Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Beatles Song of the Week: "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"

Well, maybe I should rename this series of posts, since there's an element of weekliness that is implied and which I am not achieving at all. Oh well...I guess we'll just have to stipulate that I never claimed that there would be a Beatles song for every week, but rather that I'll be posting about the song when there happens to be a Beatles Song of the Week.

I'm not sure that made any sense at all, but let's plow on, shall we? "While My Guitar Gently Weeps":

This song's genesis, as related by Wikipedia, is fascinating. The key phrase "gently weeps" were apparently the result of Harrison choosing to write a song using the first words he saw upon opening a book at random. The song also came at the time when the Beatles were deeply involved in their explorations of Eastern sprituality.

I look at you all see the love there that's sleeping
While my guitar gently weeps
I look at the floor and I see it need sweeping
Still my guitar gently weeps

I don't know why nobody told you
how to unfold your love
I don't know how someone controlled you
they bought and sold you

I look at the world and I notice it's turning
While my guitar gently weeps
With every mistake we must surely be learning
Still my guitar gently weeps

I don't know how you were diverted
you were perverted too
I don't know how you were inverted
no one alerted you

I look at you all see the love there that's sleeping
While my guitar gently weeps
I look at you all
Still my guitar gently weeps

Harrison's lyrics suggest that in a universe of constant change (he was reading the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes, at the time), there is still on unending constant: the gentle weeping of his guitar. The guitar is eternal; it is unchanging, and all the world's strife and flux is almost illusory in the face of the guitar and its tones. Even "you" are changing: the "you" of the song has been "diverted", "perverted", and "inverted". "You" were "bought" and "sold" and "controlled", and your love remains folded. Ouch. That sounds pretty dark, indeed.

It's not just the guitar that's eternal, though; it's the singer himself, who casts himself as the player of the eternal guitar and the observer of our transient world. The singer is placed outside the world: he can see its turning, he can see the sleeping love, and in a particularly fascinating lyric, he can see the floor needing. That last strikes me: usually we'd say "The floor needs sweeping", which we take to actually mean "You need to sweep the floor." But the way Harrison frames it in his lyric, it's the floor that is doing the needing here. How can a floor "need"? And yet, it does.

In terms of the song's sound, the guitar's solos suggest the very eternal nature of the weeping by finding a single note to stay around for long periods of time. You hear the guitar keep coming back to same note, over and over and over again, before it finally moves on and finds a different note to constantly return to. The song's rhythm drives forward constantly, even in the 'B' sections where we briefly turn to a more lyrical tone. The guitar in the song isn't really gently weeping -- but it's certainly constant, unchanging in the face of a world of change.

This is about as far from "She loves you, yeah yeah yeah!" as you can get. What a band.


Roger Owen Green said...

"What a band." Well, yeah, yeah, yeah!

You may or may not know that your video is from the Concert for Bangladesh in August 1971, a little over a year after the Beatles broke up. Ringo's on drums (probably with Jim Keltner, regular session musician for Harrison, Lennon and Starr). And the guitar solo is by Eric Clapton, who also played it on the White Album.

Kelly Sedinger said...

Yeah, I knew that the performance was post-breakup, but it's such a good performance that I decided to use it anyway.

Brian Ashmore said...

Good observations. This song is one of the best in the entire Beatles catalog. Go George! I read somewhere recently that the guitar solo on the album was played by Eric Clapton... it sure sounds like him when you listen with that idea in mind. My favorite version of this song is on the Love album. It's just George with an acoustic guitar and some orchestration added. The Love album was mastered so beautifully. With a good set of headphones, the Love version is incredibly moving... not to mention Day in the Life which follows immediately after.

Would love to see this Beatles song feature return.

Brian Ashmore said...

Whoops... just caught that it is, in fact, Clapton from a comment above. I didn't realize he played it as well in the Concert for Bangladesh.