Always To Return To Me

a final beatles song, and how we say goodbye

There’s a new Beatles song, that is only kind of a new Beatles song and is mostly a new Paul song that’s also a Ringo song and a bit of a George song, all brewed from the bones of a John song. It is both a dazzling showcase of what good AI can actually do in creative fields and a terrifying portent of what AI could be capable of in creative fields all at once.

I’m a Beatles fan, though not a huge one, not like so many. And for those folks, the real heads, I love this opportunity for them. A chance to revisit something and someone, a voice you thought was lost forever, gone and done and left in an age we can never return to. Hearing John sing something new, one more time, even if it’s largely the same phrase repeated, his vocals a bit muted and hushed and of the era they were recorded in the late 70s, a few years before his murder near the Dakota hotel in early December of 1980. Beautiful and sad all at once.

The new Beatles song, a phrase that feels exciting once or twice and becomes less real with each examination of it, is fine. It’s nice. It’s not a song of theirs I would put on a tape or a Sunday morning playlist. I would never tell the future object of my affection in a waiting room that this song would change their life, put oversized headphones over their ears and hit play on “Now & Then”, but I suppose that was never the reason behind releasing it now. It’s not to change anyone's life. It’s to properly say goodbye to someone who left without a proper opportunity to do so.

Last week in Paste I wrote about the tattoo I got when I quit drinking — I’ve gotten many more since that day — but the first tattoo I got is for someone I didn’t get to say goodbye to. One morning I woke up lying on the lawn in front of a house I lived in the basement of to a buzzing that shook the ground below me, struggled to open my eyes to the judgmental light of day and took a call from my ex-girlfriend's father who told me she had died the night before. If you’ve ever wondered if there’s a particularly bad place to learn that cancer had claimed someone you loved, the lawn in front of your house that you slept on because you drank too much and couldn’t make it to the door the night before is a contender for top billing.

I’ve spent my whole life trying to say goodbye to people who will never hear it.

In interviews I see with Paul on the subject of “Now & Then”, he talks about how John would have loved this opportunity. The chance to join them all once more, for one last song. And that must be a nice thing to consider, as you’re working through the delicate technology required to separate John’s vocals from the music on the demo tape that was passed along from Yoko Ono to George in the mid-90s when this project first came to the remaining Beatles. It must be of great comfort for Paul to have this opportunity one last time to work with a man with whom so much of his early creative work was intertwined. Even after the Beatles parted ways, shades remain of their relationships to each on the work they created afterwards. Ram is loaded with passing references and barbed lines to the other members of the band they all left in their respective rear views.

It’s nice to think that John would have loved this, because he isn’t here to say whether there’s any truth to that. John never lived the decades between his recording this demo to a tape in his home/hotel in New York City and putting it away somewhere to forget. It never appeared on the Beatles Anthology that appeared in homes from sea to shining sea in the mid-90s as people who already owned every Beatles album told themselves “just one more, just this once”. That anthology featured two reworked tracks already, “Free As a Bird” and “Real Love”. Had “Now & Then” been included on the Anthology set, it would have been a re-recording using the demo with Paul, George, Ringo and Travelling Wilburys ringleader/ELO frontman Jeff Lynne layered over top. I’ve been thinking about all this and wondering if we are going to someday get a version with Jeff Lynne’s vocals drawn out from the graveyard of the work he too left behind and wondering where this gets us.

Paul says that when George heard the song he thought it was “fucking rubbish”. It’s easy to assume he was talking about the fidelity of the song but what if he just thought the song fucking sucked? George isn’t here with us anymore either, but we’ve recreated him here in a landscape in which he can’t protest.

In addition to the single, which we all will have our own opinion on that will likely shift with time, there’s also a video that uses old footage as scenes cut between Ringo and Paul in the studio, before they are joined by AI recreations of the two deceased Beatles to join the two living ones, George and John standing in old costumes of the lives they lived before. Digital ghosts putting on a show dancing next to Paul and Ringo as they are now, alive and well enough and more appropriately dressed for the era. It’s sweet enough while being difficult to watch for myriad reasons, rooted in this very real need to find a way to say goodbye and feel satisfied.

There is the theory that this song was a love letter from John to Paul, their relationship strained by time and great distance from each other. But I’m sure there was always something in them that felt large and immense feelings of loss for the other, the relationship that had formed them splintered and in dire need of repair. Given enough time it’s likely they would have been able to mend that which had broken them, but they were robbed of the opportunity.

I grew up with my house kitty-corner to one of my best friends, his with a basketball hoop above the garage and an older brother who taught us about music, TV and Super Nintendo games we might otherwise have missed. Any spare moments we had we spent together, until we both got older, and he grew tall and strong and proud and moved away from the north to the promise of good money for strong work in Fort McMurray at the height of the oil sands boom. I too worked briefly in Fort Mac when I was in my 20s, installing windows and doors in a building being hastily constructed to accommodate the endless influx of new workers. I drove the highway that many told me very casually was called the highway of death, the side of the road littered with crosses, and I thought about this friend of mine who was once so close to me that I knew was driving this road all the time and I worried about him for the first time in our lives.

A year later we were both at home in the Yukon again and he came in with an old glass-enclosed lamp he wanted to fix for his dad and he sat on my glass cutting table while I worked fixing it, feeling for the first time capable and strong in the face of someone who always seemed more so than me and we talked, trying to find a tether to the connection between us that was so strong. When he left we said the fateful thing so many people say but never mean. Let’s grab a drink sometime. He gave me his new cell number, but I was so terrified to call him. What if we could never have what we did when we were young? A few months later, one year after my ex passed away, I heard that he had flipped his truck end over end on the highway and died. Became a name on a cross on the side of the road remembering the lives of so many.

“Now & Then” was a gift, but I wonder to whom. Yoko Ono gave it to the remaining Beatles with other demos and half-finished asides he had been working on in private, and this one had a title scrawled on a label but nothing else to accompany it. No great letter, no grand farewell or offer to begin building his side of a bridge towards the others. “Now & Then” feels a bit anachronistic for my taste, the piano sounds a bit too new for vocals that are showing their age and strings that appear out of nowhere. It sounds at times like two songs playing at once, each the same song but made at different times from different vantage points.

We don’t know John’s intentions with it, but the prevailing theory is that it feels like words struggling to find the strength to reach old friends. Now and then I miss you, oh now and then I want you to be there for me, always to return to me. But this is just as easily an opportunity now for Paul and Ringo to say these things back to John, to George. To the lives they lived and the lives they can no longer reclaim or take back. All the yesterdays that will never be real ever again.

“Now & Then” is a gift to Beatles fans, but it is a gift as well to Paul and Ringo and to everyone who loved them. The gift of a reclaimed farewell.

More than a new song, or the final Beatles product, it feels like the last chance for old friends to have a final word together, the ultimate dream of people working through feelings of loss that never dissipate with time no matter how much we would like them to. I think about my former partner, I think about my lost friend, I think of the final words we never had the chance to say. The dead never truly leave if we make time to remember them, haunted not by their specters but by simple phrases and tender words left unsaid.