Thursday, February 13, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 44):"STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER" (1967) The Beatles

Do you remember what you were doing in February of 1967?  No?  I was in the second half of second grade, seven years old. I was probably pretty happy, with two older siblings, and two younger siblings—the youngest not yet a year old. And school work was not a hardship until fourth grade (long division!), though I was never very fond of it. But in second grade my teacher, a nun, had the prettiest face I had ever seen on an adult person, or at least one not on television. Angelic, she was. I wonder now how old she was. 21? 23? Certainly not yet 25.

On this day of 1967, February 13th, The Beatles—who were no longer very much like they had been on Ed Sullivan three years before—released the “double A side” single, “Strawberry Fields Forever / Penny Lane.”  Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band would follow in June. But that was aeons away.

I don’t know when I first heard today’s song, but it was before spring, much less summer. And the song quickly captivated us because it sounded like the record was warped. We’d heard before then warped records oscillate between pitches or even speeds (45 or 33 1/3) but this song did that intentionally. And I won’t lie: we frequently took it off after the lyrics and the final coda ended because that musical bit appended to the end, after a brief pause, not only sounded like a different song, it was downright freaky. Like someone was losing his mind.

About the song itself: much later I learned that John Lennon had written it as a reminiscence about the place where he used to go play as a child, in a yard behind a Salvation Army home. That suits me fine, because at the time when this song came out our favorite play place was “behind the wall” (as we always called it) which meant in back of the Episcopalian church and day-care across the street. So, while I didn’t know what “Strawberry Fields” meant (I assumed it was actual fields of strawberries where he liked to go strawberry-picking), I actually did. Because the imperative to immortalize the playing places of childhood is something I very much recognize. And when I got to The Beatles later, in my teens, and experienced them in the trippy way they intended, well, it was to my own childhood spaces I often went, in reverie.

The things I remember liking about the song besides that weird warped bit was the sound of the mellotron in the opening (I didn’t know it was a mellotron, but, in my teens, the mellotron, so identified, became one of those instruments I always dug), which I would’ve assumed was strings and an organ, even though it didn’t sound like it, quite. It sounded like some kind of mechanical device like you would see in some sci-fi mad scientist’s lab. And I loved to mimic the delivery of “Strawberrrry FiEElds For-ever” (at the very end, last time, when it goes up). That gave it a positive uplift at the end because otherwise the song was very somber, and more than a little disorienting.

Up to that point, the oddest Beatles song I would’ve known from the radio was “Eleanor Rigby” (more on that another time) and it too, like “Strawberry Fields,” seemed to be doing something that, by and large, pop songs didn’t do. Not telling stories, exactly (though the kinds of stories The Beatles songs told were influencing what others would try to get away with), but more like the emotional coloration of the songs. In a word: these songs were existential. It was in those strings, which sounded like the oppressive passage of time itself.  The brass here is weird too, like from some other recording, of another time. The Beatles were communicating something about the quality of life itself, about the possible spiritual and emotional dimension of modern life. Not that I would’ve said that at the time, or even when I got into The Beatles music again late in high school.  But I’m a firm believer in the idea that one can have a definite experience without having the words for that experience.

The words for the experience I’m trying to describe might as well be “Strawberry Fields Forever”—that’s the phrase that John Lennon assigned to it, even as this song was shaped, rather expertly, with splicing together different takes and the distortion from slowed tape speed and backwards replay and all that, to be an expression of that experience. Lennon, George Martin, Geoff Emerick, and the other Beatles showed what could be done on that score. Ringo’s drumming is so very deft, and that guitar part right after the final chorus is what convinced me this was “really” The Beatles—that’s so clearly George Harrison’s guitar, whereas most of the instrumentation doesn’t sound like the Fab Four at all.

As to the lyrics: “No one I think is in my tree”; more properly it’s “no one, I think, is in my tree.” The speaker is great at these hedging assertions. My favorite is “but it’s alright, that is I think it’s not too bad.”   Both of these lines said things I agreed with, somehow, or felt were right. The sense that no one is “in my tree” was intended by Lennon as “no one’s in my league” or “no one’s on the same page as me,” but, with that line about “it must be high or low” suggesting perhaps an actual tree, always implied as well that “my tree” was never quite what one might assume it is. Like “no one I think (of) is in my tree (with me)”—they climb either too high or too low and don’t get me. The “I think it’s not too bad” had the built-in qualification “I think” which has a way of undermining the authority of what is said. As if one said “It’s not too bad, I guess.”  Yeah, but not too good either.

And then “Always, no, sometimes, think it's me” is, again, that kind of hedging qualification I readily identify with. “Always” is too big a gesture. So “sometimes,” and other times? I don’t think it’s me. Other times I think the problem is not with me at all. It’s with them. It’s with you, hypocrite listener, “misunderstanding all you see,” which isn’t too far from Lennon saying “misunderstanding all I say.”  We none of us were getting the message as clearly as we might. The subterfuges of this song’s lyrics are what make it one of my favorite songs, ever.

Then there’s “I think, I know, I mean a 'yes,' but it’s all wrong / That is I think I disagree.”  That last phrase is priceless, and to me, in the entire history of my knowing this song, is the part that stays with me, its almost narcotic delivery, from that very first listening to this. “I think I disagree”—it’s not just me.  It’s all wrong. I know I'm supposed to say "yes," but I can't. I used to think it was “I think I know of thee, yes, but it’s all wrong.”  Which is a way of saying, humbly perhaps, that, in the end, “I” (the speaker) doesn’t know “thee” (or you, or them) very well at all. Which is no doubt true too. Perhaps we all disagree, with the speaker, and like him as well. Perhaps we all know when it’s a dream. And perhaps we don’t. Or not always. Just sometimes.

Anyway, it’s nothing to get hung about. Which means “nothing to get hung up about” but also “not something they’ll hang you for.”  It’s not life or death, in other words. Or maybe the only reason you won’t get hung is that you’ll get a hung jury, who will get hung up on whether or not you meant anything you said. “It doesn’t matter much to me.”  It’s like Camus' The Stranger set to music.

And what music! Many agree this is the song that put The Beatles head and shoulders above what anyone else "in their tree" was trying. The video is mainly a bit of larking with camera effects, early "music video." The song doesn't need that stuff really. It's a movie for your ears. 

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