Friday, November 16, 2012

She Came In Through The Bathroom Window

Robert Bunter: Wonderful. Just wonderful! The medley on side two of Abbey Road stands tall as one of the very best things the Beatles ever did, and the fact that “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” is actually one of its second-tier songs just points to what a ridiculously abundant smorgasbord they were serving up at this late stage. This track is a prime-cut slab of vintage organic grass-fed Beatles music meat in every way. Many observers (and the band members themselves) have noted that Abbey Road was conceived as a swan song; one last mind-bending encore before the curtain fell on their otherworldly career. At some level, they knew they didn’t have far to go to the finish line. After the at-times-uninspired Get Back/Let It Be project (which Rolling Stone called a “cardboard tombstone”), the group (especially Paul) wanted to rally the troops for one last home run. As much as I wish history had played out differently, it’s not difficult to see that the prospect of their imminent breakup focused their energies and helped them emerge from the sullen, grouchy torpor that had been enveloping them. I think you can hear that energy on “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” and the Abbey Road medley as a whole.  

Richard Furnstein: Yes, little child. That sound you hear is pure love. The Abbey Road medley was The Beatles flashing their considerable tools one last time. George sounds particularly healthy on this track; his guitar shimmering and gliding with expert precision. Ringo is having tons of fun here: shaking his tambourine as a tribute to hated thronethief Andy White and adding a shattering accent beat in the second verse. Paul delivers this perfect blessing of a song through his genius uterean mind. I'm not sure what John was doing. Does he play that crisp acoustic guitar? Was he just having the junkie shakes in the canteen with Mal Evans? 

Robert Bunter: I think I can hear John on the lovely “Aaaaaah” backing vocals, but that’s not the point. I hear Lennon all over this track in terms of his influence on Paul McCartney. This song has nary a trace of the maudlin sentimentality or cuteness that sometimes mars Paul’s work. His oblique, cryptic story of thieves, strippers and crooked cops seems to emerge from the same crazy town inhabited by the bizarre cast of Lennon characters we just met in “Polythene Pam” and “Mean Mr. Mustard.” The plot of this story never really adds up, but the irresistible, happy-go-lucky momentum of the song evokes a series of car chases, wisecracks and hilarious near-miss escape scenes. The McCartney-figure who appears throughout the Abbey Road medley on tracks like “Bathroom Window” and the second part of “You Never Give Me Your Money” (“out of college / money spent … all the money’s gone”) could be played by Bruce Willis – he’s a rambler, a gambler and a low-down dirty scrambler, sliding through life on a smirk and a dream, but underneath it all there beats a heart of pure gold. The McCartney/Bruce Willis character is counterbalanced by the wistful, philosophical, sincere Paul persona of “Golden Slumbers” and “You Never Give Me Your Money.” Meanwhile, all of the various Paul-figures are counterbalanced and complemented by Lennon’s stoned philosopher (“Because”), creepy deviants (“Mustard,” “Pam”) and gentle tropical hymnody (“Sun King”). At times the medley offers sincere, heartbroken commentary on the rise, fall and dissolution of the Beatles, but these heavy moments are lightened with a typically Beatlesian procession of wacky characters and Everymen. Maybe the girl who came in through the bathroom window is actually the young runaway from “She’s Leaving Home,” a few years older and with some new “tricks” up her sleeve, on the run from a series of parking tickets issued by Lovely Rita. Maybe Mean Mr. Mustard is the same pervert with the mirrored boots from “Happiness Is A Warm Gun.” Are you with me on this, Richard?

There was a real John Lennon who ate food and changed guitar strings, but at the same time there is and will always be a “John Lennon,” endlessly shape-shifting who exists solely in the minds of our brothers and sisters the world over.

Richard Furnstein: You just gave me genuine shivers. I always thought it was the girl from "She's Leaving Home" as well! Returning home to face her parents after her adventures in Eastern thought and increasingly underwhelming sexual intercourse with A Man From The Motor Trade (Bruce?). It's the most unlikely cameo to appear late in this Beatles story. Surely, the lovely Desmond from "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," the flawed entertainer that is Billy Shears, or even the anonymous paperback writer would have been a more popular returning character. Yet, it is that lonely, lost girl that crawls back into this grand picture. "Once there was a way to get back homeward," our narrator (Paul) would later observe. She found her one chance out of the champa degenerate lifestyle that was all surface flash and false promises of freedom ("didn't anybody tell her?"). Is she home to stay? Will the familiar sights and sounds of home comfort her?

Here, fair Robert. Are you with ME on this? The girl, the perverts, and the mawkish Billy Shears were all manifestations of The Beatles psyche. The Beatles themselves were heading homeward with the Abbey Road medley. They were packing up their playthings, these manifestations. However, is it the home of Abbey Road Studios, brotherhood, and further sonic explorations or is it a return to childhood freedoms, reliable marital sex, and comfort foods (Ringo's mythical Heinz beans)? We're still guessing.

Robert Bunter: We’ve really gotten to the bottom of the whole thing. When the Beatles sang about fictional characters, they were really singing about themselves. Yes. But when they sang about themselves (“Yer Blues,” “Fixing A Hole,” “Strawberry Fields Forver,” “Hey Jude”, etc.), weren’t they actually singing about fictional characters in some final sense? After all, who is “John Lennon”? What is “Paul McCartney”? Names on an album sleeve? Pictures on a screen? Beautiful voices etched into vinyl and the world’s communal heartspace? They were (and are) real human men with birthdays, nose hair, foibles and underpants, but they are also collective constructs. There was a real John Lennon who ate food and changed guitar strings, but at the same time there is and will always be a “John Lennon,” endlessly shape-shifting (the smirking moptop in a grey suit suddenly morphs into a bearded walrus with granny glasses or a colorful Yellow Submarine cartoon character) who exists solely in the minds of our brothers and sisters the world over.

Richard Furnstein: Will they someday be nothing more than mythical creatures? Will our children's great grandchildren watch the Ed Sullivan appearance and think "That Paul McCartney sure is doing a great Paul McCartney"? Did The Beatles actually exist before they existed? Etches in a cave or spirits in the cauldron. It's an exciting prospect albeit totally depressing (citation: Julian Lennon's Valotte album). The Beatles were the dopey cartoon versions and they were those flawed mortals--recording useless electronic sounds for side projects, getting shafted by false prophets (The Maharishi, Magic Alex), and, yes, breaking up. It had to be this way. They died for all of our sins.  

Robert Bunter: Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue with that; I'm right and I will be proved right.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

I'm So Tired

Richard Furnstein: The post-witching hour blues. John Lennon contemplates the state of his life after meeting Yoko Ono. It's hard to imagine this was written in an Indian bungalow on a Maharishi Mahesh Yogi retreat. The song's mood is both claustrophobic and familiar; the dwindling cigarette smoke climbs stark bedroom walls and the consistent ticking of the clock seems louder than it has before. This is not the sleepwalker's dreamland of "I'm Only Sleeping." There is no sense of escape in "I'm So Tired," only the pulsing inevitability of the next day.

Robert Bunter: Yeah, I can hear all that, but the melody is so lovely. It's quintessentially Lennonesque - a chord progression that could almost have been written in the '50s, but with just enough trickiness to save it from sounding like American Graffiti or Grease. This was John's default mode - even some of his farthest-out work ("Happiness Is A Warm Gun," "Strawberry Fields Forever") contains a noticeable whiff of doo-wop. True to form, he unleashes his deadly falsetto. I defy you to find me an example of John singing falsetto that doesn't send shivers right down to the bottom of your spine. Yeah, the lyrics are a neurotic junkie's insomniac lament, but this particular neurotic junkie insomniac had a preternatural gift for sweet songs. This is one of my favorite White Album tracks, actually.

The lyrics are a neurotic junkie's insomniac lament, but this particular neurotic junkie insomniac had a preternatural gift for sweet songs.
Richard Furnstein: Great point. Lennon certainly had trouble escaping his roots during his experimental efforts: think of Yoko struggling to escape a plastic bag while John leads a group of mustached session hacks in a Chuck Berry groover. That was his idea of the summit of freak. "I'm So Tired" has no such pretenses, instead it presents the solemn self-reflection and internal paranoia as "the edge." Here was a naked man standing in the rich tamarind forests, attempting to explore the questions in his shattered subconscious. Yet, this great dreamer was left with some pilfered fifties chords and some lonely pining for female comforts and the comforting tug of his ciggies. In a way, "I'm So Tired" is John admitting that the great transcendental experiment couldn't ease his long-standing pain. He's all too aware of the time passing by and the limitations of the late hour. The poor man.

Robert Bunter: Yeah. He was carrying a heavy torch for Yoko during the trip to India (when "Tired" was written), though they hadn't consummated their relationship yet. She was just a sort of weirdo pen-pal who'd been flitting around the periphery of his life for the past year or two. He's over there in India on his mediation trip with his wife Cynthia, but his mind is clearly elsewhere. It's been noted (by John himself, actually) that during the supposedly blissful retreat, he was coughing up songs about suicide and insomnia. He certainly wasn't the first man to get upset over a woman, but his natural gifts allowed him to express his pain in beautiful melodies. We are lucky to have these gifts. Of course, the other three Beatles and George Martin stepped up to the plate and knocked the whole thing out of the park. Ringo's drums come thudding down on your skull with the weight of a thousand sorrows; Paul's macho man backing vocals provide necessary heft to the choruses; George contributes his characteristic stinging lead guitar. The White Album is widely recognized as the point of divergence for the Beatles' personal friendships, but I like to imagine the "Tired" sessions as a heartwarming moment. "Hey, lads, John seems to be feeling a little blue. Let's give him a bit of a lift! Ringo, get yer drooms! George, grab your guitar!" And then George frowns at Paul. "You're not the boss of me," he thinks to himself but doesn't say. He just glowers and sulks while the engineers turn on his amplifier. Hmmmm. I guess you can start to see the cracks in the foundation, after all. It's not pretty, but those are the facts.

Richard Furnstein: Another important fact is that John and Yoko certainly consummated their relationship by the time of the "I'm So Tired" recording sessions. All of the sexual tension and emotional insecurities of John's delicate India composition have been replaced by the bulbous emotions that come along with the physical act of love with a mysterious Japanese conceptual artist. Listen to the sweet late night restraint that haunts Lennon's vocal performance on this one. Heck, look at the collage poster that came with the White Album. It includes a photo of a naked John Lennon talking on the phone (presumably to Mal Evans). Yoko is sleeping by his side. John looks particularly well rested (ahem). The poster also includes several sleepy photos of Paul (making his classic dreamy genius expression and his "deep in thought while composing another masterpiece" face). It sure is nice to see these increasingly distant friends brought together by their sleepiness. Although on second thought, maybe Paul was just really stoned...

Robert Bunter: Yeah, every time I look at that photo, I assume he's talking to Mal Evans, too. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

She's A Woman

Robert Bunter: This song stinks.

Richard Furnstein: Certainly. Can we leave it there? We can't? Alright, "She's A Woman" finds Paul once again favoring his tender throat over actual songwriting. Songs like "She's A Woman," "The Night Before," and "I'm Down" provided nice little rock showcases in the late period Beatles live shows, replacing a string of dusty Little Richard covers. These sloppy half songs find Paul making up the recipe as he goes along ("My love don't give me presents") and the resulting dishes are soggy and uninspired. They are lucky that Gordon Ramsey was either unborn or just a stupid child because he would probably raid their kitchen and throw out their moldy steamer trays of Little Richards and Larry Williams covers and make Ringo scrub the Hobart with his toothbrush.

Robert Bunter: Wait, what? “Soggy and uninspired?” Something must be wrong with your speakers, man. Knock the wax out of your ears. Maybe you’re not hearing the Beatles primal explorations of raw funk. Paul is at the top of his game. The vocal reeks of conviction, and the bassline struts and bobs and weaves through the iron-clanking rhythm guitar, percussion shaker, and funky little old-lady piano part like Deion Sanders charging up the court to sink a three-point shot in the paint at the bottom of the fourth quarter! Sure, it’s no “Yesterday” or side two of Abbey Road, but that wasn’t the necessary function here. This was a 1964 b-side, my friend. These four lads were rushing around the globe, inspiring hearts, minds and crotches … not necessarily in that order! Then they strode into the studio and cut a brainless, snappy track that would liven up any sock party or weenie roast when some shaggy youngster gives it a spin on the old brown GloanTone phonograph. Quit carping about soggy lyrics and bang your head to this electrifying early masterpiece!

Richard Furnstein: The Beatles For Sale/Help! period found The Beatles struggling to determine what kind of band they were. They needed to be prolific and road ready while slowly giving into the marijuana haze forming in their minds. The tracks from the "Fat Elvis" period can only really be grouped by their inconsistency and apparent resistance-to-growth after the fertile A Hard Day's Night album. Sure, you can point out the raw crunchy genius of John's guitar intro or George's playful lead rolling around like hyenas in post-kill euphoria. But really, that's like saying that a rusty, broken down car has "character." I'm not buying it, friend. This song is fatally flawed, even for a McCartney howler. I'm putting it at the bottom of a dank pile of shredders, including "Why Don't We Do It On The Road" and "Mumbo."

Let's sum up--this song stinks.

Robert Bunter: I’m not going to argue with you, man. Paul and the Beatles were capable of so much more. This is possibly the most awkward 12-bar-blues I’ve ever heard. “I know that she’s no peasant” is such a dopey lyric that it’s like an insult to the listener. Paul is laughing, secure in the knowledge that this track alone will earn enough future royalties to buy the rights to “Annie” and “A Chorus Line,” which in turn will make him another fortune. So why bother to waste the effort on lyrics? When you come right down to it, Beatles analysis is really just a matter of dollars and cents. Why waste the output effort resources when the time-adjusted anticipated returns are so massive? Considered in that light, even the feeblest Beatles efforts (“She’s A Woman,” “Matchbox”) start to seem like very generous gifts. They could have quit after the “Hard Day’s Night” film and still come out ahead. I, for one, am glad that they didn’t.

Richard Furnstein: We haven't even discussed the stupid guitar solo on this thing. George probably had the most difficulty during this transition period. His spurting, aggressive, and unfocused solo is the sound of puberty derailing his once promising mind. He'd experience a strong recovery in the coming fertile years ("Old Brown Shoe"), so let's not judge him too harshly for that that awful solo. At least he wasn't responsible for writing this jar of crap.

Robert Bunter: Yeah, it’s pretty grim. So, let’s sum up – this song stinks. There were far greater achievements ahead for the Beatles, but back in 1964 nobody could be certain about that. I know of at least one fan who became very nervous after hearing this track for the first time. Would they be able to recover? Was the sweet promise of “If I Fell” and “It Won’t Be Long” illusory? Tomorrow never knew, but now it does. Stay tuned, young lad. I have a feeling it’s going to be a hell of a summer.