Monday, July 19, 2010

Twenty Years Ago Today?

When I was in tenth grade, I resumed taking lessons from a math tutor.  I had originally used the tutor before I went to middle school in order to prepare me for the supposed leap in the difficulty of the work.  My tutor was a kind woman who had been a high school math teacher for years.  She taught in a different, tougher, school district of mine so she had honed a firm but warm teaching style.  She had children that went through my own school district as well, though they were quite a few years older than I was.  In any event, I had grown quite fond of her as a maternal figure (my mother was a terrific mother, but no matter how good our mothers and fathers are, we are always looking for similar figures out in the world) and felt quite happy to resume my lessons with her in preparation for taking the New York State Math Regents Part II, since it had become painfully obvious that at age 15 my mind was already extremely bored with math and would simply not pay attention to it.

This math tutor lived in a neighborhood that you wouldn’t call “across town,” but it was certainly across the train trestle and located about a mile or two from where my house was.  Her home sat on the hill above one of the other elementary schools that had fed into my former middle school (an elementary school whose back playing fields I would become quite acquainted with later on in high school when my friend moved to a house through the woods behind the school, where we would drag stolen kegs of beer from his basement and drink out underneath the stars and in the mist – but that is another image for another story and another album) and once or twice a week, my mother would drop me off at her cozy home that always carried the fading warmth of a dinner cooked, mixed with that faint, rich matronly smell of perfume that any woman over the age of fifty-five or sixty seems to carry.  The math teacher and I had known each other for a certain amount of years at this point and I was developing a dry sense of humor that had equal effects on adults as it did on people I went to school with, so we were able to joke around and, before you knew it, the hour lesson was over and I had my TI whatever packed up in my disintegrating Jansport backpack.

Now, at this time, my mother had started going back to school to become a teacher; I couldn’t drive yet; my younger sister had begun to participate in more after school activities; and my father continued to work late in order to properly run his business.  All of this led to the inevitable decision that I should walk home from my math lessons.  I had already been friends with a group of guys that took pride in walking long distances among the Three Villages that made up the town in which I lived; crossing busy roads; stealing cars; and engaging in the sort of intoxication that didn’t really seem to fit our years. So, this ability to walk myself home from my math lessons in the twilight of May fit in with everything else that was going on in my life.

The first time I left my lesson, my math tutor asked me if my mother was picking me up.  I told her no.

“Your mother?” she asked.  This of course came as a surprise because my mother was tenacious in her drive to live up to her matriarchal duties.

I nodded in the affirmative.  My father had to work late hours, she had to go to class and my sister needed to be picked up from her events and activities since she was younger.  I didn’t mind walking home and my mother knew this. She seemed to understand this sort of familial crossroads, being a mother of three herself, and patted me on the back as a firefly or three lit up in the grey light above the pavement of the cul-de-sac she lived in.  As I turned and placed the headphones of my Discman over my ears, she yelled something at me.  She was prone to yelling, of course in only a most endearing way.

“What?” I pulled off the headphones.

“Be careful with those things,” she said. “It’s a dangerous turn on the back way.  Cars won’t see you and you won’t hear them.”

“Ok,” I said, seriously.

“Don’t go the back way,” she said. “Go the longer way.”

I nodded my head and said I would.  Then I turned back and headed up the hill of her cul-de-sac and out into the remaining neighborhood as it turned that terrific color of gloaming that only hits its peak in May and June before the streetlight orange of July and August truly dominate one’s child or adolescent vision of the summer night.

Now, at this time I had been participating in certain extra-curricular activities with my friends at poolside, in side yards, on the beach and under bushes that were not necessarily smiled upon.  Under the guise of studying, we shouted European capitals and events for AP History while jumping into a pool amid a faint, sweet trail of smoke.  After one of these events, my friend had left a burnt copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the stereo by my pool.  I had never really listened to the Beatles up until then, other than the culturally omniscient songs (I know they all are) such as “Yellow Submarine,” “Hey Jude,” “Revolution,” “Twist and Shout,” “Hello Goodbye,” “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” I had picked up their Blue Volume of hits from 1967-1970 and was beginning to digest that, but it wasn’t really a comprehensive listening experience.  So, when this album, with its legendary title written in red Sharpie, appeared in my stereo, I decided to place it in my Discman, where it would remain for the rest of that summer.

I walked through my math tutor’s neighborhood and looked at the wood-sided homes with their fresh white paint trim, their drooping wisterias and hyacinths and felt the itch of grass from the street while the searing guitar of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club” band filled my head and Paul screamed among the horns, fanfare and crowd noise.  At that time, I had no thorough love and devotion to the intricacies of Paul McCartney’s voice or its evolution from 1963 to 1973. I only knew that I loved the richness of the backing track; rich because of the variety of sounds, not because of the quality, which I now know was very inferior, however, then there were horns and guitar and harmonies and it sounded so far-away, so much a part of history that it grabbed my imagination. What grabbed my imagination, too, was the seamless segue of that title track into “A Little Help From My Friends.” There he was, Billy Shears, Ringo, taking this character and bringing him to life if only for a song.  And for a moment, it was like a story, and I loved stories. I loved concepts, I loved big ideas.  I, who had nearly destroyed his reputation in school by writing a one act play in iambic pentameter about a girl he had a crush on and distributing it to the entire school. This was important stuff.

And, as I came to the wide bend where one could continue straight and go the long way down Gnarled Hollow Road or go down the big hill and save some time by meeting up with the busier and curvier Old Town Road, I decided to go down the hill – because my math tutor had told me not to. Lights in the windows of homes, below the heavy leaf-lines of trees, became more prevalent.  The orange streetlights came on and so too did the evening sprinklers, projecting their spray out, wasteward, to the street where the water collected in streams and then pools, that turned some strange deep purple in the evening’s light. And I listened to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and thought about all of the terrific imagery and the psychedelic feeling of the song.  At that time I had already become familiar with the myths and histories of psychedelia and as I walked along listening to one of the “pinnacles” of psychedelic-pop, there was some feeling deep inside of myself that appreciated this walking, the feel of my feet on the gravel, the kick of the small pebbles along the off-white of the curb, more than those visions I had read some much about and pursued. 

At that time, my favorite song was “Lovely Rita,” and it was a remarkable song of the every day. A song that celebrated a meter maid of all people and how lovely and enchanting she was.  However, even in that everyday occurrence, something bizarre occurred and the narrator found himself sitting on the couch with a sister or two. In its coda, the song turned into a bizarre collage of moaning and panting, however, before it there had been soaring vocals and those helium-sounding harmonies that could only be described by my inexperienced mind as “Beatlesque.”  That song just sounded like The Beatles to me and it made sense.  It soared and it always came on just as I was reaching the bend by the train trestle, across the street from one of those small farms that had been obscured by the improvement of roads and the insertion of train tracks.  And the cars did fly past and it was night, and you could see the open space where they had inserted power-lines, that open space that used to be farm fields and something in me soared along with this “Lovely Rita.”

I read later that summer, after my initial springtime experiences with Sgt. Pepper, an article that Allen Ginsberg wrote after listening to the album.  He claimed it was an album that celebrated the everyday.  That it was not an album of the psychedelic experience, but an album that cherished those sensations that we can gain from moving about our day.  This should not have been a surprise from the band that created “Penny Lane.” Now, the argument could be that that was Paul McCartney and not John Lennon, the John Lennon that wrote “Strawberry Fields.”  However, although John claimed his songs were all throwaways on Sgt. Pepper even he was involved in the everyday.  “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” has ordinary objects that become fantastical hallucinations, “Good Morning, Good Morning” is about a person conducting their daily routine, going by their old school and realizing that nothing has changed.  “A Day in the Life” is probably the perfect example of being concerned with the everyday. It’s title says it all.  And it focuses on the everyday just as much as any novel or short story in the modernist tradition of literature.  The newspaper is the object that allows us to enter a gateway of kaleidoscopic hallucination of the mind, that turns ordinary things in our realm into the powerful signifiers of human history and emotion.  After Paul takes his turn waking up and dragging a comb across his head we are taken to what could be the pinnacle of pop music with the soaring “ahhhhhh” section before we are brought back into John Lennon’s narrator explaining the last item he saw in the news that day.  And as the final piano chord would sound, I’d still be about another mile from home and thinking of encountering those strange feelings of “Getting Better,” and the bittersweet heartbreak of “She’s Leaving Home,” where an ordinary family is broken up by a girl leaving home.  So, all I could do was to hit the stop button and then the play button so that the album would start in its entirety all over again and each little nuance, each vocal and melodic hook would become embedded in my brain as I passed town landmarks: my friend Dan’s house, the Country Corner Bar, the Setauket Automotive, the Se Port Deli, Fox’ Hardware Store, the Korean War Monument, the Field, Jay’s House, Rich’s House, the Rowe Tavern Sign, the Abandoned House.  All of these things and places were a part of my everyday and I’d see them bathed in the orange and purple swaths of the May or June evening, with the fireflies marking their territory in and around the dark space of the night. The crickets would sing and chirp when I’d pause the album to check my back, but of course no one was there, not even the ghosts that would later appear as I grew older and went to college and got drunker.  And by the time the album finished a second time, I was plodding my feet against the cement as I entered the cul-de-sac where I lived.  Sometimes the lights would be on, sometimes they would be off, but I’d always be coming home with the sound of music in my ear, that last piano chord.  Then’ I’d pull the headphones off my head and let my little puppy out into the yard to eat dirt and rocks and I’d smell the mulch around my mother’s flowerbeds and think of summer vacation.

That is what Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was for me then.  It was some slight signal that what I thought was experimental and psychedelic was really just the outskirts of the everyday. That album is a celebration of the life around us.  The funny sounds we can make, the strange occurrences that we read in the newspaper, found phrases, things that become fantastic, like a meter maid in her silly uniform, who in reality is a freak in the bed, as is her sister, her roommate.  They said that it ushered in the Summer of Love.  Perhaps that is true; because of it gives off a feeling of open-arms, embracing different levels of life.  For me, it opened up one of the better summers of my life. A summer I spent walking all over the place, spending time with girls, swimming and continuing my extra-curricular activities.  So, in a way, it did open up some kind of Summer of Love, whatever that means.  Perhaps there is no such thing as a Summer of Love, because those kinds of things are repeatable, they are really only about how you approach the everyday with open arms, the people you see on the street with a warm-feeling.  If that happens, then the rest is usually easy.

Now, I listen to Sgt. Pepper’s and it has been beautifully remastered along with the rest of the Beatles catalogue.  I have approached the album from a variety of mindsets, perspectives and points of life. I still love it in some strange way.  However, now with the bass so fluid, round and prominent and every overdub so clear and shining over the speakers of my living room or on my headphones I see something deeper.  My friend recently told me, when he heard the remastered Beatles, that he’d still prefer the old muddled versions. I understood his point, that he liked the sounds he’d known and grown up with, and respectfully called him an idiot.  I explained to him that you want to enjoy something in the best sound that you can, you want to enjoy these albums in the way that they, perhaps, were intended to sound in the moment: clear, full, complicated and rich with sound and music. In these new, rich, remastered versions, I listen to a song like “With a Little Help from My Friends” and the bass, the drums and the solid mid-tempo rhythm are so much more up front than they ever were; the song picks up a relevance that it never had before for me.  For, when I was younger, it signaled a greater idea and concept (which I found out was a failed endeavor). It also signaled a call to your friends.  That you could all band together and help each other out through the hard times.  And perhaps it all means that still – and part of me believes it.  Yet, I still can’t help but see it as another cry for help.  A self-reflective look at how far an individual has come in life and how much he or she is able to remain happy when they have to face themselves, or find themselves alone for even a second.  And sometimes not even your friends can assist you with that.  For, as much as the melodic bass and the overall Beatles feel of the song makes you tap your foot and bob your head along with the melody; makes you feel as though you are on some television program in 1967 and just as famous as the Beatles themselves, there is something more desperate and complicated there, something more Replacements than Beatles, or at least what we identify the Beatles as being.  These new remastered versions not only make the songs sound as they perhaps were always supposed to sound, they in many ways seem to reveal the true intent of the songs as well, especially a song like “With a Little Help From My Friends.”

Even if that isn’t the true meaning of “With A Little Help From My Friends,” my feelings about the album remain the same.  As I find myself in the peak of yet another summer, at the pinnacle of heat, I look back fondly at the May and June that it was borne out of and ahead to the late-August and September that it will inevitably fade into.  I think of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and what it meant as a Summer of Love at one point to a generation; what it meant as part of an idyllic summer to one guy; and what it meant to a band at one point who were questioning their own existence and their own enjoyment of what exactly what they were doing. How they ventured into the kaleidoscopic ability of the everyday, the enjoyment of the imagination in order to create an art.  Those kinds of things will never get old.  I will always appreciate those virtues; no matter what kind of antics I seem to take pride in.

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