Friday Takeaway: Vertigo

Published: 11/22/2018 1:01:03 PM

So, the Beatles “White Album” was released fifty years ago. The discovery of that bit of trivia was a kick in the Ob-la-di Ob-la-da, I have to say. I saw it on the internet … via social media…

On my phone.

Fifty years ago, phones were either bolted to your wall or tethered to a table, and they had rotary dials and dial tones and busy signals. Back then “1984” and “2001” were fictional prophesies. Now they’re history. That’s how long ago that was.

In 1968, we were immersed in a war in Vietnam. This country was starkly cleaved politically. The war and both violent and peaceful protests to it were reported, not in real time, but in the evening, around dinner time. Broadcast interruptions came only with the most momentous news. They were preceded by dread-instilling alerts, "We interrupt this broadcast ..." and a somber man would appear behind a desk to deliver a most horrific announcement in measured tones. Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down in Memphis. Bobby Kennedy was killed in LA.

Richard Nixon had just been chosen as president. His election was preceded by the deadly riots in reaction to Dr. King’s assassination and by the violent police response to the Democratic Convention protests in Chicago. Although Nixon would eventually resign to avoid impeachment as president in 1974, in 1968 he was yet to be sworn in. Nuclear war was almost guaranteed by pundits. And sinister Communists plotting our destruction were supposedly everywhere, waiting for cues from their masters to unleash the dogs of Hell. We were a country bent on self-immolation.

And the “White Album” came out. After “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the Beatles release of the year before, I certainly didn’t know what to expect. I just knew that it was going to be wicked cool. I was 13. My awareness of a chaotic and cruel world beyond my parochial circumstances was just taking hold. I was exploring the daunting notion of aberrance, which the “White Album” fed into nicely.

First of all, it was a double album with a completely blank white cover and only the faintest of embossed lettering that simply read “The BEATLES.” That was a transgressive revelation right there. It was loaded with stuff on the inside, though. Color individual headshots of the lads. A collage of disparate images in poster form with all of the album's lyrics printed out on the back.

And then there was the music.

While Paul McCartney’s frothy pop songs were pleasant and memorable, it was John Lennon’s darker, Fluxus-style angst that knocked me off-kilter and scared and moved me in significant ways. I would sit still between the two stereo speakers and steep myself in the provocative soundscape. I couldn’t tell you today if the cacophony of “Revolution 9” meant anything beyond a impulsive noise collage, but 50 years ago, it was a thrill to be baffled by it.

Fans (and I) projected significance into lyrics and sounds we didn’t understand in a search for meaning. Of course, in a move that presaged InfoWars conspiracy lunacy, obsessed fans managed to expose an elaborate scheme to hide the fact that Paul McCartney had been killed earlier and replaced with a double. These sleuths divined the substitution by playing songs backwards (“turn me on, deadman”) or by interpreting nonsense ditties as dark clues supporting their theory. And that fantasy went viral before “viral” was a thing. Seems silly now. But a great many people treated it as gospel at the time.

I found out subsequently (and I wish I hadn’t) that the recording of the “White Album” was the beginning of the end for the Beatles. I had heard it as a pitch-perfect product of a blissfully collaborative brotherhood. It turns out it was nothing of the kind. But in 1968, I was enthralled by the prospect of anarchy and inspired to escape the conformity. Little did I know at that time that I was just aligning with another, different conformity. Still … it felt like the beginning of something bracing and exciting.

My disillusionment came later.

Now I hear the “White Album” and I think of it in a broader context. It’s no longer a discovery or an anthem. Now it’s an artifact. George Harrison died of cancer. Paul McCartney was knighted. Ringo stayed Ringo and John Lennon was shot to death by a disturbed fan outside his apartment building in New York. Lennon wasn’t a god-like visionary. He was a conflicted, complicated person with his own unaddressed demons. He said so many times before he died. I mean, he’s the guy who wrote the catchy but twisted Beatles tune “Run for your Life,” featuring the lyrics:

“I'd rather see you dead, little girl

Than to be with another man

You better keep your head, little girl

Or you won't know where I am

You better run for your life if you can, little girl.”

He also wrote “Imagine.”

So, that was us 50 years ago. And 50 years before that, the “war to end all wars” had just ended, after claiming 20 million lives. Now Paul McCartney wears mom jeans. Marijuana is legal in Massachusetts. Communism has surrendered to Kleptocracy. Racism is still virulent. We don’t talk about our wars anymore. Our president used to have a campy TV show and is on his third marriage. And the special, super deluxe edition “White Album” isn’t even really an album you can hold and look at. Now it’s binary code that you download from the ether to play on the phone in your pocket. Our world seems more absurd and dangerous than it ever was. And, really though, if you think about it … we’ve done crazy before. And we survived.

“I’d give you everything I’ve got for a little peace of mind.” — John Lennon, “I’m So Tired”

Bill Dwight is a Northampton city councilor and a pie wrangler at the Florence Pie Bar. 


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