I was as the species of moody adolescent who drove people away from me when that was the last thing I wanted, so I spent a lot of time alone. I had private enthusiasms. I liked to be in the woods by myself, I liked to sleep, I liked to swim underwater, and I liked to sit in my room and listen to music, usually repetitively, while looking at the record’s cover. The first record I did this with was the Kingston Trio’s “At Large,” which belonged to one of my older brothers. I played it often enough that I was able finally to establish who among the three men on the cover was Dave Guard, who was Bob Shane, and who was Nick Reynolds; also, who had the husky voice, who had the tenor, and who had the slightly stiff delivery. Likewise, several years later, staring at the cover of the Grateful Dead’s first record, I determined who was Bob Weir, who were Captain Trips, Phil Lesh, and Bill the Drummer, and who was Pigpen. (People tend to look like their names, and when they sing they often sound like their names, too.) When “Revolver” came out, in 1966, I already knew who the individual Beatles were—they had cunningly saturated the culture by then—but, even so, I stared at their images while I played “She Said She Said” so many times that I thought I might wear out the groove.
That year, I did the same thing with “When a Man Loves a Woman,” by Percy Sledge. I played “She Said She Said” because I couldn’t understand it. I played “When a Man Loves a Woman” because of how beautiful it was. Of course, I couldn’t understand “When a Man Loves a Woman,” either. I was in eighth grade, and the emotions it concerned and the scene it described were so far beyond my knowing that I didn’t even really know they existed. It was a blues song, essentially, and the blues are about things one feels most powerfully in apprehending the world’s design—in maturing, that is, and I hadn’t matured sufficiently yet. Adolescence, though, is almost purely a landscape of feelings, and I could believe that being in love was a lacerating, self-annihilating experience, and that a man could be in thrall to a woman.
“She Said She Said” described a mystery I could see on the horizon, vibrating like a mirage. I am the youngest by some degree of four brothers, so I was conditioned to believe and to feel that the secrets of existence were in the possession of people a few years older than I was, who were closer to the ages of the Beatles. The song’s mystery seemed to lie somehow in a fracture of ordinary circumstances, as if you had taken a hammer to a mirror and cracked it in such a way that it now reflected a multiplicity of images.
I hadn’t yet been given the key to the mystery, which was LSD. I wouldn’t take LSD at gunpoint now, but I used to like it a lot. I mean that I liked it when I took it; I don’t mean that I took it serially or in amounts that made you forget your name or where you were. (I am thinking of a friend who took two tiny barrels of orange sunshine one night when the rest of us took one, and we had to show him the photograph on his license to convince him that he had a name and that he wasn’t an explorer from outer space. He kept appearing to have his identity almost in hand, then he would lose his grip on it and we would have to start over again. “Francis, we’re on a planet called Earth in a country called America,” and so on, until nearly daylight.)
I liked being in the presence of what I thought of, with no particular originality, as the wonders, and for a long time I had sensed that they were somewhere close at hand. I had seen them from the corner of my eyes, as it were—in storms, in the ocean in winter, in the stillness in the middle of the night, beneath the surface of the water, or in dreams.
The first time I took LSD was in 1969, when I was seventeen. I was at a party at the house of the older brother of one of my friends. The older people were drinking, and three or four of us teen-agers were tripping. For what I recall as a long time, I stood in front of a closet door by a washing machine. In the door’s grain I saw, to my astonishment, the span of history, as if on a scroll that was unwinding. I’d bring people to stand in front of the door with me, and I’d point out Jesus, and Charlemagne, and soldiers with lances riding elephants, and I’d say, “See!”
As a young child, I was susceptible to something I think of as overloaded time, which probably is not unusual and was signified by a feeling that a gear had slipped and left me where I was, while the world continued a degree ahead of me. Once the state was upon me, the background withdrew, and my attention was overtaken by a scene’s particular elements. A shaft of sunlight coming through the curtain in my parents’ living room might seem to swirl with particles, which later, I realized, were dust, but when I was three and four they seemed like the texture of air itself. I thought I could see what air is made of. If I moved, the particles formed new patterns—it was like turning the end of a kaleidoscope. Or I might wake from a dream, but the dream would continue as a projection on a wall. If someone came between me and the wall, I saw the image projected on him or her, like a light show in a night club. I was probably having a mild seizure of some kind, but while the state was upon me I had the feeling that time was a series of pieces fit together like joints in furniture, and every now and then one encountered the seams, rather than having time be like, say, a river, or a wheel that turned in an orderly way.
Very few songs influenced by a drug reproduce the sensation of taking the drug, but “She Said She Said” comes close. It’s a solemn song, and seems to coil snakelike in on itself. Before “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver,” most Beatles songs had been intended to reach the broadest audience by dramatizing feelings everyone has had, but “She Said She Said” is a private matter, which appealed to me, overloaded time being a state of mind congenial to self-consciousness. The other acid song on the record, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” is inclusive, asking the listener to submit to the riverine current of consciousness. Join me, it says. “She Said She Said” is a witness song. A piece of theatre. You’re listening to an argument, a dialectic. “I know what it’s like,” one character says. “No, no, no, you’re wrong,” the other says. Another dichotomy it contains is one between Harrison’s shiny, chiming guitar lines, which seem to thread the song together, and Starr’s drumming, which seems constantly to threaten a collapse. “She Said She Said” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” were the furthest ahead of the culture the Beatles ever got. A lot of people think “A Day in the Life” is, but that song’s effect depends mainly on the song-cycle-like arrangement of material. It’s a Lennon song and a McCartney song stitched together by George Martin, by means of effects from classical and avant-garde music. “She Said She Said” describes circumstances novel to Western awareness and has no obvious antecedent or reference. It is a conversation undertaken by means of access to a form of consciousness induced by a drug that was known only to a small number of practitioners.
I would listen over and over to the song while looking at the cover. Something was different about the musicians. They had always looked out at the world, and now they were looking at one another. They wore dark glasses and were photographed in what appeared to be darkness. The darkness didn’t seem manipulated so as to be sinister—their expressions were still cheerful—but it indicated an inversion of the ordinary. It had a glamour, as did everything they did. Their appeal was so broad that it forced the Rolling Stones to seek their identity sometimes in the shadow of it or in straightforward imitation, as with their own psychedelic album, but mostly in contrast to it. The Stones’ idea—to inhabit the modes and gestures of black American music—was a smaller idea attractively enacted.
I hadn’t felt the things that the narrator was singing about, and I wasn’t sure what they were. They seemed forbidding. Were they actual? What did it mean to feel like you’d never been born? Adolescents are, I think, mainly literal-minded. They assume, when they are being instructed by example or inference, that language corresponds fairly directly to experience. They respond to fancy writing, for its suggestion of subversiveness, but the response has something of the quality of being a badge—I’m not afraid of this. By carrying this book with me, I have a certain command of it. Baudelaire, for example, and “The Flowers of Evil,” which was popular among adolescents in my day and may still be. The books became causes. They established your identity, like a tattoo. They might carry the implication, My book is scarier than yours, or more high-minded. How would it feel to have never been born? How could another person make you feel that way? It was as if the walls had to come down to accommodate such a point of view. Or as if the walls could be seen through.
In the middle of the song, there is a passage of three-quarter time, the point where Lennon sings about how everything was fine when he was a boy, and the effect is as if he has taken a breath to recover himself.
There is no stagecraft, as in “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the other futuristic song. There are no crying birds in the background, only two guitars, a bass, drums, and a droning organ. They could have played this song live, and I wish they had.
The first time John Lennon took LSD, it was given to him surreptitiously, at a dinner party in London at his dentist’s house, in 1964. Lennon’s wife, Cynthia, was there, and so were George Harrison and Pattie Boyd, his girlfriend who became his wife. After the dentist told them what they had taken—Lennon thought he had put it in their coffee—he said they shouldn’t leave, which led Lennon and Harrison to think that he was planning an orgy. They got in Harrison’s car instead, and drove to a night club called the Ad Lib.
The club was on an upper floor, and they thought that the elevator, which had a red light, was on fire. A singer Lennon knew asked if he could sit next to him, and Lennon said, “Only if you don’t talk,” since Lennon couldn’t think clearly.
Eventually Harrison drove them to his house. He went about ten miles an hour, but Lennon thought it felt like a thousand. Harrison and Boyd went to bed. Lennon stayed up and made some drawings, which he gave later to Ringo. Harrison’s house had a high wall around it. Lennon thought that the house was a submarine and that it had risen up above the wall, and he was steering it.
The second time Lennon took LSD was in Los Angeles, at the end of the Beatles’ last tour of America. Their manager, Brian Epstein, had rented the house for a week for them to recover. Once the address got out, they were more or less captives, since so many people showed up that the police had to defend the place.
Among the people who visited the house were the Byrds and Peter Fonda, who made the song’s remark about being dead. Fonda has said that he made it while trying to comfort Harrison, who thought he was dying. As a boy, Fonda had accidentally shot himself. On the operating table, his heart stopped three times. Lennon said that Fonda kept showing the scar and whispering, “I know what it’s like to be dead.” “We were saying, ‘For Christ’s sake, shut up. We don’t care, we don’t want to know.’ ” In Lennon’s first versions of the song, he sings, “He said.”
Somewhere in the psyche is everything we can imagine. Cities we have never visited, characters, landscapes, circumstances that will appear in dreams, all brought into being by some agency we don’t fully understand and can’t summon easily in waking life. Alone in my room, “She Said She Said” seemed to me like a bulletin from the other side of the fence (even though I didn’t yet know there was a fence), and it still does.
I no more understood these things than I understand now the mysteries of deep old age, which I hope to live long enough to experience. I was simply taken in by the music. I followed Lennon’s voice like a Scheherazade story. The rapturous music made me feel powerful, and since it is essentially a solitary song, it enforced my isolation, which had a sweetness to it that loneliness in adult life does not.
I am no longer that boy. Certainly, some elements of our natures survive, are even indestructible, perhaps, but since childhood I have had so many experiences, good and bad, so many disappointments and—I hesitate to call them successes, but—experiences that sustain me, that I can’t feel myself anything except different. Jung somewhere observes that lives often collapse in cycles of seven years, a notion derived, I think, from an alchemical principle. What he means are assumptions about the self. The task is to put them back together in a new way. The novelist Reynolds Price, who began to use a wheelchair at the age of fifty, when radiation treatments for cancer eroded his spine, said to himself one morning, “Reynolds Price is dead. Who are you going to be now?”
The border between our memories and the past, and not even the very faraway past, is the territory where we begin groping for facts and meaning. Certain things return naturally, aggressively, even. Others prefer the shadows or even the darkness. It is no observation of my own that the past is the territory of lies. The person I was is lost and can’t be recovered. I can only re-create him, a gloomy adolescent, alone in his room, holding a record cover, listening to the mystery.
This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book “In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs.”
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