I recently read a book by Kenneth Womack about the events in the last year of John Lennon’s life (1980). It’s an interesting book and doesn’t dwell on the terrible events of December 8th but rather everything in the twelve months that came before. I was looking to see what other books Kenneth Womack has written and there’s a book called “Long And Winding Roads” which claims to be about “The Evolving Artistry Of The Beatles”. I gratefully received this at Christmas. I haven’t read it yet but I opened it at random yesterday and cam across a fascinating paragraph on the nature of nostalgia.
I guess that there’s a pretty high percentage of the writing I’ve done over the past nine months that is centred on nostalgia. When I write about Andy and me playing table tennis for an afternoon in Wadhurst listening to “Never Comes The Day”, my memories are wrapped up in an envelope of nostalgia. What is nostalgia anyway?
I opened the book at page 105 and straight away I was drawn to the statement by Kenneth Womack that the core narratives for John Lennon’s and Paul McCartney’s writing were a) love and b) nostalgia and the past. At first, I thought that’s a bit simplistic but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to be true. “Cry Baby Cry” is a song about childhood as is “Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite”. Even “There’s A Place” on “Please Please Me” is nostalgic about a place where they can retreat to where everything is safe. There’s a whole book to be written about whether all The Beatles’ songs concern either love or nostalgia. Maybe this is that book? I don’t know yet, I’ve only read one page.
Kenneth Womack subsequently goes on to discuss the meaning of nostalgia and he quotes someone called Kimberley K. Smith, who is a political science professor at a private college in Minnesota. An important component in the understanding of nostalgia is the transition that the human race has made from a largely agrarian society to a more industrialised one. When our ancestors were involved in land cultivation, there was very little change in their day to day existence over the course of their lives. While the seasons would provide change, one winter was very much like another. However, as the pace of change increased, our feelings about the uncertainty of the ever changing present would be in direct contrast to our fixed memories of the past. The word nostalgia is formed from two Greek words, νόστος (nóstos), meaning “homecoming”, and ἄλγος (álgos), meaning “ache”, thus implying that the whole word describes an aching for home. It was first used by a 17th century medic to describe the feelings of Swiss mercenaries who were fighting away from their homes. Whereas, nostalgia was originally thought to be a debilitating condition, current thinking is that, in moderation, a certain amount of nostalgia is good for mental health. A nostalgic reflection about an “archetypal paradise” (as Smith describes it), can recreate positive emotions from the past even if the nostalgia is triggered by a negative feeling. So, when I rail against not being able to down several pints of Harvey’s before and after watching Brighton lose to Arsenal (as I used to do in the “good old days”), thinking about the experiences can improve my mood. Although, at this precise moment, I am still angry about Dan Burn over committing himself to a tackle which led to Arsenal’s only goal last night, I think that this blog, which has on occasions been very nostalgic, has certainly helped me cope with the cancellation of all the activities I was looking forward to in 2020.
There’s nothing more nostalgic for me than listening to “In Search Of The Lost Chord” by The Moody Blues. This is the fourth and last album by the Birmingham group that I shall write about and I have many warm and comforting memories about listening to this album. The vinyl copy that I used to have (and mistakenly sold when I abandoned them for The Eagles in 1972) had a fold out cover and the right hand part had a “Yantra”. The text accompanying the Yantra said that “The Yantra is something that can hold the mind to a form much as in the less organised way one can see pictures in the golden embers of a fire or cloud. The mind, contemplating that form and including all of the designs it contains may easily pass along to the integral concept.” I spent hours in my bedroom in Tunbridge wells staring at the Yantra, listening to “Om”, the final track, waiting to pass on to the integral concept while, all the time, the integration constant kept intruding into my thoughts.
The album starts with “Departure” which leads into “Ride My See Saw”. The first of these is a Graeme Edge poem which definitely defines the word my Dad introduced to me when I made him listen to this album: pretentious. I love it and I love how the increasing pitch of the background noise leads into a proper rock song, written by John Lodge, with a great electric guitar solo from Justin Hayward. Great harmonies, a good chorus and exciting guitar work. Fantastic. Here’s a thrilling performance that I’d never seen before until a couple of minutes ago. In my memory, I was probably too cool to watch The Tom Jones Show in 1969. In reality, I was probably doing my Maths homework.
“Legend Of A Mind” was written by Ray Thomas and on the song he sings “Timothy Leary’s dead” to which the rest of the band reply “No, no, no, he’s outside looking in”. Ray Thomas said “I’d heard about Timothy Leary and the Haight-Ashbury scene, so I wrote these tongue-in-cheek lyrics. I mean, I saw the astral plane as a gayly-painted biplane where you paid a couple of bucks and they took you for a trip around the bay! When I met Timothy Leary, he knew that. he thought it was a hoot! It really appealed to his sense of humour.” In my nostalgic haze, I remember not knowing who Timothy Leary was when I first heard this song. Later, when I read about “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out”, I was quite worried that he had died (which he didn’t until 1996). The mellotron and flute on this track are wonderful.
Ray Thomas also wrote “Dr. Livingstone, I Presume”. I didn’t really like Ray Thomas, mainly because he sometimes wore a bow tie and he didn’t play an instrument which meant he danced rather unfashionably. I always dismissed this song but, hearing it again more than forty years later, I can see it was really rather clever. In each of the three verses, a stranger meets Dr Livingstone (using the phrase of Henry Morton Stanley, when encountering the explorer after he had been missing for six years), Christopher Columbus and Captain Scott. Each time, the explorer describes what he has found but ends up by saying that he has still not found what he was looking for. The chorus is “we’re all looking for someone” which fits nicely into the concept of the album which is about seeking truth – obviously in 1968, this meant the truth within oneself rather than any materialistic gain. As Joni Mitchell said, giving peace a chance was just a dream some of us had. John Lennon claimed that we might say he’s a dreamer but he’s not the only one. My nostalgic journey through the past yearns for the times when we were all engaged on a mission to improve ourselves through reflection and ultimately finding that lost chord. However, it seems that the title of the album was inspired by an American comedian called Jimmy Durante who had a song called “I’m The Guy That Found The Lost Chord”.
“House Of Four Doors” is split into two, separated by “Legend Of A Mind”. The song includes the sound of four doors creaking open to reveal a different musical genre inside. The four doors are supposed to conceal four different musical ages: 1) medieval (folk/flute), 2) baroque/classical (harpsichord), 3) romantic (possibly a variation of Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto no. 1), 4) modern era (as the song segues into “Legend of a Mind”).
“Voices In The Sky” is a very pretty Justin Hayward song which reached 27 on the UK Charts. “The Best Way To Travel” is a Mike Pinder song which answers the question implied in the title – the answer is that “thinking” is the best way to travel. There’s a great psychedelic instrumental break with an electronic insect buzzing round the speakers. “Visions Of Paradise” was written jointly by Justin Hayward and Ray Thomas and they dominate this blissed out gentle song with acoustic guitar, vocals and flute. Justin Hayward said that the song was written in a broom cupboard which they used to escape the intensity of Mike Pinder’s tinkering with a mellotron.
In my nostalgic memories of listening to the album, I always rather dismissed “The Actor” but after Peter told me that it was one of his favourite songs on the album, I gave it a fresh listen (forty years later). It’s raining outside and the singer is ruminating on his place in the grand scheme of things. His relationship has ended and he has lost the will to do anything. Meanwhile she is gazing from her window in another part of town feeling the same way. They both feel the loss, neither blames each other, they know they had something special but it’s over. It’s a beautiful song, Ray Thomas’ flute is haunting, Justin Hayward’s voice is deeply emotional and the sentiments are gloriously sad.
Kenneth Womack wrote “there is little question that music enjoys a powerful capacity for eliciting a nostalgic response in its audience. When the conditions of the listening experience evoke nostalgic yearnings for the past, music clearly succeeds in exerting a psychological impact upon our emotional states of being.” Listening to this beautiful album again, I am feeling contented, happy and at peace.