Saturday, November 27, 2021

On Get Back: "to wander aimlessly is very unswinging"


Watching Peter Jackson's extraordinary if overlong documentary Get Back felt a bit like living a waking dream. As the Beatles began slogging through seemingly endless rehearsals, that vibe dissipated a bit. Such is the considerable, paradoxical charm of Get Back: rarely has tedium been this exciting to witness. Sifting through hundreds of hours of film, Jackson and his crew had some tough decisions to make: what to include that might capture the mood of a great pop band's rehearsals and recording sessions, what to exclude that would bog down the film. On the main I think that Jackson made good calls throughout; though I quibble with the multi-screen editing during the final rooftop sequence, I think in the end it worked well to dramatize the on-edge simultaneity of the performance, the arrival of the police, and the spontaneous reactions of the folks on the streets. The video and audio upgrades of the original film stock and the Let It Be film are superb: the Beatles are near and intimate, they sound great, and you've pulled up a chair next to them.

What I question is Jackson's lopsided approach to performance-versus-down time: though it was a joy to watch and listen to the well-known songs come into shape, I would have liked to have eavesdropped much more than we do on the Beatles as they warmly reminisced about the past or absently dealt with the very real present. A few conversations stand out for me: Paul remembering the band's '68 visit to India and the Maharishi was couched more as a bemused take on the guys' inability to "be themselves" while at Rishikesh, Paul and John laughing while recalling John's deferent, studious manner around the Guru. Typically, George demurs, thoughtfully remarking that the guys never really got it: “We went there to find our true selves, not to be ourselves.” Earlier, the guys crack themselves up while remembering substitute drummer Jimmy Nicol ogling the girls from his drum riser and simultaneously blowing the entrance to "She Loves You." They also seem to light up when discussing their years in Hamburg or while recalling early, nerve-wracking gigs. 

And the conversations about music and songs were at times more interesting than the songs that they were playing: at one point Paul is mulling over an arrangement, worrying aloud that certain chords have become passé, or as he puts it, so “two years ago,” like "drainies," or drain pipe trousers, a fascinating glimpse into the connections between a song and the culture into which it's born. (For his part, George disagrees with Paul.) And it was also fascinating, and hilarious, to learn that the emotionally burdened "Carry That Weight" began as a jokey song that Paul had written for Ringo to sing, a la "Act Naturally," about a guy with a hangover following a row with his wife! As for the "Get Back" project itself, it was sobering to see the lights in the band members' eyes dim whenever talk turned to practical, deadline-driven matters—is this a TV show, a live performance abroad, a new album?—as an air of listlessness and ennui overwhelmed the room. Even the organized, task-oriented McCartney looks lost more often then not. During these desultory conversations, the guys' avoidance of each other's eyes was as telling as the joyful eye contact made during spirited moments of performance.

The Beatles often played superbly in January '69 and it's a treat to hear Abbey Road and some future solo songs given a try-out, yet just as often their tossed-off cover songs, or the snatches of them we hear, and the ad-libs feel forced and self-conscious (though their rockin' rip through Gary U.S. Bonds's "New Orleans" sounded really good; I want more of that one). This is not entirely the group's fault—all bands to varying degrees need to warm up toward a collective pulse, and for the Beatles the conditions for playing, especially in the first part of the film, were less than inspiring—but I'm not sure we needed to hear quite as many rehearsals as we did at the expense of intimate chit-chat and conversations that might've been more revealing. (Perhaps Jackson and company used all of the valuable conversations t o which they had access, though I doubt that). The legend that the arrival of Billy Preston at the EMI studios improved the morale and mood of the sessions is here proven true: he's a delight to watch, whether he's genially jamming with the guys, adding warmth and richness (not to mention some grinning, funky syncopation) to their sound, or helping Harrison with his piano chords for his nascent "Old Brown Shoe." And the jam on Lennon's "I Want You" is fantastic—edgy, funky, and propulsive. Why has this track remained in the can? Preston's stylishly cool entrances into the studio alone are worth the price of Disney+.


There's a bit of retroactive foreshadowing I found myself guarding against as I watched Get Back, and it was like trying to stop the weather. The end was near and the band members were on the verge of going in separate directions, but those poignant, complicated facts weren't yet fully present in January of 1969. Though at times the band—well, mostly Lennon—looked visibly grumpy having to change moods from shallow goofing to serious attention paid to arranging and recording, they clearly took things earnestly enough to muster up the collective will needed to get through the songs—but it seemed uphill for them. As the band's rehearsing "Oh, Darling," John gets the news that Yoko Ono's divorce has come through; he's clearly elated, and yet as he sang the line "I'll never do you no harm," I know that he did in fact hurt Ono later in their relationship. Such knowledge of future unhappiness adds a melancholy dimension to many of these performances. I nearly wept watching John and Paul playing off of each other during "One After 909," knowing that this was one of the last times they'd joyously vibe off the immediacy of the moment as they channeled their young, earlier hunger to get on top, or just to simply play some rock and roll. That they swung on the rooftop as hard, and as professionally, as they did is testament to their tightness as a band. By the second half of the show John's rocking and grooving as hard as I've ever seen him.

At the risk of looking a gift horse in the mouth, oh, how I wish a film crew had been on hand at EMI in the Spring of 1966 as the Beatles wrote, rehearsed, and recorded Revolver, the boundary-pushing, epoch-changing songs of which are greater than what the band half-committedly delivered in '69 as the sun was setting. At the same time, I can't help but think that within a few months they'd be playing superbly again on Lennon's "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" and "Come Together," and I childishly wish that they had tried to keep it together for a few more years of recording. I'd forgotten that during these sessions they'd taken a stab at John's "Gimme Some Truth" and that Paul had whipped out an early "Back Seat Of My Car," among other songs that would appear on solo albums. Imagine what full-band arrangements and recordings of those songs might have sounded like?

Yet the center clearly was not holding, and I'm trying to pull the universe back in by the edges—impossible, and precious. Let the boys wander aimlessly and un-swingingly to their inevitable gloomy future. I'll gratefully watch.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Get your arms together

Everything I need in a song today, or just about any day. I hope that you and yours have a sweet, restful, and rewarding Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Little things

The poet and translator Brooks Haxton taught briefly at the University of Maryland in the mid-1980s, en route to his long tenure at Syracuse. As a sophomore, I was a student in his Introduction to Creative Writing course. He assigned The Voice That Is Great Within Us anthology, which in 1985 already felt like a hippy, of-its-era relic to me, yet I ended up really digging it. For one assignment Haxton had us each choose a poem to memorize and recite to class; I selected Frank O'Hara's "A Step Away From Them" because I worshipped New York City and I loved the observant, alive, streetwise voice in the poem, still do. I can recite most of it to this day. Haxton, Mississippi-bred, was a demonstrative, somewhat odd presence in class, with his bulging bug-eyes and his manic, lopsided grin, the theatrical ways he read the poems and stories aloud. I remember that at least one woman in the class was turned off by his behavior, but her distaste was beyond my emotional ken at the time; I think she felt he was a little creepy, the way he'd talk frankly about sex, in his poems and in other work. I loved him and his angular, excited energy, and stoked a crush on him throughout the semester.

I wrote a bit about choosing that O'Hara poem a couple of years back, but I've been thinking more about Haxton lately as the semester, an overall difficult one, comes grinding to a close. What I most fondly recall was a single, small conversation I had with him on campus as we strolled the large green that sprawled at the foot of McKeldin Library. We were both heading to our respective classes, and I think we'd surprised each other on the way. I remember clumsily if earnestly raving to him about Jack Kerouac and The Beats, with whom I was still besotted, in particular Kerouac's Spontaneous Prose theory, which I perceived as a kind of holy writ. Haxton listened and smiled gently as I enthused, and I could sense then that his style in class was in fact a bit of a performance; here, with me, he was thoughtful, dialed-back. He agreed with me about Kerouac, but shared his skepticism of "first thought, best thought," and his feelings that revision, not spontaneity, was crucial in writing. I was crestfallen! And, naturally, I doubled-down and argued back. Revision wasn't sexy or punk rock; writing on speed at three in the morning was! Now, I know.... Then, I was too young and cocky, my horizon only feet away, to understand, or to care. I smile when I think of how kind he was to listen to a kid on his way to class when he might've preferred to be alone, how kind he was to hear me out and to take the effort to gently steer me toward a more sophisticated way of thinking about writing, and art.

The little things. The conversation lasted maybe a minute, yet I've never forgotten it, and one teacher's patience with, and interest in, an upstart. I try and pay it forward.

Photo of Haxton by George Tatge