Friday, February 6, 2009

Yer Blues

Oh, kids, I just had the worst day yesterday. Just in every conceivable way. Not to get too into it or anything, but suffice it to say that it was one too many freakishly cold days this winter, and I keep getting these annoying headaches, and I am late on practically every outstanding deadline in my less-and-less-pleasant non-Beatles life. The fact that I've been late on everything other than blog posts since this started just shows that my priorities are totally straight, because it IS important to listen to the Beatles at least once a day, as nine out of ten doctors will surely tell you. So at least I'm taking care of my health.

This morning, I'm thinking-- I'm still unhappy. What to prescribe? Do I need a happy song to lift me out of a funk? Or do I need a miserable song that I can wallow in? Yes, yes, I think the misery is more suited for today. But not literally "Misery," which despite its title is not actually a very miserable song. No, it'll have to be a good dose of "Yer Blues" today.

The song is apparently a parody of a trend at the time for British blues bands, or maybe some sort of answer to the question of whether white English guys can actually play the blues, which I guess was on people's minds for some reason. But I also know that John wrote this in India at the Maharishi's retreat, a time of great creativity for everyone in the band, and though it's not impossible that the song was conceived as a parody, I imagine that it began as something much more heartfelt. As John hadn't yet entered his phase of primal scream-esque emotional expression at this point, he hid the real angst beneath a veneer of parody, at least to my ear.

Because there is true angst here. As with "Don't Let Me Down," John's vocal is torn through with feeling, raw with vulnerability and real pain. It almost hurts to listen to. The band backs him up with a lolling, droopy blues beat, Paul's bass just relentless, Ringo's drumming bitter and slick, like it's being played on your skull. They recorded this in a closet off the main studio at Abbey Road, by the way, which is why the song sounds so freaking claustrophobic and terrifying. George and John are both on guitar-- this was a rare White Album session in which all four of the Beatles bothered to show up-- and it's as if both guitars are competing with John's vocal to see which element can sound the most pained. When John sings that last verse-- "Feel so suicidal/ Even hate my rock & roll"-- and the band adopts that swing beat out of nowhere, the feeling changes-- it sounds as though the instruments are mocking him now, or daring him to just shut up and kill himself already instead of singing this long song about it. Yeah, the lyrics are just a part of the parody, and they're definitely over the top, but it's hard to laugh, isn't it?

That last repeat of the chorus, where John is singing into a dead mic and only vaguely audible off in the distance, is the worst part of all-- he's been abandoned, or smothered to death by the instruments, or something gruesome. I believe I've read that this was a mistake that they liked enough to leave in, and John liked this moment enough (I see why) that he repeated it intentionally when he performed it live on The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus. That's the video you've got below. Obviously I love the Beatles', but I have to say I have great love for this version-- which features Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, and Mitch Mitchell-- as well.

I think it's interesting that John performed this live twice-- once here for the Stones' TV special (which the curious can read more about here) and once for his Live Peace in Toronto performance. If I'm not mistaken, the only other Lennon-McCartney songs he performed live were the ones he did with Elton John in 1974, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "I Saw Her Standing There." I could totally be missing something here. Anyway, point is, John liked this song (and very few others from his Beatle years) enough to bring it out live, which makes it seem to me that he felt closer to it than he would have had it been a strict parody of a short-lived pop music trend. And I will say it holds up. "Yer Blues" is a song to lie on the couch to, or better yet, slowly slide off the couch onto the floor to. It demands a stiff drink or three. It's perfect for wallowing. Here's to today being happier than yesterday.

"Yer Blues," released in the U.K. side C track 2 of The Beatles a.k.a. The White Album, November 22, 1968; in the U.S. November 25, 1968.
I am indebted for all discography information to the tremendous

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