Archive for the ‘JOHN LENNON PART 7: ‘GIRL’ & ‘THERE’S A PLACE’’ Category
Joseph Azize Page
John Lennon: Essence and Reality
Part 7: “Girl” and “There’s A Place”
Ambivalence. Being simultaneously attracted and repulsed. What does it mean to you, not just as a word but as something in your internal life? Are we in fact aware of our ambivalences, intellectual or emotional? I can be aware out of the corner of my eye, or I can see something with full sight and weigh its impact in my life. One of the uses of art, in the wider sense, is that it can be a medium for registering those impressions just barely received and bringing them into centre field.
I don’t know of any rock and roller who had Lennon’s insight into ambivalence and the major part it plays in our emotional make-up. Two of his Beatles era songs, “Girl” and “There’s A Place” express this powerfully if subtly. In fact, in “Girl” there is an even an element of menace. These two songs also have in common that, while they are ostensibly love songs, the chief interest is not Lennon’s lady love, but his mind, and his relationship with Christianity, respectively.
It is a commonplace that Dylan gave the Beatles depth. But is the truth so simple? Before he had ever heard of Dylan, Lennon, with some help from Paul McCartney, penned these words:
There, there’s a place where I can go,
When I feel low, when I feel blue,
And it’s my mind,
And there’s no time – when I’m alone.
I think of you, the things you do,
Go round my head, the things you said,
Like: “I love only you.”
In my mind there’s no sorrow.
Don’t you know that it’s so?
There’ll be no sad tomorrow.
Don’t you know that it’s so?
The singer candidly acknowledges that he feels often sad, and is bothered by problems of the heart. This doesn’t and never did break out into uncharted horizons of self-disclosure: such sentiments had long been standard in songs. But Lennon does not say that his cure for the blues is more love, better love, or his girlfriend. On the contrary, the lady would seem to be the trouble, or at least a large part of the problem pie. Lennon’s solution is inside him, and he preaches the answer: “Don’t you know that it’s so?”
What the bare lyrics do not represent is the weight, accented by the music, given to the significant words “mind” and “time”. Several years before Lennon would be surreptitiously introduced to LSD and psychotropic drugs, he was asserting that in his mind there was a different world, a world in which time itself and the emotions he lived in time, were powerless. Even the opening word “there” is repeated. Once more, when you hear it, you notice something about how the first “there” is sung. It is strung out over five notes, as if tentatively producing something private, a tentativeness reinforced by the forceful repetition of the word in the phrase “there’s a place”. It is an intimate disclosure, but once he’s over the initial hesitation, there is no apology.
The real interest, the true subject matter of this song is his mind. Even when Lennon comes, in the second verse, to the issue of the woman, he places the emphasis on what happens in his mind. What she says goes around his head. His address to her takes the form of a question: don’t you know?
Beneath the rhetorical form, Lennon was asserting that he is immune from sadness and that he has found the key to freedom from time. This point is emphasized: there will be no sad tomorrow, he asserts, just as he’s told us that when he is alone there is no time.
It’s a very short song, just under two minutes. It is just one idea, simply presented. But what is surprising, perhaps even astounding, is that it was recorded in February 1963, when Lennon was only 22 years old, and McCartney was even younger. I am not aware of anything like it in rock and roll. On their first outing into the world of LP records, the Beatles were expressing this ambivalence between the need and desire for both relationships and solitariness, for engagement with the world and not only withdrawal but even transcendence of the world.
I remember reading one critic who wrote something like “There’s a Place’? The Beach Boys did it better on ‘In My Room’.” Interested, I listened to “In my Room”. While I am not concerned to run the Beach Boys down, there was no real comparison. The Beach Boys took a maudlin little number about retiring by oneself, and presented it quite professionally. “In my Room” is about retiring, while the Beatles number includes that, but also speaks of the desire for relationship, and beyond all these, what I have called “transcendence”. No, the intimacy and the depth of “There’s a Place” were simply beyond the Beach Boys. While it’s subjective, nonetheless, to my ear, the Beatles number is a vastly superior melody. My guess is that a lot of people today know “Place”, while few other than confirmed Beach Boys fans have even heard “Room”. That is not the ultimate test of quality, but it isn’t without some bearing.
I now wish to move ahead by about two and a half years to the Rubber Soul record, which Lennon once described as “the pot album” (Steven D. Stark, Meet the Beatles, 182). What a change in sound those two and a half years saw. “There’s A Place” is a song for a four-piece rock and roll band, augmented with some bluesy harmonica. “Girl” is a chic outing by what might be called an “art rock assemble”, with Paul McCartney’s brilliantly conceived use of the guitar to recreate the sort of sound associated with the Greek bouzouki.
In “Girl”, the singer addresses not the woman, but the audience:
Is there anybody gonna listen to my story,
All about the girl who came to stay?
She’s the kind of girl you want so bad
It makes you sorry,
Still you don’t regret a single day.
Ah, girl. Girl.
On a first listening one is struck by two things: the lilting gypsy melody, and the frequent, very direct, even bare use of the word “girl”. The anonymity of the girl is disconcerting.
When I think of all the times
I tried so hard to leave her,
She will turn to me and start to cry;
And she promises the world to me,
And I believe hER
After all this time, I don’t know why.
Ah, girl. Girl.
As the song progresses, the “girl” becomes more and more general. She is every woman, and indeed, from one perspective, every person, because the situation Lennon describes seems universal.
Was she told when she was young
That pain would lead to pleasure?
Did she understand it when they said
That a man must break his back
To earn his day of leisure?
Will she still believe it when he’s dead?
Ah, girl. Girl.
There is something almost fated about Lennon’s relationship with her: he says that he doesn’t regret a single day despite all the pain. There is ambivalence, but once more, there is also transcendence: he rises above both the attraction and the repulsion by virtue of his insight into the condition. But there is more, as the oddness of the last verse may suggest.
What are these questions Lennon poses about a man breaking his back to earn his day of leisure, and the girl’s attitude after the man’s death? Lennon told interviewers (I am fairly sure it’s to be found, for example, in Lennon Remembers), that “Girl” was about Christianity. More precisely, it would have been about his relationship with Christianity. It is a little puzzling, at first, because so far as I know, Lennon was not a church-goer, but he was clearly a keen and interested observer of Christianity. When the furor erupted in the USA in 1966 over his comment that the Beatles were more popular than Christianity and that Christianity would wither and die, he revealed that he had been reading in the area. But he had not been reading mainstream works. As I recall, he had been interested in Allegro’s bizarre ideas about early Christianity being a sort of drug cult. This, apparently, lead him to a theory about the modern irrelevance of Christianity.
Yet, despite his less than flattering remarks about institutional Christianity, and I think that is how the statements have to be read, later that year Lennon fell on his knees and implored “God, Jesus, or whoever the fuck you are”, to just once tell him what he was supposed to be doing (Meet the Beatles p. 193).
Here, in “Girl”, there are four chief criticisms: the girl is smug and self-satisfied, she makes promises she can’t keep, and she accepts or even is pleased by the suffering which men endure, a suffering she does not understand. It is easy to see how these could be applied to individual Christians and even to the institutional Churches. But how would Lennon have known? My impression is that he would have been aware only of the public profile of Christianity in England and America, but this was enough to arouse an antipathy in him.
It is difficult to argue against Lennon’s dislike of what he saw. Had we seen it, we may have disliked it too. But that is not really the point. Lennon expresses, with artistic flair, his reactions to Christianity. And those reactions are not superficial: there is some insight there. Further, it is not preachy. The piece is ostensibly a “love song”, and I am sure most people take it on that level, even if they sense that there is something more intent, even, perhaps, darker, beneath the surface.
Nor is the escape into his own mind of “There’s A Place” a deep and meaningful answer to any of life’s problems. In fact, to an extent, that song is a piece of bravado. The query “Don’t you know that it’s so?” could be taken as a plea for agreement.
As I said at the start, Lennon had a talent for capturing ambivalence. In these two songs, I feel, there is another level to the stated the ambivalence. He has no final answer to the sphinx-woman, and the retreat to his mind is only a palliative, not a solution. But he has the questions, and he has posed them. And that is an honest start.
Joseph Azize has published in ancient history, law and Gurdjieff studies. His first book The Phoenician Solar Theology treated ancient Phoenician religion as possessing a spiritual depth comparative with Neoplatonism, to which it contributed through Iamblichos. The second book, “Gilgamesh and the World of Assyria”, was jointly edited with Noel Weeks. It includes his article arguing that the Carthaginians did not practice child sacrifice. The third book, George Mountford Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia represents his attempt to present his teacher (a direct pupil of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) to an international audience.The fourth book, edited and written with Peter El Khouri and Ed Finnane, is a new edition of Britts Civil Precedents. He recommends it to anyone planning to bring proceedings in an Australian court of law.