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.


  1. "wild abdomen" is one of those typos that's actually better than if it was correct.

  2. Actually, "wild abdomen" is bit of Lennon wordplay from In His Own Write! Thanks for reading "Let Me Tell You About The Beatles," tsj017!