Monday, May 11, 2009


I'm a day late for Mother's Day, but yesterday I was still out of town, and my own mom lives far enough away that I had no plans with her, or indeed with any other mom in my life, so it didn't quite feel like it. But now that I have a little more time, and I'm filled with the laconic back-from-vacation feeling that's so unpleasant, I thought I could listen to "Julia." It seems appropriate even if a day late.

"Julia" was, of course, John's mother, run over by a car and killed when he was 17, and just at a point in their lives when they were beginning to become closer. (John was raised mostly by an aunt and saw his mother irregularly throughout his youth, which seems to have sort of destroyed him emotionally; his complicated family history is well told in any number of biographies if you're unfamiliar, and no doubt succinctly summarized on Wikipedia.) This song marks the most direct, nakedly personal song he had written up to this point. It's frequently read as an expression of the transfer of John's love and dependency from the memory of Julia over to Yoko-- "ocean child" is what her name means in Japanese. The identity of the woman he's singing about is either Julia or Yoko or both at various points-- it shifts seamlessly, the way a cloud drifts into new shapes so smoothly that it's hard to notice. Yup, "Julia" is case study #1 in armchair psychologists' readings of John Lennon's psyche, no question.

Although the song is so hugely personal and intimate, I don't think you necessarily need to know all of the "Julia" background to enjoy it. For me, it's moving just for its evocative poetry and the sheer beauty of the music. The stuff with John and his mother and his girlfriend lends the whole thing heft and an extra spoonful of poignancy, but all the stuff that's here is gorgeous without it. "Julia" is the only song in the Beatles' canon that John played and sang on all by himself (particularly noteworthy since Paul did so tons of times). And he's playing marvelously: he learned that picking style, apparently, from Donovan, who accompanied the Beatles on their trip to India in 1968.

When people talk about the differences between John's songwriting and Paul's songwriting, they sometimes bring up the notion that John writes "horizontally" while Paul writes "vertically." This refers to their conceptions of melody and harmony: so, John tends to write melodies that hover around one pitch or a few close pitches (in a way, mimicking the natural cadences of speech) and keeps his songs interesting by supporting these melodies with fluctuating harmonies that frequently constitute the meat of the songs. Whereas Paul tends to write melodies that have a wider pitch span and are interesting in and of themselves, while the harmonies seem incidental. Paul is one of those composers who thinks in melody. A lot of Paul's melodies are perfectly effective without any accompaniment at all-- for example, sing "I Will," which precedes "Julia" on the White Album, to yourself right this second and you'll see that it's lovely even when it's just you singing unaccompanied in your office. Then sing "Julia" to yourself and it just sounds like you're droning a lot on one note, because you are. The beauty is all in the chords. I say all this because the "I Will"/"Julia" juxtaposition is a good example of how neither technique is better or worse than the other. You might prefer one or the other some of the time-- we all have our horse in the Paul vs. John question, I'm sure-- but "Julia" proves that you don't need to be a born melodist to write a freaking gorgeous, gorgeous song.

In fact, "Julia"'s near-obsessive (even for John) almost-one-pitch melody is crucial to the emotional impact of the song. The melody sounds childlike and plaintive, an effect heightened by John's understated vocal performance. Beneath that small voice, the harmonies move through hazy, sort of indeterminate chords that really do sound, I think, like clouds, or hair of floating sky, or something. (This is a good song to check Alan W. Pollack on, if you're curious about the specific harmonic analysis.) The long note on the refrain "Juuuuuuuu-lia" that dips down to the tonic pitch sounds almost like a sigh, perhaps a sigh of relief to come to the home pitch-- though of course the "Julia" line picks up right on top of it, so that lines of music hit your ear like waves hitting the shore. (Sorry-- something about "Julia" infests my writing with gratuitous similes.) All of this melodic stuff serves to best set off the really nice imagistic language here. All these streams of images work almost like little haiku-like poems or something, don't they? "Julia, seashell eyes, windy smile, calls me." That's lovely. And when he's not singing haikus, he's singing stuff that sounds almost aphoristic: "When I cannot sing my heart, I can only speak my mind." For so few lyrics, they all pack a punch.

In a texture this spare, little musical gestures take on a lot of importance. At the final few repeats of "so I sing a song of love," the act of John singing a higher note on "song" is so poignant, just so quietly surprising and perfect. Listen, too, for the moments when John's voice is single-tracked or double-tracked. Each time the tracking changes, it's a musical event that means something. My favorite is on that "When I cannot sing my heart" line again-- that bit is single-tracked, and then "I can only speak my mind" becomes double-tracked, as if to sound-- what? More decisive? Maybe. But rest assured these production decisions weren't made by accident.

"Julia" is a quiet, sad song for Mother's Day, but so pretty that it makes me smile anyway. And though it's clearly a window into the heart of John Lennon, I still think there's so much art in what he did here that it can speak to all of us, and make us think wistfully about our own Julias, whatever they are. Sigh.

"Julia," released in the U.K. side B track 9 of The Beatles a.k.a. the White Album, November 22, 1968; in the U.S. November 25, 1968.


  1. Most fanatics know that the melody of I Am the Walrus was originally 'supposed' to replicate the two notes of a police siren, but believe it or not, I never noticed that Julia hangs on B like that. Another 'experiment,' I bet; I've wanted to write like that, just changing the progression around a single repeated note or line. Then again, I can't come up with a melody to save my life.

  2. Apropos of nothing: Remember we were talking about those amazon one-star reviews of Abbey Road? Google Reader just sent me to some car forum where some guy was saying he'd really enjoyed the film Across the Universe. Someone else responded, and then the original poster wrote:

    "I guess I also found out that the Beatles music is REALLY well written, I just never cared for their voices or the way they performed it.

    "To hear some really talented kids singing a different version of the same songs made me
    realize how awesome their music is."

    If that's not worth a laugh on this Monday, I don't know what is. If only the Beatles had found some REALLY talented kids to sing and play their songs! They could have been bigger than Goffin and King!

  3. Yeah, John liked doing tricks like the siren thing. I think they also tried to write "The Word" on one chord, actually, just the hell of it-- speaking of a song I just listened to a couple days ago.

    And-- WHAT?? That IS pretty funny. Yes, isn't it amazing that the songs are good? I always WONDERED why people keep talking about them 500 years after they broke up like they're the greatest band ever, but it took a movie with American-Idol-soundalikes to convince me that there was something to it.

    Is Across the Universe even good? I can't seem to turn away from brief YouTube clips. But I refuse to see it outright, due to a massive distaste for both Beatles covers and stupidity, which the movie seems to have in profusion.

  4. Never watched it. Doesn't sound like my bag. This ringing endorsement probably didn't help.

    You having fun? Taking the family down at the end of the month. If you think of anything must-see, let a brother know.

  5. I'm back in Boston and the rest of my life, so the fun is over. If you're going to DC, though, I think the zoo is a must-see, but that could be just me. The zoo rules and it's free. There are pandas. And a komodo dragon. And a whole invertebrate house with cuttlefish that stare at you creepily.

  6. Yeah, the zoo's definitely on our list. Even my aunt would go with me to the zoo when she lived there, and she hates the idea of animals in captivity.