Weird and Sweet, Riotous and Hushed: The Beatles' 'The White Album'
The Beatles' 'The White Album' is a piece of art that demonstrates how much you can stretch, how far you can bend, how big you really are. The album is deeply weird. It has mass. It has its own weather.
I know the exact beginning. One morning when I was nine I walked down the hallway from the bedroom I shared with my brother—Star Wars gear, Peter Pan wallpaper—and went into the kitchen for breakfast. My mum was already there; the radio was tuned, as always, to Vernon's own CJIB; box of Cheerios on the table; cold Okanagan winter outside. A school day. I was in grade four. My mother said, "John Lennon was killed last night."
I didn't know who that was, and said so, and in any case I had problems of my own.
Mum went into the living room and came back with an LP.
"This guy," she said.
The album was the North America-only compilation Hey Jude, a gallimaufry Capitol Records cash-in of singles and b-sides, with a cover shot taken from the last-ever Beatles photo shoot. It's an unhappy, autumnal picture of four artificially-aged men standing in a doorway. None of them are smiling; all are wearing dark clothes. One, the guy my mum said had been murdered, was long-haired and aggressively bearded and wearing a weirdo, hippy-looking belt. He was unappealing and I was unmoved by the fact he was dead.
The only guy without facial hair was sort of cool looking, though, so I played the album, which means that the first Beatles song I listened to, knowing it was the Beatles, was either "Can't Buy Me Love" or "Hey Jude". And that was the beginning.
Album cover, Hey Jude (1970)
Before long I was listening to albums and tapes of Beatle interviews so I could practice the Scouse accent; even now people in bars are sometimes confused by the way I talk and won't believe I'm Canadian. I sat in my bedroom and read what I could find—Nicholas Schaffner's world-opening The Beatles Forever [McGraw-Hill, 1978] Ray Coleman's instructive John Lennon [paperback, Harper Perennial, 1993] —and saw ways to change. I wanted to be less like I was—nervous, corny, mealy-mouthed, obscurely guilty about all kinds of stupid stuff—and more like the brutally honest, beautifully caustic Lennon.
When the Beatles met Cassius Clay in Miami in 1964, Clay treated them to one of his standard quips: "You guys are not as dumb as you look." Lennon's instant rejoinder: "No, but you are." I wanted to be that guy, and not the little clot of submissive fears I felt myself to be. So I listened to the records and interviews and read the books and began to learn the story and conjurations and magic names. Liverpool. The Cavern. The Reeperbahn. Pepperland. Apple. Twickenham. The Rooftop. And rippling outwards, deeper into the world: Candlestick Park, Kansas City, New York, Vienna, Rishikesh, Manila, Tokyo, the USSR.
That's the image: the adolescent kid, living a lonely lifetime in the room, listening hard, struggling with the static, learning the word and the world. Lots of people were kids like that in rooms like that.
For my tenth birthday I got a digital watch that could play a tinny "Hey Jude"; one day a construction worker heard it as I walked by and made me play it over his walkie-talkie to a co-worker. "Hey, Frank!" he yelled, excited. "Listen to this!" In the fifth grade I won free tickets to a tribute show ("Liverpool" or "The Fab Four" or "Yeah Yeah Yeah") when I was the first person to call in and identify a Beatles song on CJIB. I stood in our basement, in what we always called "the rec room", holding the station's last number on the dial of our rotary phone. "Norwegian Wood," easy. My first concert.
That same year I was bringing the Red (1962-1966) and Blue (1967-1970) compilations to school even though all the girls in my class dug Rick Springfield, that album where he's shown on the cover serving champagne to a trio of dogs in the back of a limo. I was haplessly, hopelessly crazy about a couple or maybe all of those girls, especially the rich and smart and very blonde Tiffany P. I liked her face but I was still hopelessly inept and hollow-chested and gauche and she was impressively indifferent to such charms as I possessed and immune, even, to the power of my "Hey Jude" watch.
It took me a long time to grow up, but I did: I got out and away. I've walked across Abbey Road; I've dreamed at the Dakota; I've seen Ringo—and Yoko—live. I've hiked a tumbledown section of the Great Wall listening to The White Album playing on speakers in my pal Max's backpack while winds from Mongolia threw the sound all around. I've been to the John Lennon museum in Saitama where I saw the glasses he was wearing when he was shot, the Epiphone Casino he used on The White Album sessions and, best of all, the weirdo hippy belt he's wearing on the cover of Hey Jude. I've been passionately intense about The White Album in rooms and bars in Zimbabwe and Swaziland and Tokyo and Poland and Mexico and Bali and Banff and Seoul. In 2007 my wife and I went to Las Vegas for our honeymoon because I needed to see Love, Cirque de Soleil's Beatles-themed show. I planned to get a Beatles tattoo, too, and consulted beforehand with my brother.
"I'm thinking of getting a lyric from "Julia": Half of what I say is meaningless / but I say it just to reach you."
"Half?" he asked. He suggested I get the classic Beatles logo instead, with the dropped T, and that was a much better idea and that's what I did.
Much of all this can be traced back to the winter of either 1984 or '85, when I got sucked into the beautiful black hole of The White Album, and never got out again, because it's impossible to remove yourself from the experience of it. The White Album wasn't the first Beatles record I ever listened to, or the first album I ever bought with my own money (With The Beatles), or the album I was listening to when I had sex for the first time (Abbey Road), or even what's generally regarded as their best record (usually Revolver), but it's the huge dark heart album of the Beatles' career. I'm The White Album guy. I talk about it all the time; I hypercathect.
I worry sometimes that I'm a drag, a well-known drag, a bog-standard barroom bore, and that people are smirking and sniding and avoiding me. On the other hand, Max told me recently that he wished he'd loved a band, any band, that much when he was young. "I was too busy playing video games and listening to Huey Lewis and the News," he said. So maybe I just got lucky; maybe the Hey Jude cover and the construction worker and the tribute band were the right clues, the right tip-offs, at the right time. But does all that somehow position me to tackle this colossal cultural artifact? Me, who came to it two decades late, in the wrong country, with the wrong face? Why is it my favourite thing in the world?
The White Album—properly The Beatles—is a double album containing 30 songs, most of them written in the foothills of the Himalayas. It is one hour and 34-minutes long. There were no singles. The 1968 sessions, lasting from May to October, were not uniformly fun and fab but often antagonistic and contentious. Ringo quit. John started snorting heroin. George, the Grumpy One, got grumpier. Paul tried to get back at John for bringing Yoko to the studio by bringing his own girlfriend around, too, which sounds extraordinarily immature until you remember that Paul was only 26 at the time.
Arguments, hard words, heavy-osity. Even their engineer had enough of the bad vibes, and deserted. Yet somehow, out of all that hostility and confusion and season-of-their-discontentment, the Beatles recorded their weirdest, wildest, scariest batch of songs, which Lennon, McCartney, and their producer mixed and sequenced in a marathon 24-hour session that is, without question, the historical Beatle event I would choose to go to if I could go back in the past, just once.
John and Paul's mutually-sustained fault-line can be felt all the way down and through this enormous album. The fan-baiting taunts of John's "Glass Onion" are followed by the cheerful gender-bending of Paul's "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da"; the saurian carnality of "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" is paired with the lighter-than-air sweetness of "Martha My Dear"; the self-confessedly suicidal John of "Yer Blues"—a worm is licking his bones, folks—is followed by the smooth, soothing comfort of Paul's daisy-waving "Mother Nature's Son". This, I slowly realized, is the secret of true charisma: a lack of self-consciousness, of flustered inhibition. Here is the surface sparkle and warmth, here is the murkier, sea-weedier stuff, and in between is the listener's thermocline, and this is how it works.
The album is deeply weird. It has mass. It has its own weather. It uncovers what larger than life means: a bid for complexity and ambiguity. The White Album can teach you how to be a real person, even if you're a hopelessly uncool, hopelessly horny sad sack Canadian teenager with crooked teeth and an abominable haircut. The album's message is Quit fucking around and be yourself. But, crucially, it was the first thing I'd ever seen or heard that showed me how do it, instead of just telling me what to do, and it showed me by saying You are cornball whimsy, and you are scary weirdness. Be who you are. Change your head. This unrestricted, insistent nakedness was powerful and attractive and seductive. Its message is, in fact, the most potent message of all: you don't have to hide anything. Everybody's got something to hide except for you and your monkey. Let it out. You'll see.
This was tolerance and acceptance. This was Edge City. This was the bleak unspeakable acknowledged and forgiven. It meant that the parts of me that troubled me—my neurotic fears of damaging the world in any way, my simultaneous condescension and thirst for attention and approval, my conviction that I was either a genius or a moron, hot shit or a world-class loser, high or low—just might be admissible after all. What if I was vast? What if everybody else was a big, insecure muddle, too? What if that was all right? Could I balance between the contradictions, be contumacious and obsequious, the mouthy brat who told his fifth grade teacher he was a fucking asshole in front of the whole class and the hyper-polite paperboy, bowing and blinking on somebody's front step? Could I get all that stuff to fit if I allowed myself to see myself as big enough?
The White Album says you can be weird and sweet at the same time, that you're riotous and hushed all at once. The Beatles offered a multiplicity of voices, a congregation, a cabal, a cluster, just like the bedlam in my teenage bedroom brain. The Smith's The Queen Is Dead and The Violent Femmes and Prince's Purple Rain and R.E.M.'s Green and the Cure's Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me were ace and cool and sexy and fun but they tended to speak with just one singular, refined voice; only The White Album, with its tigers and piggies and blackbirds and monkeys, seemed to have a voice and a character for all the voices and characters throwing a revel in my head. This was a piece of art that demonstrated how much you can stretch, how far you can bend, how big you really are. When you think you're going to fly apart, when you become a fool unto yourself, The White Album is there to help with your revival. This is us, it says. This is you. Aren't we messy? Aren't we coming down fast? Hi!
My friend Roger and I saw and enjoyed ourselves as a Lennon-McCartney-type duo—he was well-off and well-mannered, I was still cultivating insolence and No, but you are—and we spent many a girlfriend-less hour listening to the Beatles, and especially The White Album, in his swanky living room. We loved the freakish mystery of it, the sense of tapping secret knowledge, of getting close to something important and maybe even mystical—this was an album, after all, where one of the guys who made it was rumoured to have died a year and a half before recording began. Not only that, the other members had been sneakily inserting clues deep into the music—and lyrics and album covers—to let the tuned-in know the score. Roger and I dutifully spun John's murmuring at the end of "I'm So Tired" backwards, and heard "Paul is dead, man, miss him, miss him"; the voice on "Revolution 9" repeating "Number nine" did sound like "Turn me on, dead man" backwards.
"Did you hear that, man? Did you hear that?" we yelled, jumping around, excited and scared.
We hadn't discovered these clues, but we'd investigated and heard for ourselves, and it was definitely freaky. But it was fun, too, because the Beatles let us in on the joke. We were invited to the party. Roger and I were pretty sure nobody else at W.L. Seaton Secondary School was at that party at that time. Certainly not Tiffany P. or her broomheaded boyfriend, who were probably at a real party or having real sex in the broomhead's car or whatever.
Thirty tracks of ominously beautiful, schizophrenic peculiarity that skip and crawl and trudge and mince and fly across a stupefying array of genres. This is one band, remember. Across its sprawl The White Album is limitless, undying inventiveness, a staggering display of creativity. It goes at all speeds in all directions but instead of rupturing it whispers: Go ahead, stretch out. It says: The way to handle it is to let it happen. There were songs for when I wanted to think about Tiffany P. or Patricia D. or Corissa K.—tender tracks like "I Will" and "Dear Prudence" or, often, John's exhausted, desperate "I'm So Tired", where he's been up for three weeks because his brain is so locked on the girl—and songs for when I felt loose and goofy, like Ringo's country-twanged romp "Don't Pass Me By" or George's "Savoy Truffle". There was "Helter Skelter" when I needed noise and "Long, Long, Long" when I needed fragility. There was even a song for my birthday.
The Beatles seemed to have tracked out not only a day in the life, but a whole life; there were clues and instructions all over the place, revealing themselves when they were needed. Scope and depth. The reliably straightforward Lennon laid it down straight when he told me—when he hollered—that the deeper I went, the higher I'd fly.
The White Album told astonishing stories, stories I wasn't getting from Star Wars or Peter Pan or anywhere else. It taught me to be wary of the '60s, that the famous '60s weren't all patchouli sex and swinging flowers and screaming with joy in some park in San Francisco. This was—especially in the nostalgic '80s, when I first came across it—an unpopular, uncherished position. The Beatles showed me that I had to take a broad general view, that my filters were screwing up my vision. There were flowers and love-ins and be-ins and forward movements, and there was somebody painting PIG on a wall in Sharon Tate's blood. There was Dealey Plaza. There was the photograph in my father's Best of Life book of police dogs tearing the ass out of a black man's trousers.
This information was encoded in John's weird mumbling at the end of "I'm So Tired", in George's spooky wailing in both "Long, Long, Long" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", in Paul's demented laughter in "Helter Skelter", in the snorts of rooting hogs at the end of "Piggies". The White Album is a record full of unsettling noises and little jagged fragments of songs that rustle and mutter about just how awful the world often is and, the first time I listened to it, in Nanaimo in the summer of 1981, it scared the shit out of me.
My dad always said that 1968 was an awful, awful year: Robert Kennedy shot in the head in L.A., Dr King shot on a balcony in Memphis, cops rioting in Chicago, Paris on fire, Vietnam on fire on the TV every night. And The White Album sounds like all of that, without ever being so witless as to actually mention any of it. What it does say is: Things can be charming and sweet and funny, yes, but things can also get dirty and break.
This was fearful, anxious news. How was it good or useful? It was good because it proved the Beatles weren't bullshitting me. They were telling the whole, panoramic truth—helter skelter and happy birthday, in the same day or even at the same time—which meant I could trust them. No Mother Hubbard soft soap here. The White Album is about life as it's lived, and not some abstract bullshit hippy-full-of-dope or pansy-full-of-Brandy-Alexanders delusion and dumbshow. It grabs you by your terrible hair and forces you to look right at it all and, having looked, you're not as afraid anymore. If the things you look forward to always turn out to be just a little bit disappointing, if feeling good never lasts very long, it goes the other way, too: the horror you've been dreading isn't all that bad in the end, and anyway it won't hang around. All things must pass. This was useful information.
But the Beatles didn't pretend it would be easy. They were offering up visions of pain, and pain is painful. But they had something ready for those eventualities, too. There's a moment in the Cirque du Soleil Love show when a woman representing Julia Lennon, John's mother, is hit by a car and soars into the air on invisible wires before crumpling in a billowing, scarlet pile at schoolboy John's feet. The audience is stunned into horrified, indrawn silence; Lennon's lifelong rage is brought into unbearable focus; the gyre widens. And then, coming out of the dark and the fear, Paul's voice: "Hey Jude…" The entire auditorium releases its breath in one enormous grateful sighing rush, and I'm there sighing too, because the Beatles have done the impossible: they've taken the worst thing, the saddest song, and made it better. Not perfect or pleasant, but better. This was also useful and good.
Not everybody feels the same way I do. It's popular to shit on The White Album's fourth track, Paul's "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da", usually as an indirect way of shitting on Paul himself. McCartney's fatal flaw, especially in the '80s, was that he wasn't John Lennon; he also wrote charming little songs with beautiful melodies that didn't require him to rip out his soul in the process, which made him appear—especially compared to the undeniably troubled Lennon—inauthentic and insubstantial and amusingly put-downable.
It's also popular to shit on John's (and George's and Yoko's) "Revolution 9", the monster slouching around at the bottom of side four. Again: the split down the middle, and the sad raw truth of what I was really like, underneath all of my careful social niceties. That may be why so many people dislike these tracks: they don't like to be reminded of what they really are under their social niceties. And more: nobody likes to be reminded that they're a little insubstantial themselves sometimes, enjoy themselves too easily, are content to amuse themselves on the surface, or that what they really feel like, sometimes, is eight deeply creepy minutes of menacing, dissonant, panic attack noise.
"Revolution 9" is probably the least popular, most disliked thing the Beatles ever did, and it's unquestionably a difficult listen, especially when you're 19-years-old and neurotically stoned on hash in your grim, flea-infested staff accommodation basement room in Tofino in 1990. "Revolution 9" is a disorderly sound collage, all snippets of backwards music and droning voices and grunts and thuds and screams. As the actual sound of the revolution Lennon sings about four songs earlier on "Revolution 1", it's a difficult listen, but it's meant to be. It's meant to test your resolve, and your honesty, and your filters, and how far you're willing to go just to see what's happening where the other half live.
I didn't always appreciate it; no tree falls on the first stroke. Over the years, though, I began to hear its messages, to get past my unease, and to understand "Revolution 9" as a piece that affirms what Serge Gainsbourg once said about ugliness, how it's in a way superior to beauty, because it lasts. "Revolution 9" says Open your eyes. Don't forget this ugly shit. This shit is around, and it's in you, too.
But then, after the Beatles have shown you how ugly and violent and confusing and unappealing you can be, sometimes, deep down in your core, Ringo comes back—singing a lush, almost schmaltzy Lennon-penned song called "Goodnight"—to tuck you and all your selves in. He is tolerant and accepting and gentle and funny. You've had a day at the park, he says, and now it's time for bed. Did you have a lovely time? Well, yes and no. I did a lot of stuff, got in a little trouble. Sang my heart and spoke my mind and failed to stay off the grass. Got a little older and a little slower. Did it in the road once or twice. I even made it with Tiffany P., finally, if you can believe it, seven years after my Hey Jude watch failed to win her and a long time after The White Album plucked me out of my basement doldrums and escorted me out into the actual world, though it was in the same old bedroom that I asked her and she said Yes. Because the higher you fly, as John didn't fail to point out, the deeper you go.
Roger recently sent me a picture of his mother's copy of The White Album, the very one we spun and scared ourselves with in his swanky living room more than 30 years ago. Because the cover is a white blank, you can now see a corona, an outline of the discs inside, as if the records are burning—or bruising—through. The cover has become a palimpsest; our lives and rooms and time have become part of its story, part of its face. No matter how many times I've listened to it in however many memory-scrambling countries and rooms, "Long, Long, Long" still sounds like Christmas 1984 or '85, even now, even yesterday at the post office. The rutilant tree and high ceiling in the living room; padding down the hallway to the basement bathroom; the sense of people sleeping in other parts of the house; cold Okanagan winter outside. This is how The White Album connects us to all those people we used to be, all those rooms we were in, even as it points to the ways upwards and out.
Like everybody else, like Roger and Max and my mum and dad and brother and Tiffany P., I've been through a lot: the usual calamities and drunken fiascos and failed auditions and losses and mistakes and fear and pain and crying in the park. But the centre held. The White Album is where the centre holds.
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