Thank you, gentle readers, for being so patient. It has been a month and a half since I have last updated my blog. With visits from my fiance, my parents, and a former professor to Singapore, my schedule became very busy and very fulfilling in short order, leaving me with little time to muse on the Countdown. This was especially the case as the semester drew to a close, and grading last-minute assignments and final exams took the priority.
But now, a nice reversal of fortune has taken place. I am back in the United States, at Heather’s apartment, and I have lots of time on my hands as she finishes her last papers of the semester. One thing I have taken to reading is a book I encountered very briefly about three years ago, Jonathan Gould’s Can’t Buy Me Love: the Beatles, Britain, and America. Gould’s work is an ambitious attempt to tie in the band to it’s time, and reflect on them as both participants in, and evidence of, the massive cultural shifts that the 1960s witnessed. An offhand comment by Gould when discussing the Beatles’ Rubber Soul album made me realize that it is, in spite of itself, a thematic album. And the Beatles never figured it out.
That theme is miscommunication, the failure to break through to another due to a want of honesty, articulation, or candor. “Drive My Car” finds a young starlet asking her beau to be her chauffeur, waiting until the last verse to reveal that she has neither fame nor a means of conveyance. The famously cryptic “Norwegian Wood” finds its narrator baffled by his hook-up’s strange behavior. “You Won’t See Me,” finds Paul troubled that a girl won’t respond to his calls. “Nowhere Man”, the first Beatles song to eschew the theme of romantic love, has a title character unable to express himself to the outside world.
Moving along with the album, we have “Michelle,” which is about an actual language barrier between two lovers, bounded by the one sentence of French that McCartney actually speaks, which translates, “these are words that go together well.” “If I Needed Someone” is an attempt by George to tactfully tell an adoring fan he’ll only call her if he needs her, notable for its halting, stilted and hesitant phrases. The lyric is littered with qualifiers like “I guess”, “had you come some other day,” and “maybe you will get a call.” But the song that most openly addresses failure to communicate belongs to the most extroverted of The Beatles, Paul McCartney, in “I’m Looking Through You.” He finds the girl he fell in love with drastically changed, in ways he can’t quite pin down: “you don’t look different but you have changed.” “Your voice is soothing, but the words aren’t clear,” he complains– unable to discern why he and his beloved are incommunicado.
Consider as well the double-sided single recorded and released at the same time as Rubber Soul, “Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out”. “Day Tripper” continues the theme of “Drive My Cart” of being led on by a woman who fails to deliver the goods; the song’s line “She’s a big teaser” is a bowdlerized version of Lennon’s original line, “prick teaser,” if that helps one understand the song’s intent. “We Can Work it Out” is a much more expressive attempt at bridging a communications gap, even as McCartney’s lyrics hone in on arguing his point of view, rather than reaching a mutual understanding. “Try to see it my way,” he implores. “While you see it your way, there’s a chance that we might fall apart before too long.” Agreement, it seems, equates to capitulation.
Altogether, the astoundingly high-quality material that the Beatles recorded in 1965– the most productive period by the greatest band, if you wish to look at it that way– amounts to a plaintive cry to be heard and understood. Although the band suggests a tentative solution in one track, which their psychedelic work would continue to explore, namely that “the word is love,” a more satisfying and exacting solution proved elusive.
Consider the context in which they wrote. With one foot in the resolutely working-class masculinity of dockside Liverpool, and another exploring the sexual libertinism that ran unchecked through swinging London, the Fab Four are at a kind of cultural crossroads, an intersection of developments in their own lives, and greater shifts within society as a whole. Collectively, The Beatles are still trying to navigate their world-weariness, seeking in these relationships a refuge from the torrent of teenage devotion, the relentless series of concerts, interviews, and public appearances that comprised their public life, and the stultifying effect of losing one’s anonymity, and with it much of one’s private self, by virtue of being internationally famous and instantly recognizable. They could (and very often did) have any girl they desired, but these were brief, fleeting encounters, and by definition short-lived and transitory. Pot provided the Beatles a creative outlet for these collective frustrations at this time, but their relational lives remained in tatters, as this album unwittingly demonstrates.
Rubber Soul‘s release date is December, 1965, is a useful halfway point between the parochial “man’s world” of the early sixties that has returned to the public consciousness via Mad Men, and the Summer of Love, the tumult of ’68, and other upheavals that made the end of the 1960s a very different place. At least some of the Beatles’ communication problems that are rampant in these works are due to the confusion and frustration of these changes. Yet, in correctly diagnosing the problem at hand, the Fabs fumble in its resolution.
The problem in these communication dilemmas is almost always, in the narrator’s view, the woman’s fault. Deception and false promises, in the case of “Day Tripper” and “Drive my Car”, callousness in the case of “You Won’t See Me” and “I’m Looking Through You.” Even in “We Can Work It Out,” the woman is ultimately culpable for not taking McCartney’s side in their disagreement. More than any other album the band recorded, this one lacks any expression of remorse, and averts any incentive to change. Despite many of the band’s holistic qualities, a strand of Liverpudlian machismo ran through the works of its three principal songwriters. Whether the song’s narrator is a naif (“Norwegian Wood”), or a victim (“You Won’t See Me”), he remains in the right. This is uncomfortably reinforced in the album’s few non-communicative songs– the patronizing “Think for Yourself,” where Harrison picks apart and disparages his lover’s worldview, and “Run for Your Life,” a vindictive piece where Lennon declares, “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man.” Although there is some remarkable predictions of the sexual revolution, in the aggressive girl who “had” Lennon in “Norwegian Wood”, and the hot-to-trot beau procuring a valet in “Drive My Car,” the narrators find this gender role-reversal scintillating, but ultimately troublesome.
In the end, the love they took was equal to the love they broke. All four saw their 1965-era in marriages or long-term relationships eventually dissolve– John’s marriage to Cynthia because of neglect, George and Ringo’s respective marriages to Patti Boyd and Maureen Cox because of mutual infidelity, and Paul’s to actress Jane Asher because they could not reconcile Paul’s desire for a Northern England-style family life, with Asher’s devotion to her career on stage. Each of these was, in its own way, doomed, as the Beatles simply did not listen nor take much concern in these relationships, leaving them to atrophy. They could articulate the problem through song, but, Liverpool men to the last, could only “look through”, rather than look directly at, the problem at hand.