Growing up in Liverpool, England, the Beatles took pieces of all the pop music they could find - country, Motown, rhythm and blues, rockabilly - and turned it into rock immortal. But as for their lyric manuscripts, the scraps proved the stuff of everyday ephemera: used envelopes, torn note pads, folded sheets splattered with blue-ink doodles and pink psychedelic swirls.
No one knows how many Beatles drafts got tossed out. But seven handwritten specimens from the group's creative peak survive, thanks to John Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono (who gathered them in the late 1960s), and composer John Cage (who donated Ono's gift to Northwestern University, along with his collection of 400 music manuscripts).
Today they're part of the Northwestern University's music library collection in Evanston, Ill.,where images of the Beatle documents have gone on display. The collection includes one specimen any fab fan would consider a prize: Paul McCartney's draft of "For No One" scrawled on a manila envelope, containing two missing choruses known to but a few folks in academia.
One of them is head music librarian D.J. Hoek. Ask him how much any of the drafts might fetch on eBay, and he says, "I won't speculate. They're exceptional."
"For No One's" manuscript gives an intimate glimpse into McCartney's chamber-pop jewel on 1966's Revolver album. The draft reveals he first called the song "Why Did It Die?" He also finished a pair of choruses that went unused. The first reads: Why did it die?/You'd like to know./Cry - and blame her. And the second: Why let it die/I'd like to know/Try - to save it.
The draft suggests McCartney spent some time tinkering with these choruses before abandoning them. He wrote the middle lines to both in black ink that appear nowhere else on the paper. (He scribbled the verses, most of which made the final cut, in pencil.)
So why, indeed, did this idea die?
"I would assume it just didn't fit the music," says Stuart Shea, author of Fab Four FAQ. "The meter of the lyrics doesn't seem to fit the drawing-room tempo he'd set with the verses.
The Northwestern collection also contains a curiosity unlike any other Lennon-McCartney collaboration: a finished lyric sheet for "The Word" (from 1965's Rubber Soul) in Lennon's handwriting. For reasons unknown, McCartney took the draft and gave it a backwash of pink ink. He then made it a work of minipop art by adding a tree, abstract shapes and highlighting, all done with colored markers.
All the lyric sheets remain in mint condition after 40-plus years. They reside in folders, surrounded by protective plastic sheets. Each has also undergone a preservation process to remove all acid traces from the paper, which will add years to their lifespan.
Viewers making the trek to Northwestern won't see the originals. Hoek keeps those locked up. "Only in extraordinary cases do we bring them out," he says, "and it's because of their value."
Louis R. Carlozo writes for the Chicago Tribune.