Friday, April 21, 2017

Book review: Everybody had an Ocean: Music and Mayhem in 1960s Los Angeles

Review by Kathryn Atwood

Sometimes I feel like Agent Irena Spalko, Cate Blanchett’s character in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull when, towards the end of the movie she reveals what has motivated her evil actions throughout the entire film by screaming at the demon heads “I vant to know!” Now I don’t normally scream in libraries, bookstores, or even at my Amazon wish list, but I completely understood Agent Spalko during this scene.

Which is why, apart from certain fiction authors, I generally read (and write) non-fiction. But like Agent Spalko, this thirst for knowledge sometimes gets me more than I bargained for. Case in point: When I saw that my publishers were putting out a book whose cover featured Joni Mitchell, the Mamas and the Papas, and the Beach Boys, I had to request a review copy. After all, the music of the 1960s was the soundtrack of my childhood and a connection to my slightly older former-garage band husband; I can sing all the songs by heart but he knows exactly who is playing which guitar solo on hundreds of 60s songs.

So I dove into William McKeen's excellent Everybody Had an Ocean: Music and Mahem in 1960s Los Angeles, ready to fill in the gaps in my understanding of 1960s pop culture history.

First, the good and the great: Like Wilfrid Sheed’s The House that George Built, McKeen's Everybody Had an Ocean centers on one small cast of characters—in this case, the Wilson brothers—but expands to reveal how they interacted with their universe. The Beach Boys might remain the trunk of this particular tree, but the branches fascinate. Nearly everyone who was somebody in the world of 1960s rock and roll makes an appearance here and the connections are often startling. For instance, Stephen Stills told his friend Peter Torkelson about auditions for a TV series about a rock and roll band. Peter got the part, shortening his last name to Tork. After Joni Mitchell met fellow-Canadian Neil Young in Winnipeg and played “Sugar Mountain” for her, she responded by writing “The Circle Game.” Cass Elliot of the Mamas and the Papas not only had a beautiful voice but a knack for bringing the right people together, in one famous case, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash.

McKeen's writing--which includes a plethora of direct quotes--makes it seem as if he knew these music-makers personally. Although he seems to have been acquainted with Dennis Wilson, one glance at the notes section shows that he relied on an exhaustive bibliography, including many previously conducted interviews. But the inclusion of these direct quotes from the main players brings an exciting immediacy to the narrative.

What I didn’t bargain for was the brain-frying “mayhem” in the book’s subtitle. For instance, part of me wishes I could go back and think of the Beach Boys as those sunny voices singing upbeat songs. But now I know that while the band members could sing in beautiful harmony, their interpersonal relationships rarely reached that state.  It's uncomfortable to realize that Brian Wilson was deaf in one ear, most likely the result of a beating from his abusive father (a man who only calmed down under music’s influence and who adored hearing his boys sing in three-part harmony. You can’t make this stuff up). I wish I could still pretend the voice singing Wouldn’t it be Nice was an earnest young fiancĂ© rather than Brian Wilson fantasizing about his sister-in-law. I especially wish I didn’t know that Charles Manson was once great pals with Dennis Wilson and that the future mass murderer hoped this friendship would open doors to a rock and roll career.

But if I hadn’t read this excellent book, I also wouldn’t know that the first 20 seconds of California Girls was Brian Wilson’s attempt to musically portray a sunrise, or that his girlfriend, hearing him angst about the unattainable beauty of Be My Baby, patted him on the arm and said “Don’t worry baby,” giving him a line he would later make famous in song.

One thing that puzzled me about McKeen's narrative was what I consider to be his gratuitous use of the F-word and similarly coarse language. It certainly shows up enough in the direct quotes but just as often in McKeen's narration. Perhaps he was trying to add a certain seamlessness to the book by telling the story as one of the characters would have. I'm not sure every reader would react similarly but for me it was jarring and eventually tedious.

However, it didn't stop me from reading to the end because all told, this is an entertaining, enlightening read which adds tremendously to the canon of 1960s pop culture.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

"The Soundtrack of our Lives" (is one way of putting it).

"Let Me Call You Sweetheart" was in my head one morning as my eyes carelessly landed on a photo of two beautiful 1940s-era women: my mom and Aunt Wally, photographed with their step-mom. It suddenly struck me like a thunderclap: these women, at the time the photograph was taken, were certainly familiar with the song playing in my head. "Sweetheart" was published in 1910, it's true, years before the beauties in the photo had been born, but its popularity had lasted for decades, certainly well past the 1940s. And for one mystical, magical moment, the somewhat knowing smiles of the women in the photo seemed to connect with me over that song, as if they knew what was playing in my head and were ready to sing along. I know my mom would have sung it with me at the drop of hat; I recall her often breaking into random songs, lovely songs like Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies," a beautiful tune that had apparently been stuck in her head for a few decades before she put it into mine.

Anyway, the reason "Sweetheart" was on my mind that morning was because John and I were prepping for a program to be performed later that day, an eclectic mix of songs for the annual luncheon of a large suburban historical society composed of members aged somewhere between the WWII and Boomer generations. We opened the program with "Sweetheart", continued with "Star Dust," "Night and Day", "I Could Have Danced All Night", "Moon River", and a few others. During the performance I could hear the polite but distinct rumbling of audience participation. These songs had apparently meant something to these people at one point in time. Songs are like that. One Chicago-area radio station hits the nail on the head when it refers to itself as "The Soundtrack of our Lives." When you're young, you almost believe that the popular songs you connect with were written, composed, sung, and produced just for you. Well, most young people don't actually consider production details but when the perfect blend of lyric and melody touches your soul in some way, that moment in your personal history becomes inexorably linked to a song. Your song. My mother had no doubt encountered Blue Skies on "Your Hit Parade." I listened to my songs via transistor radio, our basement juke box (yeah, we had an old juke box), and vinyl. The generation before either of us purchased the sheet music to "Sweetheart" to the tune of five million copies. But however accessed, music becomes part of one's life story, part of one's soul.

You hear the song later, the memories flood in, and you are transported back in time. And there, in that room with the polite sing-a-longers, John and I were like masters of time travel, humbled and honored to be the vehicle bringing back memories for people who had personally connected, at some point, to these stunning songs.

I had one last musical encounter that evening, the day's most powerful. Rewarding myself for the efforts of the day with a viewing of "To Kill a Mockingbird", I was suddenly almost brought to tears by the film's familiar musical motif. That melody not only embodied the bittersweet fictionalized memoir of Harper Lee's Jim Crow South but, perhaps because my day was already in nostalgia overdrive, it touched me with a longing for my own lost world, a world in which the music of multiple generations stirred powerful yearnings in my young soul.

"Sweetheart" may have filled my head that morning, "Star Dust" that afternoon, but the Mockingbird theme, somehow encompassing both, lingered for days.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Jack Bruce and the Musings of a Former Garage Band Rocker

by John Atwood

I remember 1967 all too well.  At the beginning of school in Fall of 1967, my sophomore year, I had been involved with my garage band for over a year, though we had never played anywhere yet.  During Freshman year we three guitarists were still working minimum wage jobs to buy our own guitar amps and a PA system.  The biggest problem we had though was with our drummer.  He kept not showing for practice.  By the end of the year, my younger brothers’ best friend, a true small town prodigy, joined us.  But he was only in 8th grade, which presented other problems, but we soldiered on.

But in the Fall of 1967, an awkward ruffle was taking place in the world of rock music.  The previous Summer, the Beatles, reconstituted it seems after their rumored breakup in August of 1966, had released St. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band, and the word “psychedelic” was running around everywhere.  We had been a bit guarded with our classmates about letting on that we were trying to start a band, but Word leaked out.  Soon, people were asking us “do you play the Sgt. Peppers?  Can you play any Jimi Hendrix?  Have your heard Cream?”  I remember giving very sheepish answers.

 I was having a problem with all this.  In my mind, the nadir of rock music up to that point in time had been 1965.  It had been a stunning year for the Beatles, opening with Eight Days a Week and then Ticket to Ride culminating with masterpieces like Day Tripper, We Can Work it Out, Nowhere Man and Michelle.  And then there had been the Stones: the Last Time, Satisfaction, Get off my Cloud, Paul Revere and the Raiders (Just Like Me), the Birds (Mr. Tambourine Man), Bob Dylan (Positively 4th Street, Like a Rolling Stone), and on and on.  The energy of that year kept coming well into 1966. 

But when the Beatles announced they were no longer going to be touring, it almost seemed like the bottom fell out of everything.  Then commenced what to me was a dismal period of groups releasing a slough of unsatisfying songs.  Later on,  I realized that what was happening was that all the “producers”, sensing great income opportunities off of young kids, were grabbing up what they thought might be the next big thing, cramming them into studios, making many of the instrumentalists sit on the sidelines while studio musicians played their parts, and turning out prefabricated rock and roll.  Where the Beatles and Stones had played live on their TV appearances, now one had to suffer through bands pretending to play their hit while the record played on the house PA behind them, even to the point of having the band mime though a fade out. 

 The late 60’s change in Rock music was termed ‘psychedelic’ because some of the songs were about drugs, and everyone seemed to be into far-out record covers.  But it was really a rebellion against the studios turning rock into pablum.  But where the Beatles had had a brilliant manager like George Martin to not only help them realize their musical ambitions but to also guide them with good sense and taste, the rebel rock that was coming out was beset by lots of excesses.  It is humorous to me that where “psychedelic” music had seemed so intimidating at the time, looking back on it now it all just seems incredibly silly, and groups like the Strawberry Alarmclock, the Electric Prunes, the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band and Blue Cheer (who released and absolutely nauseous but hyper-pretentious version of “Summertime Blues”) have now become so much ho-hum.  

But in the middle of all this were the albums Disraeli Gears by Cream, and Are You Experienced?, by the Jimi Hendrix Experience.   This is where it was at, and everyone needed to get in step with it.  Change is always hard, so with pressure all around and my own band mates saying they wanted to get more with the times, I had to eat crow and began to learn “Foxy Lady” and “Sunshine of Your Love”.  Disraeli Gears was where most in America seemed to start with Cream--and I did listen to it intently—but I got wind there was a prior album.  My mom worked for a Peace Corps camp that was in our home town, and one of the participants had left a warped copy of that album behind.  It was called Fresh Cream.

 If you never had the fun of trying to listen to a warped record, you really missed something.  It is reminiscent of trying to move around on a waterbed, or some of the topsy-turvy spin rides at an Amusement park.  The tonearm goes up and down, and there is a certain kind of background phasing sound.  But be that as it may, I put it on and sat down to listen to the ultimate psychedelic group’s first record.  But it wasn’t, well, . . .how do you put this?  The album was in basic black, the guys were shown wearing what looked like World War II aviator gear, and the sound was…not what I expected.  There were several cuts that were so Delta Bluesy they were almost hard to take, like Cat’s Squirrel and Rollin and Tumblin.  (They were really wild on a warped record!) 

 It was an album I listened to again and again, and it—and they—began to grow on me.  There was nothing pretentious about this.  No psychedelic hype or posturing.  It was just solid, down to earth, good music.  But it wasn’t like other things in rock and roll.  Looking back, I would have to say it was what rock music was when it was played by accomplished, adult musicians.  Not adult, as in my parents, but adult as in more serious.  Most of rock music was being played by teenagers, in a sense.  The Beatles were in some ways the most adult of all of them, but even they had had their teenager sense about them.  And groups like the Monkeys….

 Fresh Cream became a school of serious music for me.  And of course, being a guitarist, my first focus was on Eric Clapton.  There was something masterful about his solos on this album, the best of which was on “I’m So Glad”.   I listened to that again and again.  Many guitarists at that time—and to this day—get into a kind of showoff mode, as if their existence depends on being able to impress.  And much of what they end up doing in that vein is augmented with cheap tricks and effects.  On “I’m so Glad”, Clapton coaxes the most out of every note.  By best guitar friend would later comment after we listened to Led Zeppelin’s first album, “Jimmy Page has fast hands.  Eric Clapton knows where to put them.” 

But the soul and voice of Cream was Jack Bruce.  Clapton and Ginger Baker, the drummer, reconvened in Blind Faith after the breakup of Cream, but there was never even a hint that there was any similarity.  No, without Jack Bruce, that which was Cream did not exist.   His playing was suberb. Listen to the bass on “I’m So Glad”, especially during Clapton’s solo.  It takes a song with all of 4 chords, which could have been a blockish boor, and turns it into something fluid, variegated, almost lyrical.  You hear an accomplished, creative, adult bass player.  I learned later he was classically trained, but preferred this kind of music.  On the songs he wrote, listen to his words, and you sense a mind reaching to express ideas in crisp language.  Listen to his singing, and you get a sense of a passion. 

Jack Bruce was not my favorite member of the group at that time.  But in listening to them year after year, I now see that a subtle influence had worked on me.  When I heard that he died this week, my reaction was that some part of me had lost something.  I had to think back through it all until I realized what it was: he had been a mentor of what it means to be a serious musician and artist.  His influence helped me move beyond just being a kid with a guitar.  So my thought was not only, “thanks for the music” or “thanks for the memories” but “thanks for being a good tutor.”  I had gotten to know him reluctantly, never thought of him with any degree of excitement, and didn’t really follow his career after Cream.  But he left a mark on me.  Probably happens with lots of teachers we have in life.

Post by John Atwood

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Was Muhammad Ali an early Rapper?

by John Atwood

Today is the 50th Anniverary of the Clay-Liston fight.  The press is pointing out that this was the fight that put Cassius Clay, later Muhammed Ali, on the map.  Well, ok, but that idea leaves out his Olympic Gold Medal in 1960 in Rome.  It also leaves out the numerous boxing matches he won before 1964 on the way to earning the right to fight with Sonny Liston, the Heavyweight champion. 

But it also leaves out the build up to the Clay-Liston fight on February 25, 1964, just a few short weeks after the Beatles debuted on Ed Sullivan.  Yes, I remember the fight, and the controversy that arose after Clay won.

But I have one unforgettable memory of the buildup.  Clay did a guest appearance on some late night TV program.  Since I was only in 6th grade at the time, I somehow doubt that it was the the Tonight Show or (Jack Paar? Steve Allen?), because in those days a 6th grader wasn't allowed to stay up past 9:00 pm, 10:00 at the latest. 

And on this program he performed the following poem.  I wish could have found that actual broadcast.  He stood facing the camera, as I recall it, captured from the midriff up, and looked confidently at the camera to deliver this very charming ode to the fight to come. 

Most of my friends thought that the fight had been fixed and were reticent to give Cassius Clay any respect for having one the fight.  As for me, I had heard his poem.  I thought it was brilliant.  I had no choice but to take his side.  My friends were convinced I had no sense at all.  After all, I had also declared in favor of the Beatles a few weeks earlier.  I eventually got over the rejection.   

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Legacy of Sgt. Pepper (fourteenth and final in a series)

 Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Concept Album that Never Was -- or Was It?

The fourteenth and final in a seies by John Atwood, a thinker and guitarist who was inspired as an 11 year-old to learn the instrument after seeing the Beatles perform in 1964 on the Ed Sullivan Show and who followed their career assiduously through his high school years when he formed a garage band just so he could play their songs within a group. He's had a few decades to ponder the import of the Fab Four's music.
It is tempting to jump right into the question of whether or not Sgt. Pepper did the world any good, but there is something that must be addressed first.  Has this series of articles really proven that there is a unifying theme to the album?  The reader will have to judge that.  Anyone who has read the whole series may at times have thought, “this guy is really off the deep end with all this!”, and who knows, maybe they are correct.  But the goal here was to establish that a unifying theme could be argued, and that I think I have done.

And I still assert what I said at the beginning, that the theme was unconscious, on the periphery, not meant as a didactic exercise.  The whole album—the theme, the values, the characters—seems to have pretty much fallen together as a happy accident.  And it was probably more a reflection of what was going on at the time than it was the call to arms that set ideas in motion. 

To a great extent, though, I think it works better being an unconscious accident.  It would take quite a clever set of writers to come up with a work of this magnitude all formed of hyperbole, irony, veiled anti-assertions and even embarrassing personal revelations.  Not that it couldn’t be done, but even the best writers would have a hard time ‘staying in character’—keeping things from seeming contrived.  And while I consider the Beatles to have been extremely talented, I think such an idea would have been way beyond their capacity. 

But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the album in the light of such a concept.  Since getting this idea, I have listened to the album with a sense of awe.  Without getting too carried away, I would say it is one of the most significant artistic works ever done.  It looks at the theme from so many angles and in so many ways: it is a treasure trove of cultural observation.  It is both beautiful and frightening at the same time, and on a grand scale.  I would love to see someone try to make a stage play or film out of this idea. 

Is frightening a problem?  No, not really.  Sometimes it can be very helpful.  We are prone to forget that the original versions of many children’s stories did not have tidy, happy endings.  Take for instance, “The Little Mermaid”.  The Hans Christian Andersen version ends quite a bit differently than does the Disney cartoon.  But that was for a reason, so that the reader would come away from the story with a resolve to learn the lesson and not make the same mistakes.

But how about us?  Did any of us come away from it with any resolve as to how we would live?  I stated above that I think I did on a couple of points, though at the time I would have scoffed at any suggestion that I was a disciple of some teaching.   And I sense that many of the values we have seen here have been and continue to be ratified in our culture.  The concern that modern life can kill our humanity has been ably and repeatedly expressed by various movies and TV programs over the past decades.  And our culture has gone out of its way to warn parents—especially Dads—to give children the time they need.  Parents today are surrounded by voices, examples and resources to help them take on the task with grace and some degree of intelligence.  And, of course, everyone knows that a career, not to mention a mad drive to “make the grade” can swallow you whole, and deprive you of meaningful relationships and experiences. 

Did all of this come from Sgt Pepper?  Of course not.  Did Sgt. Pepper contribute in anything significant?  Well, No, but then again, maybe a little.  Since it wasn’t really making a conscious point, I think it is fair to assume that it probably didn’t make a conscious impression.  But, based on my own experience and recollection, I have to say it probably did influence people’s thinking to some degree.

What it probably had going for it as an influencer was 1) the colorful characters that were created for the album who serve as unforgettable object lessons and 2) the excellent music that not only conveyed the information, but insinuated it into the core of our consciousness, and kept it in our hearts all these years.  

There is no question that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band awakened a generation and time to the notion that Rock music could handle more complex ideas than “I Want to Hold Your Hand”.  But it seems to me it also suggests that Music provides a better vehicle for addressing ideas with multiple facets, hues of color, shades of nuance, etc., and that it does so in a way that more powerfully conveys the import, worth, tragedy, exhalation or perplexity of all that than any mere essay, poem or novel can ever hope to achieve.  If nothing else, consider the fact that advertising loves to use jingles, not persuasive essays.

My wife renamed this blog “The Song’s the Thing” for a good reason.  When Hamlet found himself trapped in a situation of uncertainty and inaction, he realized he could get to the bottom of his suspicions about his stepfather using a play.  “The play’s the thing by which I’ll catch the conscience of the King.”  But if you want to understand a culture, a time period, a movement, it is fair to say that “The Song’s the Thing.”  Look at the music that’s came out of the era in question or that influenced the era, and you will understand them far better.  And if you want to get an idea across in a way that wins people over and gets people motivated, Americans have shown since the Revolution and before that “The Song’s the Thing.” 

Allow one final parting comment.  Throughout my writing of this, a notion kept nagging at me that there might be some similarity between Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and “The Waste Land” by T.S. Elliot.  I kept chasing the notion away from my head like a pesky fly in warm weather—no way I wanted to go down that road.  But I do find it a humorous curiosity that where Elliot (aided, one imagines by Ezra Pound), stuffed his poem with all kinds of quotes by the literati of Western Civilization, even in their original Greek, Latin, Italian, German or French, that the Beatles packed their album cover with photos of pop culture icons.  The parallel seemed too curious to not at least point out. 

Oops, one other final thing.  I have not addressed the “never could be any other way” business at the very end of the album.  That is because it wasn’t on the original American issue.  This is, after all, a blog about the relationship of popular music with American History.  Most of us in the U.S. didn’t even know that track existed until the “Paul is dead” business in the Fall of 1969, when some radio stations were playing it off imported copies of the British LP, along with things like “Revolution 9” backwards, to look for clues.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"The Astaires" by Kathleen Riley

Review by Kathryn Atwood

Fred Astaire is permanently recorded in our collective consciousness only because his electrifying dance routines were cinematically preserved. Delving just a little below that celluloid image immediately reveals a biographical surprise: before Astaire and Rogers there was Astaire and Astaire – Fred and his sister Adele -- a pair who rose together through the ranks of American vaudeville to become mega-stars on both sides of the Atlantic during the 1920’s and 1930’s.  The study of Fred and Adele Astaire is an important in the history of pop culture, not only because it helps us understand Fred, the film star, but also because the team of Astaire and Astaire was an absolute phenomenon in its day. 

Not one moment of their wildly successful partnership was preserved on film and here is the irony of Astaire and Astaire: a complete biography of Fred must include mention of Adele – generally considered to be the more naturally talented of the two siblings -- and yet when considering this duo, there is nothing visual for us to grasp hold of: all that remains of the partnership are a few publicity shots and what can be imagined from the written testimony of those who witnessed them in action.

Kathleen Riley has combined reams of this testimony (not to mention publicity stills) with all the biographical facts at her disposal to write the first – aside from one children’s book -- dual history of the siblings who were born Adele and Fred Austerlitz. Her narrative traces their Midwestern origins all the way to the end of their lives, painting a detailed picture of everything in between: their youthful days in vaudeville, their Broadway stardom, their conquest of London society, and their professional split, revealing how each sibling was affected by the other at every juncture (the inclusion of transcripted later interviews of both siblings is wonderfully illuminating on this score).

When Riley sticks to narration, the story of the Astaire siblings is told in a lovely, thorough, and relatively clear manner but when she steps forward and attempts to elucidate, she utilizes a puzzling style, quoting entire poems in a highly non-sequitur fashion and utilizes phrases such as:

n      “a complex ethos exposed with elegiac lyricism”
n      “the elegant apotheosis of Jewish cosmopolitanism”
n      “the ‘tinpantithesis’ of Aeolian Hall”
n      “the anarchic coexistence, in one, sweetly brazen figure, of a seeming mass of bewitching, opalescent contradictions”
n      “Terpsichorean”

Well, perhaps that last one can be forgiven since Fred speaks the word himself -- tongue in cheek, of course -- in the film "The Gay Divorcee" but The Astaires contains entire paragraphs -- nay, pages -- that could be easily excised without interrupting the biography's narrative flow, the only remotely negative result being that Riley would have lost an opportunity to exhibit her classical education (she refers to herself as a classics scholar in the book's introduction and on the back cover which apparently explains everything . . . and nothing). While the book was published by a university press, arguably giving Riley an automatic green light for her questionable style, a compelling argument for something a bit less elaborate for this particular subject is that Fred Astaire is universally loved, hence his biography belongs to the world, not only to those who believe poetry can be used to explain anything and who enjoy communicating with densely ornamental language.

However, when Riley lets the facts -- especially contemporary testimony -- speak without interruption, one can almost catch a glimpse of the magic that was once this pair of brilliantly talented siblings and for that reason, The Astaires is an important addition to the canon of pop culture history.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

"A Day in the Life" (Thirteenth in a Series)

Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Concept Album that Never Was -- or Was It?

The  thirteenth in a seies by John Atwood, a thinker and guitarist who was inspired as an 11 year-old to learn the instrument after seeing the Beatles perform in 1964 on the Ed Sullivan Show and who followed their career assiduously through his high school years when he formed a garage band just so he could play their songs within a group. He's had a few decades to ponder the import of the Fab Four's music.

With the end of the Reprise and the beginning of this last cut, the Sgt. Pepper band clears the stage and a lone performer remains, strumming a guitar.  This is John Lennon, without his Day-Glo costume, without all the contrivances that made up his prior songs.  He has broken through the 4th wall, so to speak, and now is singing from his heart, with a voice that, in George Martin’s terms, sends a chill down your spine.  Paul adds some class to the affair with nice piano chords and bass accents added later, and Ringo punctuates it all with interesting drum fills.  (George played maracas, we are told.)

Much has been written about “A Day in the Life”, covering how the orchestral parts were done and explaining the people to whom the 3 different vignettes refer.  I won’t repeat that material here.  I only point out that—including the speaker in the ‘middle eight’ (Paul’s part)—we are again presented with people who seem disconnected, or perhaps more specifically situations of futility and meaninglessness.  It is interesting to note his inclusion of himself in the second one, “I saw a film today, oh boy.”  He is referring to his part in Richard Lester’s How I Won the War, which was not released until after Sgt Pepper.  Did he anticipate people would “turn away”, as they in fact did, it seems.  (Has anyone actually ever seen this movie?) 

Whereas in all the prior character sketches the social disconnection seems unperceived by the singer, in this one John is seeing, and in a sense, bemoaning it.  I’ve always thought that “I’d love to turn you on” meant more about understanding life than it did about getting high.  (Although at the time there was a serious belief in some circles—now discredited—that the two things were connected.)  Yet the singer also seems detached, his voice dreamy and out of reach due to the echo effect applied to it.  In other words, he sees it, but realizes that he too is a victim of it.  This makes his inclusion of his own disconnect issue so fitting. 

But it doesn’t seem to me that the words and stories are as important in this song as the music which encases it.  With the dual incidences of the mighty orchestra crescendo, and the multi-piano final E Chord, there is a kind of apocalyptic sense to the song.  As the last phrase of the Wikipedia article on this song says, the final chord creates “a feeling of tragic inevitability”.  And this is, I think, what has always made “A Day in the Life” so fascinating.

The most emotive moment in the song to me actually has no words associated with it.  It is not the crescendo, or the final chord, but a mere Ahhhhh sung by John on the tail of Paul’s little ditty.  “Found my way upstairs and had a smoke, and somebody spoke and I went into a dream.  Ahhh-ah-ah-ahhhh” etc.  Even at the time I felt this grip my chest, as if something profound had just been realized.  I could almost feel a tear forming in my eye, and a deep sense of regret.  At the time I could never quite articulate why I felt that way, but it always seemed important.  It would connect in my mind to the image of Charleton Heston at the end of Planet of the Apes pounding his fist into the sand of what turned out to be the Atlantic Coast and groaning, “You maniacs, you blew it up!”  I still feel that when I get to this point in the song.

What this whole album has been about has been the risk we face in our world of losing ourselves and our humanity in the culture we create.  We are either compressed under the weight of the all of its pressures, or we lose our moorings and go into a meaningless drift on top all of the ebb and flow of it all.  It is kind of a poetic statement of the theme of the book Culture Against Man by Jules Henry.  And the album seems to be suggesting that this breakdown shows up in our relationships most of all, as we become isolated, alienated and in a way deadened. 

This was not an original notion on the Beatles part, nor even unique to them.  It was a special concern of people in the Sixties, and next to Civil Rights, was the most significant tenant of the counter culture, more important than the oft-caricatured free love and drugs of the time.  Other examples of it were the “Don’t Fold, Spindle, or Mutilate” motto (a phrase that was imprinted on IBM punchcards) that came out of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement or the Malvina Reynolds/Pete Seeger song “Little Boxes”.  Although the danger of this concern no doubt still exist, I don’t know if people today realize how bad all this was circa 1960 - 1965.  It is almost as if people were trying to literally have 2.3 kids, because that is what the reports said a normal family had.  People like to talk about the good old days, and while I remember many good things from those years, that incredible pressure to conform is not something I am in hurry to return to.

Of course, this penchant for boxing people up in stultifying strictures was not just limited to that time period, nor merely to “the Establishment”: parents, businesses or to folks on the Right in general. As someone who was an undergrad at the University of Chicago between 1970 -1973, I saw that even on the left there is a kind of enforced conformity.  I grew up in the conservative west and experienced all that, as mentioned above, but the experience at U of C had a feeling about it that was for me incredibly captured by Pete Townsend’s line: “Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.”  And as my own children have grown I’ve watched how kids, teenagers, young adults, all like to do it to one another.  “Make up your own mind and do (or think) what you want” is one of the hardest things for a young person—or any of us—to do, it seems.

When John says, “I’d love to turn you on”, it is almost wistful, but when he cries out, it is as if we find there was a repressed passion being masked by the wavering voice.  The cry expresses beyond the capability of words the need for us all to try to learn these lessons and stop doing these things to each other before—well, before it is too late.  When you find your own life has been reduced to one or another version of:

            Woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head…..
            Found my way upstairs and had a smoke and somebody spoke and I went into a dream

then it is time to scream “Ahhhhhhh”.  Do it long and hard until you wake up out of your stupor, before you ruin or alienate your kids, before you become insensitive to things that really matter, and before our culture becomes so toxic from the accumulation of wasted hours and lives that no one can survive in it anymore. 

That, at least, is my free-form, idiomatic translation of the phrase and of John’s cry.  But if you listen to how that progresses, the orchestral back up (the “tragic inevitability”) grows until it drowns out the cry.  It reminds me of the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony, where the Fate theme overtakes, overwhelms and finally beats the ‘optimism’ theme to a pulp.  Is this implying that, in the end, sending out warnings about the dangers will probably be futile?  “We can cry all we want, but in the end nothing will change.”  Or is it merely a further argument that if action is not taken, the tragic might ultimately prevail?