“Ah! Look at all the lonely people”: Loneliness and The Beatles
“It’s been a long cold lonely winter”
Perhaps the best way to describe the year 2020 is to utter the above lines. A year so filled with misery and disaster that it’s nothing less than a trauma for most of us. A time that has pushed many of us to the edges of our mental sustainability, this enforced isolation has caused us to set out in search of new psychological or spiritual sanctuaries. In those times of despair where days were characterised by a brooding sense of dull and dampness, four young Liverpool lads were there to take me on their colourful sonic journeys. From the warm and fuzzy nostalgia of my teenage years to brooding over my existential crisis, The Beatles seem to have a song for each of my moods.
In a recent interview, Amit Chaudhuri discussed about the ‘immediacy’ that one feels when listening to a singing voice. According to Chaudhuri, “To listen to song and to listen to someone sing and to be able to recognize the beauty of that voice and to take pleasure in acknowledging, it is this instance of something very radical which is immediate, which is something between us and the music, us and the singer”. As I kept fluctuating from unending existential anxiety and dark headspace in all these months of ‘isolation’, this ‘unmediated ‘and ‘immediate’ chemistry between the music and the listener is what has kept me going.
There would be nights when I would be struggling to keep my eyes closed. Insomniac and sleep deprived, I would sit behind a smoking cup of coffee at 6 am and think about my first girlfriend in the 9th standard. John Lennon would immediately pop up in my playlist playing, ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’, and I would be swept into nostalgia, remembering the old lanes of my city where I have spent many afternoons courting my love. The jangle bang music and the age perfect stubbornness of the feeling of being in love reverberate my memories. The images seem like a shadow of how cheerful life was at one point. Then I would finish the coffee off with a big chunk of self-pity and the regret of not sleeping earlier the night before.
Love has been a hard luck for me all my life and to make matters far worse, I went through my third ‘official’ breakup during the lockdown. I would sometimes have those immense inward monologues that “Maybe I am not able to really love anymore”, or “Maybe it’s all in vain” and the classic “Am I a horrible person?”. My mind would be exploding with questions and I would immediately search for my earphones to escape the “voices”. ‘Helter Skelter’ comes in handy to drown out the sudden bursts of internal chaos. The chaos of the song, the sheer confusion, and haste that the song incorporates somehow puts a raging mind to a numb standstill:
“When I get to the bottom /I go back to the top of the hill”
It all feels like one elaborate cycle and I feel like Sisyphus for a short while. “Norwegian Wood” comes around in the music player and with it my impending sense of waste. The cheerful and flavourful melody with the dark narrative seems like an innocuous paraphernalia for the whole situation. Written by Lennon about one of his many affairs, the song weaves a wonderful interplay of guilt and the articulation of it between the two parties. The feeling of free and emotional confession that the song embarks on, lands me in a very delicate position, where I am equally relieved and tormented for the loss of a romantic relationship.
Prisoner of a virus, I found myself in a rut after my university closed and all my friends returned home. All my local friends were holed up inside their houses as well. Loneliness like Travis Bickle has “followed me my whole life, everywhere”, I am lucky I guess that I have not turned into a homicidal sociopath yet. Maybe because every time I think of being lonely, I think of another victim, ‘Eleanor Rigby’, perhaps the most fitting song ever written on loneliness. The song tells the story of the titular character who used to “Picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been” and who “Died in the church and was buried along with her name/Nobody came”. This was probably the most delicate piece of music that I have somehow come to listen to in all my life, as it touches upon my greatest insecurity: loneliness. The fear of loneliness, the fear of having “No One” grapples the mind. The famous hook of the song where the chorus shouts, ‘Ah! Look at all the lonely people’ makes you question whether you are one of “them” or not and the very next line, “Where do they all come from?” makes you look for the answer. It’s only the solitary bubbles of our minds from where these “lonely people” come from and we cannot escape from them. So, when later the song asks, “Where do they all belong?”, you tell yourself that the only destination is in our hearts. It’s only the warmth and constancy of a loving heart that can save an Eleanor Rigby.
Well, the loneliness peaks here and I would stand in front of the window on some drab evenings thinking about the possibilities of me becoming an Eleanor. Only then does the sudden epiphany of a song arrive to salvage my soul. I select ‘Let It Be’ and press ‘Play’ and within minutes I am saved. The recognizable piano riff starts to set its magic as McCartney starts to balm my aching soul with his words: “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me/Speaking words of wisdom, let it be”. The words almost seep inside your skin and try to regenerate you. The troubled heart gets a calming reassurance, the stinging thoughts get a breezy air of relief. It feels like a nourishing mother putting her child to sleep with her warm touch who woke up in the middle of the night terrified after a nightmare. McCartney was probably feeling the same where his drug exploits and the impending breakup of the band was constantly hindering his peace of mind. He wrote the song after he saw his deceased mother in a dream, she was named Mary. He turns to his mother in his hour of need and so do I very frequently for a few warm hugs.
‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ takes me along with its “Newspaper taxis” to show me the “Tangerine trees”, “Marmalade skies”, “Cellophane flowers” and to meet the “Rocking horse people” and “Plasticine Porters”. The LSD induced imagery is probably the best way to escape the damp evenings. “Strawberry Feels Forever” however hits me with a different tone. I always perceive it as a celebration of the “meaningless”. The song proudly declares “Nothing is real”, so when Lennon casually says, “Let me take you down/Cause I’m going to/ Strawberry fields”, you simply want to accompany him. Another suspected LSD infused composition, ‘Strawberry Fields’ stands maybe as a figurative state of mind where you stop squeezing things and events to make meaning out of them and simply let life happen. And that is where I stop letting the desperate mind of mine conflict with the peace of things, the song induces me to just let it go.
But most probably the song that I almost always turn to is ‘Here Comes The Sun’. Composed by Harrison on one fine afternoon in Eric Clapton’s garden, ‘Here Comes The Sun’ is the epitome of optimism. It somehow has managed to convince me to keep my faith in the Sun, to keep my faith in a higher power. The song makes me believe that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Mary Greeley Medical Centre of Iowa plays the opening tune of the song whenever a COVID-19 patient is removed from the ventilator. The trend perhaps started in a hospital in New York which in early March, played ‘Here Comes The Sun’ when it released its first successfully recovered COVID-19 patient. Each time the song reassures us that “it’s alright”, you just want to lift your head up and feel the song calming your nerves. You just want to believe that after a “long cold lonely winter”, the Sun will finally come out now.
As I went through a rollercoaster of feelings and mood swings in the past 6 months, I only had one defence mechanism: music. I would almost always turn on the music, sometimes to raise a wall around me to shield me from my own thoughts and sometimes just to let my guard down for once and feel a little relieved. The Beatles have been a trusted companion all my life, even more so than ever in the lockdown. Because even in the darkest and desolate days, McCartney would silently creep inside my mind telling me “For well you know that it's a fool/ Who plays it cool /By making his world a little colder”.