It’s Sacrilege, For Christ’s Sake
Why McCartney Should Have Let It Be

This is my 150th column, signifying the end of year three.

No, no, no applause necessary. Just send money.

Anyway, the same boring old self-congratulation-and-thanks-to-everyone-reading-this gets tired after a while, I’m sure, but I still mean every word of the thank you part. This column has brought me in contact with some truly great people, especially recently, and without all of you, I’m just shouting into a vacuum. So thanks for letting me (hopefully) entertain you for three years. ‘Nuff said.

This is also the second column I wrote this week. The first is much more bloggy and emotional than this one, and I figured you’ve probably all had enough of that from me, so I immediately archived it. But it’s on the site, linked through the archive page, if you want to read it.

Anyway, when it comes to these anniversary columns, I always want to have something important or personally relevant, musically speaking, to discuss. It hardly ever works out that way, and usually I have to wrack my brain to come up with a fitting subject. Not so this time – my topic was handed to me by Sir Paul McCartney himself. What better way to cap the third year than by talking about the best band to ever walk the planet, the Beatles?

I can’t remember the first time I heard a Beatles song. Their work is such an integrated part of the cultural continuum that it feels, to me at least, like it’s always been in my life. I can remember the first Beatles album I bought, though: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, on cassette, when I was 15 years old. Talk about starting at the top – the album was a complete revelation for me, and it’s only deepened over time. I now own every Beatles album in at least two formats, and still rank them as the best band I’ve ever encountered, and Sgt. Pepper as the best album I’ve ever heard.

I give you this personal history of my experience with the band simply because there’s no point in rehashing the history of the group itself. The Fab Four have been discussed, dissected, lauded and deified for 40 years, and by many more eloquent and knowledgeable people than myself. It seems the consensus that the Beatles were the best band in the history of rock, the best songwriters in the history of pop, and the best record makers in the history of recorded sound. Their position as icons and deities, at least in the worlds of rock criticism and fandom, seems immutable.

As a f’rinstance, Rolling Stone has just published another of their asinine “500 Best Albums of All Time” list, featuring picks and contributions from all manner of literati. Sgt. Pepper came in at number one, of course, but Rubber Soul, Revolver and the White Album all cracked the top 10 as well. That means that according to Rolling Stone‘s experts (whatever that means), four guys are responsible for 40 percent of the 10 best albums ever made, and since those four records came out all in a row, that also means they accomplished this feat in less than four years.

Yeah, wow. And surely some of you are questioning this. Can it be possible that this band was that good? Is it even fathomable that with today’s technology and nearly 40 years of musical progress, we still haven’t managed to make a better album than one recorded analog on an 8-track and released in 1967? Should any band be raised up to such unattainable heights?

The question of the Beatles’ deification is at the center of Paul McCartney’s ongoing attempts to add to and “correct” the band’s legacy, begun with the expansive (and largely superfluous) Anthology project. But now he’s gone and messed with something sacred – one of the albums themselves. Just out is his “naked” version of Let It Be, the final Beatles record, and an album that landed at number 86 on the Rolling Stone list. And even though I try to temper my own tendency to idolize the Beatles, I can’t help feeling that this is like screwing with the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

The story of the Let It Be sessions certainly lends itself to historical revisionism. Mere weeks after the White Album hit stores, the Fab Four reconvened with the idea of getting back to basics – writing some simple rock and roll, performing it live (for the first time in two years) and filming the process for a television special. They were even going to call the project Get Back. Well, the sessions ended in frustration, and the hundreds of tapes were given to producer Glyn Johns to see if an album could be culled from them.

Meanwhile, the boys regrouped for their last studio project, the comparatively lush and staid Abbey Road, and then promptly broke up. The Let It Be sessions were transmuted into an album by Johns and “boosted” in the studio by Phil Spector, who added strings and choirs to four songs. And when McCartney heard it, he hated it. And he went on hating it for 33 years.

So now, 23 years after John Lennon’s death and one year after George Harrison’s, we have Let It Be… Naked, McCartney’s retooled, de-Spectorized version, complete with a sticker that hails it as “the album as it was originally intended.” Which, of course, is a load of crap – the Let It Be album itself was never “intended,” really, and much of what has survived from those sessions only has because of Glyn Johns and his associates. Make no mistake, Naked is a bald-faced attempt at rewriting history.

In and of itself, that doesn’t make the album unnecessary. But to suggest that this release is meant to take the place of the original Let It Be is practically sacrilege, mostly because McCartney (who suggested the idea of the album and approved its release) has changed a number of things that didn’t need to be changed. If Naked had been Let It Be without Spector’s strings and choirs, that might have been interesting. Instead, the new version mucks with enough details to qualify as just another draft, not a definitive statement.

For example, the track order is all askew. Now, I know, the songs were originally arranged by Johns and Spector, and there’s no sacred text that says the album can’t open with “Get Back” instead of closing with it, but after 33 years, messing with the order just feels wrong. Naked plays like the original album on shuffle, for no good reason – nothing is improved by putting “For You Blue” third instead of eleventh, for instance.

Worse than that, though, is the new version’s lack of atmosphere. The original Let It Be is unique in the Beatles catalog because it sounds like the original intention – a document of a fun and loose recording session. The tracks are preceded and followed by studio chatter, most famously John Lennon’s rampant wiseassery. (“Phase one, in which Doris gets her oats…”) Additionally, the 1970 version featured a pair of “throwaways” in “Dig It” and “Maggie May,” each less than a minute long, but undeniably fun. Put simply, the original Let It Be is a whimsical, rollicking record full of personality.

All that is absent from the new one. The chatter is gone, the throwaway tracks are gone, and even some of the extended endings of songs are gone. In their place is a collection of studio tracks, with a slick feel that’s no different from any other Beatles record. It starts and ends without telling you anything interesting about the process that birthed it, and with recordings this stripped-down, the revelatory sense of fun is sorely missed.

What’s curious about the lack of atmosphere is the new version’s stated intention to strip away the studio gloss. Spector’s contributions to four songs are indeed gone, leaving bare bones recordings. The genesis of this plot arose from McCartney’s adverse reaction to Spector’s treatment of his “The Long and Winding Road,” which on Let It Be is stuffed full with strings and choral voices. Similar embellishments have been removed from “Across the Universe,” “I Me Mine” and “Let It Be.”

But here’s the thing: “The Long and Winding Road” sounds awful in this new incarnation. It sounds like a cheap demo of a skeleton of a song. The glorious countermelodies the string sections provided are just plain gone, with nothing in their place. It’s almost a lounge version, and it comes across as mawkish instead of desperately sad. On the original version, McCartney’s longing voice battled with the strings, creating emotional tension. On the new one, there’s none of that.

The only take I agree with is “Across the Universe,” just for its naked beauty, but even that is barely equal with the original version’s reverbed psychedelia. “Let It Be” is here in a different take entirely, I believe, with a completely different guitar solo that just sounds… wrong. It may be 33 years of the original version talking here, but Harrison’s solo is as much a part of this song as the chorus. I’d bet anyone even passingly familiar with “Let It Be” could hum at least part of the solo. It’s been learned and imitated by generations of budding guitarists. Changing it adds nothing but a strange sense of disconnection.

The Naked version also adds “Don’t Let Me Down,” a song that probably should have made the original record. But the song has been as readily available (on Past Masters Vol. 2) as the rest of the catalog, so simply squeezing it in here adds little.

The only improvement the new version makes, in fact, is in the sound. The fidelity and clarity has been improved measurably, and it leads one to wonder why the rest of the Beatles catalog still languishes in the land of analog hiss and hum. If they all could sound like this, then remaster away, Sir Paul. I can always buy the entire freaking catalog again…

Of course, the unabated deification of the band’s records leads to an interesting question: if the Naked version of Let It Be had been released in 1970 and the original one in 2003, would critics be decrying the addition of studio chatter and the removal of “Don’t Let Me Down”? Is it the canonical nature of the original mix that lends it an air of sacrosanct authenticity, or is it actually superior to the new version? Since we can’t remove ourselves from history, we’ll never know.

All I can tell you in this case is that I like the original version better, though I don’t regret hearing the new takes of these familiar tunes. Still, Naked only succeeds in being a curiosity, not a necessary addition to the canon, and certainly not a fitting replacement for Let It Be. Rather, it will get filed off to the side, apart from the 15 “real” CDs, along with the Anthology sets and the solo material. If McCartney intended to make me reach for this disc whenever I feel like listening to Let It Be, then I must disappoint him. If, however, he merely intended to provide a still-rabid fanbase with another scrap and make himself some cash, then he’s done it. And he’s got my cash, the bastard.

In the end, it all comes down to what isn’t there, and perhaps the most gutting omission is Lennon’s final smartass line: “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we passed the audition.” What a perfect way to end both the album and the catalog, bringing it full circle and providing a neat laugh at the same time. Even if the sense of fun that glues together the original Let It Be is something of a revision of history itself, given the frustrating nature of the sessions, it’s exactly the way I’d want a band like the Beatles to go out. The original Let It Be is a bittersweet farewell, a last romp, a great rock and roll record that bubbles with life and joy. The new version? It’s just another bunch of songs, and that’s what separates the two.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Tuesday Mourning
What a Year It's Been

One of my co-workers died yesterday.

His name was Bryan Forrest, he wasn’t too much older than me, he had a wife and two kids, and he died of a sudden heart attack. And I don’t really know why, but I’m shaken to the core.

Bryan was a genial wiseass. He’d perfected the art of doing nothing at all, and he was never duplicitous about it. But he was so sly that everyone forgave him. Bryan was direct and honest – my first conversation with him revolved around Jesus and why I didn’t go to church. Mind you, this was not just our first real conversation, but the first time we’d ever spoken. And it put me off a bit, but I came to realize that’s just how Bryan was.

I didn’t know him well at all. News of his death hit the plant at 3:30 a.m., the time Bryan was to report for work, and scores of people were devastated, crying their eyes out. The company did an awkward 20-second moment of silence, and put up a form letter memo into which they’d obviously inserted his name. (From: Front Office Re: Loss of BRYAN FORREST.) And life just went on.

My last conversation with Bryan was about (what else) his amazing ability to avoid any kind of work for huge stretches of time. He told me, upon completion of my break, to get back to work, and I laughed at the irony. He spotted it too, and said, “Some things never change, do they?”

But some things change all the time, and lately they seem to be changing with increasing, frightening rapidity. We did a little discussing at work and found that no fewer than six of us had taken time off in the last month for funerals. Six of us. It’s starting to feel more and more like death is circling above, indiscriminately taking whomever it wants, and closing in.

And I probably wouldn’t feel this way if I hadn’t been one of the above-mentioned six. I took off for Massachusetts last week, however, because one of my best friends, Ray Tiberio, became the first of my close-knit circle to lose a parent.

I honestly don’t remember the first time I met Fred Tiberio, simply because his house has been a second home to me since high school. His family has become like my family over the years. There’s no getting around it – Fred Tiberio was a big, big guy. He was tall and wide, and his very presence could be imposing for those who didn’t know him. Once you did know him, however, it became obvious that his heart and spirit were at least as large as his form. Mr. T. let you know when you were family, and once that happened, he’d move the world for you if he could.

Mr. T. beat back cancer for the last eight years, suffered the loss of both kidneys and depended on dialysis three to four times a week. Still, he was always cheerful and ready with a kind greeting, and he remained remarkably funny, even up to the last time I saw him alive. It wasn’t the cancer that took him – it was a sudden brain aneurysm, and if you can tell me how that makes sense in a just world, I’d love to hear it.

As if that wasn’t more than enough death, Mike Ferrier, another close friend, lost his aunt that same week. She had been going in for a surgical procedure, and passed away before they could operate. I had never met her, but anything that affects my best friends in the world also deeply affects me, and I’m filled with an overpowering urge to help, to do whatever I can to ease whatever pain I’m able. And the entire time, I’m doomed to realize that it’s hopeless – there’s nothing I can do or say that will ever help fill the holes these people have left.

There was a stretch of time, the day of Mr. Tiberio’s funeral, in which Mike couldn’t reach his parents. He was under the impression that they would meet him at the church, but they never did, and they weren’t answering at home. And I swear, I was terrified, probably as much as Mike was. There has been so much death this year that a small, paranoid part of my brain insisted that I was in for more, that Mike was in for more, that this whole dismal year would never end.

It turned out to be a miscommunication, and the Ferriers were fine. But man, no one should have to feel like that. There shouldn’t be this strange black shroud over everything, these nagging feelings of hopelessness that twinge like tiny daggers every time someone doesn’t answer the phone, or doesn’t come directly to the door.

And hey, God, if you’re reading this, I’d really just like to say that you’ve made your point. We understand. You can take any of us at any time, and we’ll never know it’s coming. We get it.

Now knock it off. Please.

Services for Bryan are this weekend, but I don’t think I’m going. I haven’t been able to leave hugging-and-crying mode since Friday, and I’m spent. I need to recuperate, to make sense of everything that’s happening, and to talk to some friends and make sure they’re okay. And then I need to start hoping that 2004 is brighter, sweeter and greener than 2003, because frankly, this year has sucked beyond description. And I can’t wait to put it behind me.

See you in line Tuesday morning.