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Inhabiting the Song

I just sang at an old friend’s funeral service.

He was part of a circle of hometown kids growing up in the 1970s; our group was not like what you see on television as representative of the time. We were bound together through the music we savored and the garage band in our midst, whose repertoire mostly ran against the grain of southern rock and that genre’s fans, which was half the fun.

Most of that band was in attendance today, and I sang with two of them.

The family asked me to sing “In My Life” by The Beatles, so I thought singing with my bandmates would be a fitting tribute to our friend. With a little cajoling, they agreed. We rehearsed for a couple hours this week, then sang the song a bunch in the car on the way up. The most doubtful among us had practiced well and sounded like he belonged in the blend.

This group of friends was of the age where The Beatles were on The Ed Sullivan Show that fateful Sunday night in 1964, then were all jabbering about it in elementary school the next day. The band’s significance was what all other music was judged against throughout our lives, and in the end, The Beatles had won their race. That our own children and their children know and love the music and the lore means that it stands the test of time.

Being asked to sing “In My Life” was an honor and privilege, but it came with some interesting realizations about the song and its inherent power.

To be honest, I don’t think of “In My Life” that often when I think of listing my favorite Beatle songs; I veer more in the direction of “Rain” or “Don’t Let Me Down”, era-wise and heaviness-wise. 

I had to go back and learn it again—pretty sure it was in The Golden Beatles Songbook I owned as a kid. That songbook fed my third- and fourth-grade rock bands, along with audio input from our local AM good guy station.

It’s funny how you know a song, and still don’t really get it after almost sixty years until you do your due diligence. Such was the case with “In My Life”:

  • There are fully four different stanzas of words with one repeated at the end, plus a tagline. The different stanzas use subtle differences in cadence while maintaining the melody consistency.

  • There are 153 words. Every one of them lies in what appears to be a perfect place. The singing sounds purely conversational in its tone, the words flow easily. And there are lines like “I know I’ll often stop and think about them” that tumble out like polished stones.

  • There are key phrases that switch words around. The singer needs to always make sure they’re in the right place at the right time. Because, unlike the singer, many who hear it will know that it has been sung incorrectly and will likely as not not care; but the singer will be aware that his responsibility for lyrical accuracy was not fulfilled.

  • There are lines that seem, at first glance, to not make a lot of sense until you sing them over and over again. And even then, you may doubt they do, but you begin to understand what John was going for. And the longer you turn those words over in your mouth and push them out in tune, the less making sense seems to matter.

So despite having known this song since I was nine, it took getting up inside of the construction of the song lyrically, like some kind of mechanic in the engine compartment, to make me aware of why it is so esteemed in the Beatles’ canon.

Using a modicum of words and ideas, something glorious and universal comes across in “In My LIfe.” 

(Which is funny to consider, since the original draft of the lyrics that are up on Wikipedia show that it was more of a travelog, with references to John’s tram stops, including Penny Lane. Looking at that draft, you also see lines that made it back in after he crossed them out. It’s a telling document. Specifics begat universalities. And being able to move toward that lyrical universality was a genuine gift that Lennon, McCartney and Harrison used effortlessly.)

We sang “In My Life” at the end of our friend’s service, and guests took care to tell us how deeply the song affected them. While I know that our version was very sweet and dignified, it’s definitely the underlying power of the song that helped coax tears from the people in church.

It’s a song people sing at weddings, too. 

I think it’s that slightly impressionistic vision on the one no one compares to, the one who stands above the rest of the memories, the one who is loved more, combined with the idea that people and places are forever interconnected. In that sense, that pure integrality of “In My Life” is nothing short of fantastic.

For our friend’s friends, we can envision him at school, at gigs, at band rehearsals, at the country club golf shelter where we would meet up late at night. He is and always will be part of those internal photos in our minds.

I know that I will never hear “In My Life” again without thinking of him, and I will seek solace in those lyrics in his absence with gratitude for having known him and for having been able to inhabit the lyrics on an October afternoon in our hometown, as part of our farewell to a good friend gone too soon.


This is excellent, Peter.
Lindsay Planer said…
Speechless. Thank you Peter.
George said…
Beautiful essay, Peter.
Neldinsky said…
Reading your non musical writing is very telling Peter. I always believed, and proven wrong at times, that good song writers are good writers period. Your no exception. There is grace, rhythm and stature to your construction. I know that sounds pompous but I think it's another way of saying your writing is truly enjoyable and brought emotion to me. What a lovely tribute to your dear friend from childhood. It's so sad though. I know I am at the precipice for this now too at 62 years old. N

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