When the gun fired, its blast numbed my ears. The bullet twisted and twirled, piercing through distressed air on its lethal trajectory towards me. Time slowed, as I knew it would, just like I had seen it decelerate before. Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ – that poignant piano composition in C-sharp minor – then began to mournfully play, completely filling my head and at least providing me with some final comfort. Pianissimo – so very quietly the keyboard played, rhythmic and steady as it tugged at my heart. But I knew then that when the first dramatic movement of the sonata had been completed, in precisely five minutes and fifty-nine seconds, I would die.
The human mind is capable of so much. So now, in just five minutes and fifty-nine seconds, inside my own mind, the following somehow occurred:
Before I was rudely interrupted, by the gunman no less, I remember my daily life was continuing routinely enough. So, in keeping with this theme of ordinariness, I pose you a quite unremarkable question. Have you heard that song ‘All You Need Is Love’? Well, everyone probably has, of course, at some point or other – and this song had in fact been the focus of my morning’s work. But did you know it nearly saved the world? No, I suppose you didn’t know that, I’d safely guess. Not unless you have been on a journey like mine, maybe culminating in the strong likelihood of some obsessive maniac trying to kill you – and here he is – or some other horrible demise awaiting you because you are special. For example, because you are a brilliant but now dead rock star, snuffed out before your time and somehow reading this up there in that Hard Rock Cafe in the sky. Maybe like John Lennon, or Buddy Holly, or Kurt Cobain.
Beethoven’s piano continues all the while in my head, the Phrygian tetrachord pattern of the pianist’s left hand embellished with the more active, triplet figuration melody of the right. I’m up on such technical matters, not least because I am a reasonably successful university professor, currently Chair at Liverpool University School of Music in the North West of England. Which sounds relatively dull, but only as my city once knew me as the Sixth Beatle – a far more exciting job title for sure. Still, that was an age ago. Today, my passion has been the research element of my work and it’s here that I am seeking some kind of perfection. I might get there…if I am left alone. If the smalltime snipers and petty critics will just back off – sorry, I digress. As for the teaching side to my job, well that’s just work with a big ‘W’ for Wearisome. Anyhow, here I was working today, a lecture hall full of bright and not-so-bright undergraduates, sitting amongst a steep bank of seats and desks in front of me. They all need to pass their composition module this month, so were for once latching onto my every word – or not. Well, they didn’t know that John Lennon nearly saved the world either. But I was now going to try to tell them this was so.
I feel fire inside my chest and scream out. Then it subsides for a moment…
“When I was two, way back in 1967,” I began – extraneous personal disclosure always captures student attention, which their laughter now confirmed. Still, I winced a little inside as I realised they thought I really was that old – do I really look forty already? I know I am a fairly shoddy sight, unshaven for weeks as usual, coffee stains down my Oxfam Shop shirt – but do they really have me at my true age? Oh well…
“Right. So, in 1967 John Lennon wrote ‘All You Need Is Love’ for The Beatles. The song’s debut performance was set to take place during the first ever global satellite TV transmission, broadcasting to 26 countries and to be watched by 350 million people. With the whole world watching, John knew this was his big chance to influence the world, change it for the better – to save it even. But how?” I scanned my audience for takers. “Anyone?”
“He was going to sell LSD to the audience,” chirped some bright spark, ‘A’-student comedian.
“Very good Mr Morris,” I temporarily indulged the showboating. “Although not what I had in mind. What elements of composition would be important to influence the hearts and minds of this global audience?”
“Lyrics…” offered Miriam Singleton, one of my sweetest favourites.
“You’re right, Miriam,” I gushed. “Yes, lyrics, for one, these needed to be inclusive, universally understood by everyone. So the song’s simple sentiment that all the world requires is love, well what could be a more joyous notion? Then, to assist our lesser mortals’ instant recall (I paused to gaze purposefully at Morris), the main thematic spine of the song needed to be simple too. Lyrical repetition is, of course, employed in the ultimate sing-along chorus. But what else?”
Blank faces around the room informed me my module’s pass rate was projecting on the low side.
“Tune,” offered Morris, now becoming a bit more serious.
“Well, of course tune, Morris, but do try not to always be quiet so obvious.” More laughter, but this time not at my expense. Good I thought, live by the sword, young man…
“Metre,” suggested Julie Beecham, another teacher’s-pet contender, though not – sadly – for long.
“Excellent, Julie. Metre. That’s a component of rhythm to you Mr Morris.”
“I knew that,” the fallen smart-arse protested. But he was now dead meat. I continued in relative safety.
“Metre. Here’s a bit of perhaps subliminal complexity that would hook the listener at a deeper level. So Lennon swapped about the 4/4 metre in the chorus, but containing only seven measures, with the nifty 7/4 metre during the verse. A brilliant juxtapositioning.
Universal appeal was also clinched by fleeting references to globally recognised compositions – first seen during the intro, courtesy of the French national anthem, ‘La Marseillaise’ and then during the long tail to the song where flashes of Bach, Glen Miller, the English traditional song ‘Greensleeves’ and even The Beatles’ own internationally famous ‘She Loves You’ are all reprised. And that, my darlings, is a snapshot example of the dynamics of composition.”
The students couldn’t keep up. Most were scurrying away, burning into note pads with frantic pens. Morris stared blankly into space. I paused. Until I then began to escape into my own thoughts, only mildly troubled by an annoying heart murmur, typical of those I’ve been suffering of late – small but insidious reminders for me of my own fragile mortality.
Despite all this brilliance, the world was not saved by ‘All You Need Is Love’. The audience was there, but the most perfect piece of music imaginable had not then yet been written. The world was not saved either by ‘Give Peace a Chance’ or ‘Happy Xmas (War is Over)’. Although maybe it was influenced for the better? Many will swear blind that is so. Then after John was murdered in December 1980 – aged also forty – and shortly after ‘Imagine’ was re-released, the world sat up and listened more carefully. But nothing really changed. Not in the way he had hoped to change things. And not in the way that I had once thought I had changed things.
Oh well, I digress again, I suppose I did well to actually get to forty after all that’s happened now. But for so long I have not expected to see to my forty-first birthday. Sooner or later, during this year of 2005, I have long believed my number would be up – call it superstition, if you like. But I just kind of knew that somebody would come for me. Well, so many have been out to get me, even if not quite murderously, over the years. So that when the flustered, chubby man burst into my lecture hall just now, his navy kagool unzipped to reveal three gun-slings zigzagged across his chest, I just thought, finally then, you’ve arrived.
Three handguns he had brought with him. I have no idea what type of guns they were, but they were bloody big ones! Shots had rang out almost the instant he had slithered into the room closing the large, beech double doors behind him. Amongst the screams I saw two students fall to the floor, bright red blood spraying out of their young bodies. One was Julie Beecham – oh she had such potential, so sensitive to how music can touch the soul. The second to fall was Ahmed, the most proficient of the undergraduate pianists and with sparkling hopes to graduate to an orchestral career. Hopes that were now maybe dashed with the brutal finality of a single gunshot.
Then the third bullet was for me.
Being hit in the chest by the bullet was not as I imagined it might be. Perhaps my very own bullet was not high velocity because I felt it hit me more or less like a train, as though its impacting mass belted across the entirety of my torso before then setting off an explosive eruption within my rib cage. As more gun shots rang out, sending bullets to I know not where, I fell to the floor in agony and fighting to remain conscious. With my nose now pressed bluntly against the parquet floor, I turned slightly to my right only to see two scuffed Nike trainers inexorably approaching. They then stopped an inch away from me. My eyes followed the line of denim clad legs, searching upwards to see the face of my assassin. The black barrel of the gun glowered into my face.
Then a release – pain seemed to strangely leave my body and I was somehow floating free, slowly remembering all of this: a little life played out – inside my head, all impossibly inside five minutes and fifty-nine seconds. Because my mind can do practically anything.
Way back when, I am somehow now remembering that I was woken up and delivered kicking and screaming down to planet earth in the customary manner, unimpressed by the usual blood, gunk and disinfectant, but oh so clearly alive! Born a beautiful, if slightly scrawny boy. Born too with only one blemish – a twisted, narrow band of skin that resembled a scar and which seemed to vertically dissect my rib cage – an unfortunate birth mark. Then soon, in the far more pleasant, cushioned warmth of my mother’s – Mam’s – bosom, after only ten minutes of life, my first sign of genius was detected. That’s why, I will confess to you now, I was quite a different type of child.
On the hospital-blue bedside locker beside me sat a bright red transistor radio, made complete by a big clock-face style dial on the front that seemed to stare at me, but in a smiley kind of way that made me feel strangely happy. There was music. Tinny music, distorted slightly by radio channel mistuning, but music nevertheless.
It was late April 1965, it was Liverpool and Mam wanted to give birth accompanied by the The Beatles. Zeitgeist and all that. She’d stubbornly held me back while Ken Dodd completed his three minute angst-ridden wailing of ‘Tears for Souvenirs’.
“Go on Jean, PUSH!” coaxed Dad – half cut as usual, as he often was during occasions of note – but meaning well as my cabbage-like head started to appear.
“Not to ‘Tears for friggin’ Souvenirs’, not to that sugary shite!” Mam replied in the spirit of cultural rebellion I somehow came to inherit.
“I thought you liked Ken Dodd,” said Dad. “What about ‘Happiness’? Then Dad started to sing Mr Dodd’s musical celebration of the joys implicit in said happy emotion. And began to dance too.
“Billy, if you sing another line of that crap, when this baby is born I’m going to stick its friggin’ head down your throat!”
Mam’s straight-talking tendencies were more often than not an asset, I’d later come to realise.
“Calm yourself down, Mrs Litherland,” coached the mean-eyed, midwife. “Men are no use at the best of times, but definitely of no use now. Just ignore him, pet.”
“Great. ‘Ticket to Ride’, The Beatles,” blurted my undeterred father moments later, shaking his blonde mop-head, all thumbs up and smiles as the radio show helpfully perked up. So, cue my birth – somewhere into the second chorus of Lennon and McCartney bitter-sweet harmonies, Mam’s dream becoming finally true. A brand new baby boy, born to the sound of the Mersey Beat. Here in Liverpool, World Centre of Music and Football.
Then the first sign of genius only ten minutes later? Well Dad had twiddled the radio dial to tune into more Beatles. ‘You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away’ was reprising on Radio Caroline.
“Oh look Billy, he’s tapping his hand on my arm. And it’s in time.” Mam was a gushingly proud parent.
Yes, it was in time, give or take. Which was quite an achievement if family legend is to be believed, as ‘Hide Your Love Away’ is written in 3/4 metre – much harder for any newborn to get the hang of than several other Beatles classics that may have come along, such as ‘She Loves You’, or ‘Hard Day’s Night’ and many alternatives which all tap out easily in 4/4 time. They would have been a walk in the park, or at least a push in the pram.
Consequently and inevitably, I was duly christened John, Paul, Ringo, George, Anfield Litherland. My life lay in wait for me, as yet unused, in mint condition. What a lovely thought – mint condition!
Fast forward forty years to this now obviously used life of mine, having possessed one not particularly careful owner but on the verge of being indelicately snuffed out. I’m prostrate like a baby again, quite helpless here on the floor and I’m thinking – well don’t we all at some point – that life could have been different. Only this I happen to know is a statement of fact. Small choices and tiny chance occurrences, once frozen in time, change everything. What if I had have been born to ‘Happiness’, for example? Would Ken Dodd have propelled me forward with a personality full of fun and joy, albeit with no taste in music? Would I have been less of, well, less of a friggin’ precious bastard as Ronnie, my wonderful brother often so gently puts it?
The most apt song in 1965 I’d like to have been born to would be ‘It’s Not Unusual’ by Tom Jones. Because the (admittedly taken out of context) title of that might then just have influenced my future for the better. It would have been great if life had not been unusual. Unfortunately, however, my life had been very unusual indeed. Sometimes I hadn’t liked this at all. Lying here in a slowly seeping pool of blood, I don’t like it now either.