Thursday, May 14, 2009

Golden Slumbers

We're dipping into the Abbey Road B-side medley files again with "Golden Slumbers" today. I was humming it to myself yesterday because, well, this is maybe too much information, but I restarted this medication that makes me super-sleepy if I take it even at just slightly the wrong time of day. So I've been walking around these couple days in a weird dopey fog, waiting for my body to readjust. (It's meds for chronic headaches, by the way-- nothing more interesting or severe or depressing than that. In case anyone was curious.)

And besides, yesterday Paul rocked us out. Today let's give him a chance to sing us to sleep. Oh, the many faces of Paul McCartney.

Art thou poor, yet hast thou golden slumbers?
O sweet content!
Art thou rich, yet is thy mind perplexed?
O punishment!

As you might know, Paul took some of the lyrics to "Golden Slumbers" kind of loosely from a poem of Thomas Dekker, a contemporary of Shakespeare. This morning I hauled the ol' Norton Anthology off the shelf to look up some other work of Dekker's, just because I realized I knew nothing about him, but there's actually no Dekker at all in my edition. Which struck me as odd. But then I remembered the rest of the story: Paul read the poem in a song-book lying on the piano at his father's house, not in a normal poetry book. And Dekker's bit about golden slumbers has been, if memory serves, written into all kinds of songs. The above lines are the opening lines of the poem they're from, but here's the part we're interested in:

Golden slumbers kiss your eyes,
Smiles awake you when you rise.
Sleep, pretty wantons, do not cry,
And I will sing a lullaby:
Rock them, rock them, lullaby.

See, I think that somewhere along the way in my years of being a chorus geek, I might have actually sung a choral version of that text myself. So Dekker is maybe sort of a minor poet who happened to write sung poems, or at least poems that work well as song texts (I found a few more poems here that seem to prove the point-- lots of "hey nonny nonny" stuff).

ANYWAY, so Paul saw this poem in a song-book and, since he couldn't read music (and still can't, so he says, which almost annoys me considering he's now a gazillionaire and has delved into classical music, but I digress once again), he wrote his own little melody to it. Of course he also added that "once there was a way to get back home" thing, which kind of makes it for me. As in "You Never Give Me Your Money," Paul's being wistful-- this time more cryptically-- about the impending breakup. Or at least that's how one is tempted to read it in the context of Abbey Road.

"Once there was a way to get back home" sounds like the beginning of a fairy tale and the end of one all in one sentence. Innocence has been established and then lost in the same moment-- and lost irrevocably, as it doesn't sound like the way to get home will ever be found again. Does that make sense? (I can't tell with this damned haze in my brain.) It is a wicked dark way to begin a lullaby. And that line casts a shadow of a very mature, adult wistfulness over what comes next. Paul might sing that smiles awake us when we rise, but did you notice that on this part he started singing in that showman's voice of his? Like maybe THAT'S the part that's a performance? That he's lying to us, or trying to make us feel better even as the tears hang still in his eyes?

Not to get too deeply into the harmonic stuff here, but the music seems to back this up. It opens with those shifty ambiguous minor piano chords, then pushes ahead-- it sounds like it's going somewhere, but it's hard to say where. It actually hits the tonic, a.k.a. the home key (C, if you're curious), the second time Paul sings "home," but it only stays there for a bar before veering off again into minor territory, so it sounded like just a passing chord. By the time you finally come home, on the syllable "by" in "lullaby," you're almost surprised to find yourself there, but you also can't imagine being anywhere else. It would have killed you to be anywhere else. Paul has effectively caught you before you ever knew you were falling, even as his lyrics doubt that you could ever truly be home again.

Is this a little too bullshitty? Eh. Sorry. I'll just wrap up by saying that normally the gargantuan string sound would bug me here, but it doesn't for some reason. I think it's because the whole song sounds so sincere. You can't call the strings corny because the song is so decisively not corny (in my opinion). I don't know, it works. What might also be helping is Paul's bass coming in to ground everything a bit, to say nothing of Ringo crashing into the wash of piano and strings in the middle section. Like a superhero, he comes at exactly the right time, saves the song from being too boring and string-y, and then flies off nobly when his work is done.

Gees, I sure have gone on. Who knew I could say so much about "Golden Slumbers"? Truly, the Abbey Road medley has more to it than meets the ear.

(And one last thing: I've noticed as I've linked to my past posts recently [like, just now] that there are totally comments back there in months past. Thanks for commenting, kids! I didn't even notice it til now, so my apologies, but I appreciate the insightful and interesting and very kind things you've had to say. And I'm glad you're having fun reading back over what I've listened to this year. This has all been fun for me. I'm writing the kind of blog I would like to read, I think, so I'm glad you seem to like reading it too. If I can yammer on like this about "Golden Slumbers," my posts on the REALLY daunting songs still to come in the canon are probably going to be freaking novellas, so good luck and thanks for sticking around.)

"Golden Slumbers," released in the U.K. side B track 8 of Abbey Road, September 26, 1969; in the U.S. October 1, 1969.


  1. More drugs, please. This might be your best post. Not coincidentally, I agree with every single word you said. And this isn't even one of my favorite songs. More drugs = 0 headaches + awesome posts.

    Hitting your back catalog, as opposed to following along from the beginning, allows me to say that this project already has made you a much stronger writer. And you thought you were doing it just for fun!


    I don't think 19 minutes is enough time, but I didn't have a chance, although I lost a minute or two to interruptions. 154 out of 192, although I don't think they should count the second half of Yellow Submarine. I was going to list my misses, but then I remembered that would ruin the test for anyone who wants to take it. Anyway, I was pathetic. I only aced Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, and Abbey Road. Missed one each on Rubber Soul and Revolver, three on For Sale, Let It Be, and the White Album, and four from Help.

  3. I missed 3 each on For Sale and With the Beatles, 2 on Hard Day's Night and Rubber Soul, and 1 on Please Please Me-- hilariously, it was the title track, so clearly I just panicked. And I didn't even bother with the second side of Yellow Submarine. I got all the rest, but that makes sense, considering that I stare a list of these songs and scratch one off each day.

    Thanks for sharing, though! That was fun. I love nerdy quizzes! Also, thanks for the kudos... I like becoming a better writer. Perhaps I can parlay this blog into some kind of ridiculous career.

  4. I was just listening to this with the little guy, and the same thing struck me that struck me when I read this post: Why the hell isn't it 'smiles await you when you rise'? Does 'awake' make sense in some way I just can't figure out?

  5. Troy, I have been wondering that same thing for years. Smiles AWAIT you when you rise is the line from the poem and I've tried over and over again to hear what Paul says, but it could be either AWAKE (which doesn't make sense because smiles can't wake you, or what I think it is "SMILES AWAIT" - makes perfect sense. I have looked at several lyrics sites online and they differ, so I just sing it with him and I say AWAIT - the only thing that makes sense to me!