Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Hey! Juden

by Ben Greenman

What do you call a fact that you know but constantly forget? There are facts like this. It's almost as though they are covered with a substance that makes it impossible to hold on to them, some kind of epistemological no-stick coating. Each person probably has facts that function this way on an individual basis: maybe it's your mother's birthday or where your niece is going to college or the actual job title your sister has now, after her promotion from whatever her job title used to be. Universal Teflon Facts are rarer, but there is at least one: there are Jewish Beatle kids.

To be more precise, there are four Jewish Beatle kids. Their names are Heather, Mary, Stella, and James. They are Jewish, by Jewish law, because Paul McCartney, the blood father of Mary, Stella, and James – and the adoptive father of Heather – married Linda Louise Eastman. Linda was Jewish. This very short sentence may require repeated applications, not because it is so outlandish, but because Linda's Jewishness seems to have been almost entirely overlooked in most accounts of the Beatles. Linda was not especially religious, but she was especially Jewish. Her father, the entertainment lawyer Lee Eastman, was born Leopold Epstein. Her mother, Louise Sara Lindner Eastman, was an heiress to the Lindner department store fortune. Paul McCartney married a Jewish woman. Paul McCartney's children are Jewish. Read it again. While plenty of members of the Beatles circle were Jewish—Brian Epstein and Sid Bernstein, for starters—none of them was married to a Beatle. The relatively narrow document "Jews and the Beatles" mentions Linda, but only briefly. Stella McCartney, who is now a famous clothing designer, has discussed her religion: "My Mum was Jewish. Maybe I'm a really bad Jew because I'm always so excited to say that I am , but I don't live and breathe the religion." The other McCartneys have not, at least publicly.

Linda was not just a Jewish woman, of course. She was a devoted mother and a loving (and beloved) partner. She was also a recording artist of rare distinction. Her recorded legacy, collected on the 1992 album Wild Prairie, is one of the most powerful monuments of romantic love, right up there with the Taj Mahal. Listen to it for a minute and you'll hear why: without love, there's simply no way these recordings would exist. They would have been erased and then erased again, just to be sure that they were gone. Calling them terrible is an insult to terrible things. Listening to Linda proceed tunelessly through "Endless Days" (she "sings" the "song" the way that Ken Lay "protected employees" or Ryan Leaf "quarterbacked") is an experience to be treasured, if by treasured you mean buried in a chest by pirates. She makes the Shaggs look like Mozart, each and every one of them. She records the Coasters' immortal "Poison Ivy" and, well, let's just say it's not immortal anymore.

This doesn't mean that Linda was a bad person, of course. By all accounts she was a wonderful one. It doesn't even mean she was a cosseted billionaire: the recordings weren't released during her lifetime, and putting them out after her death was hardly the most irrational thing that Paul McCartney did in his attempt to deal with his bottomless grief (cf. marrying Heather Effing Mills). It just means that she was an abysmally bad singer with no real sense of melody and rhythm, no pleasing tone, no nothing. Lots of us are horrendous singers. And yet, on an album full of abysmal songs, one stands out as even more preposterous than the rest. In 1973, Paul and Linda found themselves in Lagos, Nigeria, working on the new Wings new album. The sessions were highly collaborative and communal. James Coburn dropped by! Linda brought a song named "Oriental Nightfish." She sang lead and played piano. Paul added guitar, bass, drums, and Mellotron. The always-helpful Denny Lane pitched in on flute.

"Oriental Nightfish" is not much to speak of. It's a trifle, and a trifle odd, one of those songs that people say is "ahead of its time" because five or six years later better musicians and better singers would attempt better things that sound vaguely similar if you don't pay attention. In fact, it is behind its time, because it--like the rest of this record--would have been better served by a world without recording equipment. The plot involves Linda's glimpsing of a wonderfully strange creature. There are lyrics that she recites more than sings (this is what is known as a small favor) and I have reprinted them below in their entirety:

It was a Thursday night
I was working late
When I first caught sight
Of the Oriental nightfish

The colors were swirling
The room was getting hotter
I couldn't see anything

Emerald, blue, purple, red
I was working late
It was a Thursday night
When I first caught sight
Of the Oriental nightfish fish fish fish fish
Nightfish (fish fish fish fish)

Linda's husband, who was in the Beatles for a time, wrote some pretty senseless lyrics in his time, from "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" to "Spies Like Us" "Biker Like an Icon." Still, it is not possible that he saw any merit in "Oriental Nightfish." Despite that, Paul and Linda, along with the animator Ian Emes, even made a highly trippy short film based on the song in 1978 (it is available on YouTube and has about as much merit as the recording, though with just enough animated nudity to keep viewers awake). Some people have suggested that it's a savage swipe at Yoko Ono. Those people are giving it too much credit. In light of Linda's heritage, in light of Hanukah, I give you, the world, a special gift in the form of permission to retitle this song in your minds. From henceforth it shall be known as "Oriental Whitefish."


"Oriental Nightfish" mp3
by Linda McCartney, 1973.
available on Wide Prairie

"Poison Ivy" mp3
by Linda McCartney, 1973.
available on Wide Prairie

"Endless Days" mp3
by Linda McCartney, 1973.
available on Wide Prairie


Christian said...

Holy shit shit shit shit shit...

Good track order here. They seem to get progressively worse.

Linda McCartney + fretless bass = Soul crushing.

Well done. Bravo.

laura levine said...

Great and funny post. Kudos to Greenman!

JSG said...

Fish in a barrel.

Anonymous said...

Gefilte fish in a barrell