When multiple elements come together to create something more than the sum of its parts, it’s sometimes called a “perfect storm.” The best albums are little perfect storms; moments where different parts converge and collide, and what comes out on the other side is one. The Latin term for this sentiment is e pluribus unum: out of many, one. This is an idea that is one of the foundations for my life (and indeed the basis for this project). But I simply cannot stand the term “perfect storm.” For one thing, it’s been greatly overused in the media. Any time a news story comes up for an event that there’s more than one reason for, newscasters call it a perfect storm. Even more irritating, they’ll make that term self-referential by emphasizing that such a thing could be called a perfect storm, subtly indicating that the use of that term is very clever. You’re supposed to be impressed.

Secondly, the movie by which the term was made famous, The Perfect Storm, is a lot better than the just the name. It features good performances, a seasoned director, and some pretty stunning cinematography for the time. The plot touches on human connection and family, as well as a strong man vs. nature element. But the only thing anyone mentions is the overused term to which it gave birth.

So, against my will, I will have to say that The White Album was one big massive (grumble grumble…) perfect storm. Take the four separate storm systems of the four Beatles themselves. I say “separate” because that’s what they truly had become. There are two arguments for what is actually the beginning of the end. After Sgt. Pepper, George convinced the other three to study transcendental meditation under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. After the sudden death of Beatles manager Brian Epstein (often called “the fifth Beatle” by the other four),the Maharishi called his death “unimportant.” They went again to Rishikesh, India to study at Yogi’s feet. It was there that they started their work on much of what would become The White Album, but John and Ringo eventually got fed up. John indicated that the Maharishi wasn’t what he seemed and was much more publicity-minded than expected. According to reports, Yogi even made sexual advances at Mia Farrow, one of the Beatles’ companions in India.

Yoko Ono

Another argument could be made for the death knell being sounded much earlier, with the fateful meeting at an art gallery of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Indeed, this relationship changed John forever. This woman penetrated all reaches of his psyche, and everything he did after this point could be traced back to her. The explanation wasn’t that Yoko was a witch casting a spell on John, or a manipulative harpy with a master plan. It was nothing more complicated or less beautiful that this: John and Yoko were in love.

As sweet as that is, it means some pretty devastating things for the people around John. Cynthia Lennon bears deep scars for the severing of her marriage. Every time I hear the story of her coming back to the apartment she and John shared one morning and finding John there with Yoko, and Yoko wearing Cynthia’s bathrobe, my heart breaks for her.

But perhaps the most tragic and undeserving victim in this story is John and Cynthia’s son Julian. Here is a young boy who is truly an innocent bystander. Before Yoko, his father was unhappy and angry, and there was turmoil in his house that he didn’t understand. John kept him at arms’ length and he didn’t know why. After Yoko, he had to deal with this extra person in his father’s life – and consequentially his own life. Julian didn’t ask for her, and she wasn’t welcome. Finally, John and Yoko’s son Sean was born, and Julian was dealt another blow. John was simply over the moon for Sean, experiencing the joys of fatherhood anew as if Sean were his first son. John took pleasure in Sean in a way he never did in Julian. Intended or not, Julian must have felt a deeply painful slight.

Paul with a young Julian

Watching all this go down was Paul McCartney. All the research I’ve done on Paul leads me to the conclusion that he’s an incredibly compassionate, empathetic, stand-up kind of guy, with a particular soft spot for the disenfranchised. When the love triangle of John/Cynthia/Yoko exploded, Paul was there as a good friend to Cynthia. As pathetic of a father as John was to Julian, Paul was there as a kind of surrogate. I really admire him for both of those things.

Wednesday: the start of a long process of unpacking The White Album song by song.

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