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Excerpt from an essay discussing the Beatles' "In My Life"

Wednesday 2/2/22

On Love Songs, tracks that don’t appear to belong together as workable fits, reach across the years and styles to become bedmates. Odd couples—but couples that work well together. This is Beatles alchemy, extended past the end of their own career, finding new form on a compilation that attempted to resurrect the love song. Remember, this was a time period of disco and punk, and while those styles were linked in no musical manner, save that the latter would have liked to garrote and gut the former, love song did not spring forth from either genre. The Beatles of ten years before, as love song fashioners and purveyors, would have been seen as distant but present—Bardic, and embossed with presumed wisdom, but also in the room, because the Beatles had never truly gone away.


On the first side of the compilation, there are two lovers trying to touch, as I like to think of them, with the single best love song ever written by John Lennon, separated by but one track—a matchmaking cover of Buddy Holly’s “Words of Love”—from the best love song ever written by Paul McCartney. They are dissimilar, as the composers themselves were as composers, but they function along similar songwriting ideals, which is different than techniques.


The Lennon song is “In My Life,” a number he struggled to compose, at a time of his own life when he peaked as a songwriter. We all know accounts of “Gee, this idea hit me and boom, out it came.” McCartney spoke of the melody to “Yesterday” this way, and was incredulous that he had invented it. But there may also be power in struggle, in the challenging birth. The journey to a fully-formed work of art. Rubber Soul is the peak of Lennon’s artistry. I have always thought of it as his album. The record also marked a coming change in the dominant songwriting force within the Beatles. After Rubber Soul’s release, in December 1965, McCartney will be leading the writing way for the band. Lennon has been the main guy over these crucial early years, and now to the mid-point. That’s one reason why I esteem the early Beatles as I do. As a force of artistic energy, I don’t believe there is anything that rivals their music of the period 1963-1965. A lot of that is Lennon.


He was in elliptical mode, as he wrote the song, which is tantamount to an early version of a “Penny Lane” or a “Strawberry Fields Forever,” from 1967. Those were numbers that looked back for the purpose of growing forward. They inhaled and breathed the air that is the circulating stuff of pure childhood freedom and invention. You can feel that air in the lungs of those songs, and in the outward expression of the lead vocals, which too have their apogee aspect. Lennon was already there in 1965. “In My Life” is the dry run for “Strawberry Fields Forever,” but as a piece of cod-Baroque music, with Edwardian inflection, rather than outright psychedelia and the dream calliope of a Lewis Carroll character awakening to a second chance at the possibilities of childhood, and the magic contained therein, and the magic that period may lead to.


Lennon began to write “In My Life” with a veer towards maximalism ("In My Life" was on the road to becoming a proto-"I Am the Walrus"), creating a hodgepodge of a song checkered with Liverpool landmarks, people he’d known, a who’s who and a what’s what. But I mentioned that this was Lennon at his best, and Lennon at his best realized that a little bit of Lennon would beat anyone else’s “more” of anything else.


Robert Johnson called this, “The stuff I got.” That’s a crucial discovery for the finest artists, and I believe that every last one of them has this epiphany. Art becomes not about reaching and straining, but trusting in the gift, and, simply, showing up, and being one’s self. Can be harder than it sounds, for this is a faith-based endeavor. You have to know what you got. You have to trust that it will always be there. You have to know that simply being you is going to carry the hell out of the day.


I think we can say that relationships are not dissimilar. Conceivably, what I’ve said about making art is also what makes love work, in all of its guises, and allows people to connect with each other sans barriers, or manufactured selves that add degrees of separation. Again, harder than it sounds.


Lennon jettisoned the references, culled his word salad, and found his feast, inviting us all to his banquet table with a love song that seemed to love us more, just as the singer loved the subject of the song. Who is she? Who is he? Who is it? I ask, because I think the love is that idea of love, of the total connection. An ideal that may be made actual. That is actual. How do you give that actual ideal name and voice? You write and sing a song of this nature. Let us be elliptical, but true: She is love, and that love out in the world--a human--that one might also be writing about, is contained within her, where she is also free. I am moved to say, “Thank you, John. That was just like you.”