Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Beatles, Oscars, Grammys & Overachieving: The Best Cliché Ever, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Among people competing for the various annual awards, one of the most popular topics of conversation is: OK, let's say I am the winner--what then?

Of those who believe they deserve the recognition (which is all of them) only those who have already received one of the honors know that the little statue at the top of the mountain doesn't really hold more career opportunities, more money, more love or better sleep at night. Which is okay, because the real payoff is something more valuable than all those things combined: the admiration of your peers. After a lifetime of being ignored, denied, rejected and invalidated, to have your hard work acknowledged at last means that you can go back to liking yourself again.

But some odd things can happen at the top of the mountain. Celebrity, for example, when the artist becomes the object of that admiration instead of the art.

The nominees for Record of the Year at the 17th Annual Grammys ceremony held on March 1, 1975, were:

Elton John - Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me
Roberta Flack - Feel Like Making Love
Joni Mitchell - Help Me
Olivia Newton-John - I Honestly Love You
Maria Muldaur - Midnight at the Oasis

Of the five nominees, only one of the songs failed to survive the 1970s. Four of the five got admitted to the big circus tent of "classic rock," which by now includes nearly any popular music (aside from gutbucket blues or straight-ahead jazz) written in 2/2, 2/4, 4/4 or 6/8 between 1955 and 2005, from jump blues to rockabilly to soul to R&B to rock & roll to folk rock to hard rock to progressive rock to grunge to whatever you call what Beck does. It includes every related musical form--from the sharpest on the edges to the smoothest in the middle--once played on AM and FM radio stations and now on their internet equivalents.

That song that was left behind won the Grammy in 1975 for Record of the Year. It was the sort of marshmallow-soft confection that no one ever seems to claim association with in retrospect. Call it pop, short for "popular," or pop as in the sound bubblegum makes when it deflates on contact with anything solid or pointed.

Throughout the wryly improvised shtick during their 1975 presentation of the award, John Lennon and Paul Simon heap the sarcasm and inside jokes on one and all while reading a bit of forced cleverness from the cue cards. But seen through the filter of our current age's obsequious political correctness, their unscripted cynicism and snideness about the evening's proceedings can be difficult to read. More difficult still, when Lennon finally announces that "I Honestly Love You" is the winner, and Art Garfunkel inexplicably comes out of the audience to accept the Record of the Year Grammy for Newton-John and her producer, John Farrar. The scene feels so surreal that Fellini would ask for a re-write.

It was a meeting of the Sgt. Pepper's No Love Lost Lonely Hearts Club.

Garfunkel and Simon had unhappily split up an act formed in high school just months after releasing their Bridge Over Troubled Water, for which they eventually accepted six Grammys and sold 25 million copies (by far their most successful album). In the same year as that notorious dissolution, 1970, John Lennon had of course sundered his famous relationship even less amicably with his mates Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. And four months after bidding adieu, the most artistically and commercially successful band in history posthumously released one of their most successful albums, Let It Be.

Learning to Let It Be
On the same day when that final Beatles album hit the streets, a documentary film of the same title was released. Produced by Apple and directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg and filmed throughout most of January in 1969, it captures the agonies and ecstasies, the realities and unrealities, and the essential tedium of making a recording. Warts and all. It is probably the first time anyone had ever attempted to make such a document, and it succeeded so brilliantly that no one is ever likely to do it again.

In addition to the expected scenes of songwriting, jamming, rehearsing, improvising, arguing and clowning, the filmgoer is shown the grind of the long, long hours, the ill tempers, the artistic labyrinths, the endless cigarettes and cups of tea. We get to see the dynamics of a real, old-fashioned working band: four people who had ridden in the back of a van along with their equipment, stacked on top of each other like cordwood in order to keep warm on the trip to Hamburg; four people who had eaten, lived, and breathed the music together, non-stop, for ten years. And we are afforded the rare opportunity of peering under the surface at many of the qualities that defined the Beatles, the most uniquely gifted musicians of their generation, and how they produced music in the studio.

Paul McCartney and his charismatic personality had provided the de facto leadership of the band since Brian Epstein's death in 1967. Despite Epstein's strong presence and skilled management, and the respect he commanded from all the Beatles, he had failed to get them to perform live for nearly a year; after his death, the boys were inclined to hang it up altogether. So from that day forward, McCartney cajoled and wheedled them into carrying on, kept them moving forward one day at a time. His often pedantic approach is on full display in the film, as well as Lennon's loyal, vocal opposition and Harrison's introversion in the long shadows that those two cast, plus Starr's somewhat detached but rock-steady presence in the corner.

It wasn't a bed of roses. Camera-shy George Harrison wanted to get rid of the cameras and forgo the whole idea of doing a film. Family man Paul McCartney slightly breached the musician's creed of protected isolation at the recording studio by having his wife and daughter drop by, probably in response to Lennon's flagrant breach of letting Yoko Ono settle down next to him as though she were a participant in the session. Ringo looks alternately disgusted and stoically resigned to it all. And for the first time a guest artist, in the person of Billy Preston, was publicly employed as a participant in a Beatles recording session, though many others had done so anonymously over the years.

Lindsay-Hogg cut out much that deserved expurgation and even more at the Beatles' request, including footage of a short period during which Harrison resigned from the band and the others discussed who to replace him with. But the band had been unraveling for some time--even happy-go-lucky Ringo had quit the band for a while the year before; Lennon would tell the others of his decision to leave the band later in September, after which McCartney would retreat to a home studio and begin quietly recording a solo album.

I'm sure a few scenes that remain in the film are still somewhat unpleasant for the way they remind the surviving participants that those final days as a band were difficult. But as usual, despite all the drama and chaos, the band was as creative and exacting in their approach as ever. Lennon's later claims--that the studio tapes' substandard quality was the reason he had hired Phil Spector to do extensive post-production work on what Glyn Johns and Alan Parsons had recorded--could well be true, but start to finish everything in the film, from the rehearsals to those last live tunes filmed and recorded on top of the Abbey Road studios, documented a masterful chapter in their superb artistry. Through it all, despite drugs and disillusionment and every form of legal thievery and managerial interference known to man, they set the professional standards that every musician has been measured against since.    

So it was quite appropriate that the Beatles then received the Academy Award for Best Original Score for a Motion Picture for the outstanding music they had made for Let It Be. It was also a fitting accompaniment to the Grammy they had received for Best Original Score for a Motion Picture a month earlier.

But you would never guess it, not based on the way the Beatles responded to the honors. Note the film clip here from that Grammys ceremony, an earlier Fellini-esque time capsule that captures the moment when a sneaker-shod Paul McCartney and wife Linda, minus Lennon and Harrison, accepts the award from... can it be?...

John Wayne?

When a casually dressed McCartney and his wife come bounding out of the audience to accept the three Grammys from Wayne, Sir Paul takes one of the heavy little statuettes, has Linda take one, and jokingly offers the third to John Wayne. McCartney, clearly nervous and uncomfortable with the situation, offers only a two-word speech to all his admirers in the audience. "Thank you," he says, and gets off the stage quickly. 

Live And Let Die

The reason McCartney had showed up is because throughout it all he had always maintained a British sense of decorum and protocol. In his mind, an English gentleman doesn't win a Grammy and then just not show up to receive it. In many ways the film had been his project all along, as many things had been since 1967. But the album that had come from it was certainly a collaborative effort, all the post-production wrangling notwithstanding.

McCartney's sense of the Beatles' place in history meant he was quite aware that during the months since the album's and film's release, both were quickly being labeled as a chronicling of the Beatles' break-up. Never mind that it wasn't. The recording that began in February after finishing with the Let It Be sessions, and continued through August, was the last the Beatles did together. George Martin returned as the producer on the condition that he be allowed to control the proceedings as he had on Sgt. Pepper's, resulting in a disciplined session approach and more congenial atmosphere. Lennon and McCartney held it together despite disagreements on what material to do and how to do it, and Yoko was still a fixture, but... the sublime Abbey Road was the result. Shortly after wrapping it up, Lennon announced he wanted a "divorce" from the Beatles. Abbey Road was mixed and released a month later, but because of the involved post-production difficulties, Let It Be, both the album and the film, weren't released until the following May, several months after the Beatles' divorce was final. The stigma resulting from that coincidence of timing stuck.

The backbiting and nastiness visited by a community upon anyone who is thought to have deserted them is one of the primordial elements of social change. The Beatles were feeling the wrath of a fan base scorned. While many music critics were dismissing the recording as a poor effort, fans the world over were forming a lasting distrust of the inscrutably quiet, black-clad Yoko Ono. Her ubiquitous presence in the film quickly got her labeled as the agent provocateur responsible for the band's demise.

McCartney did just what he should have done in going to Los Angeles to accept the Academy Award. From Lennon's and Harrison's recent cathartic musical statements, it is certain they wouldn't be attending. Who knows what Ringo was thinking. Above all, McCartney knew, more than anyone outside the band ever could, the close relationship he and his friends had shared and the consequent anguish their recent separation meant. He fetched the Grammy for all of them.

Did the award make the difference or turn the tide of sentiment? Let It Be went on to become one of the Beatles' bestselling albums, so the music has certainly endured. But you haven't been able to buy a copy of that Academy Award-winning film since it went out of print in the early 1980s. If you're lucky and can find a used VHS copy on eBay, you'll pay a lot to own it. More than likely, you'll pay a lot for a crappy bootleg copy of a copy.

It's been out of print because the film's reputation as the chronicle of the breakup continued to grow unabated. The irony now is that people continue to accept this to be true, largely because they can't actually view the film and discover how incorrect the perception is. Instead it should have become known as the classic cinéma vérité that it is, with a killer last reel consisting of the band plus guest keyboardist Billy Preston, performing "Get Back," "Don't Let Me Down," "I've Got A Feeling," "One After 909" and "Dig A Pony."

Always sensitive to the reputation and legacy of the Beatles' catalog, McCartney and Starr, plus surviving heirs Olivia Harrison and Yoko Ono, still view the film as having more negative than positive impact, and have never agreed to reprint it in any form. One or more of them feel that maintaining the fictional Hard Day's Night version of the band's image somehow serves the music's place in history better than Let It Be. But the longer it has stayed out of print, the more complex people's lives have become. The longer it goes on, the harder it will be to change that consensus. Personally, I think it is wrongheaded to serve up redacted, sugar-coated illusions as biography. As internet content balloons in this information age, the best way to deal with the inevitable disinformation attendant to PR and image-shaping, is to tell the truth. Even when the truth stings a bit as people discover the dirty little secrets of their hero(s), we move on. We can forgive anything, and always will, as long as it isn't kept secret any longer. The only thing standing in the way of redemption is a lie. The truth is never as bad as it seems. So what if George went off in a pouty snit and refused to talk for a few days? Who among us hasn't? Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg said in 2011 that there was a chance a DVD might be released in 2013. As of this date it hasn't happened, but it could.

The Competitive Edge

Competitors in any field are always looking for an advantage, something they can utilize to increase the odds of success. A clever wax specialist can help a skier beat everyone to the finish line on the same day that the leading contender has been slowed slightly with an injury, and win a medal. For a recording artist, a golden-eared producer can mean the difference in creating a sound that turns a great song into a dance hit, the same way a cutting-edge special effects team can turn a well-scripted movie into box office gold. Many would have you believe the biggest competitive advantage is a weak field. But they'd be wrong.

Because the single biggest advantage a competitor has (all things being equal--which they very often are--even in the fanatically measured world of sports, considering that .004 seconds on a luge run can mean the difference between fame and infamy, or worse, anonymity) is to not only be better or do better work than anyone else in the field, but to not be taken seriously by anyone until that critical moment when it is too late to fend him off. Every racer knows that the ideal place in a race is in the blind spot of the oddsmakers' favorite pick to win it, drafting the presumptive winner. It's the place where the spotlight isn't.

That moment when you step out of the shade of the mountain and suddenly make the final climb to its summit is the most deliciously advantageous moment of all. A great athlete or artist gets to experience it only once. The irony is that after that first taste, attempts at every competition thereafter, in order for the victor to defy nature and get that advantage one more time, are doomed. It is all downhill from the top of the mountain.

And nowhere are those odd contradictions and vicissitudes of celebrity more apparent than in the most serious competitions of all--the awards business--that vortex of desperate vyings for the position at center stage where all the love and adulation of one's fans and peers swirls the most deliriously.

And In the End, the Love You Take Is Equal to the Love You Make

Which brings us back to those bizarre four minutes of video with Paul Simon and John Lennon at the 1975 Grammys. It took a while to get here, but these two artists' story is what their snidely dismissive jokes are all about. Both had climbed to the tops of their respective mountains. Both had been repeatedly acknowledged by their peers. Both had fans numbering in the millions (maybe billions in the case of the Beatles--they probably were more popular than Jesus Christ at one point, but as Lennon also remarked, he'd never said that was a good thing). Both had held armfuls of gold statues in recognition of their magnificent accomplishments, songs which people will listen to and sing again and again, until the end of time. Both had bank accounts stuffed with money.

What ain't we got (as Ray Walston sang in South Pacific)? Hint: the answer is not "babes." Neither of them had a shortage of babes.

What neither John Lennon nor Paul Simon had many of at the moment was other mountains to climb. Certainly, they had other interests, but art for an artist is an activity, not a statue or a badge. And the worst pain an artist can experience is a shortage of that activity. If he (or she) has an artistic collaborator, a divorce or even a separation from that collaborator is the bitterest possible pill to swallow. Fellow artists, particularly fellow collaborators, are the most valuable assets an artist has. Being able to challenge yourself and keep going with your next artistic venture is the most energizing activity there is.

Many years ago I watched Charlie Rose interview Kenneth Branagh, the fine actor best known for his Shakespearean acting and directing. He's been nominated many times, but has never won an Academy Award or a Golden Globe. He had just completed writing and directing a film, A Midwinter's Tale I believe, and was describing the experience when Rose asked him why, after his recent success in films like Dead Again and Much Ado About Nothing, he was directing a small art film.

Branagh said he considered it a privilege to do his newly finished film--the darkly comical story of an out-of-work actor's quest for redemption by producing a play to raise money and save his sister's church from land developers--because in his mind, the definition of success is having the freedom to choose what he will do next. Money, he said, along with recognition or fame, simply provide the wherewithal to accomplish his artistic goals.  

So support your local artist. Whether he has a mantle bedecked with shiny awards or one adorned with candles he lights instead of cursing the darkness, go out of your way to acknowledge the work he does for the world, help keep him doing whatever is his next project. It's what he lives for.

Whether he has chosen to be a tailor in Kiev, a painter in Paris, a novelist in Seattle, or a cabinetmaker in London, support him. You're what he lives for, too.

1 comment:

relarion said...

Really fabulous, Carl. Astute and entertaining :-)