As we listen to bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, it can become easy to be swept up in the magic, the prestige and the nostalgia. The tantalising ideals of a rock star are what usually attracts us to them in the first place and, as time passes by, this idealism only ever grows. However, one must always remember that there is a fallible human being walking the walk and talking the talk underneath it all.
Usually, that talking takes place on record, and for John Lennon and The Beatles, one song which has always been an ode to these misdeeds has been misread and misinterpreted for years. We’re taking a look back at a Rubber Soul classic, the psychedelic majesty of ‘Norwegian Wood’.
The song has often come under fire but not because it was written about John Lennon’s mistress, which it was, but because it was accused of another sort of cheating. Bob Dylan claimed that ‘Norwegian Wood’ was so similar to his style that he even made a parody of the song called ‘4th Time Around’ which seemed to deliberately mock John Lennon.
Listening to Rubber Soul Dylan replied: “What is this? It’s me, Bob. [John’s] doing me! Even Sonny & Cher are doing me, but, fucking hell, I invented it.” It was a point of frustration for Dylan, but the process saw Lennon finally reach his potential.
Lennon sat on the fence when he was asked about his opinion on the track, ‘4th Time Around’, a song many suggest was Dylan aiming at Lennon, by Rolling Stone in 1968. He avoided further confrontation, stating: “I didn’t like it…I was very paranoid. I just didn’t like what I felt I was feeling – I thought it was an out-and-out skit, you know, but it wasn’t. It was great.”
In truth though, the song was deliberately rolled up in metaphor and mystique, much like Bob Dylan did, because Lennon was intensely paranoid that he would reveal the song’s hidden sentiment and his secret exposed—the extramarital affair he had enjoyed. “‘Norwegian Wood’ is my song completely. It was about an affair I was having,” replied Lennon when speaking to David Sheff in 1980.
“I was very careful and paranoid because I didn’t want my wife, Cyn, to know that there really was something going on outside of the household. I’d always had some kind of affairs going on, so I was trying to be sophisticated in writing about an affair… but in such a smoke-screen way that you couldn’t tell. But I can’t remember any specific woman it had to do with.”
One way in which Lennon managed to keep the affair under wraps, even after putting it on record, was the use of one instrument; the sitar. It distracted casual fans from the content at hand. “I had bought, earlier, a crummy sitar in London… and played the ‘Norwegian Wood’ bit,” remembered George Harrison back in 1980, who played the instrument.
In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1971, John Lennon explained why it was decided to use the sitar on this song. He recalled: “I think it was at the studio. George had just got the sitar and I said ‘Could you play this piece?’ We went through many different sort of versions of the song, it was never right and I was getting very angry about it, it wasn’t coming out like I said. They said, ‘Well, just do it how you want to do it’ and I said, ‘Well I just want to do it like this’.”
Adding: “They let me go and I did the guitar very loudly into the mike and sang it at the same time and then George had the sitar and I asked him could he play the piece that I’d written, you know, dee diddley dee diddley dee, that bit, and he was not sure whether he could play it yet because he hadn’t done much on the sitar but he was willing to have a go, as is his wont, and he learned the bit and dubbed it on after. I think we did it in sections.”
Thanks to the elaborate and unusual construction of the song, it’s sentiment managed to pass by all of The Beatles fans with hardly any realising the salacious content which drove the song. One man who perhaps did notice was the angel to Lennon’s seriouslydevilish ways, Paul McCartney.
Seeing the song for its real value, perhaps, McCartney told interviewers in 1985 of his pivotal role in one of the song’s most perfect images, “It was me who decided in ‘Norwegian Wood’ that the house should burn down… not that it’s any big deal.”
The relationship between McCartney and Lennon may have frayed by the end of their time in The Beatles but, at this point, it was as strong as ever. Judging by their previous comments it’s not hard to imagine that Macca suggested the vivid imagery of the final lines as a way of curtailing Lennon’s insatiable appetite for destruction. Of course, we’re not sure that was ever achieved.
What was achieved however is one of the finest songs of The Beatles back catalogue which comes a long way to represent them as a band. Experimental, dangerous and pop song maestros.