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The culmination of the year that was 1968 was the release of the Beatles album familiarly known as the White Album. A collection of songs with roots in a myriad of musical styles, this two-disc collection would be the soundtrack to the individual and collective lives of millions of people for the next several months. From the hippie ghettos of western civilization to the suburban bedrooms of America’s youth and even to the arid hills east of Los Angeles where a megomaniacal manchild named Chares Manson raised in the California prison system was creating a family bent on murder and mayhem, the White Album would become a totem of the cultural changes that shattered the known western world. It’s not that the White Album was the best rock album to come out that year. Indeed, other works could just as easily claim that title: Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland; Cream’s Wheels of Fire; Big Brother’s Cheap Thrills; or event the first Creedence Clearwater disc. No, it was because the White Album was from the top of the rock pantheon–the Beatles.
The music ranged from British dance hall ditties to folk tinged ballads with some serious hard rock in between. Then there was the John Cage/Stockhausen mishmash of sound called “Revolution #9”. A counterpart to the other song titled Revolution (known as “Revolution #1”), “Revolution #9” was meant to be the chaotic sounds of revolution as conceived by John Lennon. At times reminiscent of a political protest and other times more like a football game, the entire collage reminds many listeners of a trip on LSD. Revolution #1, on the other hand, represented a debate going on between the Beatles, within John Lennon’s mind , and in the larger society over the merits of revolutionary change and the forms any such change should take. Chairman Mao and dogmatic cadres or Fabian-like evolutionary change spurred by a revolutionary change in consciousness. Of course, this latter possibility was also open to interpretation. Would this change in consciousness be towards the “new man” that Che Guevara wrote about or would it be the new consciousness Timothy Leary spoke of and Charles reich would attempt to denote in his 1970 book The Greening of America?
The Beatles didn’t have the answers. Indeed, they were asking the questions like everyone else. However, in the convulsive year that was 1968, when all the pillars of what already was were being challenged, there were many who did think the Beatles had the answers. One of these was the aforementioned Charles Manson. His conclusions regarding the tunes “Helter Skelter” and “Piggies” combined with a racist and apocalyptic vision fueled an exceptionally gory spate of Hollywood murders and a particularly surreal series of spectacular trials. White Panther John Sinclair, meanwhile, wrote an open letter to John Lennon regarding the latter’s apparent hesitation regarding the political upheaval and dramatic shift to the left among the youth of the world. The letter was responded to by Lennon and was read by millions of readers in underground newspapers across the world. To be more precise, the letters concerned the single release of the song and not the album release. This difference was essential, primarily because the lyrics that read
But when you talk about destruction
Don’t you know that you can count me out
On the single version, go like this on the album version
But when you talk about destruction
Don’t you know that you can count me out (in).
The latter version obviously showed some ambivalence on the part of the Beatles (or at least John Lennon) regarding an approach that ignored the fact of the violence being used against the protesters. One other aspect of Sinclair’s argument had to do with these lyrics:
You say you’ll change the constitution
Well, you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me it’s the institution
Well, you know
You better free you mind instead
It was Sinclair’s contention that both the institutions and one’s mind needed to be freed. Lennon eventually came around to a mode of thinking considerably closer to Sinclair’s. In fact, he helped spearhead a campaign to get Sinclair released from prison after he was sentenced to ten years for giving a narc one joint of marijuana.
But the four songs mentioned above were not the album. “Back In the USSR” poked gentle fun at the American rockers who celebrated the United States as the greatest place to be while conveniently ignoring its legacy of racism and war. “Julia” is a beautiful poem to Lennon’s mother, his first son and even Yoko Ono—the “ocean child” of the lyrics. “Blackbird” is a song about Rosa Parks and her refusal to move when ordered to do so by the realities of American apartheid. As we all know, that refusal was a pivotal movement in the struggle to rid the nation of that disgrace. George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was inspired by an epigram of the I Ching and is one of the most beautiful songs ever composed by a Beatle. Ad infinitum. I’ll let the reader fill in the spaces regarding the rest of the selections on this double disc.
Everyone had (or has) their favorite Beatle. Mine was always John Lennon. Similarly, everyone has their favorite Beatles song(s) and album(s). Without a doubt, mine is the White Album.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org