Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's BĂȘte Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Friday, May 12, 2006

I've been arguing a lot lately, and while I'm not done, I'm too sleepy just right now to continue, and yet not to sleepy to talk about the Beatles.

I'm not sure who did it -- I think it's my friend Terry's handwriting, and his sense of humor -- but somebody left alternate lyrics in my Beatles songbook.

Michel Foucault
You French intellectual so-and-so
Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault
I don't read you but my friends don't know
My friends don't know

I read you, I read you , I read you
But I don't understand . . .

[the manuscript breaks off at this point.]

My friend Jay recently sent me a CD-R of 10 versions of "Michelle," clocking in just under 30 minutes. The Beatles' sweet version starts things off. Other highlights: Count Basie's melancholy take, a lovely arrangement on classical guitar by Manuel Barrueco (sp?), the late TV-soundtrack writer and jazz arranger and saxophonist Oliver Nelson's mod TV-jazz trot, and a Cu-Bop romp by a jazzy Latin band led by Willie Bobo. Most of the versions are instrumental; Willie Bobo's boiled-down lyrics consists of 3 words, sung by a group of men: "Michelle, ma belle" -- it cuts to the chase; you don't really miss the rest (even though the words do go together well -- and cleverly).

Paul sounds so sweet and wistfully impossible when he sings, "I love you" -- he's in love with the idea of love as much as with the woman; he knows it'll never last and he's content with the transitory nature of existence -- at least, he is when he's flirting. Without his voice, though, it's a melancholy tune. The sweetness of flirting, the melancholy of time's fleetingness.

Funny, John, I always thought of Michelle as a straight-up comedy song -- almost a parody. You'll recall that the Beatles announced that Rubber Soul was their "comedy album"; "Drive My Car" and "Norwegian Wood" both conclude with punclines; and if I'm remembering my Ian McDonald correctly, "Michelle" was Paul's homage/send-up of French chanson, which Lennon answered with his own (obviously ironic; check all that exagerrated sighing and in-drawing of breath) "German" pastiche, "Girl."

Here's the way I hear "Michelle": it's about a guy trying to pick up a French girl -- or maybe he's already succeeded. But he's got just a few French words in his vocabularly. Thus "I'll say the only words I know that you'll understand" -- the only French words, I know, period! I'd wager that Paul himself had probably experienced this scenario, and probably not just with French girls (frauleins in Hamburg?) in his groupie-shagging adventures. In other words, it's a clever send-up of the language barrier in romance -- a sex farce! -- and a kind of lampoon of love songs in general; this, after all, was the period when the Beatles were coming into their own as lyricists and starting to get embarassed about some of the moon-june cliches in their earlier work.

The song's priceless moment, which cinches the parody thing for me, is one of the funniest things I've heard in any song. Paul croons, "I love you, I love you, I loooooove you" -- and then adds, "I think you know by now."
I don't disagree with a thing you said! How about that!

I was aware of the comic elements of the song. (I called the words "clever.") It's impossible that the only French words he would have known would be the literal translation of, "these are words that go together well" -- it's a joke!

Good call on the comic direction of, "I think you know by now," following the ardent repetition, or, if you will, "ardent" repetition, of "I love you I love you I love you." The wistful, or, "wistful," "I love you" that I was thinking of directly precedes the guitar solo.

Despite the (sweet, or "sweet") comical words, the tune's pull is sweetness & melancholy.

Poignance and comedy: by no means antithetical.
I agree, a comic pastiche as Paul sings it, but sans vox, a great, durable melody -- that's what struck me as I made the comp -- maybe Macca most durable.The delicous blue note on the "GE" of "together well." Sweet.

The Basie version is my fave rave.

Such a durable melody that I don't get sick of it listening to it 10 times in a row.

I have to confess that my post is true to how I experience the song: years of hearing it on Oldies radio, where it's played as a straight-up sentimental love song, has worn the humor off and left it a sentimental love song. One I really like! But it's also comical; I just have to remind myself -- or be reminded by astute commenters.
It can be -- and is -- both. And that's alright.

Heck, a lot of the standard songbook is "comedy." Doesn't mean it can't be poignant, too.

Alan Pollocks "Notes On" take is nice. Despite it being a genre exercise, as Jody points out, it's full of Macca-isms.


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