Sunday at the Empty Bottle, the amazing Angela Vela put together an afternoon show comprised of musicians, stand ups and storytellers all paying tribute to the unfortunately diffusive list of extraordinary talents who cashed out in 2016.
Luckily for Dana and I, she invited us to join. Dana decided her tribute would be to Harper Lee, who moments before her homage discovered had died on Dana's birthday. I chose to eulogize the Fifth Beatle, George Martin.
Before you get to them, I noticed both a hint of melancholy at the loss of so many talented individuals - from Bowie to George Michael, Prince to Gary Shandling - but the prevailing feeling I experienced was appreciation. Not all the songs were well sung but the influence that these human beings had on we other human beings was testimony to the power of art in our times. Like flowers on graves, each moment was a garland of true love and appreciation for the works of people gone but not forgotten.
It was bountiful and sacred.
We should do things like this more often than not.
Below is a video of Dana and the text of my piece - we hope you enjoy them.
Here is the text of my piece:
History has a way of naturally selecting the things that are discarded on the heaping pile of that which is no longer relevant and that which has the power to transcend time. When we think about, say, the Romantic Period of music, there were thousands of composers who wrote music during that roughly 75 year span. We only really listen to a handful - Beethoven, Chopin, Strauss, Brahms, Tchaikovsky.
One of the games I used to play with musicians (back in the day when I was both a professional trumpet player and a 7th/8th grade music teacher) was to force history to little it down. What musicians would be considered “classical” music of today? Who would make the cut? My contention has been that in terms of music of the Rock and Roll era (only about 75-80 years in length today) the music of The Beatles will be among the only music still regularly listened to 200 years from now and the reason this is the case is the least recognized but most influential of the group, the Fifth Beatle, The Gentleman Genius, George Martin.
Martin was a house producer at Parlophone, an offshoot of EMI, with voluminous classical, pop, and comedy experience and a wary interest, by the end of the 50s, in the emerging rock ‘n’ roll genre. At first the Beatles looked to him like a slightly more promising carbon copy of the scads of “beat” groups capitalizing on what everyone considered a fad. The anecdotes that create thumbnail sketches of Martin and the Beatles’ early rapport are equally beloved by rock nerds. Preparing them for an early session circa 1962, Martin encouraged the lads to let him know if there was anything they didn’t like, and guitarist George Harrison quipped, “Well for a start I don’t like your tie.”
John Lennon and Paul McCartney had conceived “Please Please Me” as a Roy Orbison torch song but Martin insisted that they snap up the tempo. Once the band had completed it his way, he confidently told them “Congratulations gentlemen. You’ve just made your first Number One [single].” And he was right.
The band, while gifted and ambitious, weren’t musically trained. They had ideas but no technique to achieve them. Martin was both highly trained and willing to assist the boys with some of their wild ideas. McCartney once said about Martin, “George Martin [was] quite experimental for who he was, a grown-up."
I discovered the Beatles when I was around eight years old. My mother was a die-hard Elvis fan and was a bit put off by my sudden love of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” because, as she put it, she loved the Beatles until they stopped being fun. Sometime around Revolver, my mom decided that the group was making fun of her - in fact, as soon as the Fab Four stopped performing live and committed to doing studio sessions exclusively, she felt left out. I know now that what I loved about their music and what she hated was George Martin.
I was nuts for the bizarre surrealist lyrics and odd period orchestration of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” The crazy waltz in the middle, the old steam organ and tape loop arrangement that create the circus atmosphere. And while the ideas were Lennon’s, Martin played the steam organ, scored and conducted the orchestration, and with tape and a razor, constructed the looping.
I loved the harpsichord solo in “In My Life” (written and played by Martin.) “The Long and Winding Road” was conceived by McCartney as a piano and voice song but Martin wrote and conducted the string orchestra that made that song an epic.
For “Eleanor Rigby” he scored and conducted a strings-only accompaniment inspired by Bernard Herrmann’s soundtrack to “Psycho.”. I listened to this hundreds of times until mom put a moratorium on it while she was home.
And so on.
It’s easy to take for granted the revolutionary. Once the new ground has been broken and we become familiar with walking on it, once the outlier accomplishments become inspiration for copies and expansions, the revolution seems all but inevitable. Martin and the Beatles introduced more avant-garde techniques and sounds into popular music than any pioneers before or since. Together, this unlikely pairing of peanut butter and chocolate changed rock and roll and popular music of its day into something larger, something grander, something worthy of the ravages of time and taste.
Mom eventually got over her disdain for the music of the Beatles and I, after taking her to Graceland, found an affinity for Presley but we have always remained most loyal to our separate camps.
When I taught music to budding humans, for nine years I would teach an entire nine week course to my eighth graders on the Music of The Beatles. Without Martin, the Beatles would’ve been a great band with great hit music, but without him, there would be no YES, no Pink Floyd, no Electric Light Orchestra, no Bruce Springsteen, no Nirvana. Each one of those eight graders, whether they eventually liked The Beatles or not, walked away as adults understanding the contribution made by George Martin. His is a story of excellence behind the scenes, of often uncredited genius, of a selfless workman-like approach to collaboration that more and more is lost.
I’ve been asked, who is the world’s greatest guitarist. The answer I tend to give is that he (or she) is unknown, playing music in an apartment or in a garage band, unknown to most because the best of us are often the least recognized. George Martin passed on March 8, 2016 and no one changed their Facebook profile photos, no one spontaneously created gatherings to celebrate him. Those tributes were for those who more obviously affected us and for good reason. I know, however, that at least a handful of Chicago area adults who were in a middle school on the West Side of town in the 90’s, knew exactly who he was and why his passing bore note.
Now so do you.