[the palaverist]

Thursday, September 24, 2009

[memory, history, and the beatles]

What does it mean to remember an experience? Sitting with my parents recently, listening to the Beatles remasters that just came out, it became clear that what my parents remembered about the Beatles — the order things came out, which songs were on which albums — was a kind of visceral memory, often inaccurate when measured against the archival record. My father compared it to the way people of his parents' generation remembered World War II versus the way he grew up learning about it: they knew better what it was like, while he knew better what had actually happened.

Time also has a way of distorting our views. I know that I take Kurt Cobain a lot more seriously now than I did when he was alive. Until his suicide brought his art back into focus for me, I thought of Nirvana as a pretty good if simplistic and overhyped grunge band that was never as cool or interesting as Soundgarden or Pearl Jam. He wasn't the voice of my generation until he no longer had a voice.

That effect is probably even stronger with the Beatles, who shaped a generation far more intensely than Cobain ever could have. In the many years since the Beatles were a going concern, we've seen Wings, and Plastic Ono Band, and the Concert for Bangladesh. We've seen The Compleat Beatles and Anthology. We've heard Let It Be de-Spectorized. We've seen John Lennon martyred, and Yoko Ono transformed from witch to hipster icon. And we've grown more familiar with the canonical materials, while the uncollected detritus of abandoned pop culture — radio and television interviews, DJ chatter about new Beatles songs, the speculation of one's friends about whether the Beatles turn on, the newspaper and magazine articles — all fade into oblivion.

Above all, we know how it ends now. We know that Sgt. Peppter's Lonely Hearts Club Band is the highwater mark, that Abbey Road is the coda. We know that no Beatle ever did anything solo that was as impressive as the Beatles together. And we know that the story was closed forever by a pointless murder.

But what was it like to here "Tomorrow Never Knows" without knowing what was to come?

Sitting with my parents, listening to their memories of these songs when they were new, I got a taste of what that might have been like. And that got me to thinking about my own first experience of the Beatles.

Until 1987, what we had were the records — the American records. I grew up with an album called Song, Pictures and Stories of the Fabulous Beatles, a decidedly silly repackaging of Vee-Jay's Introducing... the Beatles that included a gatefold, drawings of the Beatles, blurbs on their likes and dislikes, and places to put heart-shaped photographs of oneself under photos of each Beatle and the words, "JOHN LOVES," "PAUL LOVES," "GEORGE LOVES" or "RINGO LOVES." It was a record meant to be bought by a schoolgirl, and it was, and that has some meaning to it.

What changed in 1987 was that the surviving Beatles and George Martin released something resembling the whole Beatles catalogue in what became canonical form, based on the British albums, with the stray bits and pieces gathered onto Past Masters I and II. I say something resembling the whole because they did away with the instrumental versions of several songs that populated the American versions of A Hard Day's Night and Help!, and because all of the canonical CDs were in stereo. To muddy the waters even further, in 1987 George Martin took it upon himself to redo the stereo mixes of Help! and Rubber Soul, so we've been listening to different versions of those LPs than the already somewhat obscure British stereo records.

The newly released remasters are a useful corrective. The music sounds grand, which is obviously the most important thing. I don't imagine that it sounds quite like a brand new pressing of British wax played on a brand new hi-fi from 1965 — certainly not when I play it on my iPod, through quality earbuds — but it sounds clear, resonant, full, and punchy.

And the release of the mono remasters, complete with the original stereo mixes of A Hard Day's Night and Help!, makes it possible to hear something much closer to what everyone heard when the Beatles' music was new. For the first couple of albums, the stereo mix is pretty arbitrary, mostly an artifact of how the music was recorded for mono: the vocals are all in the right channel, and the instruments are all in the left. I'd go so far as to say that Please Please Me and With the Beatles are actually preferable in mono, even on headphones.

There's also the peculiarity that certain songs have different bits in them, depending on whether you're listening to the mono or the stereo version. The Sgt. Pepper that played endlessly on the radio was probably the mono version, in which "She's Leaving Home" is a faster number in a different key, avoiding some of the soupiness of the stereo version, and the reprise is noisier, layered with more crowd noise and crescendoing with some great shouting by Paul that's missing in stereo. (In other cases, the stereo versions are better. Who wants to miss out on Paul reaching for the high notes as he sings, "Every single day!" during the fadeout of "Got to Get You Into My Life," or Ringo's famous "I've got blisters on my fingers!" as "Helter Skelter" fades back in?)

Getting to hear all this music, in a variety of formats, is wonderful. And it's not too difficult to create a playlist that recreates the American discography (although you do have to live without those instrumentals).

So what's the difference? Well, often the songs were in different orders, and the whole experience of the early Beatles was shaped by the overlapping releases of Introducing and Meet the Beatles!. The latter album, which launched American Beatlemania, opens with the world-conquering "I Want to Hold Your Hand," but leaves out "Twist and Shout" (not released by Capitol until The Early Beatles came out in 1965).

Even more significant were the changes to the middle-period albums, which were my parents' favorites, and whose structure and release schedule helped to map their courtship and coming of age. The now-canonical albums aren't the ones my father remembers. Help! opened with a James Bond theme intro (not digitally available), and was full of instrumentals. It didn't contain Yesterday, which wasn't on a US album until after Rubber Soul.

And it's maybe Rubber Soul where the changes matter most. My father remembers that record as part of his experience of traveling around Europe in the summer of '66, being in love with my mother. In the US, it opened with Paul's lovely, folkie "I've Just Seen a Face," not the smirky "Drive My Car." Side two opens with "It's Only Love," a considerably sweeter number than "What Goes On." And the dark moods of "Nowhere Man" and "If I Needed Someone" are left off completely. The result is an album that has a different ratio of love to chagrin. There's a different vibe.

Then there's the whole sea change that seems to come with Revolver. In the US, that change was spread out over two albums, with "Yeterday"...and Today coming first, opening with "Drive My Car," "I'm Only Sleeping," "Nowhere Man," and "Dr. Robert," and closing out with "Day Tripper" (not found on any UK album). In America, Revolver was a bit less trippy than in the UK, and provided almost a lull in the psychedelic experimentation before the summer of Sgt. Pepper and love in 1967.

Somewhere in my parents' house is a reel-to-reel recording of my parents calling in to a radio show and chatting with John Lennon while they were tripping on LSD. I'm not entirely sure whether I've actually heard this tape, or just heard of it. I can't remember what anyone said. But this sort of relic reveals the unbridgeable gulf between the canonical text and the lived experience. No one will ever release a handsome boxed set of snippets like that. But chatting with John on the radio was another kind of listening to the Beatles. I'll have to dig up that tape one of these days and find out what, if anything, they talked about.

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