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If you could only listen to one song, what would it be?

The writer knows his favorite. He thinks.
A statue of The Beatles in Liverpool, England. Their songs have special meaning to Roy Peter Clark.
A statue of The Beatles in Liverpool, England. Their songs have special meaning to Roy Peter Clark. [ JON SUPER | AP ]
Published Jan. 20

If you had only one song to listen to for the rest of your life, what would it be?

That question is a favorite of late-night host Stephen Colbert. He asks it — and several others — of celebrity guests. The answer reveals a lot about a person’s history and character.

My favorite answer came from New Jersey rocker Bruce Springsteen. The Boss chose Summer Wind by that other Jersey crooner, Frank Sinatra. I just listened to a live version with Sinatra accompanied by the Nelson Riddle orchestra. Those jazzy riffs back melancholy lyrics of lost love in a harmony that could last a lifetime.

I was surprised and thrilled by my wife Karen’s answer. She chose Over the Rainbow, a song on many critics’ list of the greatest of the 20th century. But she passed over young Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz for the simple but astonishing reinvention by Hawaiian artist Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. Sometimes a ukulele works better than an orchestra. More than 1 billion YouTube viewers of the video can attest to that. This is the soothing antidote to whatever might be troubling you today — or any day.

When Mr. Colbert invites me to his show, I have an answer ready. I will be wearing my Beatles gear: my black hat with an image of the four boys crossing Abbey Road, a khaki jacket — a John Lennon brand — marked with tiny peace signs, and a T-shirt with the words Here Comes the Sun.

I could make a list of 100 close contenders, but, in the end it would be that song, not by John or Paul, but by George, that would always win out. If Mr. Colbert let me, I would play it for him on an electric keyboard or a guitar. Inspired, I would even sing a few of the lyrics: “Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter….Little darling, it seems like years since it’s been clear.”

Any time I sit down to play music in a writing workshop or an informal gig, Here Comes the Sun is my first song. But this is the first time I typed the lyrics, so excuse me for not seeing that this tune takes on special meaning in an era of pandemic. Yes, by George, it does feel like years since it’s been clear.

I was 16 years old when the Beatles arrived in New York in 1964 and any teenage boy with a transistor radio, any kid who could play an instrument or carry a tune wanted to be in a band. Those mop-headed lads from Liverpool proved that you didn’t need to be as handsome as Elvis to make the girls scream.

It became clear early on that John Lennon and Paul McCartney, in spite of their differences, were the creative geniuses of the band, especially when it came to writing songs. Recent biographies and documentaries reveal the frustrations and insecurities of George Harrison, both in his guitar playing compared to his friend Eric Clapton, and in his ability to write songs.

This changed in 1968 and 1969 when Harrison produced, arguably, the two best songs on the Abbey Road album: the love ballad Something and the wonderful hybrid of Eastern and Western culture, of Krishna and Jesus, the soft anthem Here Comes the Sun.

Next to Yesterday, Something remains the most recorded Beatles song. Sinatra said it was his favorite, attributing it incorrectly to Lennon and McCartney.

As for Here Comes the Sun, as of August 2021 it was the most downloaded Beatles song, with Let It Be a distant second.

If I could listen to only one of these, it would have to be Sun, with its simple complexity, its clever rhythms and instrumentation, with Harrison singing and playing at his best, and with its hopeful and inspirational message. The greatest poem in the English language, The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, begins with a glorious celebration of spring, when all of England bursts back to life in the month of April, after a cold and lifeless winter.

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It is a rich coincidence that Harrison wrote Here Comes the Sun in April 1969 after a tough winter, and in a season when the great band was beginning to fall apart.

Speaking of happy coincidences, two months after Harrison wrote the song, I met a young Rhode Island woman named Karen Major.

If Something wins second prize, it’s for a good reason. On Aug. 7, 1971, as a local band played the song, Karen and I enjoyed our first dance as a married couple.

Fast-forward to Aug. 7, 2006, our 35th anniversary. We are at the Mirage hotel in Las Vegas, trying to score tickets for the Cirque du Soleil show Love, a multimedia celebration of the music of the Beatles. There are two seats left, slightly obstructed view, and in different rows.

We find our seats and people nearby realize that we belong together and volunteer to move so the lovebirds can sit side by side. It’s a great show, with dancing, acrobatics, clowns and some of our favorite songs.

Suddenly, the lights soften, and a balletic dancer takes the stage, and a soft opening guitar chorus strikes a familiar mood. And then the vocal: “Something in the way she moves…attracts me like no other lover.” Here we are on our anniversary, listening to our wedding song. For a moment, we are no longer looking at the stage. We have turned toward each other, with knowing smiles, staring into each other’s eyes.

I just changed my mind. If I had only one song, it would be Something.

What’s yours?

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