Many of you watched football over the weekend Thanksgiving spilled into Chanukah. Others caught up on their holiday binge-shopping. I prepared for the transition between these two festivals by becoming a fly on the wall in a tempest-tossed Beatles project, “Get Back.” I could not take my eyes off this sparsely narrated documentary reboot from 50 year old footage restored by Peter Jackson.
Yes, George walked out for a few days, and John, Paul and Ringo hinted their days as a band were burning out. The Fab Four spent less time practicing and recording as they did goofing around and growling over unfair media coverage in their 3-week , then 4, then cancelled, preparations for a televised live performance, their first in over 3 years, and their last. In the course of this chaos, short musical ideas morphed into what would ultimately become the group’s final two, and quite monumental, albums. I need to watch this 3-part, 7-plus-hour documentary again, because I remain baffled as to how exquisite order formed out of primordial chaos.
One theory: Billy Preston.
Billy Preston was a widely sought-after session keyboardist who began as a child prodigy, then touring with – and almost overshadowing – Ray Charles. Six years after his chance drop-in to the Fab Four’s dysfunctional holiday party, he would be Saturday Night Live’s first musical guest. That’s not nothing from nothing.
Preston was the gentile guest at the Fab Four’s Chanukah party. The “family” had been mailing in their recording rituals before he showed up just to say hi and watch them light candles. Within minutes they were calling him the “5th Beatle.” Just as a decade earlier Ringo completed the group’s signature sound when he was invited to join the group, Preston was that missing shamash who lit up the fires of the tribe’s weary members, and completed their new and final signature sound.
Preston’s continuous smile cried out “pinch me!” He could not believe he was providing the keyboard thickener to their golden latkes. The music rapidly took shape. It was fascinating to watch 8-measure throwaway ideas become tunes that never fell off the radio playlist to this day. Preston staved off a Beatle breakup just long enough to produce music that I later played to death in high school.
And it turns out the family wasn’t as dysfunctional as originally portrayed by the media, and even by the original, much shorter iteration of this documentary. We see John broadly smiling, trying to bond with Paul to rekindle an earlier goofiness hatched when they met at Bar Mitzvah age. Ringo has his arm around George while they listen, wide-eyed, while crammed into their studio’s control room. They embrace George’s musical ideas, which would become the treasured “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun.” Nobody seems to mind Yoko’s presence, even allowing her to get behind the microphone with avant garde ululations which they appear to welcome. Linda Eastman (who would marry Paul and join him in forming his band “Wings”) took hundreds of beautiful still photos as the band went into and out of its recording rituals. Her daughter has undeniably formed a deep bond with Paul, and sits on his shoulders in the control room as they listen. There is quite a bit of affection shown among the band members and their entourage, and no one yells at anyone (though one wonders what was among the 53 out of 60 hours of footage left on the cutting room floor).
This documentary reminds me of each and every time my family has gathered for festival celebrations. Paul is ready to work, John is always late, everybody sits around for a while with a drink or a snack. That’s so us. We grudgingly gather around the chanukiah, and mutter the blessings, but then we notice Billy Preston, our non-Jewish friend, out of the corner of our eye, smiling ear to ear with amazement at the incredible moment we just created, and we realize: you know, this really is kind of important.
Such is the ever-reappearing miracle of Chanukah. Two of the four fab candles burned out, and the other two still cling to the fire. Their menorah was fired up over a half century ago, yet the or haganuz, or the mystical “hidden light,” continues to brighten the darkness of billions. The Beatles, after a decade of lighting cultural bonfires, wearied of the project, but the grandchildren of their original fans continue to be raised on their music. Who knows how long it will endure? Maybe centuries, a la Mozart, to whose music theirs has been compared. How could all this have come out of one muse of oil?
Therefore, be it here declared, that out of inspiration borne of Chanukah and the Beatles, we must restore the 2nd blessing over the Chanukah candles to its original form. Most of us use the text “she’asah nissim la’avoteinu, bayamim hahem bazman hazeh/Who wrought miracles for our ancestors at this time of year in those days. That is incorrect. We should be saying “U-vazman hazeh/in those days AND in our time.” And we should bear in mind that by getting together, by keeping the faithful flame alive year after year, we are creating new and enduring miracles whose impact lasts generations.
And we should shout these miracles from the rooftops, as the Fab Four ultimately did after all their other plans for a live show crashed and burned. Shavua Tov.