Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 1960s; Chimes of Freedom, revised and expanded
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They then had the monumental audacity to attempt to bring that buried force to the surface" p.
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The Beatles, treated as warped symbolic mirror on which cultural fantasies played out, present a much darker vision of the s pop world than historians usually grant. Beatlemania was, to McKinney, literally a mania, a sped-up drive toward breakthrough, one that came crashing down quickly into reactionary violence, countercultural cover-up, and strange, scary paranoia. In his first chapter, "Rude Noises from the Bog," McKinney concentrates especially on the Beatles' time in the underground world of the Reeperbahn in Hamburg, where the group arrived to perform as a bar band in Not yet two decades removed from the carnage, Hamburg's underground culture met the Beatles to operate in what McKinney calls a "laboratory of bog aesthetics," a raw, edgy space of extremes, from the most disgusting kinds of abjection to the most intense thrills and kicks, a dancing and music-making compressed into powerful ecstasy by the desperate need to escape the aftereffects of the war's destruction.
In these films, mere publicity devices, a lurking mood of violence always haunts the Beatles, as if, no matter how innocent they appear, how witty and charming, the audience is also beginning to play out darker fantasies upon them. The films stumble into deeply symbolic territory, as the Beatles ascend to the heavens like gods in a helicopter at the end of A Hard Day's Night or are pursued in order to be sacrificed to a giant female god, Kali, in Help!
As McKinney takes pains to point out, the films are not quite able to own up to their symbolic weight. But read as "dream"--as expressions of a stormy collective psychic drama--they help to deepen our understanding of the kind of cultural work the Beatles wound up conducting in relation to the s. Crucial to this cultural work was the relationship between the Beatles and their young female fans, who, in a harbinger of the coming women's liberation movement, displayed taboo sexualities, desires, and sheer power in public p. In chapter 3, "Meat," McKinney utilizes the infamous retracted Beatles cover of the band surrounded by mutilated dolls and hunks of raw meat one could discover the "butcher cover" beneath certain copies of the album Yesterday and Today by steaming off the innocuous replacement photograph that had been pasted on top in response to protests that the original cover was in poor taste.
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McKinney's larger argument in the chapter is to link this Surrealist dream imagery of the butcher cover to the Beatles' continual mutation in from innocence into something more challenging, difficult, complex, brooding, violent, and downright scary: from daydream to nightmare. The chapter contains wonderful interpretations of the Beatles' new music on albums such as Rubber Soul and Revolver , placed into context with other music of by Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and James Brown. So too, the chapter takes us with the Beatles to the roiling political atmosphere in Japan, the Philippines, and back to the United States, where, suddenly, an angry, chaotic mood of rejection and reaction followed the Beatles on tour this was the year of John Lennon's famous comment that the Beatles had become more popular than Jesus.
McKinney ably demonstrates how an odd, highly-charged feedback loop came to exist between the "mere" pop entertainment of the Beatles and unstable political milieus. In a remarkable historical revision in chapter 4, "The Unintelligible Truth," McKinney argues that the counterculture of the late s, with the concept album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band reverberating in the air, was a kind of cover-up. To McKinney, Sgt. Pepper , like the counterculture as a whole, was an attempt to conceal, through myth, the dangerously powerful, violent energies that the Beatles had brought up from the "bog" to the spectacle of pop culture.
During and , the Beatles tried to sustain the dream that "All You Need Is Love," sending this message out across the ether in the world's first worldwide satellite broadcast. But unruly nightmares kept rearing their heads--mutants and monsters kept poking through the cover-up. To the author, the record The Beatles , better known as the White Album, is in fact the Beatles' greatest concept project. Unlike Sgt. Pepper , which McKinney hears as a falsification, as cover-up, the White Album attempted to represent, respond to, and shape the fury of rebellion and revolt, conflict and turmoil that marked the later years of the s.
The album displays:. The White Album is the concept album that Sgt. Pepper thought it was and wasn't. It seeps chaos, breathes it and voices it; fights it, exemplifies it, is overwhelmed by it, finally seeks a battered refuge from it. It tries to escape--tries hard--but can't. Like , it screams, laughs wickedly, kills, cries, sighs, and dies" p.
To McKinney, strange paranoias, sinister madnesses, and brutal insanities played out across the myth and symbol of the Fab Four toward the end of the s. To McKinney, by the end of the decade, the group's empire of songs had extended into distant realms that the Beatles themselves would never have sanctioned or approved. Chapter 5, "O. Others were the "Paul is Dead" hoax and various rumored bootleg recordings that crackled with tawdry, unconfirmed mystery. From these terrible endings, McKinney concludes Magic Circles with a chapter, "Fantasy into Flesh," in which he reflects on his own coming-of-age in the s and s.
McKinney discovers in his own life that the Beatles' empire of songs lives on, transporting the dreams and history of the s into the present. Magic Circles raises methodological and historiographical issues for cultural historians of the s. At its best, it is a stunning book that attempts to unmask and analyze a level of mass cultural experience that defies quantitative study or even the normal types of qualitative historical evidence.
As Marcus's Dead Elvis attempted to do with Elvis Presley, McKinney's Magic Circles is a compendium that includes hunches of connections, moments of serendipity, odd confluences of synchronicity, collisions of chance. Clues arise in Beatles ephemera--scraps of newspaper reports, odd photographs, offhanded interactions, bootleg recordings, fleeting rumors--as well as in tangentially-related quotations from a vastly disparate group of figures and texts Jean-Luc Godard, Milan Kundera, Norman O.
There is an obsessive quality to the book, and one might dismiss it as loony. But there is a humor and honesty to Magic Circles , a willingness to pursue lines of inquiry to lengths that are, at first glimpse, inscrutably ridiculous, and, at closer investigation, potentially profound. The book is enriched by a fan's arcane knowledge, but McKinney's story about the Beatles and the larger s has much to offer beyond minutiae.
By tracing the wide ripples of the Beatles, both the group's music and its role as cultural symbol, McKinney shows how their empire of song unleashed powerful energies, both positive and negative, fostering a "public configuration" that was also strangely intimate--a shared secret whispered across the mass communications networks of the s. Their mania became a huge, open arena for the unregulated discharge of submerged energies--their own, and the audience's," McKinney argues p. But it was not only dreamlike; as McKinney's subtitle emphasizes, the Beatles were also historically significant.
It is worth quoting McKinney at length on this topic, for he has an important point that historians of the s indeed, all historians should confront: "There is no way of quantifying the changes the Beatles catalyzed in private lives," he writes. Because they don't move mountains, such things fall into the vast wastebasket of unrecorded history. Are we to consider them unimportant for that reason?
I think we may consider them as important as any history ever recorded.
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They are the changes that determine how people live within history, day to day--as opposed to how populations live because of history, era by era" p. Marqusee and McKinney's books both address the subterranean energies that rose up in the pop culture explosion of the s. But, they differ in their orientations toward this phenomenon. This is partially because Dylan and the Beatles were themselves quite different figures. Though he had some pop success, Dylan tended to be for the hip and initiated.
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