DC-based Book Author & Writer .. Smithsonian Presenter .. Speaker ..Tour Guide — Focusing on the Baby Boom Generation, Classic Rock, Issues on Aging Especially as They Affect Men & Dissent, Protest, and Free Speech
1967 was a year filled with psychedelic sights and mind-expanding sounds.
On London’s Carnaby Street, fashion boutiques were offering hip, wild, colorful clothing for with-it British men and women. Meanwhile, young Americans from San Francisco to New York City were letting their hair grow long, while simultaneously tuning in and turning on to marijuana, LSD, and the sounds of Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, and the Vanilla Fudge. And reflective of all that was swirling around them, the Beatles produced their pot and acid-drenched masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
To say that the album was revolutionary in its time is understatement. But earlier this month, the Mark Morris Dance Group proved that more than 50 years later, there still is innovation to be found in the musical masterpiece.
For three sold-out nights at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, the New York City-based dance company, directed by noted ballet and opera choreographer Mark Morris, presented the group’s reworking of Sgt. Pepper’s titled Pepperland, a stunning visual dance performance set to six much-altered Beatles songs and seven original pieces composed by pianist Ethan Iverson.
Here is a summation of the one-hour performance from score notes by Iverson, who led the seven-member live pit band which included a single vocalist, two keyboardists, a trumpeter, a trombonist, a percussionist, and, most interestingly, a theramin player. (For those not familiar with the theramin, and many in the performance hall were not, the one-of-a-kind electronic instrument is a single oscillator with two metal rods used to change pitch and amplitude controlled by a single performer using hand gestures above the rods):
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
The original album ended with an unprecedented effect, a very long chord. Fifty years later, perhaps a similar chord is a good place to begin …
A formal invocation of personalities from the LP cover
With a Little Help from My Friends
When Ringo sang it, he was on top of the world. Our version is more vulnerable.
In an age of Tinder, a Lonely Heart advertisement might seem hopelessly quaint. But everyone has always needed to find a match.
When I’m Sixty-Four
In between 6 and 4 is 5. All three counts (to the bar are heard) are heard beneath the music-hall scuffle.
A single offhand line from “Sgt. Pepper” germinates into a full-fledged sonata.
Within You Without You
George Harrison’s sincere study of Indian music aligns easily with another Harrison interested in bringing the East to the West: the great composer Lou Harrison, one of Mark Morris’s most significant collaborators. The hippie-era sentiment of the lyric remains startlingly fresh and relevant today.
Glenn Gould said he preferred Petula Clark to the Beatles. Apparently, Gould, Clark, and a chord progression from “Sgt. Pepper” all seemed to have inspired this mod number.
The first thing we hear on the LP is a blues guitar lick, here transformed into a real blues for the horns to blow on. Wilbur Scoville invented the scale to measure hot sauce: The original Sgt. Pepper?
After seeing Bach’s Brandenburg on the telly, Paul McCartney came into the studio and told George Martin to add piccolo trumpet to “Penny Lane”. Indeed, detailed references to European classical music are one reason so many Beatles’ songs still stump the average cover band.
Not on “Sgt. Pepper,” but nonetheless originally planned to be, and, of course, especially relevant to the city of Liverpool.
A Day in the Life
Theremin nocturne, vocal descant, apotheosis.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Another unprecedented effect on the original LP was a reprise of the first theme, which is part of why it is called the first concept album. Our later vantage point enables us to project into the next decade, the ‘70s, and conjure a disco ball. Thank you, Beatles. Thank you, Sgt. Pepper.
For my first 64 years on the planet, I never gave any serious thought to writing a book. But in 2017, I discovered the main thing you need for a book – a good idea. Sailing on our first-ever rock cruise, which featured Gregg Allman, I discovered 2,700 rock fans paying at least $2,000 each to hear music that was supposed to be just a passing teenage fad in the mid-1950s. I wondered how exactly did this come to pass.
And now today, 3 years later, my first book — Come Together: How the Baby Boomers, the Beatles, and a Youth Counterculture Combined to Create the Music of the Woodstock Generation — has been published and released.
For now, it is available exclusively at the Politics and Prose book store in Washington, DC. It can also be ordered from the Politics and Prose website. However, the book will be rolling out in other places and as an e-book soon.
If you enjoyed music in the 1960s and were paying attention to the words, you were listening to innovative, powerful lyrics written by some great future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame song writers. There was Bob Dylan. There were John Lennon and Paul McCartney of the Beatles and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. And there was Paul Simon, who with his singing partner Art Garfunkel, created some of the decade’s most memorable tunes.
Simon, who has been enshrined in the Rock Hall twice, once with Garfunkel and once as a solo singer/songwriter, and was the recipient of the Library of Congress’ inaugural Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, received another honor last month as the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. presented him with its prestigious Great American Medal for his significant contributions not only to American music, but also his contributions to causes as a philanthropist.
Simon’s songs include “I Am a Rock,” “America,” “The Boxer,” “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” “Kodachrome,” and “Graceland”. But the tune that started it all was “The Sound of Silence” where Simon contended “the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls … whispering the sound of silence”.
Simon talked at length at the Smithsonian ceremony about that song, which became Garfunkel and his first big hit, climbing to number 1 on the pop charts in 1966. In 2013, “Sound of Silence” was placed on the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry for its cultural, aesthetic, and historical importance.
When the song was first released as a pure acoustic folk song, it was a commercial failure, causing the Simon/Garfunkel duo to break up. However, in 1965, folk rock was emerging as a popular pop music genre. Trying to take advantage of that folk-rock movement, producer Tom Wilson, who had worked with Dylan on his folk-rock albums, added electric instruments to the track, it was re-released as a single, and a reunited Simon and Garfunkel were on their way to stardom.
‘“The Sound of Silence’ was the best song I had written up to that point,” Simon told the crowd at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, noting he had written the tune when he was 21.
Some believe the song refers to the assassination of President John Kennedy, but Simon said the song was composed before that tragedy. He actually wrote the tune in his bathroom, where he would go and turn off the lights to concentrate on his song writing.
“I was able to sit by myself and dream,” Simon said. “I was always happy doing that. The bathroom had tiles, so it was a slight echo chamber. I’d turn on the faucet so the water would run … I like that sound, it’s very smoothing to me. And I’d play in the dark ‘Hello, darkness my old friend/I’ve come to talk to you again”.
The song explores a strong sense of alienation that many young people were feeling at the time. “It’s a young lyric, but not bad for a 21-year-old,” Simon said. “It’s not a sophisticated thought. It wasn’t something that I was experiencing at some deep profound level – nobody’s listening to me, nobody’s listening to anyone. It was post-adolescent angst, but it had some level of truth to it and it resonated with millions of people”.
Like many other songwriters, Simon says he isn’t certain exactly where “Sound of Silence” came from. “You become a conduit and the music comes through you,” he says. “It’s yours but it’s almost like you didn’t write it”.
In 1967, director Mike Nichols was filming what would become his award-winning movie The Graduate. Nichols had commissioned Simon to create some music for the film. But, in the interim, the director was using already released Simon and Garfunkel songs as scene soundtracks until new music could be recorded. Nichols, however, decided to keep “The Sound of Silence” in the movie, which only added to the song’s renown.
Of course, The Graduate did include a new Simon and Garfunkel song whose popularity eclipsed that of “Sound of Silence”. And that song – the unforgettable “Mrs. Robinson” with its shout-out to former Yankees baseball great with the line “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you”
Simon, who grew up in New York was then – and remains – a huge fan of the New York Yankees. However, after the song was released he heard DiMaggio was upset with being included. “I heard he thought it was some hippie making fun of him, not that he was a hero of the song” Simon said.
Eventually, Simon encountered the Yankee slugger, who by this time was fine with being recognized lyrically in one of the great songs of the ‘60s. He did, however, have one question. “Why did you write that line about where did you go? I didn’t go anywhere. I’m always on TV selling coffee,” Simon explained. “So that gave me a chance to talk to Joe DiMaggio about metaphor and things like that”.
Although Elvis Presley would later become as influential in Las Vegas as Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack who ruled the flashy entertainment scene in the 1950s and early 1960s, Presley’s first reception in the Nevada city of garish neon, glittering showgirls, and 24-hour gambling was far from a triumph for the hip-swiveling young star from Memphis.
In fact, Elvis’ debut in the 1,000-seat showroom of the refurbished New Frontier casino on April 23, 1956 was a flop. Backed by his three-piece group, guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black, and drummer D.J. Fontana, Presley performed a 12-minute set consisting of just four songs – “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” and “Money Honey”.
The critics were savage. “Elvis Presley, coming in on a wing of advance hoopla, doesn’t hit the mark here,” wrote the critic for Variety. “For the teenager, he’s a whiz; for the average Vegas spender, a fizz”.
Meanwhile Newsweek contended the 21-year-old rock and roller was “like a jug of corn liquor at a champagne party”.
However, 13 years later, when Presley returned, he initiated a casino career that would make him a Vegas legend, transform the way entertainment was presented in the city, and create a local industry of Elvis impersonators and Presley-themed wedding chapels that is still operating today.
In his latest book, Elvis in Vegas: How the King Reinvented the Vegas Show, author Richard Zoglin details Presley’s casino showroom concerts that helped revitalize his career, as well as those near his death that demonstrated what a bloated, tragic figure the King of Rock, who died at age 42, had become.
“Elvis had a huge impact on Las Vegas,” writes Zoglin. “It raised the stakes, both in terms of money (his $125,000-a-week salary was a record at the time, soon to be surpassed) as well as production scale and promotional hype.” It also attracted a new breed of middle-class, mom-and-pop pilgrims from Presley’s vast, now multi-generational fan base, who traveled to see the King as well as play the slots. Vegas began to shed its seedy mobster trappings and morph into a family-friendly destination spot with a corporate sheen”.
In a review of Zoglin’s book in The Wall Street Journal, Eddie Dean says while Elvis definitely benefitted from his residencies, Las Vegas might have been even a bigger winner. “Las Vegas may have gotten more in the bargain than did its most enduring celebrity, who is still a presence there: from the scores of Elvis impersonators to shrines like the Graceland Wedding Chapel, where fans the world over come to tie the knot”.
So what is Presley’s true Vegas legacy? In Zoglin’s view, it’s the way he opened up Sin City to a broader range of music styles and ultimately to a new sort of spectacle. “Elvis created the model for a different kind of Vegas show: no longer an intimate nightclub encounter for an audience of a few hundred, but a big-star extravaganza, playing to thousands,” Zoglin contends.