Cornerstone: Sgt. Pepper revisited

Joshua Whitney, SCC Challenge adviser

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This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love and the album long associated with it, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band by the Beatles.

They’re certainly both events deserving of commemoration, and the legacy of both are firmly established, but what does this matter if you’re some schmuck like me born after the fact?

You have no idea what the world was like before the Beatles, so you just have to take it for granted that it must have been Dullsville, Daddy-O.

Okay, so the Beatles wrote some great songs and did a lot of things first, but from the back seat of the car I rode around in as a child, the Beatles were no CCR.  They weren’t the Beach Boys, either.

Yet it was a fundamental assumption of the Beatles’ greatness that led to one of my most enlightening moments.

Once upon a time, when I was a grad student in Flagstaff, Arizona, I hung out with a neighbor friend of mine, Al, who was about ten to fifteen years my senior.

Al, who originally hailed from Rhode Island, had a Northeastern accent as thick as shag carpet and a heart as tender and fragile as a child’s balloon.

Much to the chagrin of my downstairs neighbor, we loved nothing more than to play my stereo, imbibe, and chat into the early hours of the next day.

One evening, Al and I took a walk to one of my regular haunts, a used bookstore which also sold used records and CD’s.

While there, I remember looking at the stacks of used CD’s and seeing a copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, which every music fan knows is one of the greatest albums ever made.  (In truth, it’s no Appetite for Destruction or Bringing it All Back Home, but it’s certainly not bad.)

I remember saying to Al with a bemused tone, “Al, look at this; somebody sold Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band,” thinking someone must have had poor taste not to recognize how good the album was.

“Yeah, someone must have been pretty hard up,” Al responded.

This response bemused me even more, but I tried not to show it.

As I thought about it later, I remembered Al’s tales of having to sell his beloved Les Paul guitar to pay the rent, so parting with something that was cherished to pay the rent or some other bill was an experience he was intimately familiar with.

But I hadn’t been, and it was then I realized how lucky I was.

I had never wondered where my next meal would come from, and there I was, twenty-seven years old and going to graduate school in the exotic locale of Flagstaff, Arizona, to earn a master’s degree in English and learn more about the books I loved.  In many ways, it was like a two-year vacation.

But Al had struggled.

He had graduated high school (I think), and if he attended college, he certainly didn’t graduate.  In addition, he rarely had a job that paid more than minimum wage, and he told many tales of attempts to start his own business, but those dreams never played out.

And Al’s personal life hadn’t worked out either.

So he understood what it meant to live life close to the bone, and he taught me that day about how privileged I was.

Al also taught me to appreciate Bob Dylan, but that’s a story for another day.

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