The White Album at 40

But few would argue today that the Beatles made a mistake. Last night`s note by note, song by song, reproduction by the Fab Faux–an extraordinary group of five musicians devoted to reproducing the Fab Four`s entire body of work live onstage–shows more clearly than can ever be appreciated on even the finest stereo system just how monumental a musical achievement the White Album was, and still is.

As often recounted, the Beatles, after the symphonic extravagances of Sgt. Pepper`s, wanted to get back to being a band with their next album. Their ordeal by Maharishi in 1968 proved very fertile for that purpose.

They returned from India and the Maharishi`s transcendental pressure cooker armed with about 30 songs, most of them composed on acoustic guitars, the only instruments they had with them. And those guitar-based songs laid the foundation for the double-album that Paul at its release described as “a return to a more rock and roll sound”–“`with less of your `philosorock,` ” John noted acidly, in a poke at music critics.

Last night was my fourth Fab Faux concert. (Yesterday`s post, The Mystery of Time, responding to the Friday night bill of Let It Be and Abbey Road, tried to explain how I became such a Beatles fan. The short answer is, the spectacular arc of their career, encapsulating the agony and ecstasy of the Sixties, coincided with the wobbly but no less indelible and dumbfounding arc of my New Jersey adolescence and Boston University J-school years.

(Everyone who became a Beatles fan when the Beatles were making music “in real time,” as we might say today, experienced a version of that parallel between cultural and personal growth/upheaval/picking up the pieces.)

I will try to keep this post from wandering off into a meditation on the White Album`s amazing armada of wild, intense, brutish, erotic, demented, beautiful, whimsical and tender (or “fruity,” to borrow Paul`s word) songs. Hearing the entire album played through from beginning to end, I was struck by how such a disparate array of sounds and styles–including the bizarre tape-loop headtrip Revolution 9–forms such a coherent and overpowering whole.

The Beatles themselves described some of the songs as `throwaways” and `garbage` and such. Not false modesty but a comment on the source material or the genre from which the song sprang or to which it alludes, or to the spur of the moment idea that set it in motion. But if not all the songs, stripped bare, are great songs, what has kept the album vital for 40 years is that the Beatles turned all of it into great music, which is, as used to say, a whole nuther smoke

One of the things that draws all the music together is its assembly by serendipity, or free association, to use a shrink term. That is, in interviews the four gave at the time of the album`s release, and later, they talked about ideas that just sprang upon them, that just came into their heads, triggered by something specific, by people or events around them, or by nothing they could put their finger on.

Though they were heading for the last roundup, they achieved a creative ferment that drew effortlessly–not the recording process, but the initial spawning–from everywhere. By backing off from specifics that would limit listeners` associations (i.e., “Sexy Sadie” instead of “Maharishi,”) they touched the inchoate universal–art`s key to eternal life. In their own way, they outtranscendentaled the Maharishi.

For me, the White Album captures much of what that decade was about, at least for my generation. The excitement and confusion and panic tangled up in the liberties and licenses of a new sensual freedom, along with the unavoidable angst and dread of what Michael Arlen called “The Living Room War” and Michael Herr [no relation] painted in terrifying hallucinogenic terms in “Dispatches.”

Yet all that was only part of the stew. Though we were growing up quick, we were also still children. Ripped from the bosom of the supposedly idyllic Fifties, into the Space Age, the Cold War, color TV, the Golden Arches, the Kennedys, MLK, all of it.

And this is where Paul McCartney`s taste for silly, tender, lovely, sincere songs, including old-fashioned story songs, ballads, music hall and vaudevillesque numbers, dovetailed so uncannily with the Sixties rock and roll audience.

These were the songs McCartney`s father played that Paul grew up on. In other words, they were precious remains of his childhood. On our side of the pond, our parents` had loved somewhat similar music. It was music that in the Fifties and Sixties my generation sneeringly rejected. Or we thought we did.

But there is always that desire to go home again, to re-experience the comforts of childhood, however full or slender they might have been. And I think it was this need in ourselves that found such succor in the Beatles` more lyrical and musically retrospective songs. From the innocence of “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” to the hellfire of “Helter Skelter,” the Beatles body of work sewed up all the loose and aching ends of our emotions. And in the epic scale of the White Album, all those threads are woven together with overwhelming power, weird humor, and poetry.

Thoughts like these don`t come out of the blue, out of an iPod or an audio book. They come, I think, only from the irreplaceable experience of hearing live music. The Fab Faux are dedicated to that very proposition. Their musicianship and musical seriousness leaves me gaga, but it`s of a piece with the unfettered fun and freedom and, yes, gratitude that they evince playing this music they and we adore.

I could eat up space musing about the onstage personalities of each of the five. They are all in their 40`s and 50`s, but like all great performing artists, they are ageless at their best, creating a sense of possibility and fulfillment that we all hunger for.

Bassist Will Lee, founder of the band, is the nominal frontman. With all five singing, solo and harmony, doubling or tripling on different instruments, it`s hard to call anyone the frontman or leader; but Lee does talk to and kid with the audience more than the others. Physically, he is one of a kind–tall, pale and spindly, comic, wiggy, incredibly nimble. He bounces like a pogo stick, dashes about the stage, checking in on all his bandmates, driving the pulse with incredible force and suppleness.

At the end of each song he flings white guitar picks like frisbees into the audience. They sparkle in the lights as they arc and spin. It`s a wonderful gesture, profligate, gonzo and–my association, not his, because this might seem profane–like an offering of communion in the universal church of rock and roll.

Rich Pagano, a great singing drummer (and drumming singer) looks like some modest, friendly guy you might run into on a college campus. With his laid-back beard and lumberjack shirt, he seems approachable and sweet-tempered. But get him behind his kit and his passion and authority rivet everything together.

At the left side of the stage, Jack Petruzzelli holds forth at his front-facing keyboard with eerie calm. He also sings, plays guitar, a little percussion, whatever the song calls for. He`s of medium build and height, the most handsome of the bunch (sort of the Paul, imparting a certain unstudied sensuousness, yet with more reserve. The first time he steps out from behind the psychedic-painted flat front of the piano to grab the mike at center stage, you don`t expect him to unleash the screaming, knee-buckling intensity he does on “Oh! Darling.”

To Jack`s left, near the front of the stage, stands the most self-effacing member of the band, guitarist Frank Agnello. A big teddy bear with a round face and studious glasses, Agnello wears his guitar high on his body, sometimes looks up at the rafters as he plays, like a thoughtful troubador. He will glance at the crowd now and then and nod and crack a smile. They`re all having fun.

Lee, whose day job is bassist in Paul Shaffer`s Letterman band, holds center stage. On the right, behind another, smaller keyboard, is the band`s Vesuvious, guitarist Jimmy Vivino. (Keep an eye out for a profile of Vivino in an issue of NJM this spring.)

Vivino is a Jersey boy, from Paterson, and proud of it. He seems the most blue-collar. With his powerful build, mephistophelean beard, black-rimmed glasses and hat pulled low, he projects definite street cred. He can be counted on for wry remarks and asides, as well as the occasional jab, as when someone in the audience complained (if I heard correctly) that the sound was too loud, and he snarled, “Come up here and I`ll tear one of your ears off. You`ll be fine.”

Vivino is the guitar virtuoso of the band. After awhile you don`t think there`s anything he can`t do, and when he cuts loose in the occasional expanded rave-ups (like the end of Helter Skelter) even his own bandmates gape at him in wonder.

These brief descriptions should make clear that this “Beatles cover band” is not about Mop Top schtick or dressing up in Magical Mystery Tour garb and the like. The five sing in their own voices, but it`s uncanny how often their vocals evoke the timbre of the originals.

I wish you could have been there. I brought my 22-year-old son, Mike, for whom Radiohead is the gold standard. (I like them, too. The Bends and OK Computer are locks on my desert island list.)

If my son was blown away, he didn`t let on. But he did allow that the concert was “really cool,” and coming from him that was a rave.

PICTURES from my trusty iPhone (of which there were many in the audience):

top: From left, Jack Petruzzelli behind his psychedelic piano, Andy York (in the background, who supplemented the band on several songs), guitarist Frank Agnello, drummer Rich Pagano (partly visible behind Agnello`s shoulder), bassist Will Lee (back to camera), the Hogshead Horns.

second: The bnd reproducing the infamous 8-minute sound collage, Revolution 9. From left, Petruzzelli, Agnello, Pagano (on bass), Lee, Jimmy Vivino.

third: the end of the second set of encores.

fourth: Good night!