The ultimate Beatles collection; and some ducks get their due

By Jayson Jacoby November 20, 2009 11:51 am

I’m something of a Beatles aficionado and so it causes me considerable shame to admit the following:

For a lamentably large number of years I believed the group’s last album was “Let it Be.”

I am not at all consoled by the fact that I recognized this error before I was old enough to drive.

Nor does it lessen my embarrassment that my mistake, besides being a common one among Beatles fans, is not, in a semantic sense, even wrong.

This requires an explanation that is, well, Clintonesque: It depends on what the meaning of “last” is.

“Let it Be” was indeed the last album of new songs The Beatles released for sale.

Except they weren’t the last songs the foursome of Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr actually recorded, which seems to me the most salient fact.

The music that became “Let it Be” was already preserved on tape when the group, in the spring of 1969, went back into the studio to make “Abbey Road.”

The Beatles finished that album later in the year and it arrived in U.S. record stores on Oct. 1.

The four never recorded together again.

The “Let it Be” tapes, meanwhile, languished in Apple Corp.’s vaults until early 1970 when producer Phil Spector — whose famous “wall of sound” sometimes sounded more like a mound of marshmallows  — got ahold of them.

“Let it Be” the album went on sale May 8, 1970, and the passage of nearly four decades has hardly tempered the animosity certain fans harbor for Spector as a result of his malignant machinations.

I happen to think The Beatles themselves deserve some of the blame for “Let it Be” falling short of the standards they set with such masterworks as “Revolver.” Although those standards were of course of an unprecedented height, the collection of songs on “Let it Be” was by my reckoning the group’s weakest since 1964’s “Beatles for Sale.”

Still, like Spector’s most vociferous critics I can never truly forgive the man who managed to make the greatest rock band in history sound disturbingly like The Carpenters at their schmaltziest.

In a just world he’d have been sentenced, just for the infamy of “The Long and Winding Road,” to a lifetime of producing the Bay City Rollers.

In any case I believe that I have finally atoned for my past gaffe about the sequence of The Beatles recording career.

I did so by acquiring this past week the ultimate Beatles collection — the remastered compact disc boxed set that was released, with much fanfare, on Sept. 9.

(I was prepared for this but my wallet, alas, was not.)

I came home this past Saturday afternoon from another elkless elk hunt. My mood brightened immediately when I saw the black box, embossed simply with “The Beatles,” on the kitchen counter.

The set, which my wife, Lisa, ordered from a local music store, includes all 13 of the group’s albums, as well as a two-CD collection of their singles.

Consequently I devoted much of my spare time Sunday to converting most of the songs — there are 217 but I decided I didn’t need every one — into .mp3 format and loading them onto my handheld player.

(It is not an iPod, but a much cheaper knockoff. I intend no offense to Apple.)

This was a laborious task but one tinged, rather pleasantly, with nostalgia.

Although I became acquainted with The Beatles’ music as a child, I belong to a different generation.

Our paths, quite literally, never crossed: The group disbanded in 1970, the year I was born — about six months before, in fact.

My parents introduced me to The Beatles.

Both are fans. My dad seemed to me to know more about the group but my mom held the trump card: She saw The Beatles in concert, on Aug. 22, 1965, at the Memorial Coliseum in Portland.

She remembers that a lot of girls swooned. She remembers little about the music, probably because nobody who attended a Beatles concert — including John, Paul, George and Ringo — could actually hear the music since the girls, at least until they swooned, screamed at a combined volume that the comparatively primitive sound systems were helpless to compete with.

My mom, however, even as a teenager was not prone to histrionics, and she remained conscious throughout the performance.

So anyway I grew up listening to The Beatles on vinyl LPs at home and on cassette tapes, which my dad recorded from the albums, in our cars.

I remember quite vividly driving to the Coast for a weekend vacation and laughing with my brother as “It Won’t Be Long” blared from the speakers just before we got our first magical sight of the gray Pacific.

My dad owned most of The Beatles’ albums but, in what seems to me now a curious omission, none later than “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

I’ve never asked him about this but now, having written about it, I suppose I must.

My parents had a lot of other rock-and-roll records, from popular groups such the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and the Fifth Dimenson. But I always liked The Beatles best.

Hundreds of writers with vastly more talent and eloquence than I possess have tried, with varying degrees of success, to explain what made The Beatles unique.

But the person who came nearest to the heart of the thing is not a writer but another pop star: Elton John.

At least I think it was he who said (and this might not be verbatim but it’s close) The Beatles were “the most musical group I ever heard.”

This might seem an odd compliment, to credit a group that plays music for being musical.

But I think I know what Elton meant.

He meant that no other group so perfectly melded the sounds of guitars and drums and bass and human voices and the myriad other instruments that graced Beatles songs.

It’s a kind of magic, really.

Some writers have tried to legitimize The Beatles to those classical purists who deride the group’s work as mere pop fluff, dandelion seeds compared to the sequoias penned by Mozart and Bach.

But I think these writers’ attempts, though understandable, are ineffective, and even a little silly.

Even the most earnest and reasoned effort to justify The Beatles in that way, to test their achievements against the rigid science of musical theory, seems to me to degrade their feats as artists, which is after all what they were.

Famously, none of The Beatles could read music that was plotted, note by note, on a scale.

This is the epitome of irrelevance.

That Lennon and McCartney were perhaps unable to tell a treble clef from a bass clef did not impede them from writing “A Day in the Life.”

Their ignorance certainly doesn’t diminish the brilliance of what they created.

If you are nonetheless still bothered by the seemingly significant gap between The Beatles technical skill and their musical accomplishments, I suggest this.

Listen to “Rubber Soul” all the way through, with no pause.

I’ll even lend you my copy.

You’ll understand what Sir Elton was getting at.

And, perhaps, why I was so excited to see that black box sitting on the counter.

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The ducks deserved the signs.

Even a beaver, I suspect, would concede as much.

The ducks in question comprise a motley flock, of rather jumbled ancestry, that lives along the Settlers Slough irrigation ditch, out west of the railroad tracks.

I live in the neighborhood, too. And seeing as how I’m an alumnus of the University of Oregon and thus a duck myself, I consider it a happy coincidence that the real ducks and I share an affinity for a particular part of Baker City.

Unhappily, the ducks frequently cross Auburn Avenue — it seems they dislike going underneath the street by way of the culvert — and their waddling gait is not conducive to safe passage on a section of street where a minority of drivers complies with the 25 mph limit.

Several times I’ve come across the pathetic scene of duck feathers strewn about the gravel shoulder, occasionally accompanied by the flattened carcass.

I’ve not complained to anybody about the carnage but apparently some of my neighbors have.

For this I thank them.

They asked city officials about putting in duck crossing signs, the sort of precaution usually reserved for rather larger fauna, such as deer, which are capable of inflicting grievous and expensive wounds on cars.

A duck is by comparison a diminutive and flimsy obstacle, and unlikely to leave so much as a scratch on the bumper that kills it.

Yet the city’s public works department, to its credit, procured posts and signs.

A volunteer youth group from the Blue Mountain Baptist Church dug holes and poured concrete footings last weekend.

The city installed the signs on Monday. There’s one on each side of Auburn.

The signs, which depict an adult duck with a couple of ducklings in tow, add a whimsical touch to my twice-daily (at least) trips between home and office.

Probably they’ll save ducks, too.

More importantly to me, though, the signs might prompt some westbound drivers to ease up on the gas pedal as they near 15th Street.

That’s where my house stands, and there is a little girl on the premises who goes quite often across Auburn to visit her grandma and papa.

Some day she’ll be old enough to make the trip without an adult holding her soft tiny hand.

I hope the duck signs are still standing then.

Olivia might not grow up to be a Duck like her dad.

But we’ve gotten pretty attached to her.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.