Generations

The White Album -The Fabs in autumn… (I)

thewhitealbum.jpg Autumn fills me with yearning. Maybe it’s those first twinges of approaching winter – a warm evening begets a frosty morning – that come unexpectedly, as crises or messages from long feared lost loved ones do, when one isn’t expecting them, bringing fear or joy so suddenly that one isn’t able to anticipate them sufficiently and then try to appreciate them adequately….

Maybe it’s because autumn is that seasonal reminder that we’re finite – that we’ll all die some day – and that we don’t even know when that’ll be, so we can’t really plan. Death, like love, comes even to those who are looking for it at that moment when their attention strays – a fly buzzes, as Dickinson noted, or maybe, as Keats whispers to us, a bird is singing:

“Now, more than ever seems it rich to die…”


I was in a bad way this past Friday. The yearning had seized me, as it does this time of year, and everything reminded me of what I hadn’t done or might never do in my life. I worked doggedly at that which I was supposed to from early morning until just past noon, but then I could go no more. I’d paced all morning, getting up from my computer and walking about the room mumbling wishes and nonsense to myself. I’d picked up half a dozen different guitars and basses and played at them with a melancholy enthusiasm.

I wanted something/anything. Everything/nothing. I wanted to be 19 again. Or 29. Or 39. Or any age but the one I am. The world – the beautiful autumn day, music, writing, love, death – was all of a piece and I was of it yet outside it. I felt disconnected from that I needed most and tied to everything when all I wanted was to be free – if only for one moment.

Call me Ishmael: the sequel.

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I decided to go fishing. The thing that brings me the most solace at times like these is standing in a trout stream concentrating on what Norman Maclean reminds us is important: a four count rhythm and the hope of a rising trout….

I threw my gear together into my fishing basket (a laundry basket makes a wonderful gear tote for boot, waders, and fishing vest), grabbed my rod, and took one last look around the room. On a coffee table behind me were two cassette tapes I’d pulled out of a drawer some days before while looking for something. I picked them up even though I haven’t listened to a cassette in years. It’s all cd’s mp3’s, or XM radio for me.

I loaded the gear into my truck, climbed in, plugged in my XM radio. Ready to go. I started the engine and backed out of the garage. As I reached to turn on XM, the cassettes poked me. I reached into my pocket and took them out. Neither was marked. The only way to find out what was on them was to hear them. I played eeny meeny, chose one, and popped it in.

There was the sound of a needle hitting a disk, a crackle, then the sound of jet engines. “Back in the USSR.” The cassette was an old recording I’d made of my vinyl version of The White Album.

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The White Album is usually rated lower than other Beatles’ landmarks – Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, Abbey Road. Critics, those arbiters of what’s good, bad, and ridiculous in rock, think the album is too disjointed. The individual indulgences and peccadilloes of John, Paul, and George (Ringo’s “Don’t Pass Me By” is just, well, Ringo) seem to be on full display. That’s bad, we’re told. That’s why The White Album doesn’t rank with those others.

The White Album is almost every hard core Beatle fan’s favorite. Critics have never explained why.

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Like most of us, I almost never listen to entire albums anymore. I listen to the vast array of tuneage at XM, to the mass of music on my computer, to the olio on my mp3 player, to mix cd’s. When I put albums (on cd, of course) on the stereo (how quaint that seems!), I always push “Shuffle.” I hear song from albums, not albums anymore.

So listening to The White Album in the mood I was in – searching, yearning, lonely, missing someone/everyone, disappointed – turned out to be revelatory.

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The White Album is an album full of autumnal yearning. The band was in its autumn – there would be the last glorious Indian summer of Abbey Road before the chilly scenes of Let It Be made us confront the winter of The Fabs’ discontent. It’s four people who’d started out as boys together and had grown into men apart from each other sitting on their golden bough and singing to, about, and against “what is past or passing or to come.”

After Paul’s crafty, witty “Back in the USSR” (take that, Beachboys!) comes John’s pensively beautiful “Dear Prudence.” John, who struggled to express his love, even in his most eloquent love songs (think about “Jealous Guy” or “Oh My Love”) falls back, as usual, into linguistic playfulness – “Look around, round, round…”

John’s crafty, witty “Glass Onion” follows and gives way to Paul – ever hopeful, ever cheerful, he seemingly of the temperament of a cocker spaniel – and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” It’s a stretch of lovely nonsense and sly reference, from John’s “…trying to make a dove tailed joint” to Paul’s “Desmond stays at home and does his pretty face….”

“Honey Pie” follows – it’s pure jamming with a bottle and bag nonsense – but that leads into “Bungalow Bill,” the “All-American bullet headed Saxon mother’s son.” John at his sharpest, poking and prodding the privileged classes as only John could. The song ends in confusion with a muffled comment (possibly “Hey-o” or “hell” from John – at least that’s what I’ve heard in the nearly 40 years I’ve been listening) and we’re into something big….

That something big is “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” It’s an epic tune – so big that George felt unable to play the lead – and so brought in the first guest soloist on a Beatles song, Eric Clapton. The lyric ends with that baleful “Look at you all….” I almost cried – not the first time the song has affected me that way, but the first time in so long I found myself surprised by it. And Clapton’s note bending at the end is some of his best….

Then comes that 8th wonder – “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” John took the title from a teaser on the cover of a copy of Guns and Ammo that he saw in an airport news stand. It’s a put together (Paul is most famous for taking various snippets and assembling songs, but in this case John has clearly built the tune from three snatches that he found linked themselves) and grows as it assembles – it’s like a Whitman poem – only better. And those lyrics: “A soap impression of his wife which he ate/and donated to the national trust….” Damn. Just damn….

Paul’s sprightly paean to his English sheep dog, “Martha, My Dear” appears then as a sort of comic relief from the catharsis of the previous two songs. Then, as perhaps only Beatles can, they go on a tear – John’s kitchen sink dramatic “I’m So Tired,” Paul’s Arcadian musing “Blackbird,” George’s operatic satire “Piggies,” Paul’s folk-mock “Rocky Raccoon.” They’re all so good – and so well arranged and recorded – that something’s gotta give.

And it does. Ringo’s “Don’t Pass Me By” seems incongruous after all that Beatle brilliance – it’s as if we’ve fallen off a cloud and landed in a bad country song (which we have). Still, any song that can give you an appalling and unforgettable lyric like “You were in a car crash/And you lost your hair” can’t be all bad. And that’s followed by “Why Don’t We do it in the Road?” – a Paul throwaway (and sadly, a harbinger of the kinds of half ideas he’d lard albums with throughout his solo career). Uh, everyone has been watching you, Macca. Don’t take songs off…. (Just think of “Dance Tonight” from Memory Almost Full if you doubt me….)

Then we get a couple of wonderful, intimate pieces – “I Will” from Paul and “Julia” from John. Moodily acoustic, both are full of the sorts of lines we want to say to those we love at just the moment they need to hear them:

Who knows how long I’ve loved you,
You know I love you still;
Will I wait a lonely lifetime?
If you want me to, I will…. – I Will

Half of what I say is meaningless –
But I say it just to reach you…. – Julia

And we’re only halfway through the album….
(Part II next)

4 replies »

  1. I think this winds back around to what I’ve always said about the difference between “favorite” and “best.” Most people don’t seem to think there’s a difference – they equate the two – or they don’t take the time to distinguish between the critical faculty and the “like” faculty.

    I hear you saying that this is your favorite, but you don’t think it’s their best, as I recall – you’re a Sgt. Pepper’s guy, right?

    But you have your finger on something interesting here. The White Album is more of a collection of songs, whereas Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s hold together more as coherent wholes. That unity of artistic purpose (in part) makes them greater critically, but the ears and heart are often unconvinced by reason, huh?

  2. Two things, Sam:1) I agree with you wholeheartedly about the “like” and “best” differentiation you make. Excellent point.2) I think Sgt. Pepper’s is their best album. It’s only 5th on my “faves” list. The White Album, Revolver, Rubber Soul, and Abbey Road all supersede Pepper’s in my personal taste. But I have a well trained critical faculty – and that tells me that Pepper’s is the greater artistic achievement.

  3. Though a huge Beatles fan at the time, The White Album and Sgt. Pepper weren’t my favorites. They’ve grown on me over the years, though, and have aged well.

    (Unlike, say, “Hey, Jude.”)

    Thanks for the tribute, Jim!

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