George Harrison’s marriage to Pattie Boyd may have ended in a whirl of drama but damn if it didn’t fuel some of his best writing. The Beatles themselves ended in a whirl of drama, an ugly breakup only hinted at in the idyllic video by their conspicuous refusal to be filmed together. That drama in turn fueled Harrison, Lennon and McCartny to leap into their solo careers determined to prove themselves. (Ringo got busy filming cinematic classics like Caveman.) That just proves and underlines the way that harsh experiences tend to become the most intense inspiration. George Harrison knew, of course, that his four-way union with the other Beatles was on its dying legs, and that his relationship with his wife wasn’t going so well either. It’s the knowledge of impending change that imbues the most tender of love songs with its soulfulness.
The Beatles didn’t singlehandedly convince ‘the establishment’ that rock and roll was worthy of the same respect as ‘proper’ music, but they certainly contributed more than a fair shakes towards earning that respect. It’s generally agreed that Sgt. Pepper was a catalyst in establishing rock music as a real art form, and She’s Leaving Home is generally pointed out as proof that rock musicians are capable of producing works of great sensitivity and nuance. The youths of the time needed no convincing on this point, but the squares were reluctant to give those long-haired upstarts their due as songwriters and composers. All they needed was Paul McCartney in his most dewy-eyed mode, thoughtfully acknowledging the sad and inevitable gap between between generations and their inability to relate to one another, backed with a plush string arrangement. Now, of course, the artistic validity of rock as a genre is beyond any shadow of a doubt; if anything, it has become overly entrenched as the dominant cultural standard. It strikes us as outlandish and unthinkable that anyone would have ever questioned it.
If you’ve never heard the Beatles before, and you started with this song, you may frankly have a hard time understanding the mania. It’s an interesting glimpse, though, at what they might have ended up sounding like if they’d stayed the straightforward rock band they’d been before they got all gussied up in cute little suits. Although they conquered the world on a tsunami of teenage hysteria, it was an ill-kept secret that they’d have been more comfortable playing dingy music halls and causing havoc of a different kind. Well, if they’d listened to more blues and less Elvis they could’ve been the bad boys of rock and left it to middle-class economics student Mick Jagger to glad-hand the establishment.
The ‘she’ in this case is Peter Fonda. Everything else is LSD. The Beatles were fervid converts to all things psychedelic, and they promoted it with the enthusiasm of children. In hindsight, encouraging the unwashed masses to indulge in volatile mind-altering drugs was pretty irresponsible, but at the time it must have felt like psychedelic consciousness was going to save the world. What LSD does is loosen the synaptic pathways formed in the adult brain to filter out unnecessary stimuli and prevent the mind from becoming dangerously distracted, thus allowing the brain to return to a more childlike state of perception. It can be therapeutic in the right circumstances and traumatic in the wrong ones, which is why it should, at the very least, be taken in a safe and controlled environment. Of course, if you happen to be a creative genius with all the time and money in the world, LSD feels like a gift basket from God. But even among the genius-elites there were plenty of cases of people having nervous breakdowns from overindulgence, triggering previously unremarked mental illnesses, or even getting killed because they didn’t notice that the damn light was red. In 1966, though, all those bum trips were still in the future, and everyone sincerely thought they’d unlocked the key to a higher consciousness, and they were going to be the evangelists of a new school of thought.
This, as the kids on the internet like to say, is pure. It’s just pure and magical and as mood-altering as champagne bubbles. The Beatles could be hugely problematic, as in not very woke at all, if you catch my meaning, especially in their early years. That didn’t slow them in their uncorking a tsunami of crying and shrieking from seemingly-possessed hordes of libidinous teenage girls, aka Beatlemania. Even in the cooler view of decades-past hindsight, they more than make up for it in sheer musical genius. It doesn’t matter if history says that John Lennon was a dick. Nobody else before or since could trigger such lightning changes in brain chemistry with the power of their vocal harmonies. And out of all the most euphoric Beatles hits, there’s nothing more sweet in sentiment than one buddy helping another buddy patch up his love life. Apologize to her! She loves you! You should be glad! Yeah, yeah, yeah!
Much as I hate to take Abbey Road songs out of context, I have to examine this one. I’ve always wondered about it, obviously. So many questions. Who is she and why did she come in through the bathroom window? Is Paul McCartney a police officer in this scenario? I want to hear more. One of the wonders of the medley half of Abbey Road is that there are so many fascinating fragments of ideas that I really want to hear more about. It’s like opening a notebook filled with some great writer’s ideas for stories that they never got around to writing. In the Beatles-inspired movie Across the Universe, there’s actually a character who does come crawling in through the bathroom window, with the explanation that her boyfriend was abusing her and she used the fire escape to make her escape and then later it turns out she’s a lesbian, which is pretty straightforward and makes a lot of narrative sense. But it’s also a little bit literal-minded, because New York City fire escapes are the most obvious explanation for why anyone would be coming in through a bathroom window. I like to imagine something a little bit more fun, like a thwarted museum heist. I’m imagining a Pink Panther-style caper, with Paul McCartney in the Inspector Clouseau role and Jane Birkin as a dancer/criminal mastermind.
A lot of people died because of this song. Literally. The Beatles’ White Album has a unique status among rock albums: it has the Bible-like legacy of having been used as a justification for bloodshed. The record has a complicated legacy even without that baggage. Musically there is plenty to unpack. There was the rivalry and infighting that took place during the writing and recording, the personal struggles that the band dealt with outside of the studio, the growing differences between them that are starkly evident in the music. However, it will always be linked, at least in some people’s minds, to a string of grisly murders. Through no fault of anyone involved, the record came to be tainted by association with the chaos and instability of the wider world, becoming a symbol of a wider cultural fracture that was taking place. That’s thanks to the escapades of Charles Manson, who came to fame the following year for masterminding a series of horrific murders that captivated the world and still do so. The Manson killings, and the subsequent trial and media frenzy, were, besides their sheer brutality, perfectly planned and engineered for maximum imaginative impact. They combined so many elements designed to fascinate the public, and not by coincidence. They confirmed what people had already suspected about the hippie counter-culture: that it was cultish, seedy, sex- and drug- crazed, bent on overthrowing polite society, brainwashing impressionable young people with half-baked spirituality, fully capable of turning perfectly normal kids into homicidal maniacs. There was the class and race baiting, the messianic posturing, the vague political agenda. There was the irresistible celebrity factor: one of the victims was a well-connected movie star. It was the pop-cultural aspect that really made Manson and his Family into pop culture icons in their own right. Manson thought he was a messiah, but he didn’t bother too much with the biblical. He knew that stuff was boring and passe. His acolytes were with him because they’d already rejected Christian dogma. Instead, he used pop culture as his gospel, and he was particularly taken with the Beatles. They were, after all, bigger than Jesus. The inferences Charles Manson made about the White Album were, of course, dead wrong, but they were canny. The Beatles weren’t sending messages about inciting a race war or exterminating the upper classes – not even hypothetically were they thinking about those things. But the messages that Manson thought they were sending him about those things were convincing enough to get people to actually go out and try to do those things. When Manson told a girl he’d nicknamed Sadie Mae that the Beatles had personally earmarked her via song, that it meant she was to carry out Manson’s apocalyptic vision, she obediently went out and killed. (And spent the rest of her life in prison for her trouble.) It was the darkest possible example of rock music’s growing ability to influence real life, and of the potential way that art can escape the artist’s control. It was John Lennon’s innocent ‘bigger than Jesus’ comment come back to show just how dangerous and volatile that amount of fame can turn out to be. There wasn’t any bad intention behind the music. There didn’t have to be. All it needed was bad intention on the part of the listener to turn it into a manifesto of mayhem.