My sophomore year at college ended on Thursday, June 1, 1967. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t remember the date, but it’s now a part of history: it was the day The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released. To save you the trouble of counting, that’s half a century ago.
The day was sunny in Hartford. That’s an important detail because I was looking at a three-hour drive back to my hometown of Schenectady, New York, and the car I was driving at the time -- a ‘56 Rambler -- lacked windshield wipers. It also lacked two hubcaps and a working radio, but it was a step up from my previous mode of interstate travel, the Trailways bus.
Right after lunch, I threw my belongings into the trunk – one cardboard suitcase, one G.E. clock radio, one box of vinyl LPs, and a couple of shopping bags stuffed with underwear and socks -- dirty, of course.
Daringly, I took the highway -- Mass Pike and then a bit of the New York Thruway. The Rambler’s engine had some compression issues and could barely give me 60 MPH on a flat straightaway.
But Beatles obsessive that I was, I wanted to be sure I got home in time to buy the album.
Stores in those days closed at five. Around mid-afternoon, I pulled into the driveway of my mother’s house, the house I had grown up in. She was an elementary schoolteacher and was still at work.
I didn’t even go into the house. I just threw my stuff on the front porch, jumped back in the car, and headed downtown to Schenectady’s lone record store, Apex Music Korner. Technically, there was one other store that sold some records, but it mainly featured musical accessories like metronomes and piano lamps, and even a few boxy “hi-fi” consoles that came in shiny wood grain finishes.
Apex was the one true place for records – the store my friends and I had all been going to since we were old enough to venture downtown by ourselves. It was a funky mom-and-pop operation, with rows of hand-lettered record bins. It had a large jazz section, and there was always a little group of older African American men in hats who gathered around those jazz bins, joking and smoking cigarettes.
The store was on the city’s main thoroughfare, State Street. Parking was tricky. You had to find a spot on a side street and hike a couple of blocks or so. The spot I found on this particular afternoon was a little farther away from the store than I would have liked. Not normally a brisk walker, I walked briskly. What if they ran out? Any new Beatles album was an event – comparable, let us say, to the unveiling of a new iPhone – but this album in particular had been talked about for months. Some radio stations in recent days had even been furtively playing bootlegged excerpts that sounded like they had been recorded off a long-distance telephone line.
When I got to State Street, I remember being mildly surprised by the number of people on the sidewalk. But this was an area with a lot of stores and restaurants, so I didn’t think much about it. I made my way through the crowd and went into the store, already reaching for my wallet.
Apex’s proprietor was an amiable middle-aged guy whom my friends and I had always called Charlie, although I’m not sure that was actually his name. In high school we had been pretty good customers, stopping in at least once a week. I’m sure we bugged Charlie at times -- he had a couple of glass-door listening booths, for instance, and we tended to tie those up for long stretches.
But we bought stuff, too – mostly albums -- but also 45 RPM singles, which, if memory serves, sold for 79 cents.
Charlie was behind the counter. I said I had come to pick up Sgt. Pepper. He shook his head in an unmistakable “you poor dumb jerk” kind of way. Pointing out to the sidewalk, he said, “What the heck do you think all these people are here for?”
For the first time, it dawned on me that the crowd outside was there because of the album. These people were waiting for it to arrive. There were at least a hundred of them by now.
“The truck is supposed to be here any minute,” Charlie said.
There was nothing to do but wander back outside and join the crowd. It was mostly kids, but there was also a decent smattering of adults of varying ages. Everybody was in a good mood. There was a whiff of a certain pleasantly sweet aroma in the air, an aroma familiar to most college students of that era. There was a little spontaneous singing: Beatles tunes.
Fifteen or 20 minutes went by. The crowd grew. The good mood continued.
By and by, over on the other side of the street, an unmarked silver-sided delivery truck pulled over to the curb, right across from the store. A couple of people in the crowd somehow discerned that this was the truck we were waiting for, and ran over to it. The rest of the crowd followed, stopping State St. traffic in both directions. The driver, not smiling, hopped out of the cab and went around back. He stacked four or five large cartons onto his hand truck and wheeled them across the street and into the store. The crowd was cheering and serenading him. The guy looked dazed.
Inside, Charlie ripped open the first box. The crowd politely lined up. One of the first customers took his freshly purchased album into one of the listening booths, and started playing it at top volume with the door open. “It was 20 years ago today…..!” A couple of the black guys in hats came over and got in line.
There was no pushing or jostling – it was clear there would be enough copies for everyone. Charlie’s old-fashioned cash register kept ringing, almost rhythmically, one sale after another.
And here’s the really interesting thing: people would buy their album and then not leave. Some stayed inside the store, most went back out onto the sidewalk. But almost nobody left. There was plentiful discussion of the album cover, which none of us had ever seen before. Who were all those people? Is that Dylan? And over there, I think that might be what’s his name, Johnny something, the guy who played Tarzan.
It was like everybody just wanted to prolong the moment.
What we couldn’t know was that the good mood, not just on that late afternoon on a street in Schenectady, but everywhere, across the country, would be over soon enough. The murders of MLK and RFK, the nightmare of the Chicago Convention and the election of Nixon and the escalation of the war – these and other horrors were right around the corner.
But for that little while, we stayed.
We were happy, it seemed, just to be in each other’s company. And above all, happy to be partaking of that oddly intense pleasure – no longer possible, it appears -- that comes when we’re all listening to the same music.