Songwriters: John Lennon (80%) and Paul McCartney (20%) based on interviews in Hit Parader (April 1972) and Musician (1985)
Producer: George Martin
Recorded: October 12, 1965 (and remade October 21) at Abbey Road, London.
Appeared On: Rubber Soul (1965)
Track Length: 02'05"
Chart: Not released as a single; did not hit the pop charts in England or the Billboard charts in the United States.
Paul McCartney: bass, harmony vocal
John Lennon: acoustic guitar - Gibson J-160E (capoed), lead vocal
George Harrison: sitar
Ringo Starr: tambourine
Norwegian Wood became one of the first Beatles tunes to elicit widespread interest on the basis of its (intentionally) enigmatic lyrics. Lennon, its lyricist, composed Norwegian Wood to describe an evening he spent with a young woman, an affair. Lennon was married at the time to Cynthia Powell (mar: 08/23/62; div: 11/08/69).
In 1980, Playboy Magazine published (written by David Sheff) a series of provactive interviews with John Lennon. These are invaluable texts for their elucidation of Lennon's creative processes. In September of that year, he wrote that "Norwegian Wood is my song completely. It was about an affair I was having." Lennon biographer Ray Coleman identified the mystery woman as a "prominent journalist." While he wanted a song to capture the playfulness of that affair, he also composed a lyric in which it is unclear that a sexual encounter had taken place.
The poetic force of the lyrics rests upon the skillful ambiguity that Lennon plays with in describing the romantic encounter. The lyric stresses that he found the situation of particular interest because of the power inequality favoring the female. I believe the song warrants critical inquiry as Lennon deliberately limits and plays with the listener's perspective and knowledge.
She asked me to stay/and she told me to sit anywhere. The power asymmetry is first realized in the sitting-down gesture, an action and motif often used to denote dominance: the upper-hand figure tells the lower-hand to "have a seat" in most circumstances (the job interview, the date, etc).
I turned around and noticed/There wasn't a chair. That there was no chair emphasizes the female's control over the domestic and sexual spheres. She's toying with him, making him slightly uncomfortable, letting him know that he does not run the show here.
I sat on a rug/biding my time/drinking her wine. Instead he sits on the rug, the lowest possible physical space he could inhabit in the room. From that perspective, however, he controls the visual gaze, being able to follow the actions, and investigate the body, of the female. He waits impatiently.
The erotic moment, I believe, hinges upon the wine trope. An act of ritual exchange, he notes that the wine belonged to the female and was offered to him as he sat on the rug. It is unclear on the basis of the lyrics if there was consummation. The line "we talked until two" is particularly resonant because it seems to indicate that while he was "biding his time," she was procrastinating from completing the loving-making act.
She told me she worked in the morning/and started to laugh. When she tells him that it's time for bed, that - with a laugh! - she must wake up early, she seems to signify that she was aware of his desire and was at that moment, throwing out his advances. Rejecting his inhabitation of that most intimate of personal spaces - the bed - he willingly withdraws to that least sexy spot, the bathtub. Whether or not consummation occurred, more importantly, she emphasizes to him her higher power status and overall lack of interest in him -- all strategies that he no doubt found all the more appealing.
So I lit a fire/Isn't it good/Norwegian wood. Paul McCartney in 1985 wrote that "it was me who decided in 'Norwegian Wood' that the house should burn down, not that it's any big deal." I believe Lennon, by lighting a fire, seeks to eliminate the memory impression of the previous night's pleasure. Consider also that the lighting of fire is a strategy often used in ritual to signify rebirth and freedom from the past (See anthropologist Turner in sources below).
Feminine control and dominance was a particularly alluring motif running through Lennon's work, and I think, mystified him enough to capture the sensuous atmosphere in song.
Both the gentle folk arrangement and lyrical obscurity are elements due in no small part to the influence of Bob Dylan, with whom the Beatles had entered a competitive though mutually admiring relationship. It has been widely documented that it was Dylan who first introduced the Beatles to marijuana.
While listeners of the late-sixties - and the Beatles themselves - perhaps overstated the drug's influence on their music, it was at the least, partly responsible for the poetic reflectiveness and play of their post-1965 material. Compare, say, "Norwegian Wood," "Girl," (1965) and of course, "Love You To" (1966) with the amphetamine frenzy of "No Reply" and "Rock and Roll Music" (1964). All of the above examples precede the carnival and psychedelic excess of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. However meaningful and radical that work is, the earliest examples of psychedelic and exotic experimentation are fascinating grounds for tracing The Beatles' musical evolution.
"Norwegian Wood" is the both pop music's and the Beatles' first song to use the sitar. George Harrison's acquisition and knowledge of the instrument was tempered by Indian musician Ravi Shankar, with whom Harrison shared a musical and spiritual communion through the mid to late 1960's.
For stunning examples of the sitar's presence in other pop music, see especially Donovan - "Hurdy Gurdy Man" (1968, Pop #6) and The Kinks - "See My Friends" (1965) in which fluent guitar and trance-like vocal effects are used to emulate the timbre and evocative power of the sitar.
Note: The musician information is taken from production notes from Capitol Records as reprinted by William Dowdling. It is not a cut and paste.
Sheff, David. The Playboy Interviews with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. New York: Berkley Books, 1984.
Dowdling, William. Beatlesongs. New York: Fireside, 1989. Reference contains excerpts from interviews and musician information for each commercially released Beatles song.
Turner, Victor. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1970. Lucid ethnography of Ndembu culture and values, even more valuable for proposing a structure of ritual.