Monday, October 22, 2012

Octopus's Garden

Robert Bunter: On an album that deals extensively with adult themes of love, loss, conflict and peace (an album I like to call "Abbey Road"), Ringo shuffles out onto the stage and offers something for the children. Ringo, with his funny name and hangdog facial cast was already the most childlike of the Beatles. Kids could relate to his warm and welcoming image much better than terrifying John or grouchy George. Paul had a sort of childlike whimsy, but there was something disconcertingly adult about him, like a male "caller" performing magic tricks to distract the kiddies while he tries to seduce your mom because dad is away in Rhode Island. None of that with Ringo - just a guileless little tale of escape to an underwater paradise where smiling cephalopods invite you to their swaying-seaweed paradise. The little cherubs were undoubtedly delighted as this large-nosed dreamer spun his fanciful tale. One question - how did they breathe down there?

Richard Furnstein: They just did. Call it Ringo's final act of magick with The Beatles. Ringo's warm welcome to the underwater paradise ("I'd-ask-my-friends-to-come-and-see" in the classic Beatles staircase melody) sets the stage for a play date with the greatest human beings that were ever created. Come one, come all, ye children of The Beatles: the offspring from the endless incense and frotting in 1967, the junkies who come to life with George's progressive guitar break, the elusive jiggling feminists, the businessmen with healthy sideburns. You are all welcome here. Glide softly through the sparkling sea alive with sea mutations (probably just a recycled set from the "Yellow Submarine" fantasy) to find a giant open clam. Ringo is in the center of the clam, putting on a show. A little soft shoe for a school of goldfish. A shark is playing bass guitar (it's a Hofner). There's not a care in the world here. A shelter from the real world of diseased wheelchairs. Wow! Mal Evans in a diving suit!

Robert Bunter: Yup. That's the feeling. Of course, behind the escapist fantasy is the reality that Ringo's beloved band of Beatle brothers were breaking up. Legend has it that young Ritchie wrote this one after coming home from a depressing Apple Corps business meeting, so sad that he wished he was underwater instead. He decided to write a simple silly song that would guarantee enough future songwriting royalties (along with "Don't Pass Me By" and one-quarter of "Flying") to put his own children (their names were Zak, Ringo Jr., Bumbleton and Gloanbottom) through college. Remember, Brian Epstein threw away the product licensing royalties with shoddy deals, and the concert income was a long-forgotten memory by this point (Ringo having spent his share of the final Candlestick Park gig income on installation of a home-model carousel and multiple skids of canned Heinz beans). Luckily, the song isn't too bad. The other Beatles do a nice job of turd-polishing with lush harmonies, quicksilver guitar runs, chewy basslines and advanced aquatic production techniques on the bridge/solo.

Richard Furnstein: All thanks to George Harrison, obviously. It is touching that the second-class Beatles were there for each other as the Lennon/McCartney legal construct and brotherhood disintegrated into a mess of ram wrangling, petty letters to NME, and nasty-but-oblique insult songs on their solo albums. George and Ringo clung together during the bitter divorce; George would show Ringo how to make his songs more interesting (usually a Dsus4 chord was involved) and Ringo would teach George how to smile again after years of pious grousing and the emotional fallout of his free love lifestyle. Brothers to the end. Of course, they would later have the last laugh as the Ringo album was a surprising mega-hit and you couldn't turn on the radio without hearing a mass of George singing the virtues of Krishna. John and Paul would continue on their paths of genius ("Freda Peeple," all of Red Rose Speedway), but they were clearly trying to fill the emotional gap of lost friendship with sycophants, double albums, and boring political singles. Sure, it looked like Ringo was waving hello to us under the sea, but he was actually saying goodbye from the coral that lies beneath the waves. 

Robert Bunter: Of course, you're leading me right into a discussion of perhaps the most prized Beatle-related bootleg of them all, Ringo's "Welcome To My House" demo reel. Amazingly, the 11-track collection has still not made its way onto the mp3 blogspots or YouTube clips hastily removed due to copyright violations. Even in the hardcore world of boot wax and tape traders, it's not an easy score. Luckily you and I have our dolby-less cassette dubs purchased from Martin Lewis via a long-defunct xerox fanzine in the early '90s. Picture it: the strings that tied the Beatles together were rapidly fraying in February 1970. The dream was over, in every sense except officially. Ringo slowly trods into his sunlit front room and ineptly spools a reel onto his primitive three-track Brunnell tape recorder. He has a guitar (missing two strings), a perfectly-tuned piano (which somehow manages to sound discordant when Ringo plays it) and the classic Beatles home-instrument (ukelele). A replica Ludwig drum kit was there, too, but he didn't play it on any of the "Welcome To My House" tracks. Ringo adjusts the microphone, hits the red button and "play" at the same time. What happened next was not magical, but noteworthy.

A guileless little tale of escape to an underwater paradise where smiling cephalopods invite you to their swaying-seaweed paradise.

Richard Furnstein: It's a true lost gem. Richie Unterberger completely ignores this crucial item in his otherwise invaluable tome The Unreleased Beatles: Music & Film (Backbeat Books). The recording starts with the title track; you can hear Ringo clear his throat as his strums his faithful G chord and sings "Welcome to my house/A pretty good house/We are friends." The song doesn't really go anywhere (a C chord is introduced after the first verse is repeated) but it has all the sadness and childlike wonder of our wildest Ringo fantasies. Later songs on the record like "Let's Do Lunch" and "A Little Touch Of Paint"only further color the domestic solitude and misdirection of February 1970. "Welcome To My House" later falls apart with a series of imaginary radio plays and a sad interview that Ringo conducted with himself after he realized that he no longer had a band to quit. 

Robert Bunter: Of course you're deliberately excluding the one lost masterpiece, "Liverpool Gardens." Sure it's the same old C chord but something in the tape hiss suggests a gently descending melancholy motion not unlike "Day In The Life" or "Dear Prudence." Ringo's tuneless voice sounds oddly appropriate as he imagines the nicer times he had as a child. Not unlike the fabled infinite typewriter monkeys, primitive Ringo somehow managed to concoct a haunting and evocative portrait of sadly-departed yesteryears on this one. Why this song was not selected for release on any subsequent Ringo solo projects is obvious - it would have rendered all the other tracks unpalatably shabby by comparison. Every Beatle had at least one immortal song in them, and this was Ringo's. The fact that it has been relegated to the dustbin of history, known only to superfans who shelled out the early '90s equivalent of $30 for TDK C-90 cassette dubs, is a source of gloating pride to me. I hope it never leaks into the broader public, actually. This one is between me, my friend Richard, and my other friend Richard, if you get my drift.

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