At some point in Sgt. Peppercorn’s Marathon, an annual event during which Joe Peppercorn and a small army of Columbus musicians perform the entirety of the Beatles catalog from start to finish, Peppercorn will sing the dreamy, John-Lennon penned “Across the Universe.”
And, yes, in that moment, Peppercorn will be onstage at the Athenaeum Theatre, delivering the song to a capacity crowd. But he will also be in a Grandview Heights basement a couple of months back, rehearsing the track with a few musician friends. And he will also be in 2011, singing the song to his then-infant daughter as she sleeps in his arms. And he will be back in Upper Arlington, 17 years old and fumbling his way through as he first learns the song on guitar, the music serving as a necessary anchor at a point in time when his life felt very much at risk.
“So, in that moment, there are all of these stages of this,” Peppercorn said over coffee at the Clintonville Cup O' Joe in mid-December. “And then it goes back to when I’m 10 years old and I first heard the song on Let It Be, when it was the only album my parents had. And it becomes all of these moments in one moment.”
Part of the magic of Sgt. Peppercorn’s Marathon, now in its 14th year and set to take place at the Athenaeum on Saturday, Dec. 30, is that these same kinds of transportive connections could be taking place at any given moment within every person in attendance.
After last year’s show, for instance, an older woman approached Peppercorn, sharing that she had her son’s ashes in the necklace she wore to the concert. In past years, she said, her son had taken her to the show, and this year she wanted to bring him. As Peppercorn relays the story, it's easy to imagine that there were points in the concert when this woman was able to close her eyes and her son was again standing there by her side, even if only for a brief moment.
“Who knows? But that’s a gift to not just create something that has those moments but to be a part of it,” Peppercorn said. “The show is mine, but it also belongs to everyone. I started it, but now it has its own life.”
The first Beatles Marathon, as it eventually became known prior to a name change rooted in copyright concerns, emerged during a period of deep grief, when Peppercorn mourned the death of beloved Columbus radio DJ John Andrew “Andyman” Davis, who died in July 2010. Peppercorn and Andyman shared a deep affinity for the Beatles, and Peppercorn recalled how Andyman would regale him with stories about the one time he interviewed Paul McCartney, and the night Andyman joined Peppercorn to play through Abbey Road together while “fairly inebriated” at a Christmas party.
These memories weighed heavy the first time Peppercorn, on a lark, decided he would attempt to play his way through the entirety of the Beatles catalog, staging the attempt at what was then known as Andyman’s Tree Bar – a room in which the two had spent countless hours together.
“And there weren’t that many people, but for everybody there, he was somebody who had been in their lives,” Peppercorn said. “And so, this spirit was hanging over it. And it didn’t make his sudden death make any more sense, and it didn’t make everything okay, but it gave us a certain sense of peace. There was something about it that was healing, where it was like, alright, it’s not okay but it’s okay.”
In the years since, the marathon has continued to serve a similar purpose for Peppercorn, buoying him amid the challenges and pains that can arise in the course of a life, including the 2015 death of friend Brett Helling, and again this year when a pair of tragedies struck over the last few months. First, Giuseppe Mangano, the chef and co-owner of Giuseppe’s Ritrovo in Bexley, where Peppercorn works as the bar manager, was in a car accident and subsequently suffered a stroke. Then Peppercorn’s Grandview Heights neighbor, Stephen Albright, died of head injuries suffered in an attack.
“I thought by now I would have stopped doing this, but I think I need it now more than ever,” said Peppercorn, who has written great, enduring songs both with the Whiles and as a solo artist, and for a time struggled with being known around town as “that covers guy,” an idea with which he has since made peace. “I can write songs, but there’s something about this music that is so therapeutic, and that takes people with backgrounds as different as Sam Brown, Chris Bolognese, Jesse Cooper and Sam Corlett, and all of these different musicians that play in the band and that I’ve crossed paths with over the years, and we can all come together and have these moments with these songs where all of our lives, for a moment, make sense to us.”
Peppercorn traced this deeply held connection to the Beatles music to his formative years, sharing how he was bullied in school and struggled with thoughts that he “didn’t want to exist anymore,” as he explained it. In those times, these songs served as a life raft, of sorts, allowing him to hang on just a little bit longer. “The music made me feel like, no, there’s meaning and there’s hope and there’s purpose,” Peppercorn said. “Even if the music doesn’t heal things, it’s like it can hold things together for you for however long, where if you just listen to this and play this, eventually things will start to make sense again.”
Recently, Peppercorn recounted these memories in exhaustive detail during nearly 20 hours of interviews with a film crew currently making a documentary about the marathon. “I’m excited there’s going to be something that documents this, so that when I can’t do the show anymore, there’ll be this thing that said, ‘This happened,’” Peppercorn said.
Aside from the film crew, this year’s show will include another wrinkle: The marathon debut of the “last” Beatles song, “Now and Then.” First recorded as a home demo by John Lennon in the late 1970s but left unfinished, the song has since been completed by surviving bandmates McCartney and Ringo Starr, incorporating guitar tracks that the late George Harrison recorded during sessions in 1995.
Collectively, the creation of a documentary and the chance to finally perform that last Beatles song presented Peppercorn with what could have been, at least from the outside, an ideal ending point for the marathon – a real George Costanza, leaving on a high note opportunity. But even before setting foot on the stage to kick off this year’s event, Peppercorn said he can already feel the tug of the music pulling him back for another go-round.
“It’s hard to walk away, and when [the show] ends, you have that moment, like, man, I just want to have that Sunday afternoon in rehearsal playing Rubber Soul again,” Peppercorn said. “I came up with a stupid idea, and then my friends stepped in and turned it into this full expression of… everything. I don’t know. It’s entirely about the Beatles music, and it’s also not. It’s entirely about us, and it’s also entirely not. It really is about community and connection and how music allows this connection. And obviously all art can do that, but for me music does something that nothing else can. It’s pure magic.”