Thursday, June 25, 2009

I Want You (She's So Heavy)

Sorry I'm late today, kids! Considering how obsessed I've been lately with Paul, what with my seeing him live and stuff now actually imminent, and what with his birthday week only just behind us, it might seem weird that I'm listening today to a song that's all about John Lennon and his all-consuming obsession with Yoko Ono. But listen to the sweet, sweet, godawfully sweet bass line on "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" and you'll hear that there's lots to love about Paul here too. In fact, it's really about all the Beatles-- they totally loved this song, and they all willingly spent a lot of time working on it. And they are all playing like they've found religion. It is beautiful.

At least, that's my take. It continues to surprise me how many people actively dislike this song. I don't know-- maybe you're one of those people. If you are, I implore you to try again once more. Check it out.

I think those who dislike "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" tend to be the types who like their music polished, boasting of structural integrity, and advancing some kind of sophisticated musical idea. Or at least that's my sweeping generalization based on the always-fastidious Ian MacDonald and his disdain for this song. (Tim Riley, my other favorite critic, loves it-- rightly so.) Obviously, "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" tends to not do any of that stuff, at least not in an obvious way. But still, can't you hear the genius at work here? I keep listening to this almost-eight-minute jam over and over, such that the verses just meld together beautifully and that repeating bass figure just runs over and over my brain like a gigantic threshing machine that's harvesting awesomeness.

Let's point out all the ingenious weirdness here. For one, there's the sheer repetitiveness of the thing in both the music and the lyrics, which is particularly unusual from the Beatles. One of my favorite John Lennon moments is in that Rolling Stone 1970 interview again, when he's defending this song, which had been criticized by someone or other as unsophisticated, and he explains that it's really just a scream. I'm paraphrasing here, but he says something like, if you were drowning, you wouldn't say "it would be highly desirable for someone to come fetch me out of this deep lake forthwith," or something-- you'd just scream. That's how he felt in his relationship with Yoko, and so he sets about here writing a musical scream, with repetitive and extremely simple (yet still sort of odd) lyrics, and a backbone composed of relatively simple blues chords and rows and rows of arpeggios. I don't know-- it's an interesting project. Earlier on, John and Paul liked to play around with experiments like writings songs on just one note or whatever, and maybe the idea of writing a scream in musical form appealed to John-- at any rate, I think he nailed it.

In an attempt to make this the loudest scream possible, everything here is overdubbed to death, especially the guitar lines on the long coda, which John and George overdubbed endlessly in a separate session. And then John borrowed George's moog (I wish I had friends from whom I could borrow a moog) to make the windy noises on the coda. And since we're listing what's weird here, there's also the funky metrical disjunct between the verse, which is in duple time (4/4, basically), and the chorus, which is in triple time (a slow 6/8 to my ear). There's no easing into that shift-- it just jars you back and forth between the two different meters for the length of the song. It's awesome.

You know, maybe it was just how different this song was that got the other Beatles so into it. They started working on this toward the end of the doomed Get Back sessions, and since they were clearly tired of playing old-school rock and roll with each other (see, uh, yesterday) maybe a song that was so hard and gritty and loud-as-fuck the way rock should be, and yet was still so odd and new and crazy, was exactly what they were in the mood for. Who knows? Anyway, I think it was the first-begun and last-finished track for Abbey Road, which is because they just kept recording track after track after track of it and loving the hell out of it. You can hear this in the way they're playing. Don't even get me started on the thing of wonder that is Paul's bass line-- it works practically as a countermelody to the vocal, but also almost like a commentary track, just because the bass has so much personality here you can probably hear it growling "baby" at you or something. Totally virtuosic. And Ringo with that vaguely Latino drumming bit, especially in the instrumental verse, is killer. George squeezes every last ounce of soul from the endless guitar arpeggios, and John (rather unexpectedly) turns out to be a genius on the Hammond organ.

When the thing cuts off abruptly after almost 8 minutes, it just leaves you gasping for air, right? Unfortunately, it also set me up for one of the most embarrassing moments of my life, which I'm choosing to reveal here for some reason. So I got Abbey Road on cassette tape when I was probably 12, before I ever knew anything about the Beatles really, and before I'd ever read books on them. And I thought the tape was actually defective. The fact that on side B "Her Majesty" also cuts off abruptly absolutely made me think I had an album that had been taped on too short a roll or some crap. (I don't even know if this is possible, but again, I was like 12, and I didn't KNOW that these songs cut off this way intentionally.) So I returned the tape to the store and got a new one. Now, keep in mind that at various stages someone should have stopped me. Both of my parents-- I mean, my father had a college radio show in the '70s, for God's sake-- should have known that Abbey Road has this EXTREMELY famous musical moment as sort of a trademark, but they didn't (they're, frankly, totally square-- love you guys!). But instead my mom just stood there while I returned the tape to the douchey record store guy. And the douchey record store guy should have known too. I mean, what kind of douchey record store guy doesn't get what I'm talking about when I'm complaining that Abbey Road cuts off abruptly? But no. He ran the exchange and that was that. And when I got home and discovered the same problem, I immediately felt really really really stupid. Triply so when I started actually reading about this album and realized it's kind of a defining moment. This might be a story about me being kind of dumb, but it's also a story about how really strange the ending to this song is, isn't it? I mean, it's just the last thing you expect the first time you listen.

But hey. I've got that off my chest, and I'm sufficiently over it to love this song with all the love that it deserves. Have I convinced any "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" haters? Well, never mind. I'm going to listen just one more time before getting back to work.

"I Want You (She's So Heavy)," released in the U.K. side A track 6 of Abbey Road, September 26, 1969; in the U.S. October 1, 1969.


  1. Yeah, uh, I don't want to turn this into a contest or anything, but I've done MUCH dumber stuff than that.

    I'm no hater, but I can't unreservedly endorse this song, and that's because I think it just goes on too long. I'm referring here to the end; I don't mind that the verses and choruses are largely the same, except for feel. I just think the white noise part doesn't need to go on so long. I don't want to be 'challenged' in that way on a Beatles disc; it's the same reason I never listen to Revolution 9. The rest of the song makes me happy, especially what Ringo's doing. And if that's John playing keys in the instrumental break, well, right on.

  2. While I sort of theoretically understand people's issues with the very very long coda, I respectfully disagree, just because I think it's cool. For me, each repeat builds up more and more psychic energy that gets released in this nuts way when it cuts off. It really does make me kind of tense in a very pleasant way, the way that excellent music makes me tense. But I don't find it challenging. I just ride the wave. I don't know if I'm expressing myself well here.

    Than again, I kinda like Revolution 9 too. Not that I'm dying for the day to write about it here. That day will be... strange.

  3. I'm coming to the dance a day late again. Seem to be out of sync a bit. I'm with Megan on this one. LOVE this song. To me, much of the beauty is IN the repetition. It's hypnotic. Without the repetition the abrupt ending wouldn't work. Not that i suggest the song is constructed from the back forward. When it does end, it's like having the air sucked out of the room. There is just so much to love about this song, as Megan already addressed, as in Paul's bass playing, Ringo's drumming, George's silky guitar. It really is an ensemble effort.

  4. Listen for Paul's bass completely going nuts in the last few minutes of the long play-out. Everything else is repeating, and Paul goes nucking futs, if you will. Amazing stuff.