Tuesday, May 29, 2018

John Lennon Slits a Vein and Unburdens His Soul In "Yer Blues"

Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me? --Psalm 42:11

My reading pile this past month has included several Beatles-related books including two pertaining to John Lennon, Lennon on Lennon (Edited by Jeff Burger) and The Lost Lennon Interviews by Geoffrey and Brenda Giuliano. The two more inclusive books beside me easy chair here (by inclusive, I mean, books about all four of the Fab Four) are Geoff Emerick's Here, There and Everywhere and The Beatles Lyrics, edited by Hunter Davies.

It was this latter that triggered my desire to share a few thoughts about this particular song. Specifically it was the commentary written by the author, which begins: "This is such a despairing, depressing son you have to be sorry for John writing it, feeling forced to write it, unable to help himself writing it, telling the world he was feeling suicidal."

I've been listening to the White Album since the day it was released. No, rather, since before it was released, because the New York FM station I listened to aired a special two-not broadcast in advance of the release in which the DJs discussed each song and possible interpretations in a two-evening, four hour pre-release airing. I remember well lying on my bed in the dark, eyes closed, taking it all in.

I've said many times that one of my favorite scenes in the film Men In Black is when Tommy Lee Jones complains about a new format for listening to music and that he'll have to buy the Beatles White Album again, for the third time.

The CD version comes on two discs because it's a double album. When asked "what is your favorite Dylan album?" I reply that it's the one I am playing the most at that time. When it comes to the Beatles, the one I play the most is probably the White Album, though Sgt. Pepper and Let It Be are close seconds. And when I play the White Album, it is nearly always the disc two, beginning with "Yer Blues." It is that series of songs from Yer Blues to Helter Skelter that most moves me, with it's lovely lilting Long, Long, Long aftermath. Have I listened to this 100 times? At least. Maybe 300. Or 500. Who knows.

So, when I read the original typed up lyrics in the Hunter Davies books I was struck by a couple things. First, "my mother was of the earth, my father was of the sky" is precisely the opposite of what was released on the final recording. ("My mother was of the sky, my father was of the earth.") Second, to lament that John was suicidal and really wanted to die seems to miss the whole point of what artists/poets are doing when they slit a vein and bleed words onto a page.

* * * *
The opening passage at the top of this post comes from the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament of the Bible. In it, the writer is examining himself. I could have cited any number of passages where the psalmist is wrestling with despair, self-doubt, fear, insecurity. It is a human emotion, which has been captured in a poem or song. To do so is a form of exorcising one's personal demons. Which is why it strikes me strange that people would saying, "Oh my, John is suicidal. Oh no!" There is a difference between feeling and doing.

The heart of the blues is, to some extent, using painful expression to incise the wounded heart, like cutting open an abscess to release the poison that has built up. It is a way of treating infection, except the infection is on the inside. (It is similar to the treatment John would later submit to called Primal Therapy.)

According to one source, the song is simply a parody of the Delta blues that had become popular in Britain in the Sixties. Whether serious or jesting, the song is effective. "Blues is a tonic for whatever ails you," said B.B. King. Playing the blues is one way to be delivered from being blue.

(the original typed up lyrics John began with)

Yes, I'm lonely wanna die
Yes, I'm lonely wanna die
If I ain't dead already
Ooh, girl you know the reason why.

In the morning wanna die
In the evening wanna die
If I ain't dead already
Ooh girl you know the reason why.

My mother was of the earth
My father was of the sky
But I am of the universe
And that's the reason why
Wanna die,
Wanna die
If I'm dead already
Ooh girl you know the reason why.

The eagle picks my eyes
The worm he eats my bone
I feel so suicidal
Just like Dylan's Mr. Jones
Wanna die, Wanna die
If I ain't dead already
You know the reason why

Black cloud cross my mind
Blue mist round my soul
Feel so suicidal
Even hate my Rock and Roll
Wanna die, Wanna die
Yeah, want to die
If I ain't dead already
You know the reason why.
© Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

According to Geoff Emerick's account, The Beatles produced The White Album after a two month hiatus in India. Previous to their getaway, the spirit of the team was upbeat and energizing. When they came back, Emerick writes, they were "completely different people... They had once been witty and full of humor; no they were solemn and prickly... They had once been lighthearted and fun to be around. Now they were angry."

Or as Dylan would put it, "everything changes." And yes, things had changed.

Emerick ultimately disliked this album because of the change in mood, in attitude and the splintering of the team. Since I had no knowledge of the backstory, I drank from this well and found the White Album thoroughly satisfying, including its most bizarre track, Revolution #9. As far as I was concerned at the time, they were The Beatles and they could do no wrong.

Original typed lyrics, with John's edits in black.

Related Links
Beatles Trivia
White Album Trivia 

1 comment:

Rob Geurtsen said...

Your memories expriencing the album the first time, with eyes closed on your bed taking it all in, is probably so similar to how many other people had their first shot of Beatles white album. Close to mine. Just sitting there or lying on the ground, sometimes getting up playing air-guitar along with the song. The next song sitting down again or lying on the floor.
I spent hours lying on the bed with my girl-friend listening to that music, again, and again and again.