In his life of John Lennon the writer Philip Norman states that at least seven of the songs in The Beatles album Rubber Soul were ‘of an order so different, so vastly superior, it was hard to believe they sprang from the same musicians, the same studio or moment in time. He continues: ‘In them, John’s and Paul’s individual creative voices first come clearly into counterpoint: one that of a matchlessly artful, perfectly focused commercial songwriter, the other torn between the impulses of a poet, journalist, autobiographer, satirist, sloganeer, nostalgic and melancholic. Certainly ‘Nowhere Man’, ‘Norwegian Wood’ and ‘In My Life’ carry the strange unpredictable edginess of poetry in a way that most of the other songs do not. While ‘Michelle’, both in words and music, has a classical simplicity of feeling expressed that it really is in a class all by itself.’
But it is the way ‘Norwegian Wood’ catches the listener off guard that recalls the manner, first time around, of a Philip Larkin poem.
I sat on a rug biding my time
Drinking her wine
We talked until two and then she said
‘It’s time for bed’
The reference to Larkin may not be as far-fetched as it sounds, bearing in mind that Larkin’s poem, ‘Annus Mirabilis’, though written in 1967, is set a little earlier, with its celebrated tribute of refrain:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles first LP.
But I can’t seem to stray too far away from the overarching motif of Rubber Soul. While enigmas will always, rightly, remain about who the ‘you’ figures variously are in each of the lyrics, there is an underlying theme in the album that is conveyed most clearly, indeed starkly, in the simple (though far from simplistic) timbre of the vocals and words of ‘In My Life’. It is a great song of the sixties, marking the personal, yet representative, shift in John Lennon’s moving away from his Liverpudlian background, upbringing, and all that he knew and felt for in that time and place. If it is a song of sentiment, so be it, but I can’t say it is sentimental, or exploitative of the feelings he, along with the other Beatles, must have been wrestling with as fame and work was starting to separate them from their own most recent past. Again Philip Norman provides useful background in his biography and sees Lennon ‘recalling the Liverpool he had known as a child and lamenting how, even over his short lifetime, that old, solid world of ships and docks had all but vanished. The choice of subject can have been no accident. His Aunt Mimi was soon to leave Mendips for Harbour View, finally closing the long-extended chapter of his boyhood. His original lyric was a wistful return to years gone by, reliving the bus journey he had taken countless times from Menlove Avenue into central Liverpool, via Penny Lane, Church road, the Dutch and St Columbus, and the Dockers’ Umbrella [elevated railway] that they pulled down.
Somehow, this first attempt to immortalise Penny Lane refused to gel, so John cut the “travelogue” part of the song, making it instead a personal requiem for “friends and lovers … people and things that went before”. Even with an ‘I love you’ payoff, it broke new ground. In the onward-and-upward-thrusting mid-sixties, nostalgia was still comparatively rare.’
A 25-year-old pop superstar was the least likely person to be looking back over his life as if time were already growing short:
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life, I’ve loved them all
(‘In My Life’)
‘In My Life’ is a kind of poem of farewell as ‘memories lose their meaning’ and become instead songs, just as Rubber Soul would mark the threshold behind which The Beatles of Help! were moving on to the more challenging moods and musical experiments of Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s. ‘The Beatles’, Stewart Parker wrote, in only his second column for the Irish Times in May 1970, ‘formed in 1960 and now they seem to have split in 1970. It’s as if they instinctively felt that their corporate identity belonged solely to the decade in which they revolutionised popular music, and to which they virtually contributed a style of life. But maybe the split is only temporary; or maybe, against all the odds, Lennon and McCartney will each develop in unprecedented ways to surpass their former combined brilliance.’
Parker’s words sum it all up, the ‘combined brilliance’ that outlived the decade of its making and survives as fresh and undaunted as the day it was first made and heard well over half a century ago.