Thursday, December 28, 2006

The White Album, Side 2 / The Beatles

I've been thinking a lot about the white album lately. Christmastime will always make me long for this record, ever since Christmas 1968 when I found it under the tree, tore off the cellophane wrapper, and promptly disappeared into my girlhood bedroom for a week. I gazed at those four enclosed color head shots of John, Paul, George, and Ringo and pored over the lyrics booklet and committed the entire LP to memory as I have never before, or since, absorbed any record album. I consider it such a complete, coherent work of art that I can't even hear these songs out of order -- the instant "Bungalow Bill" is over, I MUST hear "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," and nothing else will do. Et cetera, et cetera.

I saw the superb Beatles tribute band The Fab Faux perform the white album in its entirety two nights ago; I was in heaven, standing amidst a thicket of other vintage-1968 music fans who likewise knew every word, every drumbeat, every syncopation and stutter and odd sound effect. Luckily, the Fab Faux are obsessive Beatle geeks too and reproduced the whole thing exactly -- except that they stopped to change guitars between songs, totally disconcerting those of us who needed the sweet acoustic downbeat of "Mother Nature's Son" to fall immediately, a split second and no more, after the crashing last electric chord of "Yer Blues."

My favorite side was always Side 2 (I still think of it in vinyl terms, you see). My favorite song? "I Will," because Paul McCartney wrote it for me -- we hadn't yet met (still haven't, I'll admit), but somehow he knew I was out there and was waiting for me (still is, I'm sure).

But to get there, I absolutely had to go through the rest of the side in order: first the catchy music-hall tune "Martha, My Dear" (remember the photo of Paul with his sheepdog Martha in the album booklet?), then the deliciously draggy "I'm So Tired", which is in a dead heat with the Beatles' "I'm Only Sleeping" and the Kinks' "Tired of Waiting" for the most perfect expressions of exhaustion ever; you've gotta love that line "And curse Sir Walter Raleigh, he was such a stupid get," the inevitable rhyme for "cigarette". (By the way, I lied a couple weeks ago when I said Paul Simon's "America" was the song that started me smoking; this song had every bit as much to do with it.)

Then the stunning Paul acoustic number "Blackbird," then George's snotty satire "Piggies" (that killer last line: "clutching forks and knives to eat the bacon" -- forget his gauzy Eastern spirituality, in my opinion George Harrison should have let his sharp, snide wit show more often). And then comes Paul's Bob Dylan parody "Rocky Raccoon", which -- come on, admit it -- is better than ninety percent of all Bob Dylan songs. Admit it. I'll never check into a hotel room without looking for the Gideon's Bible in the bedside table and thinking of this song.

It's followed by the obligatory Ringo track, "Don't Pass Me By," a country-twangin' number wonderfully suited to Ringo's limited vocal skills; that whole "you were in a car crash and you lost your hair" verse was, of course, central to the whole "Paul is dead" hoax. (Apologies to those who are too young to know about go look it up; I'm on a roll and can't stop to explain.)

Then came "Why Don't We Do It In The Road?", which faintly discomfited the adolescent me, already getting antsy to hear "I Will" by this point. But god, how it's grown on me over the years. Sure, it's ludicrous and was meant as a joke, and yet . . . man, how awesome is it to hear McCartney ripping into this number. That slightly discordant electric piano banging away, just a touch of sneaky slide guitar, and a thumping drum way forward in the mix; it's down-and-nasty, just to prove that there's a darker edge to Paul, balancing the sweetness of "Martha" and "Blackbird" and "I Will." At age 15 I didn't want to know that other side existed; but oh, now I do.

And then comes "Julia." Because Paul isn't the only sensitive, aching soul around here, and John's poignant acoustic ode to his dead mother brings down the house. So you're getting the full range of Paul, and the full range of John, and Ringo at his best, and George at his sharpest -- what more could you ask for? The best side on the best album by the best band that ever lived. Admit it.


nancyb said...

Hey Holly, "I will" may have been written for you, but others may disagree. The white album is by far one of my favorite albums by the beatles. Thanks for a great review-as always fun to read.

Holly A Hughes said...

Oh, yes, it was written for me. Just maybe not EXCLUSIVELY for me...

Mark said...

Hi Holly,

Great post about a great side of a great album! I know what you mean about having to hear Beatles albums in order. This has to be one of the best sequenced albums ever, every song seems to be either connected/related to the song before it, or it's the exact opposite. I've always liked the juxtaposition of Why Don't We Do It In the Road followed by I Will.

I have to tell you, though, it was your friend Paul who wrote Rocky Raccoon, not John. (What other Beatle would write a song with a scat chorus?) To quote John, from his 1980 interview with Playboy, "Would I go to all that trouble about Gideon's Bible and all that stuff?"

Thanks for the fab post!

Anonymous said...

You have mentioned more then once how the sequencing of songs on a particular side have such a profound effect on your own personal enjoyment...and when you might hear a song on, say, a compilation album, or on someone's own mix, it might seem like a tree trunk without any branches. Can't stand alone as well as it stood with its musical siblings.
And even though my vinyl "Great Lost Kinks Album," (bought at The Record Museum near Halawa Heights, HI, in 1973) lies in my basement unheard for at least ten years, I KNOW, I KNOW, I KNOW, I KNOW, its song sequence, and if I heard "Till Death Us Do Part," I would be at once spring-loaded to recall each song in its proper order.

Though I'm not a "White Album" guy, I know what you mean by its power. Its beauty is of bare trees in winter.

I get it with "Abbey Road," side two, which for me, and some others, is that deliniation in time and space which can only be defined in music.

Some might think "Abbey Road," a bit overripe compared to the "White Album," but I am oh so comfortable in its fermentation.

And Holly, how come,
"You never give me your pillow,
You only give me your funny papers?"