Whenever someone who actually isn’t God tells me what God has been up to, I get suspicious. This is because I operate on the assumption that whatever God is up to, it’s beyond me. I very much doubt, for instance, that a God who passeth all understanding has much interest in touchdowns. Still, I can see what inspires the belief. If you claim that touchdowns come from the good Lord and if, as it happens, you score one, then it follows, sort of, that there is a God.
Those of us who are not persuaded by this argument but who, nonetheless, like to think that life might be more than a biological accident look elsewhere for signs of the Divine. And for many of us, it is music that inspires our search.
Not that we find answers in music. If God has jobs, the providing of answers, much like the scoring of touchdowns, are probably not among them. But it is in music that we find beauty, mystery, delight and a language that, like the name of Yahweh itself, is beyond words. It is in music that we sometimes catch a glimpse of something that is not of this world — and sometimes a glimpse is enough for us to go on.
Mozart is most frequently cited in this regard because his compositions seem so joyously, magnificently perfect, but also because he composed with such apparent facility. It’s as if he were more antenna than creator. If we consider an output that can only be described as miraculous, it is hard to escape the notion that it was God who was dictating, and Wolfgang who was scribbling the notes down.
Recently, I’ve been wondering whether the same might be said of the Beatles. “Recently” because Julie Taymor’s delightful musical film, Across the Universe, has had me humming Beatles tunes for weeks. And “wondering” because wondering is about the best I can do. It isn’t easy for someone my age to assess the Beatles objectively.
Too much of the appeal of hearing their old songs, or looking at early clips of them on YouTube is an exercise in nostalgia — a pleasant enough but essentially meaningless response to anything. I am 55, which means that the timing — mine for them, and theirs for me — was perfect. They took me from All My Loving to A Day in the Life, and for those shockingly few years when they were creating the greatest pop songs of all time, their musical growth seemed in perfect synch with the growth of a teenager. I am not certain that I believe in miracles, but I’m not sure how else to explain the fact that John Lennon and Paul McCartney met one another. Their song-writing partnership — far greater than the sum of its parts — proved to be so inspired as if it were made in heaven.
But enough time has now passed for some perspective. Forty-five years ago, I sat in the living room of a friend and listened for the first time to his (oh-so-beautiful) older sister’s copy of the Beatles’ first album. Their parents had brought it back from a trip to England and, I am proud to say, I knew before the end of side one that things would never be the same again. But only now, all these years later, is it possible for me to see beyond my own memories and begin to suspect that the Beatles were more than a successful pop band. More, even, than an extraordinarily successful pop band.
Now, a third generation is embracing their music — a generation that is entirely unconcerned with what they meant to people my age. Across the Universe has a soundtrack of 33 Beatles songs — none of them performed by the Beatles — and the movie seems to appeal to all ages. Happily, all the sociological and demographic baggage that the Beatles have been required to lug around for decades is falling away as the years slip by. And what is left are popular songs so sweet, so clever, so inspired, so intricate, so moving and so much fun, that one can’t help but think that if Mozart was tuned into God’s classical music station, the Beatles surely knew where to find a higher power on the AM dial.
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