From Rubber Soul. A confluence of several Beatles things. Acoustic folkiness, this still being John Lennon's Bob Dylan phase. A sitar part (and other exotica, in some mixes), from student George Harrison. Double-tracking of vocals, from the early part of the band's studio experimentation (later to lead to the hermetically-sealed aural Goon Show of subsequent recordings). Infidelity, as Lennon decides his first marriage wasn't all that.

Norwegian Wood

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

Lyrical Content:

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.

Critical Issues:

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.

Musical Issues:

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.

When I first used to listen to this song, I misunderstood the lyrics. I got almost every word right, except for in the fourth stanza:

She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh
I told her I didn't and crawled off to sleep in...

For some reason I thought he said "her lap," instead of "the bath." In my mind, I built up what became this medieval romance--a knight is wandering in the woods (Norwegian Wood), when he meets this mysterious woman, who invites him back to the castle. He sits at her feet, drinking and being romanced. She gets him to fall asleep in her lap, but when he awakes, finds that there is no castle, no woman, that he is alone in the woods during winter, and in his lonlieness builds a fire. To me, it was like something out of a French romance, like some lost Arthurian story with Gawain as the hero. I later found out that in some versions of the grail quest, something similar does happen to Gawain. Maybe this was something I half-remembered and applied to the song; maybe it's a coincidence.

However, I later learned that the song was about an affair that John Lennon was having. The bit about fire is actually about how, in their art school days, John and Stu Sutcliff would burn just about anything to heat their place.

But I still picture lost knights and strange women.

The Norwegian Wood music festival.

Norwegian annual music festival arranged in Oslo. Started in 1992. The first two years it was arranged in Bærum's verk, a 400 year old iron factory. Johnny Cash appeared on the first festival. Since 1994 the festival has taken place in Frognerparken, a public park in Oslo. The park contains open-air pools that can be used during the festival. This new arena drew great names to the event. The appearance of Jetro Tull in 1994 was only the beginning. In the festival's history we find names like: Iggy Pop, Grant Lee Buffalo, Van Morrison, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Suede, Lou Reed, Faithless Emmylou Harris, Poor Rich Ones and Bob Dylan. Neil Young cut his finger and had to cancel his gig in 1997 , but was replaced by the Norwegian tribute band Young Neils.

The biggest festival day so far was the one in 1995, which drew over 7000 people. In 1996 it's 5 year anniversary was celebrated with a two day long festival.

More information on the festival can be found at

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