Friday, August 31, 2007

A little help from my friends

At the Guardian, Jonathan Lethem on the life of pop music:
The Fifth Beatle in particular haunted me like a ghost of crime, a Ross MacDonald investigation, where the fa├žade of a life in the present peels away to expose the wild truths of the past, the impostures - some of them brave, some shameful - on which our contemporary reality was founded.

Who was "Murray the K"? What was payola? Do you mean to tell me that someone had to be paid to play rock'n'roll on the radio, that something unfair occurred, that the music has bought its way into our hearts? The idea of payola was in itself easy to conflate with the idea of "the hook", or the "irresistible hit record", or "Beatlemania", the sense that pop was a kind of trick, a perverse revenge against the banality of daily life dreamed up collectively by 10 or 15 delta bluesmen and a million or 100 million screaming 14-year-old girls. Maybe if a killer hook was like a bullet or a drug or a virus, we all lived in a world permanently drugged or psychedelically sick with fever, or dead and dreaming, like characters in a Philip K Dick novel.

If so, I was grateful to live on the drugged, feverish or dead side of the historical trauma. On the side of conspiracy theories stood Sutcliffe, Best, Epstein, Voorman, Preston - this sequence of suspects who were also victims, seeming to indict the magic circle of four heroes of some wrongdoing or at least misrepresentation. But these "Fifth Beatles" also seemed to confirm the four in their status as iconic survivors - probably no one else deserved to be a Beatle, that might be the answer. And Bob Dylan, as Jimi Hendrix apparently knew, was your grandmother - full of gravelly authority and punitive conscience, nowhere near as fun, but titanically arresting - he was your grandmother in a wolf's costume, for certain.

But soon enough I, too, was engaged in a kind of game of reverent scepticism, a weird pursuit of exposing the flimsiness of the cartoon world I loved, as if testing its authority. I remember the day I learned Ringo's drumming was "bad". So bad Paul had done some of it for him. Then - I recall it as if it was the very next thing I learned, like geometry leading to algebra - I read somewhere the beautiful thought that Ringo's role was to be our surrogate in the band, the Beatle who was also a fan of the Beatles, in awe of the "real ones" from the nearest possible proximity. So maybe there was no Fifth Beatle, maybe there wasn't even a fourth! It was somehow inevitable to note next that George was given a free ride in the other songwriters' wake (yet you also could sense he was stunted or thwarted or cheated).

John explained bitterly that he wrote the hook to "Taxman", George's "best" song, just as Ray Davies was quick to note he helped his brother with "Death of a Clown", Dave Davies's greatest hit. So the sham notion of a "democracy of talent" within these great groups, with its analogous utopian implications for collective action, could dissolve into sour cynicism: the presiding genius probably could have done just as well with any other supporting cast. Or, paradoxically, the reverse: the urge to pronounce the solo careers so thin and cheesy that the magic was proven to be in the lucky conjunction of a bunch of ordinary blokes, raised temporarily above their station as much by history and our love as by any personal agency; if the Beatles didn't exist we'd have had to invent them, and perhaps we did. Maybe the search for the Fifth Beatle was always destined to end, like the list of Time magazine's Person of the Year, with the conclusion that the Fifth Beatle is YOU. For evidence, one only needs to listen to The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl. Here was music to ride like a froth of sea foam atop a tsunami wave of adulation and yearning for, well, itself. What were little-girl-screams if not the essential heart of the Beatles' true sound, the human voice in a karaoke track consisting of the band itself? Getting by with a little help from my friends indeed.

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