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Passing by the Concert on the Roof
(But I didn't make the final cut.)
I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few days watching the long (the VERY long, more than seven hours long) documentary The Beatles: Get Back, assembled by Peter Jackson from the immense amount of footage shot long ago by Michael Lindsay-Hogg for his own earlier 80-minute documentary Let it Be. For someone of my generation, it was like entering a time-warp back to the End of the Sixties.
The three episodes of Jackson’s cut are full of squabbling, dithering, vamping, and it often feels like watching the end of a marriage. Here are four men who obviously love each other deeply, but are finding it difficult to stay together. (And no, I don’t think Yoko broke up the Beatles. Maybe Allen Klein did. But I don’t believe that either. They just grew apart and went their separate ways.) The most heart-stopping moments are the ones where we watch, in real time, the birth of their songs. The moment when Paul is fooling around on his guitar and then suddenly begins to play what all of us instantly recognize as the opening riff of Get Back is the most powerful. He plays it, changes it, finds it, and then a phrase comes to him. Jojo was a man da-da da-da-da da-da. And after that the song just bursts out of him, like a small miracle. Later, when he’s trying to get the lyrics right (he can’t settle on Sweet Loretta’s surname) we actually want to help him. “ It’s Sweet Loretta Martin, Paul,” we want to shout. “Sweet Loretta Martin thought she was a woman.”
Listening to them play the songs over and over, interspersed with a hundred other songs, everything from Love Me Do and She Came in Through the Bathroom Window to Blue Suede Shoes and Shake, Rattle and Roll, is to realize how deeply grounded in music they were, and how their lyrics uniquely combined surrealism (the free-associative lyrics of Dig a Pony, or the pure fantasy-nonsense of Bathroom Window, in which “she” came in, “protected by a silver spoon”) and everyday life (the suburban world of timetables and crowded trains in One After 909, “I said move over honey, I’m travelling on that line/I said move over once, move over twice…”).
On January 30th, 1969, I was twenty-one and a half years old. I had graduated from Cambridge University the previous June, spent some time with my parents back home, upset them considerably by saying I didn’t want to stay, I wanted to go back to London and try to become a writer, finally got them to support the idea, returned to London in, approximately, October 1968 (can’t remember the exact date), rented a five-bedroom house off the New Kings Road with four friends, and tried to get a job while also beginning (unsuccessfully) to write in my attic room.
That cold January day, about three months later, I was in central London on my way, if memory serves, to a job interview in an advertising agency. (I didn’t get that job, but I did manage to get one six weeks later.) I turned down Savile Row and saw a small crowd on the sidewalk outside No. 3, many of them looking up towards the sky.
I asked someone, “What’s going on?” “It’s the Beatles,” he replied. “They’re on the roof.”
Watching Beatles: Get Back, you might form the impression that everyone at street level could hear the concert perfectly. That wasn’t true. We heard a sort of loud generalized music noise, without being able to make out what was being sung or played. It didn’t matter. I had never seen The Beatles playing live, and now they were up there! On the roof! It was very exciting. And then after maybe ten minutes it was boring, because (see above) I couldn’t really hear that much. I moved on, wondering (as one or two bystanders in the documentary wonder) why they were up there. They were The Beatles. They could have played anywhere. To choose their office roof seemed… odd.
Watching the Concert on the Roof more than half a century later, I was filled with emotion. There was the memory of my own distant youth, encountering history and then leaving it behind. (I’m nowhere in the documentary. Believe me, I looked.) There was sadness at the loss of John and George. There was regret that they stopped touring or giving concerts, because, like their arch-rivals The Rolling Stones, they were a great live band, and it was both exhilarating and sad to watch, in particular, John and Paul singing and playing in joyful harmony, obviously loving what they were doing in that short, inspired set, the last time they ever did it “live.”
Why Don’t We Do It In The Road? they once sang. If only they had. But at least we have the film of them doing it, one last time, on the roof.
Oh, p.s.: A loud, unimpressed shout-out to the party-pooper young cop who tried to shut down the concert. If he’s still around, I hope he’s embarrassed by his performance. He should be. He has much to be embarrassed about.