This post is adapted from a short talk I gave to students enrolled on Kingston University’s Critical Studies & Creative Industries programme. Rina has been curating a series of guest ‘show and tell’ talks for a feature called Hot Bananas! and I was lucky enough to be invited on in January. The topic was ‘Magic.’ The brief was to choose an object and talk about it for ten minutes.
The object I’ve chosen is a photograph.
It's a photograph that’s framed and hanging in the room next to the one in which I’m writing. The living room. If the five of us are ever squeezed on to one sofa in that room to watch TV, it’s this picture hanging over us. Watching over us.
I think it’s kind of magical.
It’s a photograph of The Beatles, obviously, and it’s special to me for a number of reasons. For one, it’s not an image you see often, and for another I like the way it’s composed. It was taken by a photographer called Terence Spencer, and you might be able to see his signature at the bottom-right of the frame. I believe it was taken on stage at a venue in Finsbury Park, a part of north London we lived in for fifteen years. It’s a print, number 30/100, and was given to me by my wife for my 30th birthday. I’m half as old as that again now, which means I have owned this photograph for a third of my life. My children have never not known it to be on the wall.
I love this photograph. I love how the spritz and spangle is so deliberately artificial: the stage-set stairs clearly leading nowhere, the after-show confetti strewn in clumps around them. I love how their faces are somewhere between tired and moody, how they grip their instruments with equal amounts of protectiveness and pride. I love how they’re dressed the same and yet each is subtly different. I love that for a group of four lads about to shake the world, they’re equipped with such a modest set of tools: a sparse drum kit and a couple of guitars are all the wands they need.
In preparation for this piece I googled the definition of magic and I found it described as “the power of apparently influencing events by using mysterious forces.” When I look at this picture I sense The Beatles as magicians, wielding a kind of influence few have before or since.
Of course, any artist wields the power of magic. Francis Bacon said “the job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery” and in this a particular magic resides. Somehow artists contrive to deepen that mystery even as they reveal the world to us. Or as they make something we love, love so much that we think we know everything about it, and yet we can never neatly define the source of its power, no matter how closely we examine it. Artists make us fall in love with the trick yet never show us how it’s done.
The Magician card in Tarot helps explain things. The Magician represents a range of qualities that mirror what artists - and especially the Beatles - have in abundance. Power, influence, willpower, resourcefulness, skill, ability. Being dealt this card suggests you might be about to possess the skills and abilities you need to be successful. It suggests the universe is aligning in your favour. You have the power to manifest the outcome you want.
This Beatles photograph is the Magician Tarot come to life.
The photo was taken in late 1963, towards the end of their first year of fame. In Revolution In The Head, Ian MacDonald gives an account of every song the Beatles recorded together. The book runs to 186 songs. By my estimation, by the time this photograph was taken, the group had recorded only 18 of those songs. So when I look at this photograph I imagine the 168 songs yet to exist. 168. Where are they? They must be somewhere, waiting, within these four men, or perhaps circling around them like spirits. We don’t know. How will they come to exist? How do they make the journey from wherever they are now, to become the entity they become, each with its particular and unmistakable shape and texture? We don’t know. How will those 168 songs come to shape and stand for such huge social change, become lightning rods for the most powerful ideas of their time, create new languages for music, and continue to have such a hold over us, over me, over my children, fifty years later?
We don’t know. Because the artist’s job is always to deepen the mystery.
This photograph stands for magic in three ways and the first is to do with creativity. The magic within us all. Look again at those Tarot qualities. An invisible force. A mysterious process. Willpower. Resourcefulness. Each of these qualities sound as much like creativity as they do magic, and each represents what’s going in this picture. Those 168 songs, unseen and unknown in the photograph, emerged from a creative process that bound mystery to hard work, that trusted there would always be new ideas within. The Beatles dug deep. Those songs are proof of what the novelist and author of Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray, once said: “there are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up the pen to write.”
The writer Elizabeth Gilbert describes these thoughts, whether they ultimately take form as books or songs or art, as jewels. In her book on creativity, called (because of course it is) Big Magic, she writes:
“We are all walking repositories of buried treasure. The universe buries strange jewels within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them.”
The hunt for these jewels is what Gilbert calls creative living. As anyone who tries to live creatively knows, that hunt takes willpower and resourcefulness. “The courage to go on that hunt in the first place,” she says, “that’s what separates a mundane existence from a more enchanted one.”
The Beatles’ lives feel enchanted, do they not? Somewhere in this photograph, hidden within the four, young, working-class men from a northern town, are I Am The Walrus, Yesterday, Here Comes The Sun. Those men don’t know it yet. And when it happens, they probably won’t know where those songs came from any more than we do, or understand how or why it happened. The songs will emerge from them, both because and not because of them. It’s the same with any artist. “Inspiration does strike,” said Picasso, “but it has to find me working.”
Which brings us to the second form of magic at work in this photograph: the magic of the universe. It's a magic that’s all around you. It’s what inspiration feels like. Maybe it’s with you now. Can you feel it? Creativity doesn’t only draw ideas from within us, it makes manifest ideas that, in Gilbert’s words, “spend eternity swirling around us, searching for available and willing partners”. The magic of creativity is the act of escorting ideas from the ether into the realm of the actual.
“When an idea thinks it has found somebody who might be able to bring it into the world, the idea will pay you a visit. It will try to get your attention. Mostly, you will not notice. But when you’re open and relaxed enough to actually receive something, your defences might slacken and your anxieties might ease, and then magic can slip through. The idea will send physical and emotional signals of inspiration. It will organise coincidences and portents to tumble across your path.”
Brian Wilson, that other great pop visionary of the 60s, described the sense of effortless inspiration he enjoyed at the height of his powers as “being connected to the golden source.” That’s what it feels like when the magic slips through. The Beatles were connected to the golden source as intensively and as powerfully as any artist you might care to mention. They were also hungry for novelty and easily bored. So when the ideas swirled around them and they tuned in, feeding off and feeding the big ideas of their time, the culture, the art, and that mercurial blend of rivalry and love that defined them, it gave them an apparently bottomless well of ideas and songs. It kept them moving. They never wanted to repeat themselves and the magic meant they never had to. What’s incredible is that everybody came with them, regardless of where they went. They transmitted outward the connection they experienced, connecting more people with them in turn. The Beatles got bigger the weirder they got. As if their audience was under a spell.
And that’s the third form of magic: the magic of interest.
In her book of essays A Director Prepares, theatre director Anne Bogart claims “the primary tool in the creative process is interest.” Interest points you in the right direction. It defines the quality and energy of your work and it unleashes what Bogart calls the ‘boomerang effect’: the capacity the world has for repaying your interest in it. The Beatles were geniuses, but their success was as much a result of their keenness to experience and work with everything that came across their path as it was their inherent ability. We don’t have to be geniuses to learn from that.
But there’s another lesson here. Interest is a power we hold as audiences. As viewers, as listeners, as readers, we are an essential part of the creative process. We complete the connection. We ourselves make magic, purely by the act of lending our interest to the work. My Dad did, back in the 60s as a first-generation Beatles fan. I did. My daughter does, though she’s only 10 and the entity known as ‘The Beatles’ no longer technically exists. This is because interest is itself a mysterious thing. Bogart explains interest as a zone. It exists somewhere between us and the object of our interest. We can’t see it or touch it but it’s there, and we travel outward to make contact with whatever’s on the other side. The word ‘interest’ derives from two Latin words: inter (meaning ‘between’) and esse (meaning ‘to be’). “The state of interest,” Bogart says, “is a liminal experience - the sense of a threshold.”
It’s literally an inbetween space. A magical territory.
Our interest, wherever we choose to direct it, opens up this territory, a place where connection awaits. Our own individual magical mystery tour, if you will. This zone is where we go to unlock what’s inside us and connect with the inspiration and ideas waiting to be made manifest by us. It’s where creativity meets magic.
And like this Beatles photograph, it’s a portal to somewhere very special indeed.