Back to where our world begins, the 1960s. The English word “love” can refer to a number of different sorts of love that other languages, classical Greek particularly, kept more distinct in their vocabulary. The distinctions between agape, philos, and eros, for example, are fairly well-known among scholarly types. One of the best attempts to sort out how to think about the different meanings and how they’re related was provided by C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves. And the best analysis of the most important sort of love for politics, the “phila-delphic” or fraternal one, was provided by Wilson Carey McWilliams in The Idea of Fraternity in America.
The 1960s counter-culturalists (i.e., the hippies, as opposed to the more explicitly political activists of the New Left) seemed interested in, or unconsciously inclined to, blending several of these loves together. They welcomed a confusion of them, or we might say, an emphasis on their common element. The fact that Love became the watchword of their movement, the sunniest face of hippie-dom, means that these confusions had a real cultural significance. They directly influenced how people lived.
The next series of Songbook posts will be exploring the thematic sense of love’s interconnection that developed in 60s rock song, and more in a sympathetic spirit than a debunking one. You have to understand—there is something in me that loves hippies, always has, always will. Most of all l love those early proto-hippie moments of intoxicating innocence, hope, and promise, the ones most potently sounded during the 1963-1966 window.
There are so many beautiful songs from that time, and to my ears, “It’s Only Love,” is one of them, even if it admittedly is not a major work of Beatle-song, but more of a snippet. It does feel, however, like a transition point, even a bidding good-bye, given that it comes from the album Help!, near the tail end of their 1963-1965 run with the early Beatles style. That style was characterized by a marriage of rock n’ roll roughness with upbeat yet poignant-enough love-song, but the latter element was the key one. That is, the early Beatles had been most obviously about the celebration of young love: “Love Me Do,” “Please Please Me,” “She Loves You,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” “I Feel Fine,” etc. But with this song we were given a view of love, of eros, to be precise, that manages to be both adult in its distance and ever-young in its heartache. It still has the feel of the early Beatles’ love-celebration mode, but it’s moving into something else.
The lyrics are not complex. Indeed, there is a degree of ineptness to them, which I am obliged to discuss since Lennon later said so himself. The biggest problem is that while the first verse suggests the song is primarily about the delectable and shy discomfort of a new love (cc. “I Wonder” by the largely forgotten, and very Beatle-imitating, Gants), the second verse reveals, by means of the too-obvious rhyme line is it right that you and I should fight, every night? that the affair has been going on for some time. Read most charitably, the lyrics mean to bridge these two states of love, to convey that the narrator still feels those newly-in-love feelings for his beloved. Closely considered, this isn’t entirely pulled off.
Still, one does not initially embrace a song because one has “closely considered” it. The lyrics do convey the intense feelings of love, the butterflies and the just the sight of you makes night-time bright feelings that the lover feels for his beloved, perhaps even after they have been seeing one another long enough to get into arguments every night, and for him to have done her wrong in some way that causes him to claim the right to make it up, girl. And given the music, they convey these feelings with no little power.
And then there’s the chorus: It’s only love, and that is all. Why do I feel, the way I do? Apparently, the lover’s head has a more rational explanation for all this. Plato says somewhere that you want to be very careful about letting a beautiful young thing whom might you love kiss you, comparing the kiss to a spider bite, and the love it will stir to a poison spreading through your body. (Overall, Plato teaches that while the philosopher might learn from the way eros both points to a higher contemplation of the Beautiful and a radical human intuition of incompleteness, and while like Socrates he might use it to better direct his and others’ psychic energies, his teaching prefers the less-intense and more mutual love of friendship, and regularly stresses the dangers and non-logical content of eros.)
The beloved of this song perhaps isn’t so great for the lover: they fight a lot, and overall, and he laments that it’s so hard loving you. That is, he seems to at least entertain the idea that his eros for her is deluding, irrational, and harmful in a manner similar to Plato’s poison metaphor. “I am being affected by Eros now…that is all.” This, he thinks, is what our scientific or philosophic person ought to be able to say. Of course, the emotional force of the song, and the chorus’ dual message, indicate that this lover is not able to say that about his love for her with any conviction, and perhaps never will. Or least that’s how things feel to him now. So we might say the poison has done its work all the more completely.
And yet, the song can contrarily suggest that he would be wrong to adopt a dismissive attitude towards his love for her—no, it means something deep to him, and that could mean that the love is in some way right—what his apparently irrational eros is telling him is that she is capable of being complementary to him in some special way, and so he should stick it out. It’s easy for those lovers in so many of those songs to be a believer in their love, such as in the one, clearly modeled on early Beatles songs, where the Monkees’ singer knows without a trace of doubt in my mind, and all because he saw her face. But things aren’t so simple here. The challenge of belief is central, but it is not one about love in general the way the giddy Monkees’ lyrics present it, but about this particular love. Given the way it is hitting the narrator, it cannot be dismissed as a mere force like poison—i.e., at the least he needs to think about what in his life has led him to feel it so strongly for her. This is so even if it may prove to be a one-sided love, a wrong love, or an unworkable love. Even if she continues to love in turn, his follow-up song, alas, might have lyrics like these from She & Him’s ”Thieves.”
And, I know, and you know it too,
That love, like ours, is terrible news.
But that won’t stop me cryin’
No that won’t stop me cryin’, over you…
Or, she and he may turn out, in happier retrospect after their difficulties, to have seemed destined for one another. Their fitting one another in certain ways may prove far more important than their chafing against one another in others. And some of the chafing may even be part of the fit that develops: as the Beatles will later sing in “Hey, Jude,” some lovers must remember, to let her under your skin in order to make it better. But we don’t know—the negative possibility for this couple’s affair, and of its misery being drawn out for far too long due to his believing too much in his love, is also there. Only one thing is clear: if the narrator chooses to believe that his love is only an irrational force, the positive possibility is entirely foreclosed.
Thus, these simple and in some ways half-baked lyrics walk us right on the edge of belief in love, and a philosophic distance from it. The assumption that one can regard one’s love as merely an irrational force is rejected as an unworkable approach, but the idea that any particular love may be irrational and unsuitable all the way down is not necessarily dismissed. One does not have to have read a page of Plato to understand any of this.
Agathon, Greek poet and a key character of the Symposium
Now again, I detect a songwriting effort here to move us beyond the Beatles’ role as romance-merchants. However, even if we dismiss the difficulty with the lyrics already mentioned, the attempted transition is fraught with certain problems, certain paradoxes of poetry. The music of “It’s Only Love” drains most of the emotional sense of the possible reality of that Only. The Beatles try by means of the songs’ squibby minor-keyed background sounds to convey some feelings of the narrator’s littleness and confusion, but the gorgeous chorus sweeps all before it. That is, whatever the lyrics’ intentions, the song winds up deifying Love. Heartbreak, too. Don’t you want to feel sad and torn like that? Be soulfully immersed in beauty like that? Most listeners will not hear the Plato-like reservations that are lyrically present.
In his novel High Fidelity, Nick Hornby asks why people worry so much about sexy, violent, and perverse rock songs, and so little about the many more rock songs that luxuriate in beautiful sadness, usually a sadness fueled by love. Without question, “It’s Only Love” is one of those songs. We have not fully escaped the romance-peddling, although now it is occurring in a more adult mode, the mode that will become more typical of rock song. The 60s/70s Rock story of love-song is that the songster play with formula increasingly fades into the background, behind evocations of love’s intensity, evocations genuinely–if at times rather studiously–adult, but still, or even more so, prone to an Agathon-like idolatry of love, sex, and youth. And a certain proto-hippie intoxication with romance, poetically derived in part from the early Beatles’ ability to make young love seem the most important thing in the world, really did become identified with a purportedly better adult approach to life. I’ll leave you with this very 1966 statement from Marty Balin, in the liner notes of the first Jefferson Airplane album:
All the material we do is about love. A love affair or loving people. Songs about love. Our songs all have something to say, they all have an identification with an age group and, I think, an identification with love affairs, past, beginning, or wanting…finding something in life…explaining who you are.