November 15, 2023

Thoughts on “Now and Then” and the Beatles

By Stuart Mitchner

Approaching the “last Beatles’ song,” my first thought is how well the title “Now and Then” fits the occasion. The dominant line, “It’s all because of you,” works for people who have lived more than half a century with the group as I have, as well as our generation’s children and grandchildren, like the 23-year-old who says “I was 1 when George Harrison died” in a November 3 New York Times article about Gen Z Beatles fans on TikTok.

The Romance

In last Sunday’s Times (“At the Heart of the Last Beatles Song, A Love Story”), Ian Leslie views “Now and Then” in the context of the book he’s writing about Lennon and McCartney’s “love story in songs.” While he seems to agree that “their love story is “our love story, too” and that  “their songs still permeate our lives,” Leslie views “Now and Then” as a song based on Lennon’s last words to McCartney in the hallway of the Dakota, “Think about me every now and then, old friend.” However, highlighting the romance inevitably distracts from the fact that the song and the official video with its doctored clips of Beatles “now and then” is being presented to the world as a technologically achieved Beatles reunion. While George Harrison’s searing guitar was the defining force in the 1994 “reunion” that produced “Free As a Bird,” this time it’s Paul who “came up with a slide guitar part played on a lap steel guitar,” according to the liner notes, “in homage to George,” who had dismissed “Now and Then” as “rubbish” when they first tried to work with the demo in the late nineties.

George Says “OK”

Fortunately, the “Now and Then” package includes a message from Harrison’s wife Olivia and son Dhani conveying his spiritual approval of 2023’s restoration, which comes with an insert featuring the image of a clock with a steeple on top and NOW THEN in the center with a pair of dice between the two words. On the insert above this charming piece of “found art” by an Oregon sculptor named Chris Giffin is a facsimile of John’s scrawled “Now and Then” lyric. Apparently George bought the sculpture from a shop in Providence, R.I., in 1997, when Dhani was a student at Brown, and it’s been in the family ever since. Recently Olivia decided to have a closer look at it. “I was putting it on the mantelpiece,” she recalls, “when the phone rang. It’s Paul, and he begins to remind me of this third song with ‘Real Love’ and ‘Free As a Bird.’ I said ‘I remember it.’ He said, ‘It’s called ‘Now and Then.’ I’m standing there with the phone in one hand, looking at the clock that said Now and Then…. I said, ‘I think this is George saying it’s OK.’”

Seen in the psychedelic “Then” of the multi-colored, multi-faceted world of Sgt. Pepper, Lucy in the Sky, Penny Lane, and Yellow Submarine, this miniature clocktower has a whimsical Beatles ambiance that would make it a good fit among the enchanted objects in the music video for Harrison’s 1987 hit recording “Got My Mind Set On You.” As he sits in a chair strumming an acoustic guitar, George is surrounded by a fantastical curiosity shop of objects that come dancing and nodding to life with the music: a stuffed squirrel, a mounted stag, various knick-knacks, and a grandfather clock that begins the dance by swaying hugely back and forth to the beat.

About the Demo

The original demo, which can be heard on YouTube, was recorded on a cassette marked “Now + Then” by John in the late 1970s. One crucial detail of the back story is that the bridge sung by John was left out when the demo was “worked on anew” by Peter Jackson using the software system he’d developed for Get Back, known as Machine Assisted Learning, or MAL. Although not all the words are clear, Lennon sings them feelingly, gently, hauntingly: “I don’t wanna lose you, oh no, abuse you or confuse you, oh no, sweet darlin” — words  that would have seemed too personal in a product marketed as “the last Beatles record.” Whoever “sweet darlin” refers to, it’s not Paul or George or Ringo.

The tender, loving quality in John’s voice reminds me that he was composing this song while sharing the Dakota apartment with Yoko and Sean. To be a father with a newborn son had to have been a transcendently unique experience for someone who had been swept up in the delirium of Beatlemania during the early years of his first son Julian’s life. What I hear above all is Lennon the new father, loving and unguarded, his voice probably not unlike what Sean may have heard at 4 or 5, the bedtime-story reading voice. But in this case John is also singing for himself or the ear of the world as poignantly as only he can sing, as he does on songs ranging from “If I Fell” to “In My Life” to “Jealous Guy” and its first incarnation, “Child of Nature.” 

Whether you hear it before or after the demo, the reconstituted “Now and Then” sustains its compelling power; if anything, the contrast between the “then” of the cassette and the “now” of the finished version actually amplifies the magnitude of the accomplishment, taking it into the world of 2023 and untold future worlds of listeners.

“Beautiful Boy”

After hearing the raw, in-the-moment demo and its symphonic resurrection, I’m listening for the first time in 43 years to “Beautiful Boy,” the lullaby for Sean that John included on Double Fantasy, which he and Yoko had finished recording a few weeks before he was killed. Again, I’m thinking of John in the Dakota writing this touching song in roughly the same space-time-span as “Now and Then.” I’m also thinking of personal history, of how it felt on the night of December 8, 1980, still absorbing the news, listening to “Beautiful Boy” on the car radio, thinking of my own son, born half a year after Sean, knowing that John and I had most likely shared some of the same experiences: the bedtime or naptime lullabies and stories; the bathing, and changing, and walking around with him in your arms after he wakes up at all hours.

“Beautiful Boy” is still a hard song to listen to, but not the way it was that night, hearing John sing to Sean, telling him “close your eyes have no fear the monster’s gone,” telling him “I can hardly wait to see you come of age” and to “take my hand before you cross the street.” The line I couldn’t get past then was “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making plans.” If I’d been emotionally strong enough to listen to the song all the way through, I’d have heard the last lines, “Darling, darling, darling / Darling Sean.” If you listen to the demo and put it together with “Beautiful Boy,”  you know that “Now and Then” began with Sean.

“A Bit of 2001?”

In John Lennon’s September 17, 1968 interview with Rolling Stone’s Jonathan Cott, he gives an account of the way he and Paul “turn each other on.” Talking about “A Day in the Life, “a good piece of work between Paul and me. I had the ‘I read the news today’ bit, and it turned Paul on, because now and then [my italics] we really turn each other on with a bit of song, and he just said ‘yeah’ — bang, bang, like that. It just sort of happened beautifully, and we arranged it and rehearsed it, which we don’t often do, the afternoon before…. It was a real groove, the whole scene on that one. Paul sang half of it and I sang half. I needed a middle eight for it, but that would have been forcing it, all the rest had come out smooth, flowing, no trouble, and to write a middle eight would have been trouble … but instead Paul already had one there. It’s a bit of a 2001, you know.” Meaning what, I wonder? Now we know 2001 is the year George died, three months after 9/11. Was it a nod to Kubrick’s film? Or “a bit of 2001” in the context of “A Day in the Life,” a song about a man “who blew his mind out in a car”? Perhaps the whole Sgt. Pepper recording session was “a bit of 2001?”


It could be thanks to “a bit of 2001” that Ringo Starr survived two long childhood bouts of life-threatening illness to become the Beatles drummer and then so much more. Yes, John and Paul and George were all in their way absolutely essential, but without Ringo, the Beatles don’t happen. Imagine A Hard Day’s Night, without Ringo strolling about in jaunty cap and roomy trench coat like a character out of Truffaut’s 400 Blows. And one of the greatest moments in Beatles music is the sound of Ringo’s voice booming “What would you do if I sang out of tune?” from “With a Little Help from my Friends,” which kicked off Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And it’s Ringo who closes out The White Album with a softly sung “Good Night” lullaby, ending with a whisper. Then and Now, now and then, Ringo was the first Beatle, born three months before John on July 7, 1940.

November 14, 1851

There’s a now and then in the most famous last paragraph in American literature, from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, which was published 172 years ago yesterday, November 14, 1851: “Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf, a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”