Embrace Your Inner Beatle! “I’m So Tired”

Back to coins for this week’s randomizing method. Seven quick flips to allow the gods of genius and creativity to have their say, and…

Oh gods. Excellent choice. But are you feeling okay? Feeling droopy? Has the work of inspiring creativity gotten you down? Or are you just admiring one of John’s favorite songs? In any case, here we go with…

“I’m So Tired” (Lennon-McCartney, The White Album)

Where to begin? This is one of those songs that critics dislike but listeners don’t forget. That voice! Those words! Like so much else on The White Album, it goes straight to our brain.

I know, I know: why is this millionaire tired? He doesn’t haul bricks or drive a forklift, he doesn’t work two jobs, he’s not on the night shift. He plays music and does drugs and eats whatever he wants. Stop complaining!

Let’s recall where John was at this point. We went through much of this before: rocky childhood bottoms out with the death of his mother (1958). He joins a band, spends a couple years (off and on) in Hamburg playing hours a day, seven days a week (1960-1962). They get popular in Liverpool, meet Brian Epstein, and start recording songs (1962), which makes them famous in the UK and in demand (1963). They land in America and Beatlemania is launched (1964). They go on several world tours, write and record over 150 original songs, put out a half a dozen albums, 20 or so number ones, make two movies (John makes three), experiment with drugs, get married and unmarried, buy houses, give interviews, make videos, shoot photos, go to India, come back, believe in the Maharashi, stop believing, endure the death of Brian, etc. etc. etc. (1965-1967)…

Look, I’m not an expert in geniuses. I don’t know what kind of demands there were on Keats’s time, or Shakespeare’s, or Mozart’s. I would imagine Dante, banned from a city in an internecine feud, was not exactly living a life of repose.

But I’m not sure any creative geniuses ever had a seven-year stretch like the ones these guys had. If I have a week filled with travel, my productivity drops. These guys somehow managed to keep up this frenetic pace and still crank out an astonishing body of material.

Tired? John’s marriage was breaking up. He was suffering from insomnia. And yet he kept bringing in song after song to keep up with the hamster named Paul on the wheel next to him. I think he was spent. I think his body was giving out—but it was his mind too, and his anxiety about the exhaustion of creativity. How do you drop yet another bucket into that well? You know what you’ve done. You know the difference between the excellent and the so-so. You’ve been innovating at a frantic pace for years. How do you keep going?

Here he was saying: I don’t know how you do it. All I can tell you is this: it’s damn hard.

Except he’s not just saying that about writing songs or even being a Beatle. He’s saying it about life.

THE LEAD VOCAL

John loved this song. He loved the way the song sounded, and he loved the way his voice sounded in particular.

One of the ironies of John is that—although he was one of the great singers in popular music history—he hated the sound of his voice. He always wanted the engineers to tinker with it. He wanted it to sound “orange.” He liked the reverb, and the delay, and whatever else they did to give it that mellower, faraway sound. This song has that sound. His voice comes through, but it’s the voice of a guru on a mountaintop and not, say, a bandleader in a basement hall shouting over a screaming crowd.

And yet it’s expressive. It feels so full of heart. In fact, listening to it again, I’m not sure there’s another Beatles song that has a more direct link to John and what he’s feeling.

Listen to the word “so” around twenty seconds in:

How expressive is that! Or here of course, at the “I wonder should I call you, but I KNOW what you would do”:

I can still remember hearing that “KNOW” for the first time. I was an adolescent then, starting to be interested in girls, and already I knew the feelings of frustration. When you like someone and you want them to do one thing, and yet they do something else. You don’t get to write the script! They get to improvise their own lines!

I love the way he sings that. I wonder should I call you…but dammit, I know what you would do! Talk me out of it. Ignore me. Laugh it off. SINCE I KNOW THAT ALREADY WHY SHOULD I EVEN BOTHER.

Oh, Jacke Wilson in seventh grade. How hard it was for you to be in love.

I’ve heard other covers of this song. Nobody nails this “KNOW” like John does. Even John himself doesn’t on the demo versions. He had to dig deep for it.

I once stood up from a table in anger. I turned to leave, and I put on my overcoat in a kind of whirlwind flourish. What was I demonstrating? I don’t know. “You don’t want me here, fine, I’ll leave, but only in this theatrical way.” Or something like that. The back of my coat swept across the table and cleared a path for itself through several empty mugs and glasses, which went crashing to the floor.

That’s how John’s KNOW sounds to me. Other people sing it like someone buttoning up their jacket. John sings it with extravagant anger and self-righteousness. His coat flows behind him like a cape of outrage.

And then this line, the most famous in the song (and one of the more famous in all Beatledom):

I’m so tired, I’m feeling so upset
Although I’m so tired, I’ll have another cigarette
And curse Sir Walter Raleigh
He was such a stupid git

Has there ever been a better rant against cigarettes? Sir Walter Raleigh had popularized tobacco in England.) Or the figures in history that we’re all supposed to learn about and revere simply because they did this or that, except they lived a couple hundred years ago and who really cares anyway, they were probably stupid and boring and did terrible things and smelled bad.

Or a better rant against just…well, life in general? Here you are, looking for some peace, looking for some comfort, alone in the world. And yet…Jesus, nothing works out, and NOBODY UNDERSTANDS what’s going on, and you CAN’T EVEN CALL anyone because they won’t UNDERSTAND, and WHY IS THIS GODDAMN PENCIL SO YELLOW ANYWAY, IT LOOKS SO STUPID AND ARROGANT AND JUST WAITING FOR SOMEONE TO SNAP IT IN HALF.

Crack. The pencil falls to the floor. The pack of cigarettes goes flying across the room. Our genius has captured another moment perfectly.

COVER VERSIONS

This is a great song for a certain type of singer to cover. Elliott Smith has a version, for example. I’m sure there have been others: it’s easy to imagine someone who sings morose, moody music immersing themselves in the lyrics and the semitonal slog of melody. But what if it was sung by a cheery optimist?

That would really be an interesting experiment. What if a smiling, unflappable bundle of love covered this song? Would the song become uplifting? Or would the song’s gravitational pull be too powerful? Would the song become less depressing? Or would the singer find something dark and lonely within them to express too?

Hmmm… If only we knew of some bubbly presence who might let us see how this turns out…well, of course.

Take it away, Mr. McCartney:

And we have our answer. Paul sings it, but he doesn’t feel it. This is the “pretending to be a delta blues singer and giving a huge wink at the audience” Paul. Paul the mimic, Paul the showman, Paul the clown. It’s not right for the song.

THE VOCAL AGAIN

Listen to John at the end here:

I’ll give you everything I’ve got for a little peace of mind.
I’ll give you everything I’ve got for a little peace of mind.
I’ll give you everything I’ve got for a little peace of mind.

The guitars cut out, he just gets the drums for punctuation, and that voice, that voice, that voice, telling us the TRUTH. This isn’t a wink. This isn’t a half-smirk. It’s a cry for help. He sings the hell out of it, as we saw in “Hey Bulldog” and “Nowhere Man.” Nothing is more important to him in the world than offering us this trade of everything for a little peace of mind.

Nothing more important, that is, than telling us how he feels, and expressing the state of his mind. He wrote those words when he felt that desperate, and when he sings the words he can conjure up that feeling again. You can hear it the first time he sings it, and the second, and the third.

And Ringo’s right there with him. Those drum fills at the end are like the irregular heartbeats of a desperate man.

When Paul sings those lines on HIS version, you can imagine him wondering where they’re going to eat dinner later.

PAUL’S VERSION AGAIN

It takes about ten seconds to know where Paul’s going with his version: campy, goofy, charming but not authentic. Listen to John trying to steer him back on course:

Do you hear that cry at 1:05 or so? That anguished, primal howl of John’s, interrupting Paul’s shoop-de-dooing?

Come on, man! “Lay off the booze”? Doing your Elvis voice? This song matters.

I’M GOING INSANE HERE PEOPLE.

That’s what I hear John telling Paul: Sing the hell out of this thing or don’t sing it at all. No? You’re going to mess around? Okay, fine, finish it up, we’ll all have a good laugh, although if you’ll notice mine will be more of a sardonic chuckle, but fine. I get it: you’re afraid of the emotion here. So sing it your way—and then get out of my way so I can record this thing properly.

TIME TO REDEEM PAUL

Ringo’s not the only one who comes through on the actual version. Paul’s harmonies here are perfect. And by that I don’t mean pitch or balance or anything like that. I mean tone and mood and feel. He has a way of singing along with John that almost seems like John’s voice splits into two, going in two slightly different directions, in order to get the job done.

It reminds me of “The Ballad of John and Yoko.” Here’s John, singing about his new love. Paul’s got nothing to do with the lyrics of the song, which are all about John and Yoko being chased all over the place, misunderstood by the press, and finally managing to get married in spite of all the chaos. A diary entry, a love note to Yoko. Storywise, Paul’s on the outside looking in.

And yet he shows up dutifully to help John record it. (George and Ringo were unavailable; this one is all Paul and John.)

Listen to the singing here:

Did you notice Paul singing? (It starts around 1:30, then really kicks in at 2:10.)

Listen to “I’m So Tired” again. I’ve cued it up to the final build, and the imploration at the end. Try to tune out John and just listen for Paul (it’s easier if you’re listening on headphones):

Do you hear Paul? Now that you’ve heard this, you won’t NOT hear him. And he’s singing for his mate. Helping him to realize the sound in his head, and to express that sound. It adds to John’s vocal: deepens it, rounds it out. It makes it a little more jangly and disjointed. A doubling. An extra overlay of madness.

Given the chance to sing lead vocal, Paul went jocular. But when John was singing it, when John was tapping into something deep that only John could tap into, Paul knew what to do.

And to further redeem Paul, take a listen to this demo version, where John hams it up just as much. It sounds like he’s on nitrous oxide:

Every time you try to turn those two into a yin and yang, they show you a yan and a ying, and dance away like chuckling butterflies.)

UNLOCK YOUR INNER BEATLE!

This week, set aside everything that people expect you to do. Focus on how you feel, at this moment, today. Let that pour out of you instead. And when you see the results, be honest about what it means, and don’t be afraid to express it. Use your genius to shape it into something worthwhile, but don’t ever lose the essence of its origins.

Happy Monday, everyone! Push through the darkness and let us know how you feel!

See our previous deep dives into genius here:

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9 thoughts on “Embrace Your Inner Beatle! “I’m So Tired”

  1. I know the White Album’s a big divider, but it’s tracks like this that make me love it. John manages to vocalize what it sounds like when you’ve had the shittiest night’s sleep, your eyes are dry and scratchy, and your cat’s just barfed on your clean sheets. You’re just so exhausted you can’t be arsed anymore.

    On a side note, visiting the Tower of London last year, we came upon Sir Walter Raleigh’s “cell” (I put it in quotes because, well, his cell was a hell of a lot nicer than my first apartment in Boston!). My first response of course was to say he was indeed a stupid git. :p

    Like

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