Thursday, December 17, 2009

Four, Calling Birds ...

During her holiday interview with President Obama, Oprah Winfrey asked what was his most memorable Christmas gift. For him, it was a basketball given to him by his father the year they met. That led me to ask myself that same question. 54 years of gifts - that is a lot to choose from. I've asked this question to a few friends and, for most of them, the answer doesn't come easily.

Not for me.

Over the years I have received plenty of memorable gifts. The James Bond attache case certainly is up there as I spent a great deal of time and effort trying to replace it, finally doing so last year. I thought I would never get one but I actually did and for much less than I thought it would cost me. That is another story.

For me, the one gift that stands out the most, that had the most profound effect on me and made impressions that still last till this day, was a copy of The White Album by the Beatles. If my parents had any idea about the changes that this record album would bring forth in my life I have no doubt that they would not have slipped under the tree back in 1968.

I had been a Beatles fan since I first heard them, hiding under the covers with my transistor radio. Seeing them on the Ed Sullivan show burned an image in my brain that not only gave me direction as to what I wanted to be and how I wanted to look, but gave me something that I could hold onto and claim as my own. Though their entire catalog would soon be familiar to me as my own skin, but in 1968 I didn't yet own every Beatles album. But this one - with the enclosed photos and poster which immediately went up on my bedroom wall - was special. It was massive - four sides, a collection of songs as diverse as I had ever heard. It would be years before I put together the whole story, how this was the beginning of the end, who actually played on what song and what some of the more arcane and inside references were all about. I was in the moment with this record and once again The Beatles were showing me a different way - actually in this case, many different ways - of how things were done.

It became the soundtrack of my life for what was a pretty incredible year. Men on the moon, Woodstock, Nixon, Vietnam - my 14 year-old brain was processing so much information so fast I am still surprised my head didn't explode. This was the year that the air guitar I had been playing since 1964 turned into a real guitar, an event that certainly was inspired by watching The Beatles on Sullivan and enforced by the White Album (by the way, I know the LP is actually titled "The Beatles" but it will always be the White Album to me). This album also made me realize that quite a few songs were either about or had references to sex - I remember my mom expressing her dissatisfaction from the other side of my bedroom door after hearing "Why Don't We Do It In The Road." It was only then I realized that most of the songs I listened to were actually about sex and even the ones that weren't, kind of were as well.

The White Album also showed me that people change and that change was not a bad thing. Soon we would start putting people into boxes and the concept of an artist embracing so many different styles would be labeled as having a "lack of focus." Like a great book, each time I listened I found something new, a hidden guitar lick or a lyric that I had missed. The musical references, both obvious and obscure, started me down paths that broadened my musical horizon. Similar to the way that the Harry Smith anthologies created a template for so many bands, I believe that The White Album launched another generation in many different directions.

I love the journey that I've been on for the past forty-one years and The White Album certainly has been a huge part of the map. While it may have been the "beginning of the end" for The Beatles, it was a new beginning for John, Paul, George, Ringo - and me.

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