Tag Archive: White Album


The Beatles – Let It Be – 5/8/1970

January 30th, 1969. It was chilly and damp; not rainy, but there was a dreary moistness to the air like there always is in January in London. It was noon, lunch time, when the four Beatles emerged from the hatch in the roof of 3 Savile Row, the Apple Corps headquarters. With them was a cadre of crew, both sound and film, as well as producers and engineers. Yoko was looking down to the street, and John was plugging in. He was visibly cold, so Yoko lent him her fur coat. Amused by this, Ringo also donned his wife Maureen’s red mac. They tuned up and did a few sound checks, then went right into “Get Back.”

It was about noon, coinciding with lunch hour for the lawyers and accountants populating the buildings surrounding Apple headquarters. This idea for a live, unannounced concert to premiere their new material – and simultaneously record their new album – had been around for awhile. Some grand locations were thrown around, like a peak in the Himalayas and even the moon. But in the end, they didn’t feel like hauling all their stuff around, so they just went upstairs instead. After only 42 minutes (not enough time to perform all the new stuff), the police intervened and shut the concert down.

The sessions and rehearsal for the Get Back album in the closing months of 1968 were fraught with disaster. Personal and professional problems reared their ugly heads around nearly every corner. The egos of all four Beatles had grown to mythic proportions. The capstone was when John insisted that Yoko, whom he had married only a few months before, was to be physically with him at all times. His rationale was that Yoko was a part of him now, in every sense of the phrase.

After the experience of The White Album in which each of the band members had functioned almost independently, nobody was willing to work for the greater good. There was no compromise, no give-and-take, and no understanding. In truth, they weren’t really a band anymore; the Beatles were over.

After that rooftop concert, Get Back was scrapped. The concert idea hadn’t really panned out seeing as they hadn’t gotten enough good material on tape to construct a full album. That lark on the Apple rooftop would prove to be the final public performance that all four Beatles would give together – they broke up just a few months later, but not before recording a one-last-hurrah album of new new material, called Abbey Road.

It quite often seems impossible and unthinkable to me, but the entirety of the Beatles’ meteoric rise to the absolute pinnacle of pop stardom and then their implosion and sad demise… took 8 years. While they were together, they released 11 albums of new material, a bevy of singles, and were without a doubt bigger than sliced bread and the wheel combined (though not Jesus). No band today could accomplish all that in less than 20 years; the Beatles did it in 8. Hell, some bands don’t release 3 albums in 8 years!

I’m not done. Adding amazement to amazement, the Beatles even released an album of original material after they had broken up. And it wasn’t “unreleased studio material” or “archival studio footage,” leftovers and snippets never meant to see the light of day assembled piecemeal by some studio hotshot in an effort to squeeze the last tiny drop of milk from that dried-up, crusty teat. What became Let It Be was the pieces of an almost-album that didn’t quite make it to release. All it took was impresario producer Phil Spector to swoop in and finish what the Fab Four had started; it turned out to be one of their best, most enduring releases. Even the wasted ashes of the former Beatles are beautiful; they just need the right lighting.

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New Year’s Eve, 1968. In the hills above L.A., some people are gathered around a campfire when a bearded man among them explains that a war between blacks and whites in America is coming. More than that, the people around the campfire are going to start that war. More than that, the people around the campfire will not only be saved from this war, but will come out on top once the war is over. More than that, this war has been prophesied, and the prophets are speaking directly to the people around the campfire in a coded message.

The bearded man: Charles Manson. The people around the campfire: the Manson Family. The prophets: the Beatles. The coded message: The White Album.

Manson called this race war “Helter Skelter,” after the Beatles song. It’s quite appropriate, because a “helter skelter,” in British slang, is a descent, usually pretty rapid and dramatic. Under Manson’s prediction, the whites would have a descent (being exterminated by the blacks), and then the blacks (being exterminated by the Manson family). In a larger sense, Manson meant “helter skelter” to mean that (pardon my French), “shit was gonna go down” – and Manson and his followers were going to start it.

But the most bizarre, freak-out thing in this entire scenario – aside from the brutal and devilish murders of Sharon Tate and company – is that Manson took his walking orders from The White Album. Manson believed – and his followers believed – that the Beatles were speaking directly and exclusively to them in subtle messages laced all over The White Album. Every song had a significance that applied only to Manson and his “family.” Among the more interesting ones:

“Blackbird” – Black people are going to “arise” and slaughter the whites.

“Rocky Raccoon” – “Coon” is a pejorative term for a black person, so Rocky is black. Rocky’s “revival” meant that black people were going to come into power soon. Further, the prominence of “Gideon’s Bible” in the song – more specifically the line “Gideon checked out” – meant that the entire scenario was told about in the book of Revelation.

“Revolution 1” – In the lyric “When you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out,” John includes a subtle “in” right after he sings the word “out.” This indicates – in reality – that John was actually undecided whether revolution was needed or not. In Manson’s mind, this indicated that the Beatles all favored violent revolution, but had to keep silent because they were on a “peace-and-love trip.”

“Happiness is a Warm Gun” – Black people are supposed to arm themselves with guns for violent revolution.

Linda Kasabian, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Susan “Sadie Mae” Atkins

“Sexy Sadie” – A reference to Manson follower Susan Atkins, who had been redubbed Sadie Mae Glutz even before The White Album had come out.

“Revolution 9” – Many things. Despite the fact that it’s a musical collage and thus has no lyrics, Manson thought he heard John shout “rise!” in several places (John was actually saying “right!”). The repeated words “number 9” are a reference to the ninth chapter of Revelation, which is when the “locusts” are released to torment mankind for five months. Also, Manson believed George was saying “Charlie, Charlie, send us a telegram,” which Manson and the other family members tried to do. In one section of the track, George actually does say something about a telegram.

“Honey Pie,” “I Will,” “Don’t Pass Me By,” and “Yer Blues” – The Beatles were searching and calling for Jesus Christ (because they love him). Manson had a huge Jesus Christ complex, believing himself to be the second coming of the man. Thus, the Beatles were calling for Charles Manson himself to join them in London. Manson family members were trying to get a message to the Beatles telling them to join Manson in Death Valley.

“Helter Skelter” – The whole thing in miniature. In the lyric “she’s comin’ down fast,” “she” would be America, and the “comin’ down” refers to the race war that the country will soon descend into. The song also contains a reference to the Manson family emerging from their supposed Death Valley underground hideout, which Manson called the Bottomless Pit (a reference to Revelation chapter 9).

 With his “The White Album is forecasting the future” thing, Manson is creating what’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy. He wants it to be true, so he’s going to make it true. Fortunately for everyone except Sharon Tate and the others who happened to be there the night of August 8th, he never got to. Manson, like the true megalomaniac he is, also thought the entire White Album was directed exclusively at him, that the Beatles were purposefully trying to tell him something in code. Once again, because he wanted it to be true, it was.

Let’s hope I can make this next comparison without being drawn and quartered by my fellow Christians.

Charles Manson started with a supposition and then found support for it in The White Album, despite the fact that support simply wasn’t there. Through creative arranging and sheer force of will, he made it say something that it just doesn’t say. He did the opposite of what scholars and seekers of truth do. He arrogantly supposed that his truth was more important than the truth his source (in this case The White Album) was trying to convey.

Is this not very similar to what we sometimes do with the Bible? The Bible, by the admission of the apostle Paul, was meant to teach us, rebuke us, correct us and train us (2 Timothy 3:16). It is NOT meant to be used as an irrational justification for what we already think. Yet this is what so many Christians do. They start with a firmly held belief that comes from themselves, search the Bible for a verse or passage that seems, without context, to support it, and then claim that that firmly held belief is biblical. This is NOT how we should read the Bible; we should actually do the opposite, as in start with the text, then earnestly seek the truth contained therein, and let your firmly held beliefs be formed and shaped by that truth.

We’ve seen it over and over again. “Hey, it’s not me; it’s the Bible.” The subjugation of women has “biblical” support, according to some complemetarians. Creationism has “biblical” support (and evolution suffers “biblical” refutation), according to hardline fundamentalists. And countless pastors have written books saying they have the key to a “biblical” marriage. You can find support in the Bible for any opinion you want.

In my mind, this is very similar to what Charles Manson did with The White Album. However, there are two notable differences. One is that Christians don’t use the Bible to support murder. Another – and one that makes what some Christians do even worse than what Charles Manson did – is that it’s easy to argue with The White Album. It’s much more perilous to argue with the Bible.

I’ll leave you with that.

The White Album is an exercise in “kitchen sink” mentality, being that during its production, the Beatles threw everything they could think of at it, including the kitchen sink. After “Revolution 1” comes the second cheesiest song on the entire album, “Honey Pie.” It’s a tribute to British music hall of the 19th and early 20th century. It even features crackles from a 78 RPM record in the intro. This song doesn’t appeal to me. Not only am I too far removed from the music hall era for the homage to work nostalgia in my ears, but it’s so heavy-handed that it just comes off as cheap.

George makes his final appearance as vocalist and songwriter on “Savoy Truffle.” It was written about George’s dear friend Eric Clapton, who both guest starred on guitar on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and was simultaneously pining hopelessly away for George’s wife, Patty Boyd. But “Savoy Truffle isn’t about any of that; it’s about Eric’s love of sweets. About 50%of the lyrics are directly derived from a box of Mackintosh’s Good News chocolates. Clapton is a passionate man, and his passions translated directly into addictions: for chocolate, for sex, for drugs, and for romance. He was a man that was truly at the complete mercy of his vices. “Savoy Truffle” is just about one of those vices, but can be viewed as a character study of Eric Clapton in miniature.

Interpretations of “Cry Baby Cry” are few, and most are met with the furrowed brow of skepticism. My own is somewhat lame, but here it is. The King, Queen, Duke and Duchess, all being adults, do things that the children think are ridiculous, and the behavior of the children makes the adults “sigh.” It puts the dissension between the generations that was so prevalent in the late 60s (see Bookends by Simon & Garfunkel) in fantasy and allegorical words.

the “cry baby” from TV’s Firefly

Interesting geek side note. In Joss Whedon’s stupendous but short-lived sci-fi TV series Firefly, there is a device the crew of smuggling ship Serenity uses to distract government ships from their presence by sending out a fake distress signal from the opposite direction. It’s called a Cry Baby. To order its use, Captain Reynolds radios the pilot and says, “Cry baby cry,” to which Wash the pilot responds, “Make your mother sigh!” It probably flies by a lot of people, but I always notice it.

After “Cry Baby Cry” comes the secret song that’s appended to it, called by most fans “Can You Take Me Back.” Then comes “Revolution 9” and its 8 and a half minutes of strangeness. Finally, The White Album comes to a close with “Good Night.” It’s right in front of “Honey Pie” as the cheesiest song on here, purposefully made so by John. It features Ringo’s second turn as lead vocalist, which fits the maudlin feel. John wrote “Good Night” as a lullaby for Julian, though it’s mostly the work of producer George Martin. He made the orchestration full-bodied and incredibly over the top, like a Golden Age of Hollywood musical number. And with that, the White Album is over.

As you can see, John and Paul are taking a wide scatter-shot approach with this record. In a way, it’s very disjointed, jumping from one style to the next and to the next in a wild, unpredictable fashion. It may seem like disjointedness at times, but the real genius of The White Album comes when you take a few steps back and look at the entire picture. This is the first album (and there have only been a few since) that has a “kitchen sink” mentality, truly counting nothing as an impossibility. The vast majority of musicians limit themselves to what they can do well and what is comfortable for them. This is not a bad thing; I don’t say to Lady Gaga or the Kings of Leon, “you didn’t make the White Album, so why’d you even bother?” But the fact that the logical standard for an album is fairly limited makes albums like The White Album even more remarkable. The Beatles dared to stretch themselves beyond their apparent capacity and found that they hadn’t even hit the ceiling yet. Just by itself, that’s inspiring.

Tomorrow: Charlie Manson’s crazy-talk

1 and 9

The Beatles’ retreat to India didn’t mean they were insulated from the happenings of the world. Early 1968 saw not only the march on the American Embassy in the U.K. because of the Vietnam War, but also other major acts of protest around the world. The Beatles were never a band to get into politics or activism; “Taxman” was the extent of their political commenting, and George only wrote that because of how the government affected him directly. But John thought it was time for them to cease their silence. As the biggest band in the world, people were looking to them for a voice, whether they wanted to be that voice or not.

Nowadays, rock musicians of every stripe are airing their unqualified opinions on wars and presidents to the point where it’s “unhip” to not do so. Anti-war stances are a matter of course, and the more vocal the better. For whatever reason, rock and roll has always been the music of the anti-establishment, the rebels. All too often, that means people are standing against authority not because they disagree with anything specific, but merely to have something, anything to stand against; authority just happens to have a target painted on it. As time went by and rock musicians became more distant and removed from everyday society, that activism didn’t decrease; it increased. So now we have rockers talking loudly about an issue and knowing very little about it. More than that, rock musicians are expected to take the anti-government, anti-establishment position. When they don’t, things get ugly.

When the Beatles released “Revolution” as a single slightly before The White Album came out, there was naturally some fervor. One would think by the title that it was a rallying call for the end of “the War,” but it was actually a stinging indictment of people who use anti-war activism as a different means for destruction. Many on the political left saw “Revolution” as a betrayal. What they miss is that despite some biting language, it has a very positive message. John’s rationale behind the chorus of “Y’know it’s gonna be alright” was that God is in control of all things, and it will all work out in the end.

John thought it was time the Beatles spoke up, but Paul wasn’t so sure, and was hesitant to spark controversy, which he knew “Revolution” would do. When John said he wanted it to be a single, Paul sided with George in saying it was too slow, to which John responded in kind by recording a version that was fast, aggressive and single-worthy. Paul and George couldn’t argue with that. The original, which was bluesy and soft-sung, was retitled “Revolution 1” and remained as an album track. It was also separated from its musique concrete second part, which was expanded and dubbed “Revolution 9.”

what's with the bunny?

Now, thanks to Wikipedia, I know that musique concrete is an established recording style (I can’t call it a “musical style;” though some may disagree with me, it’s not music), but I haven’t heard anything other than “Revolution 9” which is called musique concrete. There’s probably something to get, but I don’t get it. It eludes me, and I’m pretty sure I’m not losing anything by being eluded. Listen to the track and you’ll see what I mean.

On Sunday: George writes a song chiding Eric Clapton about his love for… chocolates?

Facebook has a feature that notifies you when today is the birthday of one of your friends. In the morning, if there’s anyone who’s celebrating the anniversary of their entering into the world, I post on their wall a link to a YouTube video that I have bookmarked. It’s a silly, ridiculous Flash music video to the Beatles song “Birthday.” I’ve become rather dissatisfied with just posting the words “happy birthday” on someone’s wall and leaving it at that; my reasoning is “everybody does that, and I wanna be different.” Here’s a place where my desire to be different merely for the sake of it has good results, because it will almost assuredly bring a smile to someone else’s face.

Right after the exuberant burst that is “Birthday,” the second half of The White Album goes into the second true blues John offering, aptly called “Yer Blues.” John wails that he’s lonely and that he wants to die like any blues singer should. It doesn’t end there, though. The song also has an extra beat during one measure of the chorus, setting it just slightly off-balance.

The Dirty Mac

It’s worth mentioning the Dirty Mac here. That’s a supergroup that formed for one night only to perform “Yer Blues” and a jam called “Whole Lotta Yoko.” It consisted of John Lennon on vocals and guitar, Eric Clapton on lead, Keith Richards on bass, and Mitch Mitchell on drums. John put them together for the celebrity-studded Rolling Stones TV special Rock and Roll Circus. The Dirty Mac is an example of a philosophy I try to live my life by: be aware of moments, enjoy them, and let them pass. Some moments are like wild birds that can’t be caged – they’re feather are just too bright. (shout-out to my boy Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption)

“Mother Nature’s Son” is about a lecture the Maharishi gave while the Beatles were in India. The whole song boils down to “Paul likes nature;” it is pretty, though.

Then comes “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey.” This wins the award for the Beatles song with the longest title. I was recently at a New Year’s Eve party thrown by my wife’s parents. Franz, one of their friends, told me a story of a professor he had in college who was obsessed with the Beatles, and defied his students to ask a Beatles-related question that would stump him. If they succeeded, he would give them some reward, like changing their lowest quiz score to a 100% or something. Anyway, Franz did it with the longest Beatles song title. He was very impressed that I guessed right with “Monkey.” If I was that professor’s student, it would be really cool if he taught something I’m horrible at so I could coast through on my Beatles knowledge alone.

The Beatles with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

In “Sexy Sadie,” originally titled “Maharishi,” John unleashes all his vitriol from the India experience, namely his disillusionment with the Maharishi himself. Sometimes I think their trip to Rishikesh was less of a spiritual awakening and more of a soap opera.  The main beef was that John believed (at the time) that Yogi had made sexual advances to more than one woman at the retreat. John even confronted the Maharashi about it, to which he responded simply, “I am only human.” Not exactly damning evidence, but not a denial either. “Maharishi” was written right when John got back to England. He demoed it for the other Beatles, apparently with different and much angrier lyrics. George insisted that if it was included on the album, it have a different title, to which John agreed.

The next song, “Helter Skelter,” is another pinnacle for the Beatles, being their hardest and most metal-like song. It stands out very starkly not only on The White Album, but in Paul’s songwriting altogether. Just think about other Paul songs on the White Album: “Martha My Dear,” “Honey Pie,” “I Will,” “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “Rocky Raccoon.” They’re all cutesy and upbeat. Then, factor in some of Paul’s other work: “Hold Me Tight,” “All My Loving,” “Here, There and Everywhere,” “Hello, Goodbye,” “P.S. I Love You,” “The Long and Winding Road.” Seeing a pattern? Paul wanted to prove (not sure to whom, but probably to himself, chiefly) that he could write a song outside the scope of a ballad, a song that was the utter opposite of a “silly love song.”

Helter skelter” means in British slang “confused” or “confusedly,” and is also a falling from a high place to a low. The fall of the Roman Empire is a good example. It’s also a popular British spiraling slide amusement park ride. I think Paul did a pretty good job; “Helter Skelter” adds a new dimension to an otherwise pretty tame band volume-wise.

We’re on the third side, so a George song is nearly perfunctory. Also perfunctory is the actual third George song, called “Long, Long, Long.” Too quiet in the beginning, too inconsistent throughout, and tuneless on the whole, it’s a wholly forgettable moment.

I imagine you’re spitting out your drinks that I haven’t mentioned Charles Manson yet. Don’t worry, I will.

Get it? I will? “I Will?” …Anybody? Is this thing on?

In our exploration of The White Album, we come again to George. His side two offering, “Piggies,” is a baroque-esque tune (kitchen sink, much?). It features a riff played on a harpsichord, and the song has cutting and satirical lyrics. The term “piggies” refers to the rich, not to the police. “Pig” as a pejorative term for a policeman has been around since the 19th century, though it rose in popularity during the 60s and 70s among the anti-establishment movement. For the most part, though, it’s an American term. Here, much is made of the ridiculous and harmful behavior of the corporate-minded. It’s even a little violent, though the line “what they need’s a damn good whacking” was added by George’s mother. The song uses a mocking tone both lyrically and musically, even having John make pig snort sounds at points. Frankly, it’s hard to take seriously.

Speaking of hard to take seriously, the next song is “Rocky Raccoon.” It’s even sillier than ”Piggies” and has much less serious subject matter. Here’s another instance of Paul talking out his ass. It’s about a cowboy (honestly) named Rocky Raccoon, who’s named that simply because Paul thought it sounded like a cowboy name. Once again, a lot of the things I don’t like about Paul’s songwriting coalesce into one incredibly infectious tune. Like with so many other Paul songs, it just wore me down. It’s the Oreos all over again.

Another irritating/endearing quality of Paul’s songs is at work in “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?” Going to India must have been a singularly huge experience for all four Beatles. They must have seen and experienced things they wouldn’t get in any other time or place. Such occasions are simply bursting with potential art for the right mind. John wrote many songs based on his time in India, and so did Paul. But while John wrote about a plea for a friend to rejoin the living and the destruction of nature, Paul wrote about monkeys screwing.

The lyrics of “In the Road” don’t actually take us by surprise considering its dunderheaded title and near-complete lack of lyrics that aren’t in the title. But as is commonly the case with Paul, it’s not about the song but the song-craft. The music and the vocals more than make up for the lack of other elements. I really don’t know why; it’s nothing more than a 12 bar blues repeated 3 times. Against all odds, it gets under my skin with alarming speed, and I can’t help but sing along at the top of my lungs (provided no one is listening, of course).

The sole Ringo moment comes between “Rocky” and “In the Road” with “Don’t Pass Me By.” It’s a pleasant surprise. Most other songs with Ringo on lead vocal are cute and harmless at best, groan-inducing at worst. But here, Ringo puts on a pretty good show. Even more impressive is that it’s the first completely Ringo-penned song the Beatles released. Maybe that was all he needed, to take the reins and have total control.

John with his mum Julia

“I Will” and “Julia” close out the first side, two tender love songs from Paul and John respectively. Paul writes a heart-warming yet exciting pop tune with “I Will” that features some great guitar work. “Julia” is the only Beatles song that John recorded completely on his own with no involvement from the other Beatles. It’s a tribute to his mother who died when John was 17. In a naked and unguarded moment, which was rare from John until Plastic Ono Band, I think he’s trying to explain his relationship with Yoko to the spirit of his mother. John was always very close to his mother, and I think her death changed him into the person we’re all familiar with. Had she not died at that crucial time in his life, we would indeed have seen a very different John, the Beatles, and music history in general.

On Wednesday: can you imagine Paul as a heavy metal rocker?

At its most basic level, art is a narcissistic thing. Musicians and poets in particular make art about themselves. This is how it should be, really; saying something about yourself can often get people to ask themselves if they share that quality. But taken too far, it really stinks. Self-reference can invite the listener in, but when it’s direct and specific, it keeps the listener out. When you talk about yourself in specific terms like naming yourself or the people around you, or talk about things that apply to only you, the listener is unable to relate.

In short, that’s why “Glass Onion” always bothered me and made me roll my eyes. Before you draw and quarter me for speaking ill of St. John Lennon, let me unpack this a little more. The lyrics make reference to a cadre of previous Beatles songs, as well as actually mentioning Paul by name. John makes mention of songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “I Am the Walrus” and “Fixing a Hole,” and that eliminates the possibility of further interpretation. I like interpretation. It means a piece of art has life beyond that injected by the artist.

John wrote this song as a response to fans who read too much into his songs. They had let their interpretations run away with them and started finding things that weren’t there. So instead of telling them directly to shut up and just enjoy the music, John wrote “Glass Onion” to confuse them. I don’t know how that helps matters in the slightest, but it is what it is.

Like “With a Little Help From My Friends,” I first heard “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” as the theme song to a TV show, this time Life Goes On. I didn’t even know it was a Beatles song because it had some faceless woman singing it. It also didn’t have that splendid tack-piano track that really makes the song hold together. The lyrics are sorta silly and very Paul, and threaten to undo it. If the music weren’t so darn infectious, they might.

“Wild Honey Pie,” a short but super-weird interlude, runs straight into another kind of goofy song with a goofy name, “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill.” When John was in Rishikesh, he met a well-to-do American kid named Rik Cooke and his better-to-do mother, Nancy Cooke de Herrera. Nancy was the publicist for the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi when the Beatles et al went to study under him. They ingratiated themselves with the rest of the Beatles, but John thought they were real pricks. One day they set out on a hunting trip, native guides and jungle hats and all, with elephant mounts to complete the cliché. A tiger attacked their elephants and Rik, in a lightning reflex moment, shot the tiger with his rifle. Though he immediately snapped a picture with his kill, he had mixed feelings about the incident.

John didn’t, though. Nancy, who retold the story of the incident to anybody who would listen, said it was “kill or be killed,” but John saw it more as “kill or lose our ride.” He was repulsed by the conflict between these rich American snobs finding spiritual enlightenment in the morning, and then thoughtlessly killing wild animals and trampling nature in the afternoon. His reaction was the song “Bungalow Bill.” It’s bouncy and kind of silly, offsetting the disgust John felt when he was writing it. This was one of John’s great skills; couching a pretty serious subject in more harmless surroundings. It’s like crushing aspirin tablets and mixing the powder in chocolate pudding.

On Sunday: while Eric Clapton‘s guitar gently weeps, George Harrison gets lead by the nose.

The Beatles – The Beatles – 11/27/1968

The White Album begins with the sound of a plane flying overhead, and then goes right into a rollicking, funky rhythm featuring hand-claps, Lewis-style piano, and fat, crunchy guitars.”Back In the U.S.S.R.” sounds like 50s rockabilly in its excitable groove. The quick and punctuating notes and “woo-hoo-hoos” in the chorus remind me of the Beach Boys. Mike Love of the Beach Boys was at a transcendental meditation retreat in Rishikesh at the same time as the Beatles, where this song was written.

As well-written both musically and lyrically as this song is, I can’t get around that Paul is really just talking out his ass here. He’d never actually been to the U.S.S.R. His choice of Russia for the song’s setting doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, other than it’s a place that you wouldn’t expect a party song about chicks to be about. In a seemingly erudite but ultimately immature way, he sings about balalaikas and calls himself comrade. Chagrin as I am to compare the two, this isn’t a whole lot better than that god-awful song about liking girls who wear Abercrombie & Fitch.

“Back in the U.S.S.R.” segues right into “Dear Prudence,” a lovely song about Prudence Farrow, the sister of Mia Farrow, both of whom were with the Beatles when they went to India. Prudence had taken to the teachings of the Maharishi more obsessively than the others; she spent long hours in meditation and would barely socialize with the rest of the group. John wrote this song as “a simple plea to a friend to snap out of it.”

To me, this song is a caution to not have your head so high in the clouds that your feet leave the ground. From my own perspective, this is what a lot of Christians do.

Our parents told us over and over again that we as Christians are “not of this world.” They were teaching something Jesus himself said, but he was saying it to his own disciples, who were wondering why everybody hated them so much. Unfortunately, our take-away from the not-of-this-world thing seemed to be that we need not be concerned about what goes on in this world. After all, it’s not ours and we didn’t choose to be in it, so why worry ourselves unnecessarily? Our focus should be on heavenly things, not worldly things, or so we thought.

There have been several instances for me where this line of thinking simply didn’t work. The earliest is when the people who ran a homeless shelter in Springfield did a presentation at my elementary school. A more recent example is the destitute pregnant woman begging in Union Square that I couldn’t ignore.

The not-of-this-world teaching I learned from my parents still has value, though. I think it really means that as a Christian, I’m different. The world will look at me a little cock-eyed from time to time because my actions, attitudes and entire mindset are going to be different than theirs. And that’s okay; it might make them wonder about mindsets other than their own.

Friday: the real Bungalow Bill

Four Storms

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.

Our Parents’ Vinyl

Ruthanne and I lived in New York for 2 years. We often joke that our potential kids won’t believe that we actually existed in that fast-paced, un-Mom-and-Dad-like environment. There’s probably a moment in every kid’s life when they have to look at their parents in a new light.

In that scant 2 years, we found a fantastic church and made some incredible friends. It seemed there were a strange number of late 20s, childless married couples at that church, and we found our place rather quickly. It was like putting on clothes you’ve never worn before that fit eerily perfectly. It was in New York that I found a different kind of intimacy with peers that I haven’t been able to duplicate. I always felt like a bit of a misfit among Massachusetts Christians. Most MA denizens are pretty liberal in their politics, so a lot of Christians feel they need to dig in their heels in response to what’s around them. But for Christians like me who don’t feel there’s a 1-to-1 connection between Christian faith and the Republican Party, Massachusetts can be a sometimes uncomfortable place. What I really liked about New York City was there was so much diversity that Christians of any stripe could have room to breathe. I felt comfortable enough to just be myself.

After we left New York, the friendships remained. Every time we come back into the city, we’re welcomed with open arms and a warm spare bed by a pair of friends. One such couple had us over for a weekend, and it was the first time we stayed with them. Sitting in their living room shortly after we arrived, my wife and Sonja were happily catching up when my eye was drawn to their stereo cabinet. Among the various electronics that were there, I saw a turntable and a one-shelf collection of vinyl. I couldn’t resist taking a look.

Sonja told me that her and Blake’s LP collection was a combined effort; they were too young to have any vinyl of their own, but they each pillaged their parents’ collections and then culled their findings together. What they came up with was downright impressive. Among the most notable were several Johnny Cash records, Sgt. Pepper, Abbey Road and The White Album, as well as Led Zeppelin’s entire studio discography.

the first vinyl copies of The White Album had serial numbers on the cover to make each copy unique.

I had never seen an actual vinyl copy of The White Album. Blake and Sonja’s was incredibly faded and well-loved, and it had its original serial number in the bottom right corner, something the CD copies didn’t have. It may seem like a small thing, but it was a kind of mythological experience for me.; there I was, seeing with my own eyes what I had only read about. It’s like an amateur painter going to the Louvre for the first time, or a Poli-Sci student taking a tour of the White House.

I don’t think we really appreciate things about our parents lives when we’re younger; in a larger sense, we don’t appreciate our parents themselves. It’s only when we’re older that we sometimes feel a melancholy fondness for them. We had access to them anytime we wanted, but we didn’t want it until the access was no longer there. The good thing is that engenders a desire to create access whenever possible. Like it or not, we need our parents… and parents like to be needed.