I have been listening to The Beatles since I was four years old. I’ve heard “Norwegian Wood” so many times that I don’t really hear it anymore. It is like a tree or a shrub — it’s just there, part of the landscape. When I pick up a guitar I play it almost absent-mindedly. Even my fingers take it for granted.
So what planetary alignment caused me to hear “Norwegian Wood” after thousands of listenings is beyond me. That’s how songs are. I have my initial crush when I first meet them, and then somewhere along the line I take them for granted until one day it’s like I’m meeting them again for the first time and I’m stunned by how smart and pretty and funny they are. I don’t know why it happens but it does.
I’m not a huge fan of pre-Rubber Soul Beatles. The songs are too trite, too shallow. “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You,” the early songs for me lack the depth of real emotion, and I’m not the only one. The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll (1980) said about “Norwegian Wood”: “In terms of lyrics, The Beatles were will writing about love, but this was a new kind of love: contingent, scary and vital in a way that countenanced ambiguities and doubts earlier songs had skimmed right over.” So we’re agreed — there’s something different about “Norwegian Wood.” But what?
It’s not likely that mankind invented a “new kind of love” in 1965; however, in terms of music there was certainly a new kind of audience emerging. As in loco parentis rules were stricken from university charters throughout the country, The Beatles’ audience became if not more sexually active at least more open about their sexuality. Around that same time the band’s music matured. Perhaps this is a coincidence; perhaps they captured the zeitgeist. Consider the song’s opening lines:
I once had a girl,
or should I say
she once had me?
She showed me her room,
Isn’t it good?
One cannot overlook the double entendre in lines one and three once “she” shows the speaker her room in line four. What is more important to note, however, is that the characters “have” each other. If we accept that “had” here means sex then we must conclude that their tryst is consensual; furthermore, the woman is the sexual aggressor, leading the speaker to her room.
He (the speaker) seems confused by this new openness. In recanting the details of the couple’s night together, he begins with a bragging, locker-room tone (“I once had a girl”), then realizes that perhaps he was just a booty call (“or should I say / she once had me?”). Unable to maintain his cocksman facade at that point he begins to question the details that he would normally brag about (“She showed me her room / isn’t [that] good?).
1965 was a couple of years before the Sexual Revolution and the Women’s Rights Movement gathered momentum, but the seeds were there. Our speaker (the singer) seems to be questioning the middle-class values that have been thrust upon him, just like The Beatles’ 1965 audience presumably would have been. The archaic 1950s stereotype of male-oriented sexual conquest has been turned on its ear with five brief lines.
Likewise, “she” is now a woman on an equal footing with her pick-up. It’s her apartment, she “has” him, etc. Once the couple enters her room she becomes even more brazen:
She asked me to stay and she told me to sit anywhere,
so I looked around and I noticed there
wasn’t a chair.
The implication is that the only place to sit is on the bed, a bold image for a song whose market was screaming, teen-aged girls. Our speaker, however, chooses to sit on the floor and talk (“I sat on the rug”), perhaps uncomfortable with this new sexuality. The song ends with “her” going off to work in the morning while our jobless male sleeps in (and in the bathtub no less), a final nod to the changing sexual landscape of 1960s America.
Now among people who love to hear themselves talk there exists the notion of “intentional fallacy,” which is an egg-headed way of saying “I read/saw/listened, and I know what the artist intended.” No, no you don’t. Only the artist does. On the other hand, it doesn’t really matter what the artist intended, only what the reader/viewer/listeners gets from the artwork. Just prior to his death, John Lennon said the following:
“Norwegian Wood” is my song completely. It’s the first pop song that ever had a sitar in it. I asked George to play this guitar lick on the sitar. In the song, I guess I was very careful and paranoid, because I didn’t want my wife at the time to know that there really was something going on outside the household. I always had some sort of affair going, so, in the song, I was trying to be sophisticated in writing about an affair, in such a smoke-screen way that you couldn’t tell it was real. I can’t remember any specific woman that it was to do with. I don’t know how the hell I got to Norwegian wood.
Lennon’s reflections do not contradict the suggestion that his song was at least in part a response to the social climate of the time; after all, the artist is as much a product of his time as his work. We cannot dismiss the importance of non-European instrumentation as a by-product of the desire to write “the first pop song with a sitar on it.” Instead, we simply must notice that a sitar was in the studio and did not seem inappropriate for a pop song. Both observations speak strongly for the feeling of the times. Similarly, we cannot read Lennon’s explanation of that song as an ode to his marital indiscretions without recognizing that sexuality (and more specifically extramarital sexuality) seemed like appropriate material for a popular song in 1965. I don’t pretend to know what Lennon was on about consciously when he sat down to write “Norwegian Wood;” however, true artists (and Lennon was a true artist) tend to channel the zeitgeist, the feeling of the times.
And this, dear friends, is what happens when: A) You truly hear a song for the first time after forty years of listening; and B) You’re stuck inside my head all day. Next week: Warrant’s Cherry Pie and the fall of the Soviet Union.