Consequently, the music started losing its "innocence." The Beatles still managed to maintain a facade of effervescence in the sounds of records like Beatles for Sale, Help and even Rubber Soul, but the content of the songs had turned more troubled. It was as if the group had lost a certain mooring — Lennon was singing more frequently about alienation and apprehension, McCartney about the unreliability of love — and whereas their earlier music had fulfilled the familiar structures of 1950s rock, their newer music was moving into unaccustomed areas and incorporating strange textures. Primarily, though, the band was growing fatigued from a relentless schedule of touring, writing and recording. Following the imbroglio surrounding Lennon's assertion that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ and after one last dispirited swing through America (in which they were unable to play their more adventurous new material), the Beatles called a formal quits to live performances.
Meantime, Dylan was changing the language and aspirations of popular culture with his every work and gesture — in fact, he was the clearest shot at an individual cultural hero that rock & roll had produced since Presley — but he had also been pushing himself in intense personal and creative ways. In July 1966, following a triumphant but strenuous tour of England with his storming backing band the Hawks, Dylan suffered a motorcycle accident that broke his neck and would remove him from the recording scene for over a year. And the bad news continued: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones were arrested for drug possession in a series of 1967 busts in London and pilloried by the British press and legal system. "I'm not concerned with your petty morals, which are illegitimate," Richards bravely (or perhaps foolishly) told a court official at his trial. Plainly, generational tensions were heating up into full-fledged cultural war.
Maybe these developments should have been perceived as harbingers of dissolution, but the vision of rock as a unifying and liberating force had become too exciting, too deep-seated, to be denied. By this time, rock & roll was plainly youth style, and youth was forming alternative communities and political movements throughout Europe and America. In the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, something approaching utopia seemed to be happening. Bands like the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, the Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Charlatans were forming social bonds with their audiences and trying to build a communal ethos out of a swirling mix of music, drugs, sex, metaphysics and idealistic love.
In mid-1967, after a yearlong hiatus, the Beatles helped raise this marginal worldview to worldwide possibility with the release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band — a cohesive, arty and brilliant work that tapped perfectly the collective generational mood of the times and that reestablished the foursome's centrality in rock's power structure. It wasn't that the Beatles had invented the psychedelic or avant-garde aesthetics that their new music epitomized — in fact, the spacey codes and the florid textures and arrangements had been clearly derived from the music of numerous innovative San Francisco and British bands. But with Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles refined what these other groups had been groping for, and they did so in a way that unerringly manifested the sense of independence and iconoclasm that now seized youth culture. At the album's end, John Lennon sang "A Day in the Life" — the loveliest-sounding song about alienation that pop had ever yielded — and then all four Beatles hit the same loud, portentous chord on four separate pianos. As the chord lingered and then faded, it bound up an entire culture in its mysteries, its implications, its sense of power and hope. In some ways, it was the most magical moment that culture would ever share, and it was the last gesture of genuine unity that we would ever hear from the Beatles.
Sgt. Pepper was an era-defining and form-busting work. To many, it certified that rock was now art and that art was, more than ever, a mass medium. It also established the primacy of the album as pop's main format — as a vehicle for fully formed concepts and as the main means by which rock artists communicated with their audience. Rock was now saturated not only with ideals of defiance but also with dreams of love, community and spirituality. Even the Rolling Stones — who had always sung about much darker concerns — would start recording songs about love and altruism (that is, for a week or two). "For a brief while," wrote critic Langdon Winner of the Sgt. Pepper era, "the irreparably fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young."
But that blithe center couldn't forever hold. By the time Sgt. Pepper was on the streets, the Haight-Ashbury was already turning into an ugly place, riddled with hard drugs like cocaine, heroin and speed and overpopulated with runaways, bikers, rapists, thieves and foolish shamans. In addition, a public backlash was forming. Many Americans were afraid they had lost their young to irredeemable allures and ideologies, and in California, Ronald Reagan had already won a gubernatorial campaign that was largely predicated on anti-youth sentiment. It was a time for media panic, for generational recrimination and political separatism, for opposing views of America's worth and future. It was an intoxicating time but also a frightening one. More and more, it looked as if there were no turning back and as if everything were at stake.
Then, within a few months, a pop counterrevolution (or at least a redefinition) was underway — headed by none other than Bob Dylan. In some ways, it was Dylan who had made psychedelia possible; more than anybody, he had announced that all rules of form, length and content were subject to new visions and ambitions. But as works like Sgt. Pepper were finding their way into Dylan's remote Woodstock, New York, home (where he was recuperating from his accident), rumor had it that he was put off by the stylistic baroqueness, facile rhetoric and relentless drugginess of much of the new pop. Or perhaps he was simply concerned about whether rock had outdistanced him.
In any event, at heart Dylan was (and remains) a die-hard American formalist and Jeffersonian moralist, and the rock & roll that he had been making in seclusion with his companion backing group the Hawks (now simply called the Band) was music that explored the idea of what could be salvaged from the American value system. In January 1968, Dylan took this fixation one step further with his formal return to the public arena, the release of John Wesley Harding — a record that on one level was about a nation coming apart from within (but then, Dylan's best work had always been about America's forsworn potentials). On another level, with its sparse, almost stoical three-piece Sun Studio-derived acoustic rock & roll sound, John Wesley Harding was also the boldest musical critique or challenge that Dylan ever offered. If nothing else, its simplicity made the current music of the Beatles (Magical Mystery Tour) and the Rolling Stones (Their Satanic Majesties Request) — which is to say the entire mainstream and avant-garde realm of rock — seem frivolous, if not irresponsible. It was as if Dylan thought there might be a direction home after all.
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