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"Now and Then": Goodbye to All That.
Gary Raymond analyses the emotional reaction to the final Beatles record "Now and Then" released last week.
Philip Norman sits pale and hunched on Sky News waiting for that opening question, his lips trembling in the studio lights anticipating the bloodletting of his latest Beatles hatefuck. Has there ever been a writer so disdainful of his chosen life’s work? Maybe Dostoevsky.
Norman, of course, who wrote The Beatles’ 1981 biography, Shout!, the book that claimed Lennon was three quarters of the band, and painted McCartney as a whiney manipulator. (McCartney liked to call the book Shite! in future interviews). Norman went on to pen an ungenerous biography of Lennon (not quite as “extravagantly spiteful” as Albert Goldman’s famous book on Lennon from 1988, but still a bit of a shocker), and now has one out about George, who by all accounts he grew to like more and more as his research went on. That fact makes me very suspicious of the man I thought George was, the quiet Beatle – okay, serial philanderer, arch-misogynist, and spiritual hypocrite (As Norman painted him in Shout!), but also the man who wrote “Something” and “Here Comes of the Sun”. Whatever the behavioural actions of Harrison, you’ll struggle to find anyone who didn’t love him. Seems George’s powers of persuasion even got under the saggy ol’ skin of Norman who has recently says he would never write about Ringo, the last remaining subject of his preoccupation. Nobody, after all, needs a writer to give the voice of Thomas the Tank Engine a biography-sized kick-in.
Norman, somewhat inevitably, hates “Now and Then”, The Beatles’ final song, 45 years in the making, built from a shaky Lennon demo of 1978, pored over during the Anthology sessions of the mid-90s, and now assembled and birthed with the help of AI technology. Norman doesn’t simply not like it, he hates it; it’s “terrible”, “a mess”. Grumble grumble grumble something something. I don’t know, but Norman strikes me as the sort of dickhead who, when pressed, would name his favourite Beatles song as “Blue Jay Way”. He does come across, in case I haven’t emphasised the point enough, to be someone who cannot stand The Beatles. Not the band members, not their music.
Norman aside, disdain for the song has, surprise surprise, been fairly easy to find. Go to the artist formerly known as Twitter, and amidst all of the arguments about what shade of Nazi the Armageddon will be, there is a healthy dose of Beatles-disappointment. Criticism of the song primarily comes from people who are judging it as a standalone piece of constructed art. The lyrics, the melody, the instrumentation… what do they add up to? What are their integral strengths? Is this song as good as say, “Waterloo Sunset”, or “Ava Maria”, or “Dancing Queen”? But this is the evaluation of people who, on the whole, do not centre The Beatles in their own cultural story. You see, The Beatles, to many of us… millions of us… are not just the greatest band — it is not even that they are “a band”; it is more like they are family. The power of “Now and Then” lies not just in the integrity of the song as a piece of art, but it also lies in the context of The Beatles, their mythology, the society they have helped shape, and the contributions they have made to us as individuals. If you have never been touched by any of those things, this song won’t do much for you.
I was eighteen months old when John Lennon was killed. And yet he has always felt alive to me, he has always felt in the room, at my shoulder, winking and grinning. Lennon was the Liverpool hardman with the rapier wit who wrote songs of undiminishing sensitivity. Some of his compositions ache with love and nostalgia and speak of the most potent forms of human yearning. Our childhoods, our crushes, our friendships and our families, our obsessions and our heartbreaks, our admirations and our turn offs. His finest moments have been about things that have gone. His palette explored not just the moon-in-June boy-meets-girl stuff; his greatest songs are about love in all its guises and rythms, the everything of it all. His music was about the beating of the heart, and all the encounters that made it beat. And “Now and Then” is a song that encapsulates his genius for touching these things with such simplicity and vivacity.
Lennon’s ability to be masculine – hard, acidic, cruel – at the same time as being vulnerable, is what makes him so tantalising in his own mythology. Someone like Norman (or indeed Albert Goldman) only sees the tired intrigue of a man who could treat women poorly whilst also being able to write “In My Life”. Yawn. Yes, people are complicated, and beauty is not the reservation of the righteous. Write me a(nother) book about that, why don’t you? Do I need to be able to say “John Lennon was a good man” in order to pretend I understand him? Or can I simply contemplate the narrative that is personal to me, of a band who contributed more than any other cultural phenomenon to my own project of self-invention, and the people who were the players in that phenomenon? Away from the soggy naysayers, I am seeing many people sink deeper and deeper into this moment. It is not a song that speaks loudly to cold analytics. It is a work of deep emotional enchantment. “Now and Then” is hitting some people hard because it is more than a song. But it is also proving what a song can do. A simple melody, good musicianship, some decent lyrics. A good song can move continents.
“Now and Then” is beautiful. Its production is, okay, a little dry, a little modern. It doesn’t have the kinetic energy of anything from Rubber Soul or the white album. It doesn’t have those beautiful craggy guitars of Abbey Road, or the autumnal barn dance lusciousness of Let It Be. Its charms are subtler, but I admit it leaves very little room for the spontaneity that brings colour to the cheeks of so many of those 1960s recordings. However, it is an archetypal Lennon song. It lines up the minor chords and knocks them down with a cool major lift. The heart strings strung to a pearl-white baby grand in an ethereal, austere lounge room. “Now and Then” operates in the mists of longing, a voice from beyond the grave belonging to a man who has never really seemed dead. And now we all get to say goodbye, we have to say goodbye, because there really is nothing more to be said. Lennon really is gone. And with him, hand in hand, goes George, the two of them winding off into the distance as light as air. Two remain, but there is nothing without the Four.
Ringo, the eldest, whose platitudinous exclamations seem to have regressed, even by his own standards, into infantile slogans, finally appears to have the credit he deserves as an innovative and excellent drummer. And, boy, has he had the life.
McCartney now is the single beam of light, but for how long? He remains to pull dust sheets over the furniture and turn out the lights. He has been carefully curating his own legacy in recent years, with his Rick Rubin doc, his engagement with Peter Jackson for the Get Back movie, his more prominent profile arranging the beats of a career, a life, dedicated to music. But he has also been fulfilling his duty to The Beatles. Hacks like Philip Norman are irrelevant. Serious cultural entrepreneurs like Rubin and Jackson have stepped in to provide that connective current between us mere mortals on our sofas and the unfathomable importance of The Beatles. Because of them and people like them, we can begin to understand it all a little better now that it’s over.
And so “Now and Then” gives us closure. Lennon and McCartney are talking to one another in it. But they are also talking to us, and we to them.
I know it's true
It's all because of you
And if I make it through
It's all because of you
And now and then
If we must start again
Well, we will know for sure
That I will love you
Now and then
I miss you
Oh, now and then
I want you to be there for me
Always to return to me
I know it's true
It's all because of you
And if you go away
I know you'll never stay
Simple, quiet sentiments said simply and quietly, in the way that men speak to one another, if and when they speak at all. They are thanking one another, being honest about one another, telling each other how they feel about each other. The bullshit has been blown away. The fame and the pressure and lawyers and the wives and the snarking and the tit for tat. What is left is love. This is the last conversation to be had between two men… no, wait: between all Four of them… who we feel are a part of our own story. They are our friends, our family. We are saying goodbye to them just as they are finally being honest with each other. We are moved by “Now and Then” because it is grief we are feeling, and grief nurtures honesty.
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But it is more than that, still. We are finally being forced to say goodbye to the twentieth century, that place where so many of us felt so safe, the second half of which felt so progressive, and from where the sunlit uplands felt within reach. Lennon symbolised this optimism. He was no cynic. Love is all you need was not the mantra of a hippy, it was the refrain of a man of hope. And the truth is, we have refused to accept he was taken from us. Had he been gunned down last Thursday we’d have absorbed the ungodly tragedy of it already. But no, not then. The Chaos of Evil had been banished in the war. Now we believe those demons lurk in every shadow at every corner.
“Now and Then” is a simple song, and contained in its simplicity is a world of longing, of promise, of friendship and love, and at its core is some kind of explanation as to why these Four guys from Liverpool changed the world. It is all in that song. A song that recollects everything they did together, every smile they shared, every wink and gurn, every bassline and swooping string section, every harmony, every scream and every shout, every road taken, and all the things they shared with us. It affirms in us that the love we took was equal to the love they made. And in the end, we understand that this is goodbye.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, non-fiction writer, and broadcaster.