Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Rubber Soul (1965)

(Previous cryptic comments on UK version here.)

Another way to divide my narrow little world: those who believe Rubber Soul properly kicks off with "Drive My Car," as found on the UK version, and those who believe it starts with "I've Just Seen a Face," on the US. Neither song appears on the other version, which is part of what makes this debate so intractable. And each song frames what follows differently, though the great majority of what follows is nearly identical, only shuffled about a bit and with a few additions or deletions. Suffice to say: the lean studied exuberance of "Face" leads off an album I like quite a bit more than the one that starts with a honking shambolic limo fantasy. Earlier this year the collective marketing geniuses behind 50 years of united Beatles mess finally closed one circle and released some 13 US versions of Beatles albums on CD (with the inevitable box set of all of them), for which I was humbly grateful, welcoming back an old friend. (I recently learned the hard way that trying to work with the tags and labels of digital music is harder and less rewarding than you would think.) The distinction between the two versions has turned out to be critically important to me. In fact, when it comes to the UK versions, I think I even understand better the other side of another issue that divides my world, preferring Revolver to Rubber Soul. But Rubber Soul—the US version—is one of the first albums I really knew and it has always been a good deal more than a collection of songs. For me, for various reasons, it feels like no less than the Beatles at their absolute best, inventing a kind of chamber pop music full of moods and shadings, inventive yet simple, charming but never shallow, insinuating itself well into the grains of my life, and forever listenable.

My parents gave me Rubber Soul for my 11th birthday in 1966, which is the album I had asked them for. They were relieved it was the right Beatles album because they had not been able to make out the title for the proto-psychedelic lettering of the brown blob in the upper left corner. They also gave me an anthology of horror short stories, which they knew I liked. I have a birthdate that falls early in the month of March, and many years, especially when I was a kid, it cast a kind of glow over the whole month, which is otherwise useless. That year was a notable example as I immediately retired to my bedroom in all my leisure hours, playing the album front to back to front to back and reading the stories.

The stories leaned toward established classics with a literary veneer. I don't remember all the titles but there were things by Poe, Henry James, and Ambrose Bierce, along with "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "The Open Window" by Saki, "The Most Dangerous Game" by Richard Connell, "The Monkey's Paw" by W.W. Jacobs, perhaps "A Distant Episode" by Paul Bowles. My own preferences happened to be for even more shocking fare, with twist endings—e.g., Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," Jerome Bixby's "It's a Good Life"—but anything that was weird and macabre would do.

Years later I came to realize how deeply impressed by the album and book both together I was. At some point the track sequencing of the album became so familiar that I could hear the beginnings of next songs in the ends of many—even still felt disembodied stirrings to flip a record after hearing "Michelle" and "Run for Your Life"—and many of the moods of the stories were compressed into the music as well. This is no doubt part of the reason I keep making such a big deal out of the versions. When you expect to hear "Think for Yourself" following on the ending strains of "You Won't See Me," and what you get is "Nowhere Man"—which does not belong on Rubber Soul (though it does, and I understand why)—it's naturally upsetting to a certain sense of the order of things. The stories and songs began to interpenetrate more and more.

"The Yellow Wallpaper" is one example, first published in 1892 and now considered a milestone of feminist literature. It's actually a rather long story that takes the form of journal entries by a woman who has been confined by her husband, for the sake of some kind of recuperation, to a single bedroom. The door is locked, the windows barred, and she is forbidden books to read. Even the journal she keeps has to be secret. Gradually she goes mad, evinced by an ever more intense fascination with patterns she sees in the wallpaper of the room. I could lay there in my bed idly reading such a fevered narrative and I happened to have some wallpaper of my own I could look at and search for patterns. Then, perhaps, would come John Lennon singing the lovely song he wrote with Paul McCartney about a strange, tentative one-night stand, "Norwegian Wood": "She showed me her room / Isn't it good Norwegian wood." We are all looking at the walls now.

"Norwegian Wood" remains a solid candidate for the most memorable song of Rubber Soul, of course, and I think it's so good it's even managed to grow some in stature for me over the years. It's famous partly as the place where George Harrison's fascinations with Indian music and the sitar began to be felt, as a sitar is used—much like a Western instrument but adding a strange and wonderful texture. What I notice most about the song now is how artfully structured it is, poised and balanced almost like Japanese art, with a light but certain hand, words and music fitted together seamlessly. In 1987, in fact, a Japanese novel inspired in part by the song was published, Norwegian Wood, which was later made into a movie in 2010. Lennon wrote "Norwegian Wood" in part based on an affair he'd had, though he was at pains to hide that fact from his wife of the time, Cynthia, which accounts for the elliptical way the story proceeds. McCartney finished off the lyrics, making a strange situation even more so by making it sound as if a lover denied sex has burnt the place down in retribution. That is so at odds with the otherwise gentle and plaintive tone of the song as to be positively disorienting. For years I thought the perception had more to do with the stories I was reading than with anything objective in the song, but McCartney later owned up to it. "She led him on, then said, 'You'd better sleep in the bath,'" he told one interviewer. "In our world the guy had to have some sort of revenge." It cheapens the song, though the conflagration was actually the perfect note for me back in my room reading my book of stories and playing the album all the time.

Another story I read: "The Open Window" by Saki (H.H. Munro, a British writer), first published in 1914, a quick piece of stunt work, done in swift sure strokes. Stories by Saki often seem motivated by effect in the same ways as those of O. Henry, and Saki could work his elements cunningly, as the very short "The Open Window" shows. A young girl tells tales and things are not what they appear. The final result is something of a joke, but somehow with a sickening undertow. In my daydreamy hazes, I heard the end of the first side of Rubber Soul with this: Harrison's "Think for Yourself," the weirdly discombobulated "The Word" that followed it, and finally the soothing tones, veering off into incomprehension with the French, of "Michelle." They suit the Saki vibe. "You're telling all those lies," Harrison sings in "Think for Yourself." "Do what you want to do / And go where you're going to." Then "The Word," a wailing shouter it took Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison to concoct, injects a kind of unpleasant anarchy. The most vilified track on Rubber Soul has always been McCartney's "Michelle," which along with "Yesterday" is widely taken as McCartney's nadir (with the Beatles) of "silly love songs" and/or ample reason even not to take him seriously at all. I really don't have a problem with "Michelle" and never have—certainly it's a bit on the cloying side, but it is also disorienting and weird with the language shift and I like that. I see links in "Michelle" to concurrent European pop strains just then coalescing, part of a broader insinuation of pop song with image, practiced by the Beatles themselves (or director Richard Lester) in A Hard Day's Night. The film director Jean-Luc Godard put Chantal Goya in Masculin Feminin. David Lynch later picked up the mantle and extended it with Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Mulholland Dr., and other films. By its very blandness and gorgeousness, there is something in "Michelle" of the unworldly conflation of beauty and horror. Or maybe that's the book I was reading.

It's hard not to overstate the impact of a record album as an artifact—at the time for a lot of people and certainly for me in my room. My door was closed, and I lay on the bed reading the book, and I would take breaks every 15 or 20 minutes to turn the album. Sometimes I wanted to look at the album instead of the book. The front and back were two different worlds, the front a color shot from a strange angle with a strange lens, a background of thick green foliage in shadow and the browns and blacks of the Beatles and their leather jackets. The back was more of a toss-off, a collection of black and white shots pasted up around the track listing. I was fascinated by the image of Paul smoking a cigarette, holding it in his mouth, eyes closed against the smoke which wreathes his face. The cigarette made it seem grown-up, sophisticated, and hardened. Then I considered the shot of George dressed as a cowboy, in vest and boots and jeans and cowboy hat. It annoyed me somehow. It was too cheeky. I preferred another shot of him with his head tilted, in shadow. And there was Ringo flaunting his rings. John peeking out from a bush.

Another story I read: "The Most Dangerous Game" by Richard Connell, first published in 1924, which I ran into later being taught in high school. There's something at once daring and safe about this story—daring in its willingness to embrace the taboo of premeditated murder as sport (and cannibalism and darker regions by implication), and safe in its assumption that the entertainment of such ideas will always be taken as provocative. Today it feels like the world the story was written in had to be safer just by its ability to be so easily shocked. The song I associated with it was the obvious one, that self-consciously very bad song by Lennon, "Run for Your Life"—I mean "very bad" in the transgressive, immoral, juvenile delinquent sense, which thrilled me very much. But it's also one of the few Beatles songs in their whole catalog that has aged most poorly, with that extremely unpleasant and very direct shot of misogyny at the center. But it was a high point for me at the time, I have to admit. It's got a great fast tempo, and it's tuff, and as the last song on the second side I was frequently inspired to stand up on my bed and jump up and down and then right then turn the record over and play it again. Reflex.

I should note that the tones and textures of these songs may arguably be too tight. Many seem almost interchangeable, or maybe that's something about the way I played the album. This was notably the case with "Think for Yourself." I have always been confused about which side of the album it belongs on and I have spoken with others who have the same confusion, and it's always this song—side 1, in case you were wondering. And I wonder sometimes if this isn't also related to missing "In My Life" almost entirely. More likely that's a song I needed to grow into. I think now it's almost certainly the most remarkable song on the album, the one the album should be known by if you had to pick one. It is an amazing song to have been written by a 25-year-old and 23-year-old, Lennon and McCartney, though they later disagreed on who did what and how much. No matter. Few songs anywhere so completely capture and define a feeling that lies on the far side of sentiment. Not nostalgia exactly—not nostalgia at all, I would argue—but simply a poignant awareness that time steals all things but memory, and memory finally fades too with the rememberer, and all that's left are artifacts such as these, and mysteries. The simple lines can be searing: "There are places I remember ... Some have gone and some remain ... Some are dead and some are living ... I know I'll often stop and think about them." The Lennon who'll often stop and think about them has been gone for decades but it's the Lennon I knew and loved best: idealistic, inevitably disappointed, wearing cynicism only as a shallow mask, a last-ditch shield. But holding close—he believed in love as much as any of them, maybe more. Though it may be all you need is love (an inferior song) in the end all we have is each other. That is the wisdom of "In My Life." I also think of it as one of the best examples of a Beatles collaboration. Lennon may be the primary author but he has entirely absorbed McCartney's affinity for gentle affection, and adapted it to his own pain. Fifth Beatle George Martin kicks in a lovely bridge and it's done. The best Beatles song on this album, one of the best they ever made, and only getting better to this day.

1 comment:

  1. You make a convincing case, both for the US version being The Version, and for Rubber Soul as being The Album. I'm partial to Hard Day's Night for best album, but I don't things went downhill (a relative term) until Revolver, and I've always loved Rubber Soul. Like you, I grew up on the US version, although I've been listening to the UK versions for so long I've forgotten exactly what, say, Beatles VI was like. Only place I'd disagree is collapsing "Michelle" and "Yesterday". One is, to my mind, cloying at best, the other a masterpiece. I'll let you decide which is which :-).