Tuesday, June 12, 2007

“A Day In The Life” / The Beatles
Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m scared to write about this song. Not scared the way I used to be, pulling the covers over my head when I’d listen late at night. No, scared because it’s too big a song to tackle in 500 words or less. I don’t know where to begin.

Yet the song starts out so softly, unassumingly, with an acoustic guitar and a piano, a gentle encore after the hard-rocking reprise of Sgt. Pepper’s band has rung down the curtain. We picture John Lennon, a detached observer (I see him sitting in an English garden, waiting for the sun), reading the paper: “I read the news today oh boy.” But that melody’s so wistful, so yearning, so impregnated with sorrow, we just know the news won’t be good.

And it isn’t. A man dies in a car crash and the onlookers only care whether he’s a celebrity; the same fickle crowd gives a thumb’s down review to a war movie (remember John Lennon's absurdist flop How I Won the War?); and then of course there’s that baffling feature in verse three: “Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire” – I picture land-mine craters, a scene of grim devastation, though the real news item Lennon saw was about potholes (and he would have known Blackburn, not that far north of Liverpool). But why take the holes to fill the Albert Hall down in London? It makes no sense whatsoever, and therefore it’s the verse EVERYBODY remembers most from this song.

John sits apart, like a Fool on the Hill, musing on these events (the double-tracked vocals add that sense of distance). But in the bridge, Paul tap-dances in with a blithe ditty about waking up (hear the alarm clock?) and going to work. It’s territory the album’s already covered in “Good Morning Good Morning,” but here Paul seems like an eager go-getter -- maybe because he knows that at the office he have that nice little smoke, that’ll send him into his nice little dream…

Which is the dream and which is the reality? That’s just the sort of mirror-within-mirror question this song raises that you could debate for hours. (We haven’t even begun to get into the Paul Is Dead references.) Why is the man in the car crash “lucky”? How did he blow his mind out? Was he in the House of Lords? What’s this book John read? Who are the “they” who have to count the holes?

The arrangement telegraphs to us that this is An Important Statement Song. Behind Lennon’s plaintive vocal, the insistent piano chords and big-build-up drums announce something apocalyptic. The swelling orchestral interlude before and after the bridge, and again at the end – it’s like all hell breaking loose. You can’t just shrug off this song -- and so you work at solving the riddles. Which you can’t.
In the end, we’re driven to that seductive refrain, sung in such a beckoning quaver – “I’d love to turn you on.” There just isn’t any other explanation for that line: It’s an Unabashed Drug Reference. John Lennon believed in the mind-expanding power of drugs, and he’d like us to try it out too. And given the grandeur of this closing track, the powerful finale to this great album – well, it seemed an imperative at the time.

In that respect, it’s a cheap ending. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band isn’t just an advertisement for illicit drugs; it’s about looking for truth, and pushing the boundaries of music, and uniting a generation on one common wavelength.

But just so we don’t think it’s the final word, there’s that last strange babble of aural snippets afterward – which you only heard on the vinyl LP if you didn’t have an automatic tone-arm return. (It wasn’t until college that I heard this bonus bit.) Maybe they’re just thumbing their noses at us; maybe it really does make sense if you play it backward. Who knows?

Maybe the riddle IS the answer.

3 comments:

Julie said...

Since CDs can't be played backward, it may always remain a mystery.

Anonymous said...

"And why take the holes to fill the Albert Hall down in London? It makes no sense whatsoever, and therefore it’s the verse EVERYBODY remembers most from this song."

This isn't a baffling line at all. John literally DID read the news one day, and there was an article describing the poorly maintained streets of Blackburn having approximately 4000 potholes.
Apparently the story surmised that these 4000 potholes represented a volume equal to the interior of the Albert Hall - a pretty spacious venue.

Holly A Hughes said...

Thanks for the edification! However, without that inside info it IS baffling -- and meant to be, I think. The very absurdity of the comparison must have struck John's fancy as he read the article.