The repetition, the repetition is a killer. When watching Get Back in fits and starts over the past month, that’s what I kept thinking. A take, another take, and yet another take. Some tea and toast and tedium. The viewer gets to see the vibrancy of rock-and-roll pulverized under the weight of needing to get this chord progression just right, or adjusting that vocal line, or pointing those microphones in a different direction. You can see it wearing on everyone. Even Paul, who is really the engine keeping things moving in the weeks covered by the film, periodically drifts into a glassy dead-eyed stare.
How much of being an artist is just a willingness to keep going: to repeat and repeat and repeat?
Following up on my last post extolling hard work and dedication to artistic craft with a month of silence here on the blog I wish I could say that I started a first draft of a novel offline, or like a really excellent cycle of sonnets or something. But, alas. The days have been full – the “deluge of life” as I describe it – and there has been very little time to spend writing. Very little time, and yet I found time to watch the eight hour Get Back documentary off and on over the past month, usually in 15-20 minute chunks or so. I’m not even that much of a Beatles fan (the best thing I read on it by someone who actually knows about the Beatles was this Ian Leslie post).
Repetition is a foundational element in all sorts of endeavors – especially creative ones. Or rather, the importance of repetition is more easily identifiable in creative, performative endeavors. The office worker has to find the courage to open up the email inbox day after day, but whether the routine is leading anywhere, whether it is driving any sort of improvement or is headed any particular direction, is usually unclear. A final artistic product, the finished song at the end of all the practice, seems to place all the repetition into context, to make it worthwhile. Musicians seem to be especially at risk when it comes to the grind of repetition. The performative aspect of the art form basically enshrines it- come up with a hit song (or hit song formula) and you’ll be playing it forever if everything goes well. And the Beatles, with their unusual ability to reinvent their sound over and over again, seemed especially allergic to getting stuck on repeat.
I write that the value of repetition is more easily identifiable in creative endeavors – the finished product justifying the effort. Of course, that obscures the way in which the artist does not really know what the final outcome is going to be when she is writing/rehearsing/editing/improvising. When Paul is mumbling along nonsense lyrics to “Let It Be” at the piano he does not know that it is going to become “Let It Be.” The commitment to keep going, to commit to repetition, is a step forward in the dark with only the candle flame of intuition to light the way. It is entirely possible that the path leads to a dead end.
In later interviews about the Get Back recording sessions the band members all seem to be universally negative about the experience. This may be partly due to the fact that it was the beginning of the end. The hastily improvised, slightly ridiculous rooftop performance was the last public performance by the Beatles ever. They did not know that at the time, messing around in the studio (although they had some inkling, it seems), but they did when they looked back years later, and it must affect their perception of those weeks.
Watching the film, I have to confess, it doesn’t seem all that bad? Sure, boredom and frustration and annoyance, but I don’t know, think again of that office worker seeing what has filtered into his inbox overnight. Is getting that chord progression exactly right so especially onerous? Especially after John escapes from a near catatonic stupor in the first week or two (drugs: don’t do them!) things even seem, at least part of the time, fun.
And that does seem to be one of the main ways that the boys try and fight off the repetition blues. Jokes, goofing around, playing hits from their teenage years and childhood – fun keeps things moving. The arrival of Billy Preston helps shift the group dynamic a little, but it also seems like his piano playing just makes the actual experience of playing together more fun, a new sonic toy for their musical genius to play with. That rooftop performance really is slightly ridiculous, but it also seems like a lot of fun. The band itself seems to light up when they perform and the charisma of the group still comes through the TV screen over fifty years later. The cops showing up is hilarious and again: fun.
It is not only the repetition though. Paul says at multiple points in the film that the group no longer has any aim, no project, no end they are headed towards. The Beatles’ malaise, in his view, is due to the fact that they have nothing they’re working towards. In 1969 the Beatles are all still very young men – McCartney is 26 during the Get Back sessions. 26! But they don’t have a mountain left that they want to climb. Or at least not one that they want to climb together (the working title for their final album, Abbey Road, was “Everest” – it was in reference to a brand of a cigarettes, but it works on a multiple levels). Fun is necessary, but not in the end, sufficient. An artist needs a goal, an end – all that repetition, all that cycling around and around needs to lead somewhere. The curving road of creation needs to be a spiral heading towards a destination, not a perfect circle that ends where it begins.
[The “Get Back” bassline starts rumbling in the background – I shrug on a fur coat and hurl my computer out the window].