Late in the summer of 1968, Pope Paul VI came out forcefully against the birth-control pill, putting a moral crimp in the decade’s libido. London, however, was still swinging strong, and the Beatles decided — perhaps as Communist lark rather than Christian tithing — that it was truly better to give than to receive. In the August 8, 1968, issue of the Village Voice, part-time theater critic Charles Marowitz reported that the world’s most popular rock group was shuttering its Apple store (named for its record label) and giving away all of the shop’s existing stock. One mother walked in with her two children “just to windowshop and walked out with new dresses, summer suits, and other assorted goodies.” As she left, the mom said, “Give Ringo a big kiss for me.” The Voice correspondent noted, though, that not everyone was happy. “In the past few days, I have heard the Beatles maligned more viciously than they ever were at the height of their controversial pop success. For they have been guilty, in certain people’s eyes, of the worst sin imaginable — not weaning the young on drugs or spreading Buddhist cultishness, but subverting the principles of commerce…. The Beatles have repudiated the premise on which all business is firmly established: i.e., that you can’t get something for nothing.”
During that tumultuous decade, the pope wasn’t the only one questioning the mores of the times. In the October 3, 1968, issue, Howard Smith reported in Scenes, his regular Voice column, that the other chart-topping group from across the pond was being vexed by their record label. “The Rolling Stones, the group with the sandpaper personalities, continues to scratch the smooth wherever it is found. Although their new album, ‘Beggar’s [sic] Banquet,’ was completed months ago, it has still not been shipped to the stores. The Stones like the bathroom wall graffiti jacket design. Their record company says it’s in bad taste and won’t release it. Not even the $1 million advance sale has been enough to bridge this obscenity gap. Also turned down was Mick Jagger’s suggestion that the album be sold in plain paper bags labeled ‘unsuitable for children.’ ” (This almost two decades before Tipper Gore headed the Parents Music Resource Center’s crusade to label recordings for adult content in a manner similar to that used for motion pictures. Jagger, who had attended the London School of Economics before the Stones rocket took off, was cannily aware that the forbidden always makes for a good sales pitch.)
Next came a turn on the censor’s wheel for one of the Beatles, even as the bad-boy Stones were blinking in the face of their record company’s skittishness. The November 7, 1968, Voice offered readers full-frontal nudity from the cover of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s album Two Virgins; the record company objected to the nudity, but had even more problems with the only thing Lennon wore — an odd pendant. In a deep caption, Smith spelled out what it was all about. Sort of. “Hereby hangs a very interesting tale of commercial censorship. The music (which is electronic) from John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s film ‘Two Virgins’ was supposed to come out as a soundtrack album. But the Beatles’ British and American record companies balked because of the jacket photo, in which Lennon has a very unusual pendant hung around his neck. He refused to explain its meaning, saying: ‘If I give in on this and tell them, the next thing they’ll be telling me what kind of glasses to wear.’” Smith further reported that comedian Bill Cosby — of all people — came to the rescue, directing his record company, Tetragrammaton, to help with distribution, witchy jewelry be damned. “Meanwhile,” Smith concluded, “the handwriting on the bathroom wall has been erased by Decca Records: the Rolling Stones gave in, in this Year of the Great Album Cover Dispute.” (The Lennon tale hung around into the 1990s, when Noel Gallagher, of Oasis, obtained the bauble for brother Liam. “I bought him a few presents in the 90s. I bought him a thing from an auction which was an Indian necklace thing that John Lennon wore when he went to see the Maharishi. It’s worth a fortune — it was round the man’s neck when he wrote ‘Sexy Sadie’ — so I sent it to [Liam] for Christmas and next time I saw him he had it on. He took it out the frame and the label saying ‘worn by John Lennon.’ I said, ‘What are you doing? It’s fuckin’ memorabilia!’ and he said, ‘John Lennon wore it, I’m wearing it.’ He’s probably flushed it down the toilet by now. I don’t know, haven’t seen it since.”)
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Serendipitously — or perhaps not so much — in that same column Smith covered a Free Store on East 10th Street, which was having a much harder time with the locals on an even more expansive concept of giving than the Beatles did with their one-shot extravaganza: “The climax came one night last week when a group of cars and bikes reportedly pulled up and the store’s windows were shattered by shotgun butts.” Apparently, freedom, as the posthumously released Janis Joplin hit “Me and Bobby McGee” puts it, is indeed “just another word for having nothing left to lose.”
Stones guitarist Keith Richard once said, “Funny year, ’68, it’s got a hole in it somewhere.” In fact, two of the biggest albums of that (or any) year were released on ominous dates. First came The Beatles (more commonly known as the “White Album”), which hit the streets on November 22 — the five-year anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. That was followed by the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet, on December 6, a date that would soon have its own run-in with history. In the December 12 issue of the Village Voice, music critic Carman Moore approached the White Album from clashing perspectives in the Riffs column —“I’ve never met a Beatle: they may be assholes, counter-revolutionaries, and purple meanies. But they’re always something more: the most complete music-making organization in the pop world and song writers whose corporate name is not out of place with those of the great classicalists. I don’t know whether the original idea of doing virtually every popular music style since the ’20s and putting those 30 cuts into a plain, white cover is actually pompous, larcenous, or what. I only know that they invade those fields and end up cutting the heavies in all but two or three of them (even Tiny Tim). The key to this mastery — the easy way to say it — is that while others break their necks inventing styles, the Beatles invent songs. Another way — also easy — is that they are obviously still respectful and excellent listeners to anybody else’s thing, that something makes them keep improving, and that music is their natural religion and they would yell their voices into hamburger, put their deepest secrets on a PA system, or strip stitchless if music is involved (A pretty girl is like a melody).”
Moore, an African American, wrote for the paper about such gospel singers as James Cleveland and Shirley Caesar, and found that in “Sexy Sadie,” Lennon sang “excellently with a black-style r&b ballad vibrato thrown in.” Moore also praises “Revolution 9” as “a not-badly-formed avant-garde outing.”
In that same Riffs column, rock critic Robert Somma sought language equal to the massive themes found on the Stones finally released Beggars Banquet (in a simple white cover with elegant script). “If rock has a royalty, then the Stones are king; if a hierarchy, they’re the Pope; if an occupation, then they’re the boss. ‘Beggar’s [sic] Banquet’ asks you to sup first with the devil, and then with the rest of the damned, a cast of characters, strangely not unlike you and me.” Somma goes on to list some of the players:
“I was there when Jesus Christ
had his moment of doubt and pain
made damn sure that Pilate
washed his hands and sealed his fate.”
For the rejected lover:
“Your heart is like a diamond
you throw your pearls at swine
and as I watch you leavin
you pack my peace of mind”
For the gangster:
“Yes he really looks quite religious
he’s been an outlaw all his life”
For the well-known common man:
“Raise your glass to the
let’s drink to the uncounted heads.”
It’s more than passing odd that during such a flamboyant, hopeful, violent, brilliant, mad travail of a decade, these two seminal albums arrived under similarly spare cover, the Beatles’ as bleached as bones, the Stones’ a prim invitation to the apocalypse.
But then things got weirder.
Far, far away from any London recording studios, a rancid guru named Charles Manson was in California — that ragged edge of a continent where dreamers, madmen, tricksters, and geniuses pile up on themselves with nowhere else to go — busily convincing his flock that he was in psychic communication with the Beatles. Such songs from the White Album as “Blackbird,” “Piggies,” “Revolution 1” (and “9”), “Sexy Sadie,” and, especially, “Helter Skelter,” were, Manson informed the faithful, direct confirmation that his visions of a world cleansed of pigs and killjoys was nigh. A career criminal, Manson was prepping his followers for murder and mayhem, and the Beatles were providing the soundtrack.
Or not. Revisionist historians argue that prosecutors’ claims of Manson planning the murders of Sharon Tate and her friends to launch a violent race war, which would leave him and his followers as rulers of the planet, are as ridiculous as they sound. Instead, these scholars of Manson’s mind blame the Tate-LaBianca bloodbaths on drug deals gone very bad, crimes which were in turn covered up by the authorities to spare the reputations of Hollywood’s decadent, wealthy, and socially powerful elite. Whatever the motive, Manson was undoubtedly a world-class con man, one who once pontificated to a courtroom audience, “I have killed no one and I have ordered no one to be killed. I may have implied on several different occasions to several different people that I may have been Jesus Christ, but I haven’t decided yet what I am or who I am.” Such musings were much too heavy for Lennon and McCartney’s preternaturally catchy pop melodies to shoulder.
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And besides, the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” was more legitimately drenched in blood than anything the Beatles ever put on vinyl. While the band was recording the song, in early June 1968, Jagger sang the lyric, “I shouted out, ‘Who killed Kennedy?’/When after all, it was you and me,” in reference to the JFK murder. But the world would come to know the lines that made the final version: “I shouted out, ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’/When, after all, it was you and me.” The lyric change was only made public thanks to Jean-Luc Godard’s film One Plus One (later retitled Sympathy for the Devil) — which featured the band revising and recording the song in a London studio. Even then, only close viewers noticed, as the musicians did numerous takes, that the lyric was changed from singular to plural after Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down by an assassin on June 5, in Los Angeles.
Additionally, “Sympathy” received undo credit, a year to the day after the album’s release, for putting the final nail in the Sixties’ coffin, when eighteen-year-old Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death by Hells Angels as the Stones were performing the song at their calamitous Altamont concert, on December 6, 1969.
Or so the story went. Again, it took a filmed record to set the facts straight. On December 6, 1970, Gimme Shelter, the Maysles brothers’ film of the Stones’ 1969 tour, revealed, for those willing to watch, that Hunter had, in fact, been attacked during the buoyant strains of “Under My Thumb,” not — as had been reported by media outlets around the world — during “Sympathy for the Devil.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Joan Didion called out this misshapen history in her 1979 collection of essays assaying California’s dystopian paradise, by titling her book The White Album. As she informs us on the opening page, “I am talking here about a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself.”
Didion had had a decade’s hindsight to arrive at her revelation, so give Voice critic Somma credit for divining the majesty and malignity of the music that defined his moment. He knew there would be much more to come, writing, “Like any work of art one can describe as total, insular, comprehensive, self-explanatory, and multi-layered, the ‘Banquet’ needs more than a few words and will reveal itself, like a shrouded, necessary truth, with the passage of time.”