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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Mother Mary Comes to Me: The Beatles and Catholicism

Though Catholicism didn't take with any Beatle, Catholic culture and Marian images permeate a number of Beatles songs.
Reprinted from Crisis magazine. Used with permission. 

There is no lovelier hymn to Mary in modern English than "Let It Be," the Beatles song written in 1969:

When I find myself in times of trouble, 
Mother Mary comes to me,
Speaking words of wisdom: 
Let it be. 

Those pellucid lyrics by Paul McCartney, who, with John Lennon, composed the plaintive melody, stand out as peerless against the backdrop of the saccharine Marian hymnody of today's Catholicism, where such chestnuts as "Immaculate Mary, Your Praises We Sing" still reign supreme. 

To find an equal to McCartney's song, you have to go back 600 years, to this:

He came also still
There his mother was
As dew in April
That falleth on the grass.

Indeed, the 15th-century carol and the 1969 Beatles lyric both concern the Annunciation, when Christ came to be Mary's son in the quietness of a spring evening. "Whisper words of wisdom: Let it be," wrote McCartney in his second verse. The words are those of Mary's fiat to the angel Gabriel in Luke's gospel: "Let it be done unto me according to thy word." 

Of course, when I first heard "Let It Be," when it was released on the album of the same name in 1970, I was a cheerfully benighted lapsed Catholic, and I didn't make the connection between the Annunciation and the Beatles. Or even realized that "Mother Mary" was the same Mary whose May altars I had constructed out of shoeboxes and birthday candles when I was a child at parochial school. I thought she might be a personage from Eastern spirituality. "Let it be"--that sounded like Buddhist resignation. Many of us in those days, Beatles included, were way beyond Christianity; we were somewhere between California and nirvana. 

The Beatles are currently enjoying a huge revival. We now can hear "Let It Be," along with 26 more of their top-of-the-chart hits, in glorious re-release on the new "Beatles 1" CD. Their first movie, "A Hard Day's Night" (1964), is also in re-release. "The Beatles Anthology" (Chronicle) has been a best-seller since its publication last October. Listening to a Beatles song now, however, turns out to be a very different experience from that of listening to it 30 or 40 years ago. 

Catholic Liverpool

When the Beatles burst onto the American pop music scene in 1963, it was their brash, upstart quality, driven by the thrumming percussion of the underappreciated Ringo Starr, that caught the instant attention of young people like me bored with Fifties pieties. The Beatles had steeped themselves in American rhythm-and-blues in their native Liverpool, and even tried to Americanize their dense Lancashire accents. 

Now, more than three decades later, it is difficult to listen to a Beatles song without hearing...Liverpool. Many of the songs are specifically infused with the Catholic culture of Liverpool, which, as a port on the Irish Sea, has more Catholics than any other city in England because it has more Irish. They came in droves to flee starvation during the potato famine of the 1840s, they lived in densely populated slums and worked the docks in the years when Liverpool was England's busiest shipping entrepôt, and they stayed on when the shipping in Liverpool died after World War II, still in the dense slums but as often as not on the dole. 

McCartney, who was Irish on both sides of his family, and George Harrison, who had a devoutly Catholic mother, were baptized in the Church and raised as Catholics. Lennon was Irish on his father's side, but he was never baptized, as his father deserted the family after his son's birth. Catholicism didn't take with any Beatle, and Lennon, by the time he was shot to death in 1980, was truculently nonreligious, usually oscillating between Marxism and Maoism. 

Nonetheless, the bedraggled Catholicism of the beaten-down Liverpool Irish permeates a number of Beatles songs. They treated Catholic culture sardonically:

Lady Madonna, children at your feet,
Wonder how you manage to make ends meet.

They treated it with sadness: 

Father McKenzie, writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear,
No one comes near....

And as they were on the verge of breaking up forever, making the last album they would ever make as a foursome, they treated Catholicism as offering an iconography of hope and comfort. 

The Beatles weren't very Christian, and their music often seems to mock Christian belief. Yet art has a life of its own that outlasts its creators' intentions. Now, finally, it's easy to see that in nearly their last song together, the Beatles were celebrating the ancient faith of the ancient city where they were born, the faith that was itself born when a woman said yes to an angel:

I wake up to the sound of music;
Mother Mary comes to me,
Speaking words of wisdom: Let it be.


The Vatican’s Nostalgia for the Beatles by Phillip Mericle

The Vatican effusively praises the Beatles documentary

On September 15, 2016, the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano released a review of Ron Howard’s documentary “Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years” focusing on the early years of the Beatles. By producing this review and commenting on the band that greatly influenced the tumultuous ‘60s, the newspaper allowed itself to be swept up in a radiant admiration for a band that literally advocated for some of the worst vices of man. 

With rose colored glasses, L’Osservatore Romano takes the documentary as an opportunity to engage in Beatles nostalgia. The newspaper makes no condemnation of the immorality preached by the young men of Liverpool nor any attempt to elaborate on the rock band's controversy. Rather, the Vatican newspaper basks in admiration for its musical works and highlights the growth and change of the individuals that took place over time. The article reflects on their “incredible” personalities, as well as their “gift” for music. 

One would think that such admiration seems more appropriate for the personal opinion of a diehard fan rather than an organ of the Catholic Church. Considering the controversy surrounding the Beatles, their impact on society and how they embodied their personal “values,” this review leaves the Vatican even more open to criticism for this problematic praise. 

From an historical perspective, the “Fab Four” of Liverpool played a vanguard role in the Cultural Revolution that rocked Western Civilization to its very core. Hardly would the ’60s, the era of hippies, free-love and anarchy, be the same without these four young men preaching to their followers through their songs. Taking the stage, the Beatles would literally sing the praises of sex, drugs and rebellion and then retire from the performance to be chased by crazed mobs of girls ready to tear them apart limb from limb in their excitement. 

Their fame coincided perfectly with a generation of disaffected youth that, following the dictates of the modern world, felt a burning need to break with the “stifling” mold of their parents. It was an appeal to the twin pillars of pride and sensuality – and the results were insanity.

As the ‘60s exploded into an orgiastic festival of self-indulgence, flagrant and degrading promiscuity, and mind-destroying narcotics, the Beatles rode the wave of their rising star. In many ways the legacy of the ‘60s opened the door to the problems facing society today: rampant divorce, children born out of wedlock and the ever advancing front of the homosexual militants. 

An era of free love & drugs unleashed by the Beatles; below, introducing Hinduism with guru Maharishi
What kind of legacy is this for the Vatican to praise? As an exercise in reason and to alleviate the scandal caused by such admiration, perhaps the writer for L’Osservatore
Romano should stop to comment and condemn what these four young men were beckoning their listeners to do when they sang words like “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road,” “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” and “I Get High with a Little Help from My Friends.” Sadly, these lyrics are but a scant few chosen out of the filthy sea of demeaning verses to come from the Fab Four. 

To them the human body was nothing more than an instrument, a tool by which maximum degrading and destructive pleasure could be derived. Even their initial clean and suited appearance was adopted only because they were paid better to do so. Soon their look would become as dirty as their songs. 

Rather than considering the lifestyle and message of the Beatles, the Vatican newspaper chooses to praise their well-performed music and the feel-good appearance exuded by their smiling faces. Their music could be pleasant, appealing even, but it is designed to be so. Well-arranged chords do not redeem a song if it is written with the express purpose to induce youths to sin, just as nice words do not redeem a man if his intention is to seduce another man’s wife. 

The musical genius of the Beatles, if it truly was genius, was put to an evil use, leading youth to liberate their unruly passions from all sense and rational control. How many souls are in Hell because they were swept up in the mindless orgy of love, sex and drugs advocated by these singers from Liverpool? 

It is true that the Vatican article does try to maintain a vague semblance of impartiality. By reporting on the movie and not the Beatles themselves, L’Osservatore Romano attempts to avoid the onus of judgment. But, should not the newspaper report on the immoral and sometimes outright anti-Catholic behavior of the Beatles? The infamous comment by John Lennon that he was more famous than Jesus Christ needs no elaboration, yet the Beatles scorn for the Catholic Religion goes deeper. 

Various sources demonstrate that the Beatles were not just indifferent, but harbored outright hostility towards Christianity. Several works have pointed out the satanic elements in their musical careers. What can be said of their experiments with mind-altering narcotics and Eastern occultism? The drug-induced revolution of the mind compliments the sex-glutted revolution of the body. 

To summarize: The Vatican newspaper notes with relish that “Eight Days a Week – the Touring Years” bypasses the controversy surrounding the Beatles legacy. On this pretense, the article then waxes into a nostalgia clouded panegyric of the Liverpool four, omitting criticism and proffering outright praise. 

What this constitutes in essence is the Vatican's journal honoring a band of four deviant musicians that advocated for the complete obliteration of an upright command of the intelligence, will and senses in favor of a sensual explosion engaging in all the deranged and hedonistic vices of man. How many of these Beatle fans, following the utopic dreams of the Cultural Revolution, have ended in the burnt husk of the withered and drugged up old hippie? 

A note to my readers: Many attempt to defend the Beatles because they were popular or because of their so-called musical skill. I ask you, instead, to look at them and what they said, to see what they stood for. Is this really something worthy of our admiration? I ask you to use reason, and not defend them based on the pleasantness of their music or the nostalgia they evoke. Rather, judge them for who they were and what they preached. What did the Beatles stand for? What message did they spread? What kind of life did they call their followers to lead? 

Judge them for their ideas, not for their popularity. Judge them for their actions and by the fruits of their actions, rather than follow subjective emotions. They are a band that literally preached in favor of casual and degrading sex. Their lyrics are indisputably riddled through with obscenities and smut. They led appallingly deranged sex lives. They participated in substance abuse and their example became an occasion for thousands more to experiment with dangerous narcotics. 

At least two of the ‘Fab Four’ thought they were the greatest persons to grace the planet. and in the end the gang broke up because they couldn’t even stand each other. After the split they proved they had little individual talent. 

Can one, thus, look at the Beatles with intellectual objectivity and deem them worthy of veneration and praise? 

A boasting quote that reveals the intent behind the rock revolution


The Beatles and DRUGS


The use of drugs (which includes alcohol as well as other narcotics) is perhaps the most easily identifiable theme in the work of both artistic groups. Anyone who is only vaguely familiar with (the image of) the Beat poets will know that they are (in)famous for their drug use and the way this plays a role in their works, both in the production process and the content. Writers and drugs have always been in a close relationship. According to John Long, the majority of the American Nobel Prize winners for literature were alcoholics. He writes in his introduction to Drugs and the ‘Beats’: The role of drugs in the lives and writings of Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg, “it is expected that one would find traces of drugs in literature”, attributing this to the fact that humans have always known “a certain desire to get out of themselves” (7). The Beat writers, however, took this liking towards drugs to a whole new level. In almost every single one of their literary texts, drugs play a (major) role, as illustrated by key works such as Howl (“looking for an angry fix”, “with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls”), On the Road (“You could smell tea, weed, I mean marijuana, floating in the air”) or Naked Lunch (about every page). The Beats experimented with many aspects of life, drugs being an important one. Since many of their works are at least partly autobiographical, these personal explorations find their way into their texts. However, not only did they write about drugs, at times they also wrote under influence of narcotics, making drugs influence their works on two levels. Kerouac is a famous example. As Long relates: “[w]e know by his admission that [amphetamine] was often freely circulating in his brain when he was writing [On the Road]”. Ginsberg, similarly “was experiencing the ecstasies and horrors of mescaline at the time of writing [Howl]” (13). These are just a few examples that illustrate the big role drugs played in the writing (process) of the Beats.

If we take a look at the Beatles, we can find similar patterns in both their personal lives and their music, albeit to lesser extremes than in the case of their American predecessors. This similarity is no big surprise, if we are to believe John Long, who continues his argument about writers and drugs by saying that the wish to change consciousness “is often highly developed in artists, whatever their calling: music, theatre, literature, etcetera” (Long 4). A claim that, even if not applicable to every case, probably holds a fair amount of truth.

Mark Hertsgaard devotes almost an entire chapter of his A Day In The Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles to the Beatles’ drug use. He describes them as a relatively innocent or even naïve group of musicians in their first years of global fame, but argues that this changed in the second half of the sixties. He also claims that it was none other than Bob Dylan who got the Fab Four hooked on marijuana, by introducing it to them after a concert in New York in 1963. It was their first meeting and Dylan could hardly believe the group had never smoked weed before. “We’ve got a lot to thank him for”, McCartney later acknowledged (qtd. in Hertsgaard 193). From then on, drugs – first soft ones and later psychedelic ones too – began to play a big part in the Beatles’ daily lives. They served both as a means to cope with the pressures of the mid-sixties’ Beatlemania, and aided their creativity. “It just opened up this whole other consciousness”, and “it started to find its way into everything we did” are just two quotes the band members (George Harrison and Paul McCartney, resp.) are reported to have said (qtd. in Hertsgaard 192, 195).
This change from ‘innocent’ boys and starting musicians to an experimental and rebellious group of men is also reflected in their music, according to several Beatles academics, who often divide the band’s successful years into different ‘stages’. Coupe elaborately lays out, in his case three, different periods, based on previous scholarship by the musicologist Wilfrid Mellers. According to them, the group’s preoccupations change from “innocence and dream” (up until the movie A Hard Day’s Night in 1964) to “experience and social reality”, or “human relationships and responsibilities” (the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), to the third and final period which “sees a renewal of the first period in the light of the second”, and involves a search within themselves for answers to external pressures (137-8). Coupe then compares the last period to the “beatific” vision of Kerouac and Ginsberg. Hertsgaard argues that part of these changes in style were due to the group’s use of drugs:

The crucial catalyst for the Beatles’ transformation from lovable moptops to high-minded rebels was their involvement with consciousness-raising drugs, specifically marijuana and LSD. No one liked fun more than the Beatles, but for them drugs were not simply about having a good time. Marijuana and LSD were also and more profoundly tools of knowledge, a means of gaining access to higher truths about themselves and the world. Indeed, it was above all the “desire to find out”, as Harrison later put it, that lay beneath their involvement not only with mind-expanding drugs, but with Eastern philosophy as well. (Hertsgaard 191)

Whereas it does not require detective skills to find the references to drugs in Beat literature, it might take a little more digging to pinpoint them in the lyrics and music of the Beatles – although examples are still ample; some more subtle than others. A few will be examined here in some more detail.

Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds and Strawberry Fields Forever are two famous examples of songs that are often believed to be about drugs. The first letters of the words in Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds correspond to LSD, and in drug slang, ‘strawberry fields’ stands for the very same drug. Even the innocent sounding Penny Lane, the other side of the Strawberry Fields Forever single, is said to be connected to drugs. Wilfrid Mellers argues:

[Both songs] relate the LSD experience to childhood memory and a new Eden discovered within the mind; both, if they can hardly ‘justify’ the drug experience, demonstrate its relevance to the Beatles’ development. (qtd. In Coupe 140)

The in 1965 recorded song Day Tripper plays with the dual meaning of the word ‘tripper’. Lennon cunningly said in an interview: “Day trippers are people who go on a day trip, right?” (Sheff 177). McCartney however has said the song is indeed about drugs, and “a tongue-in-cheek song about someone who was […] committed only in part to the idea” (Miles 209-210). In Happiness Is A Warm Gun the lyric “I need a fix” is repeated, a phrase that anyone who read the Beat writers’ works will recognise. And there are countless other examples of these ‘Beatdom-echoing’ lyrics, which have been excluded here for lack of space.

The Sgt. Pepper’s album was “the biggest barrier-breaker of them all”, according to Hertsgaard (195, 196). In fact, so barrier-breaking that the BBC banned the song A Day In The Life from public radio, arguing that it might promote drug use. Interestingly, however, until that moment the world had not known about the Beatles members’ own experimentation with narcotics. Only after the BBC ban did their fans learn of the Beatles’ actual drug-taking, which caused an immediate uproar. However, as Hertsgaard relates, it was hard to convincingly argue for its negative effects on the Beatles, for their newly released, “acid-soaked” album was “widely recognised as the most impressive achievement in popular music for many years” (196). Nevertheless, “the Establishment” was shocked by the revelation. An even bigger surprise, therefore, must have been the Beatles’ announcement, barely a month after the BBC ban, in which they said they were now completely giving up drugs. They replaced it with a new fascination, however: spirituality… Read the whole article by CLICKING HERE

This is just a part of the article entitled The Beats and the Beatles: two sides of the same coin.

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