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John Lennon and Paul McCartney in Transit

Scenes

THERE I STOOD, next to Paul McCartney and John Lennon — calm, but without a thing to say. I wasn’t intimidated, but more amazed I had managed to get through an endless skein of Beatlemanic intrigue. But with the aid of my press card there I was, for 15 minutes altogether, with them as they were hustled from one custom’s checkpoint to another last Saturday afternoon. Only while driving back to the city later did I remember that I had forgotten to ask them about all the rumors. Was it true that they were here to denounce the Maharishi? Was it true that they were breaking up and that’s why only two of them had come? Was it true that they were merely in New York to help promote their Apple enterprise into another million dollar Beatle spinoff?

(Tuesday at their press conference it turned out that the only rumor that wasn’t true — as usual — was that they were breaking up. Gently putting down the Maharishi, Lennon said they still meditate now and then but, speaking for all four Beatles, he said they feel they made a mistake about him. “After all we’re only human.”)

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Back at the airport, I did ask Paul if the screaming teenyboppers still turned him on and he said of course. He did a lot of sophisticated waving, and signed autographs for some of the airport personnel. John, more aloof and at times sort of surly, looked pretty tired even in white suit, white shirt, white tie, white shoes, and a plain white button on his lapel. He scrawled autographs without looking at the paper or the beseecher.

There had been reports all week, but the Beatles press people had kept the actual day and time of their arrival a good secret and so only two or three press people were there to greet them. But several thousand frantic crying teenyboppers in last year’s bellbottoms, informed by WMCA Good Guys, were racing all over the International Arrivals building trying to find out where the plane would unload. Watching them float was fantastic. If a girl screamed in one part of the terminal, maybe just out of frustration, a hundred others rushed shrieking in that direction.

After John and Paul left by way of a distant airport exit road in their black Caddy limousine (driven by a chauffeur wearing yellow shades), I headed out through the terminal to my car but a burly airport security supervisor stopped me.

“I can’t convince these kids that the Beatles have left. They just won’t believe someone like me,” he pleaded, while over his shoulder I could see at least a thousand of the tearful faithful trying to get in the doors I had to get out.

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“Someone who looks like you they would believe. You tell them that they left and they’ll all go home.” I said all right.

“Hey kids, this fellow is a reporter and he just had an exclusive interview with the Beatles and …” Two squealing girls grabbed my sleeve and the whole crowd suddenly found me fascinating and they screamed and screeched. I finally got everyone quiet enough to be heard if I yelled. They immediately began planning hurriedly at which hotel they would set up vigils until they could get a glimpse of their idols.

The Beatles are still up there. ❖

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John Lennon, 1940-1980

In 1971, I wrote something about John and Yoko that they liked a lot, and to show their appreciation they invited me and my girlfriend Dominique to John’s 31st birthday party — in Syracuse, where a Yoko Ono retrospective had been mounted. I’ve never been one to hobnob with the stars, but who could resist John Lennon? He’d always been my own personal Beatle, and probably yours. He was the one who could have been a friend of ours, the one we might have known in school or on the scene — the bohemian, the artist, the intellectual. Still, even after the party jet and the room down the hall from ex-Beatle security, I was reluctant to intrude. But this was the only famous person Dominique had ever wanted to meet in her life, and she wasn’t about to let the chance slip by. Eventually we got to the Lennon suite, where J&Y watched themselves on the news and signed 26 autographs for Dominique’s fifth-grade class. Among those present was Ringo Starr, grumpy because he’d called room service an hour before and there was still no food.

“Did you tell them who you were?” Lennon asked.

It should go without saying that Ringo hadn’t.

“Well, why not?” Lennon asked. “You’ve got the fucking fame — you might as well get something out of it.”

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A few weeks later the J&Y entourage picked me up on Avenue B, where the limo attracted more attention than the star–one of the local youngsters thought I was the Beatle, while another didn’t know what a Beatle was. After sitting around awkwardly in my dingy living room for a few minutes we repaired to the Cookery for discussions of Chuck Berry’s jail years and celebrity as a depletable resource — John wondered whether he should lay low for a while. He seemed astonishingly quick and intense — partly, no doubt, because he was. But it’s also true that unprotected by professional obligation I found myself starstruck, and I remember the meeting, our last, with some embarrassment — even as we analyzed how finite his fame was the man radiated an energy that befuddled me, just by being John.

More than most pop stars, Lennon tried to do good with his fame, but that doesn’t mean he had much success. By the time I’d met him there’d been bed-ins and the beginnings of war-is-over-if-you-want-it, so mystically well-meaning that they cost him almost nothing and accomplished little more. But less than a year later he squandered his resources on the ill-fated agitprop of Some Time in New York City — the most politically ambitious and artistically impoverished music he ever recorded. After that came the traumatic separation from Yoko and the half-hearted professional rock, a vocation for which this compulsively honest and necessarily direct artist showed little taste. In the end he chose — bravely and wisely — to lay low, to keep silent until he had something to say. Reunited with Yoko, finally a father again, he retreated into domestic pursuits, and when the couple returned to the studio after five years it was their pursuit of mutual retreat that they celebrated. One astute observer said Lennon seemed “infantilized,” which is true, but while the record was no Imagine or Plastic Ono Band, I found its candor irrefutable. Lennon had always seemed like someone who might make good new rock and roll when he was 60 — and I was 58. Nothing about Double Fantasy damaged that fantasy for me.

Well, the dream is over. Lennon’s death was unprecedented. This tragic superstar wasn’t another chronic suicide; he wasn’t killed, or even murdered. He was assassinated, a fate heretofore reserved for kings, politicians, and captains of industry. Yet as I sit here alternating between my records and WNEW’s all-night vigil, I must admit that my feeling of loss is qualified by a false sense of inevitability. We’ve been expecting this to happen, haven’t we, ever since Phil Ochs wrote “Crucifixion” and various assholes (the acid freak who introduced me to the Doors was one) began imagining Bob Dylan’s martyrdom?

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As I began writing it bothered me that I wouldn’t know much about the alleged killer, Mark David Chapman, until after deadline. Then I decided that whether the putative motive was ambulatory anomie or personal ressentiment or even twisted politics, the underlying pathology would be the same — the anonymous eating the famous like a cannibal feasting on testicles. But that’s too simple. As my wife said despondently an hour after the event: “Why is it always Bobby Kennedy or John Lennon? Why isn’t it Richard Nixon or Paul McCartney?” The fact is obvious enough. Dylan, of course. Jim Morrison, possibly. Neil Young, conceivably. But Paul McCartney? Neil Diamond? Graham Nash? George Harrison? Ringo Starr? Never — because they don’t hold out hope, even if they’d sort of like to be able to. John Lennon held out hope. He imagined, and however quietistic he became he never lost that utopian identification. But when you hold out hope, people get real disappointed if you can’t deliver. You’re famous and they’re not — that’s the crux of your relationship. You command the power they crave — the power to make one’s identity felt in the world, to be known. No matter that the only thing you’re sure it’s good for is room service. No matter that you’re even further from resolving anyone’s perplexities than the next bohemian, artist, or intellectual. You’re denying your most desperate admirers the release they need, and a certain percentage of them will resent or hate you for it. From there, it only takes one to kill.

Of course, many more of your fans will be like Dominique — enthralled, yet basically self-possessed. And they’ll mourn. ❖

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

Report from Swinging London: ‘Revolver’ Revolution

Pop Eye: On ‘Revolver’
August 25, 1966

SWINGING LONDON, August 17 — The reception which the Beatles have received so far on their American tour has been less than ecstatic. But it is far from the murderous venom which most Londoners feared would greet their native sons.

It is part of the myth of America-the-free to view even New York as an extension of the uncivilized frontier. There is a distinct impression that Americans are savages. The English main­tain a healthy skepticism about the ability of an average Amer­ican to eat dinner in a civilized manner — there is the fear that buffalo knives will accompany the meat course.

Mini-skirts and mod-men look with mixed envy and scorn at the hordes of madras crewcut gleamers who have made the trek across the sea; and this year the mob is bigger than ever. There is a supreme Eng­lish tolerance for bad weather, cold tea, and young Americans in T-shirts that say “Swinging London — Carnaby Street” on the back. But beneath the bemused affection lies a deep suspicion that, as a cowboy, you are liable to come out shooting when the local pubkeeper says: “Time, gentlemen, please.”

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Recent events in Austin, Chi­cago, Newark, New Haven, or wherever the most recent mass­-murder has taken place, com­pound this impression. The many-headed beast has taken murder statistics to heart. And the news from Vietnam has made matters much, much worse.

So, with the departure of the Beatles for America, a genuine anxiety gripped many teenagers here. A disc jockey on Radio Caroline asked his audience to pray for the group’s safety. Barbara Ruben, groupie-extraordinaire, planned a full-scale march of teen fans past the American embassy in protest. A New Yorker herself, she swore that: “If anything happens to them, man, it’s World War III.”

From the start, the tour has been front page in England. Of course, no one knows and everyone fears what will happen when the Beatles go South (overblown photos of the Ku Klux Klan burn­ing Beatle paraphernalia have fanned local fires) but the odds are that they will make it through and back to the open, custardy fingers of their fans back home.

As though displaying unswerving loyalty to its idols, British youth has flipped completely over the new Beatle album, Revolver. The single chosen from these songs — “Yellow submarine” b/w “Eleanor Rigby” — came on the charts one week ago at number four. Today it is number one. The entire album is in the top 20. Large record stores and tiny street stalls feature massive displays of the art-nouveauish album jacket. The sound of Revolver blares from window after window. John harmonizes with Paul in greengrocers and boutiques. George plays his sitar from cars stalled in traffic. Ringo ricochets from the dome of Saint Paul’s. The Beatles are harder to avoid than even the American.

But there is more than mere adulation behind the sudden conquest of Britain by this particular LP. Revolver is a revolutionary record, as important to the expansion of pop territory as was Rubber Soul. It was apparent last year that the 12 songs in Rubber Soul represented an important advance. Revolver is the great leap forward. Hear it once and you know it’s important. Hear it twice, it makes sense. Third time around it’s fun. Fourth time, it’s subtle. On the fifth hearing, Revolver becomes profound.

If Rubber Soul opened up areas of baroque progression and Oriental instrumentation to commercialization, Revolver does the same for electronic music. Much of the sound in this new LP is atonal; and a good deal of the vocal is dissonant. Instead of drowning poor voices in echo-chamber acoustics, Revolver presents the mechanics of pop music openly, as an integral part of musical composition. Instead of sugar and sex, what we get from the control knobs here is a bent and pulverized sound. John Cage move over — the Beatles are now reaching a super-receptive audience with electronic soul.

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Resemble Mantra

The key number on the album is that last track, “Tomorrow Never Knows.” No one can say what actually inspired this song, but its place in the pantheon of psychedelic music is assured. The lyrics remember a mantra in form and message:

Turn off your mind,
Relax and float downstream —
This is not dying,
This is not dying,

Lay down all thought,
Surrender to the void —
It is shining,
It is shining.

That you may see
The meaning of within,
It is being,
It is being.

Love is all
And love is everyone;
It is knowing
It is knowing…

While not unprecedented, the combination of acid-Buddhist imagery and a rock beat has never before been attempted with such complexity. At first, the orchestration sounds like Custer’s last stand. Foghorn-like organ chords and the sound of birdlike screeching overshadows the vocal. But the overall effect of this hodge-podge is a very effective suspension of musical reality. John’s voice sounds distant and Godlike. What he is saying transcends almost everything in what was once called pop music. The boundaries will now have to be re-negotiated.

Revolver also represents a fulfillment of the raga-Beatle sound. A George Harrison composition, “Love You To,” is a functioning raga with a natural beat and an engaging vocal, advising: “Make love all day long/Make love singing songs.”

“Eleanor Rigby” is an orchestrated ballad about the agony of loneliness. Its characters, Eleanor herself and Father MacKenzie, represent sterility. Eleanor “died in the church and was buried along with her name.” The good father writes “words to the sermon that no one will hear/No one comes near.” As a commentary on the state of modern religion, this song will hardly be appreciated by those who see John Lennon as an anti-Christ. But “Eleanor Rigby” is really about the unloved and un-cared-­for. When Eleanor makes up, the narrator asks: “Who is it for?”‘ While the father darns his socks, the question is: “What does he care?”

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More Next Door

“Yellow Submarine” is as whimsical and childlike as its flip side is metaphysical. Its subject is an undersea utopia where “our friends are all aboard/Many more of them live next door,” and where “We live a life of ease/Everyone of us has all he needs.”

“For No One” is one of the most poignant songs on the rec­ord. Its structure approaches madrigal form, with an effective horn-solo counterpoint. Its lyrics are in an evocative Aznavour bag.

“Taxman” is the album’s example of political cheek, in which George enumerates Brit­ain’s current economic woes. At one point. the group joins in to identify the villains. “Taxman — Mr. Wilson… Taxman — Mr. Heath.” They lay it right on the non-partisan line.

There is some mediocre material on this album. But the mystique forming around Revolver is based on more than one or two choice tracks — it encompasses the record as a whole.

It is a bit difficult to gauge the importance of Revolver from this city, where it has become gospel and where other beat groups are turning out cover copies like Gutenberg Bibles. But it seems now that we will view this album in retrospects as a key work in the development of rock ’n’ roll into an artistic pursuit.

If nothing else, Revolver must reduce the number of cynics where the future of pop music is concerned — even on the violent side of the Atlantic.

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John, Paul, George, Ringo: Cool Duel With the Press

John, Paul, George, Ringo: Cool Duel With the Press
August 25, 1966

A press conference is where photographers jostle for the same shot as the one in the files and reporters ask questions about the subject’s last answer to the same question. It is climaxed by six consecutive words that utterly defy nobody’s imagination — called a lead quote.

“What is your opinion of the war in Vietnam?” was the first question read from a notebook.

“We don’t like it,” said John Lennon, author and leading re­ligious figure.

“War’s wrong and that’s all,” said George Harrison, a visiting student of Indian music.

“Roobish,” said Ringo Starr, a sight act on both sides of the Atlantic.

“Would you care to elaborate?”

“We would elaborate in England but not here,” elaborated Paul McCartney. “In England people will listen a bit more to what you say. Here everything you say is picked up and turned against you. There’s more bigotry in America.” Every pencil in the room came down. “There are more people so there are more bigots.”

“Say any more,” snipped Lennon, “and you’ll be explaining all about it on the next tour.”

“Oh I just love it here,” Mc­Cartney bounced up and down.

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Out of Lights

Brian Epstein, in a lemon and lime striped blazer, pink shirt, and mauve tie, was sitting out of the lights, stroking a sideburn with a subdued smile as he exam­ined the BLACK POWER banner on a copy of the East Village Other. For openers, editor John Wilcock had thoroughly leafleted the proceedings.

“Last few feet of color, Ben­nie,” a television cameraman howled across the room.

“What no more color?” McCartney threw up his hands.

“We shooting this for the Elev­enth Hour News.” The man wheeled in for the last rays from Ringo Starr’s lavender polka dots. “Eighteen million viewers.”

“Goody,” said George Harrison who had been steadily addressing his microphone with a blue-­eyed leer. Lennon kept his back half-turned on the assemblage. “When do we do the commer­cial?”

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Sullen Eclat

For a limpid half hour the Beatles ritually parried the out­side world, capping trivia with irrelevance in sullen eclat. Har­rison was briefly embarrassed when someone asked him what instrument he would try next now that he had mastered the sitar. “Listen — I haven’t learned how to pay the sitar. Ravi Shankar’s been playing it for 35 years and he’s still learning.”

McCartney, who made the only conscientious attempts at civil chat, was aghast when informed that two girls had gotten onto a 22nd floor ledge at the Ameri­cana and threatened to jump un­less he came over. “Of course I’ll go see them. It’s terrible that anybody could even think about doing a thing like that.”

Lennon had moments of elaborate boredom.

Finally, a photographer sitting on the floor told Ringo Starr, “Get ready for a tough one. Your boy is almost a year old now. Can you tell us what he’d like for Christmas?”

“Now how do I know? He can’t talk yet.”

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Four Dummies

Then the professionals made way for 75 chicklets who had won equal time in a WMCA lot­tery. The former were enjoined to the bar where Tony Barrow, Beatles’ senior press official, an­nounced the Put-On Pre-emptive: “The boys have specifically re­quested that only soft drinks be served.” The girls were taking deep breaths while a Good Guy pleaded gloomily, “This is the first time in history the Beatles have come this close to their fans. Let’s show them how grown-­up we can all be.” Before assuming civil defense crouch, one cop patted a lissome post-teen, “The Beatles ain’t showing, hon­ey, They’re just gonna roll out four dummies.”

“Bud,” she said, cocking her Kodak, “you should be so dumb.”

John bounded out first, doing an Eric von Stroheim, “Iff you don’t keep qviet we haf you shot!”

“Who’s shouting out there?” bellowed Paul, shaking a forefin­ger at the rising tumult. It quelled abruptly.

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Burning Question

The Junior Press Conference opened with the burning ques­tion. “Hey, Paul, are you going to marry Jane Asher?”

Before, one of the elders had asked him, “What about Jane Asher?” McCartney had replied, “What do you mean what about Jane Asher?”

“ ‘What about,’ that’s an Amer­ican expression, man,” Lennon had leaned over with the De-troit sotto voce.

“Oh,” McCartney had winked, very Liverpool, “you mean wha­-about JANE ASHER?”

Now, he grinned at his inter­locutor from Yonkers, “We prob­ably going to get married.” Everybody clapped.

“What about that guy in South America she’s supposed to be engaged to?”

“I don’t know anything about it,” Paul panned.

Everybody razzed and Ringo did a Groucho Marx.

“Hey, Paul, do you know Al Perry? He lives in the Village and he says you met him the last time you were in New York?”

“Nope.”

After a grunt of betrayal, the girl held up a leaf. “Do you recognize this? It’s supposed to come from your front lawn.”

“Sure,” crowed Paul, “I’ve missed it for months!” In the pandemonium George did a John Lennon.

Before Barrow bounced them, they had discovered that John is 20 pages into his next book, Paul does not think he looks like Keith Allison, George is the one who coughs on “Tax Man,” and Ringo never buys his own jewelry. Then they threw their inflated plastic offerings up to the dais and trooped out of the Warwick Hotel. The girl had put the leaf back in her pocketbook and, outside, she haunched onto a police barricade of saw horses with the rest of the campers.

“Those are the kind of kids,” bet a female pedestrian, “that never help their mothers in the kitchen.”

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Jonas Mekas vs. the Beatles

In the September 10, 1964, issue of the Village Voice, Jonas Mekas looked in vain for a touch of madness in a new movie staring the Fab Four:

“A Hard Day’s Night” took our movie reviewers by surprise. Reviewers liked it. The Beatle fans liked it. Crowther liked it. Sarris said it shook his film aesthetics. The movie will make millions. The Beatles sing sweetly. They behave like nuts. There is something beat about the Beatles.

The movie is beautifully photographed. It uses “underground” cinema techniques, it swings. It’s not locked to one spot, it moves freely.

But neither good acting nor good photography can make a good movie. There must be an artist behind it. There must be a madness of a different kind. Two or three inspired shots remain two or three inspired shots. There is no movie. “A Hard Day’s Night” is a sufficiently well-made melodrama about the Beatles.

The Maysles brothers made a film about the Beatles. You have to see the Maysles film to realize what really good photography is, or what cinema is, or what really the Beatles are.…

Only one who is completely ignorant of the work of the “new American cinema” film-makers during the past three years can call “A Hard Day’s Night,” even jokingly, the “Citizen Kane” of the hand-held cinema (Sarris did it).

But why should I argue about it. There are so many people who like “A Hard Day’s Night” for so many different reasons. I have said often enough that art is not the only thing in life.

But I haven’t said strongly enough, and I may as well say it right now, that art exists. Aesthetic experience exists. “A Hard Day’s Night” has nothing to do with it. At best, it is fun. But “fun” is not an aesthetic experience: fun remains on the surface. I have nothing against the surface. But it belongs where it is and shouldn’t be taken for anything else.

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Beaten or Stoned? Was 1968 the Beginning of the End of the Sixties?

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:

For Lucifer:
“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
hardworking people
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.”

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The Beatles Rap in New York

On August 22, 1966, the Beatles flew into New York and gave two press conferences at the Warwick Hotel on West 54th Street. Asked their opinions on the war in Vietnam, they were succinct, John Lennon saying, “We don’t like it,” and George Harrison adding, “War’s wrong and that’s all.”

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When a reporter asked, “Would you care to elaborate?” Paul McCartney said, “We would elaborate, but not here. …  In England people will listen a bit more to what you say. Here everything you say is picked up and turned against you. There’s more bigotry in America.” The Voice‘s reporter, James Kempton (son of the well-known commentator Murray), noted, “Every pencil in the room came down.” And that’s when the quick-thinking 24-year-old McCartney decided that it might, in fact, be a very good moment to elaborate: “There are more people so there are more bigots.”

Still smarting from the controversy he had caused a few months earlier when he said that the Fab Four was “more popular than Jesus,” Lennon quipped to his bandmate, “Say any more and you’ll be explaining all about it on the next tour.”

At a second meet-and-greet session, this time with fans who had won a radio station contest to lob softball questions at the Liverpudlians, one young woman held up a leaf and asked McCartney, “Do you recognize this? It’s supposed to come from your front lawn.”

“Sure,” he replied, “I’ve missed it for months!”

In this same issue we get Richard Goldstein in his Pop Eye column reviewing the Beatles’ Revolver album, calling it “a revolutionary record, as important to the expansion of pop territory as was Rubber Soul.” A little further on, Goldstein zeroes in on Revolver‘s last track, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” rhapsodizing that “No one can say what actually inspired this song, but its place in the pantheon of psychedelic music is assured. … While not unprecedented, the combination of acid-Buddhist imagery and a rock beat has never before been attempted with such complexity. At first, the orchestration sounds like Custer’s last stand. Foghorn-like organ chords and the sound of birdlike screeching overshadows the vocal. But the overall effect of this hodgepodge is a very effective suspension of musical reality.”

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Onur Tukel’s a Hilarious Chatterbox Vamp in Summer of Blood

The tasteful white-on-black title text suggests that this motor-mouthed vampire-in-Brooklyn comedy is meant to suggest the best of Woody Allen, and writer/director/star Onur Tukel’s unrelenting comic patter confirms it. But Tukel knows something Allen didn’t: that the supremely self-involved lover/chatterbox frumping through Allen’s films was always a bit of a monster.

So Tukel gives us Eric, a furry schlump in stained business-casual, his cocksure smirk hidden behind a gray tumbleweed of beard. He’s a creep who thinks he’s Alvy Singer. In the first scene, he rejects a marriage proposal from his gorgeous lawyer girlfriend (Anna Margaret Hollyman), telling her, once the conversation has turned to her mother’s wish that the two break up, “I hate your mom anyway. In a playful way I hate her. I mean, if she died tomorrow I wouldn’t be that upset or sad — I mean, I’d be sad because you were sad.” And he goes on like that, for the whole movie, the words spilling from his mouth like that silverware Harpo steals in Animal Crackers — just when you think he’s done, more drops out. He’ll say the wrong thing, giggle to himself, half taking it back, and then spew something worse, all with the breezy certainty that it’s everyone else who is loathsome. Seconds after fantasizing about her mother’s death, Eric adds, “Babies are worthless anyway.”

At all moments he mutters brain-addled comedy, much of it barbed and hilarious, not because the words themselves are funny — it’s his conviction that they are. Eric weaves his asides over, under, around, and through everyone else’s lines, and everyone else glares at him like he’s the world’s biggest prick. He might be — after he’s bitten by a vampire, that girlfriend, now an ex, demands he bite her, too, and give her his power and immortality. He reacts just like he did when she proposed.

Unlike Allen’s Alvy, hyper-verbal Eric actually doesn’t have much of a way with words, and he’s absolutely not an aesthete. His idea of an insult is to accuse another man of not knowing the song “All You Need Is Love”: “You know who the Beatles were, don’t you, butthole?” Tukel allows a delicious, confident pause before that butthole, as if the put-down is so powerful he needs to leave a break for applause. Then the butthole itself pops out with hilarious finality, as if he were saying Q.E.D. When the man he’s upbraiding says something about opening a can of whoop-ass, Eric’s nonsense becomes straight-up Popeye-talk: “I’ll drink a six-pack of whoop-ass for breakfast. I’ll drink a keg. In fact, I was thinking of opening a whole brewery…”

On and on it goes. There is a plot: Eric becomes a vampire, learns to mesmerize people, and stages undead threesomes that devolve into debates about misogyny. Eventually he shows up blood-soaked to the job where all he ever does is masturbate to a stolen photo of co-worker Penelope (Dakota Goldhor). “You look like Godzilla used your shirt as a maxi-pad,” his boss tells him, and Eric, for once not the aggressor, responds that such an insult must constitute sexual harassment.

Any 30 minutes of Summer of Blood might have me in hysterics. But the sputtering torrent of Eric’s yakking proves wearying over 90: Dude’s built for speed-dating. Sometimes, the talk actually shocks. After Eric becomes a vampire, and begins bedding the women who rejected him after his breakup, blood soaks his bedsheets. His landlord asks what the deal is. “I have terrible back acne,” he says. “When I lay down to sleep, it’s like bubble-wrap — pop, pop, pop.” Right there this on-the-cheap indie comedy bests any current horror flick in terms of gory gross-out. It also trumps all current comedies in say-anything brio. Best way to watch it: Roll with it for a while, do something else, come back later, laugh a lot, wince some, shake your head, do something else, wonder at what this guy will get up to next.

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Lake Street Dive

For a blast of retro soul, look no further than Lake Street Dive, the Boston-formed quartet of Rachael Price, Mike “McDuck” Olson, Bridget Kearney and Mike Calabrese. Among the group’s strengths are Price’s soulful, familiar vocals, which are punctuated by jazzy horn bursts on playful tunes like the Beatles-riffing “Hell? Goodbye?”; and songs such as “Bad Self Portraits” mock the selfie generation over a bed of piano thumps. Live, expect Lake Street Dive to toss in the occasional jazz-ified cover, like the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.”

Mon., Sept. 15, 7:30 p.m., 2014

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Growing Up Punk in Mexico in We Are Mari Pepa

It doesn’t matter that Iggy Pop endorses Carnival Cruises, or that Ramones-style crunch chords now power Top 40 country hits. Today punk is whatever you need it to be when you’re at the age that you need it. And it’s endlessly localizable: In its blurt, the giddy Swedish school girls of Lukas Moodysson’s recent We Are the Best! found not just the pleasure of revolt but also a chance to seize a political high-mindedness they found lacking in their parents, even if the only song their band bothered to write was an attack on their gym class.

On the other side of the Atlantic, in the Guadalajara of Samuel Kishi Leopo’s sweet (but sharper-edged) We Are Mari Pepa, gangly teen boys take up guitar and drums to shout about what matters most to them, too. Their band, Mari Pepa, manages two songs before the film ends. The chorus of the first they bellow in English: “I wanna cum in your face, Natasha!” Only after the aggro shock-comedy of that can they admit to more tender feelings: “Because I love you!”

In both films, punk is an identity, a chance to vent, a thing to do for kids not into sports — and not successful, yet, at love. Unlike those principled Swedes, the boys of Mari Pepa are horny and rude, often dispiritedly so, catcalling strange women and calling each other “faggot.” (Bass player Moy, played by Moises Galindo, gets that because he’s spending too much time with a girl.) Writer/director Leopo makes no apologies for this collective nastiness. Instead, he presents it as a default mode for communication among the film’s middle-class boys, all motormouthed and inexperienced; not one of them can make it through a conversations without claiming to have had sex with someone else’s mother. It’s a stage of development, and Leopo suggests, in the final reels, that the band’s sympathetic songwriter Alex (Alejandro Gallardo) may be growing out of it.

It’s at a party full of kids he doesn’t know that rangy Alex seems to realize he might need to move on. A girl asks why his band is called “Mari Pepa,” and his answer is honest — and just a touch abashed: ” ‘Mari’ is for ‘marijuana,’ and ‘pepa’ is a reference to the female genitalia.” After that, he can’t quite bring himself to meet her eyes, but then she and Alex stand together in a state of glazed expectation as a band much more accomplished than his wails on. Eventually, Alex plumbs up a courage not unrelated to whatever urged him to write that ode to Natasha’s face. He leans in to kiss the girl whose face he’s too shy to look into.

The story is slight, but the film is full of such miraculous moments of life. Scenes of Alex lounging around his poster-collaged bedroom suggest the primalness of such private spaces. It’s a chrysalis stickered over with what it is he hopes to become. Early on, we see he’s taped a photo of his face onto the head of Joey Ramone. More powerfully still, he’s hung a sliver of mirror over Ramone’s brow in another photo — as Alex looks into it, his eyes peer out of the face of rock’s great gawky beanpole. Alex’s only adult guardian, his silent and God-fearing grandmother (Petra Iniguez Robles), gives the bedroom the stink eye; in one of We Are Mari Pepa’s few plotlike developments she strips the walls bare after hearing a preacher insist that “Hotel California” — and by extension rock music itself — demands thralldom to Satan. But she can make distinctions: She leaves up a still of Michael Jackson palling around with Paul McCartney, the latter in a smashingly sensible 1983 sweater.

Unlike We Are the Best!, Leopo’s film is no period piece. It’s set in the eternal now of punk adolescence, a time that seems never changing yet gets stranger every year. In their rehearsal space, the Mari Pepa boys have hung up a Beatles poster, and they’ve scratched their own band name on it. For them, the Beatles are punk, pretending not to be afraid of sex is punk, being young and dumb and not especially committed to anything is punk. In the opening scenes, after some half-assed skateboarding, Alex urges the rest of Mari Pepa to get serious about prepping for a battle of the bands. They work at it, for a while, until Moy gets too distracted by a beautiful One Direction fan, and drummer Rafael (Rafael Andrade Munoz) gets caught up with college applications. The contest comes up a couple times, but by the end, even Alex hardly cares. A movie about a band that never even gets to the kind of show that climaxes every other movie about a band? That’s punk, too. We Are Mari Pepa is a sweaty, urgent, beautifullyhonest bliss out.