It can sometimes be hard to tell, particularly here in 1965, smack-dab in middle-period Beatles, who wrote each Lennon-McCartney song. But I'm putting this one squarely in John's corner. Now, that said, you can't trust John's and Paul's own accounts of who wrote what song-- you have to take into account their bad memories and their impure motives. In the early '70s, when John was debasing Paul every chance he got and writing heinous squirm-inducing screeds like "How Do You Sleep," he tried to take credit for contributing to songs that were clearly 100 % McCartney songs, like "All My Loving." Ridiculous. But ever since John's death and the adoption of Lennon-the-icon as some kind of weird peacenik-genius-hero-martyr for the masses, Paul has felt the need to protect his own legacy, and has been gradually taking credit for collaborating on songs that I firmly do not believe he wrote, including "In My Life," which could not be more of a John song if it tried. (Barry Miles's Many Years from Now, which is technically a McCartney biography but told very much in Paul's own words, is absolutely rife with Paul trying to rehape his legacy-- I think he even credits himself with coming up with the idea for "Revolution #9." Can someone please tell him that his legacy is safe, because he is, um, Paul McCartney? And that, if he wants people to remember how avant-garde and arty he is, and how he's not a mere peddler of silly love songs, then perhaps he shouldn't have written and released freaking "Silly Love Songs"? You gotta own it. Just sayin'.)
Wow, once again I'm digressing hugely. Back to "Norwegian Wood." So this is a song written by John-- though Paul has claimed credit for bits on the middle eight, my ear tells me that they can't have been very significant bits. (Of course Ian MacDonald, that crotchety old a-Paul-ogist, falls all over himself with excitement that Paul might be involved in this song, going so far as to call it "close to a fifty-fifty collaboration." Which I'm going to go ahead and call ridiculous.) This is one of those songs that the band worked and worked on in the studio, trying to get it just right for John, who on some songs could be a gigantic perfectionist and drive everyone else nuts (see also: "Strawberry Fields Forever"). Whatever John thought of it, though, the finished recording is amazing-- a true gem in the catalog.
John wrote this about an affair he was having, doing his best to keep the words kind of vague and poetic-sounding so his wife Cynthia didn't know exactly what it might be about. The "Norwegian wood" is apparently a nasty-sounding wood paneling that was the style at the time in many youthful living rooms, and it would surely catch fire quickly if, say, you wanted to burn a building down just because you didn't get laid last night. As happens in our story here-- though much more punchily told, of course. As John was doing a lot of at this period, there's some Bob Dylan imitation here (which Dylan responded to snarkily with "4th Time Around" from Blonde on Blonde), though to my ear John's Dylan-ness is always oversold. He might be taking in the influence, sure, but he always just sounds like John to me. It's totally possible that at the time, in context, the imitation was more blatant, and anyway by the time he wrote this song the other Beatles were beginning to joke him a bit for it, so clearly people noticed.
Now, for all my talk of John and Paul bickering with each other, I have managed to get this far into the post without mentioning the REAL star of "Norwegian Wood," who, of course, is George Harrison on the sitar. George first discovered the sitar filming a scene in Help! that featured a couple Indian musicians, and later ended up buying a record of sitar music and being captivated. (And how fascinating that George was to discover his life-long love of this rich, complex, beautiful music on the set of Help!, a film that sets back Indian-western relations several hundred years.) On "Norwegian Wood" he apparently brought out the sitar almost as an experiment, with John's encouragement, and tuned it like a guitar to match what John was doing. Later George would learn how to play the thing properly, and he went on to say many times that the sitar playing on this song is NOT really technically correct in any way, but still-- it was the first time this instrument had been used on a pop record, and it was amazing to those who heard it, which is why the effect that got ripped off a bunch of times within the next year or so.
The sitar is what you notice almost first thing, just behind John's energized acoustic guitar entrance. It plays a sweet waltz that's almost lilting, that seems to fall gracefully into each line. There are no drums on this song, either-- Ringo is on the tambourine and maracas for most of it, so it's just that little shuffle of percussion lulling us into the scene.
John's opening vocal is sweet, too, and wistful: "I once had a girl, or should I say she once had me." There's already much more realism and maturity in this song than in, say, "She Loves You," which was only about two years prior-- that's the Dylan influence, but also just the Beatles getting kind of sick of writing that kind of song. Anyway, even though it's already a very adult topic, we can't predict at this point where it'll end up. There's some nice flirtation, some wine, some presumably very intellectual discussion, along with quirky details that flesh things out nicely-- there aren't any chairs, for instance. But in the end all the talk comes to naught, and John's left sleeping in the bath. It's all a very sad story, of course, but who else but John Lennon then burns the whole house down the next morning? And we're still in that sweet waltz time here, so you picture him just waltzing away humming from a burning building. Brilliant. And a thousand miles away from where we started.
"Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)": So beautiful. So demented. While we can debate whether it's one of their best tracks ever, it's certainly one of the most memorable, and one of the strongest entries on the very strong album that is Rubber Soul. An excellent start to what hopefully will be a slightly less weird day for me.
"Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)," released in the U.K. side A track 2 of Rubber Soul, December 3, 1965; in the U.S. side A track 2 of Capitol's bastardized Rubber Soul, December 6, 1965.I am indebted for all discography information to the tremendous Beatles-Discography.com.