Singing in the Dead of Night
Exploring the Beatles’ self-titled 1968 release, “The White Album”
From the time I was a little kid, I knew there was a Bible in every hotel room, thanks to Rocky Raccoon.
Rocky Raccoon checked into his room
Only to find Gideon’s Bible
And that's not the only lesson to be found in the Beatles’ self-titled 1968 double album. If you’re going through your back catalog or looking for something new-to-you, now is the perfect time to drop into The White Album.
From the euphoria of Revolution 1 to the disturbing darkness of Happiness is a Warm Gun, the Beatles’ ninth album is a musical journey through the psyche, courtesy of the transcendental meditation the artists engaged in while writing this epic album.
There’s not one song that doesn’t grip your heart, mind, or gut. It’s one of the most influential albums ever, in my opinion, because of its wide-ranging musical style and appeal. Rolling Stone ranks it as the 10th best album ever.
A College Find
I didn’t come to fully appreciate The White Album until college when I began to deepen and expand my musical education. Back in the early 90s, before the internet and without television in our dorm rooms at UC Santa Cruz, we used to sit around and listen to music.
Suddenly, I was able to exchange CDs and mixed tapes with my dorm mates, and a whole new catalog of music was at my fingertips.
There is certainly too much to cover of this epic two-disc album in one article but, as with most classic albums, a few different songs have been my “favorites” over the years.
One of the first rock ballads I remember, Rocky Raccoon tells the story of a lover wronged, out for revenge.
Now somewhere in the Black Mountain Hills of Dakota
There lived a young boy named Rocky Raccoon
And one day his woman ran off with another guy
Hit young Rocky in the eye Rocky didn’t like that
He said “I’m gonna get that boy”
Needless to say, adventures ensue. I was well into adulthood when I realized Rocky wasn’t actually a raccoon. This song is universal in it’s a well-known narrative about “taking one’s guns to town.” In other words, be careful with enacting revenge, lest ye also get hurt.
This song opens with a jangling piano and a ska-like rhythm. It tells the story of a fictional domestic couple who live and work in the city. As a fan of beat writers such as Jack Kerouac, I always heard this song as an ironic representation of post-war, postmodern life.
In a couple of years they have built
A home sweet home
With a couple of kids running in the yard
Of Desmond and Molly Jones
But it is perhaps just a narrative about a happy, ordinary life. Like many songs on the album, its meaning is both a reflection of the artist and listener.
This was the track that made me first think, “wow, this is a real rock band.” I first heard this song while listening to early 90s bands such as Beck, Pearl Jam, and Jane’s Addiction. The direct influence of the Beatles’ unusual arrangement and musical style was obvious in modern music on the radio. Many critics consider this track fundamental to the birth of hard rock music.
The guitar alone is enough to warrant checking this track out. Then, if you’re interested, you can read about the song’s connection to Charles Manson.
After repeated listening, the only negative outcome I experienced from Helter Skelter was me yelling to my roommates, “I have blisters on my fingers!” from too much time spent taking notes and studying.
Revolution Number 9
If Helter Skelter was the world’s initiation into hard rock, Revolution Number 9 gave us the gift of avant-guard.
Listened to in a certain frame of mind, this track can be deeply disturbing and frightening. I am reminded of Radiohead’s OK Computer (check out Fitter, Happier), a fractured collection of auditory snippets assembled to create meaning, but not in a familiar or comfortable way.
Voices fade in and out. Babies cry. Glass breaks and horns honk.
Heavily influenced by Yoko Ono, John Lennon’s creation is like nothing you’ve ever heard before, and I guarantee you won’t believe it was recorded by one of the most popular rock groups in history over fifty years ago.
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
This song would come to signify my appreciation of George Harrison and Eric Clapton as guitar masters.
When I first heard this track, Clapton had just released Tears In Heaven, which was really the only thing I associated him with besides Layla. I suddenly had a new appreciation for the rock god’s hard-edged sound. It’s a beautiful song, with an iconic guitar solo.
This is perhaps the most deeply loved song on The White Album. It is a favorite of my mother’s and many other folks I’ve met over the years, as well. There is a clear and hopeful note in McCartney’s voice as he sings:
Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
I see this song, which originally referred to strained late 60s race relations in America, as a thread that connects anyone who has clung to hope on the face of immense disappointment or trauma.
It speaks to the moment in which we find ourselves.
Even in the dark night of our human experience, there is an opportunity to emerge renewed, perhaps a little lighter, perhaps a little freer, perhaps a little more loving toward ourselves and others.
The white album is a prism, reflecting the time and place of the listener as well as the time and place of the Beatles in 1968. You can listen over and over again and hear something new each time. It is a puzzle, a gift, that listeners and fans will enjoy for decades, perhaps centuries to come.
Got some quaran-time on your hands? Plug in your headphones, get comfy, and take a trip with the Beatles.