Wednesday, October 26, 2016

For No One

So today I turn 48. One year younger than James Garfield when he died. Meaning next year I will look pretty much like this.

Hey, it's an improvement.

But I'm not posting this today to fish for shameless birthday wishes. Although thank you! Thank you for remembering! Really, that is just so nice!

No. Today is my birthday. And like I do with many, many different occasions and times of year, I tend to associate my birthday with specific music.

Election Day makes me think of, and listen to, Bob Dylan. I've written about this before, a few times.

When the summer turns to fall and the school year begins, even though I haven't been a student of any kind since 1990, I think of The Replacements. And during those "back to college" times that follow, meaning the fall, I tend to think about R.E.M. Likely because I became such a fanatic of both bands in college.

In the summer it's Bruce Springsteen for all occasions, as it should be,  And on vacation it's often healthy doses of escapist music like the Allman Brothers, Van Morrison, Miles Davis. In the deep throws of winter it's the darker stuff that tends to seep in, such as Warren Zevon and Leonard Cohen. And there is never, ever any time of year when it's a good idea to listen to these guys.

But my birthday? It's always about the Beatles.

A couple of years ago I set out to listen to their entire catalog start to finish in chronological order over the course of my birthday weekend. And I liked it so much I do it each year, a little Beatles marathon (10-12 hours of Beatles music, that is to say) starting with "I Saw Her Standing There" and ending with "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)." So that's where I am now. Thinking about and listening to the Beatles. Because it's my birthday and probably because the Beatles have always been my "birthday band,," dating back to when I was 12 and first started receiving Beatles records for my birthday.

And today I want to write about my absolute favorite Beatles song of all time. Not their greatest song, mind you, but my favorite. "For No One."  Located right smack in the center of Revolver, only the greatest album ever released by the greatest band ever to walk the earth.

(Although to clarifythis is one of their greatest songs, and in fact when Scott and I were putting together our Top 50 Beatles list a few years ago, we both agreed "For No One" should place way up there on any list).

Simply put, they never recorded a more beautiful song, never wrote a more poignant song, never sang a song more perfectly. Did some Beatles songs equal it in those capacities? Of course. But it is this 48-year-old man's opinion they never did it better.

It's everything about the song. The words are some of the most plaintive and mature Paul McCartney ever wrote. He wasn't known for writing about sadness necessarily, at least not as much as John was, but look at these verses and tell me they couldn't be mistaken for the finest tear-duct onslaughts of Roy Orbison, or the saddest of Leonard Cohen's tales.

The day breaks
Your mind aches
You find that all the words of kindness linger on
When she no longer needs you

She wakes up
She makes up
She takes her time and doesn't feel she has to hurry
She no longer needs you

And in her eyes you see nothing
No sign of love behind the tears
Cried for no one
A love that should have lasted years

You want her
You need her
And yet you don't believe her when she says
Her love is dead
You think she needs you

You stay home
She goes out
She says that long ago she knew someone
But now he's gone
She doesn't need you

The day breaks
Your minds aches
There will be times when all the things she said
Will fill your head
You won't forget her

And in her eyes you see nothing
No sign of love behind the tears
Cried for no one
A love that should have lasted years

Those are as gorgeous and they are heartbreaking. Through all of the myriad accolades Macca has deservedly received over the years, I'm still not sure he ever gets his due credit as a first-rate songwriter. But his ability to convey pure loss and sadness without ever slipping into sap or self-pity is staggering. The unconventional phrasing, the intermittent rhyme scheme, the way Paul seems to shape each syllable around his peerless, perfect voice. It's all there. It's genuine anguish Paul writes and sings about, but he does it with such sweetness and intricacy that it's impossible not to feel every word and every note. And see the beauty behind it,

The music is as breathtaking as Paul's words and voice are, even though John Lennon and George Harrison are nowhere to be found. No guitar either. Just Paul on bass, piano and clavichord, and of course Ringo Starr keeping flawless pace with a timekeeping roll that sounds like a slow march. But then there is one more added trump card; Alan Civil with a french horn solo in the middle (and accompaniment at the final verse) that takes the song to somewhere very different and very high and very special, soaring above all and...and I can't believe I am writing thhis...almost upstaging the work of the Beatles themselves with his masterful little run up and down the scale. Paul sounds like defeat and regret when he sings. But Civil's playing makes the hurt feel even sharper, the pain even deeper. And in a sad love song, that's pretty amazing.

Last and by no means least, in a tribute to the power of brevity, "For No One" clocks in at 1:59. That's all they needed to create this piece of timeless musical art. Don't get me wrong—"Free Bird" and "Hey Jude" and "Stairway to Heaven" and "Visions of Johanna" and others all have their well-earned longplay place in the realms of musical royalty. But sometimes, you don't need more than two minutes to get it done.

That's "For No One." And that's my little explanation as to why neither the Beatles, nor anyone else, ever did it better.

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