On October 18, 1965, the day the Beatles recorded “In My Life,” Henry Travers – the man who played the angel in the classic film “It’s A Wonderful Life” was leaving this mortal coil. And perhaps in the exact same moment that the old gentleman was passing quietly away, a young man was singing what could have been the old man’s memoirs.
That is the magic of this song. It’s John Lennon writing about John Lennon – but we all know that it’s about all of us.
After all, we all have lives. Henry Travers, James Stewart, and John Lennon. And we all celebrate our people, places and moments in them, in all their kaleidoscopic diversity. John had connections to so many people in his life, ones he had known, ones he knew, and ones he was yet to meet. There was more happening in the lives of others all over the world, but John was writing about himself, and thinking about his own experiences.
Back in the mop-top days, Kenneth Allsop, a British journalist, suggested to John (who was already smashing the “Moon/June” idiom) that he write about his past. It seemed like a good enough idea, according to John, who closed his eyes and put himself in a bus, riding through the streets of Liverpool as a young boy: “’In My Life’ started out as a bus journey from my house on Menlove Avenue to town, mentioning all the places I could recall. . . . It was the first song I wrote that was consciously about my life. It was my first major piece of work.”
The original lyrics were a literal travelogue:
“Some have gone and some remain;
Penny Lane is one I’m missing, up Church and to the Clock Tower
In the circle of the Abbey, I have seen some happy hours. . . .
Past the tramsheds with no trams on the 5 Bus into town,
Past the Dutch and St. Columbus
To the dockers umbrella that they pulled down . . .”
These images must have been strong for John — and the “people and things” he had grown up with — but John apparently wasn’t ready for these kinds of detailed historical references. He declared the lyrics “ridiculous,” and the work “the most boring sort of ‘What I Did On My Holidays Bus Trip’ song.” John trashed the lyrics and made the song a very personal love song. In so doing, he sang to his lover – this wasn’t about holding hands any more – and told her that the pull of the past was colliding with the present within him, and they all had their places.
Paul, of course, was watching as always and he was happy to take John’s discarded idea and run with it. John tossed out the references to Penny Lane in 1965, Paul made sure they found a home in his own “bus trip in Liverpool” song in 1967, which he even named “Penny Lane.” And while John made fun of his “Holiday Bus Trip” idea, Paul worked it up into a movie in 1967, “Magical Mystery Tour.” Such was the explosive creativity of these two young men during this time that they could turn each others’ throwaways into enduring art.
Of course one could debate, as John described it, whether “In My Life” was John’s “first major piece of work” – almost everything the Beatles had been doing by then has proven to be a major piece of work by anyone’s standards. But the song really showed John was now digging deep into himself and his past consistently, and showing us more and more of what came out. During the same month that the Beatles recorded “In My Life” they also recorded (among others), “Norwegian Wood” and “Nowhere Man,” two songs that John wrote about John. In this post-Dylan period he was going to places that the Beatles had not gone before (and was apparently writing these 3 more personal songs with a capo on the second fret, freeing himself even more to go to new places musically, maybe it felt like he was working with a different instrument).
This song is one of the giants. Through the passage of years, Paul and John have different memories of who did what. John thought he wrote the tune and words (except for the middle 8). Paul says John only wrote the words, and that Paul wrote the melody. One could argue that the melody itself suggest Paul’s style – the notes span an octave and jump around, as opposed to John’s more linear and “squashed” melody lines a la “Walrus” – but in the end, does it matter?
The words are about John, but the song is about everyone.
The Ukulele version was recorded by John’s first wife, Cynthia on her 72nd birthday.
This is music as time travel.
It’s her life now and it’s your life and it’s wonderful.
from Rubber Soul,
released August 14, 2012
Ukulele Version #012 recorded September 10 2011
Cynthia Lennon – Vocal
Martyn Swain – Piano, bass, celeste
Nathan MacCormack – Cello
David Barratt – Ukulele and everything else
Produced by Martyn Swain and David Barratt at MOCo and The Abattoir Of Good Taste, NYC.