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Where's Johnny?

In 1968 the Beatles started Apple, a record, film, and electronics company as Lennon put it on the Tonight Show. It was a pivotal moment in the Beatles' arc (what moment wasn't), the time equidistant between Sgt.
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Written by Steve Gillmor on

In 1968 the Beatles started Apple, a record, film, and electronics company as Lennon put it on the Tonight Show. It was a pivotal moment in the Beatles' arc (what moment wasn't), the time equidistant between Sgt. Pepper and Let It Be. John and Paul flew to New York and guested on a Johnny Carson-less show hosted by Joe Garagiola of all people. The White Album was on the way, with Hey Jude owning the radio and Revolution the streets.

Sometimes memory plays tricks. Ever since that day in May, I've wondered what bad luck put Johnny on vacation when Lennon and McCartney showed up. And now, heeeeerre's.... Joe? But read the transcript and Joe didn't do such a bad job. In fact, once John and Paul got over the disappointment they seemed to have fun. Joe asks how they write songs togather, alone, apart, whatever? Lennon:

It's all those combinations you can think of. Every combination of two people writing a song... inasmuch as we can both write them completely separately, and together, and not together. But we obviously influence each other, like groups and people do.
Remember: this is while they're recording the White Album, the most scattered Beatle sessions where the double album was essentially a trio of solo albums with the other three as a common backup band. It got worse from there, with McCartney openly lecturing Harrison during the Let It Be film sessions and eventually turned into the breakup and subsequent solo recriminations such as Lennon's How Do You Sleep.

Three years earlier, Bob Dylan, Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper, and several others gathered in New York to record Like a Rolling Stone. Thanks to this transcript from Greil Marcus' book, we learn that the group only made one complete recording of the song in two days of sessions.  On Take 1, Dylan takes control:

"No, no, no," Dylan says, "here's what I mean" -- and again he sets about showing the others what the song is, how they will get from the verse to the chorus, and then he loses focus. "Hold tape," [producer Tom] Wilson says. "Even if we screw it up," Dylan says, a new command in his voice, "we keep going." "OK," Wilson says.

Take 2 breaks down after 30 seconds, Take 3 after 19:

They have moved on without a break, and in these few seconds a lot happens. With the count-off -- "One two, one two three" -- [drummer Bobby] Gregg hits his snare and kick drum hard, a huge sound, the big bang, and it's the first true moment of realizing the song, of setting whatever it is they're doing apart from whatever else they've done. The musicians, especially Bloomfield, [pianist Paul] Griffin, and Kooper, come in smoothly, as if they know where they're going. There is a strong and single sound; they try to get a purchase on the song, to give it definition, a real beginning so it can reach its end -- but they break off before Dylan even begins to sing.

Take 4 is the one--6 minutes 34 seconds. The only one, it turns out, as the band attempts another 11 takes, only one that reaches the last verse. Throughout the session, Dylan appears (to Marcus) increasingly contemptuous of Wilson, warning him to pay attention early in the session when organist Kooper doesn't have his headphones on, and later, openly dissing him for a comment about something being wrong timewise. It's hard to tell whether Wilson was persisting to get a "better" take or whether Dylan wanted one, but this was the last session with Wilson as producer.

"I told all the musicians, you quit playing, you're gone," [producer] Bob Johnston says of the sessions that followed. "You quit playing, you're never going to hear that song again. Dylan would start a song -- they'd be a third of the way through, and someone says, Waal, I didn't git that. The bass stops, or the piano player. Dylan would forget about that song and you'd never hear it again."

I had a long conversation this afternoon with Dave Winer, recorded it all. It was funny, honest, and in no way usable on Gillmor Daily. First Dave tells a long story about some guy from some company, and then says I can't use it. Then we talk about a gig I'm doing that is paying really well and he says he guesses I can't tell him how much--so I did. Then we talk about someone who's pissing me off lately without naming names, and then I "admit" that it's ___ ______ that we're talking about, and Dave roars with laughter in mock horror. Then I fess up, and, well you get the gist.

Or not. Sure, I'm completely full of myself to compare this stuff to the Beatles and Dylan. But I'll do it anyway, because podcasting and blogging are the reprise of the 60's. Sgt. Pepper rewrote the album form, for better for worse. As I said on the Gillmor Daily you won't hear, the new Gillmor Gang may disappoint you, but the old one wasn't really all that good either. As Dave said, "A lot of it was crap, but it was good crap." We remember as much what we put into it as what was there to begin with. Where's Johnny? I dunno, but he's in there. Even if we screw it up, we keep going.

 

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