During the summer of 1990, I entered the Record Exchange, my hometown indie store, to buy my first Beatles album. Hard to believe that an audiophile like myself didn’t own a single Beatles LP at all. At one time I copied a friend’s parent’s scratched up White Album on to cassette, and I once recorded the second side of Abbey Road off the radio when Akron’s WONE played it in its entirety during one of those late night “album sides” half hours of airtime, but I had never made the commitment of laying down my own cash and purchasing one of their albums. Perhaps because so much of the Fab Four’s material was consigned to the oldies station, I didn’t take an interest. In 1990, I was a wreck, unsure of who I was, unclear of my place in the world, uncertain about my career choice. I was a 20-year-old college student, confused and lost. (Huh, imagine that.)
It was under this mindset that I entered the Record Exchange, aching for a good melody and some intelligent lyrics. Bypassing the CDs and cassettes, I headed straight for the record bins, crammed full of used Beatles albums. Flipping through them, trying to decide on what to buy, I came upon Rubber Soul and its warped photo of John, Paul, George, and Ringo staring up at me with the same expression I felt on the inside. There was no question which record I would be walking out of the store with that afternoon.
In the seclusion of my parents’ basement, sitting on the dingy yellow recliner facing the record player, I settled the needle into the groove and the music began. I sat motionless and was swept over by a wave of emotions rising from the vinyl and coming forth through my stereo speakers. I cursed myself for not finding the music sooner; then I smiled and realized that the music had found me at just the right time.
Taking their cue from the American folk rock scene, the Beatles crafted a masterpiece of melancholy and introspection not only lyrically, but melodically. George Martin’s production is stellar, the instruments are warm, the harmonies pleading (except “Run for Your Life,” which is just bitter) and the craftsmanship exquisite. Rubber Soul comes from a shadowed place in the heart where all men ache for love and companionship. This is the work of artists maturing before your eyes, transitioning from the happy-go-lucky pin up stars of their early career to the thoughtful philosophers they would soon become. While Help! contains signs that the band was tackling deeper subjects, the title track and “Yesterday,” in particular, Â I believe the songs on that record are overshadowed by the silliness of the movie.Â Free of the sheen of movies and Beatlemania, Rubber Soul is a step forward and a sign of things to come.
All summer long I listened to this record, turning to it at the end of the work day, even finding solace playing along with Ringo’s drumming. I had mocked Ringo’s musicianship for years, not realizing that what he did sitting behind the other three performers was let them shine. His playing was appropriate and intricate and exactly what each song needed. In August when I moved back to college, Rubber Soul accompanied me to my new basement dwelling, the downstairs bedroom of the duplex I rented with friends. At night, when the room was cold and I sometimes needed a space heater to keep warm, I would drift off while Rubber Soul played. There is nothing finer than succumbing to sleep while Paul McCartney is singing “Michelle” and that lovely guitar solo takes you into your golden slumbers.
In the years since college, Rubber Soul has been a constant companion, lifting me when I’m down, bringing a smile when in need. But in recent years, I hadn’t given it many listens, especially as I became a slave to my iPod. As with many of my original LPs, I never replaced Rubber Soul with a CD. I’ve heard it and the sound was never quite right; the warmth was missing. Thus, when I heard of these new Beatles remasters, I questioned whether newer digital technology could actually capture the human qualities of Rubber Soul, the qualities I had come to love 19 years ago. When the opportunity was presented to review the remastered Rubber Soul, I did so with excitement, but a hint of trepidation.
This past Sunday morning, while Sophie and Jacob were coloring at the kitchen table, I loaded Rubber Soul on to my iPod and pressed play. As the music blared throughout the kitchen, the quality of the remastered album popped out at me the instant Ringo does his first snare fill in “Drive My Car.” Â The vocals, the guitar, and mostly the fullness of the bass are magnificent. However it’s the second song, “Norwegian Wood,” in which you can really tell that there is magic here. You can feel the guitar strings plucking; the sitar strings, when they vibrate, slip into your soul. It’s no wonder George loved the instrument so much; the spiritualness of it comes through with every single note. What can be said about the entire album is that you actually feel as if you’re in the room with the band as the music is being played, it’s that alive. When I first heard Rubber Soul in the early ’90s, I was lured in by the words and the emotions of the Beatles. When I listen to it now, I am marveled at the musicianship and the wonder of their playing. The highlight of side one (I still can’t separate them) is the bass line on “The Word.” Paul takes the Beatles’ early political anthem and gives it such a funky groove that I challenge anyone to listen to it and not end up dancing around their kitchen — as I did Sunday morning, and have done every day since then.
It’s a clichÃ© to say it was like hearing the songs for the first time, but I felt like a layer of film had been lifted from my ears and suddenly I was hearing subtleties I never knew were there: The final note of the guitar solo in “Nowhere Man” that seems to hang in the air; the crisp maracas on “The Word”; The snap of the rim shots in “Michelle”; Lennon’s sucking in of air during “Girl,” a sound I always thought was a brush sliding across the snare drum; Hand clapping during “I’m Looking Through You” that is so vivid you can hear when someone makes a mistake during the bridge; the lovely melody that McCartney plays on the bass during Harrison’s great “If I Needed Someone.” Even “Run for Your Life” has more bite, not just from Lennon, but from all of the Beatles, who sound like they’re having wicked fun. My favorite moment on all of the album occurs during Lennon’s enduring “In My Life,” that haunting, reflection on life. Who among us is able to listen to that song and not get a little misty-eyed? By now we’ve all suffered sorrows and loss; hopefully we have a companion that we can say “in my life, I loved you more.” And now, with the wonderful remastered version, every triplet of George Martin’s stunning electric piano solo is perfectly clean, including that amazing run at the very end.
It’s been four days since I received Rubber Soul to review and I have listened to nothing else. I haven’t wanted to! Hearing these songs refreshed, remastered, revitalized, I’m transplanted back to my parents’ basement, rocking in the dingy recliner, idling away the afternoon with the Beatles; I am carried into the a Bowling Green apartment, laying on my futon bed while he space heater buzzes; I am taken to the first apartment Julie and I shared, lounging on the couch while Julie is at work, humming along to the refined melodies of John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison while Ringo Starr keeps perfect time. And now, whenever I hear those songs, I’ll be reminded of the Sunday afternoon, skipping around the kitchen while my children watched with frightened smiles as their dad lost his mind all over again.
You don’t need me to tell you how great the songs of Rubber Soul are, and if you’ve come this far on the journey with me, you know how amazing they now sound. Still, the greatest thrill for me is that these songs will be discovered and loved by a new generation of music lovers. As a father of two young children, I can attest that both Sophie and Jacob are starting to become fans. I’ve seen my son nodding his head and doing some air guitar to “Drive My Car” when he thinks no one is looking, and I’ve heard Sophie humming along to “You Won’t See Me” as she does her homework. There’s no better way to describe witnessing your child’s act of discovery, especially one of your essential albums, than as glorious. And that’s also, not coincidentally, the best way to describe the improved Rubber Soul.
That’s all I have to say. The only thing left to do is get up and dance.