John Lennon’s finished draft of “The Word” (from the 1965 album “Rubber Soul”) received loving treatment from Paul McCartney, who decorated it with a wash of pink watercolor, a tree and abstract designs. (Chicago Tribune/MCT)
EVANSTON, Ill. - Growing up in Liverpool, the Beatles took pieces of all the pop music they could find - country, Motown, rhythm and blues, rockabilly - and turned it into rock immortal. But as for their lyric manuscripts, the scraps proved the stuff of everyday ephemera: used envelopes, torn note pads, folded sheets splattered with blue-ink doodles and pink psychedelic swirls.
No one knows how many Beatles drafts went the way of the wastebasket. But seven handwritten specimens from the group’s creative peak survive, thanks to John Lennon’s second wife, Yoko Ono (who gathered them in the late 1960s), and composer/musician John Cage (who donated Yoko’s gift to Northwestern University, along with his collection of 400 music manuscripts).
Today they’re part of the Northwestern University’s music library collection in Evanston, where images of the Beatle documents went on display March 23. The collection includes one specimen any fab fan would consider a prize: Paul McCartney’s draft of “For No One” scrawled on a manila envelope, containing two missing choruses known to but a few folks in academia.
One of them is head music librarian D.J. Hoek. Ask him how much any of the drafts might fetch on eBay, and he says, “I won’t speculate. They’re exceptional.”
“For No One’s” manuscript especially shines: It gives an intimate glimpse into McCartney’s chamber-pop jewel on 1966’s “Revolver.” The draft reveals he first called the song “Why Did It Die?” He also finished a pair of choruses that went unused. The first reads:
Why did it die?
You’d like to know.
Cry - and blame her
And the second:
Why let it die
I’d like to know
Try - to save it.
The document suggests McCartney spent some time tinkering with these choruses before abandoning them. He wrote the middle lines to both in black ink that appear nowhere else on the paper. (He scribbled the verses, most of which made the final cut, in pencil.)
So why, indeed, did this idea die?
“I would assume it just didn’t fit the music,” says Stuart Shea, author of “Fab Four FAQ” (Hal Leonard). “The meter of the lyrics doesn’t seem to fit the drawing-room tempo he’d set with the verses.”
The Northwestern collection also contains a curiosity unlike any other Lennon-McCartney collaboration: a finished lyric sheet for “The Word” (from 1965’s “Rubber Soul”) in Lennon’s handwriting. For reasons unknown, McCartney took the draft and gave it a backwash of pink ink. He then made it a work of mini pop art by adding a tree, abstract shapes and highlighting, all done with colored markers.
All the lyric sheets remain in mint condition after 40-plus years. They reside in special folders, surrounded by protective plastic sheets. Each has also undergone a preservation process to remove all acid traces from the paper, which will add years to their lifespan (though the songs themselves remain timeless).
Viewers making the trek to Northwestern will see high-resolution scans that capture every detail down to the smallest tea stain - but alas, not the originals. Hoek keeps those under lock and key. “Only in extraordinary cases do we bring them out,” he says, “and it’s because of their value.”
Facsimiles of the Beatles manuscripts are on display through April 18 at the Northwestern University Music Library, 1970 Campus Drive, Evanston, Ill. The library is open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8:30 a.m. to noon Saturday.