Monday, December 1, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 335): "NORWEGIAN WOOD (THIS BIRD HAS FLOWN)" (1965) The Beatles

Today someone special turns 25; long ago she was a big Beatles fan and this perhaps her favorite song, so I’m featuring it today. And not only for that reason. Ever since I acquired the Beatles mono box set on vinyl I’ve been into Rubber Soul more than ever before. In the old days—the late Seventies—when I was picking up Beatles albums for the first time, I passed on Rubber Soul because you could only get the U.S. version and that didn’t have “Drive My Car” which was supposed to be the opening track. When the Parlophone versions were remastered and released in 2009, I got the album on CD then and it began to work its magic. But not until the mono versions this past fall did I fully become a fan of this record as perhaps The Beatles’ best.

In saying that I don’t mean to get into a war of words on Rubber Soul over Revolver (1966)—I’m also very partial to Help! (1965)—but rather to suggest (a view that somewhat stuns me, given my older allegiances) that Rubber Soul, as The Beatles before they got psychedelic, is the most fully evolved of the “old Beatles” sound. And that has become more potent for me with the release of the box set. And of course it's famous as the song Harrison first uses a sitar on, and that creates a sound both ancient and surprisingly contemporary. It soon became a standard feature of the psychedelically inclined.

As to “Norwegian Wood”: it was to me, in my teens, the song Dylan does a take-off of on Blonde on Blonde (1966) with “4th Time Around.” Dylan picks up on the circular nature of the tune, which does seem to go ’round and ’round, fittingly for such an unresolved adventure as the narrator in the Lennon/McCartney (mostly Lennon) song faces. In Dylan’s song, the struggle between the evasive girl and the would-be seducer (narrator) is much more aggressive and dismissive. In Lennon’s vocal there is a feeling more wistful and wry, and that combination, I would suggest, is what makes the song so great.

Consider that great opening line: “I once had a girl / Or should I say / She once had me.” Having a girl, of course, could mean that she was “his” as his sweetheart, but it could also mean that he laid her, simply. But that she “had” him translates to “she had him on.” He was duped, used by a ruse.

The “ruse,” if you like, is that she invites him to her place, where they drink wine and talk until two but without, it seems, moving on to physical intimacy, he “biding my time.” Instead “And then she said, / ‘It’s time for bed.’” Which might be the come-on our hero has been awaiting, but no. “She told me she worked in the morning / And started to laugh / I told her I didn’t / And crawled off to sleep in the bath.” It’s that laugh that seems so true to life, as our girl giggles at the dude whose hopes are dashed.

It’s been said that some reviewers wondered whether the girl was meant to be a lesbian, which strikes me as rather presumptuous: as if only a same-sex-inclined lassie could resist a lovable moptop in rut. Rather I’ve always seen her as a self-possessed girl not inclined to do it on the first date; her laughter attempts to mask the faux pas of leading-on to no pay-off. Our pay off, as listeners, is that line “I told her I didn’t,” which is face-saving (perhaps) in its nonplussed matter-of-factness. Then comes the real pay-off, the great last verse: And when I awoke, / I was alone / This bird had flown / So I lit a fire / Isn’t it good? / Norwegian wood.

The “bird” (aka, girl) had flown, but it also might mean something more: the passing away of the desire, the flight of the need. The “revenge,” if you like, is his lighting on fire the Norwegian wood that is the primary aesthetic feature of her room. Though that seems to me a bit silly. Rather, I prefer to imagine our hero contemplating the fire in the girl’s room, admiring the Norwegian wood, and, perhaps, awaiting her return. What I like about that last scene is that there is no place he’s going to, he’s just mooning about her room by daylight. Were he in his own home and she had flown, I would take it that he’s been dumped. But he has her place to himself. I’ve always been struck by that trust and intimacy. We might believe that the talk got them somewhere after all. I like to think so, romantic as that might be for one as cavalier as Lennon could play it.

But, to answer the question, “Norwegian Wood” is very good indeed.

No comments: