Monday, May 4, 2009

Come Together

My Paul + Bass = GOD playlist garnered good additional suggestions in comments, and sent me back to listen to all those kickass bassy moments. That's why, after some mucking about with early covers over the weekend-- music highly appropriate to a springtime weekend, I feel-- I'm here on Monday urging you all to "Come Together."

Originally conceived as a campaign song for Timothy Leary's aborted attempt to run for governor of California-- "Come Together" was his campaign slogan-- the song spun off away from politics into very Lennon-esque nonsense poetry, which is probably more internal (as all of John's best writing is) than anything else. John's relationship with Leary and his ilk around this time turned out to be just the beginning of his interest in radical leftist politics throughout the early '70s, and unfortunately for us all, that interest resulted in music that ranged from the shallow to the unlistenable on such ill-conceived solo albums as Some Time in New York City. But, thank God, that was still a few years off back in 1969, during the sessions for Abbey Road.

Yesterday I was reading some poems by the late great Stanley Kunitz, and he says this thing in an introduction to his Collected Poems that seems relevant here: "Sometimes I feel ashamed that I've written so few poems on political themes, on the causes that agitate me. But then I remind myself that to choose to live as a poet in the modern superstate is in itself a political action." Words John Lennon could have (should have) lived by. Because the undertone of darkness, vulnerability, and especially relatability in the mysterious lyrics to "Come Together," to say nothing of the way the music creeps through its spare arrangement, is far more moving and universal than a lefty singalong like "John Sinclair" could ever be. John erred in taking his political passions to such a literal level as he later did-- just writing the kind of music that his brain naturally led him to is the political action he was born for.

Okay, now that I've opined forever and ever, let's listen to the song a little bit more. The intro, which of course is also an ostinato building block out of which the whole song, ahem, comes together, is one of the most memorable bits of music in the whole Beatles canon. Rightly so-- it is a masterpiece of perfect production, of knowing exactly how much is just enough. John's muffled line "shoot me" (argh! the poignancy!) that blends into the bass riff, joined by just a quick ring of the guitar, and then Ringo on cymbals and tom-toms in this tense, excitable buildup-- man, it's all perfection. So much so that you don't mind hearing it over and over again, drawing all the groove out of this one chord (d minor, if you're curious) that dominates most of a rather long Beatles song. It's just one of those cases of the whole being way way way greater than the sum of its parts.

It helps that "Come Together" really captures some of the best playing the Beatles might ever have done. Like I said, it was Paul's bass playing that drew me back here, and indeed the song is kind of unimaginable without Paul's bass. But Ringo-- my God, it's gotta be one of his strongest performances. You know what my favorite part might be? That bit after the third verse when John sings "you can feel his disease," and then they do the "Come together" chorus, and then Ringo goes back into his drum ostinato that he's been doing, but just once, because all of a sudden he does this awesome syncopated riff into the instrumental break. It's so surprising after all the drumming we've heard so far, and it sounds as though all the rat-a-tatting he's been doing so tersely has led up to this moment when he can cut loose (relatively) in the break. It just does something to me, I don't know. Speaking of the instrumental break, I'm pretty sure that's Paul grooving on the electric organ there, followed by John on the beautiful wail of a lead guitar solo. (I believe George has most of the other lead guitar bits, like on the growled stuff on the chorus. As usual, don't quote me on this, but that's what I'm remembering.)

And of course John's vocal rules. He sings "Come Together" like he's shouting on a street corner, like he's making some kind of impassioned plea but isn't quite sure for what. At the ends of the verses, most of the instruments go out and he sings some of the song's best lines, like "one thing I can tell you is you got to be free," over a lone drum that sounds just like a human heartbeat. (My GOD, Ringo-- GENIUS.) And when he sings the "come together right now" of the chorus, it's with such deeply felt frustration that it kind of makes your chest ache.

"Come Together" is a strong enough song to have inspired many lesser artists to cover it. (The partial listing of covers that you can find on Wikipedia is full of entries so ill-considered that it nearly gave me a seizure to read it.) But of course the Beatles' is the only one that I think matters. I love that "Come Together" is the song that kicks off Abbey Road. For one thing, it casts the right mood over the rest of the album (although it's only one song, it's so crucial to the experience of the album for me that I think it carries equal weight-- ugh, sorry-- as Paul's medley on side B). But it also represents the best of the Abbey Road ethos. The Beatles bothered to (sorry, last time, I swear) come together once more, in spite of personal issues that proved insurmountable, to make sure they made one last tremendous album. And while no one but John could have written "Come Together," no one but his band could have played it like this. The song itself was born from a spirit of peacemaking, of art being greater than the concerns of the self. And couldn't that be called an achievement on par with political action?

"Come Together," released in the U.K. side A track 1 of Abbey Road, September 26, 1969; in the U.S. October 1, 1969.


  1. I agree that the riff that opens the song and recurs throughout it is brilliant execution by all five Beatles. It mystifies me that George Martin could do this so beautifully but not make all of You Never Give Me Your Money work. I am very eager to hear how both songs might change on September 9.

    What percentage of songs or albums do you think we will ultimately decide we prefer in their version 1.0 form to the Sept. 9 remasters?

  2. Oh Lord, I don't even know. I can see this being one of them-- in fact, much of Abbey Road, maybe. Perhaps also moments on the White Album. I am anticipating, though, digging most of the catalog much more in the newfangled versions, and hope to not be TOO let down...

  3. Every artistic effort has to stand on its own merit. Every artist has to listen to his inner voice, that place where she finds inspiration and meaning. People have mixed politics and art for eons and in various ways. Woody Guthrie and others were a voice for social awareness. People wanted to use Bob Dylan's songs for political advantage that he had no interest in pursuing. The late 60s saw a lot of anti-war politics in song by the likes of Country Joe and the Fish, Crosby Stills and Nash, among others. People write what they feel moved to write about. I don't believe there is a hierarchy, one theme more important than another. As a listener/viewer/reader, all we can ask for and hope to find is honesty.

    Regarding Come Together, i never knew the Timothy Leary connection, or if i did back in the day, i forgot it. He was not the persona he thought he was. Whatever the story behind the song, it doesn't matter to me; i just love the song!

    Thanks, Megan, for another wonderful post.

  4. Thank YOU, Frank! I guess what I'm getting at is that the most effective poetry moves beyond literal interpretation, you know? It's like that conversation we're having in another area about how some '60s music sounds really dated. Well, some of the really political songs of that time are among the most egregious offenders. I like singing along to Barry Maguire's "Eve of Destruction" (or did Dylan write that? I forget), but it's a thousand times dated.

    I love "Come Together" because John managed to write something universal, which to me is what the best art succeeds in doing. And that he made universal art out of a political topic speaks to his artistic gifts-- gifts that I think he squandered later.

    Just my feeling, anyway... anyway, it's totally one of John's best, right? I've had it stuck in my head like all day.

  5. Megan, what you say is dead on. Couldn't agree more. The ability to handle a theme in a way that becomes universal as well as personal is quite a feat, and not one accomplished by many. Eve of Destruction, that you mention (correctly attributed to Maquire.) while a great sing-along, is dated. Dylan's Blowin In the Wind, however, will be with us forever.

    I've said this before, and I'm sure I'll say it again, your daily column is the best thing going. It entertains me, and I learn so much from it, and from the comments that folks post. No small feat, that, either.