Two books for Beatles nuts

Two books for Beatles nuts

It all started in my first year at college. I ran into a friend from school and asked him what he was doing with himself. The response—listening to the Beatles—caused me to say something that was innocent yet regrettably uncool. The magic words were “Aren’t they really ancient?” He laughed. Something about the look on his face stayed with me and I grew determined to find out what the fuss was about.

This was 1989. Deciding to listen to a band and getting down to it were events with a necessary distance intervening. Funds had to be found; the question of which album to buy called for research of the Before Google variety; and then an expedition had to be made up and down Brigade Road to the few legit cassette shops and the greater number offering pirated tapes. This process was elongated a little bit by the rules I had made for myself. A purchase could be made only after the parikrama had been properly completed.

I couldn’t find a single album by the band.  One pavement-wallah had a Greatest Hits in his satchel, but I had been in college long enough to learn that this wouldn’t do.  The HMV store had a slightly more respectable double cassette compilation titled The Beatles 1967-70 and I parted with the sum of Rupees Sixty Six only.

When I played the tape, I began in media res, in my eagerness to be mowed down by their sound. And so the first thing to issue forth was Back in the USSR from Cassette Two.  The effect was underwhelming: the lyrics made no sense; the singers seemed intent on swallowing every third word; and the dratted number had a fade-y shortwave radio feel about it. I examined the liner text to see if there had been a mix-up. There hadn’t, but no other help was forthcoming from that quarter. The cover had the four gents looking down a stairwell, with unreadable expressions on their faces.  There was nothing left to do but go back and listen to it again. And again.

A form of occasional bounty gradually began to fall from the skies, making me feel much like some grateful islander in a cargo cult.  A classmate with Gulf affiliations had a copy of their Rubber Soul which I fell upon.  Another had a horde of mix-tapes of unknown provenance where bits and pieces of their work and that of their contemporaries could be found. The school friend had a sister in Singapore who sent him all their albums. A solo album or two by Lennon or Harrison would turn up quietly now and then. 

 Such bounty continued to rain down in other forms. One day, at the British Library, I found the authorised biography by Hunter Davies and read it several times. A few weeks later, quite unbelievably, I found in a City Central  Library branch  a copy of The Love You Make, a behind-the-scenes account of the band’s rise and fall by Peter Brown, their Mr. Fix-It, and Steven Gaines. I still wonder about the invisible official hand which signed off on that purchase for a government library.

The world now groans under the weight of scholarship about and biographies of the Beatles, and yet is these two that are to be treasured. The Davies biography is inscribed with the great sympathy that is possible only when author and subject are from the same small-town universe and recognize each other across that expanse with wonder. He revises it about once every two decades, and has time for more wonder.  The Peter Brown book has its genesis in his knowledge of them as everyday people. Davies writes a bright, airy fairy tale of globalization, while Brown and Gaines collaborate on a dark tragedy of hubris, decline and fall against that same backdrop of a world made smaller.

A year after said bounty, on returning to Back in the USSR, I could hear other things—the parodies of Chuck Berry and The Beach Boys and oblique commentary on the  Cold War that spared neither side.  I found also that the tapes I began with were called the Blue Album, and were intended as companions to The Beatles 1962-67, also known as The Red Album. That set somehow never turned up.

What could a band from faraway Liverpool that had started to fall apart in 1969 possibly offer a young student in Bangalore two decades later, or now, even more improbably?  There are two or three half-answers I can think of

In persisting with The Beatles, I began a sensory education quite unlike anything any institution had to offer. The first thing to filter through was a subtlety of tone—a capacity to get words and music to serve whimsy and wryness, in sharp contrast to the saccharine sameness that seemed to connect everything pop or the irony deficient earnestness that was sufficient to sanctify everything educational. Their lyrics could thus extend the allegory of power from Lewis Carroll’s Walrus and the Carpenter into I am the Walrus, or ask the question What do you see when you turn off the light? and make the response I can’t tell you. But I know it’s mine.

The year was indeed 1989, and history suddenly unfroze that year and turned into a torrent that swept away much that had seemed solid—the USSR, and a certain way of doing politics in India— with the same speed at which it brought an unkinder right-wing rhetoric, much free-market triumphalism, and a more urgent identity politics in response to these loud claims.  Somehow, it was in the Beatles’ arch commentary, in words such as Living is easy with with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see. that it seemed possible to find a vocabulary by which you could temporize, or resist.

Their primary achievement, however, was to find a way of holding in balance being local and Liverpudlian, while learning to take their place in the world.

Somebody younger will have to visit their music to tell us if these things are still true today.

A Change is Gonna Come — Sam Cooke

American singer-songwriter Sam Cooke wrote the civil rights anthem A Change is Gonna Come in 1964 after experiencing racist humiliation at a motel where he and his band members were to put up.

It is one of the most important songs of our time, for its simple but deeply reflective take on the longing for freedom in every human soul. 

Wildly popular in the 1950s, Cooke is said to have been initially reluctant to write such a song fearing backlash from his white fan following. Much moved, once Cooke reportedly remarked about Bob Dylan's Blowing in the Wind: "Jeez, a white boy writing a song like that?"

Regarded as one of the greatest proponents of soul, even nicknamed 'King of Soul', Cooke would inspire Aretha Franklin, Bobby Womack, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.

Lyrical, profound and prophetic as it sounded then, A Change is Gonna Come, calling for the greater brotherhood of man, is immensely relevant to the state of affairs here at home and the world at the moment.

Cooke has been praised by critics as "the inventor of soul music, with an incredible natural singing voice and a smooth and effortless delivery that has never been surpassed."

Nevertheless, hope, too, just never fades, as the song suggests. Cooke died in a bizarre 'shooting' incident aged 33.

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