Today is the 47th anniversary of the song which anyone who is Beatles-bitten knows, loves. A 1999 BBC Radio 2 poll of music experts and listeners voted ‘Yesterday’ the best song of the 20th century. It was also named the ‘No. 1 Pop song of all time’ by MTV and the magazine Rolling Stone the very next year. But I don’t really care that it was so voted and named. The song wrenches the mind, drenches the heart. Far more than ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, another lovable song which could have been sung by a bunch of hobos out of the nearest London Underground tunnel, ‘Yesterday’ is a song of singular, sublime intensity.
Although described as a ‘Lennon-McCartney’ piece, the song came out of Paul McCartney’s musical genius. He is believed to have woken up one disturbed morning with this song gyrating in his head and rushed to the piano to play the tune so as not to forget it.
There is a condition called cryptomnesia. McCartney feared he had unconsciously plagiarised the song from something he had heard sometime somewhere. For months he went about asking friends if they had heard the tune which he sang out or played to them. Only when no one could recall having ever heard it or anything like it did McCartney put words to it and record it — around 15 June, 1966 at EMI studios, London.
‘Yesterday’ was an original and stays so.
It is impossible to say why one song grips the popular imagination more than others. It perhaps touches a seam of feeling so widely shared, an aquifer of emotion so deeply felt, that it cannot but be adored.
The loss of love is doubtless one of the earliest and most recurring of human experiences. McCartney was saying in music what everyone feels but cannot express with the Beatles’ musical madness. And when he thought he had lifted the song from someone else’s work he was not entirely wrong. He was touching a welt of pain everyone has known.
‘Janey voh kaise log the jinke pyar ko pyar mila’ is a very different kind of song and yet there is something in this song from Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa that links it to ‘Yesterday’. Sahir Ludhianvi wrote it, SD Burman put it to music for Hemant Kumar to sing a decade before McCartney’s great song. But the lines — Suddenly I’m not half the man I used to be/ There’s a shadow hanging over me — could well have come from Vijay in the Guru Dutt masterpiece. Both are about the loss of love.
Half a century later, do those songs mean what they meant when they were first heard?
I doubt it.
Among the many things that have coarsened, is that old-fashioned four-letter word and what it means. That has turned, quite simply, to cold ash.
I had not heard of the film actress who took her life in Juhu last week, which of course shows my level of disconnect with the times. But the circumstances narrated by her in her letter struck me as extraordinary. They were more than a window into her agonised mind. They were a commentary on the state of that thing which used to be called love. The young man arrested for abetment by ‘torture’ could, if he had ever heard ‘Yesterday’ re-play McCartney’s song in his brain. As could the cricketer charged with match-fixing, the entrepreneur who drove his Merc over persons sleeping on a Chennai pavement, or the MP accused (I hope to be exonerated) in the coal-bloc allocation — all within a month of each other, all very young men. I cannot but think of another young man here, said, in fact, to be a ‘minor’, an accused in what is now scalded into public memory as the December 16 gang rape victim.
All the case-types that I have mentioned represent what may be called opportunisms. Throws of a giddy dice for a reckless thrill in getting something beyond one’s deserving of it, disfiguring that very thing with a swelling of desire into greed, of greed into blind lust and — criminality.
Where is the space in this chain of avarice for what McCartney sings of and Sahir Ludhianvi writes about?
The Beatles lived complex, unhappy lives. Their band and their marriages broke up. But, like the great lyricists who turned our cinema into human experiences, when they sang, they were thinking of, feeling for, searing their souls and those of their listeners for, tender feelings, delicate emotions, for love and despair and loneliness. They could be stunned by loss, betrayal and heart-break because there was a trust to lose, a love to be betrayed, a bond to be snapped. Today, when relationships are essentially contractual, their purposes opportunistic, their tenures dependent wholly on ‘delivery’, how can they possibly lead to art?
The tragic lives of Guru Dutt and Geeta Dutt tracked the sadness of their films. They too were utterly guileless as human beings. They died over things Bollywood would not shed an onion tear for. Were it not for Gulzar and Javed Akhtar, Hindi cinema would have been unrelievedly barren of feeling. But popular art cannot be different from its times. What we are, our music, cinema, books are.
I cannot remember when I last heard a song in our cinema that actually moved me, did something to my within. Devika Rani, Suraiya, Meena Kumari, Madhubala, Nargis, Nutan, Suchitra Sen, Guru Dutt, Dilip Kumar, Raj Kumar, Sanjeev Kumar are not described as ‘character actors’ for nothing. Their successors on the screen, with very few exceptions, look mass produced ‘actor characters’.
Perhaps I am being just an old fogey. If our times could be so wonderfully absorbed by Vikram Seth’s novel, A Suitable Boy, be stirred by a new version of Saratchandra’s deathless love-story Devdas and be fascinated by the re-told legend of Jodha Akbar, love and romance are not entirely without hope in India. But who can deny that there was something to it, now gone, that makes us so long for yesterday.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personal