When I first connected to music, to music that was introspective, provocative, and meaningful, I was a young teenager. I was a teenager who didn’t know much about life, love, or pain. A teenager who didn’t know much about what made a life of substance. So I listened to music. I listened to music that told stories both important and insignificant. I listened to music that was joyous and tragic. I listened to music that was loud and brash, and to music that was quiet and intimate. And I enjoyed everything.
Whatever type of music it was, I found that I always savored the promise of an autobiographical song. A chance to learn about the life events that shaped the person who would become the musician I was now enjoying, the musician who was sharing their pain and joy. A chance to learn more about creating music that so many people loved so much.
These autobiographical songs, which I approached with such anticipation, usually fell into two categories, both of which disappointed me equally. First, there are autobiographical songs that represent a real life story, obfuscated behind fictional characters and events leaving us to connect the dots on our own.
Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry, maybe THE best rock and roll song ever, tells a mythical tale of a “country boy who could play a guitar just like ringin’ a bell.” Of course, the song is really about Chuck Berry himself, but we are left to fill in those blanks on our own. Songs like “Jukebox Hero” by Foreigner and “Shooting Star” by Bad Company extend the rock star mythology by framing stories around their experiences, or experiences of their own musical idols, to create tales that sound both authentic and romantic.
Then , there are autobiographical songs that frame a traditional message of love and adoration around tangible memories and recollections.
“Summer of ’69” by Bryan Adams, released in the summer of 1985, tells the story of a kid learning how to play the guitar and becoming a rock and roll star. However, much to the disappointment of my young teenage ears and sensibilities, the song soon devolves into a love song. A love song?!? Come on man, I want to hear about screaming guitars and drugs and fawning women and evil record label executives. I definitely did not want to hear a love song.
“In My Life” by the Beatles (written by John Lennon), would also fit into this second category. What begins as a fascinating song about the building blocks of his life soon becomes, again, just another love song. My teenage snobbery knew no bounds. Even this masterpiece by my favorite group was not good enough. I wanted to hear only about the music, not the love that informed the music.
And boy, was I wrong.
“In My Life” begins with a simple electric guitar melody, backed by a beautiful swampy rhythm guitar. Lennon’s voice is perfectly double tracked as he begins to tell us a story of his life.
“There are places I’ll remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain”
John Lennon was only 25 years old when he wrote “In My Life,” but he was already looking back. Paul McCartney may have been the syrupy and sentimental Beatle, but here we see Lennon reaching for memories from a childhood that was often tragic and lonely. His father abandoned the family, and Lennon was sent to live with his aunt. His mother Julia was struck and killed by a car when he was only 18 years old.
“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”
The music is pristine. Lennon is backed by lush harmonies from Paul and George. Ringo’s drumming was perhaps never better than on “In My Life.” A steady syncopated beat keeps moving the song forward. It’s complicated while being quiet and subdued. For the second verse, Ringo slides into 4/4 time, allowing space to really hear the lyrics, then locks back into syncopation for the next part of the story.
“But of all these friends and lovers
There is no one compares with you
And these memories lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new
Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more”
I remember, listening to this song as a teenager, feeling like Lennon gave up. Rather than using the third verse to explore some real life defining events, instead he lets the song become a love song. I felt like I wanted more story, and he was only giving me sentiment. He was going the easy route.
Though still a young man at the time, Lennon was wise beyond his years, and I was not. He knew that the good fortune of having someone you love in your life, someone you really love, enhances your experiences and your memories. The good times are better. The sad times are sweeter. What matters is right now. What matters is my time with you.
Producer George Martin penned a regal Bach inspired piano solo for the bridge. Though he was a fine musician in his own right, he could not quite play the solo at the speed of the song’s tempo, so they recorded the solo with the tape running 1/2 speed. As a result, the solo with the tape running at full speed playback sounds more like a harpsichord than a piano, and brings with it a stately sense of grace and subdued style.
The fourth chorus is repeated, and he again states his love. The last line is repeated in falsetto, as if it was the only way to fully express the depth of his feelings.
Lennon referred to “In My Life” as “first real major piece of work” because it was the first time that his lyrics were so personal, and intimate. At only 25, Lennon was singing in the voice the old man he would, sadly and tragically, never become. However, just 15 years later he would write what might be considered a bookend to “In My Life.” A statement of continuation and completion. A perfect way to end this perfect life. Part 2 coming soon…
In My Life
Written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
Performed by The Beatles
Recorded October 18th and 22nd, 1965
Released December 3, 1965