The original inspiration for this piece came via my rockstar friend Alejandra, when she asked me to write something Beatles-related for her music blog as her band was getting ready to play a Beatles tribute show at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor. Fun fact: Nirvana played a concert at the Blind Pig in 1990, and in an MTV interview years later, Kurt Cobain cited it as his favorite place to play. The band comes into the piece itself a bit.
“‘Whenever I put the headset on now,’ he’d continued, ‘I really do understand what I find there. When those kids sing about “She loves you,” yeah well, you know, she does, she’s any number of people, all over the world, back through time, different colors, sizes, ages, shapes, distances from death, but she loves. And the “you” is everybody. And herself. Oedipa, the human voice, you know, it’s a flipping miracle.’ His eyes brimming, reflecting the color of beer.
‘Baby,’ she said, helpless, knowing of nothing she could do for this, and afraid for him.
He put a little clear plastic bottle on the table between them. She stared at the pills in it, and then understood. ‘That’s LSD?’ she said.”
–Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)
Sean Lennon singing in front of John Lennon and Yoko Ono:
“Do you need anybody? I need somebody to love. [Laughs] Do you need anybody? I need somebody to love. [Laughs] That’s my favorite song.”
John: “Very good.”
Sean: “Who was singing `I need somebody to love’? You?”
John: “Ringo, but Paul and I are singing with him.”
Ono: “What’s the song called?”
John: [Trying to recall] “What would you…um, um…”
Sean: “What would…”
John: “…you think about…what’s it called? I forgot what it’s called.”
Sean: “What would you think if I sang in a song.”
John: “Sang out of tune. [Pause] Oh, ‘A Little Help From My Friends’–that’s what it’s called.”
–from Michael Epstein’s documentary LennonNYC (2010)
“I’d barely finished living my childhood when show business started replacing my private and odd and fragmentary memories with its special, shiny, reconstituted versions.” –from the character Karen Hollander in Kurt Andersen’s True Believers (2012)
One reading is that the song presages the backlash and decline of the 1970s; that the narrator/man has already sold out, but has probably repressed it and is in denial about it. You can also read the protagonist as saying he never sold out. He could be highlighting the importance of maintaining effort in the face of difficulty; of incubating ideas in the face of reactionism, stagnation, and hebetude. It’s a fractured self for the coming Age of Fracture, signaling that we were in for a tough slog and occupying a liminal spacetime somewhere between a contested dream and a negotiated nightmare. It’s a metaphor for a purgatory and an open asylum; for a bomb shelter; for an inability to learn from the past; for the illusion of control; for the refusal to listen to the music and moment of the rights protests of the 1960s. One can also see a certain lightness here–a jocularity even; perhaps a diffusing of the social tension surrounding such fraught things. At his comprehensive Bowie blog, Chris O’Leary finds other meanings and themes worth considering.
Among the markers by the end of the decade of a meaner, harsher, and uglier society, marked by less fairness and more inequality, was the youth suicide rate passing the rate for all ages–suicide rate being a sensitive barometer for a how a society is doing. The same year, 1978, Bowie said in an interview that:
“You can see why I’m this way. It’s a product of those things happening out through there. What’s going on in the world? Pontifications I’d be pleased to make, but they hold so little validity. I’d rather blend them into a character. When I don’t have a character to play with, I stand in total ignorance of what’s happening around me. But not long ago my characters turned on me. It’s no small wonder that I thought I had done my sanity irreparable harm.”
The next year, Peter Sellers’ Being There suggested that we weren’t there and probably wouldn’t be for at least a while.
Nineteen seventy was the same year the Beatles broke up and started to fight with each other. After speaking with relative brightness to the possibilities of the 1960s, McCartney stayed on stage and became the Baby-Boomer Beatle; Harrison turned East and tried to maintain his own high standards; Ringo tried to stay relevant and remain a constant, proving endearing in the process. Lennon got frustrated, battled his own personal demons, had some househusband years, and wrote songs that were more personal and meditative.
Here’s Lennon talking about the Double Fantasy album:
“I am not aiming at 16-year-olds. If they can dig it, please dig it; but when I was singing and writing this and working with it, I was visualizing all the people of my age group, being in their 30s and 40s now–just like me–and having wives and children and having gone through everything together and singing to them. I hope the young kids like it as well, but I’m really talking to the people that grew up with me, and saying: ‘Here I am now. How are you? How’s your relationship going? Did you get through it all?’”
Lennon was shot in 1980 by a man with frustrated narcissistic tendencies and we began a False Orthodoxy period during which declining levels of empathy, increased stress, and other patterns of decline became locked in. In the middle of the decade, that rangy, merry prankster of an adolescent, the cultural touchstone Ferris Bueller, captured the inward turn that had taken place by repeating Lennon’s “I don’t believe in Beatles; I just believe in me.” In one recent telling, Bueller never actually escapes the suburbs, but instead gets bloated and domesticated there, grossly contributing to global warming with his SUV-driving.
We should avoid here a narrative of pure fracture and pure declension, since people did their utmost to keep things from getting worse and did establish important bulwarks. Yet action was circumscribed, as reflected unwittingly in the Ayn Randian Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” (1981), which talks about the protagonist “Riding out the day’s events,” which is to say, just maintaining or merely surviving, rather than achieving progress or making improvements. Like economic libertarians and political conservatives today, the song misdiagnoses what ails the body politic and mischannels frustration, though there are Rush band-member complexities. Providing hope is the fact that if we describe what a law or policy is actually composed of, and detail its likely effects and consequences, we get consistent majorities across a range of issues that take left-of-center, public-interest positions.
The False Orthodoxy period was followed by a still-ongoing period of Surreal Mental States, which included the realization by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama of the New Democratic agenda initiated by Jimmy Carter, helping to bring us all the way to oligarchy. Today, the culture is soaked in nostalgia and steeped in apocalyptic themes, reflections of our present deep dissatisfactions and unresolved anxieties. During this period, Nirvana did a cover of “The Man Who Sold the World” on MTV Unplugged, and Bowie did the song in 2000 at the Beeb, this time prophesying the Bush years. Trust and confidence in public institutions during this period have hit all-time lows. We continue to eat our seed corn and our young.
In Martin Scorcese’s documentary Public Speaking, Fran Lebowitz says the following:
“I believe that [the culture being soaked in nostalgia] must be caused by people my age. I mean, that cannot be caused by 17-year-olds. I mean, whosever in charge, whosever driving, they’re the one who has the accident. … There’s an endless recycling of the culture of the last thirty years that is really death-dealing, you know. I think it’s just horrible, really awful, you know, and that is a sort of change I would like to see. I think, that is a job of people who are young. That’s your job: do something new.”
Perhaps easy to say for a baby-boomer, but at least she has the accident report right.
Here’s Lennon again:
“So okay, now we’ve got a good rhythm going. We can roll a little more relaxed–let’s not turn into ‘I Am The Walrus’–it’s somewhere in between ‘I Am the Walrus’ and I am [unintelligible] Imagine. So it has to be a little laid back because he’s watching the wheels, he’s not actually driving the damn truck.”
I would like to think that there are productive purposes of nostalgia. It can feel like a salve, and its visions can feel like fever dreams working to expurgate and exorcise. It’s probably a double-edged sword in most cases.
In politically demobilized environments, art–and the political itself–is more easily appropriated, ignored, or otherwise rendered less meaningful or impactful. This places categorically undue burdens on the artist and the activist. So collective action is the thing, even if the meaning-making is generally hard and hard to come by.
As our resident juggernaut thethirdrevelation has pointed out, the music review genre is great because it features the liberal use of adjectives like chugging and juddering. The adjective I’d use for today is sputtering. Those undue burdens on the artist and activist include creating a sense of place and a renewed sense of purpose; of going once more into the fire even if we’ve already lost; of continuing to reach through to the other side even if we’re already dead.