The Beatles, Get Back

The first really magical moment, when everyone was feeling the power of the music, was Paul’s first performance of “Let It Be.”

I just finished watching the new Beatles’ documentary on Disney+, Get Back. It’s in three parts, and the third part ends with almost the whole rooftop concert (some but not all downtime between songs seems to have been cut), which wound up being their last public performance together. So I put together this playlist to reflect all the songs they performed, using rooftop performances where available in the order in which they appear.

https://music.apple.com/us/playlist/the-beatles-rooftop-concert/pl.u-VL2aIBYGkNr

My playlist covers these songs:

  1. “Get Back,” original studio version. This wasn’t part of the rooftop performance, but was captured in the Beatles’ studio on Saville Row some time before. The first rooftop performance of “Get Back” doesn’t seem to be available on iTunes.
  2. “Get Back,” 1969 Glyn Johns mix. The second rooftop performance of “Get Back” doesn’t appear to be available on iTunes, so I substituted this one. Glyn Johns put together a version of the songs on Let It Be originally intended for an album titled Get Back “that would match the documentary nature of the forthcoming film” (more about the film later; taken from the liner notes to Let It Be… Naked). Johns’s mixes are now available on a deluxe version of Let It Be recently released.
  3. “Don’t Let Me Down” (first rooftop performance).
  4. “I’ve Got a Feeling” (album version, originally taken from the rooftop performance).
  5. “One After 909” (album version, originally taken from the rooftop performance).
  6. “Dig a Pony” (album version that sounds like the rooftop performance to me, but I’m not sure).
  7. “I’ve Got a Feeling” (the second rooftop performance doesn’t appear to be available on iTunes, so I substituted the 1969 Glyn Johns mix).
  8. “Don’t Let Me Down” (1969 Glyn Johns mix, same as above).
  9. “Get Back” (third rooftop performance from The Beatles Anthology 3. The anthology doesn’t indicate which rooftop performance, but Paul has a line in here about getting arrested, which he added after seeing the police on the rooftop, so it’s the third performance).

We should keep in mind the whole recording session was intended to be released as a TV special. According to the liner notes on Let It Be… Naked the original concept was a TV performance of songs from the white album, and then it transformed into a documentary recording the creation of a new album from the beginning. The conclusion of the TV special was intended to be live performances of the new songs in front of an impromptu audience, which would be their first live performance since August of 1966. What wound up being a documentary film about the recording of the album was released concurrently with the album in 1970.

A few observations.

It’s a miracle they got anything done. Of course the eight hours of video we see is greatly edited down from the 60 hours of video available, but they seemed to spend most of their time singing their own and other people’s songs in funny voices. Sometimes it seemed like they were just having fun (most of the time, actually), but sometimes it seemed like they were tired of it all and not taking it seriously. Billy Preston showing up changed everything and made everyone feel better. He was great. George Martin’s presence seemed like a good thing as well, even though John told Martin to stay away at first (liner notes for Let It Be… Naked).

Paul goes on a little tirade at the beginning, at the very beginning, saying something along the lines of, “If we’re not going to do this, we should just quit right now.” I felt at the time like that was what split up the Beatles. Throughout the sessions Paul refers to their days in Hamburg several times, which leaves the impression that he hadn’t really had much fun with the band since then because that was a few years back by this point, and he seems dissatisfied with just making albums.

I don’t want to create a false impression. Paul was playful most of the time and upbeat. He just had some moments. George actually quit and the other three had to take a few days to get him to come back, and then later on George talked about all of them just doing solo projects and then coming back together. He seemed frustrated in having too small a role in the band and its songwriting.

There is a little scene, sound only, where Paul and John are talking together about what they need to do to get George back. The documentary claims that the filmmakers at the time hid a microphone in a flower pot at a diner where Paul and John went to discuss the situation with George. That sounds like nonsense to me. You have to realize this was 1969. There is no WiFi or Bluetooth. Of course they had transmitters, but they weren’t that small, and a sound cable running underneath a random booth at a diner would be kind of obvious, not to mention the fact the filmmakers had no way of knowing exactly where Paul and John would be sitting. So I think the conversation was staged. That doesn’t mean the conversation didn’t reflect anyone’s real feelings, but I’m just not buying the hidden mic in the flower pot story.

Moving on, I had a strong impression that anything Paul touched musically would be golden because of it. Any input he gave would make a song better. And the first really magical moment, when everyone was feeling the power of the music, was Paul’s first performance of “Let It Be.”

The wives were all there at different points. Yoko the most, then Linda (still Eastman with her very young daughter from a previous relationship, who was precocious and hilarious), then Ringo’s wife Maureen, with Pattie Boyd (Harrison) appearing once. Yoko was quiet and unassuming throughout the sessions, and watching her occasional facial expressions and gestures — and they were rare — is worthy of some study and attention. She would at times sing/screech into a mic while the Beatles played to it; at one point Paul played drums to Yoko’s singing. So yes, there were tensions within the band. It’s not clear they weren’t manageable. It’s hard for me to say that Paul, or John, or George, or Yoko split up the band.

What really seemed to be working against the band was having to come up with a bunch of new songs in three weeks and then be ready for a television special at the end of it. They could only agree to get George to come back by scrapping the TV special idea and moving their songwriting and rehearsals back to their own studios instead of the warehouse in Twickenham that was serving as a sound stage. So I think a number of factors were working against the Beatles, the biggest one of them being the Beatles.

I wish they had been able to do what John suggested, which was record their own solo albums and then come back together and record as the Beatles, especially in retrospect of the enormous creative output each of them enjoyed as solo artists in the 70s. It really was something seeing them all at different times sit behind drums or piano or strum the guitar. I think George was the only one who didn’t play any drums.

I couldn’t wait to see them get on the rooftop, because that was a public performance. That’s the one time there is no doubt that while they were having fun, they were also taking the music seriously. The rooftop concert deserves special attention, but not only because it was their last public performance. As a performance, it seemed more like a rehearsal of their new songs than a performance. “Get Back” was played twice at the beginning and once at the end, and two other songs were played twice. Two of those performances of the other songs wound up being the tracks used on the album, while the version of “Get Back” used was performed in the studio some days earlier.

What was enjoyable about the rooftop performance, beyond just seeing the Beatles perform, were interviews with the public on the street. Young and old said, “It’s the Beatles!”, “I wish we could see them,” “This is wonderful,” with a number of complaints too: “They woke me up from my sleep and I don’t appreciate it.” Ha. The police arrived after reportedly receiving 30 complaints about noise in a few minutes. They were stalled, and the two officers who initially arrived on the scene looked like two rosy-faced little fourteen year old boys, blustering and threatening like teenage boys too. There’s been quite a bit of reporting over the last day or two (from this writing) about the officers. The main one in the film was Ray Dagg, who was 19 years old at the time. I can’t track all the references right now, but he admitted he was probably making up “30 complaints” (he had no idea how many they received), and that he was bluffing about being able to arrest them on the charges he specifically mentioned. They don’t apply on private premises.

Most interestingly, he said he knew he was being recorded in the lobby of the Beatles’ studios because he saw a microphone in a flower pot. On the one hand, this validates the mic in the flower pot story explaining the recording of Paul’s and John’s earlier conversation about George, but on the other hand, if he saw it just looking casually while standing up, it’s hard to believe Paul and John wouldn’t notice it sitting at a table.

But throughout all encounters with the police, everyone was very polite. When the police arrived at the rooftop, the Beatles finished their performance without being asked while the officers stood by and watched. They ended with the version of “Get Back” in which Paul sings a line about being arrested which appears on the Beatles’ Anthology 3 collection.

And that’s the thing with the lyrics. No one showed up with written lyric sheets except maybe John for “Across the Universe” and perhaps George’s songs, but I don’t recall in the latter case. Otherwise, lyrics were improvised on the spot with the music. In one of the film’s highlights, Paul wrote a first run at “Get Back” while they were all waiting for John to show up, who was an hour late. “Get back.” He’s late. Get it? “I miss the old days at Hamburg.” “Get back.” Get it? Several of the songs seemed like immediate reactions to the situation at hand later revised into songs. One version of “Get Back” reflects anti-immigrant feeling in Britain popular at the time, which seemed terribly and painfully familiar.

It’s a great documentary. It’s real life. But it’s real life hanging out with the Beatles while they try to make some new music. It’s real life amplified. It was 41 years to this day since John Lennon died when I posted an initial draft of this review to Facebook. I am grateful for the timing of it all, but what a loss.

Steve Martin and the Atheist Hymnal

Updated 29th May at 10:35 a.m. with a discussion of atheism as a methodological assumption and of miracles.

Updated May 25th at 9:40 p.m. with another video and a Type 4 atheism: “Christian atheism.” Scroll down to check them out.

My Facebook buddy Artur Sebastian Rosman recently posted to his FB group Cosmos in the Lost a link to his Patheos.com article, “In Monologue: Did You Notice that Atheists Don’t Have No Songs?” It’s a response to a hilarious Steve Martin video attempting to address that problem with an atheist hymn of his own. The following video is of Martin’s performance of this atheist hymn on the David Letterman Show on March 16th, 2011:

Needless to say, the claim just begs for counterexamples, and naturally Artur ended his post with a request for songs that might make up an atheist hymnbook. Of course there’s a list of songs. Not as many as religious songs, because people are more motivated to sing about what they believe in rather than what they don’t, but people have suggested quite a few. Here they are, so far, in all of their glory, with a few of my own added at the end:

We need to start with the Big, Obvious One, the One that’s so obvious Artur said, “Don’t even bother”: John Lennon’s “Imagine.” But it does qualify musically as a hymn of sorts, at least.

Ani DeFranco and Utah Phillips, “Pie in the Sky”:

Tim Minchin, “If You Open Your Mind Too Much, Your Brain Will Fall Out”:

Kansas, “Dust in the Wind”:

Jimmy Buffet, “My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink, and I Don’t Love Jesus”:

Frank Turner, “Glory Hallelujah”:

XTC, “Dear God”:

Elton John, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy”:

Elton John, “Tower of Babel”:

Rush, “2112”:

Monty Python, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” from Life of Brian:

I could add a few other titles by Elton John and Rush, no doubt. What this list does is lead me to contemplate the nature of atheism, several varieties of which find representation in the videos above. The word “atheism” itself, as used in cultural discourse today, means a number of different things:

1. Atheism as critique of state or accepted religion. This is the atheism of Socrates in the Apology, where Socrates was accused of atheism and of corrupting the youth. In this definition, atheism is primarily characterized by rejection of accepted notions about God: in the mind of cultural theism, if you don’t believe in received notions about God or the gods, you don’t believe in any form of God or the gods at all. The problem with this definition of atheism is that it doesn’t acknowledge a variety of theisms: Socrates did believe in God as a divine substance out of which the Greek pantheon of gods was made. In fact, Socrates’s statements about God, and his critiques of the Greek pantheon of gods in The Republic, helped develop Christian conceptions of God in the early years of Christianity.

2. Atheism as polemic against Christian theology. Atheism in this sense tends to associate uniquely Christian beliefs with belief in God in general. It’s not terribly rigorous for doing so, tending to demonstrate a great deal of historical ignorance, and tending to miss that Christian theology engages in the same critiques of its own beliefs as well as wrestle with the same questions; e.g., of the existence of suffering, of the existence of evil, of the existence of hell, of literal interpretations of the Book of Genesis, etc. This kind of atheism is more of a rhetorical gesture than anything conceptually rigorous or historically aware. However, this activity is also very usefully engaged in attacking the crimes committed in the name of Christianity or of Christ, which shouldn’t be forgotten.  

For example, second-third century A.D. theologian Origen asked questions similar to those asked by critics of creation science today in Book IV of First Principles (see paragraph 16: please note that the link is to the much expanded “translation” by Rufinus. Origen’s original Greek text does not contain quite a bit of what you will see on this page, but par. 16 is about the same in both the Greek and Latin texts. What appears to have happened is that commentary and notes were incorporated into the source text by later copyists). He was attempting to demonstrate the problem with reading Scripture only in its literal sense (“How can you have light without a sun?”).

I should add that this sort of atheism is also the most deeply felt, usually by those who have encountered a number of destructive, dysfunctional, and intellectually dishonest forms of Christianity, of which many abound. Sometimes it comes across as a form of disappointment, reflective of a frustrated desire to believe in a faith it wishes were true. Marilyn Manson’s Mechanical Animals sounds this way at times.

My LinkedIn buddy Howard Doughty recently suggested Phil Och’s “The Cannons of Christianity” as an addition to this list, and it fits perfectly here:

The thing is, Pierce Pettis’s “The Lions of the Colosseum” communicates the same message, but it isn’t an atheist song.

3. Philosophic materialism. This variety of atheism emphasizes that there is no God or spirit, only finite objects in a variety of forms, so that God is a projection of human social and psychological forces. This is the atheism of Feuerbach that is behind Freud’s and Marx’s critique of religion. It’s also the narrowest and most useful definition of the term “atheism.” We should note that this atheism isn’t necessarily engaged in denying the transcendent, or that which is beyond human cognition or sense perception. It just affirms that the transcendent, however it exists, and however it influences human consciousness, is part of a universe or multiverse comprised of finite entities without the existence of a supernatural deity common to them all. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is an example of this kind of atheism at work.

This variety of atheism is the most intellectually rigorous and conceptually consistent. Within it is also included atheism as a methodological assumption, which is necessary for empirical science to function. Atheism as a methodological assumption just means that you assume in your scientific work that physical events have physical causes. If you don’t assume this, you can’t do science, which means that whether you are a theist or an atheist you should accept atheism as a methodological assumption if you’re working in the empirical sciences. What happens, of course — and this is less conceptually rigorous — is that a methodological assumption is assumed to be an ontological truth, which makes the mistake of using the characteristics of matter to make pronouncements on the existence or non-existence of an immaterial deity. That’s bad philosophy and not very conceptually rigorous.

What about miracles? The existence or non-existence of miracles is, again, outside rational analysis, because they are non-systemic: they are seemingly random intrusions upon the material system by an immaterial deity who acts seemingly capriciously upon physical matter. We can’t predict when a miracle will happen, nor can we find any clearly identifiably “God-residue” left upon matter other than the miracle itself. Given this explanation of miracles, David Hume’s critique of miracles in Section X of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding is nothing but a massive experiment in circular reasoning: miracles never happen because they don’t usually happen. People who believe in miracles are pretty dumb because dumb people believe in miracles, and because they’re not as technologically and scientifically advanced as we are, so believe somewhat dumb things anyhow.

But again, miracles are asystemic intrusions upon a system, so they can’t be evaluated in terms of the system. We can try to evaluate the credibility of the people who believe in any given miracle, and the physical evidence supporting it, but what will inevitably happen is that we will interpret the people and events in terms of our own assumptions. We will be inclined to believe or disbelieve in miracles prior to our evaluation of the evidence of a miracle. The most open-minded position is that of believing in the possibility of miracles while also believing most claims for them are probably false, but even this assumption stakes out a position.

I would like to stop for a minute to reflect upon the implications of what I have just said. If a Christian wants to engage in the study of the material world, s/he needs to adopt atheism as a methodological assumption. If an atheist wants to rationally consider miracles, s/he needs to adopt theism as a methodological assumption. Without making that assumption, the question is already answered. Without that assumption, the subject of miracles is not being considered. A decision was made before reasoning began.

I think that Kant’s critique of both proofs and denials of the existence of God in Critique of Pure Reason (Second Division, Transcendental Dialectic) is ultimately the best response to debates between the variety of theisms and the variety of atheisms fighting it out in the public sphere. He attempted to demonstrate that rational analysis equally supports both theist and atheist positions, so that unaided reason leads to an impasse regarding this question. There’s no point appealing to a material universe to support or deny the existence of an immaterial God: those who do so are demonstrating how they reason from their assumptions, not how they reasoned to a conclusion.

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s response to the impasse set up by reason in its resolution of the question of God is simultaneously the only rational course left and the end of reason. Kierkegaard asserted that to believe in the Christian doctrine of the incarnation is to embrace that which is rationally incomprehensible and so to crucify the intellect. Belief is only possible, then, via the inward, or subjective, apprehension of the Divine by the individual, which is not communicable to another, thus insupportable by argument or demonstration. However, he sets up a densely cognitive system to lead people to this conclusion, so that those who work through it can make a variety of choices along the way to lead them — or not — to this realization.

Is Kierkegaard’s subjectivism a cowardly escape from the dictates of reason? Again, when we phrase the question as that of providing materially demonstrable evidence of the existence of, or experience of, an immaterial deity, I think there’s only one answer: if this deity exists, s/he or it is only comprehensible inwardly and subjectively. The most that we can rationally ask for is an internal logical consistency: if human beings are a synthesis of the material and immaterial, as physical bodies possessing an immortal soul, and if God is immaterial spirit, then it is with the soul that the individual can perceive the divine. In a sense, Kierkegaard’s answer is a very old one, perhaps most reflective of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, given a somewhat different conception of God.

What Kierkegaard responds to, then, are Enlightenment perversions of pre-Christian conceptions of the deity that carried forward through Medieval philosophy. This Enlightenment deity is the God of the rationally demonstrable rather than the inwardly perceived: the God of the traditional proofs of God’s existence that was argued out of existence by Kant’s Critique. The proofs as reasoning from assumptions are fine, but when used that way, they are not functioning as proofs. This God is similarly the object of Blake’s critique, personified in his characters Urizen and Nobodaddy. The God of the rationally demonstrable is the God of theism by force: the God who seeks social transformation through force of law, because anything that is rationally demonstrable can be enforced upon everyone capable of reason. This is the God that tries to Christianize America by opposing gay marriage and teaching creation science in schools. It is not, however, the God of inwardness or of quiet certainty. It’s a God that is threatened by the unbelief of others, so seeks to stamp it out.

These last thoughts lead me to the final kind of atheism:

4. Christian atheism. Yes, there’s such a thing a “Christian atheism.” I think there are three kinds.

Christian atheism type 1: Slavoj Žižek trying to stir a bit of controversy with his participation in the religious turn in literary and cultural studies by affirming the more attractive components of the teachings of Christ without committing to a theology. It’s really a bit more complex than this and has the possibility of being conceptually significant. When I heard him speak at Rollins College a few years ago he seemed in earnest about engaging religion, commenting significantly and seriously on his encounters with religion and the conflicts that came along with those encounters.

Christian atheism type 2: Eastern Orthodox theology. Some Eastern Orthodox theologians assert that “God does not exist,” which sounds like an odd thing to assert. But I’d like us to think about it this way: “existence” is a closed set constituting an order of finite beings, and God is not a part of it, because God is infinite. So this theology is negative: God is “not this,” and “not that,” and “not this either,” etc., until everything that exists is eliminated. What is left is God.

Eastern Orthodox theology tends to be the most experiential and complex of all Christian theologies, perhaps best compared to the Upanishads. This form of Christian atheism has the benefit of truly highlighting the absurdity of the doctrine of the incarnation, that Christ was simultaneously fully God and fully human, so that those who believe in it confront the nature of their choice. I think Kierkegaard would approve.

Christian atheism type 3: The third kind of Christian atheism is the post-Enlightenment Christianity of the rationally demonstrable that I described above. This kind of faith actually exists in a state of bad faith: it does not really believe but cannot admit it. This form of atheism is the reverse side of Atheism Type 2 above. Type 2 atheists, on some level, really do believe but don’t want to admit it, so they rage against the faith they claim to deny. Christian atheism type 3, inversely, rages against its own real state of unbelief, attempting to eradicate external manifestations of its internal unbelief through new crusades fought in the public sphere via courts and legislative activity. So it crusades against gay marriage, against gun control, against evolution, against “liberals.” When its activities are stifled, it feels persecuted, because then it is cast back to self-reflection upon its own unbelief, which it cannot bear. This is a miserable kind of atheism indeed. It needs a good dose of Dostoevsky.

But it occurs to me that I may well have just described a taxonomy of theisms as well.

Remembering John Lennon

john-lennon-2-by-hoffman[144566]John Lennon was shot and killed thirty-four years ago today. Many thanks to my friend Marc DiPaolo for reminding me of this song. I think it’s appropriate for Lennon. I think he knew exactly what he was singing about.

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