Friday, August 3, 2012

Let It Be

Richard Furnstein: It's a Thursday morning in mid-October. The church is empty save for a bearded man in the second row of pews. His orange sweater is full of unruly pills and wear, but his shoes are clean. Three votive candles burn before a Virgin Mary statue, flickering shadows across her faded blue gown. There's a beautiful tune in the air, a simple progression that provides comfort and familiarity. That's the beauty that I hear in "Let It Be." It's the sound of a man facing into the great unknown with a calm, clear mind. Paul wrote the song after having his dead mother (actually named Mary) visit him in a dream. "Let It Be" is the feeling that lingers in the morning as Paul tries to unravel the mystery of his unusual dream. It's easy to look into the significance of the famous origins of this song as The Beatles were clearly facing the end of the line. However, "Let It Be" is not a eulogy or an embarrassing gospel pastiche, it's a very human moment from The Beatles. We don't even peek into their superpowers until George's perfect guitar solo.

Robert Bunter: It’s difficult to hear this song with fresh ears; it’s one of the Beatles songs that has been played to death. You hear it and think, “That’s a nice tune but it’s really not up there with their best,” or “They were about to break up, Paul seems to have been really troubled,” or – if you know about the story of the song’s origin – “Isn’t it sweet that Paul had a dream about his mother during a difficult time.” But it deserves more than that. The chords and melody are simple, but that’s appropriate to the sentiments. The rhythm track (John’s primitive bass fumbling and Ringo’s echoplexed cymbals) is surprisingly funky; Billy Preston’s organ (!) obviously pegs the funk-meter even further into the red. George’s solo provided a perfect template for all future power-ballad solos, but the lack of heavy reverb, delay and overdrive keep it from David Gilmour overkill. McCartney’s vocal performance is characteristically great and the lyrics make a lot of good sense.

Richard Furnstein: I'm nodding my head because I am completely with you. Here's the jillion dollar question: is "Let It Be" one of the all time greats? I have no idea what to do with this one. "Let It Be" carries the effortless calm and beauty of many McCartney moments from this era. It's almost an overfed version of the type of muted charms that would populate his first solo album (think of "Let It Be" as a template for the superior "Maybe I'm Amazed"). However, I can't shake the feeling that Paul is trying a little too hard to grace the common man with his wisdom and strength. We all want to rally against the looming sorrow and darkness, but the chorus fails to truly convince us that the answer is close at hand. Stand pat? A little wait-and-see? I'm sorry, Paul, but I'm taking action. Preston's mighty organ and Ringo's strident cymbal play can't help me through this foggy path of misery.

It's easy to see a bearded and well fed Paul calmly pedal a lovely grand piano and wonder where the good times have gone.

Robert Bunter: One of the all-time greats? No. Here are the all-time greats: “I’ll Cry Instead,” “She’s Leaving Home,” “You Won’t See Me,” “Penny Lane,” “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl,” “She Loves You,” “Yesterday,” “Hey Jude,” “Dear Prudence,” “What Goes On,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Sun King,” “I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party,” “Savoy Truffle,” “I’m Only Sleeping,” “Hey Bulldog” and “I Want To Tell You.” Case closed. “Let It Be” is fine, just fine, but re-read that list I just rattled off. Same league? Not really. I’m glad you had a poignant spiritual moment, Paul. Now fetch your left-handed Epiphone acoustic and write me another “Mother Nature’s Son,” OK? The clock is ticking and the band will break up soon. There’s no time for your ponderous schmaltz.

Richard Furnstein: Let's just put it this way: there are a lot of songs that I want to hear when old Paul sits down at the piano, but "Let It Be" ain't high on the list. I'd rather hear him pound out "Nineteen Hundred Eighty Five," "Maybe I'm Amazed," "Hey Jude," or "Back Seat Of My Car" (I have no idea if that was written on piano but it should have been). The plaintive tone of "Let It Be" is magnified by its companion piece "The Long and Winding Road." These are songs that showcase the wise and calm godhead of Paul McCartney; a man that stood on a hill in Magical Mystery Tour and wrote a sad song to make young Julian feel better after his parents' divorce. While undeniably great, Paul's well meaning softer tendencies would increasingly become a sore point with John, many fans, and Paul himself (see Paul's numerous cool factor appeals that he was The Beatle that wanted to introduce the avant garde to rock n' roll).

"Let It Be" is perfect for what it is, but it can be interpreted as part of the problem. Just look at the footage of those torturous Let It Be album sessions. The band looks thirty years older than the teddy boys that threatened to hold our hands; it's easy to see a bearded and well fed Paul calmly pedal a lovely grand piano and wonder where the good times have gone.

Robert Bunter: Don’t even get me started on “The Long And Winding Road.” I don't remember what we said about this one in our write up, but I'm sure that my appraisal veered unpredictably from extravagant praise to scornful dismissal. That’s the way it is with the late-era Paul ballads. They’re great but look at what else was happening in 1969 – primitive early Funkadelic masterpieces; Ten Years After hitting their stride on the way to A Space In Time, the Bee Gees turned a lot of heads around with Odessa, and the Mothers of Invention dropped the double LP extravaganza Uncle Meat (original pressings contained a full-color booklet). The Beatles needed to seize the moment, consolidate their gains and push forward tirelessly. Instead, they recorded “Let It Be.” It was a missed opportunity.

Richard Furnstein: Missed opportunity? I think they achieved what I believe was the main objective of the Get Back sessions--to expose the cracks in the brotherhood and prepare the world for Beatles solo ventures. The White Album was an effective first shot, with its abundance of solo and augmented band recordings and individual band member photos. The isolation in The White Album tracks could be written off as a response to the flourishes of the psychedelic era. The Let It Be album was a grim portrayal of thirty year old men, together and apart. One only has to look at Ringo's face during this period to realize the extent of the damage. Footage from the Let It Be shows an exhausted and grim Ringo, his hound dog eyes lost in the cold expanse of Twickenham Film Studios.

"Let It Be" the song was surely a light in the darkness (the previously mentioned flickering votive candle), but the light only highlighted the sadness and sorrow in the cold and empty chamber of The Beatles. That this exhausted group of men would later record the medley on Abbey Road is nothing short of a miracle.

Robert Bunter: True. They’d endured years of scuffling through Liverpool and Hamburg, which gave way to screaming fans, bold experimentalism, social revolutions and new vistas of creation. Now it was time to be tired.

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