Generations

The White Album – The Fabs in Autumn…(II)

latebeatles.jpg (Part I Here) It takes a while to drive up to a decent trout stream from where I live. About the time the first side of the cassette ended (sides one and two of The White Album) I stopped at a country store for a diet green tea and a protein snack bar (I’m such a Boomer health junkie now). I hopped back into the truck, flipped the cassette to listen to sides three and four and headed up through the red and gold of the hills toward the river, heartened by what The Beatles were revealing to me and anxious to find out if I could be drawn in again….
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Sometime during the recording of The White Album Peter Townshend gave an interview that incensed Paul McCartney. Townshend claimed that, while The Fabs wrote wonderful songs, The Who rocked harder. McCartney took the interview to the other 3 Fabs and they were equally appalled at Townshend’s cheek. Side three of The Beatles is primarily a smack down of The Who for presuming to suggest that they might be actual rivals to “the toppermost of the poppermost.”

It’s not the first time the Beatles took such measures to put a rival band in its place. Early in the relationship between The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, Jagger gushed about John and Paul’s songwriting so that John, he of the hard exterior and generous impulses, offered to write a song for them. Lennon and McCartney penned “I Wanna Be Your Man” and The Stones recorded it. But The Beatles promptly took the song and recorded it (with Ringo on lead vocal) and their version outstripped the Stones’ (which was a UK hit). Both John and Paul considered it a lesser effort. As Lennon noted dryly sometime later, “We weren’t going to give them anything great, right?”

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“Birthday” is a song that people love or hate. The lead guitar (John, I suspect) is run through a Leslie speaker (which explains the wonderful whirring distortion at the song’s end). Ringo’s opening drum licks are too compressed for my taste, but it was 1968….And everyone should listen to Paul’s bass lines – they make this song. It’s your basic rock blood pumper with all the technology current to the time applied….

Moving from “Birthday” to “Yer Blues” is always disconcerting to me. “Birthday” is all adrenalin and dancing like Snoopy; “Yer Blues” is all anger and angst. It’s a great song, but it’s juxtaposition against “Birthday’s” manic glee is too sudden a shift. To go from “I’m glad it’s your birthday/We’re gonna have a good time” to “Yes, I’m lonely/Wanna die” so suddenly discomfits me every time….

So I was relieved to get to “Mother Nature’s Son.” It farms some of the same ground as “Blackbird” (though not as deeply or richly as that song). I do like the horns, though. And the coda with its diminished chord finish is McCartney at his croon-y best: “Ahh…Mother Nature’s Son….”

Then comes another of those strings of magical song craft that made them and no one else The Beatles – “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide (Except for Me and My Monkey)”; Sexy Sadie”; and that masterpiece of cacophony and serial killer inspiration, “Helter Skelter.” Then for a coda, George’s gorgeous paean to lost and found love, “Long Long Long.”

The Beatles loved treble more than any other rock band of the classic period – it must be traced their rock and roll roots. Old rock and rollers played with lots of treble because their amps weren’t very big and treble compensated because higher pitched sounds carry better. By the time of The White Album that problem had been solved (as The Who, Hendrix, and Cream had demonstrated forcibly), but no one had convinced John Lennon (or ever did) to dial back the treble button on his Epiphone Casino. The shrill chord progression that launches “Everybody’s Got…” could be no one but John. The song is a rave up like “Birthday,” and has no more purpose – though at least more wit (“Your inside is out/And your outside is in…”) – it’s a John song, after all. “C’mon, C’mon” indeed….

As “Everybody’s Got…” fades, we pick up the tinny cat house piano intro to “Sexy Sadie,” John’s savaging of the Maharishi. The bluesy question and response: “Sexy Sadie, what have you done?/You made a fool of everyone…” that opens the song and the subsequent address, “Sexy Sadie, How did you know?/The world was waiting just for you…” point out the Maharishi’s “looking for the main chance” mentality and lead to John’s final address to the holy man who’d disappointed him by, among other things, making a pass at Mia Farrow: “Sexy Sadie, you’ll get yours yet/However big you think you are….” (Deepak Chopra demurs, but as John observed about himself and his monkey, everybody’s got something to hide….)

Then comes the album’s second tour de force – “Helter Skelter.” It’s a screaming rocker from the first chord slide right into McCartney’s oddly creepy playground metaphor lyric:

When I get to the bottom
I go back to the top of the slide,
Where I stop and I turn
And I go for a ride
Til I get to the bottom and I see you again… – Helter Skelter

It’s “loud, sweaty and nasty” – just what McCartney wanted after reading the Townshend interview and hearing him refer to the latest Who tune that way. It looks forward to heavy metal and backward to Little Richard – no mean feat. Its extended form anticipates prog-rock and jam band. And it ends with Ringo screaming, “I got blisters on my fingers!”

It’s fantastic.

How do The Beatles follow such an F-5 tornado of a song?

As they usually do, brilliantly.

George’s “Long Long Long” is as intimate and moody as “I Will” and “Julia” from earlier in the album. And like those two, its lyric is pitch perfect expressing the aching amazement we feel when love is lost, then found again:

It’s been a long long long time,
How could I ever have lost you
When I loved you.

It took a long long long time
Now I’m so happy I found you
How I love you

So many tears I was searching,
So many tears I was wasting, oh. Oh–

Now I can see you, be you
How can I ever misplace you
How I want you
Oh I love you
You know that I need you.
Ooh I love you. – Long Long Long

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“Revolution #1” (as opposed to “Revolution,” the version released as a single with “Hey Jude” – or “Revolution #9,” which will be discussed shortly) is as groovy as anything from the sixties. Slowed from the pace of the single to a more traditional shuffle speed, some of the explosive urgency that drives John’s complaint against violence is lost. And when we get to the chorus, the background “shoo be doowahs” behind John’s “It’s gonna be all right” change the song from a Lennon cry of disappointment in the counter culture to The Beatles getting cheeky with their own earnestness….

“Honey Pie” is Paul’s music hall number – like “When I’m 64,” “Your Mother Should Know,” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” it’s hokey and wonderful all at once, driven by tinkly piano and Dixieland horns (Paul’s dad played in a Dixieland band in Liverpool), the song is silly – and charming. A lot like Paul, actually. And that lyric –

Oh, Honey Pie
You are driving me frantic
Sail across the Atlantic
To be where you belong… – Honey Pie

You can see Paul in his alter ego Ramon crooning this at some holiday camp, smiling and winking at the birds the entire time….

As “Savoy Truffle” came on, I thought about a wonderful poem by Richard Brautigan:

I felt so bad today,
I wanted to write a poem.
Any poem.
This poem.

That’s a little bit what “Savoy Truffle” is like. George was living a cocooned life as a Beatle – he lived in a mansion, he ate in the best restaurants, he was chauffeured everywhere – but he was 25 years old and a prisoner of fame. Life must have felt a lot like the John Gay poem:

Life is a jest,
And all things show it;
I thought so once,
But now I know it.

“Savoy Truffle” is a playful song – it’s George riding back from a visit to The Savoy for dinner and thinking about the dessert menu and how it would make a song. Maybe he’d got a little indigestion – or guilt:

You know that what you eat you are,
But what is sweet now, turns so sour–
We all know Obla-Di-Bla-Da
But can you show me, where you are…? – Savoy Truffle

But that dessert menu is so tempting you know he’ll hit it again next time he dines there:

Creme tangerine and montelimat
A ginger sling with a pineapple heart
A coffee dessert–yes you know its good news
But you’ll have to have them all pulled out
After the Savoy truffle. – Savoy Truffle

Then comes “Cry Baby Cry.”

John’s lyrics read like they’re lifted from a book of fairy tales (“The king was in the garden /Picking flowers for a friend who came to play”), and they use what sounds like a harpsichord played through a Leslie speaker. It’s a haunting song, deeper than John supposed (he called it a “throwaway”) and Paul’s “Can You Take Me Back?” fragment at the end only adds to its haunting nature: “Can you take me back?/Where are people?/Can you take me back?” Without meaning to, John and Paul achieved what great fairy tales always do – they tell a seemingly innocuous story that has dark undercurrents to frighten the child within us….

“Revolution #9” is either a mess or a fascinating piece of recorded performance art depending upon who one talks to. The tape pastiche with its snatches of conversation, pieces of music, primal screams, and sound effects could never be recorded today. I always listen to it diligently and catch some snippet I’d forgotten over the years. There is a great line, though, that used to make me laugh but now haunts me: “Everyone knew that as time went on they’d get a little bit older and a little bit slower.”

And then we reach the end. “Good Night” is a simple lullaby with a whistled solo and a Ringo vocal that shows that John and Paul really understood their friend and knew what kind of song he could put over well. Like “Yellow Submarine,” “A Little Help From My Friends,” or “Octopus’s Garden” it makes one smile. And its closing lyric provides a gentle coda to an album of such disparate genius:

Good night, good night, everybody
Everybody everywhere
Good night… – Good Night

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“Good Night” was playing as I parked the truck near the stream where I was going to fish. The song lyrics should have felt disjunctive as I sat within sight of a sun dappled trout stream with a light breeze rippling the red and gold leaves on the trees. After all the fire and reflection of The White Album, the Fabs were doing for me what they’ve always done – telling me “Don’t you know/It’s gonna be all right.” My yearning wasn’t gone, but I could deal.

Good Night. Everybody. Everywhere.

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