Friday, March 14, 2014

Tomorrow Never Knows

Richard Furnstein: The siren call rips through the pitiful black and white landscape: drooping trees, soggy undercurrents padding morning lawns, gray waves of houses, resilient concrete patches. We had no reason to expect this. Indeed, “Tomorrow Never Knows” came out of nowhere. It is recognizable as a pop song but really has no sonic or thematic antecedents. “Tomorrow Never Knows” is more of a tense loop of raga, supporting a suspended loop of film. It suggests a build of towards a shocking act of violence, but never quite truly releases. The grainy image of a man’s grimacing face as he lunges forward quickly reset in a comical jerk, only to start again. The fool! He’ll never get there. Here we are and there we were and now we are back again. 

Robert Bunter: Yeah. It would be fair to call this track "acid-influenced," but more in the sense of actual corrosive pH <7 aqueous solution than the LSD that actually inspired it. John, newly-introduced to the world of mind-altering drugs, had a copy of Timothy Leary's translation of the Tibetan Book of The Dead, in which Leary updated the ancient instruction manual for navigating the afterlife into a set of instructions to help acidheads avoid bad trips. He recorded his own voice reading the instructions on a primitive three-track Brunnell reel-to-reel, then ate the drugs. It was probably not the actual text as much as the sound of his own disembodied voice that blew his chemically-enhanced mind. The Lennon-reads-Leary home tapes remain the unreleased holy grail of Beatles bootleg collecting, along with "Carnival of Light," Ringo's "Welcome To My House" and the actual audio of George Martin's voice over the studio talk-back mic saying, "Gentlemen, you've just recorded your first number one" from the "Please Please Me" sessions.

Richard Furnstein: The fascination with the Tibetan Book Of The Dead was classic Lennon: a desperate embrace of the exotic along with a simple philosophical solution. It also highlighted the specter of death that wrapped tight around The Beatles during this period: from the grisly album cover shoot for the U.S. release Yesterday and Today featuring our stoned heroes draped in chilled flank steaks and glassy-eyed dolls to the media's questions about an official Beatles policy stance on the Vietnam War. Once again, The Beatles were in transition. Where in the past they were caught between their working class roots and their sudden fame, they were now in the grey area of various metaphysical states: life and death; knowing and unknowing; ascent and descent. Lennon sets up this delicate balance in the indecisive and mysterious lyric of "Tomorrow Never Knows": "Relax, turn off your mind and float downstream/It is not dying/It is not dying." It's clear we aren't scaling the misty mountains of Tibet. Instead, we're on a brightly colored sail boat in the narrows of the Mekong River, held afloat by murky waters. Mysterious, diseased clumps drape around the paddles (leaves? vines? meat? doll limbs?). The banks of the river are full of even more mystery as the sweltering, interlocking mass of vegetation seems to breathe and blink. Your weary fatigues read "DEADMAN" while you blink through a reassuring trickle of sweat. Don't get too comfortable, you are alive. 

Robert Bunter: Your Vietnam imagery is valid as usual, although it is safe to assume that Lennon’s geopolitical awareness at this point was shallow and uninformed. I’m sure he was unhappy to read about mounting body counts and atrocities as he scanned the Daily Mail over his morning cornflakes at Kenwood, but the Vietnam War that would eventually become part of his generation’s collective memory thanks to Oliver Stone and Francis Ford Coppola (handsome young men tromping through bright green jungles with stuff written on their helmets while “Nowhere To Run” or “Purple Haze” plays on the soundtrack) didn’t exist in 1966 unless you were there. I think it’s more likely that the abrupt about-face of “Tomorrow Never Knows” was equal parts psychedelic drugs and the hubris of genius. You can imagine how much fun it was for the twenty-something Beatles to make these bizarre, unprecedented noises in the studio, knowing that they would blow the minds of LP listeners the world over. The message of psychedelic consciousness and Eastern philosophy basically boils down to “we’re all One, the ego is an illusion.” How ironic that Lennon chose to declare this to the world by adopting the persona of an enlightened prophet on a mountaintop delivering inscrutable platitudes to the masses, in the context of a ground-breakingly innovative pop album. Yeah, right, great job destroying your Ego, Jesus Lennon. Maybe you still need a few more sessions.

Richard Furnstein: Without a doubt. Certainly, Ringo's ego was through the roof during the first studio playback of the "Tomorrow Never Knows" basic track. A million miles away from the garbage can plod or tambourine enhanced rattle of contemporary pop records, it was clear that Ringo's bass drum was the mountaintop from which John addressed the pathetic masses.The snare is similarly massive: a hollow shot pulsing through the streets on a winter morning. The cymbals suspend in the air like a hesitant plague of locust. In contrast, the tambourine track for most of the song is a delicate eastern accent; the shift to a sloppy rhythm in the end of the song is one of the few textural shifts in the production. In many ways, we need the steady ground provided by the rhythm track. Sure, it's scary and edgy, but it clearly isn't going to let us fall from the heavens. 

The phased out drum track on the version on the Anthology set is more grounded (i.e., you can actually imagine a human being playing it without the assistance of magick or synthetic properties) while exploring an equally innovative pattern and sonic balance. Both versions redefine the use of a core rock and roll instrument, much like the treatment of the bass on "Paperback Writer." In the context of "Tomorrow Never Knows," however, the startling drum track is a piece along with the cacophony of bleeding seagulls, loping bass guitar, reckless violas, and raga droning. "Tomorrow Never Knows" is the perfect balance of the uptight looping rhythms along with the accidental harmonic inventions of the cut-and-paste foundation. There is nothing deliberate in this wash of sound, yet everything is perfect. The Beatles would take this concept further with the chance transmission of a BBC performance of King Lear providing the nervous edge of the finale of "I Am The Walrus." All of this beauty had to come from somewhere, as impossible as that seems. 

Here we are and there we were and now we are back again.
Robert Bunter: Yeah, the use of random chance and unidentifiable tape loops was both sonically and conceptually appropriate. I think it was Paul who told all the Beatles their homework assignment was to record random sounds and bring them back to the studio the next day. John ended up providing the backwards trumpets which provide the distinctive “psychedelic seagull” sound. George contributed the Technicolor orchestral washes that crop up every so often, courtesy of an old BBC broadcast. An uncharacteristically inspired Ringo tried to record himself gargling with his beloved Heinz beans and then play it backwards, although these tapes unfortunately ended up on the cutting room floor, along with the beans. These strips of tape were physically cut and looped back on themselves so they would repeat infinitely. These sounds were all going full blast at the same time, but by moving the faders up and down on the mixing board, the Beatles and their studio crew were able to deploy them strategically as needed. The guitar solo was Paul’s otherworldly “Taxman” break, played backwards. Of course, it goes without saying that these studio techniques were light years ahead of what the Beatles’ so-called “contemporaries” were into. Mick Jagger had just figured out that he could pinch his nose for a contrived “carnival barker” vocal tone on lame psychedelic music hall filler like “Something Happened To Me Yesterday” and maybe Brian Wilson was using some extra harmonicas to double the bassoon parts on his latest sappy ode to his wife’s SISTER while he’s still married to his wife and she knows damn well what those lyrics are about. Get the hell out of here.

Richard Furnstein: And that was just the "hep" community. Imagine the sad American teenager, with his cracking beatle boots and reckless hair style. This pathetic half-man was just turned onto marijuana by Rubber Soul (look at the dangerous tilt of that album sleeve; listen to the slow drag on "Girl") and now Lennon was beckoning him to crawl further inside his mind and listen to the colour of dreams. He was hopelessly behind the times once again. Luckily, the back cover of Revolver provided a visual guide to help their fans through the Lysergic experience. The photo features the fab four wearing expensive sunglasses, seemingly sharing a joke. Ringo (everyman) is at the center of the circle. His stunned smile and disengaged body language suggests that he is having a psychedelic experience. It's almost as if the lenses of his sunglasses are displaying startling technicolor fantasies. It's a casual and lighthearted photo, but there is something unsettling about the composition. It's as if John, George, and Paul are psychedelic manifestations of Ringo's trip. The figures flank the short and childlike Ringo. They all seem to provide a role in Ringo's psychedelic voyage. The always adventurous and malicious John is clearly encouraging him to go further into his mind. He's dressed in a psychedelic frock, suggesting he has passed through the prism and has been realized as a spangled cosmic manifestation. George is dressed like a cowboy, a grounding influence on Ringo. We can look at him as the counter figure to Lennon, perhaps the gentle spirit guide. Paul looks on with a stoic expression. He's the expression of reality. He seems to be concerned about Ringo's voyage (and the draw to the cackling Lennon figure). Naturally, Paul found greater comfort in the earthly delights of marijuana than the mind expansion of psychedelics. 

Robert Bunter: That’s just exactly right. Humble, homely, slow-witted Ringo represents YOU, the listener. The Beatles are extra-terrestrial divine avatars who are rearranging your synapses with their disorienting sonic distortions of context and perspective. You’re just sitting there in slack-jawed wonder, grinning at the pretty colors one minute, then suddenly cowering from the bleeding, diseased furniture and dissolving wallpaper. Everything in the Universe is one undivided entity of awareness and Ego is an illusion and we’re all one. The Beatles instructions to “turn off your mind” are redundant. They already did. I hope you have one of those automatic tone-arm return mechanisms on your record player.