Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A minor classic from the Quiet Beatle

On this, the 10th anniversary of George's death, I want to highlight my appreciation for a song of his that I find to be woefully undervalued: "Blue Jay Way." The standard line of criticism goes that "Blue Jay Way" is boring, tedious, monotonous, and the like. It's drone-pop that never comes to life, leaving listeners to share in the chief concern that George expresses in the song's lyric: wanting to go to sleep. I'm of a separate mind. I don't hear boring and tedious; I hear eerie and mysterious. In my view, this moody psychedelic gem from Magical Mystery Tour is among the most richly atmospheric and even cinematic songs in The Beatles' catalog.

The sound matches the subject: "Blue Jay Way" is about a confused and foggy night in LA. In August of 1967, George was staying at a rented house on the aforementioned street in the Hollywood Hills. He was tired after the flight in, but wanted to remain awake until The Beatles' former press officer, Derek Taylor, and his wife arrived. Blue Jay Way is apparently difficult to locate as it is, and the fog certainly didn't help. In the interim, George began writing:

"There's a fog upon LA / And my friends have lost their way / We'll be over soon they say / Now they've lost themselves instead."

He then respectfully pleads: "Please don't be long/ Please don't you be very long / Please don't be long / For I may be asleep."

It's all very uncertain and unsettled. Though the back-story belies this, I often get the impression that more is going on than George allows us to know, perhaps even something sinister. The sonics are just too creepy for the fairly mundane scenario presented in the lyric. There's the pounding rhythm, George's woozy, warped vocal, the atmospherics of the Hammond organ and cello, and the spectral backing vocals. Complementing all of this is the pace of the song, which builds and builds, escalating the urgency of George's words. By the end, he even stops saying "please," chanting simply, "Don't be long." Is that "be long" or "belong"? And what does the climax signify, anyway? Narratively speaking, what has the song been moving toward? Still more mysteries.

It is indeed this sense of mystery that draws me to "Blue Jay Way." It's like film-noir: inscrutable but absorbing.

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