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Wallace Berman and Sgt. Pepper
Thursday, June 2, 2022
Oddly enough, I don’t own the “Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” album. Yet, without a doubt, it is one album that made a significant change in my life. Around March of 1967, my father received a large envelope addressed from London. He wasn’t home at the time, but I made telephone contact with Wallace, letting him know that he got a mail from the United Kingdom. Over the phone, he asked me to open the envelope to let him know what was inside the mail. What came out was a black and white photograph, and a letter addressed to Wallace. It was a very formal business letter, and it came from Brian Epstein, who I knew at the time was the manager of The Beatles. There was no specific information in the letter, but I just asked my father to sign it and then mail it back. It also made a comment about receiving money as well, but it was in pounds, and being 11 or 12 years old at the time, it didn’t make sense to me. Neither did the photograph that came with the letter. My first impression was an image of a funeral, with all the people at the ceremony facing the camera. The image was in black and white, and the picture had a flatness like nothing stood out except the whole concept itself. Thinking back on it now, it reminds me of a Kabuki stage.
I have been to Kabuki at least twice, and what impressed me was that the lighting and staging of the narrative didn’t make any of the actors stand out from the rest of the production or even the sets. Everything fit perfectly and was in unison with the narrative, the acting, the lighting, and the sets. All of it was equivalent to each other, and none stood out. Rarely have I seen something like that on a stage or even in a picture. So thinking back and looking at this black and white image, I couldn’t focus on one thing. I had to take the whole picture in front of me, and it demanded my attention from the very first glance. Especially when my dad asked me what the picture was. I told him that I wasn't sure what it was. We then talked about something else, but my thoughts and eyes were on the image in front of me, barely paying attention to the conversation. Suddenly, I realized that at least four of the guys in the photograph were The Beatles. I didn't recognize them right away due to their outfits, which were turn-of-the-century marching costuming. Plus, they all had facial hair, and John Lennon was wearing spectacles. Due to the Internet and instant news we have now, it isn't easy to believe, but in 1967, the information and images came around slower. The last time I saw a picture of the fab four was them dressed in "Revolver" era clothing. They still looked like The Beatles during that time, but here in this picture, they looked like different men to me. The photograph didn't yell out the fab four to me, and at that age, I was a massive fan of The Beatles.
The next big shocker for me was finally seeing the image of my dad in this photograph. Whatever our conversation was at that moment, I interrupted him and told him that there was an image of him in this photo, and it was with The Beatles. Wallace wasn’t surprised or even curious; he just wanted to continue with our conversation. Eventually, he told me to put the letter and photo on the table, and he’ll look at them when he got home. When he did come home, he did look at it and realize that Epstein was asking permission to use his image for the upcoming Beatles album. If memory serves me, there was no mention of the album being named “Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in the letter, although indicated in the photograph. Due to the black and white image, I had a hard time seeing the word “Beatles” in a floral arrangement on the ground.
Wallace put off signing the document and sending it due to not wanting to do it, but he just had other concerns on his mind. Epstein sent him at least two additional letters, and I believe a telegram, begging him to sign off on the photo. Wallace did and sent it off, and that was it. He received the minimal payment - something like $5, and we didn’t receive a copy of the album. Which was perfectly OK because Wallace didn’t think much about it at the time, and to be honest, he never brought it up afterward it was released to the world.
What is interesting to me is how much of that cover is around and on objects, such as key chains, posters, t-shirts, etc. Of course, whenever I look at the picture, I think of my dad right away. Also, as I look around to see the black and white image on the cover, I think of the connection with all the other individuals in that photograph. For instance, Wallace knew the artist Larry Bell and was among the first people to publish William S. Burroughs’ excerpt of “Naked Lunch” in his journal “Semina.” His father, who passed away when Wallace was very young, left him only two objects. They were books; one was a short story collection by Oscar Wilde, and the other book was T.E. Lawrence’s (Lawrence of Arabia) “Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” My grandmother Martha (my mom’s mother) used to work with cowboy actor and star Tom Mix at the 101 Ranch as a dancer, and Wallace met Terry Southern sometime in the early 1960s and was a friend of Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, who gets a mention on the Pepper cover as well. Wallace also had a brief meeting with Bob Dylan and Lenny Bruce.
Again, it is odd that I don’t own the album or the cover, except I do have the black and white image of the body, with a different face or two - but what’s even stranger to me is that I share a photograph with perhaps millions of people. They looked at my father’s face, but it probably didn’t mean anything. For me, it’s a bittersweet moment where my dad shared space with my favorite band at the time.
For those who are interested, you can purchase “June 1, 2014, on Ebay. “the synaesthesia press is proud to announce the publication of June 1, 2014, a hand-made, limited-edition chapbook by Tosh Berman. Published March of 2015, in an edition of 300 copies. Here: