Friday, February 15, 2013

Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey

Richard Furnstein: The winter's almost over, dear friend. Come inside, we've been expecting you. A wild man with fangs and lady hair will take your coat at the door. Don't mind those STAB-STAB-STAB guitars, things will settle into a fun groove. There are plenty of girls here. Have a look around. Hot with ten T's, pal. "HOTTTTTTTTTT." Look at them. They are smoking cigarettes and are dressed like beautiful women from another age. Skin and teeth and caring eyes. Sensitive pulsing. Comeoncomeoncomeon, let's keep moving. What's that sound? Is that a cowbell? Christ, that's a cowbell! Anything goes!

Robert Bunter: We have all been invited to John Lennon’s terrifying 1968 party. His childhood was difficult, his early adulthood was consumed with inhuman fame and creative development, and he’s spent the past year or two in a weird haze of drugs and mantra chanting. But don’t worry, he’s met a strange Japanese artist and now we can all join in the celebration! “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey”’s stabbing guitars, cowbell clanks, exuberant lyrics (and the bevy of attractive ladies which you seem to have conjured up in your overheated mind-dreams) seem to offer the promise of a raucous party, but as usual with John Lennon, everything is terrifying. What a celebration! Some freak is screaming a bunch of incomprehensible riddles in my face and yelling about monkeys … the imaginary attractive teeth ladies look like they don’t want to have anything to do with me … the punch has been laced with Purple Segments and the deli meats on the hospitality tray have long since spoiled. I don’t want to spoil the party, but please excuse me while I curl into the fetal position and silently cry while I wait for this thing to be over. The drumbeat is damaging my mind.

Richard Furnstein: The drumbeat is damaging the drums! It's a physical affair. I'm sure lowly assistant Mal Evans was calling the local Ludwig rep to get a line on some replacement heads after this session. It's even more devastating in the sequence of The White Album. Paul just delivered the soothing cradle cap massage that is "Mother Nature's Son," and then John creeps into the room like a crocodile arriving late to a picnic. All purpose and desire.

The monkey of the song is typically Lennon symbolism: the slow-eyed and mysterious creature hiding behind his flaking facade. This inner-self provides the wisdom to adjust to the challenges of a world full of evil. The symbol of the  monkey is not quite as simple as a reference to Lennon's junior varsity heroin addiction or even the rhesus monkeys that would steal food from the Maharishi's camp and defecate in the cabins. "Monkey" hints at a common Lennon theme: the renewal of self and the redemption of love. Indeed, it's almost a first draft of "God" from the Plastic Ono Band LP. The heights suggested in the lyrics are about emotional connection to the self (and the angelic saving presence of Mother Yoko Ono). It's a notable progression from The Beatles equating emotional heights with common drug use in their early recordings. George Harrison would often equate this feeling with spiritual enlightenment, but John just embraced the hollow perfection that is The John Figure.



John creeps into the room like a crocodile arriving late to a picnic. All purpose and desire.
Robert Bunter: On another level, this is an extension of the sort of throwaway-rock-and-raver-with-a-cool-guitar-lick that John had pioneered on earlier tracks like “I Feel Fine” and “Day Tripper.” But so much had changed in the brief few years that separated them. At the time of their unveiling, “Fine” and “Tripper” (as I call them) seemed a bit ominous and intimidating in their own right – creepy feedback and cryptic lyrics. Yet, they were hit singles that fit comfortably into the nascent development arc of their Merseybeat sound. Nobody is likely to have nightmares or bad trips inspired by “I Feel Fine,” even though it has those unsettling barking dogs tacked onto the end during the fadeout. The same cannot be said of “Monkey.” Lennon’s trademark acidhead optimism (“The Word,” “All You Need Is Love,” “Baby You’re A Rich Man”) seems to be operational with lyrics about flying high, going deep, ease and joyfulness. Yet, they have been warped and distorted into what I would argue is a just as much of a bared-fangs horrorshow as “Glass Onion” or “I Am The Walrus.” Lennon was in the middle of a really dark period (by the way, here are the periods of Lennon’s life: birth to 1956, happy; 1956-1963, dark; 1963-1968, happy; 1968-1972, oh my God, so unbelievably dark and terrifying; 1972 – 1980 relatively OK with a few cloudy patches) in 1968, and you can hear it on this track. The peppy hippie slogans have soured into bizarre riddles and monkey dreams. During that breakdown section where the drums dissolve and the babbling cacophony of voices is temporarily faded down, the collapsing walls of the party you initially described start to leak onto themselves and the monkey bites its own head off.

Richard Furnstein: Lennon often finds comfort between two states, suggesting severe depression. Lennon muses, "Your inside is out/And your outside is in/Your outside is in/And your inside is out." Sure, it may initially seem like instructions for a fun new dance. However, it was no longer about innocent fun for John Lennon. This was the same man who also switched in and out in the lyrics for "Revolution" and called the suicide hotline in "Yer Blues." Somehow, much like on "Yer Blues," Lennon corrals this isolation and fear, delivering a powerhouse rock band performance on the fractured White Album. Listen to Paul yelping helplessly in the background (at the 1:40 mark). He's deep in the moment. You imagine the four men locking into place, finding a way to shoot electrical salvation into each other's hearts. I imagine the ceiling of the studio was dripping with the sweat of millionaire geniuses. Catch a drop on your tongue and you may find your way back to Hamburg or Julia Lennon's loving arms. Heavy stuff for two minutes and twenty five seconds of pop music. "Brother, can you take me back?" 

Friday, February 8, 2013

Matchbox

Richard Furnstein: "Matchbox" is a lonesome hitchhiker's lament. Ringo stands by the side of the road, thinking about what brought him to this place. He's closer than home than his destination, and he's not even sure if she's waiting for him when he finally gets there. All he has is a name and address on a scrap of paper in his wallet. Why would she give him her address if she didn't want him to visit. He sang to himself while shuffling down the tall grass: "If you don't want Ringo's peaches, honey, please don't mess around my tree." It sounded good and all was right. The sun felt like noon. It's a million miles to dinner, friend. A beat up truck speeds by our weary traveler. The driver never even looked at poor Ringo. 

Robert Bunter: The lyrics are a collection of blues clich├ęs that date back to the turn of the last century, maybe earlier – “poor boy / long way from home,” “wondering if a matchbox would hold my clothes,” “if you don’t like my peaches” and “let me be your little dog ‘till your big dog comes” are all part of the standard repertoire. So there’s Ringo, sitting by the side of the road and lamenting his lot in life. Woman troubles. Oldest story in the book. Mistakes have been made; of course they have. Hers or his? Maybe the fault lies with Fate, written into the great big book in the sky where some damn fool dreamed up the plot of this crazy one-way street called life. Ol’ Ringo’s scraping the bottom of his personal barrel and there’s not much left in the tank. Someone once said “The blues ain’t nothing but a good man feeling bad,” but where does that leave Ringo? He wasn’t that good.  

Richard Furnstein: Quotable Yankees pitcher Lefty Gomez (great baseball name, but non-Latino) once famously said, "I'd rather be lucky than good." Hell, I'd rather be Ringo than lucky, because Ringo is both lucky and good. Is there any other word to describe his life than lucky? From the Rory Storm days to an aging Ringo goofing off with Todd Rundgren at the Iowa State Fair, he remains a solid basher, a competent howler, and a moody charmer. Ringo is just a lucky man in a cruel world. Yet, he gave "Matchbox" his all, but it's still just a D-side on a relatively forgotten Beatles release.

Someone once said “The blues ain’t nothing but a good man feeling bad,” but where does that leave Ringo? He wasn’t that good.

Robert Bunter: Yeah, but it’s fun. The lyrics are downcast but Ringo’s irrepressible double-tracked vocal is the sound of energy and joie de vive. Usually the Beatles’ Ringo showcases involved the three superior talents of the band propping up their hapless, affable drummer, but on “Matchbox” we must award the MVP honor to Ringo. His drumwork and vocals are the only things to really recommend this one; the others are just phoning it in with some blues-by-numbers guitar lines and piano pounding. Even George Martin’s production is lackluster … the stereo mix of “Matchbox” belongs in the Worst Beatles Mixes Ever Hall of Shame along with the queasy mono “Your Mother Should Know.”  

Richard Furnstein: The stereo is an absolute mess. It's probably one of the most disorienting mixes of the early years. The inoffensive backing track is split across the stereo image to heighten the abrasive tone of the cymbals and George's 12 string electric. Listen to those cymbals collapse into the left channel during John's putrid guitar solo. Absolutely terrible job, EMI braintrust. The mono version is a huge improvement.

You are right, Ringo's voice is the only real highlight of this one. He's using his man's voice on "Matchbox," providing an interesting contrast to the puppy dog/poor boy lyrics. He never dips below a holler, so it's a relief that the song flashes off at the two minute mark. The mono version has a softer treatment of Ringo's locomotive vocal.

Robert Bunter: I’m pulling for a revival of this on the next All-Starr Band tour, maybe we can get Kenny Wayne Sheppard to play some blues.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Yer Blues

Richard Furnstein: A cry from the bottom of a well. John set "Yer Blues"--his exorcism of the unholy spirits that were increasingly consuming his hairy figure--in the leaking swamps of the Mississippi Delta. Sure, he could downplay this brutal testament of self-loathing and suicidal thoughts as nothing more than a Clapton-infused bit of searing blues, but the truth was closer to a drooling hellhound that greeted Lennon in each of his junkie dreams. John and the boys ambled into the closet-sized EMI Studio 2 Annexe to record "Yer Blues." While it's easy to construe this as an effort to instill unity into the fractured and independent White Album sessions, I think the Annexe was chosen to limit the external energy in the recording session. The Devil can't sit in on mouth harp if he can't fit in the room. Barghest himself can't beg for the crumbs of Lennon's shattered soul in such conditions.

The listener conjures a mental image of a wracked, tortured man writhing on the floor while his erstwhile buddies stare blankly ahead and plod their way through this ponderous dirge, not even acknowledging the situation.

Robert Bunter: If you look at the rapid arc of the Beatles’ career with hindsight, their startlingly accelerated rate of development seems obvious. In a mere two years they’d taken the quantum leap from “I’m Happy Just To Dance With You” to “Tomorrow Never Knows,” for example. A closer look, however, reveals an unsettling parallel side development: the harrowing, rapid descent of the John-figure into hell. Recall that “Yer Blues” appeared in 1968, a mere four years after most of the world had met the man. He’d always seemed kind of intense; even his early love songs were uncomfortably raw. Seemingly seconds later, his insecurities were illustrated more vividly during his 1965 Dylan phase as he sings about being a loser with “a chip on my shoulder that’s bigger than my feet.” During the psychedelic period his demons seemed to have been temporarily stoned into submission by the shifting perspectives and blurry colors of chemically-expanded mind-dreams, but even here, the despair and dementia were never far from the surface on tracks like “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “A Day In The Life.” A year later, we’re confronted with lyrics like “The eagle picks my eye / the worm he licks my bone” and “black cloud crossed my mind / blue mist surrounds my soul.” Makes Robert Johnson sound like Keanu Reaves!

 Richard Furnstein: Great point. Lennon went from harmless self-pity ("I'm A Loser") to actually admitting suicidal thought. It's just startling that Lennon would sink to the worm-lickin' depths of loneliness in the lilac gardens of India after finding his true love. His gentle moping on Beatles For Sale or Help! suggested a sensitive man going through an identity crisis--caught between the boredom of his house husband phase and the relentless mania of The Beatles' touring life. As usual, Lennon blames his dark mental state on childhood woes. He presents his parents as the angel and devil on his shoulders. His mother was an angelic spirit "of the sky" while his loathsome father, hapless seaman Freddie Lennon, was vulnerable to earthly temptations and sins. Lennon cast himself, the product of this failed union, as "of the universe." Where he once lamented that no one was in his tree, now John is floating alone in the cosmos. But wait, John realized that his best friends in the world were there with him. Lovable and shouty Paul, reliable and handsome George, and loyal and funny Ringo were there to help him through this rough patch. That's the beauty of "Yer Blues." John assembled his best friends in the world into a tiny closet to grunt out a searing rock number. Maybe he even fit a stool into the room for pie-faced friend Mal Evans! Do you guys want to grab a pint and some chips after this one? It's like the old days. Woops, sorry I bumped your ride cymbal, Ringo. It's like being back in the Cavern!  

Robert Bunter: Yeah, you’d think so. But that’s what makes the line “Feel so suicidal / even hate my rock and roll” so devastating. The cathartic, soul-cleansing power of music which was once redemptive for John has soured; he looks at the three other faces in the cramped studio closet and tries to see his rockin’ buddies from the leather jacket days, but his fevered mind can’t focus the image. There’s Paul with his dumb eyebrows and stupid Ob-La-Di song, George’s pocked skin and offensive moustache stinking up the room with curry breath; even Ringo’s hangdog mug seems distorted and offensive. The tiny recording space mirrors the desperate psychic box that John finds himself in; there’s no escape. The effect is heightened when he screeches the reprise of the verse off-mic; the listener conjures a mental image of a wracked, tortured man writhing on the floor while his erstwhile buddies stare blankly ahead and plod their way through this ponderous dirge, not even acknowledging the situation. This is the moment where the Beatles broke up. Finally, the gentle, fresh acoustic breeze of Paul’s “Mother Nature’s Son” wafts softly in as the cramped, stinky room of “Yer Blues” fades into silence. Abbey Road boasts a similar moment, when George’s airy “Here Comes The Sun” warms the horrifying frozen tundra wind-blast of the “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” fade at the end of side one.  

Richard Furnstein: You caught me. I was trying to put on a brave face. Of course, it was all over. The Hand of Death had long guided The Beatles, providing closure to their early scrappy days with the passing of Stu Sutclliffe in April 1962 and closing out their identity as comfortable idols with Brian Epstein's death in August 1967. Perhaps Lennon was trying to coax the reaper into his life once again with "Yer Blues." Take another soul, dear reaper. Let us run wild into the world without the burden of The Beatles. Lennon didn't have the guts to follow through on the threat of suicide, much like he could never effectively put an end to his rock group. His frequent calls to action (romanticized in his posthumous image as a peace merchant) never overcame his drug-addled daydreams.

Robert Bunter: It's bad, man. Real bad. How the hell are we going to break the news to Ringo?