john+bob

Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah #04: How Dylanesque Were the Beatles? (Part 1)

Or, Green Socks and Norwegian Wood

“If I see or meet a great artist, I love ‘em, you know. I just love ‘em, I go fanatical about them for a short period. And then I get over it. And if they wear green socks, I’m liable to wear green socks for a period.”
— John Lennon

The standard narrative of the Beatles’ career finds them discovering Dylan with The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, his second album and the first to reveal his prowess as a songwriter, which the group first heard while on tour in France. While by all accounts they played the album incessantly, John Lennon claimed to be taken not with Dylan’s lyrics but with his overall sound, the compelling effect of his solo guitar and his untrained, unmistakable voice. “I liked the sound of him; I didn’t have to listen to his words,” he told Jann Wenner in 1970. “You don’t have to hear what Bob Dylan’s saying, you just have to hear the way he says it.” It seems to beggar belief that John Lennon would fail to respond to Dylan’s extraordinary poetics, and some critics have called bullshit: in Revolution in the Head, Ian MacDonald states that “Dylan’s lyrics of this period were so brilliant that rival songwriters could have ‘ignored’ them only out of jealousy or sheer terror.”

While jealousy and fear might have played a part, I think there was something else going on. However strong and independent a figure he liked to appear, Lennon always needed a partner, as his boyhood friend (and original partner in crime) Pete Shotton noted. Of all the Beatles, he was the most dependent on the sense of mutual support and reassurance that came with having three like-minded friends constantly at hand. Dylan confronted Lennon with an intimidating example of a true solo artist: Dylan relied on no writer, producer (or at least not the type of impresario pop producer prevalent in the day), arranger or backup band to create his extraordinary early body of work. Dylan, in other words, embodied a standard of artistic integrity and self-determination that Lennon had barely begun to imagine; when you listened to Dylan, you were hearing him and only him. That, far more than the elevated poetics of his lyrics, is what so profoundly fascinated John Lennon, and probably scared the shit out of him a bit in the bargain.

This serves to explain why his first consciously “Dylanesque” song, “I’m a Loser,” has so little resemblance to how Dylan actually wrote — it’s a “green socks” song, an exercise in surface pastiche: the wailing, all-over-the-place harmonica solo, the strummed acoustic guitar and the ostensibly “serious” lyric. In fact, there’s nothing terribly Dylan-like about the morose self-pity of “I’m a Loser,” nor does it represent such a leap forward for its composer as is typically supposed. Lennon was always conscious of the vulnerable center hidden beneath his acerbic facade, and his early songs repeatedly depict the “strong” man surrendering his reserve and breaking down in tears — “Misery,” “Ask Me Why,” “It Won’t Be Long,” “Not a Second Time” and “I’ll Cry Instead” all feature narrators who turn on the waterworks (or, in the case of “Tell Me Why,” manfully hold them back). “I’m a Loser” takes this lachrymose style to its next logical step, adding a sugar-coating of self-mockery that helps the pill to go down. What John Lennon set out to achieve in “I’m a Loser” was a song that didn’t so much sound like Dylan as feel like him; it was, in other words, more about the way he said it, not what he actually said.

Lennon’s second widely acknowledged attempt at writing in a Dylanesque vein was “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” which picks up roughly where “I’m a Loser” left off six months earlier. The Dylan influence is more obvious here — as Jonathan Gould noted in Can’t Buy Me Love, the song’s first line is a near-direct lift of the opening of Dylan’s “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met).” There is even another reference to clowns, which Lennon obviously internalized as a standard Dylan trope. (In the songs he had released by the time “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” was recorded, Dylan had referred to clowns exactly once.) Notwithstanding the clownish element, the lyric is again the least Dylan-like aspect of the song, with the self-pity of “I’m a Loser” mutating into outright paranoia while still couched in the boy-loves-girl (though the feeling is not necessarily mutual) idiom of the standard pop lyric. What really distinguishes “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” is the performance, which has an introspective ambiance that no Beatles recording had ever had before, calling to mind such intimate Dylan performances as “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “Ballad in Plain D” and prefiguring John’s genuinely revealing work on Rubber Soul later that year.

A writer with a gift for puns and a flair for the grotesque, Lennon nevertheless saw no reason to infuse these qualities into his songwriting in the wake of Dylan’s example. It wasn’t until 1967 and “I Am the Walrus” that Lennon, with more than a hint of cynicism, set out to imitate (and partially send up) Dylan lyrically. “Dylan got away with murder,” he said later. “I thought, I can write this crap too.” Mocking Dylan never got old for Lennon, as this home-recorded parody from the Dakota days will attest:

John Lennon, Dakota recording

In fact, while he never said as much to my knowledge, I don’t think Lennon ever got past the suspicion that Dylan’s vaunted lyricism was just so much pretentious mumbo-jumbo designed to make him look deep, particularly as he (Lennon) matured as a writer and came to regard direct, first-person authenticity as the highest artistic virtue. Though he thought of himself as a writer of poetry, Lennon seemed not to trust poets as a class. Whereas he sought to express himself as plainly and openly as possible, poets were obfuscators who concealed the truth instead of simply coming out and saying it. Lennon described another of his consciously Dylanesque pieces, “Norwegian Wood,” in precisely those terms: “I was trying to write about an affair without letting me wife know I was writing about an affair, so it was very gobbledygook.” Dylan, he said later in his life, hid his true self “with a subterfuge of clever, Allen Ginsberg-type words.” Lennon almost seems to have felt that Dylan’s powers as an artist worked in spite, rather than because, of his lyrics.

This is not to say that Lennon did not revere Dylan in his own way; like most songwriters of his generation, he acknowledged Dylan’s example as a prime force in his own maturation as an artist. Lennon’s “green socks” songs show him experimenting with a variation on Dylan’s persona as a means to finding his own artistic voice, aping the superficial characteristics of Dylan’s style in the hope of invoking a greater authenticity. It is no surprise that he truly came into his own as a songwriter once he stopped doing that. There is nothing Dylan-like about “She Said She Said,” “In My Life,” “Rain” or “Strawberry Fields Forever,” unless it is that same quality of individualism that permeated Dylan’s groundbreaking records — that unmistakable sense that you are hearing an artist expressing himself without compromise and in full command of his voice.

Next month: part two. (For real.)