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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

You knew I'd dip into the Beatles songbook, sooner or later...

I'm back with another popular song that can teach students of fiction a thing or two.  I'm fascinated by music--by any art, really--that transcends the passage of time.  I recognize a sister in Jane Austen when I read her sharp and usually affectionate skewering of her own society, and I am always astonished to remember that she was writing 150 years before I was born.

If I'm looking at popular music for examples of this phenomenon of art for all time, I'd be an idiot not to look at The Beatles.  They arrived on the scene just as mass media made it possible set the world afire in a way that had never happened before and likely can never happen again.  I was born in the 1960s, so I barely remember The Beatles' phenomenon, but I appreciate their work a great deal.  My 14-year-old daughter can't even imagine life in a world of dial phones and untrammeled smoking in public places, but she is a huge Beatles fan.  The Summer of Love is receding far into the past, but "Yesterday" has a timeless quality that lives on.

Today, there are just too many channels and stations and blogs and websites and media venues for one artist to dominate the culture so completely. Still, Beatlemania would not have survived for a half-century if those lads had not been exceptionally talented songcrafters.  You probably think that I'm going to whip a mega-hit out of the Lennon-McCartney songbook to talk about tonight, but you're wrong.  George Harrison was a writer of delicate masterpieces, but he was laboring in the shadow of his larger-than-life friends, so he gets overlooked.  Let's look at one of his finest songs:  While My Guitar Gently Weeps

First, take a moment to admire that title with me.  I could actually point to that phrase as an example of great writing and quit writing this post.  This title, which is the song's hook, speaks of the love affair between a musician and his constant musical companion.  It speaks of the emotion that pours out of that musician so freely that it seems to come out of the guitar itself.  And the image of someone gently weeping reaches right into my heart and twists it.  Well done, Sir George.

I look at you all...see the love there that's sleeping
While my guitar gently weeps
I look at the floor and I see it need sweeping
Still my guitar gently weeps 

The singer is just sitting there, looking at someone he loves, and he's grieving.  It's a timeless, still moment that extends while he looks around the quiet room and sees the dust on the floor.  He is as far from picking up a broom as a man can be.  He can't do anything but hold his guitar gently and let it speak for him.

Is there a fancy word in this stanza?  There's hardly an adjective or an adverb here, and one thing I almost always do with beginner manuscripts is to take a light saber to three-quarters of the adjectives and adverbs.  Flowery modifiers tend to suffocate the message.  Harrison has excised them, and the adverb "gently" shines so brightly because he did.

I don't know why nobody told you
how to unfold your love
I don't know how someone controlled you
they bought and sold you

Someone--I presume it is a woman--has made a mistake in love.  She--and I presume he loved her--has been betrayed by someone who treated her as a thing of value to be bought and sold.  He doesn't blame her for this tragedy.  He blames them.  And he has told us so, again, without a single flowery descriptor.

I look at the world and I notice it's turning
While my guitar gently weeps
With every mistake we must surely be learning
Still my guitar gently weeps 

He's taken a step back from noticing the dust on the floor...a big step back.  He's so detached that he notices the world in its turning.  Nothing is moving but the earth on its axis and his fingers on that guitar.  He indulges himself in an extraneous adverb--"surely"--but it's needed to drive that third line's rhythm hard, and he wants to move on from this mistake as inexorably as the world turns.

I don't know how you were diverted
you were perverted too
I don't know how you were inverted
no one alerted you 

Excuse me, Sir George, but what are you saying here?

Well, I know what he's saying.  It's the same message as the last stanza.  Someone fooled this woman into a betrayal, turning her upside down, and nobody warned her.  You can sing this trippy stanza if you're George Harrison, but if I were covering the song, I'd have to leave it out.  I also couldn't pull off the Liverpool accent to properly sing "divuhted," "purvuhted," "invuhted," or "aluhted," but it sounds great when he sings it.

(This is akin to my difficulty with the song I dissected three posts back, "Dream On."  I can sing along with the recording.  I can do that monster slide.  I can do those bluesy vocal tricks.  I can even hit the high notes on those shrieking "Dream on"s at the end.  But I can't do those shrieks with a straight face, so no one but my kids will ever hear me do it.  Only the original artist can pull off such shenanigans in public.  Trust me on this.)

And then, on the original Beatles recording, he repeats the chorus and quits.  However, the internet gifted me with these additional lyrics from the original Harrison version:

I look from the wings at the play you are staging
While my guitar gently weeps
As I'm sitting here doing nothing but aging
Still my guitar gently weeps

I simply adore this, and I would absolutely include it in any cover of this song.  Our singer is still the motionless observer, watching the drama the nameless woman has staged and playing a mournful guitar accompaniment as that drama ends.  He has watched the dust pile up on the floor and he has watched the world turn and these things are just reminders that time has passed.  Nothing has happened.  But this isn't true.  He's getting older.  Maybe he'll heal and maybe he won't.  Maybe he'll never do anything but sit there and play.  But his guitar, his first love, sits with him and weeps.

Go ahead and break out The White Album, whether you listen to it on your ipod or a CD or a cassette or...does anybody still own an eight-track?...or on vinyl.  You know you want to.

Happy listening...
Mary Anna


  1. This is totally unrelated to this blog post, but I read this news article today:

    And I thought I'd share it with you so you can inform the misguided journalist that there's another book about post-Katrina out there that she missed! :)

  2. Thanks, Michelle! I'll take a look at it now.