Get[ting] Back to the Beatles

I have a few other thoughts about The Beatles as an organization, brought up by doing some extra reading about the band (references listed at the end of the post) and spending more time in their musical catalog. While I’ve come to really enjoy their music, their story has become the more fascinating element; while it has been written about and discussed endlessly, the history of the Beatles as an organization has a few interesting components that I think deserve a fresh perspective.

Their last photoshoot as band. They really do hate each other here.

When anyone speaks of the breakup of the Beatles, most fingers point to Yoko Ono’s presence and/or the power struggle between Paul and John regarding the musical direction of the band. It’s only been somewhat recently that Yoko’s “role” in the band’s dissolution has been reconsidered more thoughtfully. At the time, her very existence as John’s partner and her physical proximity to the band during a time when the Beatles were coming apart at the seams meant she was an easy target in the media. Also, as an Asian woman, she came in for a LOT of racist and misogynist treatment. (For a very good primer on Yoko Ono the individual and her life and times related to the Beatles, listen to this episode of the You’re Wrong About podcast.) While the narrative that “Yoko broke up the Beatles” may never fully die, it’s more accepted today that at worst her presence may have just exacerbated tensions in the band, and at best, had nothing at all to do with it. In Get Back, Paul McCartney actually predicts how the story of the Beatles and Yoko will go, saying that in 30 years, people would complain that they broke up “because Yoko sat on an amp!” and it wouldn’t really be true. So if we can now reconsider the narrative about Yoko, perhaps we can reconsider the self-told narratives about how the Beatles broke up.

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The Beatles as an Organizational Failure

Poster for the documentary "The Beatles: get Back," showing 2 versions all four band members looking down - a contemporary version and above them, a younger version.

Now that my household has Disney+, I was able to watch the 2021 documentary The Beatles: Get Back, directed by Peter Jackson. I watched over the course of several days and really enjoyed it, although it is a bit of a slog at certain points (more on that later). I found the representation of the group dynamics fascinating, especially as someone coming to the band with only a rudimentary knowledge of their history and discography. So I’d like discuss what I observed about the Beatles as an organization after watching Get Back, with the caveat that this discussion will focus almost exclusively on what can be seen in the film. The documentary covers the period early in 1969 when The Beatles were recording songs for what would eventually be the album Let it Be.

Let me start by saying I was never a Beatles fan; when I was younger I thought they were probably pretty lame because my Mom had been a huge fan when she was young. I recall the massive cultural moment that was the release of the Anthology albums in the mid-90s, but maintained my opinion that The Beatles weren’t interesting. Later, when the 1 album came out in 2000, I realized how many Beatles songs I actually knew pretty well, strictly through cultural osmosis. This realization changed my mind about the significance of the band (obviously!), but didn’t motivate me to learn any more about their music.

For whatever reason, in 2022, I decided to listen to the Beatles Essentials playlist on Apple Music, and found that I really enjoyed most of it. I personally found the very early stuff nearly unlistenable, but the later songs were great. Because the playlist is limited and I found it irritating to skip over the early hits like “Twist and Shout” and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” I asked my Beatles-fan husband for one album recommendation – which is the best one? (My Internet research for “best Beatles album” did not, as you might guess, yield a consensus.) He recommended either The Beatles, aka the White album, considered by some to be their best, or his personal favorite, Rubber Soul, which he thinks has some of their best songwriting. With the exception of the constant refrain of domestic violence that runs through a lot of Beatles songs, I liked Rubber Soul and could hear how influential it has been.

I am a student of organizational and group dynamics and the Get Back documentary offers a remarkable chance to see an organization fight against its own dissolution while maintaining the conditions that caused the tension in the first place – and which will ultimately lead to the most famous band breakup of all time.

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Back to Life, Back to Blog

https://www.currentobituary.com/member/obit/247444#tab-obituary

I’ve been oddly fortunate to have not experienced much tragedy or death in my life. Some of that is due to just dumb luck, but a lot of it may simply be numbers: I grew up in a pretty small family, and a lot of the traditional extended family had already passed by the time I was born. My one grandparent passed nearly 20 years ago; distance and time had always limited the closeness of that relationship. I felt more sad for my Dad, who hadn’t gotten to be with her when she died. Other than her, I’d never lost a family member or even a friend.

But in the annus horribilis that was 2020, my father died. Like so many others, I had to confront the pain and confusion of dying, death, and existential crises, in a year that had already seen me laid off from my beloved teaching position and over 200,000 deaths in the US alone due to the sheer incompetence and indifference of the Trump administration. My father did not die of coronavirus infection, but the pandemic kept some of my family, including me, apart from him as he lay in a hospital, virtually alone, for months. When he finally left the hospital for home hospice care, he declined so quickly that I could only listen on the phone as he passed into the next life.

Through the pain and guilt of everything that happened, there were bright shining moments of human kindness that I will never forget, and which move me to tears every time I think on them. But in a time of grieving and loss, the kindness of others is a balm for that grief. While it cannot remove pain or bring back those who are gone, it can overlay your grief, changing the tones and shades of mourning into something richer and less monotone. I will hold tightly to these moments as I continue to grieve, clutching the comfort they provide like a talisman.

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A Reading List is Not a Syllabus, Part III

See part I and part II.

A steam powered train from the early 20th century, moving from left to right across the image.
There were a lot more trains in the Olden Times

Another text I found to be impactful and which might enhance an anti-racist reading list is Ralph Ellison’s posthumously published short story “Boy on a Train.” It is a somewhat unique story in its switching of perspectives, and it centers on a young boy on a train ride from Oklahoma City, OK to McAlester, OK with his mother and baby brother. It is a story told with gentleness and a sharp understanding of the way children see and feel the world around them, while emphasizing the danger and pain of Jim Crow. Because this story is so emotional and so realistic, students respond effectively to its portrayal of Jim Crow oppression and the generational trauma it caused.

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A Reading List is Not a Syllabus, part II

For the first book post in this series about the anti-racist reading list, I’d like to discuss Harriet Jacobs’ 1861 book Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which you can find and read for free on the Internet. Almost more than any other text, it is this one which white students – particularly women, which I’ll discuss in a moment – remember and comment on. It has a real effect on readers, in the way it tells a clear story and highlights an intersectional (before that word was ever coined) understanding of enslavement and history.

Harriet Jacobs was born enslaved, although she writes that she did not know this until she was 5 or 6 years old. After she was freed she wanted to have her memoir published, and through contacts, sent an outline of her story to Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe refused to write Jacobs’ story, but did ask if she could use details of the outline in future work – Jacobs said no, and determined to write her story herself. Because of her concerns regarding sexual ethics and her children’s parentage, Jacobs changed all the names to pseudonyms, becoming “Linda Brent” in the narrative. This complicated scholarly understanding of the text for almost a century.

Because it was published in 1861, Incidents was not widely read, although it was acclaimed by critics. In fact, it almost disappeared from popular literature altogether by the 20th century, and those who read it assumed it was a novel, possibly written by Lydia Maria Child. No one could track down “Linda” or any of the other characters, so that seemed a reasonable assumption. It was not until the scholarship of Jean Fagin Yellin in the 1980s that Jacobs was recovered as the writer, and her story as a true enslavement narrative.

So why does Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl belong on an anti-racist reading list, and why does it seem to affect students so powerfully?

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A Reading List is Not a Syllabus

This has been a dreadful week, as protests for justice have faced repeated attacks and brutality from law enforcement across the country. (Note: if you’re reading this and the police who murdered Breonna Taylor have not yet face accountability, click here for ways to help.) One result of the continued turmoil seems to be requests/demands for materials to read or watch about racism, racist institutions, and the general racist history of the United States. In response, many writers and scholars have created reading lists, often labeled “anti-racist” reading lists or “Black Lives Matter” syllabi, etc. If you google either of these terms, many items will turn up, including the official BLM syllabus materials. However, there’s been a bit of discussion about the purported value of such reading lists, which I thought was interesting.

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SpaceX & the Ghosts of Space Travel’s Past

Image of the SpaceX white space craft docking with the ISS. The nose cone has opened to reveal docking port.
The unmanned SpaceX “Crew Dragon” craft docking with the ISS in 2019. (NASA image)

This week, SpaceX will make history as its first manned flight will launch from Cape Canaveral on Thursday with the intent of delivering 2 astronauts – Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken – to the International Space Station (ISS). The crew capsule will remain docked to the ISS for an as yet undetermined amount of time, then ferry the astronauts back to earth, splashdown style. NASA is partnering with SpaceX to see this mission to success, but it will be the first private company launch into orbit, as well as the first (non-tourist) manned launch from the US since 2011. This is certainly exciting news, and will no doubt attract a lot of media attention, due to the novelty of the event and due to the truly weird, truly controversial SpaceX founder, Elon Musk.

What draws my attention to this, though, is the worrisome framing of this mission I have seen in a few high profile articles about the launch. Readers may remember that I am very interested in organizational culture, especially at NASA (read here and here), and in particular, the way their organizational culture lead to mistakes and tragedy like the Challenger accident. I am far less familiar with the organizational culture at SpaceX/Tesla/Musk’s Life, but given the behavior of Musk himself, I would not be surprised to learn it was Not Good. I just don’t have any research to go on either way.

What I do have are some articles discussing this launch that spend an inordinate amount of time on aesthetics and almost-complete testing on key components of the flight matériel. This all seems foreboding to me, so I’d like to break down the concerns I have about the way this mission is being framed in some media.

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Samurai, Ronin, Accountant?

Black and white image of the film poster for THE 47 RONIN; one samurai committing seppuku, and one kneeling next to him
Film poster for THE 47 RONIN

I recently watched Kenji Mizoguchi’s film The 47 Ronin, released in two parts in 1941 and 1942, and based on a play cycle written by  Seika Mayama. The film tells the historical tale of 47 (or 46, depending on the version of the tale) samurai who avenge their master’s death. That description is an oversimplification of the film’s plot, which I will summarize more thoroughly below, but I want to discuss the nature of samurai as depicted in the film – not as highly trained military men, but as “counselors” or “retainers,” as they are called in the film. Essentially, samurai became household administrators by the turn of the 18th century, when the action of The 47 Ronin takes place.

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Using the Sacred to Calm the Profane

This is not going to be a post about COVID-19 and the unprecedented amount of upheaval and death it is causing in the US right now. You have plenty of news and social media sites for that.

This is not going to be a post about how to cope with suddenly teaching online or working from home. You have plenty of emails and instructions from your administrators for that. (Though I will just point out that if some of y’all had gotten on board or at least familiar with online pedagogy before now, it might be a smoother transition for you. That’s all.)

I just know that we are all feeling new and challenging amounts of stress and anxiety. No matter what you’re doing, you are under stress. This kind of stress is exhausting and upsetting and not at all easy to live with, day in and day out. So please – find something that works for you in helping to mitigate, even a little bit, the effects of stress on your body.

One thing I am diving into is religious choral music, specifically the albums of the Tallis Scholars. Their music can be found on most music streaming platforms. When I write and grade (especially if I am writing a lot of comments or revision notes on assignments), I need to listen to music without words, or with words I don’t understand. Enter: Latin! The Tallis Scholars are the preeminent singers of Renaissance/Early Modern polyphonic music. (Polyphony = different melodies sung simultaneously.)

It is lilting, calm, beautiful, and I don’t understand what they are singing, so it’s been perfect for these trying times. Additionally, the group is suffering financially right now, as they make their livings by constant touring, which is off the table right now, and so even streaming their stuff gives them some royalties. So give it a try! At first, don’t be surprised if all of the music sounds pretty much the same – that’s how I felt, as well. Over time, with repeated listens, the music makes itself more present to you, and you can discern the varied strands much more effectively. Try either 2015’s John Taverner: Missa Corona spinea/ Dum transisset Sabbatum I and II or 2007’s Allegri: Miserere/ Palestrina: Missa Papae Marcelli and Motets. Those are both very chill, very stunning compositions from start to finish.

But above all else, just get by. Just do your best, which is all any of us are (hopefully) doing. You were never prepared for this. You didn’t expect it. So don’t worry about not achieving great things right now. Staying healthy and present of mind is enough of a job as it is. So focus on that. You can do it.

The above mentioned 2015 album

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New Article Published!

I’m happy to report that my latest article, “‘Were They the Ones We Were Waiting for?’: The TWWA and the Performance of Solidarity” has been published in the January 2020 issue of Theatre Survey.

This was a piece I worked on for quite a awhile, and it underwent significant revisions over the course of the publication process. The piece became much stronger through this process, and TS was a terrific journal to work with on it. It is exciting to finally see it all come together after so long!

You can see a preview of it here, or check with your institution/library.

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