Estimated reading time — 17 minutes
This is a story that goes back to my time in college at the University of Oregon, back in the 1980s. Eugene then was the quintessential college town and well known as a refuge for the surviving hippy culture of the 1960s. The counter culture is part of the city’s charm and you would see it at local music festivals, farmer’s markets, in public art, and at certain establishments that catered to the hippy crowd. It was at a flea market of tent vendors one autumnal Saturday afternoon that my friends and I happened to meet a man selling vintage books and records from the back of an old Dodge cargo van. It was a day that would change my best friend’s life forever.
We had been walking along, comfortable with wool sweaters and pullovers in the cool, broken-cloudy day checking out tie-dye shirts, beads, leather craft, and other such typical wares as one would find at these markets when Neil tugged my shirt in the direction of that old, rusted root beer colored van with the back doors opened to a tarp. Neil came to UO from Long Beach, California, where he was a pirate radio operator, and he worked at a local record store called the Record Orchard. He was very much into record collecting and something had caught his eye to draw us over to the van.
He stepped up into the van and turned to the thin, old man with the long gray hair and beard sitting on a lawn chair outside, rolling a cigarette of natural tobacco (or so we thought). “Is that a copy of the first Black Sabbath record,” Neil asked.
The man finished rolling his cigarette and sealed it with his long, purple tongue, which caused Sheila and Rene to look away, then lit a match and took a long drag off the cigarette. I thought I detected a whiff of marijuana when he exhaled. He pulled the album down from a hook on the side of the van and opened the gatefold cover to reveal an inverted cross, then pulled out the record and showed it Neil. “It’s got the full bass intro from Geezer,” he said grinning through his smoke-stained teeth and narrow lips. “Sell it to ya for thirty bucks.”
That was a lot of money at the time. Neil let his swap meet skills take over. “Twenty,” he said.
“Twenty five.” He sounded like Quint from the movie Jaws. The hippy sucked another drag from his cigarette, knowing it was a done deal. Neil wanted that record.
“Look around and see if there’s anything else you like. I’ve got more than what you see here, too.”
The girls decided to browse onward through the caravans of merchants, but Neil and I spent awhile flipping through the records. Occasionally, he would nudge me to take notice of a record like the original cover of the soundtrack to Hair or Jimi Hendrix’s album Mood. Neil was enthralled, though I was getting a little bored. Then he asked about bootlegs.
“I don’t sell bootlegs out of the van anymore, because I got busted by the cops for it once,” the hippy said. “…But I’ve got a bunch of boots at my house. If you’re serious, you can check them out.”
Neil quizzed him about such rare bootleg albums as Pink Floyd’s “The Film” and Black Sabbath’s “Love In Chicago.” The man introduced himself as Reggie and said, “I have those. Why don’t you come by next Sunday at noon? I’ll be bottling a batch of home brew, so I’ll be home all day.” He sketched out a map to his house on the banks of the McKenzie River outside of town and Neil was ecstatic.
I hoped in vain that Neil would forget this date over the course of a week of school and work at the Record Orchard, but by Friday when we got together with Sheila and Rene again at a frat party, it was all he could talk about, so we all decided to go. Sheila and Rene were both sorority girls. Neither was a girlfriend, though Sheila and I had made out a couple of times. She was actually from a broken, working class family in Medford and I could tell she hoped to climb the status ladder in college and marry rich. She didn’t quite make the cheerleading squad, though it wasn’t for her looks. I knew I never stood a real chance with her, but she was grateful for the help I gave her with math. Rene was the daughter of a successful lawyer in Los Angeles. For her, the UO was an opportunity to get away from home and an elite upbringing in Rancho Palos Verdes. She turned down Stanford and USC to be there. Neil was very much a blue collar kid who grew up on the wrong side of the shipyard. That LA connection created a bond with Rene. For whatever reason, we all formed an odd yet iron-tied foursome of friends. We didn’t want to let Neil go alone to the weird hippy’s house.
When Sunday came around and we all climbed in Rene’s older, hand-me-down Mercedes to go to Reggie’s house, it turned out to be a surprisingly nice day. It was the kind of day in Oregon in October that you didn’t want to waste. Reggie’s house was actually an older, double-wide mobile home sitting on an acre of land next to the McKenzie River. Turning off the main road we passed through a small filbert orchard and then a well-kept garden with one last harvest full of squash, corn, tomatoes, and other vegetables. There was a large barn, a milk cow grazing on the land, and a pump house by the river. Not what I expected.
Reggie greeted us and invited us inside for a glass of his home brew, which was quite good. I must say, I was the first to abandon all prejudice about the aging hippy when I saw the diploma on the wall. “I graduated with honors in chemistry from Berkeley in 1967,” he said proudly when he saw me admiring his credential. “I got my masters in organic chemistry at UCLA in 1969.” He pointed to other framed credentials on the wall.
Then Reggie led us to another room in the smallish trailer house which was built out floor-to-ceiling with heavy wood shelves to store records. He began to show Neil several rare albums in which he thought he might be interested, before leading the rest of us to the back patio along the river bank where there was a barrel full of ice and home made beer. The mood definitely relaxed as we all started to enjoy some drinking and Reggie brought out some grass he had grown on his property. Rene wasn’t a smoker and neither was I really, but Sheila enjoyed the favors and we all sampled a little bit. Reggie revealed himself to be a very intelligent man. At times he would throw a glance at me, almost like a poison dart, to say you can’t judge a book by its cover. Not in Eugene, that’s for sure.
We were feeling pretty good, laughing and listening to some amazing reel-to-reel recordings that Reggie had of bands like The Who, Episode Six, and The Animals when Neil came running out onto the patio. “You have a copy of The Beatles’ “The Butcher” album!”
The Beatles’ “butcher” album was the original cover of the 1967 record, Yesterday and Today. It features the four Beatles members in white, butcher coats covered in blood and fresh meat, with the dismembered parts of baby dolls. It was changed shortly after its release following a public outcry over the imagery.
Suddenly, Reggie’s airy and jovial mood changed. “Yes and no.”
“Copies in this condition go for like ten thousand bucks,” exclaimed Neil.
Reggie’s face turned cold. “This copy,” he said, “Is worth a lot more than that.”
Neil’s record connoisseur self came out and began to argue. “Well, it’s not perfect, you can see some sun damage to the cover and…”
“That does not matter,” said Reggie sternly. “Some people would pay much, much more than that for that album. …But it’s not mine to sell, man.” He tipped up one of the bottles of home brew and took a long drink, then let out a long sigh.
“It’s a great record to have in your collection,” argued Neil, “But it’s not that rare…”
“Look very, very closely at the cover.” Reggie took the album out of the protective plastic sleeve in which it was sheathed and then pulled an 8×10 color photo of the cover out of the album jacket. “This is the copy most people have of the album. Look very closely, man.” As he became more animated, he starting saying “man” more with a slightly stony drawl, like his youth was coming back.
We all gathered and leaned in to compare the photo to the album cover. “I don’t see any difference,” said Sheila. Neil was starting to see something the rest of us weren’t, but wasn’t sure.
“Look at the eyes of the decapitated doll’s head resting on Paul McCartney’s lap,” said Reggie with a voice dull and heavy, as though he’d breathed the stagnant air of an ancient crypt across his larynx to pronounce the words. “Look at all the extra blood, man.”
We were astonished by the difference and Rene gasped uncomfortably, but still we didn’t know the original album well enough to be too disturbed. Neil was a different story. He was now clearly aware that something was different.
Reggie met our eyes, one at a time. Reggie continued, “This version of ‘the butcher’ album contains a special version of Nowhere Man. …And some would say, some subliminal messages. Look at the dolls’ eyes… They stare right at you, man.”
“Wow,” said Neil, “This is so cool! Can we listen to it?” He motioned toward the old Pioneer tube amplifier and turntable in the living room.
“No, man! No. This album is cursed.” Reggie’s gaze turned and vanished into the branches of splintered sunlight coming through the trees above.
“What do you mean, it’s cursed,” I asked. Then Reggie took the ‘butcher’ album from Neil and laid it face down on a shelf. He lit up a joint and took a long drag, before passing it to Neil to pass around, and he opened another bottle of home brew to take a long drink before continuing.
“The Beatles in 1967 were a very controversial band. …Obviously, man! They were getting banned and harassed by cops, man, and they were getting a lot of extortion for payola in the record business. They had to pay off promoters and politicians to keep from getting busted for drugs when they played different cities, man. They also started to get mixed up with some unsavory characters, like the Process Church and Kenneth Anger and Anton LaVey and dudes like that, man.” He took another long drag off his cigarette, then slowly exhaled into the air. “They got mixed up in some really heavy stuff—bad energy stuff, man.”
Most of this didn’t mean anything to me or Rene, but Sheila was a theater major and I knew Neil had an interest in the occult.
“Anyway,” Reggie continued,” there were all these Satanists and stuff around The Beatles. That’s why they started doing occult symbols on the albums and band photos, man. The story goes that they were approached by some of these witches who said they could place a curse on the album. Of course, The Beatles didn’t want to curse their fans, man. They loved their fans. But the witches said they could put the curse on certain records—promo copies, you dig? That way they would send them to all the record industry dudes that tried to screw ‘em over.”
“I’ve never heard that story before,” I said. Rene was looking a little uncomfortable, so I decided to interrupt the ghost story. “I mean, I know about Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds being about LSD, and I know about the stories about Paul supposedly being killed in a car crash and how some look alike took his place in the band, but I’ve never heard this one before.”
“Not that many people know about it, man.” Reggie was talking more quietly now.
“How do you know about it?” asked Sheila.
“I used to make acid, back in the 60’s. In those days we didn’t really think it was all that bad, and honestly man,” Reggie spoke almost as though in confessional, “I made good, clean acid. There was a lot of bad stuff around, so I thought it was the right thing to do for the revolution to make good acid and help people grow good weed. Anyway, that’s how I got to know people involved in the whole Laurel Canyon, celebrity drug scene. Dudes like Jim Morrison used to ask for my acid by request. It was cool, but there was the dark side to it, too, man. All that Manson Family, Spahn Ranch stuff and the Church of Satan and all that. That’s why I got out of that scene.”
“So did you sell drugs to The Beatles,” I asked.
“No, man, but I knew a lot of people in show business. There was this one dude who was really high up at Capitol Records who told me the story and he knew one of the dudes who got sent a cursed copy and a friend of mine eventually got a hold of it.”
“So you’re saying The Beatles had a group of Satanic witches curse all these albums and then sent them to people they didn’t like?” Neil was quite engrossed in the whole tale, as we all were by this point.
“Paul and George were totally against it, is what I heard,” continued Reggie, “But John and Ringo thought it would be great publicity. They didn’t really believe in Satan or black magic. John was known to be an atheist. They just thought it had the potential to be this big publicity stunt and get away from the clean image of the early records with the matching suits and stuff. I heard they kind of envied more care-free image of The Rolling Stones, who had records like Satanic Majesties Request and Goats Head Soup. John wanted to shock people and make a statement and that was the original idea behind the butcher album cover.”
“So the curse wasn’t real,” Sheila asked. “It was just an alternative cover image with some extra song length?”
“No, the curse itself was real, man. The original butcher cover was altered slightly and John made a remix of Nowhere Man. A bootlegger acquainted with a member of the Satanic coven made six pressings and then a black mass was held to place the curse upon the records. At the ceremony a white cat was sacrificed and its blood went into the vinyl from which those discs were pressed.” Reggie paused to take a drink, but nobody spoke. There was about a minute of silence where we all just looked at each other before he continued. “The story goes that Lennon absolutely freaked when he heard about this, man! He loved cats, man! But he didn’t know any of this at the time and the records were made and they got sent to six people that John wanted bad luck to come to….”
“What happened to those people,” I asked.
“Look, I’ve said enough. You want to make me an offer on any of my records, man?” Reggie looked at Neil. As Neil negotiated with Reggie, the girls and I walked down to the bank of the river to stand in the warm sunshine and watch the currents swirl past. We were surprised how fast the time had flown by, but Reggie had been an entertaining host and we were feeling the effects of his home brew, which had a deceptively high alcohol content. It was agreed that Rene would drive back into town.
We said our goodbyes to Reggie and thanked him for his generosity. Neil had purchased the Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath bootlegs he wanted, and Reggie had thrown in a quart bottle of his home brew. “I’ll be back next week to get Guitar Slaughterhouse,” he said referring to a Deep Purple bootleg he couldn’t afford to purchase that day. As we all climbed back into the car to head home, I turned back toward the porch to waive goodbye and saw The Beatles’ butcher album resting upright on one of the shelves. Even from a distance, the eyes of that bloody, decapitated baby’s head resting in Paul McCartney’s lap seemed to look right into me. I felt a cold chill down my spine. The doll’s head had a menacing, almost angry look.
I didn’t see Neil for two weeks after that. Normally I would run into him on campus a couple of times in a week, even if we didn’t have plans. In fact none of us had seen him, so I stopped by the Record Orchard on what should have been his shift. “Uh, Neil doesn’t work here anymore.”
They wouldn’t tell me anything else, so I went by his apartment. “Hey, what’s up with you Neil? Everybody’s worried.” The inside of his apartment was shocking. Neil wasn’t a neat freak or anything, but you could tell nothing had been picked up. There was a huge pile of empty beer cans in the corner.
“Man, everything’s fucked up,” said Neil. He appeared hung over. “I went into work last Wednesday after my days off and I got fired. They accused me of stealing. I’ve never stole anything in my life… And I’ve worked there for two years, but they wouldn’t listen. I was just fired.”
“Wow,” I said. “That’s heavy. Why haven’t you returned any of your messages? Rene and I have been trying to get a hold of you.”
“I’ve just been… I don’t know, I can’t describe it. Everything has just gone to shit. I failed two of my midterms last week. I just couldn’t study, couldn’t focus, couldn’t remember anything. It’s weird and it’s like people avoid me. I sit down in a lecture hall and nobody will sit within ten feet of me.”
“Well Neil, look at you, you don’t look like you’ve had a shower or changed your cloths for days.”
“No, before that this started happening. And nobody is being nice to me. I go to the grocery store and everyone is rude and staring at me like I’m going to shoplift something.” As Neil told me his story, I myself started to have mixed emotions. On the one hand he was my best friend in college and I felt terrible that all this had happened to him, but on the other hand I found myself particularly annoyed with his whining behavior. He grated on me. He just sat there on the sofa looking like a derelict with his head down and drinking from a bottle of warm, flat malt liquor.
“You’ve got to do me a favor. I’ve got unfinished business with Reggie…”
“I don’t think you should spend fifty bucks on some bootleg record when you’ve just lost your job and are worried about paying the bills,” I told him.
“No, no. It’s not that. I have to return The Beatles record, the butcher album record.”
“You didn’t buy that album!” My level of annoyance with Neil was increasing.
“No, I borrowed it. I… I… I took the disc from the Pink Floyd album and switched it with the record from the butcher album, man!”
“You stole it? Are you nuts!”
“I borrowed it, that’s all. I switched the records when he went inside to get the bottles of his beer, which he gave me because he didn’t have any change. I just wanted to hear it, to tape it; then I would return it when I went back the following weekend. I didn’t mean any harm, but… I think it’s true, it’s real.” Neil was almost in tears now.
“The curse, man! The fucking curse of The Beatles butcher album! How else can I explain everything that’s been happening?!”
“Bad karma perhaps, Neil. Reggie was so nice to us and you took something that didn’t belong to you. How could you be such a moron?” Again I was surprised how little patience or understanding I had, considering how upset Neil was.
“I know, but it’s more than that. It’s fucking cursed, dude. You gotta help me out. You gotta take me out there. My car won’t run. Last week the oil pump went out and the engine burned up.”
“Okay, look. I can’t go all the way out there and bring you back, because I’ve got lab later, but I will return it for you if you will stop drinking, take a shower, and get yourself together! Jesus, you’re pathetic right now!”
Neil agreed to my terms and conditions and I drove out of town, up the McKenzie River to return the record. I wasn’t convinced of the curse of The Beatles’ butcher album, but I did think that a lot of Neil’s hysteria and continuing misfortune was psychological and self-inflicted. One of my concerns was that Reggie might start in again with his tale of Satanic witches and curses. In Neil’s present state, that could make things even worse. Maybe if I returned the record safely and apologized on his behalf, even offered that Neil would come out and do some favor to make up for it, then Reggie would accept the apology and Neil could pull himself together.
Still, I couldn’t get that last image of the butcher album cover out of my mind—that scowling face and evil gaze that the bloody doll’s head had when I last saw it. And I was quite unnerved when driving through Springfield on the way, the record in its sleeve resting next to me on the passenger seat, and I was twice almost involved in a car accident. One of the incidents was a fully loaded logging truck that ran through a red light. My little car would have been crushed had I not seen it in time and swerved to avoid it.
Reggie appeared to be attending to his vegetable garden as I came down the driveway. “What brings you back here, young man?” He met me as I got out of the car. My visit was unexpected, so I was a little nervous about disturbing him.
“Reggie, sir, I came back to apologize on behalf of my friend Neil that he couldn’t make it last weekend as he said he would.”
“Wasn’t worried about it,” said Reggie.
“…And to return something that he intended to return himself. …And to express his sincere apologies that he wished to express himself.” I reached into the car and slipped the record half way out of its black sleeve so Reggie could see it. “He didn’t mean any harm, he’s just a big music fan and record collector and wanted to tape the album, then bring it back. I’m sure he didn’t even think you’d notice and I know Neil always takes care of his vinyl, so you won’t find any fingerprints or scratches on it. …Trust me, I gave him Hell for it, too. It was a stupid thing to do, but he’s sorry.”
Reggie’s face looked like it had turned to stone. “Did he listen to the record?”
“Yes sir, once I think, when he taped it.”
“…And?” Reggie just stood there looking straight at me.
“He’s very sorry, Reggie. You were very hospitable to us all and don’t deserve this. He knows he screwed up.”
“I don’t mean that.”
“Well, he’s had some bad luck lately. Look, you weren’t really serious about all that Satanic spells and curses stuff were you? I mean, he’s really convinced he’s cursed. He just wants you to know he’s sorry and wants to put this all behind him. He’ll even come out and do some work for you around your place here if you want.”
“He is cursed!” The old hippie almost yelled back at me. “Tell Neil I accept his apology, but that’s not going to help him, man. Not only is he cursed, you see, he took something from a stranger without permission.”
“I know, it was terrible thing to do sir.”
“It’s bad energy. Dark energy. That will only make the curse worse.”
“How do you know,” I asked. “How do you know the curse is real and not just some creepy story. I believe you about the 60s and Laurel Canyon and all that, but that doesn’t mean the curse actually works.”
“The curse is real,” gurgled Reggie like a man with acute pneumonia. “The butcher album belongs to a friend of mine. He asked me if I could get him a copy, because he was a huge Beatles freak. I knew the story about the curse and what happened to some people who heard the record, but neither of us totally believed it, man. I might have listened to it, too, but he played it before me and that’s when things went bad for him. His dad’s business was having some financial problems, so he dropped out for a semester to help with the family business. Almost as soon as he did, he got drafted. For whatever reason, the draft board had it out for him, even though he was almost done with college. He got sent to Vietnam, man! He had been a straight A student, could have been a pilot or something, but he got sent to infantry. We wrote for a while. He got shot twice and sent back. He was almost set to go home, but his platoon was overrun and he became a POW. The Army knew he was alive when the war ended, but he got left behind. I don’t know if he’s still alive. That’s why I keep the butcher album.”
“Well, assuming that the curse is real, there must be a way to lift it, right?”
“I don’t know,” sighed Reggie. “The story goes that John Lennon made the list, so when he heard about what happened to the people that the record was sent to he tried to locate them and destroy them. He also tried to lift the curse, because when you call upon dark forces to curse someone unjustly that energy comes back on you, man. It wasn’t just the people on John’s list who heard it and people began having bad luck. When John found out he went to see different mediums and priests about removing the curse, but he never succeeded that I know of.”
Reggie seemed to stare past me. He didn’t seem angry, so much as he was lost in memories he would rather not visit. “Personally, I think that curse had something to do with the end of The Beatles and him being assassinated,” he said quietly. “I approached Yoko Ono one time in New York as she was cheerfully greeting fans and I told her I knew about the cursed butcher albums and a friend of mine needed help. She looked straight into my eye and just said, ‘I’m sorry I can’t help you,’ then immediately got in her limo and left. That was in 1983, man. I know that she knew.
“I do know that John hired somebody who tracked down three of the cursed records and they were destroyed in the 70s. I also heard that one copy belongs to a private collector in London who is aware of the curse and keeps it safely locked away. Rumor has it that collector is Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin, because he was a collector of occult items and bought that haunted mansion in Scotland that belonged to Aleister Crowley. One copy is right here. The other one has never been accounted for. I would destroy it or maybe sell it to a collector who understood it and could keep it safe, but it’s not mine and I don’t know if my friend is still alive over in Nam. I don’t know how that would affect him and anyway, it’s just bad juju, man.”
When we had finished talking Reggie put The Beatles’ “butcher album” away and wished me luck with helping my friend, but made it clear he didn’t want to be bothered by us again. I drove away still hopeful that the story of the curse was just the delusion of a man who had ingested too many mind altering substances in his life. As I drove down the McKenzie Highway back into the city, there weren’t any close calls with car accidents or anything, so I began to feel more at ease. Still the song kept playing over and over in my head and I could practically hear John Lennon singing, “He’s a real nowhere man, sitting in his nowhere land…”
That was over 20 years ago. Sheila, Rene, and I all graduated from college as planned and went on to have successful careers. Sometimes I hear from them on social media, but we never talk about Neil. He flunked out of school and worked odd jobs, but was never able to maintain a steady paycheck. We kept in touch for a while, but his alcoholism just became worse and when I did see him he was always rambling on about the curse. He had truly become “Nowhere Man.” Maybe his curse was only madness, some diathesis for schizophrenia that came from his rough childhood and was triggered by the story of the butcher album. Maybe. To this day, I still feel drawn to used record stores when I travel and I always look for copies of The Beatles’ “butcher album.” Of course, I’ve never found one of the cursed copies, but even when I find the official butcher album, I still feel a cold chill run down my spine as I inspect the cover for extra blood and the piercing, evil eyes of the decapitated doll’s head that rests on Paul McCartney’s lap.
Credit : Ted Hinds
Ted’s Book ‘The Beatles Butcher Album Cover & Other Macabre Tales’ Can be found on Amazon
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