First, we had albums from a band so famous that it didn’t need to put its name on the album covers. Now, we have an album where the only thing on the cover is the band’s name. Everyone knows it as “The White Album,” but its real title is “The Beatles.”
It is not possible for me to play this album and not be transported back to freshman year, room 235 Day Hall. As I noted earlier in the chronology, my coming into Beatlemania in 1978 and 1979 was a shared experience with my roommate, Danny. We fell hard for the Fab Four from Liverpool, starting with the Red and Blue albums, moving into “Rock ’n’ Roll Music.” Our first non-compilation, our first true Beatles album experience, was “The White Album.”
Some say this was nothing but individually written songs that the Beatles (sometimes) played together, that it was self-indulgent, a vanity project. Some say if they had trimmed it down, it would be one very good album. One critic said it ranged from the sturdiest tunes since Revolver to self-indulgent filler. These are all things that are true. But I can’t begin to be objective about this, because as much as we loved The Beatles as we got into them through the compilation records, this was the first full-on Beatles album that my roommate and I experienced together, and it . . . was . . . awesome. Beginning to end, starting with the exciting scream of a jet turbine on “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and moving through the very uneven arrangement of tracks — I wouldn’t change a thing.
This was also the album where we really started to dig into The Beatles ethos, the stories behind the songs — who was Martha? Who was Sexy Sadie? What was all this stuff with India and the Maharishi? It was all new and fascinating, but also all of this was somewhere in the zeitgeist, so digging into these stories that then were less than a decade old was a little like recovering memories.
You could only describe our listening to the White Album as ritualistic, nearly religious. It had to be done in a certain way. It was always all the way through – I don’t think it was permitted to simply play a single side. (I do believe, however, that we would agree beforehand whether we were sitting through Revolution No. 9., because that could cut 8 minutes out of an hour and a half experience. But that was it.) This was a time of conscious listening – we weren’t watching anything while we listened (we didn’t have a TV then anyway). Maybe we were looking at the newspaper, maybe we were half-studying, but mostly when we sat down to listen, it was to listen. Well, and drink. The White Album was a regular feature on “rum and Coke night,” which was a weekly thing in our dorm room, to the point where even the thought of rum and Coke is sickening now. It was also a regular feature of Friday night partying, and Saturday night partying. Despite the rule about playing it all the way through, it got played A LOT. Like, constantly.
So yes, this album is a mess, but it’s a brilliant mess, the kind of mess that (at least at that time) only The Beatles could have made. No, there’s nothing as overtly terrible as “Yellow Submarine” or “Octopus’s Garden” on it. It’s a mix of old school Beatles rockers, weirdness, some social consciousness, old-timey numbers and, of course, two songs called “Revolution.” “Revolution 9” is a a piece of sound experimentation that, while not a song, is a central piece of the ’60s. And listening to it means that soon will come “Good Night,” the simplest, sweetest, most perfect album-closer ever, and then the song will be over and it’s time for bed.
The copy we played then was my roommate Danny’s; it may originally have been his older brother’s, as some of his records were. Memory tells me it was a serial-numbered copy, but memory has a way of playing tricks on us. He also put up his poster/lyric sheet on the wall, and the individual head shot posters. They were on our walls for years.
I am uncertain where I got my copy. It’s interesting to me, because it’s in a bag from Record Runner, a legendary and much-loved record store on Marshall Street in Syracuse that predated my time there; apparently it was bought out by Record Theatre, which was the main record store there in my freshman year. So it’s possible this was just remaining stock that I picked up there. That Record Runner logo – well, that just screams early ’70s.