Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The lyrical intricacies of Roger Miller and John Lennon

Several years ago, I had an opportunity to appear in the Children's Theatre Experience production of "Big River." One of the things that I gained from that opportunity (other than some knowledge about cigars) was an appreciation of the music of the late Roger Miller, who had the ability to write songs that were simultaneously extremely silly and deadly serious. When you listen to "You Ought to Be Here With Me," for example, you don't know whether to laugh, cry, or both.

I was musing on this while listening to Side 3 of "The Beatles" (a/k/a the White Album) in the car this morning and thinking about John Lennon. Sure, he had his moments, such as the time he took the Communist Manifesto and repackaged it as a sing-along. But I'm not sure if he ever exceeded what he did with "Yer Blues," which (to my count) works on four levels.

  • First off, you can look at it as a straight "Beatles Do The Blues" workout. The Beatles were able to mimic a number of popular sounds of the day, including Motown and country, so why not do the blues?

  • On second thought, perhaps it's just a wild parody of a blues song. Take your average "I feel real bad" Mississippi blue song, then take the lyrics to extreme "Dead Man's Curve" levels. Yes I'm lonely. Wanna die?!?

  • Then again, perhaps the model for this song isn't "Dead Man's Curve," but "I'm a Loser." When that earlier Beatles song was released, the idea of Johnny Moptop being a loser was ridiculous to the public, but life at the toppermost of the poppermost ain't all it's cracked up to be. And with all of the friction going on in his life at the time, perhaps Lennon really did want to die.

  • But a fourth interpretation is possible. After the singer says he wants to die, he then notes that if he isn't dead already, "Girl you know the reason why." In other words, this whole thing is a love song to Yoko.
Now I'm not knocking musicians who don't work on multiple levels, many of whom write very effective songs. In fact, Lennon himself wrote some pretty direct songs that couldn't be misinterpreted. But it's interesting to delve into the music of people like Miller and Lennon and find the intricacies within.

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