Sunday, May 14, 2017

When I'm 68 1/2

I don't get asked to do this sort of thing much anymore, which is fine with me, since for the most part I'd rather write about other things or work on my book, but someone was kind enough to send me the 50th anniversary edition of Sgt Pepper last week, and I decided to play it last night. Herewith, some thoughts. 

* * *

The weird thing is not that Sgt Pepper is fifty years old, it occurred to me this morning as I lay abed looking for a good reason to get up at the ungodly hour of 7:30. It's that I was only 18 ½ when it came out, and that I found it inevitable when it happened. I'd already gone to San Francisco, where the good folks at 1836 Pine, the people who'd started the Family Dog, took me in for a few days while I roamed around the fragile, doomed attempt at Utopia they were building. One night they'd left a tab of acid on the dining room table for me, because they trusted I could handle it, but I didn't take it. Not yet, I thought. That had been February, and I was supposed to bring back a report for Aspen, the magazine in a box. I'd dutifully interviewed Alan Cohen, one of the proprietors of Haight Street's Psychedelic Shop and one of the editors of the Oracle newspaper, who was articulate enough, while at the same time (although this bit didn't make it into the excerpt they ran) gently suggesting that the thing to do wasn't, as Scott McKenzie suggested in his about-to-become-a-hit "San Francisco (Flowers In Your Hair)", to come there, but to make it happen in your own home town. That advice certainly resonated with me, and when, a month or so later, I returned to college, I found, unsurprisingly, that a lot of my friends there were of the same mind. That's when I took the acid. 

I'd caught as much music as I could in my few days in California, most notably the "Second Annual Tribal Stomp" on either February 17th or 18th, headlined by Big Brother and the Holding Company, which I recorded on a remarkable new tape format called the cassette, a recording that was in high enough fidelity that it awaits a friend's attention and, presumably, the permission of the Joplin estate, to be publicly issued. 

I wuz dere!
I also got to see Country Joe & The Fish at the Old Cheese Factory (aka Finnish Hall) in Berkeley, another show at the Avalon with Lee Michaels and (visiting from L.A.) the Peanut Butter Conspiracy, and, just around the corner from the Pine Street house, the Light Sound Dimension and the Orkestra, a psychedelic "multi-media" event (ie, a light show and some horrible music courtesy of future Manson murderer Bobby Beausoleil) that I remember walking out on.  

This kind of thing appealed to me more than the Beatles, although they'd caught my attention with Rubber Soul and even more with Revolver, but, in a way I didn't yet understand, things were different in England, no matter that George Harrison visited Haight Street a little after I did, after soaking up the Monterey Pop Festival. I liked music that jumped off a cliff, hoping for the best, because I knew it could be very good indeed when it took flight. Like most Americans, I didn't get pop music, which, as they were about to make perfectly clear, was the milieu the Beatles (and not the Rolling Stones, whom I preferred, of course) inhabited.

Still, there was no denying the power of this thing when it appeared a couple of months after I returned to school in March.  Everybody bought a copy, myself included, and it just as it was reported happened throughout the Haight-Ashbury, it poured out of dorm windows, open to the newly-hatched spring. Everybody was listening to it, all the time. I was. I don't even remember where I got my copy, but it was presumably in the campus bookstore like everyone else. (Not necessarily: I was also known to catch rides to Dayton, where a sort of hip record division of one of the big department stores stocked things like Kinks singles, which I couldn't live without). 

Of course, due to its ubiquity, Sgt Pepper became one of the first models of a problem all pop potentially has: being enjoyed to death. I'd kind of like to look at my copy of the thing again (it's nearby, buried in the bowels of the Barker Texas History Center in an archive where I donated all my vinyl many years ago) to see just how worn it was. I listened to it a lot, perhaps expecting more revelation than was actually in the grooves, which was a product not only of the times, but of my being a teenager. I know that there soon came a point when I no longer listened to it, and in fact, until the release of the complete Beatles catalog on CD a few years ago, I hadn't paid it any attention at all until I was obligated to for a Fresh Air piece

And so to last night, when I lugged the 5 lb. 14 oz. box (I just weighed it) onto the couch and opened up the facimile album cover with its six discs and figured I'd listen to the work-in-progress stuff as much as I could, and then onward to what was supposed to be Giles Martin's astounding new mix of the original. 

Image stolen from Rolling Stone
I was actually surprised. I got through three of the CDs: the two of studio snippets (including work on both "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields") and the stereo mix of the final product. The studio stuff was fun, and, in the case of George Harrison leading the Indian and Western string players through the instrumental track of "Within You, Without You," quite engaging, since I'd never realized that he actually had much knowledge of Indian musical vocabulary. (There's nothing particularly challenging about the track, but what he does is make sure the Indians adhere to his sense of time, which is different from the one in which they're used to operating). 

In a number of cases, the unfinished tracks have details that are in the finished product, but ones of which I'd been unaware and which the new mix -- every bit as spectacularly detailed as I'd read it was -- makes audible. The harp and string bits for "She's Leaving Home" are presented naked, which is fine with me: I remember hearing this and thinking "Jeez, 'Eleanor Rigby' but more mawkish!" And the sharp new sound re-emphasizes the Beatles' instrumental acumen even when the final product ("Good Morning," "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite") is less than interesing. Oh, and speaking of instrumental acumen, nobody who hears this will ever again accuse Ringo Starr of being a plodding dimwit. He and George can battle it out for the title of Most Virtuosic Beatle. 

The best part of not having listened to this record in at least eight years (that Fresh Air program is dated 2009, and I doubt I listened too hard then) is that I was able to take it in without nostalgia, as an event happening in May, 2017. I guess at some point I'll look at the little film on the making of the record, and for sure I'll read most of the hardback book that gives the package most of its heft, because it's not by the Usual Suspects, but people like Joe Boyd, whose take on the times (if his superb book White Bicycles is any indication) should be fresh and un-cliched. 

As for the fifty years that have passed since I first slipped this on to my record player, it's been full of surprises, some delightful, some not. When I was 64, there was no one to feed me (I can do that myself quite well), no kids (let alone grandkids), and (thank heaven) no holidays on the Isle of Wight -- and it's still that way. But I get by with a little help from my friends, and, as someone once said, tomorrow never knows. 

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