Tag Archives: Norwegian Wood

With a Song in My Heart: N is for…

“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.

We need to go darker

Katy Perry in the video for “Wide Awake,” conjuring some musical magic.

Katy Perry’s “Wide Awake” has been on my playlist all week long, an incongruity even sandwiched inside an eclectic playlist that includes Hendrix, Dylan, the Byrds, Tom Petty, Richard Ashcroft, Thomas Newman, Jerry Goldsmith, Mychael Danna and Hans Zimmer.  I cannot stop listening to it.  It accomplishes the remarkable feat of being both catchy and soulful, bruised yet full of hope.  Apart from innocently fancying Ms. Perry herself (which my Alexander Skarsgard-adoring better half assures me she’s totally okay with) I’ve been indifferent toward her music until now.  Her breakout hit “I Kissed a Girl” is the giggle of a nine-year-old too chicken to truly explore questions of confused sexuality lest her parents think badly of her.  “Firework” is a well-meaning song undermined by Perry’s inability to hit and sustain high notes.  The lack of proper rhymes in “California Gurls” and the Brady Bunch-esque misdeeds of “Last Friday Night” are a saran wrap-deep package unwilling to chafe against the very successful mould in which she’s been forged.

Then her marriage to Russell Brand broke apart, and she wrote, recorded and released “Wide Awake” as a meditation on what she’d been through and where she is now.  And it’s a great song.  This isn’t a pig-tailed goofy girl jumping up and down on a beach – it’s the honest testament of an emotionally bruised woman picking herself up off the concrete.  Katy Perry has established such a niche for herself that she didn’t have to record this song – she could have released yet another ode to partying in the sunshine and achieved plenty of accolades and album sales.  But she chose to try to say something profound about who she is and how she’s feeling about the world.

I’m not going to go faux-Lester Bangs and suggest that “Wide Awake” is a watershed moment in music.  But it illuminates a larger question that I think most artists grapple with.  Is introspection by its nature a journey of sadness?  Does something have to be dark to be good?  Is the stuff of genius found only in the minor chords?  There’s an old axiom that says all real comedy is born from pain.  So too does it seem that the best music is that which reflects lessons learned at great cost.  This is not to say that everyone gets it right – it seems that every Kelly Clarkson song is about breaking up with someone and being better off because of it, but unlike Katy Perry in “Wide Awake,” you get the sense that Kelly’s just reading the lines someone else wrote for her instead of feeling them through the notes, and that’s why, at least to my ears, “Wide Awake” will have greater staying power than the grating and empty “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”.

Bob Dylan told John Lennon when they first met that he needed to get personal in his lyrics.  You begin to witness the transformation through the Beatles middle period as songs like “I’m a Loser” on Beatles for Sale and “Help!” lead to angry kiss-offs like “Norwegian Wood,” the existential exploration of “Nowhere Man” and the psychedelic dream state of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and the Sgt. Pepper era becomes the truly dark, soul-baring Primal Scream anguish that closed out the Fab Four and realized itself fully in John’s solo career.  Had Lennon and the others chose to rest on their laurels and sing nothing but upbeat generic pop for their entire careers, they might have done very well.  They might still be touring casinos and retirement homes today.  But they wouldn’t be legends.  It was their choice to share their vulnerability, their humanity, that made them so – the gods who dared to admit they were the very same as the mortals who worshipped them.  In the documentary Imagine, there’s a scene where Lennon confronts an obsessed fan who is trespassing on his property, who wants to know how Lennon could have known so much about this fan’s life as to write songs that seemed to be about him.  Lennon responds, frankly, that “I’m singing about meself.”

The stories that have the deepest impact on us are tales of catharsis; of people like us who are tested to the limits of their endurance, who go all the way to the point of breaking and come back changed, improved, and renewed.  To find the brightest light, one must brave the darkness, because it is only in the dark that light can shine.  Every artist who starts out warbling giddily about rainbows and lollipops will face a crossroads at some point, where they will be forced to decide whether to continue skipping along the yellow brick road or stumble off into the gloomy forest – with no guarantee that something better waits on the other side, only faith that it does.  It’s a journey that is always worth taking.  The Dixie Chicks’ music improved immeasurably after their fracas with the American right over their Bush-inspired version of John Lennon’s “bigger than Jesus moment”, when they got away from karaoke-ready dreck like “Goodbye Earl” and opened up with powerful anthems like “Not Ready to Make Nice.”  Brian Wilson struggled his entire career against the goofy surfin’ tunes that characterized the Beach Boys and that his record label insisted he continue to produce, and as a result we were blessed with lasting gems like “God Only Knows.”  I have no doubt whatsoever that someday Justin Bieber will grow a goatee and release an acoustic album, and you know what – done with the right intentions, and not just as a sales gimmick, it’ll be terrific.

Until then, play “Wide Awake” again and think to yourself, damn, Katy Perry makes for one fine-looking goth.