“It’s boring almost beyond belief,” British rock critic Nik Cohn wrote of the Beatles’ self-titled album shortly after it came out in November of 1968. Cohn’s brickbat was just one of two negative reviews the New York Times published upon the release of The Beatles. (You probably know it better as the White Album.) Those responses, though, may say less about the record’s virtues than the way it upended listeners’ expectations. On 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Fab Four polished its pop instincts. The Beatles, by contrast, was scruffy and centerless, its thirty songs encompassing mock-Beach Boys vocal harmonies (“Back in the U.S.S.R.”), psychedelic folk (“Wild Honey Pie”), proto-punk (“Helter Skelter”), sound collage (“Revolution 9”), and plenty more besides.
“Everybody’s going to find something to love and hate on it,” says Indiana University music professor Glenn Gass, who has taught a course on the Beatles since 1982. “And in that way it not only summed up the history of rock and pop styles in the twentieth century but also predicted the eclectic, all-over-the-map world we’ve been living in ever since.”
As it happens, just yesterday, my chimney sweep brought me a copy of outtakes from the White Album. He says it came by way of a friend of his who used to work at Apple records. I got the impression that meant these particular versions hadn’t ever been commercially released, but I could be wrong about that.
I’ve had the guy come out to my house to clean the chimney and wood stove every winter since I’ve been living here. Upon his noticing my CD collection along one wall of the great room, we immediately bonded over a shared passion for music, and that’s what we represent to each other. Like Robert Fulghum’s barber, the quality of our relationship was partly created by a peculiar distance. We don’t interact in any other way besides the yearly maintenance visits. We don’t call, email, or hang out. We just pick up the conversation every year where we left off — what we’ve been listening to, whom we may have seen live. I usually send him on his way with lists and CD-Rs of music he hadn’t heard, so he decided to return the favor this year.
“It’s really rare,” he said that first year, “to meet somebody beyond their early twenties who still keeps up with new music.” I agreed. Oldies and classic rock stations represent living death to me, so depressing. Sure, I have sentimental favorites too, but I just can’t fathom wanting to hear nothing but. Discovering new music is one of the most invigorating joys I know of.
I couldn’t remember exactly what I’d given him the last time he was out here, so rather than burn a batch of CD-Rs for nothing, I just compiled a list of all the artists and albums I’d enjoyed this year. He grinned and said, “This is all old shit. Where’s your new stuff?” Oh-ho! I’m falling behind, am I? I do believe the gauntlet has been thrown down. Challenge accepted. Until next year, then.