Let It Be

I write this evening from London on the last day of a short business trip. I am pounding this out on an iPad so it may be a bit less polished then some of my posts, but I want to share the passion with you somewhat unedited, while it is still fresh and resonating.

While here I enjoyed the tremendous experience of seeing the new Beatles revue, Let It Be, at the Savoy Theatre. The experience was full of wonder and magic, precisely the way music and theatre can touch your heart when you least expect it. The Savoy Theatre is an especially magical venue, one of the oldest working stages in London and the first public building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity in the late 19th century.

imageYes, it’s another Beatles cover show, like Beatlemania, like Rain, like so many appearances of The Fab Four. The lads appear in multiple costumes from the Beatles era, but are not allowed to call themselves The Beatles, nor use the names John, Paul, George, or Ringo. They refer to each other as The Bass Player or The Singer or The Drummer, and of course Billy Shears gets an appropriate shout out since he is a character of fiction. They start in black suits and thin ties, then put on Nehru jackets, then some colorful hippy fabrics, then the Sgt. Pepper Uniforms, then wilder hippy fabrics, then the John character in the white suit and long hair followed by the John character in the shoulder length hair, military shirt and sunglasses. You know the drill.

We open with I Saw Her Standing There, She Loves You, I Want to Hold Your Hand, then we’re off to Shea Stadium, then the Rubber Soul period, then Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, Abbey Road, and we round it out with Get Back, the title number, and Jude. They don’t exactly go in order, more a thematic pastiche. There are television bits in the background showing black and white commercials of the nice lady in awe dropping the pearl in the Prell shampoo bottle, occasional blasts of Jimi Hendrix over Vietnam bombings, the marches, the flower posters, the peace signs, the weeping teens falling over each other in the stadium crowds—all of the familiar nostalgia that we have seen so often but still celebrate as boomers. No creative breakthroughs, no big picture inventions, no stagecraft of staggering originality. It was a concert of Beatles songs, two and a half hours with a break, four guys who didn’t look like The Beatles absent the various wigs, and the Paul character even played a right-handed (gasp!) Hofner bass.

So why was this show so different, so memorable, so moving, so unforgettable, so touching?

Two reasons.

For one, at half a century I might have been the youngest person in the audience.

The other, the audience was almost entirely British.

You might expect at a West End Beatles revue in London-town the show goers at a Saturday matinee might be mostly tourists. They were not. They were locals. They came to relive their youth, if only for an afternoon, and they loved every second of it. They were on their feet, they were twisting and shouting, they were dancing in the aisles, they clapped and sang along word for word, they echoed the chant: “All we are saying, is give peace a chance.”

No one in that room felt they were 60, or 70, or 80. You could not tell anyone in that room that this was a 50th celebration of anything. This was real, this was vital, this was now.

And this was British. Very, very British. Lovely, as they say. Brilliant.

Yes, the image of John in Central Park is literally chiseled in Strawberry Fields. Memories of George in Los Angeles recording studios are etched in our minds. Ringo and Paul sightings in the Hollywood Hills have become as natural as any other celebrity on the west coast. We share the music with the world, but somehow we came to sense that The Beatles adopted America, and Americans unofficially adopted The Beatles.

Yet they are British, beloved here in a way I never before fully understood or felt until I spent this joyous time with their countrymen. Their fans here are perpetual, like those who have shared Shakespeare and Dickens and even Lloyd Webber with the entire world. The creativity and inspiration that has flowed generation after generation from this island in the North Atlantic never ceases to blow my mind. The impact is astonishing, the consistency in trendsetting almost baffling.

The people here are exceptionally proud that so much of what has touched them has touched so many others all over the world. The Beatles are a part of them and carry their love to us in ways that words cannot convey. You simply have to be on your feet in the crowded room feeling the music penetrate your bone mass to get it.

You say you want a revolution? That’s a revolution.

Now back to a few words on age, which I think is what really brought that tear to the corner of my eye. When that Yellow Submarine on the scrim behind the band sails through the Sea of Holes and past the Sea of Time to the Sea of Green, something enduring becomes clear, almost too real. John was taken from us, and hasn’t been here since I was a freshman in college. I still feel that loss. George has left us, and my guitar still gently weeps. We graciously do have Paul and Ringo—Ringo is even opening an exhibit this summer at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. Two Beatles no longer living, but all four Beatles somehow alive.

And the fans, The Baby Boomers born between 1945 and 1964, each day a few more slip away. At the end of that tail, I have the least gray hair, some have all gray hair, some have no hair at all. When the Paul character sings, “When I’m Sixty-Four,” it’s the midrange of the audience. He was in his 20s when he wrote it. They were all in their 20s when they created that vast catalog of songs—not a bad one to boot—all in less than a working decade. Those songs remain as vibrant and relevant today as they were when we bought the singles on vinyl 45s.

How does that work?

The music keeps us young. The music compels us to stay young. When we hear and feel the music we have no ailments, no doctors to see, no life letdowns or shortcomings or missed opportunities. We are optimists with our lives entirely ahead of us, just as we were when we first heard the needle hit the record, pops and hisses, mono and stereo.

We remember all the lyrics, every guitar riff, where the drumsticks hit the cymbals, and when it’s time to harmonize on the refrains. We hold onto this because it keeps our youth, our joy, our hope. When you see an aging couple set aside their walking canes, swaying their hands in the air left to right and right to left on the final chords of Hey Jude, you know magic is happening.

Time travel is indeed possible. You are transported in mind and in toe-tapping body. The music is that perfect, that potent, that mystical, that important. It just feels that good.

We boomers didn’t get everything right. We know that. We know that peace and love and world harmony are still elusive dreams. The Beatles make it possible for us to feel those dreams anew, to be young in a way that is transformational, a dream as only it can be, a perpetual time to Imagine.

You can always see the clock ticking. You can always know what time it is. You can’t take away youth.

Do Books Matter Less?

Book TreasureThe pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus was an early observer of the ever occurring change in our universe.  About the same time in the 5th Century BC, Parmenides pondered the notion of permanence, what we could presume in nature to be essential.  Between the two of them, we have a thesis and antithesis that have yet to reveal a synthesis beyond argument some 2500 years later.  We see change all around us in almost unfathomable complexity, while we wonder what we can hold onto as firm.  For me, it’s a good problem to have, as contemplation of the unsettled forces us to chew harder and argue better.

Then there are books.

In a recent Wall Street Journal piece with the header “Books That Are Never Done Being Written,” Nicholas Carr contemplates the far-ranging impact of digital distribution on long-established but fluid notions of traditional publishing:

An e-book, I realized, is far different from an old-fashioned printed one. The words in the latter stay put. In the former, the words can keep changing, at the whim of the author or anyone else with access to the source file. The endless malleability of digital writing promises to overturn a whole lot of our assumptions about publishing.

The realization that books are no more permanent than this year’s understanding of medical treatment is hardly shocking.  The very paradigm of printing on paper and binding a work has throughout its history adopted the notion of editions and revisions.  Where would the school textbook industry be without an excuse to update a classroom volume rather than allow you to feel comfortable buying a dog-eared half price two-year old version?  If we only needed one unabridged edition of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, think of how many academic preface summaries we would have been denied annotating discovered corrections in the core text.

Yet in the worlds of literature and even political theory, we do seem to maintain an expectation that the version we read of Charles Dickens or John Stuart Mill is largely the same as the draft the author called final.  “A Tale of Two Cities” even when presented in its initial serialization was eventually finished, as was the essay “On Liberty,” and when we buy a copy of one of these today either in paperback or download, we do believe in the authenticity of replication representing if not a fully steady state, a pretty firm slice of life.  That is helpful not only in getting us all on the same page for discussion and critique, it offers us grounding in history and social evolution, the ceaseless churn emerging from deliberately placed bricks in the wall.

I have a hard time thinking today is much different, and no matter the short attention span theater that victimizes so much of our patience, my sense is our books have never been more important — no matter the brevity of their life-cycle, no matter their imposed truncation or expansion, no matter their delivery format or storage means on wood shelf or cloud server.  Our books will change as they must, but their timeliness and meditation as collective might be the primary permanence we retain, even if it is more spiritual and metaphorical than natural or physical.  The means of delivering the book does not define the book, it is largely irrelevant, itself a timely convenience worthy of disruption.  The material of delivery is subordinated to the material of substance, it is the content that matters, not the media.  The Platonic form is the ideal, and that cannot be taken from us by technology.

However we acknowledge its consumption mechanism, the book as ideal is a bridge among scattered coordinates.  We learn to read an organized set of drawn thoughts to see what is meant by change, and those who have the gift and discipline to construct a book add to the global library of permanence by carrying the torch that challenges all that came before.  Historic observation is clear and consistent: the buildings decay, the land can be conquered and utilized anew after wars and governments are gone, but the ideas underlying arts remain for examination.  The composed book is the codification of the idea however it is presented, that does not change.

My amazing wife, who is also an amazing teacher, enters her classroom on the first day with a simple statement:

“Our books are our treasures.”

Her specialty is English as a Second Language, and whether she is teaching adults or children, this mantra is always the same.  Books are precious.  If you look around our house, you might see why this is our chorus.  Books are everywhere.  That is what we want to be surrounded by.  We also have a Kindle and an iPad.  They are filled with books as well.

Another recent story in the Wall Street Journal discussed how the price of e-books was sometimes dropping below the price of “real” books which I guess means paper books, but to me, one is no less real than the other.  The broader question remaining is whether the great majority of people should still find the time for long-form written expression in a world cluttered with half-baked tidbit social media posts like this one.  The answer has to be yes, because if we are going to allow character count to trump in-depth inquiry, we condemn our more severe concerns to being adequately addressed by less than substantial narrative.  Our pace of change is only becoming more frantic, and the hope for some form of understandable permanence all the more desirable in addressing unending anxieties.  Committed writing and reading gets us a good deal of the way there, because the acts of reading and writing might be one of the few forms of permanence we can share.

I say this as someone who just spent the better part of a year writing my first book, which is now in first draft and undergoing edit.  I haven’t talked much about the book, and won’t until we get closer to publication, but let me just say that whether anyone reads it or it sells a single copy, it will remain one of my proudest achievements.  Right now it is a long book.  It will get shorter to accommodate marketing concerns, but hopefully it will still be a substantial book.  I couldn’t have said all I needed to say in a blog post or I would have.  Believe me, I would have!

In our world of constant and increasing hyper flux, books can be thought of as a noble but flawed exercise in establishing some sense of the enduring.  Now that digital publishing allows current authors easy access to further disturbing permanence, any foothold in establishing the concrete may remain even more illusive, but the stepping-stones of thought that bridge us from there to here can certainly maintain significance if we view thought as continuum, a timeline.  In that regard, as a roadmap or even a set of breadcrumbs, books for me have never been more relevant, nor the mission of authors any less permanent.  Some books are good and some are bad, some certainly more ephemeral than others, but the connectivity of books is ongoing.  Apps or facings, that is as it should be, as long as I can read.