Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

The Beatles, bootlegs and Vermeer

By Penn Jillette
March 31, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
The Beatles arrived in the United States 50 years ago and embarked on a history-making path of pop culture dominance. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/us/the-sixties'>Check out coverage of "The Sixties: The British Invasion,"</a> a look at how the Fab Four's influence persists. Click through the gallery for more images of the Beatles' first American tour. The Beatles arrived in the United States 50 years ago and embarked on a history-making path of pop culture dominance. Check out coverage of "The Sixties: The British Invasion," a look at how the Fab Four's influence persists. Click through the gallery for more images of the Beatles' first American tour.
HIDE CAPTION
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Penn Jillette: As a kid, I thought the Beatles recorded their songs without a hitch
  • He says bootleg recordings showed him the mistakes and rigors of creative process
  • Genius doesn't mean doing everything right the first time, he says
  • Jillette: My friend Tim Jenison showed process in detail as he tried to paint a Vermeer

Editor's note: Penn Jillette, a writer, television host and frequent guest on a wide range of shows, is half of the Emmy Award-winning magic act duo Penn & Teller. He produced and appears in "Tim's Vermeer," a new film. For more on the story of the Beatles' arrival in America 50 years ago and its lasting consequences, check out coverage of "The Sixties: The British Invasion."

(CNN) -- When I first heard The Beatles, as a child, I thought they walked into the recording studio with a genius idea and they executed that idea perfectly.

Every note, every word, every la da da dadada was planned and just had to be laid down on wax. The recordings were perfect. The Beatles were geniuses and that's how geniuses created works of art.

I had never met anyone who created real music and I figured musicians had ideas for sounds in their heads and then performed them. That was the job and to do it you had to be a genius.

Penn Jillette
Penn Jillette

Then I bought my first bootleg record. Stamped on the plain jacket were the words "Kum Back" and the record store had it filed under Beatles. I kind of knew what I was buying. I knew these were recordings of The Beatles that The Beatles hadn't wanted released.

I was a Beatlemaniac: Remembering The Beatles' American invasion

There wasn't even shrink-wrap to unseal with my thumbnail before I put it on the turntable. The song titles weren't listed on the label, there was just a picture of a pig and a hole in the record that wasn't even centered. This was dirty and wrong.

It turns out the bootleg of "Kum Back" I had was not even the real bootleg of the Glyn Johns acetate. It was another collection of Beatles stuff misnamed to cash in on the first Beatle bootleg. In my town we got counterfeit bootlegs.

As I turned up my mom's record player loud what I heard changed my life. I heard The Beatles making mistakes. I heard them fumbling around to find their genius.

Tim Jenison shows how he detected an instructive flaw in a Vermeer painting.
Tim Jenison shows how he detected an instructive flaw in a Vermeer painting.

It was mostly outtakes from "Let it Be."

"Let it Be" was supposed to be funkier, dirtier, and more live sounding than "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," but my inexperienced ears didn't understand that.

The released album, even with "Dig it" and "One After 909" and Phil Spector's inappropriate production was perfect to me. Even the giggles on "Let it Be" had seemed planned to me. But this bootleg had Paul singing out of tune!

It had versions of the songs that were different. It had The Beatles trying different tempos, different lyrics and different ideas. It had The Beatles fighting. I heard The Beatles failing. I heard The Beatles working.

Video: The Sixties: The British invasion

Learning that they didn't have perfect blueprints from their genius was a revelation. It inspired me to start to practice...
Penn Jillette

I still believe The Beatles started with ideas. They had feelings in their hearts and thoughts in their minds they wanted to express. But learning that they didn't have perfect blueprints from their genius was a revelation. It inspired me to start to practice and rehearse the stupid ideas that I had.

Armed with nothing more than the knowledge that The Beatles had to work on the records, I started learning to juggle and do magic. It's been way more than 20 years ago today and I still haven't finished my juggling/magic Sgt. Pepper's, but I'm still working.

I've met a lot of musicians, and they bang around a lot before they come up with the finished track, or the finished composition. I've learned that writing books, essays, and magic patter is mostly editing. No matter how clear the idea is, you have to monkey with it. You have to work.

50th Anniversary of Beatlemania
Ringo Starr's shout-out to Wolf Blitzer

Even Bob Dylan crosses things out and starts again. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has his notes on display to prove that. (Although I still believe it's possible that Dylan fabricated those mistakes after the fact just to test our faith, like some creationists believe god created confusing fossils.)

In comedy Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton are often held up as two ends of the discovery/vision continuum. Lore is that Chaplin would monkey around on the set trying all sorts of things until something seemed right and Keaton supposedly showed up just to shoot the scene he already had in his head. I've always respected Keaton so much more than Chaplin -- I like the idea of having an idea -- but I'm sure there are Keaton outtakes. Keaton didn't just risk his life and break his bones -- he also had to work. He must have run down some dead ends.

I understood the idea of work in music, comedy, movies, writing, performance, and certainly juggling and magic, but the fine arts still had that wall of genius separating pure inspiration from work. I would see studies and sketches in museums, but even those seemed perfect. I thought the fine arts were something else, something different, a pure kind of genius.

Then about five years ago my buddy, entrepreneur and inventor Tim Jenison, told me he was going to paint his version of Vermeer's "The Music Lesson" in his warehouse in San Antonio. Tim reckoned that Vermeer didn't just get a perfect photorealistic image in his head and move it to the canvas with a steady handful of talent. Tim figured that Vermeer had used a machine and a lot of hard work.

The Beatles\' energy and cleverness made them favorites on the BBC.
The Beatles' energy and cleverness made them favorites on the BBC.

Tim was going to recreate a machine like that and with no experience or talent for oil painting, Tim was going to try to do his own Vermeer.

This wouldn't be just four Liverpudlians sitting around in a room with guitars, drum and a piano serving the muse. Tim would first have to tear down the wall of his warehouse in Texas to put in windows for the proper light, build all the furniture himself to recreate Vermeer's room from the 17th Century, grind his own lenses, grind his own 17th century style pigments (many of which are illegal today because they're so poisonous), mix his own paint and after all that and more, then he could start the backbreaking and mind-numbing work of painting with his machine. It would cost him more money and man-hours than all the Beatle albums put together.

I told Tim we had to document his trying to paint a Vermeer, and I convinced Teller to direct a movie that would be Tim's bootleg "Kum Back" to Vermeer's perfect "Let it Be." I love Tim and didn't think I could respect him more than I did before he started this project. I was wrong. Tim is The Beatles. Tim is Vermeer. Tim is a genius.

"Tim's Vermeer" didn't diminish my love, respect, enjoyment or awe of Vermeer's paintings. I still believe in genius. But, for better or worse, all geniuses have to work their asses off.

There will be an answer, but you can't just let it be.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Penn Jillette.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1841 GMT (0241 HKT)
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2241 GMT (0641 HKT)
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0349 GMT (1149 HKT)
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1659 GMT (0059 HKT)
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1749 GMT (0149 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1814 GMT (0214 HKT)
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
ADVERTISEMENT