Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Learn Something New Every Day

I had never heard this anecdote before. It's from Jonathan Gould's luminescent book on the Beatles, Can't Buy Me Love:
"And Your Bird Can Sing" sounds like the second act of "She Said, She Said" -- another song about personal pretention, sung by John to the accompaniment of George's crazed, cacophonous guitar. [N.B., it should be both John and George's crazed, cacophonous guitars, but perfection eludes even this splendid book.] "Tell me that you've got everything you want, and your bird can sing, but you don't get me," John taunts his anonymous adversary in the opening verse. Listeners tended to assume that the "bird" in question was British slang for "girl," and the song works well on that assumption. But Lennon was stalking bigger game in "And Your Bird Can Sing." The song was inspired by a profile of Frank Sinatra by Gay Talese that appeared in the April 1966 issue of Esquire. "Bird," Talese wrote, " is a favorite Sinatra word. He often inquires of his cronies, 'How's your bird?'; and when he nearly drowned in Hawaii, he later explained, 'Just got a little water on my bird'; and under a large photograph of him holding a whiskey bottle that hangs in the home of an actor friend named Dick Bakalyan, the inscription reads, 'Drink, Dickie! It's good for your bird.'" What brought the article to Lennon's attention in the first place was not its revelations about Sinatra's private vocabulary, but rather his attitude toward an upcoming network television special with which he hoped to reassert himself as a force in contemporary pop:
Sinatra had been very excited about this show; he saw here an opportunity to appeal not only to those nostalgic, but also to communicate his talent to some rock-and-rollers -- in a sense, he was battling the Beatles. The press releases being prepared by Mahoney's office stressed this, read: "If you happen to be tired of kid singers wearing mops of hair thick enough to hide a crate of melons...."
After the crack about mops and melons, John Lennon could take some satisfaction in reading about "an inconspicuous little gray-haired lady" on Sinatra's staff whose sole responsibility was to care for the singer's collection of sixty "remarkably convincing" toupees. But Talese's fawning description of Sinatra's charisma ("the embodiment of the fully emancipated male, perhaps the only one in America , the man who can have anything he wants") and Sinatra's wealth ("his film company, his record company, his private airline, his missile-parts firm, his real-estate holdings across the nation, his personal staff of seventy-five") was more than enough to inflame John's sense of professional jealousy. Insult had been added to injury around the time the article appeared with the announcement of the Grammy Awards for 1965. In the year of Highway 61 and Rubber Soul, the American record industry turned its back on the youthful trends in pop by honoring Sinatra in the categories of best male vocalist and best album for a world-weary collection called September of My Years. "Tell me that you've heard every sound there is," crooned the world's greatest kid singer in his enigmatic reply, "and your bird can swing. But you can't hear me. You can't hear me."
So what we've learned here, class, is that "And Your Bird Can Sing" is about Frank Sinatra's dick.

I'm sure your lives are greatly enriched by this knowledge.

One of the more charming tracks on the Anthology is an outtake of the Fabs trying to track the vocal on this song, and absolutely pissing themselves laughing. I'd assumed it was the effect of an herbal jazz cigarette; now I believe we have another data-point in explaining the howling laughter.

(Damned shame that books about pop music aren't carefully footnoted; I'd love to know precisely where this information came from. Gould's bibliography is 12 very closely set pages, and I don't have a lifetime to devote to tracking it down.)

Slightly later update: With this information in mind, the bridge takes on whole universes of new meaning:

When your prized possessions
Start to weigh you down
Look in my direction
I'll be round
I'll be round

Without this knowledge, it's an offer for help, a friendly "you've got a shoulder to cry on." But with it, ooof! Burn!

Slightly later, later update: How much you wanna bet that "possessions/direction" rhyme started with "erection"? Knowing John....

Commenter Jim from the "WTF?" post -- I haven't forgotten about you. I'm still thinking.


bcelaya said...

well, I'm a bit off-topic too, but in reference to "Jim @ WTF"- he expresses an appreciation for the tunes from the White Album & thinks they are perhaps more "sophisticated" than some of the other more popular- and overplayed"- tunes from previous albums. Whether it might or might not play a part, I'd point out that the bulk of the White Album songs were written while the Beatles were sequestered at the Maharishi Yogi's Ashram in India. While there, the boys gave an earnest effort to let the experience work, and abstained from drugs and alcohol for the duration. Therefore those songs were written while totally straight, which makes them unique from I'd guess everything John & Paul had written in the 3 prior years. Just something to mix into the equation when evaluating/comparing.

jamesp said...

Song-writing while high, sobriety, Sinatra's weiner. Learn something new, indeed.


Anonymous said...

really interesting post Mr. Jingo. I always loved the guitar on this song; now I know what it is talking about...I still get pretty sad about John not being around.

On another note, Stephen Colbert interviwed Sir Paul the other night, and I thought it was pretty funny. He asked him what his favorite song was and who is favorite Beatle is. He said Ringo.

dwgs said...

I wonder if Sinatra hung out with Greeks. My in-laws are Greek and a slang greeting (not heard in my wife's family of course) is "Ti kane to poulaki-sou?" The literal translation would be "How's your bird doing?"
In response to Jim's question; I'm in my early 40's and I'm of mixed emotions regarding the Beatles. I've been listening to them (usually not by choice) since I was in the womb and while I respect what they did, I'm also kind of tired of hearing them. It's just part of following the boomers through life and hearing their soundtrack everywhere you go. No offense meant, it is what it is. Having said all that, the White Album is one of the few Beatles albums I own and I listen to it regularly. It's also a joy to watch my kids (aged 3 and 6) listen to it, it seems to affect them much more than most other stuff.

Jeremy said...

So much to learn, so little time. Thanks Ned.

Anonymous said...

Damned shame that books about pop music aren't carefully footnoted; I'd love to know precisely where this information came from.

He cites no sources, and given Lennon spoke about the song a few times on record, (dismissing it as a 'Horror'), I'll file it into the Fan Speculation basket.

Given the personal unhappiness during that period of John's life, I've often wondered if he's singing about himself. He claimed 'Girl' was a song written for Yoko before he met her, so perhaps the 'Me' in Bird that he doesn't see is the an imaginary idealised lover.

PSUJeff said...

As a long time lurker and fan of your blog and even a longer time fan of the "Fabs" (to wit: I owned the Flip your Wig Game" as a tyke in '64), I wanted to note various sources including George, have stated that the brilliant dual lead attack in the song was courtesy of George and Sir Paul and his Epiphone.

It makes sense, John was the dark genius, but chubby fingered, and Paul also at that time handled the blistering solo on George's Taxman.

It's a bit sad John though the song was piffle, because the best 5 seconds in Beatledom IMO is when coming out of the instrumental break, John and Paul's voice harmonize perfectly to the aural orgasm ...Ya tell me that you heard every sound there is!...

Angels smile.

Anonymous said...

I'm perplexed by this phrase:
"the embodiment of the fully emancipated male, perhaps the only one in America , the man who can have anything he wants"

This seems to imply that the definition of "emancipated" is "able to have anything he wants". I've never heard freedom conflated with power so strongly, and it comes across as childish to me, like a teenager who longs to move away from home so he can eat whatever he wants for dinner. Though on second thought, maybe they are often conflated -- for example, are we in Iraq to protect our freedom or to get ourselves some oil, and can we tell the difference?
Anyway, it's a far cry from "freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose".

JenJen said...

Sometimes, random clicks just make your day. Thanks for this!

trawicki said...

Bird" is British slang for "Girl." One theory is that this song is a scolding by John Lennon of his buddy Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, who loved to brag about his bird - Marianne Faithfull - who was great, green (jealous/young) and could sing. John made it clear that Mick and the Stones wear great but could never ever match up to John and the other Beatles.

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