Was ‘Bookends’ The New York Jewish ‘Sgt. Pep­per?’

Forward Magazine - - Reviews - By Dan Epstein

In the late spring of 1967, the re­lease of the Bea­tles’ “Sgt. Pep­per’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” hit the world like a pais­ley paint bomb. Its psy­che­delic splat­ters were es­pe­cially ev­i­dent in Eng­land, where pop artists of all stripes im­me­di­ately seized upon the al­bum’s heady mix­ture of ly­ser­gic won­der and Vic­to­rian nos­tal­gia as a new way for­ward. But the al­bum’s ef­fects could be felt even as far away as Uruguay, where a Bea­tles-ob­sessed group known as Los Shak­ers fol­lowed “Sgt. Pep­per’s” au­da­cious lead with a psy­che­delic Latin Amer­i­can mas­ter­piece they called “La Con­fer­en­cia Sec­reta del Toto’s Bar.”

“Sgt. Pep­per’s” was a mas­sive crit­i­cal and com­mer­cial suc­cess in the United States, as well, but its im­pact on Amer­i­can pop­u­lar mu­sic was less im­me­di­ate and far more dif­fuse. Buf­falo Spring­field’s “Bro­ken Ar­row” and The Buck­ing­hams’ Top 10 hit “Su­san” — both re­leased in late ’67 — each fea­tured Pep­peresque sound col­lages, while The As­so­ci­a­tion and The Tur­tles both re­leased al­bums in 1968 (“Birth­day” and “The Tur­tles Present the Bat­tle of the Bands,” re­spec­tively) that drew upon the same ex­panded mu­si­cal and con­cep­tual pal­ette uti­lized by the Bea­tles.

Still, most main­stream U.S. pop seemed im­per­vi­ous to the al­bum’s in­flu­ence, and the state­side psy­che­delic move­ment was al­ready very much on its own trip (lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively) by the time “Sgt. Pep­per’s” hit the streets. While Otis Red­ding was deeply ob­sessed with the al­bum — which re­port­edly in­spired his moody, in­tro­spec­tive clas­sic “(Sit­tin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” — and while some lovely soul-jazz cov­ers (like “Within You With­out You” by the Soul­ful Strings, and Wes Mont­gomery’s ren­di­tion of “A Day in the Life”) emerged in its af­ter­math, most black artists of the day weren’t in any rush to add some “Pep­per” to their grooves. And Bob Dy­lan, who was never re­ally one for Lewis Car­roll-style whimsy or acid-drenched stu­dio high jinks any­way, ba­si­cally ig­nored the whole thing; his rootsy and spare “John Wes­ley Hard­ing” LP, re­leased at the end of 1967, es­sen­tially sounded as if the Fab Four — much less “Sgt. Pep­per’s” — had never ex­isted.

There was one Amer­i­can al­bum, how­ever, that re­ally took the ball from “Sgt. Pep­per’s” and ran bril­liantly with it — though you cer­tainly wouldn’t have guessed it to look at the two con­ser­va­tively dressed Jewish guys star­ing glumly out from the stark black-and-white pho­to­graph on its cover. Re­leased fifty years ago on April 3, 1968, Si­mon & Gar­funkel’s “Bookends” has long been (rightly) hailed as a folk-rock mas­ter­piece; the al­bum con­tained some of the duo’s best-loved hits, in­clud­ing “Mrs. Robin­son” and “Amer­ica,” and it spent seven weeks in that un­happy spring and sum­mer of 1968 at the top of the Bill­board al­bums chart, not once but twice sup­plant­ing their own enor­mously pop­u­lar sound­track for “The Grad­u­ate.” (In­ter­est­ing Jewish mu­sic trivia note: The duo’s nearly four-month dom­i­nance of Bill­board’s No. 1 spot fi­nally ended in the last week of July 1968; “The Beat of the Brass,” an­other ea­sylis­ten­ing mil­lion-seller, by fel­low tribe mem­ber Herb Alpert and his Ti­juana Brass, re­placed it.) But “Bookends” gets far less recog­ni­tion than it should for be­ing the Amer­i­can “Sgt. Pep­per’s” — or, even more to the point, the New York Jewish “Sgt. Pep­per’s.”

Which is not to say that “Bookends” is lit­er­ally “Sgt. Kishke’s Lower East Side Schlub Band” — Si­mon & Gar­funkel would never have at­tempted such a bla­tant knock-off, since briefly fash­ion­able things like sitars, sher­bet-col­ored mil­i­tary uni­forms and eye-pop­ping psy­che­delic cover art would have been com­pletely an­ti­thet­i­cal to their well-honed im­age of turtle­neck-clad,

an­gelic-sound­ing folk poets from the dirty cob­ble­stones of New York City.

Nev­er­the­less, John, Paul, Ge­orge and Ringo were very much on Paul and Ar­tie’s minds in Oc­to­ber 1967, when work on their new al­bum be­gan in earnest. “The Bea­tles were it,” Art Gar­funkel told the Guardian in 2015. “When they made ‘Rub­ber Soul’ and moved on to ‘Re­volver’ and ‘Sgt. Pep­per’ — [it was] not just a col­lec­tion of songs, but the al­bum as art form. We were ter­ri­bly im­pressed, and that shone a light on the path that led to ‘Bookends.’”

Nowhere is this more ob­vi­ous than on side one of the al­bum, a con­cep­tual song-cy­cle in which tracks based upon suc­ces­sive stages of life are “book­ended” by a brief mu­si­cal theme. There’s also a pal­pa­ble sense of mu­si­cal free­dom and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion there that had been ab­sent from pre­vi­ous S&G al­bums; with their la­bel, Columbia, foot­ing the bill for the record­ing costs, the duo (abet­ted by pro­ducer John Si­mon) were at lib­erty to

There was one Amer­i­can al­bum, how­ever, that re­ally took Sgt. Pep­per’s ball and ran bril­liantly with it.

ex­plore ev­ery­thing from mul­ti­ple vo­cal over­dubs to Moog syn­the­siz­ers.

“Save the Life of My Child,” the most brac­ing and bound­ary-push­ing track on the al­bum, mir­rors not only “Sgt. Pep­per’s” mu­si­cal reach, but also its per­va­sive sense of druggy dis­ori­en­ta­tion and so­cial dis­con­nect. Against a dystopian ur­ban sound­scape, the song’s pro­tag­o­nist — who might well be the boy from Bruce Jay Fried­man’s “A Mother’s Kisses,” now a cou­ple of years older and freak­ing out on acid in an East Vil­lage crash pad — hor­ri­fies his dot­ing mom and tan­ta­lizes a voyeuris­tic crowd by dan­gling from the ledge of a build­ing, but earns only a blasé shrug from an NYC pa­trol­man, who merely mut­ters (in a mono­tone wor­thy of Lou Reed) about how “kids got no re­spect for the law to­day.” It’s like a cross be­tween “She’s Leav­ing Home” and “A Day in the Life” trans­planted to the streets of Man­hat­tan, and sounds like noth­ing S&G had ever pre­vi­ously at­tempted.

If the rest of the mu­sic on side one of “Bookends” is less jar­ringly au­da­cious,

there are still many touches — the gui­tar played through a Les­lie speaker on “Amer­ica”; the loose, jazzy feel of “Overs”; Jim­mie Haskell’s un­ex­pect­edly jagged or­ches­tral ar­range­ment on “Old Friends” — that demon­strate a mu­si­cal con­scious­ness ex­panded by both hashish (Si­mon in par­tic­u­lar was a big smoker at the time) and “Sgt. Pep­per’s.” Lyri­cally, the songs fea­ture Si­mon’s usual brand of in­tro­spec­tion, though now with a more sub­tly dev­as­tat­ing touch: from the road-trip-as­search-for-self in “Amer­ica,” to the love­less re­la­tion­ship of “Overs,” to the quiet switch­blade flick of the lines “How ter­ri­bly strange to be 70” and “Pre­serve your mem­o­ries / They’re all that’s left you” (from “Old Friends” and “Bookends,” re­spec­tively), the first side of “Bookends” takes no pris­on­ers. The “Voices of Old Peo­ple” in­ter­lude, a heartrend­ing col­lage of kvetches and rec­ol­lec­tions recorded by Gar­funkel at the United Home for Aged He­brews,

Fifty years on, it’s a mes­sage that still res­onates.

fur­ther un­der­lines both pathos of the song-cy­cle. If “Sgt. Pep­per’s” “Be­ing for the Ben­e­fit of Mr. Kite” guar­an­teed a splen­did time for all, well, take it up with the box of­fice, ya sch­muck; no one on the first half of “Bookends” is hav­ing any­thing re­motely re­sem­bling a splen­did time.

As jus­ti­fi­ably proud as he was of side one of “Bookends,” Si­mon had se­vere mis­giv­ings about the flip side, which was mostly made up of stray sin­gles with the record­ings dated as far back as Septem­ber 1966. “‘Bookends’ is re­ally the one side,” he told Rolling Stone in 1972. “With the ex­cep­tion of ‘Mrs. Robin­son,’ which was recorded at the same time as the songs on the ‘Bookends’ side, those other four — they didn’t mean a lot. They weren’t well recorded. They just didn’t have it.”

But even if the five songs on side two don’t nec­es­sar­ily fit the­mat­i­cally with their side one coun­ter­parts, they still work well within the over­all con­text of the al­bum, serv­ing as a lighter (and more rock­ing) coun­ter­weight to the ex­is­ten­tial crises of the “Bookends” song cy­cle, much in the way that “Get­ting Bet­ter” and “Good Morn­ing Good Morn­ing” blew some needed fresh air into the in­cense-choked cham­bers of “Sgt. Pep­per’s.” The Bea­tles con­nec­tions are present in the first three songs as well: “Fakin’ It,” recorded in June ’67, be­gins with a per­cus­sive stomp strik­ingly sim­i­lar to the outro of “Good Morn­ing Good Morn­ing,” while “Punky’s Dilemma” (recorded in Oc­to­ber ’67) and “GMGM” were both in­spired by Kel­logg’s Corn Flakes — and the “I’m a ‘Cit­i­zens for Boy­sen­berry Jam’ fan” line from “Punky’s” stands as one of the most cringe-in­duc­ingly McCart­ney-es­que lyrics to ever drip from Si­mon’s pen. And then, of course, there’s the “koo-koo-ka-choo” in­ter­jec­tion in “Mrs. Robin­son” — a wink and a nod to the Bea­tles’ “I Am the Wal­rus,” a post-“Pep­per” record­ing that had re­cently ap­peared on the flip side of “Hello, Good­bye.”

The last two songs on “Bookends,” “A Hazy Shade of Win­ter” and “At the Zoo,” are the real or­phans of the record, hav­ing been recorded in Septem­ber 1966 and Jan­uary 1967, re­spec­tively. But “Hazy Shade” — the clos­est S&G ever got to garage rock — more than jus­ti­fies its in­clu­sion, with a stomp­ing 12-string riff and with lyrics that pair strik­ingly well with the hu­man un­cer­tain­ties of side one, while “At the Zoo” de­scribes a visit to the Cen­tral Park Zoo in whim­si­cal and trippy terms that wouldn’t have been out of place on “Sgt. Pep­per’s.” “At the Zoo” also ends the record on an un­ex­pected but re­as­sur­ing high note: How­ever bleak the arc of ex­is­tence, how­ever heavy the ques­tions that plague our fit­ful slum­bers, the song re­minds us that it’s the lit­tle joys and amuse­ments that make it all worth­while — and that your mem­o­ries of those os­ten­si­bly triv­ial things just might be as valid and sus­tain­ing as any of the oth­ers you pre­serve. Fifty years on, it’s a mes­sage that still res­onates — just like the rest of “Bookends.”

SO WE BOUGHT A PACK OF CIG­A­RETTES: Si­mon and Gar­funkel circa 1967.

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