September 25, 2019

Fifty Years on Abbey Road: “The Love You Take Is Equal to the Love You Make”

By Stuart Mitchner

You had such a vision of the street
As the street hardly understands…
—T.S. Eliot, from “Preludes”

I meant to be writing about the Beatles’ farewell album Abbey Road, which saw the light 50 years ago tomorrow, September 26. No chore that, far from it, but this is the last week of the regular baseball season, and when I should be thinking about London, all that comes to mind is that St. Louis — where T.S. Eliot was born on September 26, 1888 — is the home of the Cardinals, who clinched a spot in the playoffs Sunday and are looking to win the Central Division after sweeping a crucial four game series from the Cubs at Chicago, something that last happened in 1921.

It’s safe to say that St. Louis is not the city Tom Eliot was imagining when he wrote “Preludes.” But a poem suggesting that a street is capable of understanding a vision of itself tells me, hey, why worry about limits? Since Beatles and baseball are two of the best things in my life, there’s no reason why they can’t share the same column. 

Sharing the Moment

When your team wins a season-defining series at Wrigley Field — a feat of historic proportions, having eluded great and not so great Cardinal teams for almost a hundred years — you’ve earned a right to share the moment. You’ve suffered almost six months of ups and downs with the guys grinning and jumping for joy after a rookie sensation named Tommy Edman singles, steals second, and comes home with the winning run. You dragged around for days when they were mired in a losing streak. You questioned the manager for making decisions that seemed to turn an April surge to the top of the National League into a free fall to the bottom in May. Now, whatever happens in the playoffs, you know that manager Mike Shildt and his team have accomplished something extraordinary on the diamond, much as manager/producer George Martin and the Beatles did on the soul-saving second side of Abbey Road.

What I’m getting at is stated in the last line of the last track on this, the last Beatles album: “the love you take is equal to the love you make.” John Lennon singled this out as “a very cosmic, philosophical line,” one of the few kind things he had to say about “that sort of pop opera on the other side” he called “junk because it was just bits of songs thrown together.”

Except it’s not about being cosmic or philosophical, it’s a way of saying the players are sharing the music with us, the listeners, and that the love we give them is equal to the love that’s gone into the music.Which is what ultimately enhances all such concepts of sharing, whether it’s the euphoria of winning vicariously on the field or listening at home when you become one with the music, when your very submission to it makes the miracle happen and suddenly you’re “the fifth Beatle” the same way you become a member of a team celebrating a series of not-to-be-believed victories.

Running Free

Home runs are beautiful to behold, heroic, magnificent, titanic, especially when they rescue games that seemed to be lost causes. But there’s something more deeply engaging, more thrilling, about watching a rookie you’d never heard of two months ago racing like the proverbial wind, beating out hits, outrunning throws, stealing bases, all the while playing as if nothing can contain him. The way he runs! Cue the poet: “life is real, life is earnest, and the grave is not its goal!” This kid, as the announcers call him, is a life force, you drink him in, smiling and laughing the way audiences all over the world did the first time they saw A Hard Day’s Night.

I’m thinking of the scene everyone went mad for, when the Beatles come bursting out of the confinement of a nightmare press event, clambering down a fire escape to run wild in an open field, cavorting, dancing, leaping about to the full-speed-ahead song “Can’t Buy Me Love.” But the moment when the world fell for the lads from Liverpool comes when they’re stuck in a train compartment with an upper-class gent in a three-piece suit and a copy of the Financial Times who brazenly closes the window and turns off Ringo’s transistor radio. First there’s what happens after the toff, whose name in the screenplay is (ahem) Johnson, tells them to “take the damned radio into the corridor or some other part of the train where you obviously belong” — at that, John leans close, face to face, and says, “Give us a kiss!” The brash spirit of that moment runs through everything they would do, all the way to the first song on Abbey Road (“Here comes old flat top, groovin’ up slowly”). While the audience is still savoring the moment, it gets better when Johnson looks out the window to see the Beatles running alongside the moving train yelling “Hey mister, can we have our ball back?”

“Here Comes the Sun”

The Abbey Road goodbye that keeps on giving begins on the second side of the album with “Here Comes the Sun.” The first side, contrary to the title of the first song (John’s sassy, cynical, surreal “Come Together”), seems out of synch with the “love you take / love you make” ideal. While George’s beautiful “Something” is a triumph (Frank Sinatra reportedly called it “the greatest love song of the past 50 years”), it’s not really for us, it’s for Patty Boyd. Paul’s polished, typically infectious “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” is clever enough, but there’s not much love to share when the hammer “came down upon her head” and “made sure that she was dead.” As for Paul’s next song, “Oh Darling,” however brilliantly he’s belting it out, it’s shallow virtuosity compared to the emotional power he puts into “Golden Slumbers” and “Carry That Weight” in the “sort of pop opera” John dismisses as “junk” (he knows better, just listen to his contributions “Because” and “Sun King”). Ringo’s charming, too-cute-for-words “Octopus’ Garden” would be laughably out of place on the second side, though it’s fun to go from that “little hideaway beneath the waves” to John’s stormy “love song” for Yoko, “I Want You (She’s so Heavy),” which ends with a fantastic three-minute-plus coda (“mind-blowing” would be the word for it in 1969), easily the best thing on Side 1, not least for the way it leads to George’s “Here Comes the Sun” — like going from a Beethoven winter to a Schubert spring.

As I pointed out on the occasion of Abbey Road’s 40th anniversary, people who came of age in the CD era will find the talk of Side 1 and Side 2 a bit quaint. The saving grace of the CD I’ve been listening to (my copy of the LP long gone) is the effect of moving directly from John’s  sonic colossus with its sudden ending (think The Sopranos) to Eric Clapton’s garden, which is where George wrote the song that George Martin is not alone in thinking “one of the best ever written.” As Harrison recalls in his memoir I Me Mine, he wrote it “when Apple was getting like school, where we had to go and be businessmen, all this signing accounts,” and more than that, it had been one of those English winters that “goes on forever,” so when spring comes, “you really deserve it.” I’m reminded again of the “escaping the press” scene in A Hard Day’s Night when George refers to “the relief of not having to go and see all those dopey accountants … I was walking around the garden with one of Eric’s acoustic guitars and I wrote ‘Here Comes the sun.’”

So you have John dissing the wonder of Side 2 as “garbage” and “junk” when he’s the composer of “Because,” which is George and Paul’s “favorite song on the album,” with, in Harrison’s words, “the best Beatles harmonies ever…It’s a three-part harmony thing which John, Paul and myself all sing together,” his favorite “because it’s so damn simple. The lyrics are uncomplicated, but the harmony was actually pretty difficult to sing. We had to really learn it, but I think it’s one of the tunes that will definitely impress most people.”

An understatement of epic proportions. Every now and then, even though you know better, you begin to ask yourself, “Were they really that good, that great?” Watching the Beatles industry gear up for the release of a super-expensive 50th anniversary Abbey Road box set, you think about the endless exploitation of that brand, but when you go from the euphoria of “Here Comes the Sun” into the harmonic depths of “Because,” and on through the magical medley, you know that you should never doubt the Beatles or the magnitude of what they accomplished and have shared, are sharing, will always share with you.

Eliot and the Cardinals

While I wish I could say that T.S. Eliot shared my passion for his hometown team, I’m not surprised to read in the Elysian Fields Quarterly that the author of “The Wasteland” followed the Boston Americans, who became the Red Sox.

All the quotes come from William J. Dowling’s invaluable Beatlesongs (Fireside Books 1989), except for the line of verse from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Psalm of Life.”