Book Review: Beatlebone by Kevin Barry (In where John gets wisdom from a seal in the West of Ireland.)

Seal and John

The seal and John talk on the beach at Clew Bay                                                                                                          2016 by jpbohanno

And I’ll tell you another thing.
Go on?
All this …
He swings his head to indicate the world beyond–he’s got a fat stern head like a bouncer.
Fucked, he says.
You don’t mean…
I do, John. It won’t last.
You mean everything?
The works, he says.
But it sounds as wherks.
The wind, the waves, the water, he says.
But it sounded as wawteh.
It’s all in extra time, he says. It’s all of it fucked, son.
Mostly what John cannot get his head around is the Scouse accent.

And so it is 1978 and we are in the West of Ireland in the town of Newport in County Mayo. We have booked a B&B in the town before heading out to the uncle’s farm, knowing that he and Ana and Carmel and Tony would insist that we stay with them. But we are twenty-four and will not be bridled. That night there is a ceilidh in the local pub and all the aunts and uncles and cousins and friends–long heard of but never met–gather and we the Yanks are the guests of honor. We crawl back in the wee hours but once again in the morning the whole crowd is together at Mass and when we leave we speak to a few new faces on the church steps which gives the priest time to beat us to the pub.  Two nights earlier in Kerry we had played guitar in an old sheep-farmers pub, but the caravan of hippies that showed up with their instruments wanted only country-and-western which was not my strong suit. But I was able to give them some Woody and some Hank nevertheless, and then a few rebel songs. It was a long and dangerous night on the Kerry road.

And at the same time, unbeknownst to me, John Lennon was in my uncle’s town, hiding, according to Kevin Barry’s brilliant novel Beatlebone. I would have loved to have met him, but in the novel, he was not in a very good state of mind. And he was trying very hard to stay under-the-radar.bookcover

The novel is built on the fact that in 1967 John bought Dorinish Island, one of the many small islands off the west coast of Ireland. He had great plans for it, but few of them succeeded. And he only visited it a few times.

But now in Beatlebone, it is a decade later, John’s creativity seems to have flat-lined and his life consists of baking bread and raising his young son, Sean. He rarely leaves his New York City high-rise. He is not feeling right. He has been through Primal Scream therapy, but is still forever haunted by the father who abandoned him and the mother who lived around the corner from the aunt who raised him.

And so, he comes to Ireland to spend some time on his island and to heal himself.

Neither of which is an easy task to complete.

John is chauffeured by an irascible driver named Cornelius O’Grady, who very well may be a shape-shifter and who has taken the responsibility to hide John from the press, which has been alerted that he is there in the West.

Cornelius is open and honest and uncowed by his famous fare. In fact, his advice and wisdom and observations show no sign of tact or concern. And his and John’s conversations are great fun. (At one point, Cornelius convinces John to grease back his hair, wear Cornelius’s dead father’s eyeglasses–he is already wearing the dead man’s suit– and say that he is his stuttering cousin Kenneth from England. All so that they can go undetected into a pop-up moonshine pub in the hills of Mayo.)

It is after escaping the hotel that Cornelius has stashed him in and spending the night in a cave on the beach that John has his conversation with the seal and where he realizes his new album BEATLEBONE. He maps the entire thing out in his head before he is gathered up by Cornelius. He is sure that it will be the album that will change his reputation, his legacy forever.

As I was reading Beatlebone for the first hundred pages, I wanted to text, e-mail, call friends and tell them that no more novels need be written for this is the definitive example. (I lean towards hyperbole.)  The language itself is exquisite and daring and

ARTS / FEATURES Kevin Barry

The novelist Kevin Barry. Photograph: BryanO’Brien/IRISHTIMES

imaginative. And that is what one would expect from Kevin Barry, whose greatly awarded City of Bohane was a tour-de-force of underworld argot and Dublin slang positioned in a post-apocalyptic Ireland.

Beatlebone is a novel that is so fresh, so funny, so beautifully amazing and accurate that one finds oneself reading out passages to anyone who listens. (Another fault of mine.) There is one oddly placed chapter where the author talks about his research for the novel that, while fascinating, might better have been placed  at the end or the beginning of the novel. But that is a minor quibble.

The rest is perfect. So much so, that many may give up writing fiction entirely.

John, Paul, and Christian, and the Theory of Chaos

John and Paul/Paul and John illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

John and Paul/Paul and John
illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Last week, at a “workshop/institute/conference” I am attending for a few weeks this summer, Christian Talbot spoke to us about “chaos theory” and the creative need for tension in any collaboration. The theory goes, simply, that any collaboration must begin with chaos. Butting against each other is a conflict of ideas–and often a conflict of personalities.  As the collaborative project goes forward, this tangle of conflicts begins to stretch out into a diametric pattern of varying depths with one single thrust being countered by another until ultimately the collaborators move directly towards the goal. Talbot insisted that the initial conflict is essential, even positing that if there is no conflict the final outcome can not be as robust as it possibly could have been.

Chaos theory illustrated illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Chaos theory illustrated
illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

The man next to me, Emanuel DelPizzo–an excellent musician and leader of a twelve piece R&B band–cited the Beatles as evidence of this tension.  He cited the arguing and fighting and one-up-manship that often went on during a Beatles’ recording session and the perfection of the result.  We both talked about the tensions that can arise within bands and the trust that one ultimately has to place in one’s fellow players.

AtlanticAnd then, this coincidence ensued.  The following day, as we were moving from one task to the next, I walked over to a quiet part of the room where there were a pile of recent magazines.  On the top was a copy of the July/August issue of The Atlantic. A picture of Lennon and McCartney on the cover caught my eye.  It is The Atlantic’s “IDEA issue.” (Though I would think it would want all its issues to be “idea issues”!)  Anyway, the essay was touted on the front cover as–“John vs. Paul: The Power of Creative Tension.”  This is exactly what Christian was talking about yesterday and was the very example that Manny had offered.

The essay by Joshua Wolf Shenk is entitled “The Power of Two” and immediately attempts to diffuse the prevalent idea, that Lennon wrote his songs and McCartney wrote his.  Debunking the idea of the solitary genius–so prevalent in popular lore and imagination–Shenk states that the two very different friends bounced off and into each other in order to create what they did.

And the two were in fact very different.  Shenk quotes Lennon’s first wife, Cynthia, who said, “John needed Paul’s attention to detail and persistence, and Paul needed John’s anarchic, lateral thinking” (p. 79).  And this symbiosis continued to fuel their creativity. (One could seriously argue that nothing they wrote separately afterwards attains the same level as their “collaborative” effort.) I was surprised to hear that McCartney, more sure of himself, was the one likely to take criticism badly, while Lennon was more open to others’ opinions and more amenable to change.  Shenk attributes this to McCartney’s perfectionism.

Shenk cites Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the White Album as an example of the collaborative conflict that the two would cycle through–both jockeying for dominance, both vacillating between the alpha male and the diplomat.  Sgt. Pepper’s  showed the two working closely together. For example, they volleyed Lewis Carroll-like phrases back and forth to each other to write “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and they simply fused two separate songs together to create the masterpiece “A Day in the Life.”  Lennon called the White Album, “the tension album,” but as Shenk writes:

“Despite the tension–because of the tension–the work was magnificent. Though the White Album recording sessions
were often tense and unpleasant ([EMI engineer Geoff] Emerick disliked them so much that he flat-out quit),
they yielded an album that is among the best in music history.” (p. 85)

And when they did write separately they egged each other on. Lennon scoffed at MccCartney’s original opening of “I Saw Her Standing There”  and fixed it.  McCartney softened the raw pain of John’s original version of “Help,” adding a counter-melody and harmony. And even when they were apart, they were bouncing off each other.  John wrote “Strawberry Fields” –about a nostalgic spot of his boyhood Liverpool–in late 1966 and the band recorded it on December 22 of that year.  Seven days later McCartney arrived with a song he had written about another iconic Liverpool spot, Penny Lane. Shenk quotes McCartney saying that John and he often played this answer and call type of thing–sort of the middle ground of that chaos theory illustration.

Any one who knows the story of The Beatles, knows roughly the story of their falling out and “disbanding.”  And yet, Shenk returns to the final concert–the rooftop performance on top of Apple Studios–and sees the old collaboration–both the conflict and the trust–still evident.  Standing in the positions that they had taken in the early days, the two rely on and trust each other, even through some miscues and misstakes, to present a concert that was both memorable and historic.

While it is fun, to travel through the Lennon and McCartney’s creative process–and through their times in the studio–this is not really the focus of Shenk’s article.  He is attempting to show the workings of creative pairs.  He lists creative pairs from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Shenk enumerates McCartney and Lennon’s differences and their tensions as well as their friendship and trust as being the forge in which their art was struck.  As Shenk states:

John and Paul were so obviously more creative as a pair than as individuals,
even if at times they appeared to work in opposition to each other. …The essence
of their achievements, it turns out , was relational. (p.79)

And that achievement is timeless.

Shenk, Joshua Wolf. “The Power of Two” The Atlantic. (July/August 2014, pp. 76-86)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Watching the wheels go round and round

photo from “Gorillas don’t Blog,” November 3, 2011

I woke today in one of those states.  I didn’t know who I was or where I was or what I was supposed to be doing. And as I seeped into clearer consciousness, I felt in a rut…already in a rut at 4:45 a.m. Geeesh!

The day begins: the 57 bus, the Market-Frankford El, the R5 train and then a brisk walk, hoping for a co-worker to come driving by. I will do the reverse in the evening. And then again tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

But the commute is not what was getting me. I enjoy it. I get plenty of reading done–and not a little dozing as well.  But something wasn’t sitting well.

Simply, I am not sure what I am doing. 

For work, I am teaching Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone, and Jim Shepherd’s Like You’d Understand Anyway. But I ask myself, “What am I teaching?” Sure they are great reads. They are more than that: they are thoughtful, engaging, and well-suited for introspection, reflection, and–hopefully–understanding.  But, as for today…meh.

I know that it is a passing feeling, the not uncommon question of  “Is that all there is?”

And I know I will get pumped by the next great book I encounter, by the old song that I hear from someone else’s radio, by a magnificent movie that comes in under the radar, by good craíc shared with friends. 

But today the feeling is real. It is simply something you work through.

I was listening today to John Lennon’s “Watching the Wheels Go Round.”  I was thinking beforehand that it reflected my own feelings today.  But it was just the opposite.

Lennon is watching “the wheels go round” because he had gotten off the merry-go-round, had walked out of the maze, was no longer “playing the game.”  He was enjoying the real things–his wife, his child, his new life.

But at the moment, for me (as for most of us),  I need to stay on the merry-go-round as it continues to spin, mindlessly, pointlessly and without destination. 

Nevertheless, today I am listening to what John says and that always seems hopeful.