Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Columnated Ruins Domino

Last weekend, various online elders celebrated the 40th anniversary of "Sgt. Pepper," recalling their youthful joy upon first hearing the Mop Tops' conceptual break-through. Very nice, I thought. Music is as good a marker as any, and Lord knows I have my own faves from Back When, though my "Sgt. Pepper" was "Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols." Not exactly flower power time. But then, I was a child when The Beatles were dropping acid and wowing their audience. The Cowsills were more my speed.

All the tributes and remembrances inspired me to dig through my CD stacks, as my copy of "Pepper" has been buried for at least a year. The wonderful Aimee Mann said recently in the New York Times that there's no need to listen to "Pepper" ever again, not if you've heard it four million times over numerous phases of your life. Besides, I prefer "Revolver" and "The Beatles (White Album)." To me, that's the seminal Beatles sound. "Sgt. Pepper" was more show than substance -- a strong melodic show, to be sure, an entertaining spectacle, but not the end-all, be-all that its fanciers claim.

After a ten-minute search, I found the dusty "Pepper" and took it with me as I ran various errands. I cranked up the volume with all the car windows down, not only to soak in the warm breeze and catchy hooks, but also to keep the Michigan drivers as far from my mind as possible without causing a wreck. (Maybe it's me, but the local drivers seem to be getting worse.) It took all of 30 seconds to be locked back into the Peppery groove, the rest of the album played out in my head before I got through Billy Shears. That's the problem with "Pepper": I can't hear it with fresh ears anymore. It immediately flattens out and quickly becomes boring. "Yeah, yeah -- you get high with a little help from your friends. Tell me something I don't know." Halfway through "Getting Better," I ejected the disc and replaced it with a home-burned compilation that kicks off with Sonic Youth's "Drunken Butterfly."

So went my brief Summer of Indifference.

Still, I couldn't get The Beatles out of my mind, so I phoned my pal Mike Gerber, whose knowledge of the Four surpasses anyone I've ever met, including my longtime friend, former writing partner, and brother-in-arms Jim Buck, who can talk for days about Beatles' minutiae. But Mike takes it to an even deeper level, and I sought not only his thoughts about "Pepper," but also to challenge him with my notion that Brian Wilson's "Smile" is a superior effort.

Mike appreciated my position, helped by his love for The Beach Boys; but needless to say, he wasn't buying the "Smile" comparison. Not that Mike dislikes "Smile" -- far from it. It's just that he believes "Pepper" is the better album, and he gave me a serious tutorial to support his argument.

I was nearly swayed, for Mike speaks gently but with authority, and it's always a pleasure to talk at length with him about creative matters. Still, I held my ground. Had "Smile" been released as planned in 1967, it's my belief that it would've blown "Pepper" out of the water. But Brian Wilson was practically alone in his increasingly-fractured world, facing the anti-"Smile" hostility of his bandmates. The Beatles had each other, believed in the "Pepper" concept, and were helped along by producer George Martin, who did as the band members asked. Had Wilson received any serious support from the other Boys, musical history would be quite different. But he had to wait until 2004 to finally finish his pop masterpiece.

After talking to Mike, I decided to perform an intense, comparative taste test. I would listen to "Pepper," then to "Smile," uninterrupted, on headphones, alone in the dark of late night/early morning, assisted by chemical romance. When my mind plugged-in, I slipped on the headphones, hit Play, sunk into my chair and let the music swim over me.

This time, "Pepper" was a lot more interesting to listen to. Indeed, I hadn't heard it this way since I don't know when. Instead of mentally racing to the end of the album, I slowed down and inhabited each song, focusing on melody, transition, construction, pace. I moved beyond the pat familiarity and was rewarded with sounds I've long ignored.

"Fixing A Hole" was especially nice; "When I'm Sixty-Four" deceptively simple; "Within You Without You" perhaps one of the more experimental Beatles tracks (coming off "Tomorrow Never Knows"), given the time it was recorded and what Beatle fans doubtless expected; "Lovely Rita" and "Good Morning Good Morning" blended beautifully together. Then came "A Day In The Life," the one "Pepper" song I've never grown tired of, simply because it's the best cut on the album, and remains among the band's strongest work. Overall, I enjoyed "Sgt. Pepper" more than I had in decades. Had "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" been included as originally planned, I would agree that "Pepper" is The Beatles greatest album.

But better than "Smile"? Tough to say. Perhaps equal to Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks' collaboration, but that's open to personal interpretation. As it stands, "Pepper" is several steps behind "Smile," and this was reinforced when I listened to it again. Unlike "Pepper," "Smile" truly is an interwoven tapestry, not just some period concept held loosely together at the front and back end. "Smile" is deeper, richer, wilder, and riskier than "Pepper," meshing sounds that have no inherent musical purpose (chomping celery, belch-like noises, hammering nails and sawing wood), but make perfect sense when arranged by Wilson, whose mind has seen and heard notes and melodies where most others would see static. It is easily one of the most magnificent and inspiring pop compositions I've heard in my life.

"Smile" does share one trait with "Pepper": both albums close with a very strong number, in Wilson's case, "Good Vibrations." Only this isn't the version that was a hit single in the 60s and became an orange soda theme. This is the original song co-written with Tony Asher, who penned the lyrics for "Pet Sounds." This version is longer and much more majestic, so when you come to the closing mix of cello and Theremin, you've been taken to the mountaintop and back. It's fruitless to compare "Good Vibrations" to "A Day In The Life" -- both are brilliant. But "Good Vibrations" is more organically tied to "Smile" than "A Day In The Life" is to "Pepper," which is why the latter stands out more on its album. I suppose that difference is what truly separates these two efforts, which is why I maintain that "Smile" is the better record.

After a couple hours of pleasurable listening, I floated to the front room to watch some old comedy on DVD. But when I turned on my set, the image of Hillary Clinton flashed on-screen, and while the sound was muted, her well-rehearsed facial expressions spoke volumes, for here is a true authoritarian personality just itching for more state power. It didn't help that I was still being romanced chemically, and I shuddered to think that she might well be the next president.

I turned off the set, went outside in the cool of early morning, walked barefoot in the grass under a bright night sky of stars, let go of Hillary and the other monsters competing to rule us, hummed about good vibrations, and smiled.