Published June 16, 2007
I asked Robert Rosen(www.robertrosen.blogspot.com), author of Nowhere Man-The Final Day's of John Lennon, frequent guest, and -most important-*friend*, to share his thoughts on this 40th anniversary of the release of the Beatles' Sgt.Pepper album. Here it is:
By Robert Rosen
In 1967 I was 14 years old--as ignorant and confused as any middle-class kid living in the Flatbush neighborhood of what was then the very provincial borough of Brooklyn, New York, a place where most signs of encroaching hippiedom so apparent in Manhattan were still kept tightly under wraps. Thanks to a highly effective junior high school propaganda program--marijuana is addictive; LSD makes you insane--I didn't take drugs and had no desire to smoke dope or drop acid, nor did any of my friends. We were far more interested in playing football.
I did, however, listen to Top 40 radio on the local flagship station, 77 WABC-AM, usually while doing my homework. And I did own a mono phonograph and about a dozen LPs, including "Meet the Beatles," "Flowers" by the Stones, and "Sounds of Silence" by Simon and Garfunkel. So, apparently, I wasn't a complete fool.
That summer, on July 27, I turned 15, and my cousin, a 22-year-old nurse, obviously more caught up in the spirit of the times than I was--inspired by The Mamas and the Papas' "California Dreamin'," she'd soon move to California--gave me an excessively generous birthday present: a paisley shirt, two 45 singles--"Incense & Peppermints" by The Strawberry Alarm Clock and "The Rain the Park and Other Things" by the Cowsills--and one album, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." You might say this gift was a hippie starter kit, lacking only a joint and a tab of acid--not that it started me on being a hippie. (That would take two more years.)
I can't say that I put "Sgt. Pepper" on the turntable and it immediately blew my mind--because it didn't. (I'd have to wait another year for the Beatles to release "the White Album," which did blow my mind.)
Certainly, I enjoyed listening to "Sgt. Pepper," and would go so far as to say that I loved Lennon's "A Day in the Life" and McCartney's "She's Leaving Home," because each in its own way sounded so different, musically and lyrically, than anything I'd ever heard before. (But even my mother liked "She's Leaving Home.") And I did find the cover graphics mesmerizing; I looked at them a lot. But I didn't realize until 12 years later how much I must have listened to the album, and how much information about it I must have picked up by osmosis--because the information was in the air.
The extent of my knowledge about "Sgt. Pepper" in particular and the Beatles in general only became apparent in 1979, when my friend (at the time) Fred Seaman was hired as John Lennon's personal assistant. Part of the reason Seaman got the job was because he wasn't a Beatles fan--he'd grown up in Spain and Germany, his father was a classical musician, and he was more into jazz than rock. Naturally, Seaman began asking me about the Beatles, the kind of questions I hadn't thought about in at least eight years: Who was the Walrus? What's number 9? Is there supposed to be a dog whistle at the end of one of the songs? What's this Paul-is-dead business?
I became Seaman's Beatles tutor, digging out my old albums and telling him things like "Look at this picture of Paul on the inside of 'Sgt. Pepper.' There's a patch on his arm that says 'O.P.D.' It's supposed to mean 'Officially Pronounced Dead.' That's one of the clues. There's hundreds of them. Look at the picture on the cover..."
It was as I was explaining things like this to Seaman, often quoting the lyrics forwards and backwards--"number 9"/"turn me on dead man"--that I realized I'd not only memorized most of the lyrics to the songs on "Sgt. Pepper," I'd memorized most of the lyrics to every song in the entire Beatles catalogue, 1964-1970.
That's when "Sgt. Pepper" finally blew my mind--when I at last understood that the Beatles had become part of my DNA.