Friday, August 14, 2009

Nowhere Man

Last night I had too a little too much to drink. Whatever. And I found myself on the train heading back home singing "Nowhere Man" to myself rather more loudly than is normally considered appropriate on a train. Because that's what I do. I sing wicked loud and sometimes wicked passionately when I'm drunk. It's mortifying, especially to my put-upon (and usually still-sober) husband. At any rate, I'm not sure why this song popped into my head-- I haven't listened to Rubber Soul on its own in too long, honestly-- but there it was in the depths of my psyche. I took it to be kismet, especially since that's kind of how John wrote it.

See, this is the kind of story that would have probably had John labeling me a Nowhere Woman. There's nothing to be proud of about being wasted on a Thursday night just because your workday sucked overmuch or whatever, you know? It's about as ordinary as can be. But I can take any abuse on this point. After all, John apparently wrote "Nowhere Man" about himself, at a point when he was at a moment of crisis about his band, his wife, his ennui, and so on, and he wasn't feeling very pleased with himself either. Actually, he purposely set out to write a so-called "serious" song, a song that would say something important, and after messing around for hours with nothing, "Nowhere Man" seems to have popped out his head relatively complete-- almost they way that "Yesterday" came so naturally to Paul. Isn't it great when this kind of thing happens-- when you work and work, and then when you finally put the stuff away in frustration something just comes to you? Anyway, this seems to make "Nowhere Man" a good one to file away with all the other Lennon armchair psychology songs, if we choose to. Or we can just enjoy a totally solid mid-'60s folk rocker. Either way, I dig it.

I've commented on this before, but one thing the Beatles were really, really good at was a smart and sometimes conservative use of vocal harmonies. So to me, part of why "Nowhere Man" stands out so much is that it milks the vocal harmonies. It's three-part harmonies almost all the way in this song, as if the Beatles have entered, I don't know-- Crosby, Stills, and Nash territory or something, except that it still sounds so Beatley it's unmistakable. That a capella entrance with John and Paul and George singing so thickly is so awesome as to almost be iconic. I rarely bother to post videos from Yellow Submarine here, since the Beatles had nothing much to do with that film, but the sudden entrance of this song is one of the most exuberant parts of the film for me. The sound just blooms from out of the dialogue. (And Jeremy is kind of cute here too.)

But anyway, like John, I enjoy some good dense vocals, and "Nowhere Man" offers some of the best around. The way the three-part harmonies are juxtaposed with the bridges (or verses, or whatever they are), in which John takes the lead with Paul and George la-la-la'ing supportively behind, cleverly gives your ear a break, but all the singing is phenomenal. Between that lush singing and George's sunny guitar-- which had apparently been put up to triple treble or something, with the band pushing and pushing the engineers for more and more treble-- "Nowhere Man" sounds summery and bright, and somehow not as preachy as you would think it should sound if you just read the lyrics. There's a lot of hope here, a lot of smiling and sort of saying "come on, then!" through music. It's lovely. And those musical gestures, for me, rescue "Nowhere Man" from that dirty feeling that some of George's preachier lyrics can sometimes instill in me. (Sorry, George, but the difference just totally stands out.) This is subjective, though. I've read a lot of commentary on the way that John takes himself a bit too seriously here, and maybe that's true, but the sunshine in the music makes the whole thing work for me.

And by the way, it's very unfair of me to brush over George's guitar work as I did above. It surely deserves a few sentences of adulation. This solo is one of my favorites, perhaps-- George works out a pretty countermelody and plays it about as lushly as you can play a guitar (though there's surely echo and so forth to help this out). It sounds laid back and breezy but also earnest enough that you can't hear it as jokey or anything like that. Like the rest of the song, the solo bursts with this underlying optimism. That's the optimism and deft feel that makes "Nowhere Man" one of the strongest tracks on Rubber Soul.

And as such, it was a natural for the Beatles' live act. Here they are playing it in Munich on their last European tour in 1966. Note that they seem to have a hard time nailing the vocals exactly when they do it live-- it's not bad, but it's slightly out of tune. (Which is adorable.)

And here they are doing it at the Budokan in Tokyo. There are similar vocal screw-ups, but I still love it so, especially John's introduction. Anyway, enjoy!

"Nowhere Man," released in the U.K. side A track 4 of Rubber Soul, December 3, 1965; in the U.S. side A track 3 of Yesterday and Today, June 20, 1966.


  1. I think the reason John gets away with it is because he's tempering the tone of the lyrics with the tone of the music. George wasn't as gifted a songwriter -- I mean, ever, if no one minds my saying that, but certainly not at this stage -- and so he couldn't balance the song that way. John was a genius at it. It's funny, I was just this morning watching a totally interesting documentary that was recommended to me by some really cool but random guy on the internet. It was called Composing the Beatle Songbook. And I actually think it was during Nowhere Man that the documentary made this point: that Rubber Soul was sort of the end of John's period of mimicking Dylan, and that Dylan said to John of one song -- I'm pretty sure it was this one -- "But it's so commercial!" and that John replied, "We're the most commercial band in the world." And the commentator on the documentary was giving John (or maybe the group) props for what was still pop and poppy rock, just imbued with more leaningful lyrics.

  2. Hey, I hope I'm not hijacking your post here -- please delete the comment if you think it inappropriate -- but 44 of the 45 Rock Band tracks have supposedly been revealed:

    I Want To Hold Your Hand
    I Feel Fine
    Day Tripper
    Paperback Writer
    Don’t Let Me Down

    Please Please Me (1963)
    I Saw Her Standing There
    Do You Want To Know A Secret
    Twist and Shout

    With the Beatles (1963)
    I Wanna Be Your Man

    A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
    A Hard Day’s Night
    Can’t Buy Me Love

    Beatles For Sale (1964)
    Eight Days a Week

    Help! (1965)
    Ticket To Ride

    Rubber Soul (1965)
    Drive My Car
    I’m Looking Through You
    If I Needed Someone

    Revolver (1966)
    Yellow Submarine
    And Your Bird Can Sing

    Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
    Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band/With a Little Help From My Friends
    Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
    Getting Better
    Good Morning Good Morning

    Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
    I Am The Walrus
    Hello Goodbye

    The Beatles (White Album) (1968)
    Dear Prudence
    Back In the U.S.S.R.
    While My Guitar Gently Weeps
    Helter Skelter

    Yellow Submarine (1969)
    Hey Bulldog

    Abbey Road (1969)
    Come Together
    Octopus’s Garden
    I Want You (She’s So Heavy)
    Here Comes the Sun

    Let It Be (1970)
    Dig a Pony
    I Me Mine
    I Got a Feeling
    Get Back

    Love (2006)
    Within You Without You/ Tomorrow Never Knows

    So that explains why the last two songs are conjoined. But what about that setlist? Boys and three others from Please Please Me, and four from Let It Be (not including Let It Be), but only one each from With the Beatles, For Sale, and Help? No Hey Jude, no Strawberry Fields?

  3. Thanks, Troy! I've been remiss in my Rock Band updates. And, hmm. Yeah, this could be better. Hey Jude isn't there, surely, because it's a piano-driven song-- the Rock Band formula wouldn't really work. It's probably also why Strawberry Fields isn't there. As for the Let It Be list, note that most of those are from the rooftop concert, and the game tends to focus on live gigs. So that could be why.

    But there should ideally be a lot more early stuff. I'd love to get Help, It Won't Be Long, Money, All My Loving, and like lots more. Also, She Said She Said.

    Maybe they'll be available for sale.

    This isn't bad, though. Look! I got my Good Morning Good Morning! And Hey Bulldog is here!

  4. I guess I'm in the minority on this but but I'm one of those naysayers who think "Nowhere man" is one of John's least likeable songs. There's nothing subtle about it, it just feels whiny to me, and an early hint of the "poor me" attitude that sometimes invaded John's work, especially later in his solo years.

    I don't get why the Rock Band list didn't include "Carry that Weight" or "The End." Octopus Garden? Really? Why is that even on the list? And wouldn't they include Ringo's one and only big drum solo from "The End"?

  5. Hmm-- good call on "The End," Anon. And it's fair to not like "Nowhere Man"-- it gets mixed reviews, and it might be too preachy for some. I tend to always go for the Beatles songs with the big fat vocals, so it wins for me.

  6. I like the song for three reasons, several of which are points that Megan mentioned: the killer harmony vocals, the guitar work, and one that Megan did not mention, and that is the "feel" of the song.

    I remember when this song first came out, and it struck me (and probably many other folks) as being not like anything else that had preceded it or was being produced by anyone else at the time, lyrically or musically.

    Glad you enjoyed the doc, Troy.

  7. I feel sad for the Beatles that the Japan concerts were even filmed. They are embarassing. It is good I guess from a historical thing to see how the touring was wearing them down, but the set up in the Budokan was so impersonal that they couldn't connect with the audience, it was truly a case of a novelty act being put up on display, as if they were an animal put up to do tricks. Tony Barrow describes this in great detail in his book. None of the performances from these shows looks good on film. But I do like Nowhere Man, it is a commercial song, but the harmonies are good and it is a nice piece to have in the catalog. Bill