The Arcada Theater on the east end of downtown St. Charles, Illinois is run by Ron Onesti and Onesti Entertainment. That organization is the portal to every aging rock band in the universe. Last night a group assembled by the rock legend Todd Rundgren came to town and played nearly every song on The Beatles White Album.
It’s been fifty years since that classic came out. I well recall sneaking into the living room when my brothers were out of the house to put the record on my father’s prized turntable. In 1968 it had been Sgt. Pepper that dominated our lives. In 1969 it was the peripatetic White Album that took over our consciousness.
Beatle George Harrison denounced the White Album for its excessiveness. He believed that album could have used an editor, someone to tell them “yes and no” about which songs should be kept, and which discarded. Yet The White Album (which is actually titled simply, “The Beatles”) with all its ups and downs is a time capsule of sorts from the year 1969.
At least it was for me. I was twelve years old and discovering all kinds of things about the world. My schoolyard friends had just passed word around about the joys of masturbation, and the mysteries of sex began to open for all of us. That made the Beatles song “Why don’t we do it in the road?” all the more mysterious. We knew what “it” meant. But we sure didn’t realize how to accomplish that between the white lines, or anywhere else.
What I had discovered by the age of twelve is a love of running that would soon turn into a lifetime avocation. I’d always led the running drills for our baseball team, Local 285. But there was a single moment of discovery that made me realize I had a degree of talent for running. During a seventh grade gym class our PE teacher had us run a twelve minute time trial as part of a fitness test. I led the class by covering 8 1/4 laps. I’d broken twelve minutes in the two mile wearing plain old tennis shoes on a cinder track.
Years later I’d pass through that same distance in 9:15, the fastest I ever ran two miles. That wasn’t world or even national class pace. But I’d come a long way in training to do that race, and finished a 5K that night in 14:47. It felt good to see the results after working so hard.
In the years since growing up with The Beatles I’ve watched and listened to many recordings of their rehearsals, heard alternate versions of their songs and been amazed at how their music traveled from raw demo cuts to what feels like perfection no matter how you play them. Recently when asked by Steven Colbert how he writes his songs, Beatle Paul McCartney calmly shared the process of writing down lyrics or working out a piece of music on piano. Then he added, “And I’m a genius.”
That last insight was quite important in the development of The Beatles. Each member of the group offered genius that grew into something individually and collectively great. They took musical risks that changed how the world saw music.
They also faced the rhetorical music for sharing insights about using drugs and commenting on their popularity, which John Lennon once compared to Jesus. That got them in trouble with the arch-right Christian factions in America. They burned Beatles records and made a show of their supposed righteousness after Lennon offended their sensibilities. “Christianity will go,” he had said. “It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I know I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first – rock & roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”
John Lennon was correct about how Christianity twisted the message of Jesus into the gospel of power, money and prosperity. The Christian religion stole these obsessions straight from the religious authorities who conspired to get Jesus crucified, then turned around and blamed “the Jews” for killing Jesus. That inner conflict is a truth Christianity desperately wants to avoid. Hence the overreaction when the truth is pointed out.
A cynical eye
That degree of insight is what originally appealed to me about The Beatles. The White Album tore back the fabric of society to reveal the flaws behind the self-righteous drama of people trying to pretend they are perfect when everyone can see they are not.
Perhaps I absorbed a little too much of that Beatle cynicism along the way. Being honest about work and life and religion is not appreciated in many circles. It cost me some over the years. My liberal leanings emanate from Beatle insights on many fronts. John Lennon wrote the song Happiness is a Warm Gun to mock the world’s obsession with guns. The name of that song echoed a popular book by Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz titled Happiness is a Warm Puppy. I owned a copy of that book, which made the lyrics to Lennon’s song about the corrupting power of guns all the more potent:
When I hold you in my arms (ooh, oh, yeah)
And I feel my finger on your trigger (ooh, oh, yeah)
I know nobody can do me no harm (ooh, oh, yeah)
Because…Happiness is a warm gun, yes it is (bang, bang, shoot, shoot)
The bitter irony is that John Lennon was shot in the head by a man jealous and disturbed by Lennon’s fame. That act of violence took place on December 8, 1980. I remember sitting at a stoplight that night in my gold Plymouth Arrow when the news came on the radio. I sat there pounding the dashboard screaming “NO! NO! NOOOOO!” Lennon was right all along. Guns have the power to corrupt the human mind.
I understood when The White Album came out that The Beatles were trying to tell us the world is never what it seems on the surface. There were songs on that album that celebrated love, such as “I Will,” an uplifting piece penned by Paul McCartney. Yet the song Blackbird was a metaphorical testament to the civil rights struggles of the 60s:
Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
I’ve run a ton of miles singing songs like that in my head. Dear Prudence. Glass Onion. Birthday. Piggies. I’ve even learned and played a few Beatles on the guitar over the years. Julia. I’m So Tired. Obla Di Obla Da. Those efforts make me appreciate the genius of The Beatles even more. I’m not a great singer, but it sure feels great to sing. I guess that’s a gift the Beatles gave to all of us in some way.