#10: The Beatles, "The Beatles" (1968)

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What can I possibly say about the Beatles that hasn’t already been said? I will never stop being surprised that people still manage to write books—entire! books!—about them, apparently for other people to read. Even Rob Sheffield wrote a book about them in 2017, the same Rob Sheffield who I once admired for his memoir Love is a Mixtape, and who I now think of as the critic who can’t say anything bad about Taylor Swift. His book’s marketing copy bends over backward to differentiate itself from the other thousands of books written about the Beatles (it’s about fandom, NOT about their endlessly fascinating man-drama, okay?). (I’m sorry Rob, I am sure your book is very good, as evidenced by all the end-of-year lists it appeared on and blurbs bestowed upon it.)

Unlike Rob Sheffield, I have nothing new to say. I loved the Beatles. Do I still love them? I don’t know. I have loved them for so long that I rarely consider them anymore. They’re like my worn baby blanket tucked away and forgotten at the bottom of my dresser, which, upon seeing it every once in awhile during a frantic search for the one shirt I want to wear, part of my brain goes, Aw.

I have loved them into irrelevancy.

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The White Album was my “favorite album” when I was fifteen years old and I’ve neglected to update the designation ever since. It’s frozen at a moment when I felt strongest about music (also the last time I was at all interested in the concept of having a favorite album). But when I put it on now I hear nothing. Or rather, I hear my life, the things I love without thinking about them. Windows. Driving in rural Virginia during spring. Junior Mints and popcorn. The smell of the lotion my mother wears each winter, and the leggy, purple irises she grows each summer. Fog. Wearing yellow. Coffee with vanilla creamer.

I used to love falling asleep to John Lennon singing “Julia.” Every night from when I was fifteen until I was twenty I did this, waking up hours later tangled in my headphones, but I haven’t done that in years. When was the last night I fell asleep listening to “Julia,” and did I know it would be the last? My best friend growing up was also named Julia, and when she first started coming over in first grade my father would play this song for her. She didn’t like it, would shut her eyes and put her hands over her ears for the part where John Lennon sang Juuuuuuu-lia, starting off soft and then getting louder like an oncoming train. Maybe she hated the way it sounded, maybe she hated the song’s unbearable sadness in the minor key, maybe she hated having to share a name with John Lennon’s mother. I’d like to ask her now but I haven’t seen Julia in a very long time either.

The criticism I hear most often about The White Album is there’s too much filler, too many throwaway songs that don’t belong anywhere else. I think maybe that’s why I loved it—it was like a glorious scrapbook.

One of my favorite things I’ve read in the past year is Notes On by the artist Magalie Guerin, a book in fragments about her studio process which she copied from her actual notebooks and then reorganized. In one of her entries, she describes the process of making Notes On—”the project is more about the nature of thought, the act of thinking,” she writes, “ than it is about some singular truth.”

The notes range from her thoughts on her own artwork and process (“Made a good move on the green canvas—I painted part of the background brown. Brown is the ONLY non-decorative color”) to conversations with artist friends (“I want the paintings to present themselves as inviting and open without being entirely accessible—is that a contradiction? Fatima wisely says: ‘That’s why distance is so important. Let it be a question.’”) to things she’s read on other artists (“Charline von Heyl in BOMB—’I never doubted painting.’ ‘Always forcing things together that could not possibly work. It felt like bending bones.’ [I like that: bending bones.]”).

Her entries are at their most fragmentary when she’s jotting down notes during a class or crit or lecture, the sort of note-taking I always think of as a squirrel darting around outside its home-tree, gathering nuts for later. These kinds of notes are always more beneficial for the note-taker (whose memory of the experience might be jogged by what she chose to extract from it) than for anyone else, who is left to puzzle out the connections and meanings on their own. But I love her inclusion of these notes—incomplete, without punctuation, clearly written in a rush—for how she justifies this type of thinking and processing as worthy of its own book, which we tend to assume is a carefully polished, finished product. I like that she makes the means the end—that, despite the status symbol of the book’s two covers, a spine, and an ISBN, we are never finished.

Guerin also includes sections where she struggles against herself, trying to follow the pathways of her thoughts before changing her mind. If this were any other kind of book, I can easily imagine an editor slashing these sections because she doesn’t “go” anywhere new. But in these moments, her thought process is so visible, so on the surface, it’s almost tactile. I can feel the swish of her mind as it pivots. One particular passage that I enjoy:

“My shapes—

Furniture as a source of formal inspiration 

What is furniture, socially-speaking?

(say more about that—NO! fuck furniture, it’s not what my work is about)” [79]

Filler exists most often when it’s inside a form shaped by strict time or length requirements—a CD (80 minutes), a television show (twenty-two to forty-five minutes, depending), a book contract for 75,000 words, etc—and by definition has little to no purpose outside of “filling up” the time allotted to it (for example: the mind-numbing recap Hannah B. was forced to do with Chris Harrison on that recent episode of The Bachelorette).

But I think, in pieces where there are no time requirements, something can have the “feeling” of filler—seemingly subpar or random or out-of-place—yet still be beneficial and productive to the rest of the piece (for example, now that I am thinking more about it, I’m also glad for the recap Hannah B. did with Chris Harrison because it gave us the gift of knowing Marcus, which in turn, for the franchise’s purposes, also makes us more charmed by Hannah B. and therefore invested in her journey to find love, those crafty bastards).

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Yet part of me is sort of against this notion of every part of a piece being “productive” for the whole. I’m tired of being productive. Of trying to tuck a deeper, heavier meaning inside of everything—wearing yellow, the smell of lotion, listening to the Beatles, windows—so that it extends beyond itself, into the realm of importance. Can’t we just play? I would like to give myself the freedom to make things that don’t tie up all their ends so neatly. Even Lennon acknowledges his work as filler in “Julia”: “Half of what I say is meaningless.”

When people argue that The White Album has too much filler, I think that part of what they really mean is that the songs don’t go together. But why bother making a DOUBLE ALBUM, thereby creating more time to fill up, if half of those songs don’t belong?

A few pages before Guerin’s furniture passage, there’s a note that gestures toward an explanation of why I like that entry so much: “The visual traces of the process (doubt + dare) are so rich, the work just comes alive!”

Similarly, The White Album wouldn’t be The White Album without the exasperation, and yes, the risk, of a song like “Revolution 9.”  I think the album is an exercise in excess and weird juxtaposition. In so many of these recordings, you can hear each of them working things out, playing around. The White Album, like Notes On, is a studio diary that captures the process of each of Beatle becoming himself—John figuring out how to be solo John, George figuring out how to be solo George—and it’s a relief to experience such a weird, hodgepodge-y album, that not every song has to be this ornate, groundbreaking, meticulously-crafted cathedral (see: “A Day in the Life”), or the boring every-song formula of verse plus verse plus bridge plus—keY CHANGE!-verse equals hit. It’s the same sort of relief I feel when I read a really good book that still isn’t perfect. (I like being reminded that good art is still human, fallible, and subject to the same rules that I am.)

Last year, I attended a Q&A with the writer Sheila Heti. She spoke of how, during the editing process for her first novel Ticknor, she kept tinkering with one paragraph in particular. She couldn’t decide whether it belonged, so she kept removing it and putting it back. She ended up leaving it in. Once the book was actually published, she realized: of course it belongs. She was the one who put it there—she is the person in control of the book, the form giving it shape—so it belongs.

Half of what John Lennon says may be meaningless, “but,” as he concludes in the next line, “I say it just to reach you.” Magalie Guerin: “Silly ah-ha moments about color or deeper psychoanalytical reflections, it all matters.” I would like to stitch these ideas together—half of everything being meaningless; all of it mattering—and make them inhabit the same space, the way “Piggies” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” somehow live on the same record.

I’ve always loved that line in “Julia,” the hilarious futility of communication, and also how we still can’t help ourselves—we still insistently make our shit, imperfectly. I picture a million bathroom fans churning their meaningless songs in unison. In fact: can you believe I’m still typing words right now, filling this space up?? I can’t. Really, it would be easy to argue that this entire essay is filler: I’m not arguing anything specific, I’m just meandering around, taking up some time. If you are still reading this, I’m very impressed. I’ve actually been trying for about a half hour to find a way to end this piece, to get the fuck out of this paragraph while also doing that end-of-essay-thing where I light the building of text on fire and walk away as it explodes, shaking my hair and putting my sunglasses on, but I can’t find a way of doing it with this one. And it’s due, in fact, it’s already late. I’m out of time, even though I don’t feel finished.

—Lena Moses-Schmitt