What Just Happened: Notes from a Long Year
Knopf: 288 pages, $ 28.
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For nearly a year, starting with the first “temporary” closings in March 2020, critic and writer Charles Finch began keeping a diary of his life during the COVID-19 pandemic – an entry that began with The Times’ assignment that same month. The following excerpt from “What Just Happened” on November 9 describes a day in that life during which the Beatles suddenly change everything.
Some days you wake up feeling like a different person than the day before. Not very often – most often behind my back. But today I woke up and remembered something strange, which I swore with stony clarity last night during the long walk to the Griffith Observatory, which should have reminded me: Listened to the Beatles for the first time since 10 years. But I haven’t forgotten.
I’ve listened to the Beatles a lot since I was 10, probably more than any other band. In boarding school, I used to throw my backpack on the floor of my room as soon as school was over, put Abbey Road on my CD player, then fall back on the blanket and go to bed when a winter day in Massachusetts came. … I wrote the book listening exclusively to Revolver and Rubber Soul. I saw Paul McCartney live twice. I was once in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I drove for four hours to see him alone, feeling stupid all the time, and then, about eight minutes after the start of the concert, I discovered, to my shock, that my hands were raised and my eyes were closed, and immediately realized that this should be so. religious people feel. Was at Dodger Stadium again in 2019, just before COVID – a huge outdoor crowd that won’t look the same for a long time, maybe ever – and Ringo came out at the end. You could feel people’s hearts breaking. The last two Beatles on stage, right in front of us; everyone understood that it was sacred, at least for some.
But I know their songs by heart long before that, because I listened to them so much when I was young that they became part of my deep schemas. I was a child of the era of humble cassettes, and I would say that I flipped through each of their cassettes a thousand times, or even ten times more often. The happiest place in my house when I was 7-8 years old was an armchair in the corner of our living room. No one passed through it unless they wanted to, due to the unusual configuration of the staircase and kitchen, and I could be there alone. I stayed there with my tape recorder and listened to the Beatles for hours while I read. They will be in the brain as long as my brain is there.
Yesterday it was finally a chilly evening after this blazing month, half a year of quarantine: no signs of a vaccine, still (like many people) weakened immunity, a grim determination to stay home and stay safe. I walked in Griffith Park. It was cloudy, the wind was measuring everything, swinging the tennis nets. Discarded blue surgical masks fluttered down the street, and the walk down the empty hillside was enjoyable, my body unbending and relaxing.
On the way, I thought about the last few days I had spent writing a long, descriptive passage about when I first became very ill as a child. This is the first time I am writing about this. Although this condition still affects me, I thought I had stopped thinking so much about those dire days. Or maybe not. I thought dejectedly about how I should really express it, namely: ultimately, there is only one of those “two types of people” that I believe in, and that is what there are those who have been sick, and those who were not sick. … Neither side is special, and by “sick” I do not mean any particular thing, I just mean that there are people who have fought with their bodies. Not pain, but a reduction of your entire existence into nothing but pain. Everyone should answer for themselves, whether they know what it is.
Then, as I walked in long, furious strides, thinking about everything I had to write, I realized that Spotify had thrown out a Beatles song at random. I kind of avoid them on Spotify – too gentle, too real. It was “I’ll get you” this is really a real Paul and John 50/50 song, and as I listened, the song escaped my protection so easily that it took me a moment to realize what was happening, that I heard it, first in fuzzy glimpses, then completely, with such the same ears that I had in childhood.
The next day it sounds as insignificant as most of these experiences. (It’s all in William James.) But it isn’t. When the song ended, I played a random Beatles playlist, practically in a trance. I didn’t even want to look at my phone long enough to be distracted by the text, I didn’t want to lose that feeling and walked for hours all night listening. I put so much into these songs to keep them. If I were someone who could cry, and this is my desire, I think I would cry; at least my face was warm and I had a feeling of disbelief, which I think must be like crying when your inner life and world are so different that you can only reconcile them with crying tears.
There are millions of bigger Beatles fans than me, but deep down I firmly believe that no one can love the Beatles more. than me. They were incredibly alive to me from the moment I heard them. Looking back, I think that their joy fascinated me. Even their saddest songs have a touch of happiness. (With the Beatles, you’re never too far off 7th chord.) I guess it’s because they were four working class kids whose crazy plan really is have worked. Especially in their early photographs, they look stunned, being so famous, gifted, rich and happy. It’s in their first perfect song “Please Please Me”. After a minute and a half, John and Paul messed up the lyrics, and then kind of overlap it when they start, John laughs – but not for the listener, just captured by the happiness of playing with Paul, this other genius he found in Liverpool – and then muffles the laughter with the beginning of the chorus.
This joy of life, this freedom is what distinguishes their music from any other music. “Even in the most sublime work of art there is a hidden it should be different– said Theodor Adorno. I got the idea of weak points, because aphorisms can be cheap, but I think it’s brilliant and sad. I also think there is an exception: The Beatles. Even in their graying days, they were on a grand adventure. “When you get to the top, there is nowhere to go but down,” Philip Larkin once said. “But the Beatles couldn’t give up.” None of them were in their 30s when the band broke up.
I listened to it all last night. I mentally tracked other songs in which the various band members were laughing (“I should have known better,” “It’s just love,” “If I fell,” etc.), and watched with intense satisfying attention how strange and sad and good parts of John from “A Day in the Life” There are so many of them that it’s hard to believe that it’s part of mainstream culture until you remember that one of Paul’s outstanding gifts is to remove the feeling of hopelessness from a song without rejecting its presence. I was listening to “I have a feeling.” “Everyone’s had a tough year.” I nodded in the darkness of the fog, heading home. It was too late in my defense. Everyone had a tough year.
Something obvious crossed my mind, namely how vital music has been to many of us since the beginning of the quarantine. We usually meet dozens of people a week; now, for several months, if you’re keeping an eye on safety, it’s once or twice a week when you are greeted with tense, frightened, friendly nods at the grocery store or drug store. In this seclusion, the music takes on a strange new emotional intensity, or at least for me, from the tender March moments of the beginning of the quarantine listening to Fleetwood Mac (can we handle the seasons of our lives? Unclear!) To the cool summer company Funkadelic.
But it was a different feeling, as if the music penetrated into me deeper than usual. When I came home completely sober, completely exhausted and listening to “Hello, goodbye”, I greeted these four of my old friends, and I greeted myself very carefully when I was eight, a person whose characteristics and dreams I think I have largely forgotten. But it was me as definitely as I am now.
“Hello, Goodbye” was their first single since the death of their manager Brian Epstein. It was with the death of Epstein and this song that the Beatles lost their original illusions and since then their music became more interesting and it also became inevitable that the band would cease to exist. They usually brilliantly gifted us an album of their twenties together without waiting for it, which I think they knew they wouldn’t: Sgt. Pepper.
Am I alone in different parts of myself over the past few months? I think not, it’s the other way around: none of us should have thought so deeply about ourselves and how we are progressing through the days of our lives. We all went inside as certain people in March; it will be interesting to see who comes out. Be that as it may, the music, when I walked, was like water flowing down the dry river beds. It occurred to me that in this year of change, I could change. I went to bed in a rare world with everything – or, in truth, with a deep past that, I believe, was always present in my adult life, never cleared of its meaning, striving further and closer with each passing minute.
Excerpt from Charles Finch’s book What Just Happened, copyright © 2021, Charles Finch, with permission from Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.