“When I cannot sing my heart
I can only speak my mind, Julia “
The Beatles’ early work can be broken down into two main components – infamous pop numbers and bubbly, cheerful, bright-eyed love songs. I’ve always found their early work to be heavily shellacked in pop insincerity and universally relatable lyrics. If they sang about love gained, it was done innocently. If they sang about love lost, it was wistfully optimistic. With commercial success came increased artistic freedom, and the youthful notion that love can do no wrong was abandoned – replaced with a rawer, earnest way of expressing not the ease of love, but the desperation and torment it brings with it.
These darker notions of love are at long last included in Julia, the closing track on side two of The White Album (’68). Composed, performed, and sung by John Lennon, the song has a painfully haunting melody featuring only acoustic guitar. The choice to play the song on such an evocative medium, while utilizing a relatively repetitive melodic pattern leaves me with a distinctly wistful, empty feeling. It’s as though after listening to the song, you come to the realization that something crucial has been stripped away from the very essence of your emotional being
Singing Julia, Lennon’s habitually effortless vocal talent fades to a raw, plaintive voice burdened with emotional substance. Rather than detract from the overall tone of the piece, imperfections in Lennon’s voice – a slight vocal crack, a drop in volume – serve to express the most universal feature of emotional turmoil, pain.
It is said that the song was written for Lennon’s mother, Julia, who passed away at a time in which a true bond between mother and son was finally forming. The opening lines “Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it just to reach you” implies that effort is being put forth in order to establish a bond with another. Others say that it was a song directed towards his son, Julian.
As it stands, I’m entrenched in the belief that Julia is an attempt to humanize the group. That is to say, The Beatles were idolized to the point where many believed them to be infallible. This, I believe, led to the dehumanization of the group, where they lost the public facility to be human in the moral sense – showing emotion, making mistakes. Julia is the perfect medium through which the depth of the love, the melancholy, and the natural human reactions Lennon experiences in life are projected onto the public. Thus proving, one would hope, that The Beatles truly are only human.