Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Get Back

I've seen Peter Jackson’s Beatles documentary “Get Back” and have some thoughts.

I’m fascinated by the creative process. If you've ever dreamed of taking a time machine to watch Leonardo paint the Last Supper or Beethoven compose his Ninth Symphony, this is as close are you’re going to get. Like most viewers, I was thrilled to see the Beatles (especially McCartney) carve gems out of the improvisation and chaos that comprised a Beatles rehearsal. One morning, bored while waiting for John Lennon to show up, Paul turns random strumming into the recognizable beat and lyrics of “Get Back.” Chills up the spine. Something from nothing. A magic trick. A few days later, Paul sits down at the piano and plays “The Long and Winding Road” minus most of its lyrics. We know what Paul doesn’t: the words will come, and they’ll be great.

Some reviews have criticized the documentary as tedious and I understand why. There are long stretches where nothing really happens. For me those stretches feel like watching a rainstorm waiting for lightning to strike. The lads eat toast, drink beer, smoke a lot of cigarettes, read about themselves in the paper, and half-ass their performances. Paul pushes, John goofs (probably high), George sulks, and Ringo bless his heart shows up on time and does his job. Then, unexpectedly emerging from the churn: genius. "Get Back." "The Long and Winding Road." "Let It Be." "Something" ("in the way she moves, attracts me like a cauliflower..."). Joyful, inspired lightning. 

What the reviewers miss is that the tedium is part of the genius. Goofing and noodling and doodling is the process. My very successful cartoonist pal Raina Telgemeier once wrote that she was starting work on a new book, which “very much resembles doing nothing,” and I’ve always remembered and loved that. You don’t get the brilliant lightning without the dull gray thunderclouds. 

What I most appreciate about witnessing these works in their fetal form is the reminder that they weren’t inevitable. The world has had Beatles songs so long that they seem like permanent monuments, but there was a time they didn’t exist, and they might have turned out very differently. The boys make them up as they go. In some parallel universe a butterfly flaps its wings and “Get Back” includes the lyrics “Sidi Abdul Rami was a Pakistani, but he didn’t live at home.” That sound disastrous, but do I only believe that because I’ve heard the canonical version a thousand times? I think it’s impossible to say. I like the one we got.

I wouldn’t presume to compare myself to the Beatles, but . . .

I have sometimes felt that, at the end of the day, I’d created something that didn’t exist that morning and which nobody could have done but me. That doesn’t mean it’s good, or that anybody’s going to like it or care, but it still feels like a tiny, satisfying contribution to civilization. It’s plus one point in my imaginary permanent record. In Jackson’s documentary, we witness the Beatles rack up several thousand points.

What most impressed me with the Beatles’ creative process was they knew when to say “good enough.” That’s a lesson a lot of creative people never learn. They think their work has to be perfect so they either never begin it or never finish it. I know writers who are afraid to write a word and others who pick at a completed manuscript for twenty years. Perfection--and its close cousin, fear of failure--are the enemy of both. 

The Beatles didn’t aim for perfect. Oh, they worked hard on songs, polishing and refining them, but in relatively quick time they got them good enough to meet their (obviously high) standards, recorded them, then moved on. With few exceptions, they never went back and fiddled with them (one of those exceptions: in 2003, McCartney remastered the “Let It Be” album to remove Phil Spector’s orchestrations that he never approved). No second guessing; eyes forward, on to the next. 

There’s a story, probably too good to be true, about the French Impressionist painter Pierre Bonnard, who was once arrested at the Louvre for bringing a brush and palette into the museum and retouching one of his paintings on the wall. When security grabbed him he cried, “But it is my painting! I have not finished it!” The guard replied, “It is in the Louvre, Monsieur Bonnard! It is finished!”

I wouldn’t presume to compare myself to the Beatles AGAIN, but . . .

Every few years, the Abrams warehouse runs out of copies of Mom’s Cancer and they print some more. And every time, Editor Charlie asks me if I want to take the opportunity to change anything. My answer is always “No.” That book came out 15 years ago (!) and I think I’ve learned a bit about storytelling in the meantime. If I redid Mom’s Cancer today I could write it better, draw it better, structure it better, and produce a new book superior in every detail to the original—and in the process completely ruin it. It's finished. It’s a record of who I was then, telling my family's story as well as I could at the time and under those conditions, and in that respect it’s perfect. 

“Get Back” is a record of who the Beatles were in January 1969, making music as best they could at the time and under those conditions. In that respect, it’s perfect.

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