My Pop Life #183 : Rocket Man – Elton John

Rocket Man   –   Elton John

She packed my bags last night pre-flight
Zero hour nine AM
And I’m gonna be high as a kite by then
I miss the earth so much I miss my wife
It’s lonely out in space
On such a timeless flight

And I think it’s gonna be a long long time
‘Till touch down brings me round again to find
I’m not the man they think I am at home
Oh no no no I’m a rocket man
Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone

*

You’re not supposed to post the lyrics of a song in their entirety on the internet because copyright but if that’s the case why are there all those lyrics sites, all with the same mistake ?  As I gently age, with spurts of buckling and recovery, I find my mind grows dim, for things seem more mysterious to me now than they were forty five years ago when I was fourteen years old and grooving to Elton John in my bedroom, in particular this classic and the B-side which was, brilliantly enough, two songs :  Goodbye, and Holiday Inn.  Swoon.  The magic year of 1971, when my ears suddenly opened further, deeper, stronger and every tune held different mysterious beauty, had just passed and now we were in the spring of 1972 and I was on a musical jam roll.

We were in Hailsham.  I had a record player in my bedroom.  It was a luxury, like the view over the fields, and the broom-handle thumps on the kitchen ceiling reminded me of this privilege from time to time.  Rocket Man of course was a masterpiece, a song so perfect that I couldn’t stop burbling about it to my Nan, up visiting from Portsmouth, playing it to her downstairs on the record player while she looked at me with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity.  She’d looked at me before like that, an old-fashioned look perhaps it’s called, but this time I noticed and felt my power.  I was fourteen after all, bursting out all over the place.

“Listen to this bit Nan –

‘ and all this science I don’t understand, it’s just my job five days a week…’

and of course by then I had done two and a half years of fucking science at school and found it baffling, like the smoke signal from the Vatican.  Talk about mysterious.  Perhaps it was the teachers, but perhaps MORE it was me.  Science ?  Nah.

Not for me.  Not my bag.  Not clever enough to understand it and perhaps it was never explained to me properly.  It is the basis of our civilisation after all – engineers and builders, along with medicine and war.    And in the song, when he sings all this science I don’t understand, the music goes all weird and synthesised and jagged suddenly with a staccato chord on the piano to punctuate the oddness.  Like science that you don’t understand, I explained to my Nan.  She looked at me.

Now I understand that it’s the producer’s job to do that sort of thing.  Like the two lines before that :

“Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids,

in fact it’s cold as hell” 

when the song empties out (like Mars, he added unnecessarily) and it’s just Elton and the piano – no drums  – then one slide guitar note on cold as hell to emphasise the emptiness.  It’s completely brilliant, very simple, like brushstrokes on canvas, the effect is concise and emotional.  Modern art is thus made.  And Gus Dudgeon, who produced this song was a genius in the studio, whatever he touched turned to gold around this time : Osibisa’s ‘Woyaya‘, John Kongos’  Tokoloshe Man, Audience’s House On The Hill, much of the Bonzos output, but he was known best for his work with Elton John.

And on the B-side was this stunning song Goodbye which haunted me then and still haunts me now.   Elton of course is a genius, his singing voice is quite superb and his music is exquisite, especially in the 1970s.   I’ve always loved piano pop more than any other kind of music, so Elton is on the high end of a list which includes Fats Domino, Ben Folds, Paul McCartney, Todd Rundgren, Marvin Gaye, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Dr John, Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Brian Wilson, Fats Waller, Little Richard, Randy Newman, Georgie Fame, Alan Price, Harry Nillsson, Rufus Wainwright and so on and so forth.  But it’s the lyrics on this one folks.  I’m not a big on lyrics kind of guy.  Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.  I’m a music kind of guy.  Chord changes and harmonies.  Some people are both, I know.  Maybe I am both, but I’m mainly musical, not lyrical.

But Bernie Taupin though.  What a lyricist.  Check this –

And if you want a drink, just squeeze my hand and wine will flow into my land and feed my lambs

He’s gone all William Blake there.  He’s young, they both are, they’re trying stuff. What’s he on about ?  Post-nuclear holocaust ?  Jesus Christ on the cross ?

And now it’s all over the birds can nest again

But by the end of the song, a mere one minute 40 seconds after it started, Elton’s singing I’ll Waste Away over and over again.  Meaning ?  Who knows ?  Allow it to be mysterious.  Not everything is to be named numbered and explained. Categorized. Collected.  Scored.  Understood. Filed, Forgotten.  I am the poem that doesn’t rhyme.

Sorry I took your time.

The innate drama of the lyrics appealed to me greatly as a 14-year old glam-rock softy.  Sometime I wish I was back in 1972 with my poor Mum banging around the house either with or without her 2nd husband John Daignault, listening to records up in my bedroom. (My and Paul’s bedroom I should say.  We would turn out the light and talk for about an hour every night, both lying down talking at the ceiling.  About everything.  Precious moments.  Healing hours.)  We’d play football outside, watch TinTin and Blue Peter, Crackerjack and Morecambe and Wise.  Top of The Pops.  Match of the Day.  The Big Match on Sundays with Brian Moore.  Chart countdown  with Alan Freeman at 4pm.  Took the bus to Polegate every morning, then the train to Lewes for school.  No important exams.  Just lessons, football, girls, friends. Simple.

Oh well.

Rocket Man though jeez what a song.  It’s the twin brother of Space Oddity of course with the lead astronaut figure singing the song, both songs about loneliness in the end and space, too much space.   Both songs produced by Gus Dudgeon, a few years apart .  Fantastic melody, and fade out :
And I think it’s gonna be a long long time
Many many years later – let’s say 2009 when I was living off Mulholland Drive with my brer Eamonn Walker, a stupid big view of Warner Brothers, Universal and Studio City and the San Fernando Valley (The Valley) stretching down to the ocean beyond.  A local member of the wide Beach Boys family circle aka Adam Marsland announced that he was hosting an Elton John night on Lincoln Boulevard in Venice Beach with his band.  Did anyone want to sing a song?I jumped down his throat and picked Rocket Man and was lucky enough to get the nod.  I sang it at home a couple of times then drove down there.  No rehearsal as I recall or maybe there was a run-through?  The rather fantastic Evie Sands was in the band on guitar.    Other mates turned up : Stevie Kalinich (see My Pop Life 169), Alan Boyd,  Tracy Landecker and some people I recognised a bit.  I delivered the song as straight as I could, just down the line, no interpretation, as Elton as possible.  People clapped.  It was an honour.
Then in 2005 Jenny had been performing in Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues in the West End and on tour with Sharon Osbourne & Lisa Riley.  She had a laugh with them, and Sharon liked her and thus we got invited to the Osbourne’s Christmas Party that year, somewhere behind Harrods.  Ozzie was shuffling around being rude to people and at one point I passed Elton John on the staircase.   I was so utterly nervous/selfconscious and tongue-tied that I completely ignored him, and as I walked up I could hear him going “Well, Really !” as if he was used to people going ahhhh I love you.  Which is pretty much what I should have done. <sigh>  Later on, upstairs I hooked up with David Walliams again (see My Pop Life #7) after many years, but never got to speak with Elton John.  My loss.  Jenny had met him earlier that evening before I arrived and had a nice chat…
Elton at Hove Cricket Ground
We saw him live a couple of times – Wembley in the 90s and Hove Cricket Ground in the noughties.  Brilliant both times.  The real deal.  Such a roster of great great songs.  He wheels them out time after time, knowing that we want to hear Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Bennie & The Jets.  I often think about success and what it means.  For an actor it means no privacy in public, but plenty of choices in work, new stuff all the time.  For a musician there is also no privacy but the work is essentially playing those 20 songs every night, with a few new ones.  When we saw Elton in Hove after about an hour he announced that he was playing a handful of new songs and that to pre-empt the inevitable rush for the toilets he actually suggested that we could all get up and go to the toilet or get a drink – and literally hundreds of people did just that.  “Sorry” said Elton, “We have to play some new stuff otherwise we’d all go completely mad“.   He had two of The Family Stone (as in Sly & The) as his backing singers – Lisa and Rose Stone.  They covered the high notes on the rearranged hits.  It was a fantastic show.
Late September 2012 a small crew – me, Jono Smith (who shot Sus) and Chris Williams with Diane Frangi on stills are shooting a promo for my documentary idea ‘Unsung Heroes’ about the session musicians of the UK Hit Factory 1963 – 1975, inspired by the film Standing In The Shadows Of Motown.  Probably emotionally echoing my own feelings as a character actor, out of the limelight, yet integral to the production I felt like I wanted to lift some of these musicians into a visible place, if only for 90 minutes.  One of the characters I’d lined up was Ray Cooper, legendary percussionist with Elton and others, and one of the producers on Withnail & I at Handmade Films. Spoken to Ray on the phone about it – he was out of the country for the promo dates.  Anyway.  By the time we’d shot five or six days worth of stuff the film was called Red Light Fever, after the nerves which afflicted those musicians who couldn’t take the stress of studio work, being handed sheet music and told to play a solo over bar 36 and so on.  None of the living legends of the studio I interviewed – drummer Clem Cattini, bass player Herbie Flowers, guitarist Chris Spedding, guitarist Alan Parker, singer and arranger Barbara Moore – suffered from Red Light Fever, but it was still a good title.  I wanted to get these interviews before they all died – James Jamerson the Motown bass player is not in the Motown film for example.
Barbara Moore in 2012
Barbara Moore lives in Bognor Regis, just down the road from us in Brighton and we ended up filming her twice because the fellas fell in love with her.  She’ll appear in another post but for now, the story she tells me that first afternoon in her beautiful conservatory is of meeting Elton John in Olympic Studios in Barnes in the late 1960s.  She’d walked past an open door and heard this beautiful piano and vocal coming out – and there was this scruffy fella playing something.  She popped her head in the door and said “That sounds nice” or something similar.  Reg said thanks (for it was he) and said that he was going in to try and sell some of his songs to a producer and get a deal.  “Good luck”  she said. At lunchtime that day in the local pub she asked him how it had gone – he wasn’t too confident, but she then asked if he could join her choir for the afternoon because she was a voice short, someone had let her down.  He said OK, because that’s how he was earning money in those days.
1972
 It was probably two years later that her phone rang.  “Is this Barbara?” said the voice.  “I need some help with a song, would you come down to the studio tomorrow?”   She agreed, and then arranged and led the choir on Border Song which appeared on Elton John’s 2nd LP, entitled simply ‘Elton John‘.  A standout track which Aretha Franklin covered – adding (Holy Moses) to the title – to greater success than the original, although it is now seen as an Elton classic.  The backing singers were Madeline Bell, Tony Burrows and Roger Cook, all of whom were slated to be interviewed for Red Light Fever  – Jenny and I met Madeline Bell for lunch the following Christmas in London (she lives in Spain).  She had been co-lead singer with Roger Cook of Blue Mink, a band created by session musicians including Alan PArker and Herbie Flowers ! with hit singles – Melting Pot, Banner Man, Good Morning Freedom.  Roger Cook was the songwriter behind I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing and many others – some of which Tony Burrows sang on – the session voice of Edison Lighthouse, White Plains, The Pipkins, The Flowerpot Men and The Ivy League and who infamously got banned from Top Of The Pops for appearing three times in one show with three different bands.  “People will think it’s a fix” said the BBC.  But he was the singer on all three songs!  As you can see already, it was a very tight, very small world, and a film exploring it all would be such fun.
Addison Cresswell
What eventually happened after editing the footage forever on my laptop was that Luke Cresswell’s brother Addison Cresswell took my five minute promo, (paid for by Latest TV, a new venture in Brighton run by Bill Smith) and made various people in TV Land watch it.  Addison I knew through Luke and we’d met a number of times, in pubs, at Luke & Jo’s Boxing Day parties, New Year’s Eve parties and he’d invited me to his office one day for a meeting to discuss this doc.  Addison had immense power in UK TV world because he managed all of the main comedians in the UK, including Jack Dee, Lee Evans, Michael McIntyre, Jonathan Ross and Kevin Bridges and had the ear of all the producers.  His style was all swagger and front, larger than life, a Rocket Man indeed and he was very good at his job.  Only BBC4 came back with an offer of £10k, all in for the show once it was complete – they’d buy it, but they wouldn’t fund it.  I couldn’t possibly make it for no money, so we waited for other responses over Christmas 2013, still planning and lining up interviews such as Madeline Bell and Ray Cooper.   Then Addison died at home of a heart attack on December 23rd, a death which shocked me to my bones, causing devastation to his family and shock throughout Brighton, his friends and colleagues, his clients and the TV industry as a whole.  He was 53 years old.   So so sad.  The Boxing Day social was cancelled and a giant hole filled the landscape where Addison had stood.  He was an extremely warm and generous man underneath his bark and laddish flex.  Something that perhaps I appreciate having had a few laddish years myself in my youth.  Addison’s love of his brother Luke, my friend, was also visible and echoed my own feelings for Paul and was the reason why he gave me so much of his time.  He is hugely missed.

And now that it’s all over
The birds can nest again
I’ll only snow when the sun comes out
I’ll shine only when it starts to rain

And if you want a drink
Just squeeze my hand
And wine will flow into the land
And feed my lambs

For I am a mirror
I can reflect the moon
I will write songs for you
I’ll be your silver spoon

I’m sorry I took your time
I am the poem that doesn’t rhyme
Just turn back a page
I’ll waste away, I’ll waste away
I’ll waste away, I’ll waste away
I’ll waste away, I’ll waste away

 
B-side : Goodbye
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My Pop Life #125 : Chickery Chick – Sammy Kaye

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Chickery Chick   –   Sammy Kaye Orchestra

“Chickery chick, cha-la, cha-la
Check-a-la romey in a banonika
Bollika, wollika, can’t you see
Chickery chick is me? “

My mother, Heather Ruby Laming, was born in June 1935 in Portsmouth to mother Ruby née Price and father Horace Laming.  Ruby had come down to Pompey from Abergavenny in her teens and worked ‘in service’ until the birth of my mum.  Below stairs in a rich families’ house in other words.  Something happened there that she almost told me once, then changed her mind.  I’d travelled down to Copnor in North Portsmouth in the 1980s to talk to her about her life.  My Nan would have been late 80s by then, still painting occasionally-interesting abstracts, still lives and strange scenes from road accidents or desolate sea shores.  The house was full of her paintings.  She appeared to be fond of me, regarding me with a tolerant, knowing chuckle as if I couldn’t put one over on her.  She came out with some odd things regarding my Mum – “Heather has always been difficult – she wouldn’t even take the nipple as a baby”.  

That’s a bit dark, I thought.

Her dad Fred Price was a lovely old geezer who used to write funny letters to my Mum when she married my Dad and moved away from Portsmouth, first to Cambridge, then to Sussex. “Winter – drawers – on” he wrote as we entered December.  Clever old stick.  Ruby would have us believe that she was the eternally long-suffering wife of a dreadful husband – Horace, and I wrote about the strange atmosphere pervading his funeral in the late 1960s in My Pop Life #49.

 Almost all of the stories I heard about my Nan were bad, and my own experience talking to her backed them up.  She favoured Mum’s sister, Aunty Valerie, deeply favoured her.   She used to drink heavily when Heather was growing up and going out with my Dad, and once or twice he intervened to stop Horace and Ruby coming to blows.  Or to stop Ruby beating on my Mum.  In any event it didn’t sound like the most closely-knit family.   I remember one Christmas round there when I was about five – where we had to behave.  Keep quiet.  Ssshhh.

Of course when Mum had her first nervous breakdown (that I was aware of) in 1965 (see My Pop Life #54), Nan came up from Portsmouth to look after us while Dad went to work teaching.  She must have lived with us in 2 Manor Cottages, Selmeston, for nine months, for that was how long Mum stayed in the hospital in the end.  The Mental Hospital it was called.  I can’t remember much about that period, having successfully wiped it out of my memory and grown up without its haunting disabilities at the front of my brain.  Buried so deep that it rots my soul from within.  But Nan must have been alternately strict and loving with us, me, Paul and Andrew.  Thinking about it, this was when Andrew was disappeared to Portsmouth to stay with Aunty Valerie and Uncle Keith, so Nan was only looking after Paul and I.  We shared a bedroom.  We talked before we fell asleep, after the light was turned off.  It kept us sane.  Kind of.

Later on, when Nan sold the house in Copnor and moved into a nursing home in Southsea, Mum travelled down to see the house for one last time.  the same one we’d gather in for Horace’s funeral, for Christmas, for strange visits which I dreaded.  When Mum got there the house was empty.  Literally.  No art.  No china.  No furniture.  “Oh“, she said to Ruby, “I thought I could have taken one thing to remember this house by, a saucer or a vase or something“.   Ruby then answered with one of her classics :  “I gave everything to the woman over the road.  She’s been like a daughter to me.” 

When my Mum told me this story I was horrified.  I said “You can’t go on taking this shit, it’s abusive, designed to hurt you.”  Nan was still alive, we were still visiting her in the nursing home.  She was in her 90s now.  “No,” said Mum, “I don’t want to upset her.”  I had another clue to the cause of the mental illnesses mum had been plagued with for what seemed like the bulk of her life.  Not to mention my own bipolarity.

Bollika Wollika.

My friend Richard went to see her one day with Paul and we had an interesting chat about it later.  He thought there was a possibility that she was a lesbian who’d never owned it, let alone come out.  Pretty charitable I thought.

*

This may well be the happiest memory I can retrieve of my Nan…and perhaps have been the first pop song I ever heard, although it would have been from my Mother’s lips.  She remembers it from World War Two when Ruby sang it to her, enjoying the nonsense words.  I remember Mum singing this all through the 1960s.  She actually sang “Wollika Wollika can’t you see” rather than the actual words “Bollika Wollika” which clearly don’t have the same connotation in America and which were carefully screened from our young English ears.   I never did know what she was talking about until one day looking through some old sheet music in a shop, I found this.

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So it had been a Number #1 hit song in the U.S. and in the charts for over 4 months, played by the Sammy Kaye Orchestra.  The odd words were written by Sylvia Dee, and the music by her regular songwriting partner Sidney Lippman.  Sammy Kaye had over 30 hit songs in the swing era, and six number ones.  “Swing and Sway with Sammy Kaye”offered the tag-line, and young Nancy Norman auditioned aged 16 and 4’11” high and got the job of female vocalist.  Her mother would chaperone her all over the United States to sing Chickery Chick.  The man’s voice is country singer Billy Wiliams.   Many other stars covered the song, including The Andrews Sisters, Frank Sinatra, Gene Krupa & Anita O’Day, and Evelyn Knight and The Jesters, which is my actual favourite.

The word banonika is still in use in our house here in Brooklyn.  It is used to denote a wrapping into which the special needs cat Roxy will position herself, enjoying the cosy created therein.

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Not a banonika

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Not a banonika, strictly speaking

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a carboard box I’d call that

When she is under the duvet or inside some clothing then :  “Are you in your banonika darling?”we will ask in slightly high-pitched voices as if talking to a child.  Which we are really.  A furry child substitute.  Maybe we should sing Chickery Chick to our cat.  I’m sure people have.

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Roxy and I agree that we have no banonika pictures

*

Sammy Kaye, featuring Nancy Norman & Billy Williams :

Evelyn Knight & The Jesters :

My Pop Life #55 : Help! – The Beatles

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Help !   –   The Beatles

…when I was young, oh so much younger than today,

I never needed anybody’s help in any way 

but now these days are gone I’m not so self-assured

now I find I’ve changed my mind I’ve opened up the doors

1965, Selmeston, East Sussex.  Andrew is one year old and things are not going well with Mum.  Later she would blame the amount of air and gas she was given by the midwife during the birth, but who knows why she felt she could no longer cope with life in a small village with three young boys?  The world collapsed when she was admitted to Hellingly Hospital as a patient, suffering from a mental breakdown.  I didn’t know what was going on, so what chance did Paul and Andrew, my younger brothers have?  Nan travelled up from Portsmouth to help my dad, who still had to go to work every day, teaching kids English in Falmer School near Brighton.  Nan was my mum’s mum and kindly, with a tough edge.  Her favourite swear word was “sod”.  As in “ooh, he’s a sod”.   I can’t remember who the sod was, but there were a few around. mainly on telly I think.  I cannot remember the date when mum was admitted, but it was during school term, possibly May or June.

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The following day and for about a week, I went to school – a fifteen minute walk up the village – in my grandad’s black hat, which kind of fitted me.  I was 8 years old.  Miss Lamb, the venerable headmistress didn’t say anything until the end of the week, when she had a quiet word in my ear and asked me not to wear it the following week.

We visited Mum in Hellingly a few times, stressful, strained occasions where the effects of whatever medication they were administering were obvious – she was tired and lethargic, but happy to see us.  Some of these memories survived in my first screenplay, for the film “New Year’s Day” (2001) which is very loosely based on my youth.

We didn’t know how long she’d be in there, but she was given ECT at least twice – Electro-Convulsive Therapy where they strap you to a couch put something on your tongue and shoot electricity through your brain giving you an induced fit.  I’ve seen a documentary on the procedure since with Jonathan Miller talking about how little they know about why it works – when it does.

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From that moment on, my mum would be the subject of various new treatments and theories which abounded in the 1960s regarding how to treat depression, usually some new drug which would be tested in the field on her and all the other women and men going through the same thing.  Her doctor at Hellingly was Dr Maggs.  He diagnosed manic depression, probably gave her Largactyl, a massive downer.  I got to know all of these drugs years later, both from our kitchen cupboard and later when I worked as a nursing assistant at Laughton Lodge.  For now, I was an eight-year-old boy wearing my grandad’s hat to school, to cover my dark abandoned scared feelings.

My mum was in Hellingly for 9 months.  A gestation of a new life for me, for all of us, without her.  Things would never be the same after that.

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Help is a John Lennon song through and through, one of his best.  So dramatic and hooked with feeling.  Later he would describe it as a release from being bottled up in the Beatles glass enclosure for years, the pressure of success, being holed up in hotel rooms under siege from press and fans, of having to explain every detail of every element of your life, your songs, your clothes, your haircuts.  They dealt with all of it really well, I almost remember the press conferences from that era better than the songs:  the jokes, the verbal sparring, the deflection of any difficulty or awkwardness with scouse wit and quick-thinking and solidarity.  But by 1965 the strain was beginning to show, the answers less smart-arse, more weary :

Help is a glimpse of the world beneath those likely lad grins and chuckles, the cry of a young man floating in space without anchor or centre of gravity, who was supposed to be happy because it was all going so well.  A breakout from the shell of protection, the rictus grin of appearances, the secret heart exposed : camouflaged as a great pop song.

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For me 1965/66 was the year when I created that shelter, day by day stitched together a carapace around my heart which would protect me from further pain, started to create a protective layer of survival.  I felt capable of doing that.  After removing the hat I had to walk up that little road exposed to the sky, and I learned to enclose my feelings, my pain and distress, with a character who got on with it, who coped, who survived.  Who looked after his younger brother Paul.   This new coping, private character took over my entire being over the following 15 years as things progressed, deteriorated, wobbled and left me exposed with unsteady regularity.  I would look after my brothers, and the house once Mum and Dad were divorced, but that was a year away, after Mum came home.  The story of her coming home is frightening, but I’ll save it for another song.

My real and true feelings escaped just as I went to sleep at night upstairs with Paul in the room alongside me in his own bed.  Large inchoate shapes would start to appear in the corners of the room, like Play Doh blobs of grey, heavy bulging clouds of unnerving malevolent solidity which moved closer around my eyes until they were all I could see.  I don’t remember telling anyone about that.

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I love Ringo’s drum roll before the first verse, I love Paul and George’s backing vocals especially the harmonies over help me get my feet back on the ground, but mostly I love John Lennon’s voice : grainy, gritty yet melodic and true.  The last harmony on the vocals at the end of the song is unfeasibly sweet.   They were at the height of their power, where they would stay for another 4 years.  I was at the depths of my weakness, and forever afterward lived in fear of repeating it.  I built my heart’s castle wall from the mud of Selmeston village.  I wouldn’t start to unravel it until I was in my mid-fifties.

And now my life has changed in oh so many ways
My independence seems to vanish in the haze
But every now and then I feel so insecure
I know that I just need you like I’ve never done before

live, August 1965: