(This was written in late 2011)
I was asked to write a short essay about my “Desert Island Album”-- the one album I couldn’t live without. Here’ goes:
I had mentioned this assignment in an e-mail to a friend, a man who is best summed up in the wordebullient in the sense not necessarily of cheerfulness but rather the one that tends to characterize boiling water. In his response he brought up the John Cusack vehicle High Fidelity, based on the Nick Hornby novel of the same title, in which the lead character runs a record store and has a habit making impromptu “top five” lists--albums, breakups, whatever. I mention the character of my friend only to pair it with the fact that he often High Fidelity-ized reality, pegging people in his life as a type defined in the film: this person as a “Dick” kind of person, or that one as a “Barry.” Why someone whom I’ve already associated with boiling water would choose to view his world through these glasses, tinged with their turn-of-the-century rom-com hue, is something that I have never really thought about because it so often turned out to be a fine way of coping with the variety of people one meets at music school. The friend had long ago identified me with John Cusack’s character, and so when I tried to come up with my top five albums for him, I was surprised at how un-promptly the list came.
I suppose the case is that I haven’t been experiencing music in the form of complete albums since I was pubescent. A few years ago, I decided to toss my lot in almost completely with classical music and now spend most of my music-listening and book-reading time preoccupied with the kind of Germans who make Brahms sound like Rossini. Most of the pop music on my iPhone can be found in a playlist called “aparty;” its contents are varied but the most heavily represented in Bowie, Motown, and the French pop star Camille. But albums? No, I like a few of their songs and am not even sure on which albums those songs are available.
The one album that I’d be willing to spend the rest of my life should be one that I already know has a severe lasting power over me, whose accessibility and lasting power has been proven in all periods and phases of my life. With the Beatles was an album that I’ve known before I knew anything else. The earliest home videos of me show me playing an air guitar along with it; one of my earliest musical memories was wondering how any human being could possibly summon the strength to strum a guitar as quickly as John Lennon does on “All My Loving.” My love for this album was in place before I knew of George Martin’s 4-track wizardry of Sgt. Pepper’s or about the pain which inspired John Lennon to write “Julia.” It was there even before I was aware that the songs George wrote for it were awful or that I would have to wait until the mid-60s before he would be redeemed. I was so thoroughly indoctrinated with With the Beatlesthat to now mark the parts of me which are naturally occurring from the ones which are there because of my having been steeped in its music is impossible.
The distinction must be made between With the Beatles and its American counterpart, Meet the Beatles!The tracks and their order are different on the American release: Meet, undeniably, has better songs. “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Saw Her Standing There,” and “This Boy”--a song on whose John Lennon’s vocals are so appealing and powerful that the bridge features them in double-tracked unison-- are the first three tracks. Hard to compete with that. But those songs’ strengths ultimately weaken the album. The fact that “It Won’t Be Long” opens With the Beatles is crucial for me, as after it I’ve never been able to refuse the album’s subsequent tracks. The energy contained in the song is astounding and infecting, and is best represented during the batch of “yeah!”s which accompany the final chorus. Here, we can hear Paul McCartney straining to place the middle “yeah” a minor-third higher than where we’re used to hearing it. The scoop up to pitch for him is imperfect and revealing, and you get the sense that its inspiration comes from the bubbling-over-with-excitement that the track exudes out all its pores. “All I’ve Got to Do” features John’s vocals at a level nearly on par with “This Boy,” but it is “All My Loving” which remains my favorite of the album. Listening to the song to determine why it has held me captive for so much of my life, I was startled to realize it did not appear so beautiful under close scrutiny: the vocals are not as inspired as the Lennon-led tracks which precede it; the falsetto “ooh” that McCartney adds to the second chorus appears to me now like a life preserver he’s thrown to keep the track from drowning. My love for “All My Loving” is the same kind shown by Harlow’s baby rhesus monkeys to their terrycloth mothers: it provides me with almost no means for subsistence but had the appearance, to a toddling me, of being all that I needed in music. The opening words of the song are famous for following more important ones-- “Ladies and gentleman: The Beatles!” -- and that association still produces goosebumps in this listener. The Beatles’ version of “Til There Was You” is still the song I request most when forced upon karaoke, and I’ve never excluded singing the guitar solo in my performances. The rest of the songs which I care for are also covers, the Marvalettes’ “Please Mister Postman,” Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven,” and Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got A Hold On Me.” After these, my interest in the album begins to wane, though that’s due more to the fact that I must start it from the beginning and have by that time gotten my fix. Regardless, its first half-hour captivates me more than any other complete record that I can think of.
There’s not an ounce of fat on With the Beatles. The whole thing clocks in under forty minutes, and even the atrocious “Don’t Bother Me” and “Not a Second Time” are well earned respites from the sensory overload produced in the surrounding songs. The mean track length is about two minutes, and there’s not an instance on the record in which I felt I wanted something to be over more quickly than it takes to be over, as to move on to the next song. There’s a comfort, a fits-like-a-glove quality, that the musicians have with each number that was hard-earned in the dingy nightclubs of Hamburg. These songs are ones whose performance provided the soundtrack to a number of drunken fisticuffs, whose origins stem not from clean-cut Epstein-ization of the band but rather from its days as leather-jacketed philanderers. With the Beatles is not the best album the band ever produced, but it is the one in which it becomes apparent for the first time that they were able to consistently write quality songs with a degree of originality not present in their earlier attempts. Moreover, it and I have a history which trumps rationality, the kind which some people have with girlfriends and that others have with Carmengias. Since I now seek out music which produces darker and more turbulent moods in me, it’s always been a relief to have With the Beatles as a safe and sunny harbor.