The White Album


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.


Just re-watched the film of the same name, starring the Beatles back in 65, at the height of Beatlemania.

“We were extras in our own movie,” complained Lennon a few years later, and he wasn’t far wrong. There are long tedious stretches of faux-Indian faux humor featuring Leo McKern, who would have to place high on any list of the world’s most repellent and unfunny comedians. And too often the Beatles just cavort meaninglessly in the snow or the surf or the countryside, as anonymous as stop-motion puppets.

Still in the edges it’s a fresh and relevant movie. The director, Richard Lester, was trying to turn the four of them into modern Marx Brothers, and while he pretty much failed, it’s amazing how close Lennon came to being like Groucho. When he looks at the camera and waggles his eyebrows, he makes the same kind of connection with the audience — the smart guy who isn’t taken in, who knows bullshit when he sees it, who rolls his eyes scornfully at piousness and cliche. Just like Groucho, Lennon cuts through the intervening decades and is right here with us now.

Ringo makes a connection, too — he’s a lovable doofus, and a great camera subject. There’s a musical number where he’s playing drums with a cigarette dangling from his lips, and he’s just effortlessly cool. The movie is built around him and his rings, and despite the corny cutups he comes through with his dignity intact, and the same kind of wry sweetness he had 25 years later guesting on The Simpsons.

George and Paul don’t fare so well. George was 22, and while he too was effortlessly cool, he doesn’t have a lot of personality… and clearly the writers and director couldn’t care less about him. As for Paul, he’s a great artist but his busy Gemini brain always makes him look twitchy, phony and cold on camera. He can’t cross his legs without seeming calculating and manipulative. However, even half a century later, you can almost hear the little girls screaming over his handsome little piggy face.

There are glimpses of swinging London, too, and they remind you that once upon a time, there was art and excitement happening somewhere. Change was in the air, and every one of the songs seems to be announcing it. Every ringing chord seems like a rebuke to this empty age we’re living in now. Help — I need somebody! Not just anybody…

All these years later, I know just what you mean, Johnny.