One of the best events in Orlando is “Classic Albums Live.” This is a concert series where they play a single classic rock album all the way through, note for note and word for word. It’s often like meeting an old friend, in that the totally familiar rubs up against the new and strange. Also, no matter what the album, having it performed live opens it up to a third dimension… you kind of walk into the record and poke around in it, making discoveries.
The one I looked forward to most was The White Album, which has always been a favorite record of mine. For one thing, it’s just got a lot of songs, and more Beatles is better, right? Um, right? More to the point, the group was more fragmented personally than at any other time, and the contrasts and dissonances make it an edgy, almost uncomfortable listening experience. One song will assault you, the next will soothe you, over and over. It’s the only record on which the Beatles weren’t trying to be cheery, upbeat lads. Or even a band, in the old sense. The seams are showing.
At the concert itself, the man behind me was offering his friends a garbled, inaccurate version of the album’s history, especially the influence it had on the Tate-LaBianca murders. And indeed Charlie Manson is a presence… not just in Helter Skelter and Piggies, but in the whole gestalt of the record (did I really just use the word gestalt? Sorry….). I was only a kid in 1968, but young as I was I recall the bad vibe of that year — the cities on fire, the assassinations (there seemed to be dozens), the war and the war protests leading the evening news every night. The holiday dinners when my “greatest generation” dad, uncle and grandfather would come back from hunting to rant about the goddamn hippies and their long sissy hair. Thanks, Grandpa — can you pass the plate of doves you just shot?
None of this came back at the concert, though. Time has passed; we have new atrocities on the news, and a new soundtrack for them. At the live concert experience, I just noticed many awesome moments: the guitar solos on While My Guitar Gently Weeps, the shredding vocals on Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?, the haunting beauty of I Will and Julia, the despair of Yer Blues and I’m So Tired, the soured rinkydink of Rocky Raccoon and Honey Pie. The profusion of sounds and styles. Lennon’s brutal honesty and McCartney’s evasive cleverness. The sheer authority of every song, even piddling little nothing songs. It’s like a cathedral, the White Album — but a deserted, haunted cathedral with rats scuttling in the corners. Enter at your own risk.