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Sgt Pepper’s 50th Anniversary, Memory And My Mom

The 50th Anniversary of the release of the Beatles album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was June 1st. I try to remember it, and it goes back to Mom.

Mom and I at our last dance, my wedding in 1989.
Jon Johnston

(Not much news going on, so you get this for a Monday.)

The 50th anniversary of release of the Beatles album, "Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band" was June 1st. I was four years old when the the most legendary album in the history of humanity was released. I grew up with the Beatles. Whether they were together or not, the original "Fab Four" was always considered "the Beatles" as far as I was concerned. (It wasn’t until McCartney got to “Admiral Halsey” with Wings that I thought of McCartney as solo.)

Whether you like it or not, Sgt. Pepper is a landmark album. It influenced everything that came after it, whether musicians, composers, or songwriters wanted to acknowledge that.

I hadn’t listened to Sgt. Pepper in a long time. Honestly, I'd forgotten about it, so when I read the news (today, oh boy) that about its 50th anniversary, I decided to go back and listen again.

One of the most wretched things that happened because of my brain injury was damage to a lot of my memories. The context lines were broken, and needed to be repaired. Contextual memory is what comes into place, for example, when you hear a song and it takes you back to the time at which you first heard it, maybe you remember the girl you were dating, the car you are driving, the clothes you were wearing, and the friends that were around you – the song puts you in a place and time that otherwise you might have easily forgotten. Hear that song, and you’re there again.

In re-listening to Sgt Pepper, I was searching for what my damaged contextual memories would reference. What came to mind was not a place, nor time, but an object. (Here’s what sucks. I know thousands of songs from over the years. I used to be able to recall the lyrics of nearly all of them. Now a lot fo those same songs lead my memories to dead ends. Dammit.)

The object was an 18 album set of all the Beatles albums in a special edition box set. I honestly can't remember what was special about it other than my Mom paid $118 for it and that it was not to be opened, nor the albums played. It was a special collector set.

My mother always loved music. Throughout my teenage years my mother and I played dances; she was a DJ and I set up the sound system. We played wedding dances, bar dances, homecoming dances, prom dances, you name it, if someone out in Southwest Nebraska wanted to hire a DJ in the late 70s, they might have found my Mom.

Mom didn't just start playing dances when I became a teenager – my understanding is that she became a DJ during the early 60s when my hometown was having a “sock hop" at our local tennis court. One of the other adults took a hit 45 and was going to turn it over and play the B side when Mom stopped him. He said something to the effect of “It's all the same", to which she answered “No, it's not”, and history was made. (Perhaps it was only family history, but it was made just the same.)

She started with a Bogen tube amp and two stacked mono speakers. By the time we started playing dances together when I was 14, she had a full two-turntable portable rig with a mixer in the middle and two massive Altec Lansing speakers with bi-amps built into them. When we turned it up, you probably could have heard it five miles away. That is not an exaggeration. Our amps didn’t just go to 11. They went to 15 or 20.

She loved all types of music. It didn't matter if it was country, rock, polka, disco (ugh), and later on punk rock (I'll save the punk rock stories for later). We played every type of music – whatever fit the venue or whatever the employer had requested. Because we were DJs we had access to a special list from record companies that allowed us to buy any album we wanted for $3.20. This is a time at which other people were paying $12 or $15 (or more) per album. This allowed Mom to amass quite a collection of records. I'd estimate that when she moved out of her home in Curtis, Nebraska that she had around 5,000 albums and probably around 15,000 45s. (I'll leave the story of what happened to the records for later as well.)

Because of Mom I knew who Ian Hunter was when I was in high school. I knew who U2 was long before they ever got famous and I made sure my friends had cassette tapes of “Boy”, their first album, and told them they were going to be be big because of Bono’s passionate voice and their unique guitar sound. The Cars, Elvis Costello, 999, the Clash, Boz Scaggs, the Boomtown Rats, Devo, Oingo Boingo, and of course, the Sex Pistols – I knew of all these bands long before most people just because of my gray-haired dear old Mother. (Lincoln Dude Charlie Burton - we used to play his first single “Dolled Up Cutie” at dances. We’d mix it in with 50s music. It was perfect.)

Also because of Mom I learned at an early age what it was like to entertain people. When we played a good dance it was the greatest feeling ever. When we didn't, it felt like shit. It felt like failure, the worst feeling imaginable. I also learned what it was like to be insulted by strangers. We would pull up to a place to play and I would begin unloading our equipment. What people would see was an old gray-haired woman that most assume to be my grandmother and a 14-year-old kid and they would wonder, “What the hell did we just pay for?" Sometimes they were verbal about it and sometimes they just stared. Most of the time we impressed them, because Mom’s music knowledge was second to none.

Mom instilled in me the need to constantly search for new music. We were constantly looking for the next hit*, for the next song to play at the next dance. The search is why I don’t care if I ever hear another Journey song, and why I forgot about the Beatles. I’ve heard them enough. I realize that most people are content to listen to the same stuff over and over, but for me, it’s like eating the same lunch every day. There is so much out there - why confine yourself to the same trail you’ve already trod? Old people love to complain that there’s no good music anymore. I have to believe either you’re not listening, not trying, or you don’t know where to find it. If that’s the case, just admit it instead of saying that everything new sucks.

The last dance Mom and I ever played together was my wedding in 1989. It was long past time that we'd actually played together, but the agreement was that she would play most of the dance and I would get a punk rock segment. Mom passed away in March of 2012.

That's where remembering Sgt. Pepper took me. It's that box set, which in mechanical terms is nothing more than an assembled set of cardboard and vinyl. The music, though, the wonderful music, means so much more. It is that place, that memory, that car, that girl, that kiss. It is Mom and music.

*Oh, and by the way, the hell with Bob Dylan. There wasn’t a single song he ever wrote you could dance to. Even U2’s, “One”, you could get a good slow dance out of. So screw that guy.