Embrace Your Inner Beatle! Nowhere Man by John Lennon

nowhereman

THE SELECTION

Aha! This week we use the perfect randomizer: four spins of a Life board game dial. Szzzzzzzzz-tika-tika-tika…. and the gods of creativity have chosen!

NOWHERE MAN (LENNON-MCCARTNEY, RUBBER SOUL)

Oh, wow. Once again, the gods seem to have looked out for themselves. Here’s another divinely inspired song, or at least divinely delivered. More on that later.

“Nowhere Man,” from the album Rubber Soul, was written in what John later called his “fat Elvis” period, when he was unhappy, bitter, isolated, troubled, uncertain. Oh, you never knew that? You never knew he was suffering? Here’s Paul:

I think at that point, he was a bit…wondering where he was going, and to be truthful so was I. I was starting to worry about him.

(Gee, Paul, you think? I mean, the guy only wrote a song called Help!)

Oh poor baby, I hear you scoff, a millionaire rock star, lauded by everyone, eating whatever he wants, riding around in limousines, staying in a mansion when he’s not in fancy hotels, boo hoo hoo hoo hoo.

Stop there, scoffer! Do you really know John’s story? Because that simplistic view simply doesn’t get at the pain John had absorbed just a few short years before.

Let’s recall John’s youth.

  • Abandoned by his father, a merchant sailor who can’t stay in one place, then abandoned by his mother, a fairy-like sprite of a woman who can barely sit still.
  • He’s turned over to his Aunt Mimi, a severe woman who does what she thinks is best, which includes a lot of rules and restrictions for a growing boy, even one as gifted and rebellious as John. And although this life is difficult, it is at least tolerable, especially because her husband, John’s Uncle George, is a kindly man and adds a little levity to the household. Then Uncle George dies, leaving John to be raised by the grieving Aunt Mimi.
  • John’s mother returns when he’s a teenager, still not raising him but at least acting somewhat motherlike and…she’s tragically killed, hit by a car after leaving one of her visits to John at Aunt Mimi’s house.

What if that was your childhood? And then suddenly—just seven years later‐ you’re world-famous. Except you’re also unhappily married. And you can’t leave your house. And you don’t know exactly what happened, or why you feel so morose, except…well, you never really figured out how to deal with that past, did you? The Beatles have dominated your present for the last five years. But the Past hovers over you. The Past is deep and dark within you. And at night, when you’re alone in your house and the whirlwind is quiet, the Past looms up.

This was around the time of John’s notorious remark that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. But can you blame him? I don’t think he was bragging at all. I think he was trying to cope.

How do you deal with that much adoration? Those screaming crowds? The sudden feeling that the world finds you special, amazing, transformative? Girls bursting into tears when your car passes by? You know you’re NOT Christ, of course, but you also know that people you’ve never met care more about you than anything else in their lives. What ARE your obligations? What can you DO for them? Give, and give, and give some more? But then what do you do with your own misery?

You don’t want millions of women screaming for you. You want the one woman you can’t have. You want your mum.

And there’s another pitfall of fame, too: you’re treated like an idiot. You read the news, you’re intelligent, you know there are big problems out there that should be addressed. You have a platform: you write songs that millions of people listen to around the world. You’re interviewed by everyone, your picture is everywhere. You COULD make a difference, and maybe you SHOULD. And yet the reporters want to ask you if you plan to get a haircut when you’re in America. There there, young goofy fella, play yer guitar and we’ll clap our hands. My daughter’s jes’ crazy for yer noise I mean music, ha ha. She’ll learn what real music is when she gets older.

All this in a span of time better measured in months than years. Is it any wonder he wrote “Nowhere Man”?

THE MUSIC

“Nowhere Man” is one of roughly two Beatles songs I can play on the guitar, which if you know me will tell you something about the instrumentation. (Very, very, very basic: start here, young Beatles guitar player!) George has a perfect George solo: understated, undistracting, unforgettable. Ringo is Ringo. I admire his drumming the way I admire running water.

But the real heart of the music here are the vocals. Oh man, those vocals. Here they are, isolated in all their glory:

John, Paul, George. And Paul at the end with that final high harmony.

How do you finish off this cry for help? This driving urge (or dirge) of a song? (Dirge? Driving urge? Is that where that word came from?)

Here’s what you do. You bring in Paul to deliver one of his soaring harmonies and you raise the song into something slightly different. The end of the song comes with something slightly finalized and maybe even a little hopeful, though it’s a weary, pessimistic hope.

Pessimistic hope. Hopeful pessimism. John Lennon.

Look at these lyrics.

“Nowhere Man”

He’s a real nowhere man
Sitting in his nowhere land
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody

Doesn’t have a point of view
Knows not where he’s going to
Isn’t he a bit like you and me?

Nowhere Man, please listen
You don’t know what you’re missing
Nowhere Man, the world is at your command

He’s as blind as he can be
Just sees what he wants to see
Nowhere Man can you see me at all?

Nowhere Man, don’t worry
Take your time, don’t hurry
Leave it all till somebody else lends you a hand

Doesn’t have a point of view
Knows not where he’s going to
Isn’t he a bit like you and me?

Nowhere Man, please listen
You don’t know what you’re missing
Nowhere Man, the world is at your command

He’s a real Nowhere Man
Sitting in his nowhere land
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody

I know it’s sung in the third person, and there’s that great line “Isn’t he a bit like you and me,” which universalizes the story into something that we all can share. That’s a great way to listen to the song: here’s a Nowhere Man, and John is a genius who knows people like that, and John shows how we communicate with (and show empathy for) someone in that condition.

But think about it another way. Read those lyrics again and imagine that John is the Nowhere Man, and part of him recognizes this, and his hopeful side is singing to his depressed side.

To appreciate a John song, you have to understand the different sides of John. And a lot of the time, those different sides come out in the song’s different sections. (Sometimes those sections are contributed by Paul, WHICH MAY BE SAYING THE SAME THING.) John has a particular method of setting the tone of a song in a world-weary, heavy, driving, cynical, semi-depressed state, and then changing gears with something imploring and verging on optimism. Here’s the middle of this one:

Nowhere Man, please listen
You don’t know what you’re missing
Nowhere Man, the world is at your command

He always sings the hell out of these sections. A great example is in “Hey Bulldog,” when he interrupts the quasi-philosophical fragmentary nonsense to cry “You can talk to me, you can talk to me / If you’re lonely you can talk to me” as if his life depended on it. It comes in at around 1:20 of this video:

Several of his songs have this pattern. It’s as if one side of him is down in the dumps, wallowing around, and then another side of him says, “Come on, then. Be down there if you want, it’s your choice. But there’s life up here too, and it’s going to pass you by if you can’t get yourself together and get up for it.”

As if his life depended on it. As if his life depended on saving your life.

At the end of “Nowhere Man” he sings the middle again that imploring, stepped-up voice:

Nowhere Man, please listen
You don’t know what you’re missing

Yes, John. You are the Nowhere Man. And we are the Nowhere Man. And we all need to remember what we’re missing. There’s a whole world out there. Life is out there. For us.

Nowhere Man. Now Here, Man.

THE PERFORMANCES

I love the song as it’s recorded on the album, and I love the isolated vocals. But I REALLY love watching the Beatles perform this. They’ve all admitted that the sound was terrible in these shows. Equipment back then was primitive and could not accommodate the noise their fans made; the Beatles performed without being able to hear themselves. And yet, there’s something so gorgeous about watching these four play together.

Look at the smile on George’s face when they start singing the “ahhhh-la-la-la” choruses. What’s behind that smile? I think it’s this: they had already known what it was like to excel at a live performance of a song like “Twist and Shout.” And now they’re singing songs like this one that THEY wrote. And the songs are like bits of philosophy, or beautiful fragments of a mind, like poetry, full of pain and suffering and inner turmoil—and here they are, singing them with the same elements that made their early hand-clap love songs popular. And the three of them can just lock in and sing one of these brand new (and groundbreaking) gems because they’ve been playing and singing together for years but they have the creative energy and the spirit and the presence of mind to take this genre of music into a whole new world.

That’s what I see on George’s face when he can barely contain his smile: Here we go, are we going to hit the harmonies…ah yes. There we are! We locked in. Because we’re pretty good at doing this.

“If you’re going to be in a rock band,” George once said, “you might as well be a Beatle.”

THE WAY, THE WAY, THE WAY

Divinely inspired, you say? Come on, Jacke! You said this was divinely inspired. Looks to me like a suffering young poet, wallowing around in his pain. What’s divine about that?

Well, something divine happened in the song’s origins. John spent a night trying to write something for the new album. Nothing was working. Then he went to bed and suddenly had the entire song in his head. He called it “received.”

“I’d spent five hours that morning trying to write a song that was meaningful and good, and I finally gave up and lay down. Then ‘Nowhere Man’ came, words and music, the whole damn thing as I lay down.”

There you go! Divine! Paul gets “Yesterday.” John gets “Nowhere Man.” Can you summarize those two any better than that?

And then there’s this, which Ian Macdonald catches in his fascinating book Revolution in the Head:

Lennon described his favourite experiences in songwriting in terms of being passively ‘in tune’ with ‘the music of the spheres’: ‘My joy is when you’re like possessed, like a medium, you know.’

Yes, John, I know. That is, I know what you mean. I’m not sure I know how it feels.

UNLOCK YOUR INNER BEATLE!

This week, be open to inspiration, which may come only after you’ve given up trying too hard to make something happen. Don’t be afraid to let go and let your subconscious work. And don’t be afraid to expand your creativity into new territories. You’ve gotten pretty good at many things, and VERY good at some of them: why not apply your strongest talents to a new creative realm? Only through a journey will the very best you be revealed. Don’t be afraid to mix the bitter with the sweet, the strong with the weak, and all your pessimism with a slight note of hope. Truth comes from digging deep, but illumination comes from a single ray of light.

Happy Monday, everyone! Have a great creative week! A whole world is at your command!

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22 thoughts on “Embrace Your Inner Beatle! Nowhere Man by John Lennon

  1. I don’t know why but the bands I played with did NO Beatles songs. Considering how basic and poorly executed our song list was, this worked to their advantage. But alone and on my own I tried so hard to figure out how George did what he did but always just put the guitar down and dug into that alto harmony of John’s on so many of the songs. John’s lead vocals were a closer match for my range and though no future was in store for my singing abilities, I could follow along and have fun with it.

    In college, our university radio station broadcast a complete history of the Beatles. I don’t remember how many days it took but they played the music without talking over the lead in for about two hours every day. My roomates and I missed a lot of classes during that time. We had three Sony reel to reels set up and rolling for the show and ended up with the whole kaboodle. I wish I still had that tape,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, yeah, those radio days, when you’d just pray to catch the song at the right time so you could get it on tape. Getting it without the DJ would be huge: my tapes all had Casey Kasem or Rick Dees or someone telling jokes over the openings, so you’d wind up listening to THAT over and over and over, just to hear the songs.

      Have you tried Rock Band Beatles? You would probably be quite good at it, if you can still nail the harmonies. Pretty fun.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have most of the Beatles songs on my MP3 that I like. Not much from the later albums. If no one is at the pool I have been known to follow John’s harmony now and then. But I can still do Graham Nash’s tenor too. A bit flat now and then but not bad for an old guy.

        My child bride says I nail Glen Fry but he might differ with her biased opinion. I’ll stick to writing for now. Maybe next life time I can get those Harrison riffs and move beyond just listening.

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      2. This is great! I love the idea of singing along when no one is at the pool. Seems so joyous. I hope some of your loved ones have been secretly eavesdropping on you – I bet they enjoy it too.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post, and great song! I agree, that’s one of George’s best solos in the band. It’s my favorite of his solos because he’s sneaky about it–he’s basically using the chords of the song as the foundation of the solo itself, with very minimal embellishment. The bright chiming sound and the harmonic at the end really make it shine.

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  3. I agree completely with what you are saying about some of the Beatles’ songs being “received.” I once read that Michelangelo said he didn’t sculpt anything, he just chipped away at the stone to reveal the sculpture that was already inside. I think the reason much of the Beatles’ work is so universal and so lasting is that it’s always been there, just waiting to be recorded.

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    1. Oh, wow. That’s an interesting idea. I also like songs that sound old, or like classics – Dylan wrote a few of those. You’d think they were several hundred years old, written by “Anonymous” and handed down through generations. But nope. They were him, writing at his kitchen table in 1962.

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