Monday, May 20, 2013

Tell Me Why

Richard Furnstein: I'm here to tell you: this song reflects the true John Lennon. You can keep the patient dreamer of "Imagine." I don't want to hear about the guardian of childhood imagination in "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds." Get the hell out of here with the tender yet mad genius of "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Nowhere Man." Print out the lyrics for "Tell Me Why" and show them to your therapist. She'll tell you that the author is clearly hiding his self loathing behind his misogynistic aggression. He is obsessed with his own overwhelming sense of misery while being unaware of his the impacts of his emotions on other people. Textbook abandonment issues, related to a fractured relationship with a mother. While most adults enter into relationships for an emotional connection and sexual fulfillment, the protagonist of "Tell Me Why" only pursues women in order to shift blame and fears onto another person. It's pathetic, but what a backbeat.  

Robert Bunter: I can imagine that therapy session. “Mr. Bunter, why don’t you tell me about your childhood?” “Well, doc, actually I want to play you this song from A Hard Day’s Night and get your reaction.” “Mr. Bunter, we’re here to talk about you, not … what are you doing with that portable phonograph player? [sputtering] Mr. Bunter, this is highly irregular! [music starts to play, the attractive woman therapist’s hips begin to involuntarily rock and sway to the irresistible Mersey backbeat] Mr. Bunter! I have never … This is a therapy session, not an episode of Top of the Pops! [the song reaches the bridge] Oh, the hell with it! [therapist dances with wild abdomen]” Yeah, that would be quite a session! Whoo-whee! SHAKE IT! OK, but look: the lyrics may well point to John’s inner fears and issues, but when I hear this song, I’m not listening to the lyrics. I’m hearing the supreme confidence of a master pop craftsman at the top of his game. “She Loves You,” “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” were the three knock-out punches that really shook the world and launched a thousand black-and-white videos of shrieking girls and crowded airports, but in my opinion, some of the second-tier early rockers like “It Won’t Be Long” and “Tell Me Why” are even more galvanizing. This song makes me feel like I could jump over a building and dance on the head of a pin. Whatever inadvertent subtextual psychological revelations may have been lurking under the manhole cover are ultimately irrelevant. This is the song of a conquering champion on top of the world.

Richard Furnstein: You got that right. The Beatles play "Tell Me Why" during the finale of in A Hard Day's Night. It's a big moment. We finally get to see The Beatles perform live after an hour of watching them get chased by teenage girls, outsmart local cops, and babysit Paul's perverted grandfather. Sure, the exposition was hilarious and occasionally touching, but we were waiting for that rock n' roll party moment. The film footage of "Tell Me Why" is highlighted by a energetic upshift of girl screams. We see close-up shots of these poor girls crying as John and Paul jeer "tell me why you cried." I'll tell you why they cried, John and Paul. They cried because The Beatles destroyed their sad, quiet lives. Wondering which of their with horse-faced classmates would get the lead in the useless school play. Petting that short-haired goon Johnny Titus after the church ice cream social. Listening to their dying fathers smoke in the den. They thought they were happy, but The Beatles showed them that they were miserable. She's leaving home. He's leaving home. Everybody is leaving home. We're starting over.  

Robert Bunter: Yes, the sprouts of a new generation. The seeds of all that came after were planted here. Ringo's just bashing away on the goddamn cymbals, shaking his hair back and forth. The bass is playing jazz-inflected walking bass lines that add to the sense of accelerating propulsion. John's fantastic rock and roll voice has never been in better form, yet it has been nestled into a bed of utterly gorgeous close harmony singing from George and Paul. Here's a pop (!) quiz: what's the best part of this song, the intro, the verse, the chorus, the bridge or the ending? I dare you to answer me.  

Richard Furnstein: The answer is clear: ALL OF THE ABOVE. It's one of those hot typhoon Beatles songs where the individual pieces roll along with little regard for dynamics, despite its relatively simple structure. Similar to "It Won't Be Long," it kicks off with a shouting chorus. I'd particularly like to highlight the bridge. It's a simple build, but exactly what the song needs after the repetitive breezy verse. It's hard not to love Paul and George squeaking towards the falsetto on "Is there anything I can do." It's like they are mocking the hysterical cries of the lying girlfriend. The ending has a classic Beatles resolution, quickly descending in half steps before landing on the D major. That's the stuff!
Robert Bunter: Ha! You know, you’re right. I hadn’t thought about that. This song is just brimming with positive spirit and joie de vive. It’s perfect. It’s not uncommon for fans and critics to regard the Beatles’ accomplishments as somehow superhuman, usually because of later peak points like “A Day In The Life,” “Hey Jude” or “Old Brown Shoe.” But I would submit that they were already operating as gods on “Tell Me Why.” The whole is greater than the sum of the parts: four primitive, unschooled musicians from a hardscrabble port town with simple guitars and tape recorders somehow managed to trap lightning in a bottle. I’ve said it before, but we should all get down on our knees and give thanks that we are lucky enough to live in a world where “Tell Me Why” not only happened, but was captured on tape and is easily repeatable via simple audio reproduction technology. I tend to insist on original mono UK vinyl pressings in order to appreciate the holy scriptures in their fullest glory, but “Tell Me Why” is an exception. Go ahead, listen to a lossy mp3 with earbuds. Try a third-generation low-bias cassette dub on a primitive GloanTone Pocket Walkman. I don’t care if you’re hearing it through the walls from your sister’s room over a transistor radio. The Force will be transmitted just as strongly as it would have if you were right in the middle of the studio when they cut the take. “Tell Me Why” is as good as Beatles music ever gets.

Richard Furnstein: Kudos to you, old friend.  This is goddamned life.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Savoy Truffle

Richard Furnstein: "Savoy Truffle" was George Harrison's attempt to create a world of psychedelic colors. A fantasy land intended to rival the dripping funscapes established in "Strawberry Fields Forever," "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds," and "Glass Onion." Yet, where John Lennon's landscapes were created out of manic fury, terrifying childhood nostalgia, and a steady hand for Jabberwocky, Harrison's fantastical lyrics were a droll recitation of weird British candy bars. It's a long way down from the startling lysergic visions of tangerine trees in marmalade skies to the turd-shaped creme tangerine and coconut fudge bars in the window of an old time sweets shop. George never really advances the metaphor or changes the lyrical focus of the song (unlike the preachy undertones of the contemporaneous "Piggies"). As a result, we're left alone in the sweets shop as George continues to pile the disgusting fudge bricks on top of the shop's rusty old scale. Quantity over quality. "Let's be freaks and sing the candy catalog over some scuzz rock." Thanks, but no thanks.

Robert Bunter: Naw. It’s not on that plane! You’re looking at a tuxedo and complaining because it’s not a linen jumpsuit. The lyrics of “Savoy Truffle” don’t seem to amount to much because they don’t need to. Sometimes a few funny words and long vowel syllables are all you need, especially when they’re chosen to adorn a steaming, sizzling pile of greasy funk that sticks out from the rest of the decidedly un-funky “White Album” like a sore thumb. The deeper meanings are there if you want them – George’s bhagavad-inspired assertion that momentary pleasures of the flesh (maya, chocolate lumps) will surely bring toothaches and the inevitable dentist’s drill of karma. But that’s really beside the point. This track is all about the funky clavichord, brisk snare rolls and sassy horn charts. The whole thing simmers and bubbles like a stockpot full of pungent soup. I, for one, am eager to dip in and ladle myself out a hot meal.

Eric Clapton eventually reveals his true self to be nothing more than impatient desire as he opens the wrapper (Pattie Boyd's multi-colored micro mini skirt) and takes a bite of coconut candy bar covered in buttery white chocolate with 2 large almonds on top.

Richard Furnstein: Your point about the karmic implications of the momentary sweet desires aligns nicely with the true subject of the song: Eric Clapton. George wrote the song about his old pal's sweet tooth, but it's easy to connect the refrain to Eric's future betrayal of The Beatle in his successful pursuit of Mrs. Harrison. The "Savoy Truffle" is presented as the original sin--a tempting indulgence which carries significant risk. George seems all too sure that his friend will ultimately reach for the ultimate sweet treat. He is after all an out-of-control junkie with crooked teeth. All is revealed in the sturdy bridge as "what is sweet now turns so sour." Eric eventually reveals his true self to be nothing more than impatient desire as he opens the wrapper (Pattie Boyd's multi-colored micro mini skirt) and takes a bite of coconut candy bar covered in buttery white chocolate with 2 large almonds on top.

Robert Bunter: Yeah, the relationships were pretty tangled and complex. George clearly looked up to Clapton as a virtuoso “real” musician and treated him with respect; he was drafted into the “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” sessions as a premier figure on the London blues scene, a “heavy.” At the same time, Eric “God” Clapton was naturally star-struck to be in the presence of a Beatle, even one as phlegmy and sanctimonious as George “Dark Horse” Harrison. Affairs were further complicated (as you’ve noted) by Clapton’s tumescent desire to bed and wed George’s toothsome wife, Patti “Layla” Harrison. The nicknames flowed as freely as the wine and joss sticks in the elite echelons of the 1968 pop scene – even also-rans like Mary "The Cushion" Hopkin and Jackie "Burgertime" Lomax got into the act.  

Richard Furnstein: I'm glad you mentioned Jackie Lomax. "Savoy Truffle" is clearly related "Sour Milk Sea," Harrison's White Album-era composition which was later recorded by throaty bluesman Lomax with assistance from Harrison, Clapton, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and famed sideman Nicky Hopkins. I'd argue that "Sour Milk Sea" is superior song to the leaden "Savoy Truffle," although much of that can be credited to Lomax's hair on fire delivery.

Robert, what's your take on the dismissive "Ob-La-Di" reference in "Savoy Truffle"?  

Robert Bunter: It’s bad, man. Real bad. George was starting to hate Paul’s smiley-face songwriting persona and his growing assertiveness meant that he was willing to insert a dig at “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da” right there on the same album. He even contemptuously gets the title wrong (“We all know Ob-La-Di Bla-Da”) because he can’t be bothered. It’s not the only self-referential moment on the White Album, either. John places his own turd into the punchbowl with “Glass Onion.” Earlier manifestations of the Beatles’ psychedelic period playfully altered the group’s image – the brightly-costumed fairground musicians of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or the wizards and walruses of Magical Mystery Tour. By the White Album, however, the self-awareness just hangs in the atmosphere like a sour cloud. George and John take potshots at Paul in their sardonic lyrics while Ringo’s over here cowering in the corner with his can of goddamn beans. And where is Paul? He’s with George Martin in a completely different part of the studio (THEY WERE RECORDING IN SEPARATE STUDIOS BY THIS TIME) supervising the sublime French horn overdubs on “Mother Nature’s Son,” one of the finest moments in human history. The whole thing is disgusting.

Friday, May 3, 2013


Richard Furnstein: It's a quiet night in for Paul. He pads around his London flat in his woven khussas. Time for a little tea and breeze. A lonely bird called from beyond the black, sharp images dancing across his window glass. "You and me, pal. You and me." Then he grabbed his standard D-28 (strung backwards, of course), sat on a helpful beanbag chair, and joined the lonely bird in a song. Whip-poor-will and wait. Keep waiting. The night will burn off eventually.

Robert Bunter: To me, this is the most beautiful song Paul ever wrote. I think it's better than "Yesterday," "You Won't See Me" and "You Never Give Me Your Money," or "the three second-most-beautiful McCartney songs that all start with 'Y'" as I call them. I will admit that I was surprised, after many years of listening to this song, to hear Paul explain that it was written as an oblique statement of support for the civil rights movement. For me, it was always a song about his own sublimated yearning for independence from the stifling confines of the Beatles' insectoid chrysalis to the free-flying avian future of mature development that was Wings. But the subtexts are really beside the point. It's a beautiful melody and lyric. A baby could understand it. Purity. Simplicity. Unadorned acoustic fingerpicking, no effects on the vocal, don't be afraid to let the mic pick up the sound of your foot tapping on the floor. It's a natural affair. There's a goddamn bird with a broken wing hopping around on sad little bird feet and this earnest, beautiful man is encouraging it to muster its resources and take flight. Are you telling me you wish the other Beatles had been in the studio for this session? You want 1968-era Ringo tom-tom plodding and Lennon's tortured falsetto? Maybe we'll have George add some of the beefy horn sections he was experimenting with on "Savoy Truffle." Yeah, that would be a GREAT idea. Get the hell out of here.

"Blackbird" was always about Paul's sublimated yearning for independence from the stifling confines of the Beatles' insectoid chrysalis to the free-flying avian future of mature development that was Wings.

Richard Furnstein: Hey, great point. Much as been made of the solo recordings aspect of The White Album, but I can only think of one of the songs that would have benefited from the full band arrangement ("Why Don't We Do It In The Road"). The sparse and solo-focused songs are some of the most effective on the album (think "Blackbird," "Julia," and "Martha My Dear"). There is a confidence in the individual pieces of The White Album; it's as if The Beatles were asserting that they were more than the raucous backbeat or the distinctive harmonies. They were producing pure musical love. Is that Clapton on guitar? Is Yoko singing backup? Is John making the pig noises? It doesn't matter, simp. Focus on Paul's voice here--a single beam of light in a pristine clearing. Nothing else matters.

Robert Bunter: Much has been made (by me, here) about the way Paul’s tendency towards crowd-pleasing, eager-to-delight showmanship can serve to obscure the primal essence of the man. I would submit that “Blackbird” actually exemplifies that phenomenon, even though it seems like an exception to the rule. The sparse production and intimate setting seem to be at pains to cue the listener that, hey, this is the real McCartney, caught in a personal moment, behind the curtains – as you evoked so beautifully in your opening statement about the pajamas and the beanbag chair.

Richard Furnstein: Thank you, kind friend.

Robert Bunter: As we listen, our mind’s eye conjures these fantasies. A little too readily, if you ask me. Paul paints a self-portrait of a wistful dreamer cradling his backwards-strung guitar and whistling a little tune for his own personal amusement, and maybe that of the injured crow hobbling around his windowsill. Finally. The man behind the eyebrows. I love you, Paul. Yeah, well, keep your powder dry, Kemosabe. The whole thing is just as much of a contrivance as “Your Mother Should Know” or “She’s Leaving Home.” I’m sorry, but there is only one Paul song that allows us to glimpse the reality of its composer, and that song is “Fixing A Hole.” There’s a lot to unpack there, but we don’t have time right now. We’re talking about “Blackbird.”

Richard Furnstein: Thanks for the reminder. "Blackbird" is the first in Paul's esteemed bird series. The later installments ("Bluebird" from Band On The Run, "Single Pigeon" from Red Rose Speedway, and "Jenny Wren" from Chaos And Creation In The Backyard) share the fragile beauty and reflective tone of "Blackbird" but never reach its wondrous heights. I could write pages about Paul's oaky voice and his absolutely perfect guitar part (still the only part to play when testing out a acoustic). I'll tell you what absolutely slays me, though: the gentle tapping on the body of the guitar. The organic rhythm box would also help define "I Will," but it's almost more effective here. Again, we're down to just Paul. A man with a guitar in a room surrounded by lovely Disney birds. The pulse you hear isn't brutish Ringo and his unforgiving stickplay; it's simply Paul tapping the box. Flesh hitting wood. All come free.

Robert Bunter: Yeah, it’s a light moment on a record that doesn’t have too many of them. Only McCartney’s very similar “Mother Nature’s Son” and Lennon’s pastoral “Dear Prudence” are in the same room of the crazy, endless house that is the White Album (Lennon’s “Child Of Nature,” an outtake that was cut from the White Album lineup and later repurposed as “Jealous Guy” on Imagine, was cut from the same lovely cloth). Otherwise it’s just a nightmarish collage of tiger hunts, oedipal love ballads, cannibalistic swine, unabashed monkeys, terrifying playground equipment, wounded bloody raccoon cowboys, soiled sheepdogs rolling around in their own filth, hairless car crash victims, insomnia, guru betrayal, lizards crawling on windowpanes, violent revolution and toothaches.