As the 50th anniversary deluxe edition of The Beatles’ magnum opus arrives in stores, one man looks inward at the music that shaped his brain
My introduction to The Beatles came in the form of a box of 8-track cassettes my mom owned. Theoretically, it was my very first music collection, one that I still own to this day (though it is packed away in a Sterilite plastic bin somewhere in the laundry room).
She also kicked me down her Big Bird-yellow 8-track player, which I thought was super cool because it looked like the kind of TNT detonator used in the Looney Tunes commercials. I played most of the albums my mom had in that box, which also included the music of Wings, George Harrison and one John Lennon solo LP (Shaved Fish, I believe). But it was this pair of tapes comprising The White Album pictured above that drew me into their world like no other. The songs were so weird and catchy and sad and funny. I thought they were children’s songs at first, especially the likes of “(The Continuing Story of) Bungalow Bill,” “Rocky Raccoon” and especially “Piggies,” George’s cheeky takedown of English aristocracy that was sadly misconstrued as a call-to-arms by the Manson Family, much like The White Album’s heaviest track “Helter Skelter.” I remember “Revolution no. 9,” the trippy tape collage conspired by Harrison, Lennon and Yoko Ono, freaking me the fuck out every time I heard it, its mantra of “number nine, number nine, number nine” haunting my little dreams at night. I remember my Uncle George, fresh out of high school, playing me “Blackbird” on his acoustic guitar, and my mom singing “Mother Nature’s Son” to me at bedtime in lieu of the obvious being “Goodnight” (more on that song later). I loved “Glass Onion” so much as well back then, and “Obla-Dee Obla-Da,” which I remember someone once told me they saw a video for the song on MTV and it was filmed in Jabba the Hutt’s palace (yeah, I know they were messing with me!). Nevertheless, it was great to hear the song get a new shot of renewed interest when it served as the theme song for the ABC dramedy Life Goes On.
As I got older, The White Album was always my go-to Beatles album, eventually getting it on cassette so I can listen to it in my Walkman and then in my first car–a beat-up 1984 Ford Escort Wagon–where the more visceral ends of the album piqued my ears, like “Helter,” “Savoy Truffle,” and “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey.” “Revolution,” meanwhile, screamed out of my television set as part of a Nike commercial that annoyed me back then but now gives me the same nostalgic feels for a sweeter, simpler time as the original tune did when I first heard it as a pre-schooler. Hearing Siouxsie and the Banshees’ cover of “Dear Prudence” on a random mixtape was also a heartwarming revelation as well, not to mention The Breeders’ take on “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” In 1998, during my first year at CMJ, I still had yet to prove my salt in the biz, thus not being privy to the packages containing the 30th anniversary edition of The White Album most of my colleagues had received in the mail, but it inspired me to revisit my old cassette tapes, and gave me a newfound sense of appreciation for the quirkier aspects of the record, especially “Yer Blues,” which I had just re-discovered through John Lennon’s performance of the song on The Rolling Stones’ Rock & Roll Circus, which had just been reissued around the same time. Listening to acts like Jellyfish, Wilco, Matthew Sweet, Elliott Smith, The Beta Band and the solo debut of a young Sean Lennon also gave me a new sense of fondness for tunes like “Sexy Sadie,” “Long Long Long” and the heartbreaking “Julia,” a song about the elder Lennon’s mom that assists me in the sweet melancholy attached to memories of my own mother, who passed away 20 years ago next June, and who I could only wish I spent more time with in her final days. I never got to have an adult conversation with her about The Beatles and this album in particular, something that haunts me the older I get.
Now, 50 years after it was originally released on November 22, 1968, I am so blessed to enjoy this massive six-CD/1-blu-Ray box set celebrating the evolution of the album properly titled The Beatles but will always be known as The White Album. I haven’t gotten through but a fraction of it yet, but I’m really digging the fifth disc of the “Sessions” collection, which comprises three out of the six CDs contained within. There are early versions of “Hey Jude” and “Let It Be” on here. The George track “Not Guilty,” which wouldn’t appear on a proper album until the guitarist’s eponymous 1979 LP, not to mention an acoustic demo version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” with Paul on mellotron, that just floods your heart with a tidal wave of sentiments one may or may not have attached to this beautiful alternate take, bolstered by the heartbreaking couplet – “I look from the wings at the play you are staging / As I’m sitting here doing nothing but aging.” The Esher Demos, meanwhile, sound so, so much better than that scratchy-ass bootleg I’ve had for all these years; thank you forever to Giles Martin for that one! And that Take 10 version of “Goodnight” with all four Fabs singing it like a countrified barbershop quartet, is just over the moon.
But, for me, the best part of revisiting The White Album is being able to share my memories of it with my son, who loves the album as much as I did when I was his age, and use it as a conduit to tell him beautiful stories about the grandma he doesn’t know–the woman who put this amazing music into my heart and, through the magic of familial molecules, his as well. One day I hope to tell him the story of his Grandma Sally’s 8-track collection, and show him the actual set when he’s old enough to not feel the impulse to unspool the tapes. The Beatles have meant so much to me and my family for all these years–especially my mom, who was one of those crazy girls stalking the band at JFK and screaming her head off at Shea Stadium with my poor grandfather beside her, fingers planted in his big Italian ears. Listening to these songs is like looking at my old family picture books. I feel the presence of my mom when I hear “Mother Nature’s Son”; I’m back on my uncle’s bedroom shag carpeting listening him bash out a crude version of “Blackbird”; I’m laying in front of our old family television with my 8-track detonator playing “Rocky Raccoon” on repeat in between episodes of Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. And to be able to continue to hear new things in this most amazing journey into sound The Beatles had given us 50 years ago–especially for this old warhorse–is a rare gift that many new box sets fail to offer me in this way.
I’m so grateful I still have my mom’s old 8-tracks. If there was one thing I wanted to remember her by, it’s them. Thank you, Mom, for this amazing gift you have given me. I miss you every day.