Day 523, November 30, 2021
On the evening of December 8th, it was late, after dinner, and we were at Uncle Sam’s house. The younger kids were asleep, and I was keeping myself company with the little transistor radio with fiddly reception so you always had to hold the antenna just so, or hold the antenna just so while adjusting the station dial with your thumb until the station came into focus across a field of static, distortion, and garbled alien communication.
I didn’t know much about the Beatles except that John was my man. My father had two non-classical albums in our house, one was Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, the other was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I remember playing with the cutout insert. I don’t think I ever succumbed to the compulsion to take out a pair of scissors. I was never good at cutting straight and probably would have botched it.
I also knew my friend Andy’s dad had every Beatles album ever pressed. After the divorce, Andy and his dad moved away to Cambridge in a big contemporary condo with a double tall living room with a paper dragon kite hung from the rafters. There was a burglar alarm system set by invisible lasers and a series of mirrors. I set that off numerous times trying to use the bathroom, or sneaking around where I shouldn’t be. Under the stereo were a series of milk crate sized cubbies. A good three or four of them were filled with Beatles albums. We were never allowed to take them out, but if we asked at the right time and Andy’s father was willing, he would put one on. And slowly, over a year or two of childhood sleepovers, I heard the entire Beatles catalog.
Back then, Yellow Submarine would play in regular rotation on TV. It was one of a series of movies that were adopted by broadcast television, like The Wizard of Oz, The Man Who Fell to Earth, West Side Story, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Turn on the television at any point in any evening, and one of these movies would be playing somewhere.
Yellow Submarine held all the perfect ingredients to capture the imagination and fascination of a young child. For me it was enchanting and a little scary. There was something about the psychedelic visions that were maddening, creepy, and at times slow and sleepy. But then the Beatles would show up and it was all fun and games. “I was born a lever-puller [pronounced Liverpoooler],” Ringo says as he pulls a lever he wasn’t supposed to touch.
So, while I didn’t have a deep intimate knowledge of the Beatles, they were a part of the fabric of my childhood. So, that night when I was at Uncle Sam’s listening to the little transistor radio and heard John Lennon had been shot and died, it felt like I had lost something tangible, like I was feeling my childhood slip away. The rest of the night they played Beatles tunes and I listened and mourned.
Watching Get Back felt like recapturing some of that innocence. While the Beatles themselves felt like wizened visions of themselves at a not so youthful 28, at this end of the spectrum, they still seem like they are just out of an extended childhood. They are playful. They get frustrated easily. And when they are on, they are truly marvelous and work as seamless unit.
One of my favorite things in Get Back is seeing how a song develops from a few misshapen chords and nonsense words sung in a not quite formed melody, and after a lot of tea, cigarettes, and an amazing dose of Billy Preston, the song becomes one of the iconic songs of the Beatles, of that era, and of my childhood.
On Sunday, I got to go into the studio at Sonelab with The Original Cowards to cut some of the basic tracks for a new album. We don’t have the luxury of EMI backing us for an extended multiple week session, instead we crammed as much as we could into one day from 9 am to 6:30 pm, and John and Justin kept going beyond that. Even limited to that one day, it felt wonderful to be immersed in music all day long. Driving out of the parking lot, my fingertips tingled in that way fingertips feel when they are almost, but not quite blistered. It has been a long time since I’ve played that much music. We were productive and ended up with seven songs in the can, which may not sound like much to the layperson, but it takes a lot of focused work with multiple takes. It was exhausting, but it felt good. It made me chuckle to think of doing that for two, three weeks straight. “Mal,” I wanted to call out. “Could you get me one of those cowboy ties?”