Tuesday, June 06, 2017

And You're Gone: Sergeant Pepper Memories

It was fifty years ago today, give or take a few days, that I was walking along the main downtown street of Galesburg, Illinois.  I was just passing the department store, heading for the corner where I would cross the street and head down that side street back to the Knox College campus.

But I saw someone turn that corner from campus and head briskly on that side of the main street in the direction opposite to mine.  It was Bill Thompson, a friend and fellow student.  From the brisk and exact way he cut that corner and the sense of purpose in his determined stride, I knew exactly where he was going and why.

He was hurrying down to the town's record store.  He'd evidently heard--by dint of having called or because he was called--that the long-awaited album had arrived: Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

I immediately crossed the street and joined him in his quest.  We returned to his offcampus digs and played the record, both sides, all the way through.  My first response was that I was tantalized.  I wanted more.  But it turned out, more came with repeated listenings, all that summer, and then for the next fifty years.

Rolling Stone magazine, which today officially calls it the best album ever made (while others, me included, aren't sure it's even the best Beatles album), has a series of appealing historical articles on each of the songs.  A lot of the content has been known but there's some deeper research (into people who inspired songs like "She's Leaving Home" and the first part of "Day in the Life") and some stuff that's either new or I'd forgotten it, like the fact that Paul McCartney's "When I'm Sixty-Four" had been a novelty tune in the Beatles repertoire since their live club act.

Other articles are fascinating though, especially the first one, on the Sergeant Pepper idea and song, the haunting story of the first person mentioned in "Day in the Life" (someone in their London scene who ushered McCartney through his first acid trip)  and more background about Lennon's "Good Morning, Good Morning."

That last mentioned article used the well-known story of Lennon being inspired by a cereal commercial he saw on TV (as we all did that year) to make the case that all his lyrics on this record reflect his post-touring life of suburban domesticity, and his ways of escaping the tedium through reverie and creative imagination.

After that first listen, and after a week or so of hearing it pouring from the windows of the residences of the few remaining students, I returned to western PA and what turned out to be a summer of suburban domesticity and tedium.  Before school was out I'd had my choice of three summer jobs.  But I returned to find that the one I'd chosen had fallen through.  So I was separated from my student companions and milieu, stuck at home with no money and nothing much to do.

However, there was Sergeant Pepper, which became the soundtrack of my life.  I played it repeatedly, all day when my parents were out, no matter what I was doing.  I remember it playing while I was in the bath.  If something like mp3 players or Walkman's had existed then, I would have listened to it continuously.  As it was, when I took off walking to town or wherever (braving dumbfounded hostility for my growing hair), it was playing in my head, and when I returned, I would immediately put it on again.

I reveled in the music that matched the beat of my blood and my soul, in the lyrics that sang of a familiar world in a new way.  Even the English major in me reveled, as I noted the irony of "fixing a hole" that "keeps my mind from wandering," you know--closing something up in order to wander freely.  And of course, the multiple meanings in just the title of "Within You Without You."

I thought about it obsessively, devoured anything in print I came across.  It was touted as the first "concept album" but the concept didn't extend to many of the songs.  I figured out one element that gave it unity that I don't think anyone else has since noted: the spaces between the songs on the album were shorter than on previous albums by the Beatles and others.  They would soon be shorter on most albums.

The outside world there was very much the one the lyrics were often about, and the Beatles provided not just a knowing rejection but an upbeat alternative, a bit of acceptance but a lot of finding internal resources, and internal worlds to live in. ("Somebody spoke and I went into a dream.") It's the way that it can be getting better all the time.

At this point I hadn't so much as gotten stoned on the new maryjane yet.  I was high on Sergeant Pepper's, on the music.  It's variety, energy, wit and freedom, its hints of new worlds, all inspired me.

And I was inspired.  In the heat of that summer I spent hours in the cooler basement, writing and performing my own music, recording on an old reel-to-reel that I rigged somehow to do sound-on-sound, so I played with multiple tracks.  I had a guitar which I electrified with an old microphone.  I had a broken down piano and a dubious chord organ, rejected from the living room.  I used empty coffee cans and whatever else for percussion.  I experimented with random overdubs and found sounds.  I wrote at least an album's worth of songs, probably two.  In between takes I cut out pictures from magazines and newspapers and made elaborate collages.

Soon it wasn't just Sergeant Pepper. That was the summer that the music exploded. While the television was the same crap (with something very occasional like a segment on Twiggy) and the local radio stations were unadventurous to say the least (this was still the era of AM), very late at night my transistor radio could pull in a station from Cleveland--and on some nights, from Chicago--that played Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and the Doors, including "Light My Fire"--the long version!  

It was also to become known as the Summer of Love.  But that was happening elsewhere.  I was basically alone.  I received and wrote letters, often filled with phrases from Sergeant Pepper songs, as one letter I still have from my PA friend and co-composer Clayton, who was spending the summer with relatives in Los Angeles, though his factory job precluded much scene-making there.  He did bring a bunch of buttons back (buttons were big) including one for me: "Lennon Saves."

I did have one brief adventure in the outside world--my friend Mike and I took the bus into Pittsburgh to see the Mamas and Papas at the Civic Arena, dressed in our best approximations of Carnaby Street duds.  We may even have started moustaches by then. We got there hours early on a hot day, and wandered around in a nearby hotel to escape the heat, eventually chased down by some overexcited teenage girls who took us for members of that evening's warm-up band, Moby Grape.  At one point we pretended to take an elevator up to our rooms, and wound up hiding on a back stairwell, wondering at our only experience of fame.

(We also made futile attempts to find some sort of scene in the Pittsburgh area of Shadyside where it was rumored to exist. The sixties eventually came to western PA-- in the mid 70s.)

"I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit," Kurt Vonnegut wrote in his last novel, Timequake. "I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, 'the Beatles did.'"

They did it from their first record to their last.  But with Sergeant Pepper's they also gave us a little ecstasy.  As they were already learning, and as we all would learn in the 60s, a little ecstasy can be a dangerous thing.  But if you can get past the danger, you've had something that lasts the rest of your life.

They opened up the confinements of what was then the normal.  In some ways, the Beatles ruined me.  I could never quite get over not being able to just live in one of their movies, or their songs.  But that wasn't their fault.  They also gave me ecstatic moments of creativity as well as the fantasy and fulfillment in listening. Especially in contrast to how bad the next summer was going to be, living inside Sergeant Pepper's gave that summer a particular definition that, however mixed and complex, remains memorable.

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