Wednesday, February 29, 2012

I Want You (She's So Heavy)

Richard Furnstein: This is a new phase John Lennon song. The jabberwocky of "Glass Onion" and the blurry poetry of "Strawberry Fields Forever" have been replaced by Lennon The Straight Shooter. "Don't Let Me Down" was one of the first Lennon songs to utilize this new approach, and he would take it to new levels of heavy on Plastic Ono Band. "I Want You" is Lennon writing about Yoko Ono in the style of Yoko Ono. There's a direct line from John bleeding his love all over the floor in fourteen words or less in this song and Yoko's bleating and pleading on "Why?" (a single word chant on her Plastic Ono Band) or "Don't Worry, Kyoko" (a startling two words, "Cold Turkey" b-side). Let's get down to the heart of the matter. It's all S.O.S. or "I love you" when the day is done.

Robert Bunter: It's one of the most overused words in my Beatles vocabulary, but this track is primal. John wants his mother's love, and he believes he's finally found it in Yoko and heroin. The various Lennon masks lay discarded on the floor of his squalid Montague Square flat (on loan from Ringo while John gets Tittenhurst painted completely white) - there's the grinning moptop, the Joycean punster, the Dylanesque sophisticate, the acid prophet, the youth culture sloganeer, the political rabblerouser - all tossed haphazardly aside like so many nickels and dimes. Behind all the personas, there's a terrifying snakepit of madness, hurt, anger and need. "She's So Heavy" evokes this with horror-movie organ chords, moog-generated howling wind noises, hypnotic stupor-inducing length and repetitiveness. By the time this thing ends with a sudden silence, the listener feels like they've spent a year trudging through a frozen tundra. The effect is heightened by the clever sequencing of "Here Comes The Sun" as the next track when you flip the record over. George leads us out of the cold and warmly sets the table for the exhilarating rocket ride of Abbey Road's second side. But as we step on the gas and wipe that tear away, we glance at the rear-view mirror and see a screeching, bearded madman in a pure white funeral suit with bloodshot eyes, his extremities starting to go numb from cold snow and worse things. Jesus!

Richard Furnstein: The Nordic howl and the shivers of cold metal entering your arm. It's a medical condition. "P.S. I Love You." John manages to outdo the lunkhead grooves and hairfaced sleaze of the heavy British bands of the day. Ten Years After couldn't even change the oil in John's bluesmachine. Like most of the songs on Abbey Road rest of The Beatles play their part perfectly. Paul almost steals the show with an hyperactive bass part. George is a master of steely tension and liquid drip guitar riffs. Ringo is yet again the master; he even brought along the congas to spice up the party! And the windchill at the end of the song? That's the sound of all of us entering the void that is tomorrow. Snow blind and kept alive through a precious combination of drugs, food, and love. Will there be enough to get us through the next day? God, I hope so.
John wants his mother's love, and he believes he's finally found it in Yoko and heroin. The various Lennon masks lay discarded on the floor of his squalid Montague Square flat.

Robert Bunter: In an interview, Lennon said "When you're drowning, you don't say 'I would be incredibly pleased if someone had the foresight to notice me drowning,' you just scream." It's interesting that the closest metaphor he can devise for his love for Yoko is drowning; she's "driving me mad" because "she's so heavy." This is not the same figure who celebrated the youthful joy of love ("She Loves You"), slowly grew to understand it's more sophisticated shadings and nuances ("If I Fell,") or universalized it as a prime focus of human existence ("The Word," "Tomorrow Never Knows," "All You Need Is Love"). The Lennon of "She's So Heavy" finds love has become a ten ton burden instead of a life preserver. The minimalist lyrics are delivered to two listeners. He tells Yoko "I want you so bad," while declaring to the other Beatles and the rest of the world that "she's so heavy." That's pretty much all he had to say at this point, other than "could you please get me more heroin?" and "I want a divorce. I'm splitting up the group." Pretty grim.

Richard Furnstein: Sure, it's grim, but that's life. "You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead," is mighty grim, too. It's all coming to an end. Lennon wasn't taking the stability of a little woman love for granted. He had seen that it could go away in an instant. A drunk police officer could run over your mother or your wife could be a minute late for the train to India. Humans just have to dodge and sway the obstacles of life and hope they wind up living out their final days in a lovely cottage on the Isle of Wight. Lennon is screaming at us to live and love now. The abrupt ending was the result of John telling Geoff Emerick to "cut it right there." John was playing God, quickly lowering the curtain on the first act of the final play. The Beatles' catalog was full of these moments of happy accidents. They dialed past a performance of King Lear that was broadcast on the BBC, providing gravitas to the absurd death dance of "I Am The Walrus." "Revolution 9" was almost entirely composed of these blink and you miss it moments that define creativity. "Cut it right there" says everything about Lennon's head circa 1969. The song was long enough already. They could have maintained the ritual of the lurching riff forever but they eventually had to snip the tape.

So heavy.

Friday, February 24, 2012

You Like Me Too Much

Richard Furnstein: Beatles history is full of moments when George Harrison was treated as a second class Beatles citizen. His darkness, youth, and support role meant he often had to take a backseat to the raging egos of John and Paul and the finely pressed shirts of George Martin. It's a revelation to listen to George's 1969 demo of "All Things Must Pass" and realize that it didn't make it onto an album. It was mostly an issue of quality and quantity, but I would argue that the alpha males in The Beatles probably discounted much of George's songwriting efforts after a series of early period stinkers. "You Like Me Too Much" is one of the worst offenders: George delivers a bland melody over an aimless backing track. Young George was offering tales of high school love while John and Paul were off at college, writing songs about hash and one night stands. It's a shame. You can almost imagine Ringo heard this song and thought, "Man, even I'd be bummed out to bring this song to these guys."

It's a train wreck from the saloon meanderings of the song's introduction.
Robert Bunter: Yeah. Even if you give him the benefit of the doubt and the hindsight knowledge that he'd go on to much greater things ("Old Brown Shoe"), this is a shambles. The chord changes at the end of the bridge are just insanely bad. John and Paul had the Bacharach-like gift of moving their songs to striking, unusual harmonic modulations, then cleverly bringing the listener back home with a few adept, economical strokes. George gets himself into the same sort of quagmire, but instead of landing gracefully on his feet, he stumbles through the chords that accompany the words "...if you leave me."

Richard Furnstein: It's a train wreck from the saloon meanderings of the song's introduction, but the resolution of the bridge is almost criminal. You can almost hear the fear in George's voice as he reaches that point. I imagine he's giving Paul and Ringo a helpful nod as they suffer their way through their little buddy's worst song. Sure, George would write perhaps the best turnaround in Beatles history in "Here Comes The Sun," but it's going to be hard for him to live that one down.

Robert Bunter: These lyrics are just unforgivably clumsy and lazy. "You like me too much and I like you" makes zero sense. I am literally sitting here trying to understand what this song is about, and I can't do it. He's giving the kiss-off to an over-affectionate girlfriend. He sounds alternately angry ("you haven't got the nerve") and self-deprecating ("which is all that I deserve"). Is he trying to get rid of her or convince her come back? And it's not one of those things where it's all about the ambiguousness of young love. Harrison stinks.

 Richard Furnstein: That's why they called him the Dank Horse!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Doctor Robert

Robert Bunter: One of the "problems" with the Beatles catalog is the fact that so much of it was earth-shatteringly great. Every album, every single, almost every song: so many of them became benchmarks of quality, huge hits, famous achievements. Most bands that release a dozen albums have just a handful of major touchstones (if any), so it's fun for fans to dive into the world of the middle-quality albums, the forgotten filler songs, the fourth track on side two. If we were talking about the Stray Cats, it would be songs like "Baby Blue Eyes" or the "Rock Therapy" LP. If you like Ten Years After, it must be fun to dig up things like "Circles" or "Stonedhenge." What about Tom Petty's "Change Of Heart" or Carly Simon's "De Bat" or the Beach Boys "Marcella" or side two of "Tales Of Kidd Funkadelic"? Anyway, the Beatles catalog distorts this whole proportional ratio because the records are loaded with total monster smash hits, which deprives us of this kind of fun discovery. What I'm trying to say is, in my ideal world the Beatles would have released about ten records during the "Revolver" period instead of just one. I wish they could have been frozen in that stage of development (and all the other ones) to really explore the zone, even if the overall impact was diluted. Anyway, if that had happened, I can imagine "Dr. Robert" as one of the B-side tracks from one of the many "Revolver"-era records in this fantasy world. It's great, but not too great. Typical work from this stage in the group's evolution; beautiful. Am I making any sense here?

Richard Furnstein: Strong but fair. Sure, we all want to freeze those Revolver Beatles in time. They still wore suits when Brian Epstein told them to, John still had his baby fat, and they all played on the records. It was a beautiful time. And, sure, "Doctor Robert" would have been a nifty lost track to accompany this little playground of the mind. Well, roll over, Beethoven. The Beatles gave us "Rain" as the b-side of this era. A b-side that was set down on a golden marble pedestal by angelic unicorns in a hailstorm of first kisses. I ain't complaining and I'm not playing God. I'll take it. Give me one "Doctor Robert," barkeep. There's some dust on that bottle but it tastes mighty fine.

Robert Bunter: John's head was spinning and his pupils were dilated, so he wrote this funky ode to a mythical, drug-dispensing Dr. Feelgood. It's got a creepy feeling to it. The angelic "Well well well / you're feeling fine" chant has a vague undertone of menace. The lyrics are cryptical riddles, delivered in an odd rhythmic meter, with strange chord progressions and shiny guitar tones. At the very end as it fades out, it goes to a chord that didn't happen in any of the earlier choruses. Vintage Lennon. Great stuff, man. Great stuff.

Richard Furnstein: "Doctor Robert" is another case of The Beatles providing a glimpse into their drugged out, finely tailored lives. As John and Paul moved away from love songs, they found greater inspiration in the small moments in lives and the odd characters that filled their protected lives. Doctor Robert was just another of these faceless humans, paper cut-outs of humans that entered into their lonely orbits. The shadows dominate much of their songs from this period and later. Eleanor Rigby is a lonely old maid, a symbol of their yearning for understanding. The "bird" from "Norwegian Wood" is so vividly sketched that you can imagine the long brown hairs danging from her hairbrush at the end of the bath. Bungalow Bill has a hell of a smile. You get the picture, or maybe you don't (and isn't that the point?). The Beatles had to make sense of these lesser humans that entered their lives. You always got the sense that Paul thrived on his sketches of humanity ("Another Day" is one of the greatest examples of his "oh life" songs) and John dipped his toes into the waters a bit before going full oninto self exploration. "Doctor Robert" is the ultimate soulless character from their songs. He's a side effect of celebrity, the kind of unseemly and sinister character that The Rolling Stones loved to throw into songs. The good doctor is the late night visitor after an evening of the nightclubbing in A Hard Day's Night. "This will calm your heart, Johnny. You have to get on a plane in the morning!"
The John-Figure stares out at us from the black vinyl grooves with bared teeth and uncomfortable eyes.

Robert Bunter: You've got a point there. As we've done so many times before, it's useful to imagine the impact this track had on the impressionable young listener. Whether it was a callow young lad who looked up to the cheeky moptops as life inspirations or a young tinybopper who wanted Ringo to ask her to the sub-junior ring dance, they were surely shocked when the bouncy love songs of yesterday (!) gave way to Revolver's creepy character portraits, incomprehensible acid invocations and complaints about her majesty's marginal tax rates on top income brackets. John's lyrics on "Dr. Robert" are delivered like the sales pitch of some shady character in an alley, holding open one side of his oversized trenchcoat to reveal a selection of illicit wares attached to the inner lining. "Pssst, hey kid, c'mere. Try this." John would return to this mode with the terrifying carnival barker of "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite," the belligerent interrogator of "I Am The Walrus, "Hey Bulldog," "Glass Onion," and the leering pervert of "Happiness Is A Warm Gun."  When John wasn't analyzing his own tortured psyche, he seemed to get a kick out of directly addressing you, the listener, with unsettling, one-sided conversations. Even when he tried to play the Paul role (third-person narratives about colorful characters), he couldn't seem to help himself from wallowing in the imbalanced power dynamic between artist and consumer. The John-Figure stares out at us from the black vinyl grooves with bared teeth and uncomfortable eyes.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Act Naturally

Richard Furnstein: They are going to put who in the movies? Well, you, of course. The you in question is Richard Starkey, or, as his IMDB page indicates, "Ringo Starr." Ringo received big points for his acting turn in A Hard Day's Night (kicking cans, wearing a low slung hat, and generally appearing less stoned than the other Beatles) and turned this appearance into a healthy little side gig. He's appeared in movies that you never want to see like Candy, Caveman, and Magical Mystery Tour, usually playing the sad eyed weirdo with a thick accent. Don't quit your day job, Richard! Or, at least wait until after you release Goodnight Vienna to quit your day job.

Robert Bunter:
It’s true! Ringo, who spent his childhood dreaming of coming to America to be a cowboy, had a country and western heart. He sings this Buck Owens shuffler with genuine gusto, and of course the whole thing is a wonderful tribute to his innate aw-shucks image as the hapless goofball who stumbled onto the world stage with only one real talent: the ability to be himself. His wonderful, charming self. It’s no wonder Ringo made by far the biggest splash when the group stepped off that 1964 Pan Am jet and into the world’s collective heart. It wasn’t just the funny name or the non-threatening androgynous little boy charm that girls could have a crush on without stirring unconscious fears about the bruising realities of adult physical relations (a role that would be subsequently played by the Monkees' appalling Cockney subhuman Tinkertoy automaton Davy Jones). He was the one who was easiest to relate to. He probably looked at the other three with the same sense of awe as the rest of us, but there he is onstage with them! They’re “mates.” “Maybe there is hope for me,” is what everybody said to themselves as they watched this homely lad pound the Ludwigs and smile like a five-year-old with a new wagon.

Richard Furnstein: You are one hundred percent correct and I'm shocked that it's taken us a year and change to truly discuss what makes Ringo inherently great. Sure, he held his sticks wrong and he famously couldn't nail the beat on "Back In The U.S.S.R.," but Ringo is the glue-stuff of life. I wouldn't cross the street in socks to sniff Pete Best and he was certainly a capable drummer. The Beatles needed a lucky charm, and found this stumbling sweetheart of a man to complete their gang. When Ringo sings "they're gonna put me in the movies," he's not talking about movie executives or a Hollywood agent. He's referencing his unique journey, riding on the crest of genius towards stardom. Ringo is but a man, but chemical compounds in The Beatles would become unstable with anything but Ringo. "What would you do if I sang out of tune?" We'd love you with all of our hearts, dear buddy. Thank you for being you.

“Maybe there is hope for me,” is what everybody said to themselves as they watched this homely lad pound the Ludwigs and smile like a five-year-old with a new wagon.

Robert Bunter: Ringo must have been such a fun guy to hang out with. I love to speculate about how funny he must have been during the first-time-smoking-reefer with Dylan experience, or between takes on the set of "Help!" I can imagine him saying a bunch of hilarious stuff, and John, Paul and George becoming breathless with uncontrollable laughter, the way you laugh at a seemingly dimwitted friend who is always saying unintentionally hilarious things and you almost wonder if he even knows why he is so funny but really of course he completely knows, it's all just part of his wonderful personality that he's willing to play the fool. And then later, the party's over, everybody's gone home, you wake up and realize that he washed the dishes and played with your kid for an hour before school. How did he even get up that early? Good old uncle Ritchie, just hanging around the kitchen and whipping up a batch of his delicious beans and toast, exactly the way Julian likes it, while you're upstairs sleeping off the acid hangover and writing the bridge to "I Am The Walrus" in your unconscious mind. You ought to be ashamed of yourself and your selfish behavior, John Lennon.