Is it a testament to the quality, or purity, or beauty, or timelessness of that record (released 40 years ago this weekend) that it appealed so thoroughly to an 8-year-old, one who had virtually no contact with pop culture? I could not have been more out of tune with the zeitgeist — it would be two more years before I discovered radio, and even then I would have only the vaguest notion of what was out there. I bought my first LP solely on the basis of the cover (one of the reasons today I try to take extra care with the packaging of my CDs). It was pure dumb luck that it turned out to be Elton John’s “Madman Across the Water,” still one of my favorite albums of all time.
But the favorite is, and was, and must remain “Sgt. Pepper’s.” I had a love affair like no other with that record. My brother had bought it, of course, and when I heard it, I braved his wrath and smuggled it out to my friend’s house so I could play it over and over. You’d have had to know my brother back then to fully understand how daring that was.
In a way, that record seemed made for children: the fun false mustaches that came with the package, the bright shiny outfits, the cheery melodies, the jaunty horns. The band itself seemed almost irrelevant — scruffy mustachioed men in costumes, lost in a sea of collaged faces. I ignored them.
I can’t listen to “Sgt. Pepper’s” anymore. As a musician, I’m burnt out on it — its influence has been so vast and profound. As a lyricist, I find that my ear has become more attuned to the likes of Fiona Apple and Elliot Smith, and though the words of “Sgt. Pepper’s” are full of vivid images — Rita’s bag slung over her shoulder, Mr. Kite sailing through a hogshead of fire, the runaway girl with her handkerchief — there’s an emotional depth that’s missing. I’m ashamed to say it, but sometimes John Lennon’s melodies feel a bit underwritten, while Paul McCartney’s relentless cheerfulness is depressing. The very jauntiness I used to love as a girl feels as if it’s covering up a sadder subtext. And what’s bleaker than a brave face?
The whole experience is uncomfortable, like realizing you can beat your own father at chess or arm-wrestling. I don’t want to go back and find that the carcass has been picked clean. Because I know without a doubt that “Sgt. Pepper’s” changed the course of my life. If the magic is gone, it’s only because first loves can’t be repeated. When I was 8, I’d never heard anything like it, and I can honestly say that if I live to be 100, I’ll never hear anything like it again.
h/t res ipsa loquitur