Monday, March 19, 2012

Dear Prudence

Robert Bunter: "Dear Prudence" is the Lennon songwriting persona at his most loveable. He's not bewildering, demented, or sardonic, or violent, or self-important (he'll give us a dose of all that soon enough on the White Album's next track, "Glass Onion"). The ultimate central message of the Beatles to Earth (awaken from the slumber of ego and everyday life to the universal spirit of peace and love that fills and surrounds us all) is delivered in simple human terms. No grand pronouncements or political slogans; just the infectious joy of a young child asking his female friend to come and play outside. The whole thing is so lovely that I can feel my heart swelling up now as I write this. Songs like this are why so many people feel an almost religious sense of awe about the Beatles in general and Lennon in particular. It's perfect because it embodies the always-valid artistic adage "Show, don't tell." Even without the lyrics, the gorgeous melody evokes sunsets, ocean waves, swirling galaxies, smiling babies, infinite skies and capital-L Love. I'll tell you what, if I was Prudence Farrow I would have crawled right the hell out of that goddamn meditation chalet and gone outside to play with my friend John Lennon. Oh look, there's Ringo! Let's all have some rice. My heart is exploding.

Richard Furnstein: Bingo. Childhood memories would guide many of John's most successful and endearing songs, but "Dear Prudence" brings John's childlike view of the world (read: emotionally stunted and extremely stoned) to adult human relationships. And it doesn't get any more adult than a spiritual vacation in India with Mike Love, Mia Farrow's dumpy sister, helicopter rides with the Maharishi, and (presumably) sexual escapades in the jasmine and sandlewood mist. So, while John pleas for Prudence to "Come out and play" seem sweet, keep in mind that the landscape was terrifying (elephants) and John was probably trying to push some blue windowpane on the poor girl. "I'd love to turn you on," he once told the world. "Dear Prudence" seems to be a mission statement to turn on one person at a time. It's hard to deny John this time, this song is surely one of his greatest.

Robert Bunter: I see what you mean, Richard. There are lots of adult complexities here. After all, joyful children don't write brilliant melancholy pop anthems to express themselves, they just run around and smile. We're listening to a grown man, perhaps mourning what is lost by attempting to recapture it. Lennon later admitted that he was almost suicidally depressed during the seemingly happy and mellow Rishikesh retreat. By so beautifully evoking the ecstasy of childhood, John leaves an overwhelming impression of sadness. I think this may be one of the saddest songs the Beatles ever wrote (up there with "You Never Give Me Your Money," "For No One," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "A Day In The Life" and "Junk," if we're counting outtakes). I'm eager to start discussing the musical brilliance of this track, but as I listen repeatedly, I keep filling up with tears. I remember my black and gold bicycle, the creek at the corner of Elm Creek and Ewing, a pretty girl who just moved into town, a pocketful of promises. Facebook just showed me photos of her son's third birthday party. How the hell am I supposed to write about bass lines and tom-tom fills? Jesus Christ. I'm crying.

Richard Furnstein: I'm right there with you. The lyric "The clouds will be a daisy chain so let me see you smile again" suggest the clear air and direction of a child's summer morning. John knocks us over the head with that lyric and then the angelic voices of George and Paul lift the trees and poppy from the Easter fields, suspending the season's bliss in a perfectly blue sky. No wonder you are feeling the feminine drops on your face, my dear friend.

I'll say this: the arrangement on this song is perhaps the greatest in the entire Beatles catalog. John holds steady with his delicate appregi, a figure that would haunt later compositions "Look At Me" and "Out The Blue." George is all quicksilver beauty on the lead guitar. And Paul? Well, Paul's bassline is perfect in every way and he delivers my single favorite drum part on any Beatles song. I'm sorry, Ringo. I will always love you, but I'm sure the Heinz and toast felt heavy in your stomach when you heard Paul's prizefighting rope-a-dope from 2:50 to 3:32. That's 42 seconds of complete destruction on Ringo's drum kit! I've played that part back a million times in my life and I'll never understand how he did that. It's one killer roll and then a triumphant pulse past the finish line, into the collapsing leaves of the willow tree in your mind.

John knocks us over the head with that lyric and then the angelic voices of George and Paul lift the trees and poppy from the Easter fields, suspending the season's bliss in a perfectly blue sky.
Robert Bunter: Ha! That really hits home. I'm just going to toss out a few insights here and hopefully curb my impulse to rhapsodize about this amazing song for hours on end. Okay: that fingerpicking pattern was taught to John in India by Donovan. Here's how that little episode went down:

Donovan is lightly tickling a clumsy melody by the banks of the Ganges. "Wot's that, then, Don?" "Well, Johnny, they call it 'fingerpicking.' You just take yer plectrum and throw it away! The fingers do the work. Put your thumb here, then do a little diddle-de-de with your other two phalanges, ey wot? There, that's the trick, isn't it? Now you've got the hang. Isn't this a beautiful day?" And then John was like, "Thanks, Donovan. You'll have to excuse me, I'm going to go write "Julia" and "Dear Prudence" and "Look At Me." It's a shame about your lack of talent; so utterly inferior. What's that tune you were working on? The one about pooping in space?" And then Paul was like, "Fingerpicking, huh? Listen to this!" and he plays "Blackbird." The score? Beatles infinity, Donovan zero. Sorry. I guess you should have kept the secret of fingerpicking to yourself, you scurvy Scottish freak.

Okay, a few more quick things: the background vocals don't even sound like the Beatles. Listen to those "round round rounds" and "ahhhhhs" on the bridge. It's creepy, they sound like weird old men. Next: this song has the best slow burn of any Beatles track, and that includes "Hey Jude." It starts out like delicate sun-pillows but in the space of three and a half minutes it transforms into a total headbanger, then gently touches down right where it started, just like "Back In The USSR" before it. Finally, I'd just like to add that I'm plagued by doubts and terrified of the future.

Richard Furnstein: We'll get through this together, pal. I just wanted to add that this may be the best production on any Beatles song. Sure, George Martin treated the mustache and epaulettes era with more care and gadgetry, but I really love the full and direct approach on "Prudence." The White Album was intended to be rough and ready, but "Dear Prudence" seems like a different type of beast. The song's beautiful production matches the sunlit and freckled faces that pepper its lyric. I'm not sure if The White Album ever quite matches this perfect combination of song, performance, and recording. And, you know what? That's alright with me.

Robert Bunter: [silence]

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