Looking Through a Glass Onion
Written by Alexander S. Weeden
November marks fifty years of the Beatles' White Album. We asked some of our writers what the record means to them.
The Beatles’ White Album told me so much and revealed nothing. It was the third album I owned, after the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine soundtrack and the Oasis masterpiece, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? I received it at a perfect time, the spring of my 13th year. At the brink of so many personal, social, and physical discoveries, it was an album created at the height of modern social and artist experimentation and suffused with the treacherousness of discovery.
I found it incredibly important that I did not understand what I was hearing. I think that it being a Beatles record helped. I was aware that they were THE band, and that their discography was my parents’ generation’s pop culture Talmud. The production and arraigning also helped, the various vocal treatments, instrumentations and studio equipment, along with the sheer mass of songs and song fragments (seventeen tracks on the first disk alone) is practically world-building in their effect. That I was totally out of my depth was apparent by the third track, where a manic, raspy voice seemed to have come down from a ragged peak with a terrific tale of what lay beyond. Yet not a single word made sense. At the time, I was unaware of the band holding up their own mythology, and I just heard a vision sour, distorted, opaque, yet vividly, undeniably real, “looking through a glass onion.”
Just as the album descends - in emotion and obscurity in tandem, it fractures, veering sadistically between moods, sounds and levels of seriousness, before the first disk peaks/hits rock bottom. “Happiness is a Warm Gun” is only two minutes and forty-five seconds long and took me father from home than I have yet to ever be. From the first line, my perceptive young mind reacted with, “oh, this is about THE SEX!” And how grotesque it sounded – no moms and dads or love and babies. This was more than what my teachers knew or my parents cared to admit. Soft, slithering, surreal, shameful…and then, that sound.
Forty-five seconds in, the listener literally waltzes with the most demonic guitar tone this Black Sabbath fan has still ever heard. WHAT THE FUCK, I thought, what thing/experience/person could inspire THAT SOUND? A window into my character is the fact that I really wanted to know. Though the consensus seems to be that, primarily, it’s heroin, my participation in the D.A.R.E. program had not covered the methodology of shooting up. To my pubescent ears, that warm gun was the dick, and much of this album, ironically sheathed in white, was a winking warning of what using it and getting it meant.
The supremacy of sex and the feminine prowess in harnessing it seemed profound and arresting, as attested by the ballad of “Sexy Sadie.” A dreamlike atmosphere is created by a guitar line warbling through perhaps a Leslie or phaser. Bitter, even hateful, the speaker cannot help mournfully worshipping the subject who seems to passively draw the whole world into her clutches to use as carelessly as she sees fit. The speaker is possessed, powerless…a Beatle is possessed, powerless. Such creatures (seemingly too supernatural-and objectified-to be human) roam the world of men? How do they do it? This was magic not to fuck with. The ingredients of that magic flow through the cooing lyrics of “Savoy Truffle”: the saccharine, oral, consumptive pleasures of the flesh. And it not only corrupts, it is corruptible: souring, flagging, rotting like the desserts described. But the Beatles packaged it too well, and I still wanted to taste it.
Track order in this copulatory odyssey is also important in conveying the dangers of desire. The thirsty but playful “Don’t Pass Me By” is followed by the sleazy and insistent “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” before stepping back with the good guy “I Will.” On the second disk, the assuredness of “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey” does not survive the subject of the next song, and then the cool, misogynistic, judgmental frustration of “Sexy Sadie” follows by bursting into a masculine rage so violently well expressed that it would become the symbol of a failed musician’s murder cult. I heard all of this as a sometimes stained, sometimes glittering assertion that I had no idea what I was getting into as young adulthood began to glow on the horizon.
Besides all of the literal fucking, the White Album also seemed to warn me that the adults were also fucking up. The impotent sage of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” surveys this world, while the youth of “Revolution I” have their solutions shot down. Artfully, the most disturbing examples are the seemingly innocuous vignettes of ruling class life sung in descending patterns and interspersed with the dark chiding choruses of “cry baby, cry, make your mother sad…” Some ill must be unfolding just beyond the practiced, deceitful domesticity. More explicitly, there is the dangerous hypocritical infantilism of "Bungalow Bill" that could get you killed in Colonial Kenya, South East Asia, or a few years after I first heard it, in Iraq.
There is also the cannibalistic consumption of the upper class “Piggies” that, again in the years after my first listen, would be called vulture capitalism. Amid all that, and in the midst of the sonic despoliation of “Revolution 9,” the people, “they are standing still” or dancing the watoosi and twist, and either way are trapped like the bourgeois dinner guests in Buñuel’s anti-fascist film, Exterminating Angel in self-imposed fealty to the degenerating status quo. These things too drew me in, as some monster that I had the urge to slay or disease that I wanted to eradicate. It is all wrapped unnervingly in the post-modern irony of the first track and, especially in the context of everything I had to listen to, the sarcasm of the album’s final, THIRTIETH track, “Goodnight” which gives the feeling not of being tucked in, but of having the pillow placed over your face.
That I was totally out of my depth was apparent by the third track, where a manic, raspy voice seemed to have come down from a ragged peak with a terrific tale of what lay beyond. Yet not a single word made sense. At the time, I was unaware of the band holding up their own mythology, and I just heard a vision sour, distorted, opaque, yet vividly, undeniably real, “looking through a glass onion.”
But, very importantly, there are also pieces that hint that, as in the Divine Comedy, the descent through this unvarnished world is worth it, that there can be positive side effects to opening oneself up to vulnerable desire. The cost belies the value, or as Dante puts it at the end of his epic, “l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.” “Dear Prudence” is an incantation, pleading for a healthy communion in rare, ascending choruses. “Julia,” and, especially, “Long, Long, Long,” imply the cost of desire in sparse, acoustic guitar-centered arraignments, yet those same production choices also communicate the preciousness of love and that there is a reason for all of this madness.
Now I am almost twice as old as I was when I first snapped CD 1 of the White Album into my Sony Diskman. Seeing this vision from the other side, was the journey as dark as foretold? In my personal experience, well, yeah, or as Melville wrote in Moby Dick, “…it’s a wicked world in all meridians…” Listening to it this year for the first time in at least half a decade, the white noise fade out at the end of “…USSR” made my throat tighten in involuntary anticipation of a song that I have paid a hell of an emotional price to really feel. I’ve savored truffles, become acquainted with the “well acquainted” and sat at Sadie’s table.
I’ve also seen an entire generation of leaders fail us, squandering the social and economic progress of the 20th century, leaving the Left exhausted and my country slouching towards something with all of the symptoms of fascism. But the curiosity with which the album electrified me has also made my life infinitely richer, personally and politically, from the Lower East Side to law school and from Coney Island to Cambodia and back. And perhaps soon I’ll find, as Dante described after going to Hell and back, that “love that moves the Sun and other stars.” Hearing the White Album now, with earned meaning behind almost every line, fills me with a serene sense of a youth not wasted, and a monkey with nothing to hide.
Orlando, Florida native, sometime political operative and occasional attorney, this is not the Alex Weeden who comes up as Miranda Lambert’s touring guitar player when googled. Unjustly, he is also not found in the index to Elizabeth Goldman’s Meet Me in the Bathroom. Guitar, bass, and (attempted) sitar player, Alex credits music, from Debussy to Spacemen 3, with opening his eyes and ears to how wide, deep and rich the greater world could be and giving him a reason to ramble across a growing swath of it.