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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Let it Be: The Gospel According to the Beatles (A Musical Program)


A few years ago I put together a musical revue night at our church based on the music of the Beatles.  Our various musical groups (praise team, vocal ensembles, recorders, and even our puppetry group) each shared their talents in this program.  What follows is my presentation script for the evening.  I wish that we had a recording of the evening and our performers, but alas...

When We Were Fab
It would be impossible to overestimate the impact four lads from Liverpool, England have had on our world and culture.  Collectively John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Star (Richard Starkey) were the musical voice of a generation, yet their music transcends a single generation and is loved by countless millions still today.   My son and daughter sing along to their songs some 40 years after they were recorded. They recorded music together for a short ten years, but still these many years later we’re still listening to them.  Their albums and movies, and CDs and poster and merchandise continue to sell.  It was a rare combination of immense talents – that when combined was even greater than the sum of its individual parts.

I didn’t really grow up with the Beatles.  By the time I was born in 1975 the Beatles – as a musical entity – had already ceased to exist.  I vaguely remember John’s murder in 1980 by John Chapman, but I really don’t know why that event would have lodged itself in my memory.  My parents didn’t really listen to popular music and the Beatles weren’t regularly heard in our house.  I did know some of their songs, but only through the radio or television.  In junior high school I began to hear from my friends about the great music of the Beatles, but still they didn’t connect for me.  But then in high school, under the tutelage of my friend, classmate, and neighbor, David, I really began to plumb the depths of the Beatles catalogue.

David played the Abbey Road album for me and I realized, “I know some of these songs.”  I had sung Octopuses Garden in elementary school music class, without knowing it was the Beatles.  Then he pulled out a vinyl recording of the so-called “White Album” (Officially titled “The Beatles”) and played Revolution #9, that weird mess of noise that can only loosely be considered music.  And then we played it backwards as he told me about the “Paul is Dead” hoax and we listened for that disembodied voice that would supposedly say, “Turn me on, dead man.”  We never found it.

In recent years my appreciation for their music has grown even more.  I’m constantly impressed by their genius – and that’s really the only word for it, despite sounding cliché and overused.  It is an absolute.

And more than the music – I’m impressed by their search for something more.  As I said, I didn’t grow up on the 60s. I never saw a hippy.  (I’ve only ever seen aging hippies, or former hippies.)  So I don’t’ really know what it was like to be alive during those turbulent times when everything seemed to be in the air, in the middle of flux and change, on the brink of riotous turmoil of rock and roll and revolution.  But, really, has there ever been an age that hasn’t felt that upheaval?  Today’s world – though radically different from that of the 60s – is still dealing with the same fundamental human issues, particularly the search for meaning, the search for something more, the search for the transcendental, that which goes beyond our ordinary, everyday sort of life. 

And that’s what I want this evening’s Let it Be: The Gospel According to the Beatles program to be about:  A musical search for transcending truth, for the beautiful, for the pure and holy. 

Before we get too far along, I should make a disclaimer.  The Beatles were not Christians.  To be sure, the Beatles were not Christians, and their lyrics – as skillful and beautiful as they are, are not sacred, inspired texts.  Although essayist Matthew Schneider has said that with the inclusion of printed lyrics on the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, “the lyrics…acquire[d] the stable, fixed status of sacred text, which [could] now be pored over and studied with the kind of Talmudic intensity that the Beatles knew their fans possessed (Turner, 2).” However, since truth is where you find it, and just as the apostle Paul was able to find a smidgeon of truth in the idolatrous statues of the Greeks at Mars Hill, we can also find dollops of Truth – with a capital T – in the songs of the Beatles.

Also, I should point out that the Beatles – especially John – disliked the tendency of their fans to read into their music all sorts of wild interpretations.  Charles Manson and his “children” n California did that with horrifying results.  John Lennon once received a note from a schoolboy who said that his teachers were using the lyrics of Beatles songs as examples of poetry.  Lennon then composed the nonsensical I am the Walrus with its surreal and repulsive images, “yellow matted custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye,” and said, “Let’s see what the fuckers make of that.”

That said, tonight’s program does not claim to represent the thoughts of the Beatles.  Instead it is largely my own attempt to view the world through a seemingly disparate pair of lenses:  the music of the Beatles and the word of God as found in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.  Sounds crazy, right?  It could be, but “let me take you down, ‘cause I’m going down….”

I know. I know. I know.  There was that whole “more popular than Jesus” thing that really irked a lot of people and tended to set John (and the Beatles) against God and religion, but as John attempted to explain later, “I am not anti-God, anti-Christ, or anti-religion. I was not saying we are greater or better.  I believe in God, but not as one thing, not as an old man in the sky.  I believe what people call God is something in all of us.  I believe that what Jesus and Mohammed, and Buddha and all the rest said was right, it’s just that that translations have gone wrong.”

I don’t subscribe to his opinion that Jesus, Mohammed, and the Buddha and all other religious teachers had equally true messages (though I believe that some truth can be found in them all); I firmly believe that Jesus is, as he said he was, the only way.  But John’s thought that “what people call God is something in all of us” really registers with me – in much the same way that Paul’s message on the Areopagus did:

“Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.  For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.  Now what you worship as something unknown, I am going to proclaim to you.” (Acts 17: 22 – 23)

There’s something of the religious unknown, the numinous in John’s writing and in the songs of the Beatles, that while they themselves may not have been aware of what it was, we can see and know that they were connecting with the mystery of God.

This will not be a chronological retrospective of their work – beginning with their earliest hits and moving steadily forward through their many recordings.  Instead it will be a thematic progression from darkness to light, for the depths to great heights.  And while this won’t be a chronological journey through their music, it is curious that their earliest gigs were held in a basement club called The Cavern.  It was dark.  It was crowed and it smelled of stale cigarettes and sweat.  This is where we will begin.

The earliest songs of the Beatles were cliché-ridden expressions of puppy love or adolescent macho posturing; lyrically they were mindlessly simple. “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah. She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.”  Their rhymes tended to be of the moon/June, love/dove variety.  “Love Me Do,” their first single, consisted of 121 words – 22 of which were “love.”  These early songs were all about boy/ girl relationships and the Rock and Roll search for fame and fortune.

But while the lyrics may have been incredibly simplistic or even irrelevant, the music they created was not.  They composed incredible melodies and sang intricate harmonies that musical scholars still study.  Their chord progressions were not the simple I-V-IV patterns of popular music.  As untrained musicians they didn’t know that they were singing Aeolian E Minor or Diatonic G Major chords.  They didn’t know that “A Hard Day’s Night” contained “oscillations between a latent tonic of C and the flat seventh triad of B flat before the answering phrase balanced the modality with descending chromatics (Turner, 3).”  They just knew that they were making good music.  And their millions of screaming fans agreed.

An acoustical engineer once measured the crowd’s volume at a Beatles’ concert in Australia.  He found that the crowd was louder than a jet plane (140 decibels).  The concert crowds were often so loud that the Beatles couldn’t hear themselves play, even through the on-stage monitors.  They had achieved the fame they’d sought.  Everywhere they went they were recognized and adored.  There were women at every show, flinging themselves at the fab four.

And wealth…even despite their manager, Brian Epstein’s, mismanagement, there was an unbelievable amount of money coming in.  They had everything.  Paul could say to John, “Let’s write a swimming pool,” and they would put together a hit song that would bring them enough money to build a new swimming pool.   They had it all.  They had the dream.  George Harrison would later sing in his solo song, When We Were Fab “…we did it aw-aw-aaw-all…Fab!”

But even so, something was missing.  As St. Theresa of Avila said, “There are more tears shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.”  What happens when you get everything you ever wanted and you’re still empty?

“Of course at first, we all thought we wanted the fame and that… but very shortly thereafter, we began to think twice…after the initial excitement had worn off, I for one, became depressed.  Is this all we have to look forward to in life?  Being chased around by a crowd of hooting lunatics, from one crappy hotel room to the next? (Herstgaard, 88)”

The fame that they sought had become a threat to their lives.  The screaming fans that greeted them at the airport and chased them to and from their hotel rooms were kept in check by grim police officers.  “On the eve of the group’s first US tour, Life [magazine] reported, ‘A Beatle who ventures out unguarded into the streets runs the very real peril of being dismembered or crushed to death by his fans (Lewis, 85).”

Yer Blues form the so-called “White Album” isn’t usually listed among the most popular of Beatles’ songs.  And it’s easy to see and hear why:  it’s not a pleasant song – lyrically or musically.  Lyrically, it’s dark.  It’s depressing.   It’s suicidal and apocalyptic. Musically it’s abrasive and clumsy.  “The refrain heaves against a crippled rhythm, guitar-bass figure following each vocal declamation, like a dead leg; the beat breaks into freedom for just a few bars, becoming suddenly almost a boogie, a groove – only to stop again with a clumsy edit back to Ringo’s drums.  But the players bash away, Lennon shouts though he is barely heard over the din, and the song drags itself onward.  Even as it fades, it wants to blow the trees over and stop the apocalypse in its tracks, fight thunder with louder thunder (McKinney, 233-234).”

John Lennon wrote this song during the Beatles’ trip to India to study the teachings of their guru, Mahirashi, “up there trying to reach God and feeling suicidal,” he said. 

The blues are an interesting genre of music; they accept and even celebrate misery and calamity.  They are “…seldom convinced things could be any better; whereas John’s blues are not accepting of anything – in fact are outraged that things could have gotten so bad (McKinney, 234).”  Instead of accepting the dark terrors of this world, instead of trying to ignore them by pursuing temporal (and temporary) distractions in wealth and fame and sex and pleasure, Lennon seeks death and annihilation and God.

Perhaps this seems strange: a search for God via the path of self annihilation, yet in the words of another John, “He must increase, I must decrease…” (John 3:30). 

There must be something more.

Yesterday
(Sung in our program by an a cappella men’s trio.)

This song came to Paul McCartney in a dream during January of 1964 but it wasn’t recorded until June of the following year.  He, and the band, held this song back because it didn’t fit the image of themselves that they had crafted up to that point – the image of four irreverent young men, care-free, and light-hearted.  They were pop stars.  Their songs were bubblegum – cotton candy – easily digested. Yesterday was something else.



It came at a different tempo from other Beatles’ songs; there was no rollicking backbeat from the drums, instead there were flutes and cellos.  Yesterday was something new from these lads from Liverpool.  A beam of light is beginning to shine into their cavern.  Yet the light isn’t understood here.  Yesterday is a song of regret and loss, a song with a sense that something important was missed.

“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness could not overpower it.” John 1:5

Help!
(A slow somber arrangement performed by our praise band.)

Help!  - The title track to their second film and their fifth album was intended to be a serious introspective song, but few heard it as such.  It was just another pop song on the way to the top of the charts, swallowed up in the atmosphere of jollity and mayhem that surrounded the movie it was written for.  No one thought of John as someone suffering from depression and anxiety.  (Turner, 5)



He was overweight, drinking too much, bored with his wife, and their new house, fed up with the absurdities of Beatlemania.  He wrote the song to give expression to the stress he felt coming from their quick rise to success after years of obscurity.  It was a plea for help, but since Lennon’s feelings of insecurity were incongruous with the band’s image of confidence and youthful abandon, Lennon felt that it would be nearly impossible for Beatles’ fans to understand the origin of the song. “I was fat and depressed and I was crying out for ‘Help’,” he said in an interview shortly before his death.

It is difficult to ask for help, to admit vulnerability, to admit weakness, to admit (gasp) defeat.  So many of us live lives of “quiet despair” struggling with addictions and pain and grief – living day after grinding day without every asking for help.  Our culture praises and rewards self-determination and individual achievement.  Those who can ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ are heroes and are admired.  We want our friend and neighbors and family to believe that we have it all under control.  Even if our world is crashing at our feet, we’re reluctant to ask for Help!, and so we remain in the dark.

“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light;
on the inhabitants of a country in shadow dark as death
light has blazed forth.” Isaiah 9:1

Here Comes the Sun King
(A medley of Here Comes the Sun and The Sun King and Good Day Sunshine arranged by Bandmaster Andrew Lovejoy for our brass band.)


“Here comes the sun, here comes the sun, and I say, ‘it’s all right.’”  This is a welcome blessing after a “long, cold, lonely winter,” the winter of our discontent, the long dark night of the soul…and now a light has dawned.  All that we have tried has failed; all that we attempted to do has come to naught and maybe we’re just about to abandon all hope.  Then a light breaks over the horizon.  “Here comes the Sun King” risen with healing in his wings (Malachi 4:2).



The Long and Winding Road
(Performed as a vocal solo / acoustic guitar.)

Like the author of Ecclesiastes, we’ve tried it all: Money, fame, sex, philosophy, drugs, alcohol, amusements, everything – all the twists and turns of life and they’re all futile. “Sheer futility, sheer futility; everything is sheer futility.  What profit can we show for all our toil…? A generation comes and a generation goes…the sun rises, the sun sets … and what is at the end of it all? “The long and winding road that leads me to your door.”  The prodigal and wasteful son finds his father waiting at the end of that long and winding road.



Long, Long, Long
(Performed as a vocal solo / acoustic guitar.)

Outwardly the song Long, Long, Long by George Harrison seemed to be a simple love song – but the song is deeper.  The Lover is God. 



The Word
(Performed by our choir group.)

But now we’ve got the message; we’ve seen the light.  We know the word: the word is love.  And when you know something good you want to share it with everyone around.  The Word was the first of the Beatles’ purposefully “evangelistic” songs – songs written to preach a message of peace and love.  In essence, it was the Beatles’ first gospel song.  “This could be a Salvation Army song,” said Paul (Turner, 5).


The word, the logos…In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God and the word was Love. But not merely the romantic / erotic love, but the selfless sacrificial agape love that loves unconditionally.  Love in the universal, spiritual sense rather than the personal erotic sense.  This love isn’t about me feeling good – but rather the love that seeks the greatest good for others.

Here, There, and Everywhere
(Performed by my daughter on the recorder.)



Let It Be
(Performed by vocal solo /piano.)

The Beatles’ penultimate single Let It Be sounded like a valediction at the end of the Beatles’ career.  It emerged from the bitter conflicts and disintegration of the group that they loved so much.  Written by Paul McCartney, it was a word of solace, a word of wisdom, written as much to himself as to the “broken hearted people of the world.”  The simple message was “let it be.”  As with the best of McCartney’s songs, it was probably intended to have many possible interpretations, but it is undeniably a salvation song.  The word is broken, troubled, dark, and cloudy – but there is hope.  There is an answer.  And if this answer is heeded, there will be light and the darkness will roll away.



Billy Preston’s gospel-style organ made the song sound even more like a Christian hymn.  And some of the song’s most ringing phrases can be found in the bible: “times of trouble” – Psalm 10: 1, “the brokenhearted” – Luke 4:18, “and “a light that shines” – John 1:5.

The song’s reference to “Mother Mary” was a reference to Paul’s mother – who he had dreamed of during the collapse of the band.  But Paul was aware of what he later called the “quasi-religious” implications.  This is heightened by the fact that Mary’s words of submission to the angel who informs her that she is about to give birth to the savior of the world, contained the words, “be it unto me according to thy word,” a phrase not too dissimilar to “let it be.”

“I had a lot of bad times in the 60s.  We used to lie in bed and wonder what was going on and feel quite paranoid.  Probably all the drugs.  I had a dream one night about my mother. She died when I was fourteen so I hadn’t really heard from her in quite a while and it was very good.  She gave me some strength”

All You Need Is Love
(Performed by our puppetry group.)

“And now I am going to put before you the best way of all:  Though I command languages both human and angelic – if I speak without love, I am no more than a gong booming or a cymbal clashing.  And though I have the power of prophecy, to penetrate all mysteries and knowledge, and though I have all the faith necessary to move mountains – if I am without love, I am nothing.  Though I should give away to the poor all that I possess, and even give up my body to be burned – if I am without love, it will do me no good whatever.

“Love is always patient and kind; love is never jealous; love is not boastful or conceited, it is never rude and never seeks its own advantage, it does not take offense or store up grievances. Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but finds its joy in the truth.  It is always ready to make allowances, to trust, to hope, and to endure whatever comes.

“Love never comes to an end.  But if there are prophecies, they will be done away with; if tongues they will fall silent; and if knowledge, it will be down away with.  For we know only imperfectly, and we prophecy imperfectly, but once perfection comes, all imperfect things will be done away with.  When I was a child I used to talk like a child, and see things as a child does, and think like a child; but now that I have become an adult, I have finished with all childish ways.  Now we see only reflections in a mirror, mere riddles, but then we shall be seeing face to face.  Now I can know only imperfectly; but then I shall know just as fully as I am myself known.

As it is, these remain: faith, hope and love, the three of them; and the greatest of these is all you need…”  (1 Corinthians 13)



Across the Universe
(Performed by a small ensemble.)

The song Across the Universe began in 1967 as John’s relationship to his first wife, Cynthia Powell, was falling apart.  One night he was in bed listening to her talk, and talk, and talk… Perhaps somewhat cruelly, the opening line of the song popped into his head, “words are flying out like endless rain into a paper cup.”  In a flash of inspiration he got up and rushed to find pen and paper to finish writing the lyrics.  When he finished he went to sleep and forgot them.

This flash of inspiration, I believe, was a God give, a sacred thing.  The 19th century poet Percy Shelley wrote, “A man cannot say, ‘I will write poetry.’  Not even the greatest poet can say it, for the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens it to transitory brightness.”  This “inconstant wind” moving through John Lennon was the Holy Spirit, causing him to compose a hymn to an Unknown God (unknown to John, anyway.)

Words are flying out like
endless rain into a paper cup
they slither while they pass
they slip away across the universe.
Pools of sorrow, waves of joy
are drifting through my open mind,
possessing and caressing me.


The song begins with a self aware contemplation of life: Words – the interchange of ideas, the communication of thoughts – these things slip away leaving only the underlying experience.  Words – as important and vital as they are – cannot contain or fully express the human experience.  “Pools of sorrow” and “waves of joy” are aqueous primordial emotions.  From the beginnings of the universe when all was dark and formless water, sorrow and joy have washed over us.

The chorus of Across the Universe begins with the Sanskrit phrase “Jai guru deva, om.”  John and the other members of the Beatles were briefly interested in eastern philosophy and Transcendental Meditation.  The use of the Hindi phrase reflects this interest.  And here is where that “Unknown God” creeps in.

A breakdown of the etymology of the phrase is as follows:
Jai means “victory” or “success” or “glory” or “thank you.”
A guru is a “teacher” or a “master.”
A deva is a “God” or “heavenly one.”

The phrase can thus be rendered “Glory to the heavenly teacher,” or “Victory to the divine teacher,” or even “Thank you to the heavenly Lord.” 

I think John, flamed to transitory brightness by the blowing of the Holy Spirit, was saying more than he knew.  He may not have known Jesus as his personal guru but for those of us who do, “Jai guru deva” could be a phrase used in corporate worship right along with “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”

The phrase ends with the Hindi word “om.”  Om (also written Aum or Ohm) is considered the most sacred syllable in Hinduism, symbolizing the infinite and the entire universe; the primal sound.  Phonetically and practically Om is quite similar to the Christianamen.”  It is used, like the “amen” to begin or conclude prayers.  “Amen or “let it be” can be considered a type of “om” – a word to connect the worshipper with the will of the infinite, the creator of the universe, the all in all.  When we pray “amen” we are submitting our will and our desire, we are emptying ourselves of all egoism and selfish conceit and submitting to the will and plan of the infinite God of the universe.

In the beginning the world was only chaos - welter and waste – crashing waves and formless water.  But the creator God imposed order on these turbulent waters and brought forth a marvelously complex and intrinsically beautiful world.   For those living in Jesus, the “yes and amen” of God, the “om” of God, the world is not a frenzied welter and waste, but an unshakable kingdom.  There is security and safety and rest in Christ.  “Nothing’s gonna’ change my world.”

The second verse begins a journey.  We begin to leave behind the futile paper cup of words and begin to follow “images of broken light that dance before me like a million eyes.”  It’s a beautiful image of the shifting effulgence of God’s glory, dancing before us, calling us, leading us towards “limitless, undying love which shines around me like a million suns.”  God is love. We follow the sounds of his laughter until we find ourselves in a place where tears are wiped and we live in the glory of God, brighter than a million suns – a place where there is no night.


Jai guru deva, om
Nothing’s gonna’ change my world.

Amen.

“I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition.”


Sources

Dwolding, William J. Beatlesongs, Simon and Shuester Inc, New York, NY, 1989.

Hertsgaard, Mark, A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles,
                Delacorte Press, New York, NY, 1995.

Lewis, Lisa A.  The Adoring Audience, Routledge, London, England, 1992.

Matteo, Steve, Let It Be, The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., New York, NY, 2004

McKinney, Devin, Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History, Harvard Press,
                Cambridge, MS, 2003.

Mellers, Wilfrid, The Music of the Beatles,  Schirmer Books, New York, NY, 1973.

Turner, Steve, The Gospel According to the Beatles, Westminster John Knox Press,
                Louisville, KY, 2006.

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