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Living is easy (with eyes closed)

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V.

It was freezing cold, the worst January for a long while, Maureen thought, huddling on the bench. If there was anywhere you wouldn’t want to be on such a day, it was on a bloody rooftop where only the chimneys sheltered you from the wind. For a moment, she regretted she’d come. But Richie had asked her to, and he had said it might be the last time for a while, so there really wasn’t any question.

She wasn’t alone on the bench; there was the blond new girl, Chris, Ken Mansfield from Apple Records in his white trench coat, and Yoko, who sat down next to Maureen with a quick smile but didn’t say anything. Maureen kept silent as well. If things were different, she might have asked Yoko whether she’d give her an hour for a coiffure and makeover, because Yoko’s hair made the former hairdresser in Maureen itch, so rich and long that you just knew you could do anything with it. But things weren’t different, and Yoko was the woman who had replaced her former best friend. Maureen tried not to think about Cynthia if she could avoid it, because thinking about Cyn meant thinking about her own cowardice. Richie had been very clear on the subject, though. John had said nobody was to talk to Cyn again if they were to remain friends with him, and when all was said and done, the truth was that Richie needed John if he didn’t want to play cover versions of country songs for the rest of his life. So Maureen hadn’t called Cyn, hadn’t visited, either; it was rotten, she knew, and keeping up the silence towards Yoko as well was her way of feeling less of a traitor.

The film crew was ready, and Maureen wished she’d made Richie wear the fingerless gloves she’d bought him. Because they were in the center of the roof, there were no chimneys to protect any of the band from the icy wind. George and John at least had the sense to wear fur coats, but John’s nose was red anyway. Paul looked like he was invited for dinner somewhere, wearing just a black jacket over his white shirt. Bloody insane, Maureen thought, but then Richie had said Paul had been weirder and weirder these last few weeks. A part of her had wanted to ask him: As opposed to whom?

Then they started to play, and she forgot all about the way her life was starting to resemble one long drug trip. She had been a fan once, the only one of the wives who had, screaming her head off in the Cavern, waiting outside for a glimpse at the band. John’s and Paul’s voices coiled around each other, George’s guitar tore into the cold January air, and she could see Richie’s beautiful blue eyes free of the misery that had taken residence there the whole last rotten year, full of life and joy instead. For a moment, she was sixteen again, listening to the most amazing sound, and filled with the knowledge it would go on forever. Her cheering voice mingled with theirs, and she knew she wouldn’t have missed this for the world.

IV.

Contrary to what his charges seemed to think, George Martin didn’t consider himself deaf, blind, or without a sense of smell. He knew they were taking drugs. He also knew they were professional enough not to do anything more serious than a quick joint in the recording studio, so he never said anything. Now that they didn’t tour anymore, now that there wasn’t a tight schedule of interviews and concerts to attend to, they could remain in the studio however long they wanted, and while George was delighted by how that seemed to fire everyone’s willingness to experiment so far, he had to admit it also meant the whiff of marijuana could be smelled more often. So far, it did not interfere with the work being done, on the contrary.

Consequently, when John announced he wasn’t feeling so well in the middle of recording, George didn’t suspect anything more than a hangover, or at most some schoolboyish urge to smoke some hash, and decided to cut things short by offering to take John up on the roof for some fresh air. If it was a hangover, it would help; if he simply wanted a joint, well, George would leave him alone for a discreet five minutes or ten. He was in a mood to be indulgent. John could be lazy, but these last weeks he had delivered a masterpiece already with Strawberry Fields and the song he and Paul were still working on, A Day in the Life, promised to be another.

“Look at that, Henry,” John said in an uncharacteristic meek voice, staring at the ceiling while they made their way upstairs, “look at that.”

Henry was George Martin’s middle name, but nobody used it other than very occasionally the boys, if he and George Harrison were involved in the same conversation, so he said wriley: “We left George in the studio, John.”

“Left Paul, too,” John said. “Left him behind because he doesn’t want to go there. What’s he so fucking scared of, Henry?”

George had not the slightest idea what John was talking about. Given Paul had just spent several days working out the mellotron part for John’s Strawberry Fields, it couldn’t be a complaint about lacking musical attention. But the mixture of competition and collaboration between them was such a finely spun web that it was bound to deliver some confusing strands sometimes.

Fortunately John didn’t seem to expect an answer. He just looked miserable and white faced. Yes, fresh air would do him good. “Take your time,” George said gently once they had reached the roof, and withdrew. When he returned to the control room, he saw Paul and George Harrison were clowning around, until Paul spotted him, stopped and asked where John was. Being told that John was still on the roof had a most remarkable result on Paul and George both. They did the most perfectly executed double take George had seen since the last Christmas pantomine and raced towards the stairs. It was then that it dawned on him he had dreadfully misjudged the situation. His young engineer, Geoff Emerick, looked at him white faced and murmured something of John being on LSD, surely.

Baring anything connected to the war, this was the worst moment in George Martin’s life. He didn’t know much about LSD, but enough to realize John could have walked off that roof in perfect certainty the air would carry him. He plunged in his seat and buried his face in his hands. When he heard steps, he looked up. George Harrison had returned to the studio.

George Martin got on the talkback again. “Is John...”

“He’s fine,” George Harrison said shortly. “Paul said he’ll take him home.”

He didn’t sound too happy about it, or maybe he was justifiably distressed at how nearly this could have led to disaster. The relief in George Martin mingled with a dawning irritation. John should have known better than to use such a drug here. He probably should make it clear to all the boys that there was a line to be drawn, and LSD in the studio was definitely on the other side of it, even if the producer felt deeply embarassed at not having realized the truth of John’s state on his own.

The next day, John showed up at Abbey Road Studios alert, eyes sparkling, and wit in fine form. He sauntered in around noon, which was early for him, and bore George Martin’s admonishment without a sulk. When George finished with a “do I take it that there will be no more lysergic expeditions in here?”, John saluted him, said “Aye Aye, Mr. Martin, Sir” with a grin and added: “No need, is there?”, which confused George for a second until he realised the last remark had not been addressed to him but to Paul, who had been sitting at the piano while George delivered his lecture, idely tinkering. Come to think of it, Paul, who had started every other day of the current sessions coming in blazing with new ideas and instructions, had been uncharacteristically quiet today, but now he looked up with a quick smile.

“Getting better all the time,” he replied.

“Couldn’t get much worse,” John returned, but he, too, was smiling.

III.

People kept calling Ringo the luckiest guy on earth, and generally he agreed with them, at least for the present. As far as compensation for years in the hospital and a deadbeat father were concerned, being part of the world’s most popular group was pretty classy. It was the group part which truly did it for him, though; the money, the girls, the fame, that was great, but he’d been a single child all his life and never had a big brother to impress the other children in the Dingle with. Three younger ones were a treat. He’d liked them in Hamburg when they were just the upstarts from home in new leather gear, and since they hired him just before the world went turned upside down, he’d come to love them. Sometimes he thought they were the only reality left in a universe that had gone insane.

Didn’t mean he wanted to die with them, though. When the American airplane carrying them and a couple of journalists started to shake and spew black smoke, it was impossible not to think of Buddy Holly. The superstitious part in him thought, well, you should have known there’d be a price to pay. Nobody gets all their wishes fulfilled without paying. A bloody plane crash and an early death, how’s that for immortality?

By now, everyone, including the journalists, was aware of the black smoke, and John started to freak out. He went to the emergency door and tried to open it. “Shit, man stop that, we’re at eight thousand feet!” Ringo yelled and jumped up, his voice higher than he had ever heard it. George muttered something that sounded like no, no, no, and two of the journalists managed to drag John away from the emergency exit, but the plane was still shaking.

“Bloody hell, Lennon, come here and sit down,” Paul hissed. He’d stayed in his seat, and if you didn’t pay attention to his knuckles which were white from the way he gripped the arm chairs, you could believe he didn’t have a care in the world because he wasn’t even sitting up straight. Ringo expected John to shout back, but instead John actually listened, sat down next to Paul, and glared at him in silence. There was something so familiar in the way they kept staring at each other while John's panicked breaths grew regular and steady again that it quieted Ringo as well. He refused to believe they could die while John and Paul were in the middle of yet another staring contest. Fate surely knew better than to interrupted those, not when they usually produced hits, Lennon witticisms and McCartney sharing the weed with very patient bandmates, Ringo thought, patted George on the back, and got out his cigarettes. His hand was only slightly shaking.

II.

Brian had always liked and respected George Martin, with his unfailing politeness, dignified demeanour and wry sense of humour. He even envied him a little, because the boys accepted him simultanously as someone in authority and someone belonging in a way that Brian was afraid they didn’t with him.

So it surprised him when George Martin, of all the people, made such a stupid of shortsighted suggestion as to release Yesterday as a Paul McCartney solo single. If there was anyone who should have known better than to even think of such an idea, it was George Martin.

“No,” Brian said immediately.

The producer blinked and looked surprised. “It is a solo effort,” he pointed out. “We tried different arrangements, but the fact of the matter is, Brian, that there are no other Beatles on this record. And you know none of them contributed anything to the composition. Paul wrote the song, and I suggested the string arrangement.”

Maybe this was why George Martin made such a misjudgment, Brian thought. He treated John and Paul both equally in praise and critique, but even for Brian, who rarely visited the studio because he knew the boys preferred it that way, it was hard to miss that the producer spent more time with Paul, or that they could chat away about music John was at best indifferent towards. Yesterday had been a more intense collaboration between Paul and George Martin than any of the previous songs the Beatles had recorded, which had resulted in something destined to become a classic, Brian was sure of it, and it was forgivable if George wanted to celebrate that fact by releasing it in a manner that pointed out who the two people responsible for this success were. But that was not the point here.

“We’re not splitting up the group,” Brian said. “Under any circumstances. A solo release would be the first step towards a split.”

“Brian,” George Martin said in a soothing manner, “I very much doubt Paul would see this as his first step towards a solo career. He loves the group. I don’t think you’ll ever have to worry that...”

“I don’t,” Brian cut him off, feeling his temper rise because it still baffled him that George was overlooking the glaringly obvious. “But John would. John already does. He’s worried about that song.”

The producer fell silent for a while. It wasn’t that John had said anything to Brian. He didn’t need to. In the last four years, Brian had learned the art of decyphering John Lennon in the way archaelogists learned how to put long broken shards together to make a whole, bit by sharp and painful bit, and he considered himself a master of the art now. He knew what that song was doing to John. Because Paul had written it on his own. Because it was good, so good even people who hated the Beatles and disdained anything to do with rock’n roll would love it, and because it meant Paul could work on his own whenever he wanted. Brian, who lived to be needed, know what it felt like to be afraid of superfluousness, and he would to anything to spare John that feeling.

“It’s a great song, Brian,” George Martin said, but his voice sounded resigned, and Brian knew he had won his argument. There would be no more talk of solo endeavours, and certainly not to the boys.

“Yes. But it won’t be a McCartney record. In fact, it won’t even be a single. We’ll bury it on the next album. For the good of the group.”

The claim stood between them, sound and solid, except that George Martin raised an eyebrow, and suddenly Brian was afraid the producer would reply not with an objection but with a question. The good of the group or John’s good? So he tried to refute the charge before it was made.

“The group,” he explained, “will only continue for as long as John and Paul are in balance, George. And if there are sacrifices to keep it this way, well, they’ll have to be made. Believe me”, he added before he could stop himself, “I know.”

I.

Maybe Paignton had the most gorgeous beach imaginable in daylight, but in the night it was still too bloody cold and damp, George thought. But that was part of the adventure, and so he didn’t mind too much. He and Paul had hitchhiked here from Liverpool on their own, just the two of them, and now they were completely out of funds, so a B & B was out of the question, but the beach was free. And it was still August, so that was alright. It was a good summer, it was. Paul even had managed to join a band, and he’d said he’d introduce George to the leader; he’d promised. When they were back in Liverpool.

“Do you think Elvis has his own beach?” George asked, looking up to the stars. They had improvised a bed on the ground with their cloaks, and then there was the stove they carried around, just a little tin with a lid which they carried in their backpacks, switching it between them every day. It didn’t spend much warmth, but it was good enough for heating up the spaghetti milanese tins they’d been living off these last days. George would have skipped today’s spaghetti, but Paul made him eat it all up; for some reason, Paul was always shoving food at him. He was worse than George’s mother that way sometimes.

“You bet he has,” Paul said, not sounding sleepy at all. There had been no room for guitars in their backpacks, but Paul was drumming some song on the empty spaghetti tins, smashing them together while lying on his back. George would have told him to cut it out, except it was so damned catchy. He tried to remember where he’d heard it before, and decided he hadn’t.

“What’s that?”

“Me and John wrote a song,” Paul said, and George, who had known Paul for two years now and knew every way Paul could pitch his voice, didn’t believe the studied casualness of Paul’s tone for a moment. The moment Paul said it, George knew Paul had been waiting to say it for the entire trip. Which was weird. Because George knew Paul had written a song already, before he ever met the fabled John Lennon. They’d even played it together. And surely writing on your own was more special than writing with someone else.

This one was better, though. Even on tin cans, it was better. George didn’t know why that irritated him just the tiniest bit, so he just said: “Yeah?”

“Yeah”, Paul said, and finished with a flourish. You just knew he was waiting to be asked for another, and George contemplated not doing so and sleeping instead, because he really was tired, but if Paul wasn’t yet, he would just twist and turn and hog all the cover. If you wore him out first, he was a great source of warmth, though. Maybe because he was chubby, and maybe because he had no problem huddling together, unlike George’s older brother who kicked in his sleep. So George gave in.

“Just one?”

“Not a chance,” Paul said, and continued his tin can concert while George watched the stars and found himself humming along.