Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 29, 2009

Love Them Do

So far, I’ve avoided controversy and confrontation in this blog. Despite enormous temptations, I have not commented on the biblical themes of famine, war, pestilence or disease, or their modern-day equivalents: CNN, Afghanistan, Fox News and the healthcare debate.

But I will remain silent no longer. In a few paragraphs, I am going to address the most incendiary and polarizing question that confronts my generation; one that looms over our stewardship of this era in a manner that dwarfs all other issues that we must address. Yes, famine, war, pestilence and disease persist and we must deal with them too. Here, though is the question each of us must answer before we shuffle off to whichever Valhalla awaits us:

Who was the most talented Beatle?

In assembling those six simple words in that order, I am aware that I risk unleashing a maelstrom of commentary that could crush the Internet’s infrastructure. Already your hand is on the mouse, moving the cursor toward the “comment” button, your mind racing, your respiration accelerating, your fingers twitching as you prepare to compose a diatribe against my sheer pretension to address this topic of global concern.

I imagine that in poising myself at this precipice of controversy I experience some of the exhilarating anticipation that Beck, Coulter, Dobbs and Limbaugh, those blathering blowhards of bozoism feel as they clip on their microphones.

Well, bring your game, because here is my play.

Let us first dismiss Ringo. He’s free to leave. I like Ringo. Heck, I love Ringo. Of all the humans in history who have possessed unlimited wealth and endless opportunity to do whatever the heck they like, Ringo seems to be the only one who’s managed to at least appear as if he’s having fun, living a life apparently carefree and unencumbered by angst or overreaching. I can hear “Photograph” or “It Don’t Come Easy” over and over with great joy that he recorded them. And, assuredly, his bust will occupy a place of prominence on one of the plinths in the Drummers Hall of Fame. But he himself would ask to be excused while he catches a plane to Mallorca or Aruba or wherever it is he’d rather be than here. Send us a postcard, Ringo. We love you.

Then Paul. Sir Paul. Unquestionably the most accomplished musician of the four, and the composer or co-composer of a body of work that will still be played, recorded and sampled as long as there is something called popular music. Add to those accomplishments an excellent voice and his absolute virtuosity as an ensemble bassist and, well, how did he do it? Where did this kid GET those chops? But, Paul, is there no end to it, ever? You are possessed of a prodigious ability to keep generating new material, tune after tune, but gosh, you need some filters here. Let some of it stay behind in the studio and let us hear less and feel more. OK?

Now, I’m a Lennon guy. Scan through the memory banks and eventually the screen will display the photo of John on the cover of Rolling Stone with the wire-rimmed glasses and Tommy helmet from “How I Won the War.” But before you hit that “comment” button, let me go on. This ambitious, hungry kid from Liverpool wanted desperately to generate something new, something galvanic and original that would demonstrate absolutely that genius he was certain he possessed. But discipline? Focus? Rock ‘n roll was too much fun and just so natural that he kept lapsing back. And he was smart, a very smart cat who could not escape knowing that it was a game. From those endless nights of grinding work in Hamburg to the make-believe of film directors and the mindless acclaim by millions of screaming fans, he understood that it didn’t always matter if it wasn’t the best that he had. He did know, I think, that genius itself is not enough. He turned farther and farther inward to a point at which he could not separate his focus away from the covers of old rock ‘n roll songs which were so satisfying, from the hard, hard work of the careful craft required to make the New. He opted for being The Iconoclast, rather than a visionary. He lived the dream, he reaped the whirlwind, and he knew the emptiness. Lots and lots of ability and lots of great work, but so much still unrealized.

And now you sense where I’m going, and few of you will like it, but if you will take this opportunity to pull out your long-ignored copy of “All Things Must Pass,” you’ll hear it. Quiet George, I think, learned something new and different in those long years of laboring in the shadow of his older, bolder mentors. George came to understand that making music meant expressing the spirit. Can anything be more expressive than the songs on this album? They are not as clever as young Paul’s Ram On. They are not as intentionally — I say, INTENTIONALLY — DEEP as John’s pretentious post-Beatles stuff. But they sing and wail with an effervescence that neither of the senior Beatles ever achieved: free of the self-conscious constraints each of those marvelous writers suffered under as they strove to break out of the ensemble that defined them. George does something neither John nor Paul were able to do with great consistency: he sings to us of what is in his soul, without pretense, without an agenda, hoping only to convey the mystery of life that music reveals. Thanks, George. We are glad to have your music with us now.

OK, OK, this is just a game. It’s not really serious. I’ve just been listening to “All Things Must Pass.” In another year, I’ll be back to “Revolver” or “Ram On,” or who knows what else, and, who knows, maybe my view will shift. What impresses me is that, forty years after these young cats recorded all this music, it somehow matters. And none of them were as great individually as they were together, no matter how much they tried.

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Responses

  1. Excellent post. I’ll think this over and have more later, but I just want to say I eagerly look forward to tomorrow’s entry in which you argue for Ron Santo’s induction in the baseball HOF.

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    • I saw Santo foul off 14 pitches once in Cincinnati, looking for a pitch he could hit. He singled. There’s a start.

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  2. That was a fun one to read.

    Not sure which Beatle to pick, but I really liked your comments about how John tried to emphasize the “deep” meaning theme into his stuff. Sometimes to a forced level, but I hadn’t actually brought that little thought into my brain until I saw your comments.

    Tom

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  3. we’re going to see “rain” this friday, a band of beatle impersonators who’ve been playing “our” songs longer than the beatles did.

    while not blood pressure raising, you have hit on a longstanding controversy, bard. i am also a lennon guy, but i tend toward the 5th beatle, zeppo, oh, wait, i mean maclen, and the 6th, george martin.
    i personally find maclen sadly missing from all the solo lps by john & the cute one, though i like “imagine” and “uncle albert” as much as anybody.

    ringo’s been called the luckiest man in the world,
    but listen to his work on some of the work they did when we were in jr high & highschool.

    george would have been the lead songwriter in any other band, and was under represented, but he was the youngest and, quite reasonably, intimidated.

    there is no best, it’s a group gig.

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    • Bri, have heard a lot about Rain… almost hired them for a gig last summer. I agree with all you say. Ringo could play drums for anyone, including Dorsey. And George Martin? If I threw him out there, we’d never be done talking about this. He represents the convergence of the old music world and the new world of the producer.

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  4. of course i missed the whole actual question, which was most talented, beatle, but, you know, you went beyond when the “were fab” as george was quoted as saying and, i mean, i didn’t suggest pete best after all! anyway, thanks!

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  5. Enjoyed reading that; it is a fun thing to kick around and I gotta admit I liked George the best. Oh, of course at first it was only because Paul and John got most of the attention so in order to be a rebel George was the obvious Beatle to champion.
    But then we figured out he was the one playing lead (I was not even aware of the difference previously) and then as you point out, All Things Must Pass came out and pretty much blew us away. THREE LPs? Here was some stuff the Beatles could have been producing. But then who wasn’t happy George had it all available for this release?
    But, come to think of it, John was very cool……

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  6. Oh George was always the best.

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  7. Sure, pull out ATMP, well, at least the first four “sides” of it, or however one refers to what was the first 67% of the original vinyl. Oh, we need to include “Thanks for the Pepperoni”? “I Remember Jeep”? Well…… ok, that’s a cheap shot, but there they are, sounding eerily like something you and your friends would put together late Friday night in your garage – or would if your friend’s name was Eric Clapton. Anyway, let’s stick John and Paul in a group in which their stuff is second fiddle, then let them put the best of the stuff they’ve been working on for the last 5-6 years on a single album. How good would that be? Context, context, context.

    But it is the question with no answer. I can listen to All Things Must Pass just as easily as anything the Fabsters ever put out, and certainly more willingly than most of John and Paul’s solo work.

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