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.

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