Torn And Frayed
The Beatles and the Places We Go
Author’s Note: This story is dedicated to the memory of my friend, Tracy Downer.
The Beatles weren’t harmonizing. Things had gotten quite stressful for the world’s most popular entertainers. The collaborative spirit so central to the Beatles’ success had disappeared. They had deviated from the winning formula. How impressive was the Beatles’ approach to their business? Impressive enough to inspire Steve Jobs. In a 2004 interview with Brent Schlender, he said, “My model of management is the Beatles. The reason I say that is because each of the key people in the Beatles kept the others from going off in the direction of their bad tendencies… They sort of kept each other in check.”
Yet the Beatles, certainly by 1969, were no longer so team-oriented. In the corporate world, managers who read a dash of what the late Steve Jobs surmised, will bellow at their workers, saying, “There’s no I in TEAM!” Quite right. But the word does have an m and an e. George Harrison noted the self-absorbed nature most of us naturally possess, acknowledging it’s difficult to shake. In his memoir, I Me Mine, while commenting on his song of the same title, Harrison cited the ego problem.
So suddenly I looked around and everything I could see was relative to my ego – you know, like that’s my piece of paper and that’s my flannel, or give it to me or I am. It drove me crackers; I hated everything about my ego — it was a flash of everything false and impermanent which I disliked. But later, I learned from it: to realise that there is somebody else in here apart from old blabbermouth (that’s what I felt like – I hadn’t seen or heard or done anything in life, and yet I hadn’t stopped talking). Who am I became the order of the day.
The order of the day on January 3, 1970 for the Beatles, at least the three of them in England ( John Lennon was vacationing in Denmark at the time), was to record one more song for the Let It Be album, which would be released on May 8, 1970, less than a month after Messrs. Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr became known as former-Beatles.
“I Me Mine” represented a good day’s work by the 3 Beatles. Being pros, they fashioned a piece that was infectious and intriguing with its quick shifts in mood and presentation. In his book, Revolution In The Head, The Beatles’ Recordings And The Sixties, Ian MacDonald proffered an apt description of the song.
“I Me Mine” juxtaposes a self-pitying Gallic minor waltz (complete with Piaf wobble) against a clamorous major blues shuffle – suggesting that selfishness, personal or collective, subtle or crude, is always the same.
Most Beatles followers regard “I Me Mine” as a song as much about the infighting that plagued the Beatles as it is the battle with the ego that Harrison articulated. That rare common bond crumbled, so much so that the Beatles handed Phil Spector the Let It Be tapes, hoping he could smooth out the rougher edges. Spector had produced legendary works into the mid-60s for the Righteous Brothers, Ike and Tina Turner, the Ronettes and would later serve ably on Lennon and Harrison solo projects. What he served up on Let It Be was a mess.
The millions who, in 1970, bought the Let It Be album could easily sense the excitement of “I Me Mine.” It was another example of George Harrison’s maturation as a songwriter. The “good little rock and roll band,” as Paul McCartney called the Beatles, played hard and tight, rocking fervently. But the good work was marred by a thirty-piece orchestra and female choruses that Spector dubbed on to the track, without telling Harrison.
Spector’s approach to Harrison’s lively song was similar to how he sabotaged other tracks on the album: Lennon’s beautiful “Across the Universe,” and, most famously, McCartney’s “The Long and Winding Road.” As it turned out, more than thirty-three years would pass before the Beatles’ intentions for the Let It Be album were made available. Let It Be… Naked, released on November 17. 2003, a project shepherded by McCartney, was the album millions of us thought we’d get in the spring of ’70.
(The Spector-produced Let It Be would remain on the market, but finally there was deliverance from the Spectoresque touches that went so badly. It was obviously not the best of weeks for Phil Spector. Three days after the release of Let It Be … Naked, he was charged with the murder of actress Lana Clarkson. With the wheels of justice grinding even slower than usual, it wasn’t until April 13, 2009 that Spector was convicted of 2nd degree murder. He will be eligible for parole in 2028, the year he turns 88 years old.)
Olivia Harrison, in her book, George Harrison: Living In The Material World, remembered her late husband was often “at odds with himself, but who isn’t?” What he didn’t like about himself, he addressed in his songs. “He was unusually truthful,” Ms. Harrison wrote, “and in his songs much more explicit than we dare to be. He made it his mission to explore his contradictions in his own way, through his music.” So it was with “I Me Mine.” The struggles Harrison wrote about were personal but they were also universal. He was one of the few souls, particularly in the world of Rock, to address the matter.
Through The Space And The Time… It’s no easy task to always be pleasant nor is it simple to set aside selfish tendencies. High standards are difficult to attain and rare are those who appear to so gladly share themselves and their own zest for life. Tracy Patterson Downer was an example of that rare breed. Still a few years shy of her 30th birthday, Tracy, in the mid-90s, was promoted to a Major Accounts position in the Advertising Department of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She was moving up professionally, but in the things that mattered so much in life, Tracy had already attained the high standards found in the best of us. If a co-worker was feeling down, she’d offer words of encouragement, even suggesting the co-worker was worthy of a promotion. She was an exuberant friend, bringing to mind lyrics from the Grateful Dead song, “Ripple.” Tracy’s “words did glow with the gold of sunshine.”
At a major newspaper, there are often enough interesting stories involving the people who work there to fill tens of pages. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was a great place to observe chapters in lives, even as reporters worked outside the building, chronicling stories that impacted local communities. Occasionally a mating game could make for an interesting story, like when co-workers Tracy Patterson and Jeff Downer discovered they’d rather talk about things other than business. Jeff worked in the composing room. He was among the younger guys back there, more relaxed than the employees who had experienced decades of changes in production, even as the main aspect of the job was still the same: making sure scheduled ads were in the paper and that the ads ran right. Tracy would go back to composing and speak with Jeff about a production issue, setting the table for other topics. The excitement built quickly enough. One day after Jeff visited Tracy’s desk at the end of his shift, she walked by my cube and asked, “Don’t you think he’s cute?” That was, for me, a rather unusual question, but Tracy’s will was too strong. “Yeah, sure,” I said, being a good sport.
A trip to New York City was planned and they returned from the Big Apple a married couple. “Yes, I know, what a downer,” the new Ms. Downer laughingly said to co-workers and clients, very happy with where life was taking her. It seemed Tracy was on all the time. She was thrilled with married life, happy with her job and super-helpful to her clients. She loved sports, rooting for the Atlanta Braves, and was quite the fan of Elvis Presley. Near her desk was a the famous 1956 photo of the Presley-Barbara Gray tongue-kiss which eventually was joined by pictures of Sam and Lucy, the children she and Jeff brought into the world. “Good looking kid,” one would say upon spying a new photo on Tracy’s wall. “He’s so sweet,” the proud mom responded.
Tracy Downer was a joyful person but quite serious about the things that mattered. She didn’t boast of her thorough-going nature, but she made sure the i’s were dotted and the t’s crossed. Tracy had worked hard to attain a certain level in her life, and looking back at times that were difficult, she determined she would make the most of the opportunities granted and still have some fun along the way.
The ongoing celebration that was Tracy’s life ended on Wednesday, July 11. A tragic car accident. The bad news got around quickly. Unbelievable. Our beautiful friend was gone.
Now Tracy Downer’s life continues in a different way: in the memories of the her family and friends that were always so pleased to be with her. A favorite motto of Tracy’s was the zen-like “Wherever you go… there you are.” It reminds one of the song written by Jules Styne and Sammy Cahn, “You Never Know Where You’re Goin’ Till You Get There.” Perhaps the version of the song that best conveys its spirit was by Sylvester the cat in the Merrie Melodies animated short, Back Alley Oproar.
Naturally enough, George Harrison also embraced that approach to life. Opening Brainwashed, his posthumously-released album (released on November 18, 2002, almost a year after Harrison died), was “Any Road.” Perhaps inspired by an exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat in Alice In Wonderland, Harrison put these words to a pleasant and engaging melody.
But oh Lord we pay the price
With the spin of the wheel and the roll of the dice
Ah yeah you pay your fare
And if you don’t know where you’re going
Any road will take you there
Tracy Downer started on her journeys, not sure where the roads would lead, but she made each and every destination a happier place.