The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics

Reviewed by Nikki Darling 

 
Two Days in Mt. Washington
 
This is the first deadline I’ve ever missed. I received a kind e-mail from Sarah politely reminding me that the 25th had come and gone. In truth I knew it. I had been in a crunched fetal position in front of The Beatles: Illustrated Lyrics for the past month. Numerous attempts had been made at cracking its language, to fish out its secrets. Joints had been smoked. The book had been turned sideways and lifted up and twirled in my hands. A plan had been hatched: listen to each song that is illustrated in the book while looking at each artists’ rendering of that song’s moods and feelings then follow whatever flowed next.
 
Instead, long meandering soliloquies on the Beatles and their importance wended their way into the review.
 
A blank screen has always been the source of great stomach churning, as it is for most critics, I suppose, but this was different. I simply could not connect my lexicon with its images. Static fissures twisted and changed whenever I looked at them. I am not an artist I am writer, more specifically when speaking in the language of criticism, a music writer. I had a brief dalliance with wanting to be a painter in the third grade when my mother purchased art paints and an easel. I quickly lost interest. I made homemade books, kept journals and collaged their covers. I was an expert mixtape maker. Each insert was different and made to reflect the person who was receiving it. Sitting on my high school bedroom floor with a small eyebrow scissor and glue stick, arranging tiny images late into the night was the closest I’d ever come to feeling lost in the physical act of artmaking.
 
I quickly sent off a reply to Sarah “Ugh, I’m so sorry I’m usually never late on deadlines. I had $ deadlines and then I went out of town. It will be done by weekends end I PROMISE. xoxoxo.” 
 
I took off for the long labor-day weekend for a decadent house-sit high in the hills of Mt. Washington. I allowed myself to only take the The Beatles: Illustrated Lyrics as reading material and was going to restrict Internet usage to the best of my ability. Determined to finish this piece if it was the last thing I ever wrote. Instead, I played fetch with a Corgi named Willie, walked him along the small winding streets further into the lightning bugged curves toward Cypress Park, ate an avocado on the beautiful wooden mid-century porch listening to crickets, got stoned and danced in my underwear to the White Album. I took Annie Dillard’s, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek off a shelf and read it in one sitting. I tried not to text a boy.
 
I returned on Tuesday to my home, defeated and even more stressed about the piece. I sat on my small slat wooden porch and smoked a cigarette, hoping the psychedelic images might inspire some great flash of brilliance. They reminded me of Monty Python cartoons or Ralph Steadman, the artist that illustrated Hunter. S. Thompson for Rolling Stone. Others were more mystical like Stevie Nicks album covers, some were just beautiful portraits by Linda McCartney. All I knew was that I liked the book. Somehow I felt more useless than before I had left to go into the hills. 

 
Music criticism has been my ‘jam’ as I like to say, for the past decade. I started slowly and worked my way up. Now I’m lucky enough to freelance for the LA Times and I’ve had some small personal career milestones. Writing about sounds has become second nature. The problem was that the art inside this book was the same kind of art I produced on those mix-tape night’s so long ago, small slivers of magazine stuck to my fingers as I expertly crafted each gift. I often included a joint, tucked snug against the tape, the title of which I’d write in fine cursive then press to the spine like a delicate stamp. If the tape were for a boy, a photo booth picture I’d taken at the Hastings Ranch movie theatre, sometimes more likely than not, one of my shirt being pulled above my head, exposing then perfect breasts I still thought were ugly. I wish I had those tapes now, none of those boys proved worthy of my efforts, as most men, usually don’t.
 
The Beatles, do though, and the forty-five featured artists, Milton Glaser, Erte, and David Hockney, to name a few, were responding to sounds, for lack of a better phrase, that had deeply connected or lifted them into a new way of feeling or thinking. Their art was their criticism and based on what I was looking at, wide swaths of color, artfully taken photographs of members of the band with their wives or children, splashes of abstract drawings with no literal reflection of the songs lyrics, seemed not mine to judge. How does one critique a critique? As it turns out I was not the only critic in this current literary climate to be asking that question.
 
Responding in the LA Times to an essay written by Daniel Mendelsohn for The New Yorker, blog, which itself was a response to another essay by David Silverman in Slate about “niceness” in criticism, David Ulin wrote:
 
What Mendelsohn is getting at is the central faith of anyone who takes criticism seriously: that it is an art. And, like all arts, it comes with its own aesthetics, its own challenges and considerations, which all of us who write it have to keep in mind. Of these, the most important is that criticism is subjective, that, as in any creative enterprise, we can only write from our perspectives, which we must honor and, as Mendelsohn points out, constantly question, as well. 

 
There is always that moment each writer believes they will never be able to finish an assignment. That they have swum too far into the surf to come back. Their aspirations fall short of their abilities and finally their inadequacy as a writer, their proof as a phony will be exposed. It is a dreadful moment but one I have come ever so slowly and reluctantly to embrace. It means most often that the words are closer than I think. Like hiding twenty dollars in your wallet only to check there last. Often the mind outsmarts the mindful. In this case I’d had the book in my grips this entire time, it wasn’t about art or photographs, this piece was in the first person, this piece, in au courant social media saturated style, was about me. As a writer, critic, thinker and creator and possibly, coming to terms with the fact that my writing is changing, and that I, the writer, might be, to my own chagrin, the source of much of my work. In the end, each artist no matter the field, is a firm believer in faith. Faith that others will see what they do and respond in a fashion that provokes thought and feeling. That puts into perspective some small part of themselves they had failed to see previous to the work’s introduction to their lives.
 
What is art anyway except the faith that one might succeed? Like all endeavors however, success is dependent on the assured fact that you will also fail. To interpret the world by creating a song, painting, novel, or dance in response to its glittering madness is taking a vulnerable risk. Some spectators won’t understand your output and others will be hostile toward it. The joy of connection however is ultimately what drives these masochistic efforts. To connect one must be brutally honest in their attempts at art making and then agree to fail whole-heartedly. To be the artist or creative that you really are you must first shed the parts of your work that while perhaps the most commercial or acceptable, are simply not the road that will lead to your true work. When we do reach that place, when you embrace all the flaws and shortcomings of your own ability to express successfully, then you will find you might finally have something greater: honesty. That is what the Beatles had and that is why forty-five of the most talented graphic artists of their day made this book. As a celebration and visual gap between the music and it’s disciples; the revelers, and the ecstatic, those willing to commune.
 

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Alan Aldridge, Ed., The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics, (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2005)
Image: The Beatles: Illustrated Lyrics
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