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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Quote of the Day | January 22, 2009: The Withering Away of the Beatles

From Lester Bangs'1975 The Real Paper piece "Dandelions in Still Air: The Withering Away of the Beatles," which can be found in Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader.

Name me one Sixties superstar who hasn't become a zombie. Dylan doesn't count, because he's been revivified, at least in terms of being a hot contender, by Blood on the Tracks. And Lou Reed is a professional zombie who can cackle in the grooves instead of up his sleeve. But Mick Jagger, Joe Cocker, Steve Stills . . . they're all washed-up, moribund, self-pitying, self-parodying has-beens. And the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that the four splintered Beatles may well have weathered the pall and decay of the Seventies the worst.

One by one, in order of descending credibility: Paul McCartney makes lovely boutique tapes, resolute upon being as inconsequential as the Carpenters which in itself may be as much a reaction to John's opposite excesses as a simple case of vacuity. You could hardly call him burnt out -- Band on the Run was, in its rather vapid way, a masterful album. Muzak's finest hour. Of course he is about as committed to the notion of subject matter as Hanna-Barbera, and his cuteness can be incredibly annoying at times. If he was just a little more gutsy, he might almost be Elton John.

Lennon, as ever, seems Paul's antithesis. He'll do anything, reach for any cheap trick, jump on any bandwagon, to make himself look like a Significant Artist. His marriage to Yoko was culture-climbing that revealed a severe and totally-unexpected inferiority complex. Of course, John's been staying drunk a lot, making a public spectacle of himself with such shameless elan that Lou Reed is gonna have to hustle his ass or lose the crown: Kotexes on the forehead, standing on tables in nightclubs screaming "I'm John Lennon! I'm John Lennon!" disrupting the stage acts of his peers in a manner more befitting Iggy Pop or perhaps the famous Lenny Bruce-Pearl Bailey incident in Vegas.

Somehow you have to feel affection and even a curious sort of admiration for John as he engages in these escapades. In spite of the fact that they amount to a stance that might best be summed up as I Am Pathetic, Therefore I Am Charismatic (lifestyle is Art, said John and Yoko, so now he's Fatty Arbuckle, having left his Coke bottle on the train in A Hard Day's Night), which itself has become trite in these dunced-out and depleted times, there is a curious mangled echo of the Olden Spirit of Beatle Mischief in all this public idiocy. . . .

George Harrison belongs in a daycare center for counterculture casualties, another of those children canceled not (so much?) by drugs this time but something perhaps far more insidious. His position seems to be I'm Pathetic, But I Believe in Krishna, which apparently absolves him from any position of leadership while enabling him to assume a totally preachy arrogance toward his audience which would be monumental chuztpah if it weren't coming from such a self-certified nebbish.

Ringo is beneath contempt. He used to be loveable because he was inept and knew it and turned the whole thing into a good-natured game. Now he is marketing that lameness in a slick Richard Perry-produced package, and getting hits via the strategem, but the whole thing reeks. It is a bit as if Peter Max were designing stage sets for Hee Haw's Archie Campbell.

So the moptops have ended up mopping the floor of the supermarket, which is keeping them from bankruptcy and no doubt reassuring them that they still Matter on some level, but they do not and never will again give off a glint of the magic they used to radiate with such seeming effortlessness. That magic is currently one of the hottest items in the Woolworth's where Sixties nostalgia is peddled like bric-a-brac -- inspite of the Sgt. Pepper Broadway bomb.

. . .

I have this theory, which has gotten me into minor fracases on a couple of occasions, that the Beatles' initial explosion was intimately tied up with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In fact, I have been known to say that JFK's killing was a good thing, historically speaking. A man died in ugly fashion, he happened to be a man that people who didn't know anything about corporate politics considered the leader of the "free world," it was a national tragedy, etc.

But on another level it was good because it opened a lot of things up. When Kennedy was in office we were living in a national dream world, the New Frontier as panacea, the illusion of unity. Underneath it all things were just as shitty as ever, but patriotism in those days seemed viable even for many of the avant-deviant-opposition fringes of our society. That misconception was shattered with the president's skull: the dream was over, and we were left with fragmentation, disillusionment ("I don't believe in Jesus, I don't believe in Elvis," etc.), cynicism, hostile factions.

All of which was fine. People began to look inside themselves, instead of toward a popstar of a president, for their definition of America. Out of this forcible introspection erupted the New Left, acid, all those alternative lifestyles which by now have of course become even more oppressive than the delusions of the Kennedy era. So in that sense it was healthy for the body politic that we lost that mythological leader; it forced us to contemplate a whole new set of options.

It also left us with a gnawing void which forced us to find new leaders, of a new kind or any kind at all, and fast. Thus the Beatles, exploding across America from Ed Sullivan's stage and several different record companies, just weeks after the shot was fired. They were perfect medicine: a sigh of relief at their cheeky charm and a welcome frenzy to obliterate the grief with a tidal wave of Fun for its own sake which ultimately was to translate into a whole new hedonistic dialectic.

. . .

What made the Beatles initially so exciting and sustained them for so long was that they seemed to carry themselves with a good-humored sense of style which was (or appeared to be) almost totally unselfconscious. They didn't seem to realize that they were in the process of becoming institutionalized, and that was refreshing. By the time they realized it the ball game was over. In this sense, Rubber Soul (in packaging) and Revolver (in content as well) can be seen as the transitional albums. They doped it up and widened their scopes through the various other tools they had access to at the time just like everybody else down to the lowliest fringe-dripping cowlicked doughboy in the Oh Wow regiment, and the result was that they saw their clear responsibility as cultural avatars in what started out as a virtual vacuum (nice and clean, though), which of course ruined them. And possibly, indirectly, us.

But it's okay. Because, while I would not indulge in the kind of ten-year-cycle Frank Sinatra-Elvis Presley-The Beatles who's-next-now's-the-time theories that have been so popular and so easy lately, I do think that, like the assassination of JFK, the whithering away of the Beatles has had its positive effects. Acidheads can (could?) be unbearable in their arrogant suppositions of omniscience, but if there's one thing good you can say about downs it's that nobody could get pretentious about them. The spell and its bonds are broken.

The death of the Beatles as a symbol or signification of anything can only be good, because like the New Frontier their LOVE nirvana was a stimulating but ridiculous, ephemeral and ultimately impracticable mass delusion in the first place. If the Beatles stood for anything besides the rock 'n' roll band as a communal unit suggesting the possibility of mass youth power, which proved to be a totally fatuous concept in short order, I'd like to know what I have missed by not missing the Beatles. They certainly didn't stand for peace or love or true liberation or the brotherhood of humankind, any more than John Denver stands for the preservation of our natural resources.

On the other hand, like Davy Crockett hats, zoot suits, marathon dances, and bootleg alcohol, they may well have stood for an era, so well as to stand out from that era, totally exhumed from it in fact, floating, light as dandelions, to rest at last on the mantle where, neighboring your dead uncle's framed army picture, they can be dusted off at appropriate intervals, depending on the needs of Capitol's ledgers and our own inability to cope with the present.

Tags: Lester Bangs, The Beatles, Sixties

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