Monday, June 2, 2014

Within You Without You

Last night as I mowed our yard I killed time by singing, in order, all the tracks on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles’ groundbreaking album that Rolling Stone magazine tagged as the greatest album of all time. It’s quite striking that even after all these years those grooves continue to remain deeply embedded in the moist grey matter where memories reside, so easily recalled and re-kindled. Begin at the beginning and it all streams out.

As I went from song to song, I felt an inward nudge to write something about George Harrison's contribution to this album. When I came in and went online to download the lyrics, I had a nice surprise. Coincidence? Yesterday was the release date for this Beatles masterwork, 47 years ago, June 1, 1967. Today, June 2, the album was released in the U.S. for mass consumption. And consumed it was.

There are many memories associated with the music of the Sixties, and this album holds an abundance of such for many of us. At the moment, however, let’s limit ourselves to the singular George Harrison cut on this album, Within You, Without You.

Sgt. Pepper was a concept album. The manner in which the album opened, and the way in which each song tumbled into the next, flowing river-like, or blending as it were, led listeners to quilt the various pieces together to form a whole. The effect was so stunning that by the end of side one you were undoubtedly asking yourself “what next?”

Back in the days of vinyl, there were actually two hot spots for a song to be placed. The first cut on either side would be a lead in that would be listened to with greater care. Within You Without You opened the second side of this Beatles masterpiece. And for some reason, when the tabla and Indian musical accompaniment opened, I was right there with it, drawn right in. We'd been prepped for it on Revolver, so it didn't jar us.

I vividly remember devouring the lyrics on the back of this album, especially deliberating on this one.

We were talking about the space between us all
And the people - who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion
Never glimpse the truth - then it's far too late - when they pass away.

This was not rock and roll. This was something deep, perceptive, thought-provoking.

We were talking - about the love we all could share - when we find it
To try our best to hold it there - with our love
With our love - We could save the world - if they only knew.

The Sixties was a time of upheaval. 1967 would be dubbed  "The Summer of Love." Within You Without You spoke directly to this idealism. It also spoke about spiritual realities at a time when organized religion had failed and people began pointing to the East for answers to life's harder questions.

Try to realize it's all within yourself no-one else can make you change
And to see you're really only very small
And life flows on within you and without you

We were talking - about the love that's gone so cold and the people
Who gain the world and lose their soul -
They don't know - they can't see - are you one of them?

When you've seen beyond yourself - then you may find
Peace of mind, is waiting there -
And the time will come when you see
We're all one, and life flows on within you and without you

Not only was this the only non-Lennon-McCartney song on the album, it was the only song in which no other Beatle was involved in the making. George recorded this song with 11 Indian musicians playing traditional Indian instruments.

In one essay on Sgt. Pepper it was noted that the real birth of this album took place in August the summer before when the Beatles make a decision to break from touring. The insanity of Beatlemania and the wearisome grind of life on the road, then recording sessions in between, had to be put to rest. Their last live concert then was San Francisco, August 29, 1966. Only a month before another rock superstar, Bob Dylan, put an end to his touring with a motorcycle accident in Woodstock. Times were changing.

Sgt. Pepper became a touchstone for change and was certainly that for the Beatles whose subsequent albums can all be classified as "Part II" of their collection. Ultimately, when they split they each took diverse paths and followed their own inner dictates. Paul liked performing and became a Band on the Run. John preferred the studio. George continued his spiritual quest. Ringo must have enjoyed those moments on the silver screen because he headed to Hollywood.

For an interesting breakdown of the song, its structure and other details, I commend you to read Alan W. Pollack's analysis here.

Meantime, life goes on all around you, ...within you and without you. 

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