Sunday, June 03, 2007

"Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" / The Beatles

The happy last harmonies of “With A Little Help From My Friends” have barely faded away before we’re plucked out of our boozy contentment, borne away on a series of shivery synthesized arpeggios – “Picture yourself in a boat on a river…”

Yes, we have now entered the world of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.” Hearing it for the first time in 1967 was extremely disturbing . . . and exciting. There had been touches of psychedelia on other rock songs before this, but this was a full-fledged assault on our senses. It works on every level – the dense production values, the hypnotic looping melody, the dreamy waltz tempo, the lush surreal imagery of the lyrics. If John Lennon and Paul McCartney weren’t tripping when they wrote this, they were certainly recalling what a trip felt like -- and passing it on to us.

The unstoppered flow of language boggles the mind. It begins with a palette of colors worthy of Peter Max: tangerine trees, marmalade skies, cellophane flowers of yellow and green, and of course the “girl with kaleidoscope eyes.” (All those three-syllable words, perfectly matched to the waltz tempo.) In verse two the ex-art student in John Lennon really begins to romp: “rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies” and “newspaper taxis appear on the shore.” It’s as if we’re in a Dadaist film, as our magical boat glides in slow motion past bridge and fountain and giant flowers to that far-off (far-out?) shore. By verse three, even the everyday setting of a train station looks distorted, with its “plasticine porters with looking-glass ties”). Hmmm … could it be our minds that are altered, and not the landscape at all?

The melody, too, seems in a state of suspended animation – I love how it drifts along on one repeated note, veering only a couple tones in either direction from time to time. The key shifts, but only to find a new note to hang upon. Lennon heaves with enervated langour from note to note, slurring the intervals into chromatic scales. I hear very little guitar here, though the bass does a ghostly stilt-walk through the second half of each verse. A guitar would sound too earthy, I guess -- it would break the spell.

On the verses, John’s double-tracked vocals are sung with ethereal delicacy, and held back in the mix to sound frail and distant; in contrast, the hearty group harmonies of the chorus sound near at hand. All it takes is the repeated cue -- “gone” -- for a robust drumbeat to kick in. The singers punch out the words “Lu-cy in the sky” all on one note, then fall behind the beat and slide downscale for “with di-i-amonds” (skittering into triplets on “diamonds”, as if refracting light). Winding up on an ever-so-slightly dissonant “Aaahhhhhhhh,” they modulate but never resolve that tantalizing chord.

As for the initials – Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds – John Lennon always denied that it stood for LSD, insisting that it came from a drawing his son Julian brought home depicting his school friend Lucy. Pish-tosh. This song was about drugs, that much was clear to EVERYBODY from day one. Yet as the narrator floats downstream, it’s unsettling – searching for Truth, all he finds is an alternate reality. Mutant flowers, pie-devouring rocking-horses, a cloud-filled taxi, robot train porters – it’s practically a Twilight Zone episode. “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” scared me away from drugs.

Anyway, who needs real drugs when you can just listen to this song and get high for free?


George said...

As you have been summarizing and deciphering ... a monumental album and Lucy was and still is ... a real "trip".

Julie said...

I think I just got a contact high from your post. Wow, man.