35 years after John Lennon’s death, and 50 years since the release of Rubber Soul, here’s one of his best songs: ‘In My Life’. Half a century has passed since The Beatles’ Rubber Soul was released on 3 December 1965, and as the years have passed the song that I have come to love most off that album is Lennon’s ‘In My Life’.
But it wasn’t like that when I first heard the album as a raw 17-year old. You really need to have lived a bit to appreciate what is now regarded as one of the Beatles’ finest songs.
At the time, it was the extraordinary tale recounted in ‘Norwegian Wood’ that made me sit up and take notice. The exotic sound of the sitar, coupled with the elliptical lyrics that suggested a scene from some modernist novel, made ‘Norwegian Wood’ my favourite track for quite a while:
I sat on a rug, biding my time, drinking her wine
We talked until two and then she said, “It’s time for bed”
She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh.
I told her I didn’t and crawled off to sleep in the bath
That, and the more immediate appeal of ‘rubber soul’ like ‘You Won’t See Me’, ‘Drive My Car’ and ‘The Word’, meant that, for some time, ‘In My Life’ got lost for me.
The inspiration for the song is often traced back to an interview with Lennon by the journalist Kenneth Allsop in March 1964. Allsop had asked him why he didn’t write more songs about his own life and experiences. Lennon took this to heart and wrote a long poem about people and places from his past, a mundane description of a trip into town from his home on Menlove Avenue on a bus, naming every sight:
Penny Lane is one I’m missing
Up Church Rd to the clock tower
In the circle of the abbey
I have seen some happy hours
Past the tram sheds with no trams
On the 5 bus into town
Past the Dutch and St. Columbus
To the Dockers Umbrella that they pulled down.
John soon realised, however, that ‘it was the most boring ‘What I Did on My Holidays’ song, and it wasn’t working’. But then, re-working the lyrics, the song became much more personal, recalling people -‘lovers and friends’ – as well as places in a Liverpool home that now seemed a world away from the Surrey mansion where he wrote the words:
There are places I remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life, I’ve loved them all…
Interviewed years later, John said that before Rubber Soul, ‘We were just writing songs à la the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly: pop songs with no more thought to them than that.’ He came top see ‘In My Life’ as ‘my first real, major piece of work. Up until then, it had all been glib and throwaway.’
John later called ‘In My Life’ his first ‘real, major piece of work’. Until then, he said, ‘it had all been glib and throwaway.’
I started being me about the songs, not writing them objectively, but subjectively. I think it was Dylan who helped me realize that – not by any discussion or anything, but by hearing his work.