Posted by lex, on May 13, 2007
Did you ever wake up with a song in your head, out of nowhere? Couldn’t really sleep this morning, tossing and turning and when I finally cracked an eye to see if I could puzzle it out, this was going through my head:
“I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me…
She showed me her room, isn’t it good, Norwegian wood?
She asked me to stay and she told me to sit anywhere,
So I looked around and I noticed there wasn’t a chair.
I sat on a rug, biding my time, drinking her wine
We talked until two and then she said, “It’s time for bed”
She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh.
I told her I didn’t and crawled off to sleep in the bath
And when I awoke, I was alone, this bird had flown
So I lit a fire, isn’t it good, Norwegian wood.”
Although I wasn’t quite old enough to truly grok what was going on between the lines, I remembered this as being one of the first Beatles songs that wasn’t sort of sappy – none of your “She loves me yah, yah, yah’s” or “I wanna hold your hand,” but something darker and even hidden. I filed it away under the pre-teen category of “Stuff I hope to eventually understand.”
Turns out there was a lot going on in that little song:
It was Harrison, who would later be strongly influenced by transcendental meditation and eventually become a Hindu for the remainder of his life, who decided on using a sitar when the Beatles recorded the song on 12 October and 21 October 1965. As he recounted later:
“We were waiting to shoot the restaurant scene [in Help! the movie] … where the guy gets thrown in the soup and there were a few Indian musicians playing in the background. I remember picking up the sitar and trying to hold it and thinking, “This is a funny sound.” It was an incidental thing, but somewhere down the line I began to hear Ravi Shankar’s name…. So I went and bought a Ravi record; put it on and it hit a certain spot in me that I can’t explain, but it seemed very familiar to me. It just called on me…. I bought a cheap sitar from a shop called India Craft in London. I hadn’t really figured out what to do with it. But when we were working on “Norwegian Wood” it just needed something. It was quite spontaneous … I just picked it up and found the notes and just played it. We miked it up and put it on and it just seemed to hit the spot.”
Complementing the Indian instrumentation, most of the song is in the Dorian musical mode. Although the motif for the melody, the first six notes, sounds like it is directly lifted from the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, they are in fact drawn from the antarã [upper-octave variation] of a well-known gat [fixed composition set to a rhythmic accompaniment] of the late-night rāga Bageshree, in Hindustani classical music.
Which, I betcha didn’t know that last bit. About the antarã of a well-known gat, I mean.
But what’s it all about, Alfie?
The song was apparently inspired by Lennon’s extra-marital flings. Ironically, he wrote it while he was on a holiday with his wife, Cynthia, at St. Moritz in the Swiss Alps. They were joined by the Beatles’ producer George Martin, who had injured himself early in the holiday, and his wife. Martin recalled:
“It was during this time that John was writing songs for Rubber Soul, and one of the songs he composed in the hotel bedroom, while we were all gathered around, nursing my broken foot, was a little ditty he would play to me on his acoustic guitar. The song was “Norwegian Wood”.”
When asked what the lyrics were about, Martin answered:
“My wife is going to give me a hard time for saying this. It was one of John’s indiscretions. I remember we were sitting at the veranda outside our hotel rooms in St. Moritz and John was playing at his guitar and working out the text: “I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me.” He felt that Cynthia had tricked him to marry her.”
Martin referred to the words as “a very bitter little story”.
Yeah, when you put it like that.
Funny, the things that go through your head.