NYFOS: Song of the Day (December 1)
Originally appeared on the New York Festival of Song (NYFOS) website:
This week we welcome Schubert/Beatles cast member and longtime friend of NYFOS Paul Appleby to Song of the Day! You can hear him with NYFOS on Tuesday, December 8th at Merkin Concert Hall (Get tickets here). And don’t miss his solo recital at Carnegie Hall on March 16, 2016 (tickets here)!
from Paul Appleby:
Of all the Beatles songs on NYFOS’s Schubert and Beatles program, John Lennon’s “Julia” is the one that I was most eager to program and most dubious about working in the context of a song recital. There is something about the chord progression that I could see working à la Schubert, but I was concerned that the best and only worthy version of the song is John’s haunting solo performance of it on the White Album. Thanks to the genius of Steve Blier and Charles Yang we have come up with my favorite Beatles arrangement of the concert. I was drawn to the aspects of the song that speak to so many (a million Beatles fans can’t be wrong, or something like that) but felt somewhat invasive and larcenous to appropriate such a personal song. But in the end, I feel that the manner in which we will perform it honors Lennon’s song and his voice but also seeks to illustrate the universal and immutably human slipstream that this tune glides along.
“Julia” has always had a powerful effect on me, but I hadn’t really understood why until I became a parent. The song is dedicated to John Lennon’s mother who was killed by a drunk driver walking home one night when John was 17. This knowledge is especially heartbreaking in the context of their history—I imagine John Lennon had a rare appreciation of his relationship with his mother because, as he said, “I lost her twice.” The mystical colors of the song’s poetry and atmosphere—simple and concise as they are—go deep into the profound intimacy of the relationship between mother and child. It articulates something about how that relationship affects us children everyday of our lives. But he also gives poetic voice to how we recreate the intimacy we first learn with our parents later in life with our spouses. I know this sounds weird and gross, but it’s our nature, man, and it’s beautiful. Somehow this little song manages to express something mysterious and complex about being a child, a parent, AND a spouse in a few two-line verses and a bridge.
But this is what great songwriters do. They take their own (often traumatic and tortured) lives and craft from their unique personal experience words and music that are specific enough to be authentic and broad enough to resonate with the masses. The Beatles were the songwriters who brought this particular genius—seen previously in the likes of Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer, and Cole Porter, etc…if you’re reading this blog you know who I mean—to rock’n’roll and in turn elevated the expressive possibilities of the form beyond its generic limitations.
The Beatles also managed to achieve these artistic heights just as the idea of mass global media was approaching maturity. It was never just about the songs with John, Paul, George, and Ringo, it was about their haircuts and their charm and talent and how they became signifiers of an entire culture in upheaval. It still is about ALL of those things (“as it was in the beginning” and so forth). As a result, we Beatles fans develop something like a personal relationship with them (maybe not bigger than Jesus, but you get the point) and this feeling enriches our experience of their songs. But I do believe (credo might be a little strong) that it does all start with the songs. The songs draw us in again and again, and because a songwriter like John was brave enough to share a song like “Julia” with the world, the love of the song leads us to learn about John and the story of his mother and of his marriage to Yoko which leads us back to the song—a virtuous song cycle, if you will pardon the word play.
I bother to describe this cycle because I experience Schubert and his songs in the same way. The songs draw me in and their genius and beauty compel me to understand their creator better. We will never know as much about Schubert, biographically speaking, as we do about John Lennon (with him predating global mass media and whatnot), and yet I still find myself seeking and finding a kind of personal relationship with Franz Peter all the same. I end up imagining details of Schubert’s life that are almost certainly inaccurate, and yet feel real enough to me as I spend time with his songs. My next blog post will describe an example of how that works in my mind and how it influences me as a performer. But for now I will leave you with the song in question for today’s post.
I assume you are all exceedingly familiar with the original recording of Julia so I won’t bother posting it here. Instead I am sharing this performance of the song by John and Yoko’s son, Sean Lennon. Sean isn’t much of a singer, but it is nonetheless moving to hear him sing a song written by his father dedicated to his mother and maternal grandmother. And the montage of images on the screen behind him during the performance is cool too: