#392: The Beatles, "Let It Be" (1970)

I stopped having fun the day I learned to count, when moments became finite and routine thrust me forward. Two more bites. Bedtime in five. I’ll tell you when you’re older. But when the needle landed on my father’s turntable, melodies sat suspended in the air. No fast forward, no pause, no screen to scold how little we had left.

Music is an attempt to manipulate time, stretching and crumpling each second. The right song can take you back to that state of mind, before anticipation spoiled everything. The right song can free you from increments.

I was never introduced to the Beatles. From birth I was saturated, predisposed to a decades-old mania. Born in the 1950s, my mother and father came of age as the band did—the shift from wanting to hold your hand to just… wanting you. I grew up in a house with Beatles posters on the wall, coffee table books, Yellow Submarine clothes hangers, and of course, the records, a shelf of original pressings I was not allowed to touch. Beneath blue suburban skies, the Beatles joined us for Christmas mornings, tooth fairy visits and after-school snacks. I heard the music, but I never heard the story.

My childhood impressions skew quite a linear narrative—by and large the most significant evolution in the history of song. My eight-year-old self could hear the difference between “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Love Me Do,” but she couldn’t tell you which one came first and why that mattered. The Beatles were just the Beatles, wide-ranging, but a constant nonetheless.

Like someone who grew up in the church finally reading the Bible cover-to-cover, I’ve listened to all twelve studio albums in chronological order, tracing the progression, trying to pinpoint exactly when the THC kicked in (1965, Rubber Soul: those inhales during the chorus of “Girl”). The story of John, Paul. George and Ringo has been told and retold, cataloged by the song, by the day, by the haircut. A basic plot has fastened, beginning at a church garden party in Liverpool, England in 1957. But the ending is not as clear. Scholars and fans disagree on which album should be considered the band’s final; Abbey Road was the last one to be recorded, Let it Be was the last one released. Does the narrative lock when a song is sung, or when it is heard?

My father, an accomplished air pianist, always points out a sore chord in the final verse of Let it Be’s title track (at 2:59, on the word mother). What he calls a “mistake,” I call a dissonant variation in harmony. In 2003, Paul McCartney released Let it Be…Naked, a cut of the record stripped of Phil Spector’s overwrought production, supposedly the album Paul intended to make in 1970. The Naked tracks mean to revise the last chapter, guide us back to the place we once belonged….and leave us there. In the stripped version of the song “Let it Be”, the rogue chord is gone—the progression in the final verse matches the two that that came before it. My father owns Let it Be…Naked on CD, but he hardly plays it, favoring the original, slightly scratched LP. For him, the story had already been told.

The film Let it Be, though currently out of print, is available on a Japanese streaming website near you. Along with raw footage of tense recording sessions and implied bickering, the documentary captures the Beatles’ last live performance, an iconic surprise concert on the rooftop of Apple Records. The camerawork misleads us as it flashes back and forth between close-ups of the band and a flabbergasted crowd forming in the London streets, suggesting an intimate exchange. But the impromptu stage sat atop five stories, their view obstructed by the surrounding crop of skyscrapers. The band couldn’t see their audience, and their audience couldn’t see them. In their final performance, the Beatles could superimpose whatever reaction they wanted. At least in that moment.

There’s a story I’ve been telling myself for years, about a ten-year-old girl who sang “Let it Be” in the fifth grade talent show, to an audience of schoolyard bullies and mean girls. I write myself as a victim, vindicated to the dismay of those kids who teased her for liking “parents’ music.” (Basically the plot of every episode of Glee.) I wore a much-too-big evergreen gown, its straps hovering like handles over my freckled shoulders. Squinting in harsh lighting, I craned my neck up to the microphone. I sang:

“When I find myself in times of trouble…”

But it isn’t really a story, is it? It’s a moment, a moment I’ve jammed into a cheesy formula. The narrative crumbled once I sat down and realized what really happened: sure, I sang a Beatles song in my elementary school’s talent show. But the audience wasn’t entranced; it was a freakin’ elementary school talent show. They were monitoring the paper programs in their laps, counting down the acts until it was time to go home. I vaguely remember applause, though I’m sure it was out of politeness and not awe. The action only rises and falls in retrospect. I still got teased afterward. Mother Mary never came.

But even without a lightning strike of redemption, I still feel pride and triumph when I hear the opening chords of “Let it Be” descend. Perhaps I’ve framed this moment with delusion, but I take comfort not in what came immediately before or after it. Sixteen years ago, for three minutes, I sang loudly to the white void in front of me, superimposing whatever reaction I wanted. I forgot about endings.

—Susannah Clark
Recorded by Dillon M. Hawkins