“Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” – The Beatles, 1965.
My wife and I are fond of saying that adopting an older child is a bit like dating; you’re attempting to integrate another fully formed personality into your life, only without the option of ever deciding that you think you should see other people. Our son came to us with likes and dislikes entrenched without much room for further influence by us, and one of the most frustrating aspects is his lack of interest in music. It’s not entirely his fault, but rather a product of the different foster homes he grew up in, none of which apparently had so much as a radio in it. From the perspective of someone who was practically nursed on classic rock & roll, it seems incomprehensible that a child could be brought up in this corner of the world without it, and we often sigh in disbelief when he gives us blank looks at the mention of legends like Buddy Holly and Little Richard.
When I was growing up that stuff was always playing somewhere in the background, whether at parties my parents would throw or as part of the oldies countdown on a lazy Sunday. As soon as I figured out how to work the record player I’d comb through my father’s booklets of old 45’s and listen to artists like Del Shannon, the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons obsessively (until the tragic day I dropped and broke his copy of “Walk Like a Man”). Good grades aside, Dad was prouder that I could mimic the scratchy vocals in “Wooly Bully” and that I understood, unequivocally, that bird was the word. At the age of eight I wondered why I must be a teenager in love, and never failed to compare the rising sun to a red rubber ball. The merest out-of-context mention of two words that happened to appear next to one another in a lyric set would prompt me to offer an unrequested rendition of the entire related song. It was glorious, and likely irritating as all get out to anyone outside the family.
Somewhere in this decade-long musical crash course, I found two albums that would kindle a lifelong love of those four lads from Liverpool. One wasn’t even theirs. This is going waaaaaay back so my friends born in the 80’s and onward will have no idea, but there used to be a group of professional impersonators called “Stars On” who would release disco medleys of popular songs. The Stars On Long Play album’s A-side was snippets from about 20 Beatles songs stitched together with a dance beat. Though whoever was imitating them sounded like the Beatles by way of the Swedish Chef, I listened to that cassette until the tape demagnetized. Even in bowdlerized, Bee Gee’d form, something transcendent resonated within me when I would listen to those songs. Like recognizing the voices of friends from a past life. Fortunately, we did have a few copies of the genuine article, the most accessible being the double album compilation that was the Beatles’ Love Songs. The cover resembled brown leather, and inside was a printed booklet on parchment featuring the lyrics in script. For the young, slightly-obsessive Beatles fan, a treasure to be devoured. 25 selections of auditory bliss, none more so than track 3 on side two of the second disc.
“Norwegian Wood,” recorded in 1965, is a noteworthy (pun intended) Beatles song for a couple of reasons, the first being that it is said to be the first example of a song by a Western rock band to feature a sitar. Second, the Beatles’ output to that point especially as concerning the subject of love had been focused largely on promises of undying devotion or pleas to avoid heartbreak. This song is about an affair, carried on without remorse. Of course, it’s not like young me would have had any way of understanding that. At first your concept of love is that you meet someone, you marry her, you have kids and you stay together forever. The movie version, essentially. You don’t comprehend the complexities and nuances of emotions and the mad and often despicable things love and lust can drive you to. How could you – you’re just a kid, swaying back and forth to the triple time rhythm and giggling at the part where John Lennon sings that he “crawled off to sleep in the bath.” And the part at the end where he burns down his lover’s flat by setting fire to her Norwegian wood furniture goes right over your head. But that doesn’t matter, and when other kids your age are warbling off-key and arrhythmic renditions of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” to the applause of beaming relatives, you offer this number instead. Your relatives cringe as you croon in a little boy’s voice about biding your time and drinking her wine. And your dad’s grin is as wide as the room.
From time to time we’ll have the music going and ask our son if he can guess who’s singing. His default answer, if it’s a male singer, is the Beatles. I’ve played the albums for him from time to time, looking perhaps to recreate the conditions by which the same fascination may be sparked – so far without much success. It saddens me a little to realize that he may not ever share this particular passion, and that I have to be okay with it. Every so often, though, I’ll catch him humming something he may have overheard, a few stray notes that are indeed Beatlesque, and I’ll smile, knowing that it’s only a matter of time before I find him at the computer, playing “Norwegian Wood” and looking up the lyrics. Isn’t it good.