Sunday, October 13, 2013

A Revolution in the Head: Why the #Beatles' "Revolution 9" Doesn't Suck

"It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer." -- Albert Einstein

PALE FIRE. LES MISERABLES. 8 1/2. SYNECHDOCHE, NEW YORK. Here's to all that great, world-defining work out there that confounds, that confuses, that bores, that demands too much the first time through ... and rewards a second assessment (and a third and fourth and on and on). Add to that list John Lennon's landmark 1968 musique concrete collage REVOLUTION 9 :



Carefully leaving aside any insistence on the rightness or wrongness of personal aesthetic assessments, I offer to the skeptical some evidence in support of an unpopular idea. The idea is that purposeful structure, rich thematic resonance, and deep beauty are all to be found in  REVOLUTION 9, and that this track repays all those willing to grant it an open mind.


This composition has been described as the black hole near the end of the White Album, as a chaotic mess beyond analysis or defense, as evidence of what awful things can happen after you give drug-addled pop stars the keys to the recording studio. As, in short, the Beatles song that most clearly sucks.

I disagree. This complex piece is, as I hear it, a triumph, an open door to a place unsettling and worth visiting, a place that is anything, anything but random. 

It begins with a half-heard, half-abandoned conversation between two faraway people, and it ends with gunfire and the chants of a frenzied stadium crowd. In between, its careful, layered evocation of the liminal state -- the "halfway" experience between wakefulness and sleep -- offers uncountable, intriguing repetitions and progressions, many glimpses of a world descending into chaos and emerging from it and descending again. Listen for the endless, tortured variations on the words "all right," for the various comparisons of crowds and choirs, and for the running verbal themes of nakedness, clothing, and exposure.

Lennon used sound collage to build a world we occupy and recognize, but don't always want to explore, a dream world that unfolds whether we want it to or not, that might proceed at any moment into a nightmare. He used sound collage to summon dreams we might dislike having to come to terms with upon awakening.

As I hear it, REVOLUTION 9 is an experiential composition that challenges and strips away the supposed supremacy of the logical, intellectual, rationalizing aspect of the listener's mind and identity. If you are brave enough to engage with it on its own terms, you will find that you yourself enter a kind of dream state where your own rational armor slips away ... where "you become naked." Lennon used these eight unpredictable minutes as an open challenge to all the "rational" restrictions and interpretations that stand in the way of an authentic personal response to life. 

I am fifty-two now. So far, this seems to be the best age from which to approach the piece. A little more patience, a little more regret, a little more openness to new sources of discovery and renewal. A little more skepticism about external appearances. A little more receptiveness to the potential of dreams and accidents, and their role in shaping what comes next.  REVOLUTION 9 reminds me somehow of the first of that astonishing pair of couplets at the end of King Lear: 

The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

REVOLUTION 9 is, for some of us at any rate, a mirror, in spots more troubling than we deserve, in spots more beautiful than we deserve, but at any rate more relevant to our jaded, bloodstained, channel-hopping, information-saturated era than any other track the Beatles recorded. The intricacy of its design continues to elude many, but that may have been part of Lennon's point.

See this link to Ian Hammond's masterful critique of the piece.

And this one to Carlton J. Wilkinson's paper, which acknowledges decades of skepticism about the track, but shows how it "exhibits a very definite musical structure and a clarity of intent" throughout. 

And this link to one persuasive attempt to pin down the lyrics.

And this link to another.

And the perceptive essay that appears in the late Ian McDonald's fine book REVOLUTION IN THE HEAD.

I consider this track the Fabs' masterpiece. Then again, if it ain't for you, it ain't for you... :)