[One last attempt to properly capstone and wrap-up this silly ol' blog]
Amidst our current vinyl Renaissance, I've noticed that the one Beatles LP you are guaranteed to find in every surviving record shop, in every book-store music section, and on the shelf of every hipster, collector, nostalgist and enthusiast, is Abbey Road. Where once upon a time Sgt. Pepper, Revolver, Rubber Soul, and/or the White Album garnered the lion's share of the attention, now as the years turn to decades and the fame of the Beatles turns from legend to mythology and finally to historical obscurity, it is Abbey Road alone that has become the sine qua non of every record collection. It appears that in our age of streaming and free downloads, if you are actually going to pay money for a Beatles album, Abbey Road is the one. Everybody's one Jazz LP is John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, and everybody's one Beatles LP is Abbey Road.
There are a number of reasons for that staying power: for starters, the songs have aged exceptionally well; it also feels custom-made for a record-player, what with how the driving groove of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" ends only when Side A runs out of space, and with how the "You Only Give Me Your Money" suite closes out Side B; the album is also undeniable cool--it's the supremely self-confident statement of a band at the height of its powers with nothing left to prove; perhaps most importantly, it's the all-too-rare sound of a great band choosing to end on its own terms, to definitively say "The End."
As any Beatles nerd can tell you, while Let It Be was their last album released, Abbey Road was their last album recorded. The Beatles had shelved the Let It Be sessions as the band tore apart at the seams; John and Pauls' massive egos were pushing each other apart, George was sick and tired of only getting 2 songs per album, and Ringo even briefly quit during the White Album sessions amidst the endless verbal abuse from John (who nowadays is less the martyr and more the wife-beating villain in Beatles lore, though Paul weren't no saint, either). Yet though the writing was on the wall, the Beatles also knew that the sloppy and unpolished Let It Be was not how they wanted to go out, nor how they wanted to be everlastingly remembered! Knowing this to be the last breath of the Beatles, these four egomaniacs, against all odds, put aside their differences, rallied together one last time and went out on top!
While nothing lyrically gives away Abbey Road as a swan song, it nevertheless just feels like a grand finale. I still have clear memories of the afternoon of my High School graduation, decked out in my robes and an ever-uncertain future, putting on my Mom's ancient copy of Abbey Road on a record-player older than me, and listening along with all the swelling passion of my soul like only an 18-year-old can--it was the end of my public education, of my childhood, of my youth, everything was ending, and only Abbey Road seemed to understand.
Now, part of every young man's personal growth is to realize that there are other bands than the Beatles; and throughout college, grad school, and adulthood generally, I've had the privilege of hearing a grand diversity of artists who have moved my soul. But here's what I've only lately come to understand--so few of them ever got to end on their own terms, to self-consciously produce their swan song! If acrimony tears apart the band (e.g. The Smiths, The Talking Heads, Dead Kennedys, Oasis, Guns 'n Roses, Rage Against the Machine, etc), they tend to never rally one last time a la the Beatles, to produce a final, definitive statement. Or if they get along great, they tend to keep producing albums weeellll past their relevancy (e.g. The Rolling Stones, U2, Pearl Jam, REM, etc), severely blunting the impact of whatever their final album turns out to be. If sudden death disrupts the band (e.g. Led Zeppelin, The Who, Prince, Nirvana, etc), they rarely if ever realize that their last album was in fact their last album. So few acts ever actually produce a genuine Swan Song!
This point was really driven home for me in 2016, when, 47 years after the release of Abbey Road, we finally got not one, but two bona fide Swan Songs worthy of the name. They even bookended the year: David Bowie's Blackstar came out in early January, just a scarce a few days before his death of cancer, while Leonard Cohen's You Want It Darker came out in October, just a month before his own passing.
What sets apart these two albums is that 1) both artists knew the end was nigh and that this would likely be their last dance, and 2) both artists had actually pulled off the rare feet of returning to relevancy in their twilight years. David Bowie had tapered off recording new material with the new millennium, dropping off the musical radar after 2002...until 2013's The Next Day welcomed him back to the scene with surprising enthusiasm. He discovered that the queer kids considered him a godfather of sorts, the art kids a progenitor, the hip kids a living legend. When Blackstar debuted less than 3 years later, fans were excitedly talking about what a bold new direction this was for him, what a delightful new reinvention in a career replete with them--that is, the discussion was not on his past glories, but of what he was still going to do next! Despite the endless references to death, heaven, resurrection, and saying goodbye that permeate the album, his impending mortality was the last thing on anyone's mind. To the very end, Bowie got to control the narrative, to define himself, to go out on his own terms.
Cohen, likewise, had basically taken the '90s off after a couple decades of critical and commercial success. He returned to touring, in fact, only because his manager (who was apparently a jilted lover, in classic Cohen fashion) embezzled millions of his dollars, and so he needed to recoup his retirement fund. But he didn't just do a simple cash-in tour, but by all accounts created a religious experience for all present. He, too, had achieved living legend status. As You Want It Darker prepped for release, Cohen said in a NYT interview that he was "ready to die." The title track's mix of Jewish funeral calls and chorus of "I'm ready, my Lord," affirmed the inevitable. If he was going out, he was going to go out deliberately, in his own way.
So few other acts get to do that. One of the only other example I've been able to find so far is Fugazi, who, as they pulled apart in different creative directions, made sure that 2001's The Argument finished off the band as principled and uncompromising as they started. The band had accomplished all it had set out to accomplish, and no mere commercial considerations was going to artificially (and monstrously) lengthen its life. Frontman Ian MacKaye, speaking of his own Dischord Records--the indie label that had kept the faith even when they had multi-million dollar offers from the majors-- has described Dischord as a "living thing," and therefore will die one day, like it should. Fugazi, likewise, completed its natural lifespan, and there is something paradoxically life-affirming about that attitude. "Have you made your peace with God?" someone asked Thoreau on his deathbed; "I hadn't realized we had quarreled," he replied, and Fugazi could have responded the same.
I guess I've just become slightly obsessed, lately, with how an artist chooses to end. It just feels more organic, more honest, more alive, to always keep foregrounded in one's own mind how it all ends. There's something liberating about knowing that you're going to end, when you're going to end, in choosing to end, deliberately, on your own terms, to say "I'm ready, my Lord"--to affirm that "Here comes the argument"--to declare "I'm a Blackstar"--to say "In the end, the love you take/is equal to the love you make"--not as a platitude, but a warning.
Ending is how you lay aside the things of this life to pursue those of a better. It's how you move on, progress, grow. It's how I end this silly little blog, once and for all.