they did, at least here, depended upon a deep knowledge of that world’s conventions and traditions — and a willingness to goof on it, in funny voices and weird different feels, just for the fun of it. As a kind of prelude and bookend to Getting Down to Work. They sidle up to work, again and again, by dithering about on a song everyone knows. One just starts bashing away at it, and then they make fun of it or play it loose and weird (not unlike how Elvis recorded his Milk Cow, come to think of it — “Hold on fellas. That don’t move me. Let’s get real gone for a change”. Stagey, I know, but still feels real to me.) Then, sometimes, having shook out the cobwebs and got loose, they drop right into a take of the REAL song: the new thing that wasn’t working last time. They find their way, as I teach my writing students, by attacking the project from an angle it wasn’t expecting it.

Which gets me to the other realization. Yes, there is a lot of mucking around here. Yes, there’s the rediscovery that however these (again so young) men were irritating each other personally, they remained connected to an easy looseness in their playing together like you only can when you have for thousand of hours.

And despite that: they are not like you and I. They are more than buddies who deigned to get together to do it one more time before heading to their separate corners and careers and destinies. When their genius strikes it roars into the room and can’t be ignored. The timbre and strength of McCartney’s voice, his supple and inventive bass playing; the deftness of Lennon and Harrison’s harmonies; Harrison’s rootsy confidence in his guitar licks; especially (for me) the laconic-to-the-point-of-comatose feel and fills of Ringo’s extraordinary drumming, which he summons up after dozing behind the drums as the guitarists endlessly bicker. They were just better than us, folks. A million Guitar Center promises and YouTube tutorials to the contrary, not everyone can do what they did. They were special.

And this fact both stiffens my spine for my own creative efforts, and lets me off the hook. (Here’s the education tie-in, for this putatively education-focused blog):

— It is okay that when I try to play guitar, I don’t sound like The Beatles. They are better than me. And isn’t that marvelous. Isn’t that wonderful. The same is true when I sit down to write, or to read something hard. Or when you do. We are not the best in the world, but we get to play in the same sandbox. Like McCartney says gazing down at a piano: “The great thing about the piano is that there it all is. There’s all the music ever … All that’s ever been written is there.” And we all get to break off our little piece and be in there on the same blank page, the same fretboard.

— It is okay not to engage and subdue the enemy that is your present task head-on. Goof into it sometimes. Play what you already know first for a while, and mess around with it. Get loose. Sing “she attracts me like a cauliflower” until you have something else. Get real gone for a change. And then surprise yourself by catching what is perfect when it finally appears.

Don’t go it alone. I didn’t really watch for the interpersonal dynamics: is Paul a control freak, is John a difficult genius, all that. The answers all seem to be yes and no anyway. Because people are difficult. But people coming together can do things people alone cannot do. And the more time we spend with each other leaning against things we really care about, the better we get at it. McCartney describes Lennon the way Keith Richards does Mick Jagger: no, they were not always friends. They hated each other sometimes. But they were tied together more deeply than friendship could name, because they spent so much time in close quarters working on things that matter to them both. (Performing “joint productive activity” with an eye to “propinquity,” as the sociocultural education theory calls it.) Friends aren’t people you have a lot in common with and get along with, at least not only: they are people you go through stuff with. So find some people and go through some stuff with them.

— Finally, mostly: nothing is ever really done. It is just due. Watching these hours of jamming and rehearsal in hindsight means always listening for the songs I know so well: listening for the “right version” to finally emerge. For Harrison to teach Ringo the bridge on “Octopus’s Garden” (Go to the minor! The minor! It’s right there!), or for Paul to finally figure out that Jojo left his home in Tuscon Arizona. The experience is not unlike using a digital guitar tuner, most of which have a kind of floating bubble that drifts left and right, flat and sharp, until you dial in the “correct” 440 Hz pitch and are rewarded with a green light or a ding or something satisfying. I got it! They got it! But that same tuner — at least on my middling instruments — drifts out again almost immediately. Even in the arc of the exact same plucked guitar note, the decay goes sharp. The “ding” of “getting it” doesn’t signal perfection: it just says, “Close enough! Let’s go with it!,” so we can move on. Similarly, the versions of “Get Back” and “Oh Darling” and “Let It Be” that we know are the ones that got chosen, the mixes that got approved or, sometimes, the last one left standing after the rest were discarded. They are not perfect; they are not final in any sense other than they are the ones that were good enough so everyone involved could move on. There’s a truth to be learned here about the balance between letting something go and continuing to tinker; a lesson many with unlimited resources never learn. But maybe the rest of us, who teach and who continue to learn, should. Turn it in, let it go. Move on. Give us more to see.

Which I now do, with this too-long blog post. Love art, make art, learn from art. May you find likewise in your own life today — with less toast and tea, perhaps, but however you find it or it finds you. And may we all know that, whatever we end up doing: we passed the audition.

Photo from seriously the entire internet this week.

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