Knock on Wood

In addition to lots of laundry and lots of sleep, one other thing I’ve been doing since getting back home from The Trip is catching up on the video lectures and quizzes for the Coursera course I’m taking about the Beatles.*

In a lot of ways this is a “gimme” course: I’ve watched, listened and read enough about the band and its members to be reasonably well-informed from the get-go. Still, it’s fun to hear this professor’s take on things, and I have learned a new thing or two along the way.

Like the full story embedded in the lyrics to Norwegian Wood.

In the song, a young mad is “had” — i.e., fooled — by a comely lass when he accompanies her to her (pretentiously under-furnished) apartment expecting sexytimes, only to be rebuffed when she says she needs to get a good night’s sleep prior to the next workday.

That much I’d understood. But this next part was the part I’d missed: when he wakes up the next morning alone, the song’s narrator sets the girl’s apartment on fire in revenge for the (so-called) cock-blocking.

To quote Paul McCartney (the co-lyricist), looking back at many years’ distance:

[A] lot of people were decorating their places in wood. Norwegian wood. It was pine really, cheap pine. But it’s not as good a title, Cheap Pine, baby…

So she makes him sleep in the bath and then finally in the last verse I had this idea to set the Norwegian wood on fire as revenge, so we did it very tongue in cheek. She led him on, then said, ‘You’d better sleep in the bath’. In our world the guy had to have some sort of revenge. It could have meant I lit a fire to keep myself warm, and wasn’t the decor of her house wonderful? But it didn’t, it meant I burned the fucking place down as an act of revenge, and then we left it there and went into the instrumental.

He sets her apartment on fucking fire. (Who knew? Okay, bad question: evidently everyone in the world knew but me.)

Norwegian_wood__by_CyberfishTalk about a disproportional response to sexual rejection. In his discussion of this song and the story its lyrics tell, the professor said something mild about how the song could be seen as “sort of misogynistic,” and I found myself spluttering at the computer screen, “you think?!?”

I kind of get why the professor chose not to open up the topic for much further exploration. Although some elements of historical and cultural context are inevitably coming into the discussion, his chosen approach is primarily to be taking a musicological quasi-close-reading approach to the stylistic features of the songs and albums — melody, harmonics, orchestration, lyrical complexity, etc. At some level, I suppose I could be thankful he at least called out the misogyny of the scenario, rather than allowing the song’s portrayal of sexual entitlement to remain normalized.

Still, I am so wishing I had magic access to Paul McCartney right now to ask some follow up questions. When you decided that in the song’s world, this guy deserved his revenge, did you mean to portray that as a reasonable response, or an UNreasonable one? You were about 23 when you wrote the song — do you think you’d want to tell a similar or different sort of story if you were writing about sexual miscommunication and rejection today? What acts of friendliness are permitted between two individuals before one is seen as “leading the other on”?

Alas, my press pass is expired (on account of me never having one), and I still haven’t made an appointment with Mr. Ollivander to collect my magic wand. So my curiosity will have to remain unsatisfied.

By the way? Check here for a handy-dandy chart that’s been making the rounds to let you know when a woman owes her partner sex. And despite the geneder-specificity of the graphic, it really cuts both (all?) ways: no individual (gender-inclusive) ever owes another individual (again, gender-inclusive) sex.


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* Yes. I am an epic nerd. I’m okay with that.

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