"I t was 20 years ago today ... " That famous first line from the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album has been the credo ad nauseam behind reams of rhapsodizing this year about the people and events of 1969, that landmark year for the counterculture in America.
Generally, I think of life rather like a drive down the highway: It's best to focus attention on the stretch of road just ahead, with only an occasional glance into the rear-view mirror. Keep your neck cranked around too long to see where you've been and you're liable to end up face-to-face with a fire hydrant.
Nevertheless, I caught myself reflecting on those words from John Lennon and Paul McCartney when I remembered that one of the key memories of my adolescence, personally and musically, was taking form 20 years ago--if not today, at least this week.
And it had to do with the Beatles, for it was in October, 1969, that "Abbey Road," their final studio album, was released.
At that time, I had just entered my junior year at Villa Park High School. Much of my extracurricular life revolved around the school's band room, where my fellow musicians and I would meet in the early morning hours for marching-band practice before our regular classes began. It was football season, which meant slogging around muddy athletic fields, memorizing music and learning march patterns for that week's halftime show.
A handful of us usually spent the mid-morning "nutrition" break between classes and our lunch period holding court near the band-room stereo system, listening to whatever new albums one of us brought in.
The previous summer, which had felt so ephemeral once I quickly sank into the routine of Band-PE-Algebra II-Chemistry, etc., etc., I attended my first rock concert (Creedence Clearwater Revival) at the Forum.
I had fallen in love with Creedence's music that summer, and there were loads of other acts I liked with hits on the charts in the summer of '69: the Rolling Stones, Sly & the Family Stone, the Friends of Distinction, Stevie Wonder. But the Beatles were different from the others. Better. Mine. The Beatles were my salvation from the drudgery of class work and from what, in hindsight, was becoming a tragic situation at home.
I think I identified best with Paul then because, like me, he was left-handed. The one who was different. The underdog. I even bought a bass guitar that was just like his famous Hoffner. Well, at least it was as close to the Hoffner as I could find for $40 in that pawnshop in Fullerton. And McCartney's keyboard work gave me renewed inspiration to sit down once again at the piano in our living room, the one I had taken lessons on in third grade but gave up when I turned to clarinet the next year.
School was only a few weeks old when one of the local FM stations, the ones that were called "underground" radio before the whole thing was co-opted and transformed into the blanched cadaver it is today, began playing bits of the new Beatles album.
"Abbey Road" was, to say the least, reassuring. It restored some of my shaken confidence about their future amid all the rumors about Paul's "death" and an impending breakup. And I was one of the many fans who wondered what effect this odd Yoko person might be having on my four musical soul mates. This was about the same time I was also confused about what effect my older brother's girlfriend and their out-of-wedlock pregnancy would have on our family, which in my eyes had been a model example of the Ozzie Nelson family prototype up until that point.
Late one school night, as I lay on my bed with the lights out, listening to the radio with just the green glow of its dial faintly illuminating the bedroom, the deejay promised to spin more of "Abbey Road," which was not yet in the stores. The jock played all of Side 2, back when a commercial station could do that without interrupting for soft-drink ads every three minutes.
I lay there alone in the room that I had shared for some 15 years, until my brother was forced to leave home by his rebel-with-a-cause anger at my parents and his insistence on proving his independence and "maturity," first via illicit cigarettes, later with alcohol, marijuana, heroin and how many other substances I never knew. He was living the life style common to the late '60s, doing all those things that, as far as I knew, John, Paul, George and Ringo were doing too.
When the deejay's needle reached "Golden Slumbers" and Paul began singing, "Once there was a way/To get back homeward," I struggled to hold back the tears. Maybe indeed there was a way, but at 16, I didn't know how to find it. I was fighting to put down the feeling that I was no more likely ever again to see the happy family I remembered from childhood than I was to see the resurrection of the carefree moptops I knew from 1964.
The next day, I called my favorite record store, a long-ago extinct place in Costa Mesa called American Records, and was told they would have the album in stock well ahead of most everyone else because they were getting a shipment of import copies direct from England. I made my father drive down with me--I had just gotten my driver's license, but still had no car. I knew the import would be more expensive, and at $4.39 it was about 30% higher than I was accustomed to paying. But it was worth it. Heck, in the cover photo, George even looked a lot like my brother did then.
He died seven years later, 3,000 miles away in Florida--if not to the day, at least to the month. I came home from school (this time from college) to the sight of my mother and sister sitting in the dining room, and I remember my mom saying something about a drug overdose. No surprise, but nonetheless a shock. And this time there were no clues recorded backward in songs to help me understand.
I could only think that I had recently seen Paul McCartney on his solo "Wings Over America" tour--the only Beatle I'd ever seen in concert and the first time I'd ever gone to see any performer two nights in a row--and I had never gotten to tell Gregg about it.
When we had the funeral service, I brought along a tape and played "Golden Slumbers," (which we used as the inscription on the tombstone) and "Bridge Over Troubled Water," another song from about the same period that trouble was welling up in the family waters.
I still have that copy of "Abbey Road," even though I also bought the CD version last year. In fact, I prefer listening to the old one perhaps, in part, because, despite all those years and the scuffs and scratches it has picked up, it has survived. And to that, even 20 years later, I can still relate.