Monday, October 10, 2011

Only Everything: The Beatles: "Penny Lane"

"I was thinking," he said (it was not an answer, but then what answers had he got this morning?) "that I've been here before."
"Lots of people get that feeling. Here."
"In front of the church?"
"In the Village, generally. It seems to do that. You know what I think it is?"
"I think it represents something." He stroked his small, square chin, savouring the plum of represents. "People come here from other places. Like you. And they see our Village, and they get the feeling that something has always been missing from their lives."

The Prisoner, Thomas M. Disch

Part I:

If there is any one reason the 60s - once they had passed - proved so hard to shake off, we have now reached it. If you have ever - for whatever reason - had to leave behind something you did not want to leave behind, some place or some person...well, imagine that place or person as a time. Not just days on a calendar or ticks from a clock but an actual, near tangible time when things in general held promise, dignity, style, substance, color and humor. Once experienced, this time will be missed; indeed I think many still miss it, as disorienting and Utopian as it could be, by turns.

That this period lasted for only about a year or so just adds to the mystique; it also adds, I know, to the annoyance of others. It is easy to say "What is so different/special about 1967?" and be right. It wasn't a perfect year (as well shall see) and a great divide opens up during it - in fact that divide starts right here, in early March. It is the divide, simply, between those who buy singles and those who don't.

Or between those who "got it" and those who didn't. (There are still those who don't.)


It was not really supposed to be like this.

The custom was common - release a single, then soon after an album with all-new songs on it. They had finished their last tour in the summer and thus had time off to think of what to do next; an album about their Liverpool childhood was agreed on and two songs had been written and recorded for the album...but the label, nervous that they hadn't had a single out since August, insisted they release another one...and so they reluctantly released what wasn't supposed to be a single as a single. They may not have expected it to do very well, all things considered. That it got to #2 did not seem to bother them at all.

Part II

The man was dead; dead, by his own hand. It was not a mystery, in the end. He died, nearly penniless and yet well-known, his paranoia and depression and anger spent in a moment, killing his landlady and then himself. He had no sense of community, in being part of something much bigger, including history itself. He did not want or need others and this was perhaps a death sentence as well. The other world that called to him, which he longed to explore, was always there, and he ran headlong for it, as he had worked so hard to achieve things while he was alive. If only he could have waited; so much would be his in just a few months, in the spring, in the summer. But he wasn't much for waiting.

He knew music was the one sustainer, that long after death the music was still there, a gateway to another world, an eerie gift that was there for the taking. Put the needle on the record and sit and listen; try and tape ghosts in a graveyard and then maybe the same thing will happen. To hunt is one thing, but to be captured while hunting is something else.

By now his ghost haunted the streets, the old ones he knew, the ones he had gotten away from. This is where I once lived?


The town is a still-life; the area itself is alive, with characters that seem cartoonish, though they are real enough. This is Peter and the Wolf gone to Liverpool, for all I know. The song shifts as it goes, sounding like a simple depiction of what happens of a morning...

...if only it was like that. As cheery and life-affirming as this sounds, there is something...wrong...lurking in it that makes it tougher than it might seem at first. The barber is friendly, sure, but just why does the fireman rush in? (Yes, it is raining...but then aren't the skies supposed to be blue, the air sunny?) The banker doesn't wear a 'mac' (raincoat) even in the this why the children laugh at him? How is it that it's summer and yet Remembrance Day poppies are being sold by the pretty nurse behind the bus shelter? This is the mystery, and one that is in the 'ears and eyes' of the singer, who is not in Penny Lane beyond his own mind. We seem to be in a place, but we aren't. The nurse feels as if she is in a play (ie acting something out in the 'real' world) and yet she is, anyway. So says the singer, but can we trust him?

And what is that burst towards the end, the thunder in the clear blue sky? It approaches in the song, halting the ineffable swing of the song, as it returns again and again to the increasingly strange world where everything seems fine, though the singer comments plainly that it's "very strange." No kidding, Paul.

But then: the end.

Let me digress and say that the one thing that annoys me more about radio in general is that DJs talk over the end of songs; indeed sometimes they play a minute or so and then start babbling and the whole point of playing the thing in the first place is lost. They forget that a song is a story, and the story is told not just with words but music, with sounds. Cut off the ending and something is definitely lost, and here it is vital; the song starts briskly enough, the lyrics just a note behind the music.

But the end!

The singer says the name of the place one more time, as if wrapping a bow; and then the scene fades, the piano and cymbal squeak into feedback, as if the place is suddenly full of light or dimming beyond focus. It evaporates. What once was is gone, is gone again, nothing is as it seemed. Is this a happy song? For all intents and purposes, yes. The sprightly beat and hints of brass bands; the smile in Paul's voice; the Motown roots and warmth; the way you can close your eyes and be there with the singer, maybe even remembering your own childhood neighborhood - all these are joys.

But there is something lurking - that burst and then unnerving feedback at the end - that make this more than just another happy McCartney song. It's not like the memories are being made fun of, or the people. It's that even as they existed, the scenes were surreal, unreal, "very strange." This all seems familiar, too familiar...and the solution? Turn the record over and see what is on the other side.

It was now as if he had never left. This was intolerable. He had to escape. But how?

1 comment:

Bob Stanley said...

Beautiful analysis. The solarizing/bleaching feedback conveys an Ealing-shot, idealised suburbia, fading from view before the song is even over. The irony here is that Penny Lane is one of the few areas of Liverpool left unravaged by post-industrial collapse. It is easily recognisable from the lyric - the fire station has been rebuilt but otherwise it's surprisingly intact, barbers and all.