In some ways, the only essay I can write is remembering the people who have died.
This isn’t morbid, just a reminder that I grief with my words. It’s not an attempt at reanimation, either. I am no god, just a glob, graceless and leaky. An essay is no more grotesque than a painting or a pie or a song. We make these things when we’re alive to make some sense of why ‘alive’ is. In the making, we realize that we’re only alive to be alive with each other. When our others die (and so, us too), what’s left are the things we rendered and baked and sang. We leave these sweet traces, tracks which other others (and so, other us’s) get to travel down and study us by.
The things we make remember us, not in the vulgar transactions of labor into the dead currency of ‘legacy,’ but rather as echoes we get to re-encounter. When I sit and watch Get Back on a television screen in a house in 2021, I am also somehow in a Meadowlands Marriott ballroom in 2005 watching Billy Preston in concert, playing “Get Back” and smiling a smile that he also smiles in 1969. My cells die and recycle all the time, just like yours, but these edges of my skin still hold all my me’s in them. Songs map the history of our bodies in memory. Or maybe it’s the other way around? Songs chute our consciousness to other times.
This thing we call ‘song’—maybe more than any of our other made memories—is a portable portal in this way. It is, of course, just as messy a plot as we are. I can conjure all my Billys and all their cheeky smiles any time I want to timeslide. I can play “Get Back” whenever I want on my stupid iPod! Are you humming the four bars of choonka-CHOONKAs that form the first measures of “Get Back” right now? It’s always in the air. It’s always waiting to be remembered.
Remembering has no punctuation. I know you know this, but it’s good to remember. And sometimes when I start to choonka-CHOONKA bUM! bUM! I also think about my aunt giving me a CD copy of the Beatles’ Let It Be and I don’t have a year or an age for this just a smell memory of her house in the Rhode Island woods a few clouds of Marlboro 100s smoke and a wooden floor chipped with laughter and she’s not here anymore just like my old music teacher who also loved the Beatles who took me to that Meadowlands Marriott ballroom in 2005 which was the same year he had us sing “All My Loving” in the school chorus the same year that his cancer came back and he told us at 7:00 in the morning because choir met so early and after he told us that we sang “Dancing Queen” and I realized for the first time in the shimmer shadow of a pop song with all the faux-clarity of being 13 that you could actually change the world a little with the songs you sing.
Remembering is slippery, which is why we make things; memories are the little multicolored handholds in a human-made rock climb. To sing is to make the unremembered traces visible to ourselves and each other. A song is a kind of testimony, a being alive. This is, I think, why all I want to talk about today is songs.
And what a time to talk about them! To remember the year 2021 in moving images is, in many ways, to study the study of songs. How else to make sense of the all-too-familiar sensations of despair, the unhomely sense that we’ve done this exact same sadness sometime in our memory? To survive in the cruel winter of 2021 is to keep trying to exist into something like the thaw of relief—a Spring, of course, but also just tomorrow (and tomorrow and tomorrow). To invoke another line of revisited 2021 verse, ‘tomorrow’ isn’t the crucial turn—it’s the ‘and’ that instills such anxiety in The Tragedy of Macbeth. ‘And’ is the compounding of despairs, the grand cosmic pile-on of being a body. Or: I’m supposed to keep going?
The anxiety of ‘and’ is why I think one of the seminal scenes of film in the year 2021 is a man sitting in a chair with an electric bass guitar. He is hitting the strings with his left hand and muting the frets with his right, producing a sequence of chunky thonks that he lets his voice wander over. He coos and hips. He doo-doos and gulps. He keeps returning to a kind of wah-noo-nah-NAH that he obviously finds promising, feels savoring, but it’s clear that the melody doesn’t quite have a home yet. Where does it go? Where does he go? To watch Paul McCartney compose “Get Back” on the fly like this is to watch a human map their way across a terrain only visible to them.
It’s easy to romanticize this moment as a kind of magic, as if this germ of rhythm and melody exists in the air just waiting to be pulled down. It’s easy to view Paul’s composing as a kind of corralling of the universe into art. It’s as if to walk around in the air of the world is to breathe in all the songs and poems and pastries as yet unrealized by the geniuses, to whom they are not only visible but obvious. It’s nice to be a little gooey about the songs we love.
It’s easy to romanticize this moment but clarifying to remember that’s not how it actually works. Because no sooner have I typed “it’s a kind of magic, this moment where Paul McCartney drags the germ of the next Beatles’ single out of the studio air that immediately perks his bandmates’ ears” than my editor has pointed out, Well, not really, right? Because as Paul is playing and tinkering, George is making no attempt to hide a yawn the size of Shea Stadium and Ringo has an expression that I can only describe as “I’d like to be under the sea in an octopus’s garden (anywhere really, instead of here).” John isn’t even there yet! When I watch Get Back I don’t think about how impossibly genius the Beatles are. They are (sometimes!), and sometimes I think about that. But mostly I think about how I too prattle on without reading the room/am frequently anxious to the point of disinterest and exhaustion/would usually like to be somewhere else by myself/have been chronically late to every job I’ve ever had and seem to be past the biological age where this fact will simply stop being true without some kind of effort.
It’s easy to point to the art we like as indicative of a somehow more perfect way of being. If artists were geniuses we could all live in the houses they build for us. But artists are just us, which is to say, they’re just rememberers. Some—the Beatles in January 1969, per se—have greater access to time and resources than we do, but they’re still subject to the same instincts and slippages. We don’t contain multitudes so much as we contain moments, which means the potential for contradiction. Paul is overcome by the muse and frantically, arduously forces every compositional trick in his toolkit into making something happen out of the anxiety that nothing is. George bemoans the backwards patterns of the group dynamic, personally and compositionally; George leaves. And George comes back; George gets just as much joy as his bandmates in jamming to the ‘oldies but goldies’ as they try to remember what being inspired feels like. John sings “everybody had a hard year” and John sings “everybody had a good time.” Both are true things.
And so, faced with the opportunity to offer up a kind of legacy-cementing (as if they need that) moment with the considerable and conservative backing of the Disney Company’s dollar, Peter Jackson instead crafts a distinctly 2021 rendition of the Beatles at work. This is not a portrait of geniuses. This is not a movie about the miracles of music. This is a three-part movie-thing about the space of the studio, the space of finding a future in repetitions. If you love the Beatles, it’s a joy the color of the “She Loves You” drum-fill to see these renditions, these improvisations on humans you know from songs you love. You know the reality of it all: these sloggy Let It Be studio sessions scheduled right on the heels of a messy India odyssey and the double-stuft brilliance of the Beatles; the peeked-through-clouds promise of songs that would later become parts of Abbey Road and McCartney, All Things Must Pass and Imagine; the inch of fissure that, if not tragically inevitable, seems personally impossible to avoid; the unmistakable and unmistakably cheeky camaraderie fictionalized in A Hard Day’s Night or Help! that here insists on itself as a very real part of how these four lads navigated being colleagues, friends, and bandmates, in opposition and then together.
This is not a portrait of geniuses. This is a movie about friends trying to make a thing, and what happens to ‘friends’ when the thing has to be made. To show this process with a camera is to see how living is marvelously boring, shockingly beautiful. You could call this ‘the Beatles,’ but it’s also just life.
To see Get Back as an essential text not of 1969 (when the footage was filmed) or 1970 (when the original film-thing was planned for release) but of 2021, though, is to see it as something other than proof of our past, something above the stories we think we know. That is to say: if you love the Beatles—like Peter Jackson does, like I do, like my aunt and music teacher did—it is no deeper an experience than if you’ve never heard of them, don’t enjoy their music. Get Back isn’t about The Beatles at all, really. Or if it is, it’s about the ways the Beatles aren’t, the way they’re just a version of us, desperately straining to make something. Four humans enter the frame day in and day out and do what they do. It is not magic. It is laborious. It is not great. It is a language.
Sometimes it breaks through, it sparkles. Billy Preston (remember Billy Preston?) shows up midway through Part 2, just to say hi, and winds up sticking around to compose and make things with the band. The first time his electric piano drips into “I’ve Got a Feeling” it’s like shooting stars stalled and assembled in midair. It’s like you could pluck the sounds out of the space in front of your eyes, just like he does. Billy smiles.
And sometimes it just breaks, frustrated. The song John keeps returning to is “Don’t Let Me Down,” which seems to have the most promise as well as the most difficult pathway to existence. In addition to its sentiment—I am here in love and as vulnerable as I can possibly be, please don’t hurt me—its very composition seems to depend upon pushing John’s reedy tenor to its uppermost limits. “It’s a bit early for that…early in the morning, you know,” he demures during one take. “I’m not 18 anymore.”
Breakage is comfortable; the impossible emerges when we can’t hit the notes we used to. For those of us trying to make (art) and just plain make it (survive) in the moment and into the future, this notion of the frustration inside composition feels simultaneously uncomfortable in its relatability and liberating in how that uncomfortability might eventually lead us towards new songs. We’re not 18 anymore.
Jackson’s film, then, is a study in studio, a study of studying. It gives us all the takes and tries, the false starts, the walkouts, the boring (as in penetrating) process of trying to make the thing. The elusive identity of what that thing is is part of its primacy: in a scene near the end of Part 2 that feels like Richard Lester doing Beckett, the Beatles and their orbit sit around trying to figure out what they’ve been doing for the last month. They study their actions and try to suss out patterns, in front of the very cameras they’re trying to make sense of. Have they been recording an album by making a television show that they’ve also filmed as a documentary? Is it a movie? “It’s like, really, if we’re gonna do a film for cinema, it should have been done on 35mm,” Paul says, and as he and George discuss the varying merits of 16 and 35mm film stock, my little Scorsese heart flutters. George insists that they’ve been doing what they’ve been doing (“It’s just, you know, it’s like you just go into something and it does it itself”) and John wants to perform that returning somehow, to make an artifact of their efforts in a live show and Paul seems to want this, too, even if he can’t say what the wanting is.
When I watch Paul McCartney in this moment—unsure, if maybe a bit stoned, his beard a full month thicker than when he first began to inch towards “Get Back” and trying to pull something out of the air he can’t pull out of the air—I think again, of the anxiety of ‘and’—I’m supposed to keep going?
Trying to find a location for their Let It Be thing (whatever it is), the band decides to play a show on the roof of Apple Studios. For even non-fans, this performance occupies a portion of the cultural memory. ‘The rooftop concert’ is the last time they performed live in public as a band. It gives us John’s immortal flip of “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we passed the audition” as policemen escort the band off the roof. It gives us Ringo’s shiny red raincoat! It also reminds us that when it comes to keeping time (ie. keeping the band together), it all comes down to Ringo.
It feels a bit like hallelujah, to have seen the labor of birthing and rebirthing these songs, to now see them not only performed but freed in one mighty Liverpuddlian yawp in a place with no roof. It’s exactly the kind of outsize ritual you pray for in rock and roll and religion. The final transformatory is another kind of timeslide as the Beatles themselves become the performed artifact. In this Middle-Earthian process doc, they’ve been squabbling family and petty pranksters and sweaty studio rats; but if you squint an eye and clip a lock in your head they’re the Beatles in 1964 black-and-white bashing on the Ed Sullivan stage and they’re the Beatles at Candlestick Park claiming that this 1966 night is the last time they’ll perform live and they’re the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965 performing in front of my aunt who is the same age I am when she gives me a CD copy of Let It Be.
I watch the Beatles perform their songs on a rooftop in London in 1969 with heavy affection, that kind that occupies the horizon line between grief and celebration. I miss my aunt. But you know that. You miss yours, too, whoever they are. When I put my aunt and my music teacher into an essay, I am trying, remembering; you, who I have loved, I wish I could conjure you out of the air. A thought I had not thought until I watched Get Back in 2021 is: I wish you could see this movie. There isn’t time travel yet. There is no way for me to tell you that when you’re calling Paul “the cute one” for the millionth time in a living room I don’t get to walk through anymore, or plunking “Let It Be” out on a school piano, that someday you’ll be able to see Get Back, the aching remastering of that time the Beatles wrote those songs you love. There isn’t time travel yet but there’s songs. I tried to make this essay as much of one as I could.
I do not think it is happenstance that the last song the Beatles ever played live is “Get Back” because I think that to get back is to occupy that horizon line, to sit impossibly in the remembering of repetition and composing towards a future. A song is a get back, always indicating other versions of itself. It is a version of a thing of many versions that in its sounding, reminds us of its all-incompleteness. It contains all potential drafts inside it. It wibbles the air in front of us, keeping time a little differently than we did before.
Have you ever thought the world could be in a different time than the one it’s in, indeed, has to be different if we’re going to survive it? A song proves that it can be. The last draft of it has in it the first; the first one has in it the last. The semicolon here is meant to be traversed in either direction. Each time is a part of the other one, each one returning backwards and forwards, impossible giddy and frustrating plasticine. A song studies us, as in: a song teaches us how to study the world and ourselves. It is an expression of building. It composes.
Like its cousin forms—the film shot, the brush stroke, the essay—the song renders something human (an urge) as something imagined (a song). Songs don’t exist in the world without urges. Humans don’t live in the world without urges, either. We’re lucky that way. So many songs are written and sung in order to collapse the distance between the want and the get and the world and our way. So many songs seek to resolve us. This is the work of these songs, to suggest that the heat of want and the way the blood circulates might be translatable to fifths and sevenths or felt in a sudden splash of cymbal or the reverse-lurk of a slowfade. It’s good to be found in a sound.