"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Monday, October 6, 2014

Music, not lyrics, made "Norwegian Wood"

The genius John Lennon
Musicians who developed their tastes in the 1940s didn't exactly hop on the Beatles bandwagon. Young people like me heard from educators that the Beatles were fluff, outside the realm of what we ought to be studying.
And yet, a band as sophisticated as Buddy Rich's had arrangements for "Norwegian Wood" and "Something." Beatles music was not in fact being relegated to some dustbin. That was just rhetoric from the snooty crowd. People who made their living playing music knew better.
George Harrison's "Something" was covered all over the place. Maynard Ferguson joined with Dinah Shore - what a combination - playing "Something" on afternoon TV. I heard the Ferguson band play "Here, There and Everywhere." I heard the energized Buddy Rich band play "Norwegian Wood" at the St. Paul Prom Ballroom. The audience, mostly young people like me, absolutely loved it.
Much is made of what the lyrics suggest in "Norwegian Wood." I will assert that the melody is by far the main selling point. With the Rich band we got only the music and not the lyrics. Sans lyrics, the song was a tremendous "sell," near the top of the list for what we wanted to hear the Rich band do.
The lyrics? Well, they certainly "work" for making this a successful song. The song was on the Beatles' "Rubber Soul" album.
"Rubber Soul" was one of those transformative albums from the Fab 4. I remember buying it at the old Johnson Drug Store in Morris. They had a small record display as did Juergensen's Super Valu, a grocery store.
The "Rubber Soul" album cover troubled me somewhat. The Beatles' hair had been long enough, now it was a little longer. It was to the point where I didn't see any more need for a "message" coming from hair length. It was just plain too long, suggesting seediness, not coolness. What the heck kind of message are we supposed to take from hair length anyway? It's absurd to think some sort of cultural message was emanating from something as shallow as hair length.
And yet there were the Beatles, carrying that torch of cultural adjustment, of embracing new values, partly by virtue of having their hair grow out. Kids today would be perplexed, to be sure. The Fab 4 had odd looks in their eyes on that album cover. Today we smile and just figure they were "on drugs." Oh, I don't know. They actually just look sleep-deprived to me. Maybe they just wanted to fascinate their audience with a look that would get them talking and speculating. Don't you think that's important in entertainment?
"Rubber Soul" followed the "Help!" album. "Help!" marked the end of that initial mop-top phase, when despite the long hair, the Beatles came across as largely innocuous entertainment. With "Rubber Soul" the band was coming at us with lyrics that were no longer one-dimensional or superficial.
"Norwegian Wood" is a sing-along song with its simplicity. That's on one level. On another it's edgy, exploring changes in cultural norms and expected behavior. Supposedly it springs from a real-life extramarital liaison of Lennon's. I'm not impressed by that. Extramarital affairs are nothing but bad - I don't wish to learn anything from them or be entertained by them.
The song's tale is one of mutual seduction. The whole enterprise breaks down. The song's theme owes itself, of course, to the so-called sexual liberation of those notorious 1960s, a decade defined more by the Viet Nam War than by what kids were doing in their idle time.
"Norwegian Wood" suggests an air of urban sophistication. Two young singles go to her place. "There wasn't a chair," so we can assume there were floor pillows. The term "Norwegian Wood" is from a fashion rage of London at the time.
The boy and girl are tentative assessing each other. The boy chooses to be patient, thinking this will impress her. Patience as a prelude to what? Well, sex of course. I had a psychology professor in college who said "each generation is the first to discover sex," or to at least proclaim they did, or believe they did. Older people learn inhibitions about this. Young people are just overwhelmed by hormones.
The girl says "it's time for bed" at around 2 a.m. Jeez, get some sleep. Harrison plays his sitar while the girl apparently judges what ought to be her next step. The bridge of the song tells us the dispiriting outcome for the boy. Perhaps the girl misunderstood her companion's patience or "passivity," whatever. She suddenly explains she needs to work in the morning. She backs off!
As we'd say, "bummer."
"This bird has flown." "Bird" is English slang for "girl."
Beatles scholars tell us that what follows in the lyrics is an oblique report of the boy setting fire to the girl's apartment. Wow! The "bummer" aspect is now in spades. So much for pop songs having an uplifting and hopeful message.
"Norwegian Wood" is supposed to be the tale of the pitfalls inherent in human connections - the communication snafus and missed opportunities. I yawn. A garden variety songwriter could take the lyrical subject matter and write absolutely laughable tripe. What sets the Beatles apart was their sheer songwriting craftsmanship, their ability to weave passages with chords and notes that transfix us. They developed this through years of very hard work.
I can dismiss the lyrics of "Norwegian Wood." I just close my eyes and remember that magical night at the St. Paul Prom Ballroom when I heard Buddy Rich and that exciting big band give us "Norwegian Wood" to the rapt acclamation of us young Upper Midwest boomers.
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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