Tuesday, February 3, 2009

She's Leaving Home

You know what? People love "She's Leaving Home." I mean, they LOVE it. I have literally heard people say things like "well, such-and-such is a good song, but obviously not as good as 'She's Leaving Home,' I mean, DUH." Seriously, I hear "She's Leaving Home" and "Duh" in the same sentence together more frequently than one would think. Ian MacDonald, in his classic book Revolution in the Head, writes a paragraph on the song that sounds mostly indifferent before suddenly pronouncing it "the finest work on Sgt. Pepper." And JBev ranks it at #3 among all Beatles songs in the backwards ranking article that lots (including me) were talking about and linking to a couple weeks ago. It was JBev that had me thinking about this again recently.

I like "She's Leaving Home." I like it a lot. But I wouldn't even go so far as to say it's the top song on Sgt. Pepper. Well, that's unfair, given that "A Day in the Life," the most agreed-upon #1 song ever, is there too. But I wouldn't even call it the #2 song on Sgt. Pepper. If we're talking rankings, "Good Morning Good Morning" and "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and maybe even "Fixing a Hole" would come ahead. Even when I was a kid, deep in the throes of my Sgt. Pepper fanaticism, I don't remember feeling like this song was anything other than the next song-- perfect as far as its location on the album, but ultimately, only, a pretty good song. So what's my problem? Am I hopelessly biased in favor of songs by John? (Possible.) Or is it my anti-harp bias? Am I just a philistine and an idiot? Let's find out.

See, it opens with the harp and already I'm feeling a little treacly and wishing we could just skip ahead to Mr. Kite. But onward. These strings, by the way, weren't arranged by George Martin as they normally would have been-- he was unavailable, and one Mike Leander did the arranging instead. I, for one, miss the restraint Martin would have brought. Because here's what I'm noticing: I've always thought I didn't love this song because of the melodramatic lyrics, but as I listen to the words, they're not that bad. Really, if you were to read the lyrics, there's drama, but Paul actually stays fairly restrained and factual. The lyrics just SEEM melodramatic set against the gargantuan melodrama of these strings. Good Lord, those violins are just weeping blood, aren't they?

Let's get to the chorus, which is the best part. Here's where I can see what the fuss is about, actually: what could be better than Paul near the top of his range, sustaining those notes for so long? Sweet. Even better is John singing the parents' lines. Making the parents something other than establishmentarian monsters-- making them human, really-- is what saved this song from being REALLY maudlin. It makes the story as complicated and nuanced as you can probably manage in a three and a half minute song. Though the song is mostly Paul's, they did collaborate on this chorus, and it's a perfect example of the way just a dash of John can really take Paul's songs to the next level. (See also: "Getting Better," "I Saw Her Standing There," "Drive My Car.") (And yes, I know, Paul helped John out this way too-- I have a pro-John bias, but not so badly as to not acknowledge that it worked both ways.)

But back to the chorus. I'm trying to listen to the melodies (Paul's and John's voices are the only contributions on this song by actual Beatles, by the way) above the mess of the orchestra, and actually, this is very good melodic stuff. This would be good with just acoustic guitar too. I like how the chorus ends so ambiguously before going back into the verse. And actually, I am enjoying the waltz feel that the verses ease back into-- it's like the saddest waltz ever, and a subtle one over Paul's long lines of singing, but effective.

By the end, though, I'm newly annoyed at the lyrics: "fun is the one thing that money can't buy," and "something inside that was always denied" and all that. It could be worse, but it's not the best stuff they ever wrote. Maybe I'm being too hard on it-- maybe my real problem is that it's so dated. Doesn't this story sound like the biggest product of its time ever? In fact, Paul wrote this song after reading a story of a runaway teenager in the paper. John did the same thing in writing his bits of "A Day in the Life," but that song has, in my opinion, aged much better. "She's Leaving Home" sounds like the one song that really places Sgt. Pepper as an album of the '60s. For better or worse. At any rate, I AM glad I returned to it. It's complex, it's beautiful, and it might have been a masterpiece if the string had just kept the racket down slightly. OK, people, you (sort of) win. "She's Leaving Home" is better than I thought.

But now I'm going to go ahead to hang out with Mr. Kite.

"She's Leaving Home," released in the U.K. side A track 6 of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, June 1, 1967; in the U.S. June 2, 1967.
I am indebted for all discography information to the tremendous Beatles-Discography.com.

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