Why We Need The White Album
Once upon a time, Lester Bangs wrote an article about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I read it a while ago, drunk, but the gist of the essay is that Sgt. Pepper is a terrible album, and demonstrates that the Beatles are, generally speaking, a terrible band. Bangs considers the Beatles to be products of their time; specifically, he accuses them of having the same pristine, utopian feelings that broke out everywhere towards the end of the Sixties, like some kind of paisley flu. Bangs makes a classic postmodern move: the problem with Sgt. Pepper is that it’s so good. There’s nothing wrong with it. It sounds like a symphony. The trees are filled with bluebirds. The lanes are always quiet. This is why children love The Beatles — because they write songs about a better world, a world that children have within their reach….until they discover, later on, that it’s been wrenched away. And what good are the Beatles to us then? They’re not merely sentimental; according to Bangs, they are visionaries, and that makes them unbearably depressing. We grow up and stop listening. Pop music soundtracks the lives we really lead, not the ones we hoped to have.
Bangs comes close, himself, to the truth. Children like the Beatles because the songs are full of beauty and mystery, and the beauty and the mystery intertwine. They don’t know why John is the walrus, or why we all live in a yellow submarine, and they don’t care. It’s impressive enough that a submarine — a yellow one, specifically — is even involved. Kids also prefer the late Beatles to the early songs. Sure, they’ll tolerate “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” but they vastly prefer songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Octopus’s Garden.” That’s why Ferris Bueller’s Day Off gradually moves from “I Am The Walrus” to “Twist And Shout.” To an adult, “I Am The Walrus” is puzzling, and “Twist And Shout” is gloriously clear. To a kid, it’s the other way around.
The Beatles, like all great art, belong to everyone and no-one. It’s tempting to turn their work into a symbol of childhood, but it’s also distortive, like all excessively personal interpretations. The question the Beatles keep asking, which is impossible to answer, is why we cannot recognize beauty at the moment it blooms. Take “Here, There, And Everywhere,” for example. Obviously, the singer and his girl are passionately in love. The melody is lovely, the harmonies are dreamlike, and the lyrics are warm. Simultaneously, the two of them are fucking everything up. Why is the singer “watching” his lover’s eyes? Because he’s just announced that “love never dies,” which is a rather stupid thing to say, and he’s nervous about being wrong. He’s watching to see what she’ll do next. Similarly, when Paul describes “knowing that love is to share,” he’s right, but he’s just guessing — the song fairly hums with raw, self-centered need. The singer and the lovers are at odds; their agony, viewed from afar, looks sunny and serene. Which, in a way, it is.
Paul writes character studies, so it’s easy to see how this dynamic recurs in his songs, over and over again. The pretty miss, in “Penny Lane,” is hawking flowers. She’s desperate. “Paperback Writer” is a novella about the fruitless attempts of a bad writer to publish his wretched book. The guy in “Getting Better” isn’t getting better, “Lady Madonna” is a Dickens character, and so on. But what makes the Beatles really remarkable is that John and George created two other, equally profound versions of this same ode. In John’s songs, solitude is glorious, and somehow even shared. After all, his “Nowhere Man” is you and me. “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” is like a voice crying, for the sake of love, in a human wilderness.
“Come Together” describes an impossibly remote man, who has “got to be good looking ’cause he’s so hard to see.” He is an acid casualty with “joo joo eyeballs,” walking around on dirty bare feet: “no shoeshine…toejam football.” Yet the song is everyone’s anthem, at the same time. Even “I Am The Walrus,” which is about “yellow matter custard / dripping from a dead dog’s eye,” isn’t gross, unless you look twice. The song burns white-hot. It is about the astonished recognition that something is happening, no matter how obscene, and that it is miraculous to be there, alive, watching it happen. There is a prophetic grandeur to these versions of himself, when John turns them inside out. Yet this grandeur is “so hard to see,” until it yields a song, that it might as well not exist.
If John’s songs are about himself, after he is that self no longer, George’s songs are about other people. Sadly, none of these people are listening to George. “Don’t Bother Me” is the sort of thing a sullen teenager yells, from the corner of the gymnasium, in the general direction of the popular kids. “Think For Yourself” is written at five a.m., from the perspective of that one guy at the party. You know the guy I mean. He’s sober, telling a stranger with vomit in their hair that “you are better than this.” All of George’s songs seem purposeful. They all seem like message songs, but they’ve outlived their occasions. The songs work because their admonishments fail, and because that failure matters. George finally admits this in “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which could be titled “Even Though Eric Fucking Clapton Is Playing Guitar On This Song, It Won’t Reach Or Help You.”
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is on The Beatles, which is in keeping with that album’s message. The Beatles were only human; The Beatles is their Gethsemane, recorded after a foolish spiritual undertaking in India. It is full of unperfected demos. Paul starts writing about purely imaginary objects of pity, including a blackbird flying at the worst possible time, with broken fucking wings. John threatens to kill himself (“Yer Blues,” “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”), and makes fun of Paul (“The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill,” “Cry, Baby, Cry”). Basically, he acts like a jerk. George rails against talking pigs and something called a “Savoy Truffle,” failing to offend even one person despite his best efforts. He also writes a sitar song, “Long, Long, Long,” and then stubbornly refuses to play sitar on it, leaving us with something so formless that it is hard to distinguish from tape hiss.
Listening to the solipsistic fantasies on The Beatles is a lot of fun, but it’s also bittersweet. Nothing really works on that album, and nothing after it worked especially well, either. The Beatles had had it. They were tired of holding up a mirror to life. When I wrote, above, that pop music soundtracks the lives we actually lead, I didn’t mean that it is realistic. Pop music is completely unrealistic. There is a perfect correlation between the frustrations of ordinary life and the compensatory music in the Top 40. They are opposites of each other.
Pop grants our wishes, and the Beatles were an exception. They didn’t truck in wish fulfillment. I never thought that Paul had more lovers than I did. I never thought about how many millions of people loved and related to John. I never mistook George for “the voice of his generation.” The reason The Beatles is a white album is that it is a blank canvas. It is a sarcastic gift to us: “interpret this how you will.” It is a Trojan horse filled with songs about nothing. It is a harsh reminder that the Beatles didn’t have to write songs about real life. Nonetheless, they usually did. They were the opposite of visionaries, and this is why, sometimes, we cannot bear to listen. Life offends us. It is so painful that it shouldn’t be worthwhile, “but it is,” say the songs.