Do you remember sitting on the floor of your bedroom with your buddy, listening to records and talking about life? Let’s do that, me and you. Right now.
What’s it like to crawl so deeply inside an album that it becomes part of your emotional vocabulary? Does music still matter that much to people? I don’t know, but I think it does. I see passionate music fans when I cover shows, especially kids who like me at their age are looking for some way to express their feelings.
It’s been a long time since I was that age, but when my batshit crazy brain overwhelms me I still reach for the turntable. And so here I sit, clattering the keys, listening to The Beatles’ White Album, and I do mean album. I slipped it out of its protective sleeve, ran the Discwasher over side one, and dropped the needle.
It’s not really my album; well, it is but it isn’t. It belonged to my once-step-father-in-law, a Kickapoo medicine man and Indian child welfare worker whom I met only once. The meeting must have been startling for him—he died shortly thereafter. He was a big man, and he’s cast a long shadow over those who cared for him. My mother-in-law gave me his albums a few years later as a Christmas gift. I immediately ran to Dimple Records and bought plastic sleeves for each album, then carefully documented which were his in the event that she ever wanted them back.
Record collections are very intimate things, at least for me. I have my own copy of The White Album, but listening to his connects me to something. He was here. He touched this. That pop I just heard? He heard it, too. Was he moved by “Dear Prudence?” Did he feel the dread in “Happiness Is A Warm Gun?” Did he want to punch Sir Paul for marring a brilliant record with trite songs like “Back in the USSR” and “Rocky Raccoon?” In some way he’s in the room right now, and I didn’t even know the guy.
His isn’t the only record collection I’ve inherited. One dear friend left me his vinyl, a lot of New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, but also the nude ladies cover of Electric Ladyland and a European edition of U2′s Boy with an alternate cover. His copy of Blizzard of Ozz was interesting, too: an expurgated printing with no “Suicide Solution.” This morning my son and I broke out the guitars and played “Holy Diver” among other things. I always think of my good buddy when the boy and I rock Dio. My friend’s vinyl copy was the first Dio I played for the kid.
Another close friend offered me his classical vinyl collection, but regrettably I declined. He was having a hard time of it and I was concerned that he was passing along his records for the wrong reasons, out of depression and hopelessness rather than the joy of handing down. I was in my own bad way at the time and I didn’t want the loovly Ludwig to cross pollinate with bad juju.
Paul just let that goddamned blackbird go. I’ve heard that song so many times that it should be completely fucked out but it isn’t. Mr. Mister contaminated it back in 1985, too, with “Broken Wings,” but even that didn’t kill it for me. It’s simply a great song.
If forced to pick a favorite Beatles record I’d go with The White Album. I love it so much that I bought it on CD the day that it was released in 1987. I didn’t own a CD player until 1993. It simply sat there in its long box, waiting. Three brilliant songwriters and Ringo, off in their separate corners making art. Good art. It’s an album that only in retrospect is about breaking up. Only after the fact did we know that our four Mop Top dads were keeping separate schedules, bringing in their own sidemen so that they could feel something again. No one’s really watching us, why don’t we do it in the road?
So many bright spots. Buy me a beer and I’ll argue all night that “Helter Skelter” is the prototype for heavy metal. Buy me two beers and I’ll ramble on about how overall John wins the album, but George’s contributions have the most gravitas. But Jesus Christ, “Julia?” A love song for John’s deceased mother? “Birthday” just can’t hang in that kind of company.
Side two just ended. I had to stand, carefully remove the first platter from the turntable and slide it back into its paper sleeve, then I took a leak and a big pull off of my beer—one to hold me over while I type for another complete album side. After side three got the Discwasher treatment I got the turntable moving and now we’re back in the groove, literally: one long, squiggly line wrapped around and around that magically drops 1968 into my room.
Feel so lonely
Feel so lonely
If I ain’t dead already
Girl you know the reason why.
This album evokes Siouxsie and the Banshees for me, too. They covered “Dear Prudence” on their 1984 album Hyeana, which rarely left my tape deck for a period of roughly two years. And those were two years lived roughly, too. By that age I was beyond the scope of “misfit” in my little Southern town. I was hated, bullied, loathed. I fantasized about putting a bullet through my head in the clean white bathrooms of my high school, or hanging myself in the dense loblolly pines near my home, arms dangling from ropes like a marionette. Thankfully I made it through those years. Some adolescents aren’t so lucky.
“Mother Nature’s Son,” a brilliant Paul moment in this collection. I once knew this on guitar, but it’s long-lost. I play so rarely these days that my hands feel as if they are moving through molasses. Maybe I’ll get out the ukulele and see if I can transcribe it for four strings.
George was a big fan of the uke toward the end of his life, reportedly giving them often as gifts. And no wonder: the ukulele makes a joyful noise. It’s not a pretentious instrument, nor is it exclusive. One can learn the major chords on the uke in an afternoon and get about the business of helping the time to pass gracefully. That’s really what music is all about. “An interesting thing to do with air,” to paraphrase Tom Waits’ Hall of Fame acceptance speech.
You made a fool of everyone, Sexy Sadie. Hey, I’m just the messenger—John’s the one who said it. You broke the rules / you laid it down for all to see. I don’t think it’s possible to reach middle age without running into a Sexy Sadie. In truth the song is John’s tongue lashing of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who got up to some non-Maharishi like shenanigans, but that’s the thing about songs. Once they’re released into the wilderness they graft to the listeners’ experiences and become about that. We’ve all been hustled by our own Sexy Sadie, no matter what axe John had to grind.
I’ve often wondered if John is so lionized because he was murdered. Although I don’t think his death hurt John Lennon’s legend, I don’t think it’s the key to it. At least not for me. John’s later (Rubber Soul onward) songs move me because they are honest. That’s what I respond to, someone putting it out there, doesn’t matter if it’s Kerouac or Lennon or Bukowski or Wes Anderson. When The Wiggles make that punch in the gut album I’ll be there. I don’t have John Lennon’s point of view—I have absolutely nothing in common with the man—but the emotional truth of his songs pulls me in.
I’m so tired
I haven’t slept a wink
Oh, I’m so tired
My mind is on the blink
I wonder should I get up
And fix myself a drink.
I drifted for a moment there. George’s “Long, Long, Long” closes out side three and I found myself completely drawn in, staring at the lit screen of my laptop like some kind of demented acid eater. We’re now on side four, which opens with John’s “Revolution,” a song that truly is fucked out thanks to commercials and other over use. Pete Townshend has an interesting take on his songs being used in ads: they’re his songs to do with as he wishes, and he doesn’t give a fuck what you think. I like that. That’s a truly punk rock sentiment, yet it rakes in huge cash. Go figure.
I was talking to a friend just yesterday about the comfort of death, that if one is fortunate enough to live a “normal” timeline then death must almost be welcome. No more hands moving slowly through the molasses, no more Sexy Sadies, no more yearning for a time that no longer exists. I think that’s nature’s great plan: wind down one’s body and one’s concept of society at relatively similar rates so that when old age death comes we simply say, “Thank God, I can’t handle this shit anymore. Bring it on, you hairy bastard.”
Here’s another clue for you all
The walrus was Paul.
When I was a kid preachers spent their downtime looking for backward messages in popular songs. “Revolution Number 9″ was always a favorite with these whackadoos, allegedly repeating “turn me on dead man” and “let me out.” I wasted a whole evening watching some evangelist with a pompadour tear songs apart for their subliminal messages, only to end his show by playing a gospel tune backward. “Do you hear that?” he said. “‘Washed in the blood of the lamb.’ Praise God!” and then of course he cried. I couldn’t then and still can’t understand why it was wrong to subliminally plant “let me out” in a school kid’s head but “washed in the blood of the lamb” was perfectly acceptable. Takes all kinds, I guess.
It’s really something of a miracle that The Beatles managed to make it from “Please Please Me” to “Revolution Number 9″ in a few short years. They could have ridden that boy band nonsense all the way to the wall, like some sort of bowl cut Baby Janes in Nehru jackets. I don’t know — maybe I’ve simply had enough alcohol to enjoy “numba nine numba nine numba nine.”
Side four is at an end. Now it’s time to say goodnight. The turntable is making the telltale kathup kathup kathup of needle against Apple label. It’s time to put somebody else’s record back in its sleeve and back in my stacks. I don’t know if I’ve captured anything here worth reading, but honestly I just can’t sweat it right now. I think I need a little time to myself, just me, my Beatles, and my turntable.
A version of this piece was originally published at Why It Matters.
photo courtesy of the author