Monday, December 10, 2012

Maggie Mae

Robert Bunter: OK, a quick primer for the casual reader who may not be steeped in Beatles lore. After the White Album they were starting to fight. Paul dragged everybody into the studio with the idea to heal the cracks and get back to roots by rehearsing for a live concert of new material. The rehearsals would be recorded and filmed for a new album and documentary movie. The problem was, like telling Monkees jokes the day after Davy Jones passed on, it was “too soon.” The others still resented Paul’s bossiness, John was in a stupor from his first heroin habit and relationship with Yoko, and George, grouchy on the best of days, was certainly in no mood to be corralled into another Paul-dominated multi-media project after the ridiculous Magical Mystery Tour film. Even the clownish Ringo was in a sour mood, his droopy facial features and downcast eyes becoming even more sad-dog-looking than usual. To make matters worse, they were used to recording their wonderful music during hilarious late-night sessions at the comfortably warm Abbey Road studios (equipped with the infamous bottomless teapot and constantly re-stocked beans, “crisps” and digestive biscuits). For this project, however, in order to accommodate the film crew, they had to set up their stuff on a cold, gray soundstage at early hours of the morning. Do you want to take it from here, Rich?

Richard Furnstein: Hold on, I'm scanning your primary education summary on the Get Back project to see where we are. Control F "cold, gray soundstage"? Right, perfect. What started as a promising concept for the new Beatles project--intimate audio/visual explorations of The Beatles writing and rehearsing new material in preparation for a grand return to the stage--was quickly downgraded to a warty documentation of uninspired sessions. The grand finale would become an impromptu rooftop performance of the album's more palatable numbers. The "return to their roots" angle of the project is even less inspiring when you consider that the stark White Album pretty much achieved that goal. Throw in the worst batch of songs since the troubled Help! project along with an awful Phil Spector hack-job in the post production and you have a posthumous document of excuses from the decomposing Beatles.

Robert Bunter: Okay, are you with us, reader? So, part of the conceit was that the Beatles would be recorded and filmed performing not only their new original material but a batch of the old ‘50s rock and roll chestnuts with which they’d often warm up. What could be more inspiring? As they work together in harmony to craft their latest brilliant LP, the unobtrusive cameras manage to peel back the curtain of history and allow the raptly-attentive fans to glimpse their heroes playfully re-exploring the primal/crucial rock and roll that ignited the spark of their brilliant career in the first place. “Let’s record a great song, then, eh?,” says George. “Aye, Georgie,” says John in an exaggeratedly-deep fake voice which cracks up the assorted engineers and staff members. “Soonds good, but first why don’t we warm up with a Buddy Holly number, then?” replies Paul, and the next thing you know they are re-defining the electrifying changes of “Maybe Baby” so masterfully that grown men start to weep. Once that’s out of the way, they’re warmed up and ready to record their new stuff and it’s going to sound even better than it would have beforehand. They all smile warmly at each other and the sour mood of the White Album sessions and tense Apple Corps business meetings rises off the group like sock-steam from a dirty, sweaty sock that you leave outside in the morning next to your tent and the new day’s sunshine and warmth just lift the filth away, leaving behind a warm, dry, clean sock. The rejuvenated foursome is finally ready to continue into the dazzling future of their potential ‘70s career, and later we will all look back at Paul’s great idea to film a movie of the band rehearsing old ‘50s songs along with their new material as the turning point, a masterstroke. That’s how it was supposed to go.

Sad millionaires conjuring drunken spirits as a pathetic tribute to their forgotten hometown.
Richard Furnstein: How did it actually go? The aborted Get Back album was full of obscure chatter, underdeveloped songs like "Teddy Boy," "The Rocker," and a particularly putrid version of "Save The Last Dance For Me." The Let It Be album was a slicker compromise that didn't make anybody happy. It's easy to get excited about the endless pile of unreleased recordings from these tedious sessions. Beatlemaniacs always run into the Get Back sessions trap. Imagine being 17 years old and coming across Beatles bootlegs at the monthly Keystone Record Collectors show and finding a disc full of Bob Dylan covers by The Greatest Band On The Planet. Then imagine sitting in your sad bedroom listening to these awful versions played by rapidly aging and disinterested musicians. No refunds, the man said at the record fair. He's a smart businessman, and his business is breaking young men's hearts.

Robert Bunter: Man. That really hits home. So, we finally arrive at “Maggie Mae.” It’s not the Rod Stewart song about the relationship between a young rock star and an aging, fading beer queen (I’d like to add parenthetically that it drives me crazy in that song when he sings about how he might go back to school, or maybe “steal my daddy’s cue / and make a living out of playin’ pool.” He’s in the process of giving the boot to a poor woman who was kind enough to “take him in for the night” and this over-privileged fancy boy is just torturing her with the many wonderful life options that are still open to him. Please consult Lester Bangs’ first book for more on this subject). It’s a funky old ditty about a Liverpool prostitute, a drunken barroom sing-along. One gets the impression that the Beatles all knew this song from the old days, maybe a bit of an in-joke from the Reeperbahn or something. So, they break into an off-key little version and forget half the words and sing the harmonies wrong and then the whole thing putters off into nothing to end side one of Let It Be. Why did they even give it space on the tracklisting? It’s really more like the same sort of filler material as the “I Dig A Pygmy by Charles Hawtrey and the Deaf Aids” segment which opens the record.

Richard Furnstein: Throwaways like "Maggie Mae" and "Dig It" were clearly added to connect the Let It Be album with its original "work in progress" concept. They serve an ever greater purpose in the final track list, offering a safe place to hide from Phil Spector's tidal wave of strings and contempt on "Across The Universe" and "The Long And Winding Road." The fact is that The Beatles were never this rough, even in their rugged teddy boy days. It all just feels a bit phony: some sad millionaires conjuring drunken spirits as a pathetic tribute to their forgotten hometown. How can they connect to the common seamen and crooked toothed ladies of Liverpool now after years of eastern thought explorations, (alleged) sexual escapades with Joan Baez, bold new psychedelic drugs and fabrics, and gentle scrubbing and care from Mal Evans? They were no longer those simple men in 1969. John Lennon once promised an eternity of explorations in the rich Strawberry Fields, but now he couldn't be interested in leaving the comforts of heroin, white suits, and Yoko's control. Interestingly, Lennon would revisit "Maggie Mae" in the late 1970s (available on the crucial Anthology boxset). It's a much calmer take and represents a sincere attempt to connect to the folk traditions of North Liverpool.

Robert Bunter: That’s a good point. The Let It Be/Get Back experiment didn’t really work. They pulled themselves together to record one last brilliant album, but it was despite of the Get Back vibes, not because of them. The whole project ultimately belongs to the small but pungent category of Beatle missteps, along with the aforementioned Magical Mystery Tour film, the Maharishi retreat, Andy White’s drums on “Love Me Do” and side two of the original Yellow Submarine soundtrack LP.

Richard Furnstein: That being said, I would trade a decade of my life for a few more pungent missteps from these British superheroes. Perhaps we could have seen another twenty years of terrible recordings and poor production choices. "Maggie Mae" is indeed a special thing because it represents the promise of a terrible, thoughtless Beatles.

Robert Bunter: That’s a nice way of looking at it. Nice talking with you, Rich!

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