It might sound like hippy rubbish, but I sometimes genuinely wonder if that interim zone between sleep and wakefulness might have spawned some of the best songs in The Beatles’ catalogue.
Beatles lore is littered with stories in which sleep and idleness play a key part. ‘Across The Universe’ was famously written after an in-bed argument with his wife, Cynthia. Then there’s ‘I’m Only Sleeping’, an ode to the importance of being idle, and an attack on “straight society”. But there’s also John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s famous ‘bed-in’, a play on the form of protest known as the ‘sit-in’, during which the couple invited the press into their motel room while they advocated for world peace.
Yes, in those counter-cultural days, sleep took on political power. It was no longer something you simply did out of pure necessity. It was a statement of intent. It said: “I’m sleeping because idleness is preferable to napalming innocent children in Vietnam. Sleeping is preferable to inciting violence and hatred.” Laziness was, for Lennon, a way of spreading the love. In Lennon’s mind, all the good stuff happened in bed: sleep, sex, dreams. Make of that what you will, but it’s a damn appealing argument.
However, there was also something faintly mystical about Lennon and Yoko’s ‘bed-in’. Perhaps it gained so much attention because it was evocative of that archetypal image of the Buddha sitting beneath his Peepal Tree. Here was a modern-day yogi committing to an exercise in meditation. Staying in bed at the height of his fame was a way for Lennon to detach himself from the world.
‘Nowhere Man’ from the 1965 album Rubber Soul was written from a similar place of isolation. During the writing of Rubber Soul, Lennon was staying in his Weybridge home, eager to escape the mayhem of Beatlemania. He spent countless hours in quiet contemplation, trying desperately to write songs for the upcoming album. Lennon had hit a creative rut and couldn’t find a route through the song he had started writing. He accepted defeat and went for a lie down, and that’s when inspiration struck: “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.”
Again, idleness played a big part, inspiring the song’s lyrical content: “I was just sitting, trying to think of a song, and I thought of myself sitting there, doing nothing and going nowhere. Once I’d thought of that, it was easy. It all came out. No, I remember now, I’d actually stopped trying to think of something. Nothing would come. I was cheesed off and went for a lie down, having given up. Then I thought of myself as ‘Nowhere Man’ – sitting in his nowhere land.”
When McCartney arrived the next day, he found Lennon dozing like a cat – basking in the sunlight streaming through his conservatory windows: “When I came out to write with him the next day, he was kipping on the couch, very bleary-eyed,” McCartney later explained. “It was really an anti-John song. He told me later, he didn’t tell me then, he said he’d written it about himself, feeling like he wasn’t going anywhere. I think it was actually about the state of his marriage. It was in a period where he was a bit dissatisfied with what was going on; however, it led to a very good song. He treated it as a third-person song, but he was clever enough to say, ‘Isn’t he a bit like you and me?’ – ‘Me’ being the final word.”