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I'm the co-host of THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO with Dana & Carl (Sunday nights, 9 to Midnight Eastern, www.westcottradio.org).  As a freelance writer, I contributed to Goldmine magazine from 1986-2006, wrote liner notes for Rhino Records' compilation CD Poptopia!  Power Pop Classics Of The '90s, and for releases by The Flashcubes, The Finkers, Screen Test, 1.4.5., and Jack "Penetrator" Lipton.  I contributed to the books Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, Shake Some Action, Lost In The Grooves, and MusicHound Rock, and to DISCoveries, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer's Guide, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Comics Collector, The Buffalo News, and The Syracuse New Times.  I also wrote the liner notes for the four THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO compilation CDs, because, well, who could stop me?  My standing offer to write liner notes for a Bay City Rollers compilation has remained criminally ignored.  Still intend to write and sell a Batman story someday.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

GROOVE GRATITUDE (A Gift Of Music): The White Album

Groove Gratitude (A Gift Of Music) looks back on albums I received as gifts. A gift of music can be greater than even the gift itself or the music itself, reflecting the circumstances of who gave us the record (and why) and what it meant to us, then and now. A song can transport us back in time within a single spin. But an album that's connected to a specific someone who gave you that chance to listen and experience? That album has a story to tell.

This piece was originally distributed privately to patrons of Boppin' (Like The Hip Folks Do) on April 7th, 2017. This is its first public appearance. You can become a patron of this blog for as little as $2 a month right here: Fund me, baby!

NOTE: I've been reluctant to post this publicly, given some things I say herein about someone I knew in high school. But I wanted to be honest, and I tried to balance my negative teenage impressions and memories with perspective and understanding, and an acknowledgement that I wasn't exactly a prize myself. I've decided to let it stand as is. I hope the reader will understand and forgive. If the person in question ever reads this, I hope she'll understand and forgive, too. 

The Beatles [aka The White Album]
Released in 1968
Received as a gift in 1977, courtesy of Linda McLaren, Faith Berkheimer, and Joan Davies

In the first Men In Black movie, there's a scene in which Tommy Lee Jones' character Agent Kay chats briefly about an impending new home audio technology that will replace CDs. Kay then notes wryly, "Guess I'll have to buy The White Album again." Of course, the same film also shows Kay evading an alien attack in his hypercharged, ultra-futuristic supercar, all while listening to an Elvis eight-track. He's a Renaissance guy, that Kay.

But his comment about The White Album resonated, reflecting our collective and ongoing cultural predilection for re-living and celebrating anew the cherished art and artifacts of our shared pop past. He could have referenced Sgt. Pepper instead, or Abbey Road, or Rubber Soul, or my own beloved Beatles albums, Beatles '65 and Beatles VI. Awright, those last two would have been unlikely. Nor would another recording artist's masterpiece have worked in context: "Guess I'll have to buy Pet Sounds again;" "Guess I'll have to buy Exile On Main Street again." Guess I'll have to buy Otis Blue, or Blonde On Blonde, or Dark Side Of The Moon, or Rocket To Russia. None of these, not even the other Beatles albums, conveys the casual shorthand sentiment as effectively as a shrugged admission that we have to buy The White Album. Again.

The White Album is a pop touchstone like no other. Few regard it as The Beatles' best album, some regard it as one of their worst, and many would prefer if it had been pared down to a single-album release, rather than the sprawling (apparent) overreach of a double album. But owning a copy of it was, at one time, a prerequisite for...well, not status, exactly, but some undefined measure of cool. The White Album was cool in a way that not even Sgt. Pepper or Abbey Road could match. It's never been my favorite Beatles album. I would never dream of doing without it.

I was sentenced to high school in September of 1973, and I did my time there through June of '77. I'd say I was the second or third biggest Beatles fan at North Syracuse Central High School. The biggest was my friend Jim Knight. Jim wasn't an obsessive fan, but he knew slightly more about The Beatles than I did. Larry Siedentop was also a Beatles fan, as well as the first serious Beach Boys fan I ever knew. Larry and I got along okay as I recall, though I confess that I may have coveted his girlfriend. I hung out a bit more with Jim, whom I'd met through mutual friends in Jim's Class of '76.

Jim and I talked about music sometimes. He was dismissive of The Monkees, but nobody's perfect. He asked me if I had a copy of "Dr. Robert" (I did not), and he let me borrow his copy of the import LP A Collection Of Beatles Oldies. When the Helter Skelter movie about Charles Manson aired on TV in 1976, I became fascinated with the notion of the Beatles song of the same name. And I say "notion" because--believe it or not--I had never heard the actual Beatles song by that point. The song is heard in snippets within the TV movie, but via a cover version by a group called Rain. I was eager to hear the original. Jim didn't have a copy of The White Album to lend me. But he did have a homemade cassette. That borrowed cassette was my first exposure to The White Album.

I...er, wasn't immediately impressed. And I'm pretty sure I preferred Rain's version of "Helter Skelter" to The Beatles' version. That opinion would change.

Somewhere in this time frame, my favorite radio station WOLF-AM had a Beatles weekend, and I won a free Beatles album by calling in and correctly identifying the color of George Harrison's eyes (Plaid! No, brown!). My first choice was The White Album, but the station wasn't going to give me that one. I settled on Help! instead, perhaps not a great choice (given how much of the U.S. Help! album is given to Ken Thorne instrumentals instead of, y'know, THE BEATLES!), but I'd recently fallen hard for Help! album tracks "The Night Before," "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away," "You're Gonna Lose That Girl," and "Another Girl," so I needed that record, relative value be damned.

I also discovered the poster from The White Album, languishing within the family LP collection. It must have come from one of my older siblings, though I don't recall ever seeing The White Album in the house. The poster (and its printed lyrics) gave me an additional connection to this elusive, mysterious record, and I used it to follow along with the cassette I borrowed from Jim. The book Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry contained numerous references to Manson's professed obsession with The White Album, and both the book and that poster were key background works for me as I crafted my first ever long-form paper, a nearly fifty-page report on Manson for my Sociology class in my senior year.

I still didn't have the damned album.

My limited circle of friends in high school included females, though sadly none with whom I would ever hold hands and gaze at the stars. One of these distaff pals was Faith Berkheimer, whom I'd met in...'74? She was a smartass, so we got along just fine. In an unfinished story I started to write for our school paper The NorthCaster, she inspired me to create a character called "Faith Bricktosser, former catcaller for the New England Hecklers." Her brash demeanor masked an inner warmth, grace, and strength that I did not discern until much, much later. We were fast friends nonetheless. One of my many fond memories of Faith involves our abortive attempt to create a TV adaptation of The Maltese Padlock, a Dragnet parody series I'd written for The NorthCaster. We were working on it with another friend--and I'll be damned if I can remember his name--with the intent of producing it at the school's TV production studio. Faith would play the lead character Mayday, and I would play Mayday's sidekick, Bill Goonin. I finished a script (which borrowed and outright stole elements from The Monkees), but that was as far as we got. I wish to God I still had that script.

I met Joan Davies in the fall of 1975, at the NorthCaster office. She was Larry Siedentop's girlfriend, a freshman, and (I thought) a knockout. I was smitten, but not about to do anything about it, because a) she was Larry's girlfriend, and b) she wasn't interested in me anyway. Joan and I were initially friendly, for a very short time, but our relationship devolved quickly. She could, at times, be one of the meanest people I knew. My self-aggrandizing memory has glossed over the parts I may have played in contributing to that miasma. Although we remained sort of friends--I attended her wedding in the '80s, after bygones had been declared as bygones--the memory of her insults and dismissive demeanor still stings, four decades later. On the other hand, the inscription she wrote in my senior yearbook seemed conciliatory, contrite, and sincere.

I've written about Linda McLaren. There's nothing I can add to that, except to note once again that she was one of my best friends in high school, and that I regret that our paths diverged. And I'll repeat one relative bit from what I've previously written: when I bought The Beatles At The Hollywood Bowl live album upon its release in May of 1977, and brought it in to play at the NorthCaster office, she smacked me and said she'd planned to get that for me as a graduation gift. You idiot, Carl.

So she changed her plans.

I graduated in June. I didn't have a graduation party, but I attended Faith's party, and gave her a Beatles 45 ("Paperback Writer"/"Rain") as a gift. Big spender? That's me! I don't recall precisely when a subsequent party took place in my friend Jay Hammond's basement, but it was sometime before college life beckoned me (with a single finger) in late August. At that party, Linda gave me a copy of The White Album, and said it was a belated graduation gift from her, Joan, and Faith. I was surprised, and touched beyond anything I can convey in mere words.

It seems to me that I must have heard The White Album (aside from Jim's cassette I mean) by this time, but I've no recollection of where or when. But in the summer of '77, with that short time left before I became a college student, my ears would fill with Kansas and The Animals, The Kinks and The Monkees, KISS and Fleetwood MacThe Rubinoos and this new record by The Sex Pistols, "God Save The Queen," which I'd just heard on WOUR-FM. And they would fill with The Beatles, as always. In the summer of 1977, my ears would fill with The White Album.

I loved the album's opening track, "Back In The U.S.S.R.," from the moment I heard it. It seemed a snarky parody of the sun 'n' fun style of The Beach Boys; I wasn't a Beach Boys fan yet, so I didn't appreciate the fact that it was far more affectionate than acidic. "Dear Prudence" was hypnotic and enticing, and "Glass Onion" eagerly provided another clue for you all. And I loved  the bouncy, silly faux ska rhythm of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," and I don't give a damn--then or now--if that inhibits my coolness potential. I have a number of stock two-word replies for anyone who ever tries to tell me what to like or not like. For now, "As if!" will suffice.

My good will did not extend to the time-waster "Wild Honey Pie," nor really to "The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill," a track I'd first seen referenced in a book about comic books, All In Color For A Dime, for its lyrical mention of Captain Marvel. The splendor of Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" made up for those, and Side One concluded with "Happiness Is A Warm Gun," John Lennon's ode to sex and metaphorical weapons, a track which I professed to like but never really meant as much to me as I claimed it did.

Side Two commenced with Paul McCartney's absolutely lovely "Martha My Dear," which gave way to Lennon's resolutely okay exhaustion anthem "I'm So Tired," and Macca's "Blackbird," which had been a fave of mine since I saw him perform it on the James Paul McCartney TV special years before. I was largely indifferent to the rest of the side: I found "Piggies" and "Rocky Raccoon" boring, liked Ringo's "Don't Pass Me By" passably, thought "Why Don't We Do It In The Road" was dumb, and considered both "I Will" and "Julia" to be simultaneously agreeable and forgettable. On to the second LP already!

"Birthday" has become such an inescapable ubiquity that it's tempting to declare we're sick of it, but I liked it a lot at the time, and still don't really mind it now. I was and remain ambivalent about "Yer Blues," a supposedly sturdy blues rocker that seemed, I dunno...not quite empty, but not quite substantial either. "Mother Nature's Song"was a more amiable experience, and "Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey" just jumped right off the spinning vinyl, owning its room and all within it. "Sexy Sadie" had the misfortune of being a mere lull (albeit an agreeable one) between two of my three favorite White Album tracks, Lennon's "Monkey" thing and McCartney's ferocious "Helter Skelter," a track I'd come to embrace fully and unreservedly. It's coming down fast! Yes, it is. Harrison's mournful "Long, Long, Long" closed the side in style.

I adored the single version of "Revolution," and I loved the promo video performance of it even more, but I've never had any use whatsoever for the slowed-down arrangement of "Revolution 1." The 1920s pastiche "Honey Pie" was reminiscent of The Monkees' "Magnolia Simms," and I disliked both of those songs by two of my fave rave pop combos. "Savoy Truffle" meant nothing to me at the time, but I've grown fonder of it over the years. On the other hand, "Cry Baby Cry" merited an immediate thumbs-up from me; I'd used its lyrics as creepy foreshadowing in my high school paper about Manson, and the track itself was and is the third of my three favorite White Album tracks.

And then there was "Revolution 9."

"Revolution 9" was not a song in the sense that "I Want To Hold Your Hand" was a song, or that The Monkees' "Porpoise Song" was a song, or that "Begin The Beguine" or The Sex Pistols' "God Save The Queen" were songs. It was a sound collage, a tapestry of noise and words, an ambitious quicksand of projectile audio imagery, exploding and imploding before sinking into itself. It was "A Day In The Life" injected with heroin, and now experiencing withdrawal. I tried to like it. I learned to appreciate it. I don't listen to it very often...or, really, ever. Then Ringo's lullaby "Good Night" bid us adieu, and The White Album experience ended.

In spite of all the quibbles listed in the long and whining road above, I still loved The White Album. I would grow more distant from it in the coming years, but would ultimately come back to embrace its misshapen, mutant form. Should it have been a single album instead? Maybe. Probably. Not necessarily. Maybe not. I don't know. But if it had been truncated, we would still yearn to hear the stuff that went unreleased, just as we yearn now to hear the still-unreleased "Carnival Of Light"(even though we probably won't actually like it). And none of the speculation matters anyway. We have the freedom to edit (or expand!) the album for our own listening as our whims dictate. To paraphrase Sir Paul hisself: It's The White Album. It's the bloody Beatles. Piss off.

Me? I prefer The Beatles 1964 through 1966, the greatest body of rockin' pop music ever produced, but I also like "Love Me Do," and I like Let It Be. Sort of. The White Album's part of that continuum. I'm glad to have it, thanks to Linda, Joan, and Faith.

I haven't seen or spoken with Linda since the end of the '70s. Joan and I established a level of peaceful coexistence (if not quite camaraderie) while still in high school; she had her own significant speed bumps to navigate on life's blue highway, and trying to understand that perspective has made me more appreciative of the trials she was going through.

My last contact with Joan, some time in the late '90s, was odd, but friendly: she was driving by my parents' house in North Syracuse one evening, saw that the car parked in their driveway contained a child's seat, figured what the hell, and stopped to see if it was me. It was a brief but amicable reunion. I should spend less energy on recriminations and regrets, and remember that there were good times as well. There was the Saturday evening in high school, when we planned to ride our bikes to a drive-in movie; dissuaded by rain, we stayed at my house instead, listening to The Beatles. There was the time I was awarded a Regents scholarship, the award announced over the school's PA, and she came up to me, scowled her usual scowl, and congratulated me anyway. There was that Valentine's Day when she encouraged me to send a rose to a girl we both knew, and whom she suspected might be sweet on me. There were many times, spent with our small circle of friends, watching NBC's Saturday Night, playing board games, going to Ground Round and pretending to be old enough to drink, barreling down the side of Song Mountain on The Alpine Slide, laughing, joking, smiling, and being teenagers. And there were the times Joan met my future wife Brenda, and complimented her for making such a positive difference in my life.

(There was also the time I ran into her while with some other friends at a bar in Liverpool, and she started undressing me on the dance floor. All in good fun. I think.)

Faith and I also went our separate ways after high school. I next saw her under miserable circumstances, when we attended the wake for our friend Tom after he killed himself in July of 1979. Our next meeting was far happier, for our fifth anniversary high school reunion in 1982. For someone who hated high school as much as I did, I've gotta admit that reunion was a pretty good time.

Decades passed, and life went on, bra, la la how our lives went on. Other than a surprise phone call from out of the blue sometime early in this bright new century, Faith and I were no longer in any kind of contact. Well, until we were again. Facebook, for all its myriad faults, has been an effective tool in reconnecting with old friends, and Facebook put me back in touch with Faith. She was living in Texas with her kids; her husband had passed on, and much of her life had itself gone helter skelter. But she was always tough, and she persevered. It wasn't for nothin' that she was named "Faith." She recently moved back to the Syracuse area, and she met up with Brenda and I last summer at a Liverpool nightspot for music and conversation. I do believe there were Beatles tunes played. Aren't there always?

It's been almost 40 years since Linda, Joan, and Faith gave me my copy of The White Album. I still have it. I've gotten rid of a lot of my vinyl, but I've held on to my Beatles LPs even when I've supplemented them with shiny new CD reissues. I don't listen to it often--last time I listened to the whole thing was in 2009, when (like Kay) I bought The White Album again--but I'm glad it's there, in all its messy, overlong glory.

A couple of days ago, I went back to my first copy of The White Album, pulled it from my record shelf downstairs, and just looked at it, admiring the package, the gatefold cover, the poster inside...and remembered. I put Side Three on my turntable, just long enough to listen to "Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey." I should take the time to listen to LPs more often, I think. Take these broken wings, and learn to fly. To Faith, Joan, and Linda, and to Jim Knight as well: thank you, friends. To John, Paul, George, and Ringo: thank you, too. When I get to the bottom, I go back to the top of the slide. We were only waiting for this moment to arrive. I'll buy that notion again. I'll buy that again and again and again.