[12 April 2007]
There are so many books written about the Beatles—too many, probably—that if we were to make an inventory of every single title, the bad would far outweigh the good. For every indispensable Beatles book (Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions or Bob Spitz’s The Beatles) there’s a stack of purposeless volumes: the tabloid gossip pieces, the fakebooks, the perplexing digressions into sub-topics of straw-grasping relevance. The Beatles and Philosophy, a collection of essays by philosophy experts (many of them university professors, all of them Beatles fanatics), is a new and sometimes tedious example of the latter. An entry in the “Popular Culture and Philosophy” series of books, which is now 25 volumes deep, The Beatles and Philosophy exploits the Fab Four’s weakness for populist consciousness-raising by aligning their work to that of Kant, Heidegger, Aristotle, and a host of other great minds that don’t necessarily have much to do with the band’s music.
A major problem with the collection is that it addresses the Beatles’ lyrics only—understandably, seeing as there’s no way to discuss Nietzsche and overdubbing with a straight face—an approach that inevitably treats the band as a one-dimensional unit. There’s no discussion of composition or instrumentation, no examination of arrangements or invention—this is solely a trace of so-called philosophical themes within the lyrical content. (Regrettably, straight lyrical analysis in pop music is a somewhat shallow trade, for there are so many other parts to a song beyond its words alone.) This leaves the writers groping for faint and coincidental similarities between the Beatles’ lyrics and core concepts within existentialism, virtue ethics, Marxism, and Eastern philosophy (the latter is an excusable avenue, given the band’s fascination—George Harrison’s, especially—with Indian music and Hinduism). Sure, Harrison’s music and ideology frequently embraced those of Eastern cultures, and John Lennon famously snuck Timothy Leary’s Tibetan Book of the Dead-isms into “Tomorrow Never Knows”, but the kind of intellectual matchmaking on display in The Beatles and Philosophy is, more often than not, a venture in absurdity.
Take Ronald Lee Zigler’s essay, “Realizing It’s All Within Yourself”, for example. Zigler offers “I Am the Walrus” as an example of a song “in which we can trace the influence of Eastern Philosophy.” (What about the influence of nonsense, of childlike expression and the simple sound of certain words in a particular order?) He goes on to claim that the song’s opening line—“I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together”—is “the Beatles’ most succinct affirmation of the metaphysics of Vedanta which underscores our basic spiritual unity.” Well, perhaps Lennon’s pop-song gibberish happens to have a fluke connection with Hindu philosophy, but it seems irresponsible to make intentional bedfellows of the two, to saddle such illogical phrasing with greater importance than it may have originally intended to possess.
Many of the book’s writers attempt to reason logically with the Beatles’ lyrical exploits, but logic doesn’t exactly apply to the band’s psychedelic-era songwriting. In his essay “Fixing Metaphysical Holes”, Rick Mayock soberly examines “Fixing a Hole”:
Every time I hear this puzzling lyric I wonder what the riddle could possibly mean. What kind of hole needs fixing, what is the ‘rain’ that gets in, and how does it prevent the mind from wandering where it will go? ... The lyric seems to suggest that the wandering mind (thinking or consciousness) is possible because we set up the conditions for thinking. We fix the holes, fill the cracks, and paint the rooms of our consciousness. This allows the mind to wander, to be free.
Say what you will about the validity of certain kinds of music criticism, but this philosophy sub-set is a painful breed of interpretation. Scott Calef, in his essay “You Say That You’ve Got Everything You Want: The Beatles and the Critique of Consumer Culture”, discusses the finer points of Rousseau and then plots said points on a classic-rock staple: “... for Rousseau, humans have suffered a loss of pity. In ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, George makes a very similar point, and laments that love is sleeping. We haven’t yet awakened to love, or perhaps, we’ve lost the consciousness of how to love ... This is such a sadness that even his guitar can’t keep from crying.” What’s so striking about the majority of the book’s 18 essays—and, therefore, what makes them all so insufferable—is that they try so hard to be astoundingly intelligent, to delve into the intricate meanings of every last lyric, and yet there’s a sustained ignorance towards the inherent silliness of it all. Is there really a debate about “what exactly [did Paul] mean by the word love?” in “All My Loving”? Does an assessment of Nietzsche really help us to better understand the Beatles’ transcendent aspirations?
Steven Baur, one of the book’s editors, is the author of one of the better essays in the collection. “You Say You Want a Revolution: Marx and the Beatles” compares and contrasts the band with the German philosopher (who is, as Baur notes, “the only Western philosopher to make the cover of a Beatles album”), and makes a number of insightful points about how social establishments are affected by pop stars and theorists alike. “Marx, dedicated materialist that he was,” Baur writes, “would insist that any discussion of the Beatles must necessarily start with a consideration of their real material circumstances.” Baur, too, insists on having like parameters set in place, and saves his own essay, at least, from floating off into clouds of intangible analysis.