“My brother’s back at home with his Beatles and his Stones
We never got it off on that revolution stuff”
– Bowie, “All The Young Dudes” (1972)
“We will never be rid of these stars
But I hope they live forever”
– Bowie, “The Stars Are Out Tonight” (2013)
Days after The Rolling Stones released their first studio album in about a generation, Hackney Diamonds, the Beatles have released their “last” song, “Now and Then.” This isn’t a long lost recording, but an actual new song. How can this be and what does it mean?
The short explanation of how it can be is that director Peter Jackson worked with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr to complete a song John Lennon had been working on years ago, and George Harrison had contributed to at some point along the way. There’s plenty written about this already so there’s no need to expand more on the song’s origin here.
Many of the biggest acts from the 60s are still making music today, but this song and the Stones’ album seem like a last gasp of a sorts. I suppose I should mention that I think Hackney Diamonds is fantastic and I also like this song. It’s better in this world than not. And hopefully the Stones and Paul and Ringo and Bob Dylan and Diana Ross and Eric Clapton keep making music. But time is running out.
Or maybe not. “Now and Then” is as much a product of technology as anything. This is even more true of the Jackson-directed video, which not only brings John and George back to life, but so too younger versions of Paul and Ringo. At the song’s core is real music, actually made by the real Beatles, but it also reminds us of what’s possible today.
AI, deep fakes, CGI, holographic concerts all exist today. If someone wanted a pretty good idea of what it would be like to see Elvis perform the Brittany Spears songbook, that can be done today. I’m pretty sure something like that will be available on demand, on our phones soon enough.
But that wouldn’t actually be Elvis. So the question is, is “Now and Then” actually the Beatles? The Ship of Theseus paradox comes to mind. That’s the idea of considering at what point something loses its essential identity as its component pieces are replaced. Mick Jagger and Kieth Richards are the only two remaining original Rolling Stones (Ronnie Wood joined in 1975), yet Hackney Diamonds is undoubtedly a Rolling Stones album. On the other hand, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones decided that they could never be Led Zeppelin after John Bonham died. So is “Now and Then” a Beatles song?
Last year I saw Paul McCartney in concert singing ”I’ve Got A Feeling” with a video of John Lennon (also put together by Peter Jackson). It was emotional to experience. But Paul wasn’t the first- think about how Natalie Cole sang “Unforgettable” with a recording of her father, Nat King Cole. Though they recorded their parts years apart, yeah, that was a duet. And so sure, “Now and Then” is a Beatles song.
So is the Abba Voyage show an Abba concert? The real band had a hand in creating the holographic show, even if the real band isn’t actually there for the audience. But I don’t think it counts as a real concert. It seems cool. But it seems like something closer to a concert movie than a concert. Surely an AI Bowie song isn’t actually a Bowie song.
Much as Bowie admired Mick Jagger, so too did he admire John Lennon. He recorded three Lennon covers (well two, plus “Across the Universe”). Lennon collaborated on “Fame.” Bowie also covered George Harrison’s “Try Some Buy Some.” Despite his dismissal of the Beatles and the Stones as old hat in “All the Young Dudes” it seems he really did get it off on that revolution stuff. Since he resurrected old songs in the form of covers, and recycled fragments of his own older songs by working them into new songs, I have to think Bowie would approve of “Now and Then.”
At the same time, I think Bowie was expressing mixed feelings about this kind of thing, doubtlessly being self-reflective, in “The Stars Are Out Tonight.” He seemed to express resignation that “we will never be rid of these stars” but he was being simultaneously earnest and ironic when he followed that line with, “but I hope they live forever” (we can discuss the change from “we” to “I” some other time). Bowie had a lot going on in “The Stars Are Out Tonight” including the most intentional toggling of the meaning of “star” since the Ziggy Stardust album. The celebrities in the song are vampiric. They are condemned to eternal life, jealously watching us while eliciting our fascination by burning us with radiant smiles and trapping us with beautiful eyes. The stars of Bowie’s song are ultimately unhappy, as are all immortals in Bowie songs. Think about the sad narrator of “Cat People (Putting Out The Fire)” (1982) who can stare for a thousand years but considers his heartbeat to be a plague. Or the supermen of “The Supermen” (1970) with “endless tragic lives.”
Bowie celebrated impermanence and despised lingering too long, trying to recreate yesterday’s success. I recently finished Adam Steiner’s book, Silhouettes and Shadows, about Scary Monsters, in which Bowie is quoted expressing this sentiment in different ways. At one point, he reflected on his self-disgust at what he had become in the 1980s, “It was very hard for people to see me as anything other than the person in the suit who did ‘Let’s Dance,’and it was driving me mad— because it took all my passion and experimenting away.” At other times, I heard Bowie say something similar about being known as Ziggy. Elsewhere in Steiner’s book, Bowie was quoted discussing having reached a state of happiness in 1980, “holding on to nothing, no one; [being] continually in flux.”
Paul and Ringo certainly seem to be holding on to something, and not just with this song. They both enthusiastically participated in Peter Jackson’s fascinating documentary about the making of Let It Be. They both perform many Beatles songs in their concerts. I recently heard an interview with Ringo who, while acknowledging that he’s done much more with his life beyond the few years he was part of the Beatles, that people wanted to talk to him about the Beatles and he was happy to oblige. Its not that either Paul or Ringo ever stopped making new art, but especially in recent years they also seem to accept a sense of obligation to give people an opportunity to hear them sing Beatles songs. Though Bowie expressed appreciation for his fans, he always seemed to want to earn respect anew and not rest on his past successes.
So in that respect, Bowie might have written off “Now and Then.”
Do I? Not quite. I think Paul and Ringo have earned the right to appeal to our nostalgia. Actually, I was all of one year old when the Beatles broke up, so the ability to actually hear Paul and Ringo sing Beatles songs in concert has been as close to time travel as I’ve experienced. I’m very grateful for them to have provided me with the opportunity. Part of my weekly posting of a new Bowie cover of the week is to express one way that Bowie’s music lives on, but Bowie has ceased to live and there will be no truly new Bowie song. Since, at essence, I like the sound of David Bowie, I’m going to allow myself to like the yet-to-be created “new” Bowie song that AI will eventually get right. But a new Beatles song that Paul and Ringo created from scraps produced earlier by John and George is better. Gimmicky? Yes. Nostalgic? Sure. But I’m going to come down on this being a special thing. And hope, somehow, that it’s not the last Beatles song.