Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Artists Talking About Art

The best drawing teacher I ever had -- and he wasn’t the best of a bad lot, he was good -- said that you can’t talk and draw at the same time. Decades of drawing co-ops later, I have to say he was mistaken. Artists gab.

We were listening to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band while I did this drawing of Harold B. Stone, a. k. a. “Stony.” Stony is a Texan in his middle fifties, a garrulous and opinionated teacher and computer programmer who probably knows how marijuana tastes, but isn’t the type to have indulged in much psychomodification. He’s more cowboy than space cowboy, and was wearing a pair of very fine, very pointy dress boots, which my poor planning put just beyond the paper's margins. Stony said that he knew people who listened to Sgt, Pepper’s for weeks on end. “It’s impressionistic. You can’t say what the lyrics are about, but you’re sure you know what they mean.”

Somebody mentioned that Paul McCartney had finally admitted “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was about LSD, and our co-op got some mileage out of that. Somebody else said that there was a real “Lucy,” Lucy Vodden a school friend that Julian Lennon included in a drawing, and that she had died recently. Then we talked about Spiro Agnew’s making political hay over drug references in rock music. I didn’t recall any debates about “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” when it was current. I took the drug reference for granted; Beatle protests of mere coincidence were done on advice of counsel. Newspaper taxis appear on the shore, baby.

Stony wondered how the Beatles got so smart. They were young men, making a rough living dragging an American R&B show around Europe and sleeping in their clothes. They were working-class lads from a grimy northern industrial city, in a time that wouldn’t make me want to write poetry. Post-war Liverpool and Depression-era Birmingham, Alabama, could tell each other stories. Besides their unlikely backgrounds, these were four characters who scored big playing Little Richard covers and charming teenage-crush pop. Four of them -- and their handlers -- had to agree to let go of that, and start playing four-track Magritte with sitars.

I proposed that johnpaulgeorge&ringo would come up with fragments from their acid afternoons, and producer Geroge Martin would make collages of them. “A Day in the Life” illustrates how this might have worked. It's really two songs. First there's a “John,” accompanied in 2/4 time by quiet rhythm guitar, piano, maraca, and discreet bass and drums:

“I read the news today, oh boy
About a lucky man who made the grade
And though the news was rather sad
Well, I just had to laugh.
I saw the photograph
He blew his mind out in a car
He didn’t noticed that the lights had changed
A crowd of people stood and stared
They’d seen his face before
Nobody was really sure
If he was from the House of Lords.”

Is this the description of a traffic accident, or is it about change underlining the absurdity of power? Suicide, or astonishment? Distancing yourself from other people’s pain, or the banality of voyeurism? There are two more verses like this, vague or ambiguous, but their sense is one of fate, of the world as a cage. At the end of the second verse, John sings, “I’d love to turn you on,” and an ensemble of strings and horns begins a long, thrashing build to a crescendo and Paul’s song.

“Paul” is breezier and more accessible, sung against the same spare accompaniment. There’s humor here; "Paul" uses sound effects including stylized huffing and puffing. Still, its story is one of a man escaping the stress of hum drum obligations:

“Woke up
Got out of bed
Dragged a comb
Across my head
Found my way downstairs
And drank a cup
And looking up
I noticed I was late
Found my coat
And grabbed my hat
Made the bus in seconds flat
Found my way upstairs
And had a smoke
And somebody spoke
And I went into a dream”

“Paul” acts as a bridge between John’s second and third verses. When Paul sings the word “dream,” John croons a floating, ecstatic ah that dominates for more than a dozen measures. Almost unnoticeably at first, the horns back John’s crooning. They become louder, until John's ah is lost in a comically portentious fanfare that announces his third verse.

This last verse bursts into an orchestral build that’s even longer and more wildly entropic than the first. (I remember reading that George Harrison had to circulate among the orchestra, to keep the musicians from trying to introduce order to what they were playing. Maybe, though, that was the Beatles’ writing their own legend.) A single trumpet note chokes the orchestra to silence, and the song resolves with a lingering tonic chord on the piano.

I used to argue with teachers about meaning: “Form doesn’t mean anything. You need words or narrative for meaning.” These guys, the Beatles, were in their middle twenties, and they made a single piano chord tell me that the world that baffled, terrified, and thwarted me is beautiful, poignant, and profound.

Stony said that there were plenty of bands that tried to spin collages of psychedelic fragments, but it didn’t usually come to much. You know, I own a couple artsy rock albums I’d be embarrassed to mention -- you know the kind, the ones with Roger Dean jackets -- and Stony’s probably right. The Beatles didn’t work that way.

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