There was magic packed into that twelve-inch disc, an uncanny, otherworldly kind of joy that revealed itself at thirty-three and a third revolutions per minute. I was ten years old when I heard it for the first time, and there was something miraculous in the fact that I could sit down and listen to it at all, this album that had been recorded by The Beatles, the rock and roll band that had disbanded the year I was born, because I was the child of tone-deaf parents who were only interested in the kind of vinyl that covered couch cushions and dining room chairs.
We lived on fallow farmland that was miles away from the nearest town, in a part of Texas that was sandy and saturated with country and western songs and accents weighed down by a heavy Southern twang, at a time when movies, magazines, and TV shows were our only links to the world that lay beyond the dirt road that ran in front of our house. In that place, and at that age, I was cut off not only from parts of the present but from large swaths of the past as well, so that anything that had happened even a decade before seemed like ancient history, a black and white version of what was real that had the dense grain of a photo preserved in a faded newspaper.
My parents didn’t care about the Top 40, but I craved music. With a transistor radio that I’d inherited from my grandfather clipped to my belt, I sang along with the pop idols I’d already become attached to (Elton John; David Bowie), waited anxiously for one of my one-hit-wonders to get some airplay, and grooved along to R&B and rock and roll tunes whose lyrics were obscured by the tinny eight-ohm speaker they had to squeeze through. I listened to anything and everything, and there was only one kind of music I didn’t dig—Disco, that vapid, empty collection of cloned beats that seemed pointless to a kid like me—but it was Disco, ironically, that would determine my lifelong musical affiliation, because it was Disco that drove that hirsute trio, the Bee Gees, to the top of the charts in the late Seventies.
In 1978, fresh from their success with Saturday Night Fever, the Bee Gees co-starred with Peter Frampton in the world’s worst jukebox musical, MGM’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which borrowed songs from The Beatles’ albums Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road to tell the absurd story of a not-so-fabulous band’s rise to fame. Filled with cheesy, cheap special effects, amateurish acting, and renditions of classic songs that were either startlingly good (Aerosmith’s version of “Come Together,” for example) and gut-wrenchingly awful (Steve Martin’s interpretation of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”), it was a film which appeared, even to a child, to be a joke that had gone all wrong. To say that it was just another one of Hollywood’s box office bombs was to give it credit it didn’t deserve: it was a gross error in judgment that should have stained the conscience of the movie mogul who had cobbled its crooked script together from song titles and lyrics that were never meant to be connected in any way.
My parents wouldn’t have paid to see it in a theater even if it had won a bevy of Oscars, but I happened to see it on television at my grandparents’ house the year after it was released. At that point in my life, I didn’t know anything about The Beatles; I barely knew who The Beatles were, and the songs in the movie seemed to come at me from out of nowhere, like comets that had suddenly appeared in the night sky. In spite of the fact that I rolled my eyes with everyone else at the scenes that made no sense, I realized, almost immediately, how inexplicably special the soundtrack was, and I wanted to watch the movie again when it was over, although I was almost too embarrassed by the pull the music had had on me to admit this out loud.
Luckily, I had an aunt who had lived briefly in Ohio and who had willingly—some people in our family would say defiantly—identified herself as a hippie in the Sixties. My aunt explained where the songs in the movie had come from, and she also tried to help me understand why The Beatles had been such a big deal before they broke up; when we began to talk about the songs in the movie that we liked (“Here Comes the Sun” was one of her favorites; “With a Little Help from My Friends” was one of mine), she asked me whether I would like to hear these songs as they were meant to be heard, and she told me that she had a few of her original Beatles’ albums that I could borrow, if I wanted to.
This was the beginning of my musical education, and it started with Revolver, the bridge between softhearted ditties like “Love Me Do” and those psychedelic masterpieces, like “Strawberry Fields,” that would come later. For me, it was love at first listen, and I devoured that album; I felt as if the melodies inscribed on it were meant for me, even if some of the lyrics were puzzling, occasionally so cryptic that they seemed to be written in a different language. This might explain why a song like “Tomorrow Never Knows,” which was unlike anything I’d ever heard in my short life, was a little less appealing to me than “Got to Get You Into My Life,” as I tended to bond more easily with the McCartney-leaning lyrics (I’d already been exposed to the major hits of Wings, after all). Nonetheless, I was hooked, and I needed to hear more; my aunt was kind enough to oblige me by letting me borrow a compilation that covered the early part of The Beatles’ career, and after I made a copy of that record on cassette tape, I listened to it until I was singing those tunes in my sleep.
I’d started this journey at the end of the summer, but there was a pause of several months when I had to be content with scanning what is now known as an Oldies station for the opportunity to pluck “Yesterday,” “And I Love Her,” or another Beatles-era ballad from the ether. Then, over the Thanksgiving holiday, I took the great leap that would make me a Beatles fan for life. We were visiting my grandparents when my aunt arrived with her own precious cargo: a copy of The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
“It’s my favorite,” she said. “Don’t scratch it.”
I wasn’t allowed to take it home with me, so I listened to it for the first time by myself, while the rest of my family was watching a raucous game of football on the living room TV. I slipped the disc onto the turntable that was in the den and lowered the needle, letting it rest in the record’s outermost groove.
When Sgt. Pepper’s was finished playing, I had the feeling that it was like nothing I’d ever heard and everything I’d ever heard. It was an album that stood on its own, apart from all others, even though it was connected, in some significant way, to every rock and roll song that had come after it, as if it was a kind of blueprint for what great rock and roll should be. It was stunning, the whole of it, because its thirteen songs fit together perfectly, forming something greater than the sum of its parts.
I listened to it several times that day, and I knew, by the time I took it off the turntable and slipped it into its sleeve, that it was an album I would always be in love with, even though I realized, with a certain amount of confusion, that I couldn’t explain why this was so. Was I drawn to the sweeping arc of its production, the way its pieces fit together like bits of a jigsaw puzzle? Or had I fallen in love with its incredible melodies, those harmonies that complemented and mirrored each other like the movements of an intricate symphony? Maybe the characters who lived in Sgt. Pepper’s lyrics—the lonely singer Billy Shears; Rita, the unattainable meter maid; or Lucy, the album’s psychedelic muse—were exerting an inexorable hold over me, or perhaps I’d been exposed to it at the ideal time, having been primed, already, with the songs from that terrible film that shared its name. I wasn’t sure whether it was one of these things or all of them that made it seem so important, so special; I only knew that I had to get a copy of my own, as soon as possible, because I wanted to be able to listen to it over and over again.
Three more years would pass before I would get my wish. While I waited, I did listen to other kinds of music and was briefly infatuated with other rock and roll bands, but I was also scouring the airwaves on the weekends, ready to slap any Beatles song I could find onto a reel of used cassette tape, and I did get introduced to The Beatles’ White album and Abbey Road after a musical dry spell that spanned an entire school semester. By the time I was a teenager, I’d sampled most of the records The Beatles had released, and when I was finally able to listen to a copy of Sgt. Pepper’s that was mine and mine alone, I decided that their music was the only music I wanted to listen to, and I tortured my parents and the rest of my family by playing those thirteen songs on an endless loop spanning morning, noon, and night.
Why was I so obsessed with these sounds that had been produced decades before? It wasn’t that I identified with what The Beatles had stood for in the Sixties, although I occasionally pretended to be a “peace and love” acolyte in order to frighten my father, who was deeply conservative; part of it may have been a need that I had to be different, to set myself apart from the teens I knew who so desperately wanted to look like each other, and part of it was the simple pleasure that I took from listening to The Beatles, who seemed to represent the best of what music could be. But I think I was also fascinated, at a certain level, with what made their songs special, in the same way that I was fascinated with understanding how particular novels and short stories were put together—why one was successful when another one wasn’t—and I believed that I could figure out, intuitively, what made the Fab Four so fabulous by listening to their music and nothing else.
I did temper my fanaticism as I got older. It helped that the music that was being made in the present was improving; the age of the “hair bands” was coming to its inevitable end, and rock and roll wonders like U2 were now at the top of the charts, so there were some meaningful musical alternatives getting airplay on the radio and MTV. When I got to college, I was suddenly surrounded by people whose tastes in music were wildly different than mine, which helped to broaden my interests, but I also experienced a kind of letdown after I saw The Who and the Rolling Stones in concert, because I realized, viscerally, that The Beatles’ canon was as static as it could be—there was nothing new to add; there were no new discoveries to be made, and even the release of something like The Beatles Anthology would turn out to be a profound disappointment to someone like me, since I’d already been exposed to so many bootlegs and alternate versions of tracks like “Strawberry Fields.” I even went through a post-graduate period when I deliberately avoided listening to The Beatles because I was worried that I was wearing out their music, that I was turning their albums into background music, a kind of Muzak for my daily routine, and I wondered, during this time, whether I might have outgrown The Beatles, since most of my music budget was devoted by then to Indie Rock bands that I was finding through Pitchfork, NME, and alternative stations on the radio.
When I dug my Sgt. Pepper’s CD out of the stack of discs that had held it down during this long hiatus, I was afraid of what I might find—that my love for it might have been lost, or that the album might have seemed so overarchingly important because I’d burned its thirteen tracks into my brain by listening to it a thousand times or more—but then the opening notes, those discordant sounds of an orchestra tuning up and getting ready to play, began to reverberate in my ears, and I felt that unbridled joy that I’d felt when I was ten. There was a difference, of course, because I was different, because there were so many seasons of my life that were linked to this record, so that when that final chord faded, leaving behind a silence that was vacuous, a sonic hole, my eyes suddenly filled with tears. I felt as if I’d just had a marvelous, unexpected reunion with a long lost friend, a reunion which demonstrated that the bond of friendship was more powerful than the distance that had come between us.
Today I can say, unabashedly, that I am still in love with the music The Beatles made. As strange as it is that a boy who was born to musically indifferent parents, who grew up in the scruffy backwoods of east Texas, who was cut off, in many respects, from the pop culture of the present and the past should become a lifelong fan of The Beatles because of the Bee Gees, the man that the boy became is thankful for that absurd twist in his life. His days have been brighter because of it, and he was lucky enough, twenty-five years after he’d discovered Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, to sow the songs he’d grown up with into something new, completing a novel that was inspired by the breakup of The Beatles and the final record they released. That novel, Let It Be, was published in 2013.
Sgt. Pepper’s remains my favorite album, in spite of the fact that I am constantly discovering new music that knocks me off my feet.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.