Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Tomorrow Never Knows -- Mad Men

Anyone who saw the May 6th 2011, episode of Mad Men, well, it was worth the 18-month wait between seasons.  It is hard to top an episode that features Cool Whip, Sylvia Plath and the Beatles, as major elements of the episode's meaning.

At the same time that the 60's were giving us, perhaps, the worst food product of all time, soon to be followed by Tang--do they even sell Tang anymore?-- the Ad Agency on Mad Men is looking for Beatle-y sounding songs to use for product placement.  Although, it is a bit unfair, given what the Beatles had done with Norwegian Wood and Nowhere Man on Rubber Soul, it is somewhat understandable.  Don was looking for a song like I'm into Something Good, by Herman's Hermits.

The end of the episode shows Don turning on his huge wooden console record player and putting on the Beatles' latest, Revolver,  and placing the stylus on its final track, Tomorrow Never Knows.  Apparently, the producers of the show dropped $250,000 just to excerpt a portion of the song, but to what amazing effect.

If it wasn't already clear by the episode's open references to homosexuality and marijuana use, it is crystal clear that the Fifties were finally over and the Sixties were beginning, at the end of 1966, when Don drops the needle. 

Revolver was clearly something else.  The first half of the album starts not with an ode to love, but rather with a song bashing excessive taxation, followed by a dirge about the church and social isolation and then followed by a true Indian dirge, ending with the utterly brilliant and bizarre, She Said, She Said, whose refrain echoed over and over,  "She Said, She Said, I know what it's like to be dead."

This is pop music?  I wonder how much Cool Whip that lyric would have sold?

The Beatles were just getting started.  Mingled with a couple of songs more in their traditional sound, Side Two had songs about pill-pushing doctors for hire, a song about McCartney's initial fear and ultimate adoration of marijuana and ended with Tomorrow Never Knows, which may have been John Lennon's (and producer George Martin's) greatest triumph. 

Combined with backward tape loops and thunderous drums that represent the purported underlying meaning of the song, Tomorrow Never Knows is both somehow scary and unsettling, and soothing all at once.  Like its close sibling Rain,  recorded during the same sessions, it is seldom, if ever, played on the radio. Lennon's voice has an unworldly timbre to it, surrounded by a brilliant  kaleidoscopic assault of sound.

 The lyrics, influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, seem to be deliberately ambiguous as sung in several places, which only adds to their power.  Is Lennon saying, "It is not leaving," or rather is he telling us, "It is not living"--or is it both?

 "And ignorance and hate mourn the dead" seems to vary between an expression of ignorance and hate as entities and as something inside everyone.

In the final line, "So (all) play the game of existence to the end," is he exhorting us to actually play said game of existence to the end, or is he merely being descriptive of the fact that we shall do so regardless?

Except for Herman Hess's Siddartha, there isn't much in popular literature or music that I have yet encountered to compare to the impact of Tomorrow Never Knows in terms of a succinct expression of a philosophy of living:

Tomorrow Never Knows
Lennon and McCartney

Turn off your mind, relax, and float down stream
It is not dying, it is not dying
Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void
It is shining, it is shining
Yet you may see the meaning of within
It is being, it is being
Love is all and love is everything
It is knowing, it is knowing
And ignorance and hate mourn the dead
It is believing, it is believing
But listen to the color of your dreams
It is not leaving, it is not leaving
So play the game “Existence” to the end
Of the beginning, of the beginning

A pop album that begins with a song about taxes, that has no obvious hits, and that ends both Side One and Side Two with songs about death.  That doesn't sound like a best seller to me, but I am no mad man.