"It was as though the usual gap between desire and necessity had been bridged during some freakish fit to absent-mindedness on the part of old Father Reality, temporarily indisposed with sunspots. His first sensation could not be anything but pleasure, for here were all his pumpkins turned into carriages with the gilt still fresh and the price tags in full view. But if one is not willing to believe in fairy godmothers, such pleasures burst at a finger's touch: they are not real.
What then, with any certainty, was?"
The Prisoner, Thomas M.Disch
"What thou lov'st well remains,
the rest is dross
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, mine or theirs
or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage,
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee."
Ezra Pound, Canto LXXXI
He floated there, into the nearby woods, to get out of the town, for some peace; to be with the birds and beasts, sure, but also to connect as best he could with the actual world again, away from others. One day he would return to his old turf, there in London; but not just yet. This was the other world he wanted so badly? It would take some getting used to...
...and out of the fuzzy brightness the bright colors dim slightly, and as the focus sharpens an object - a balloon? - seems to come down slowly and unsteadily, resting and being pushed aside by a very light breeze. The flip side of the solidity of "Penny Lane" begins, uncertain and yet beckoning, quiet and compelling. The singer is so isolated, so alone, that the effect is that he is singing to just one other person - you, perhaps, or his Other, who he is away from, at the moment.
A man gazes out into the garden of his house and is reminded of his childhood haunt, where he would go and play no matter what. That Lennon was away from the rest of The Beatles when he started this song in the fall of '66 (he was in Spain doing How I Won The War) is one thing; that he had just met Yoko Ono was another. Her effect on him was immediate; and where he stayed in Spain did indeed remind him of Strawberry Field, where he played as a kid. But this is as far from the jauntiness of "Penny Lane" as is possible.
There is nothing to hold on to here.
It's not enough to say that the narrator is unreliable (as in the previous song) as it is that there is barely a narration that happens. It is because he sees things so indecisively that you have to accept the invitation of the song - to guide him in a way, even though he is the one who is going, is taking you, and as the song intensifies and grows darker (as if you were now in the woods and the sunlight was blocked by the trees' density), "nothing is real" becomes a promise and a threat. His indifference - "it doesn't matter much to me" - is also ambivalent, as if the old polarities and labels no longer really count. If this song is a gift, it is one you have to figure out the value of; a kit, if you like, rather than the thing itself. And then he disappears, it seems...
...then returns, turning back on itself, goofing off, getting lost, seemingly saying that every way here is the right way, again it is your choice - he has brought you here, back to his childhood, to how it was for him; your empathy gives the song life, makes it into an experience...that he got to this experience himself through taking LSD is interesting but ultimately not the point. The swirling, changing and near-classical drama of the song is to make you remember your own Strawberry Field, your own place of creativity and imagination; maybe unhappiness pushed you there, or boredom, or just the desperate need to escape. And that place returns, things inevitably happen to remind you that that place exists, even if only in your head; that liberation and creativity - freedom - can be confusing things, but they are the essential things, too.
And that was the gift of 1967, which may be submerged or lost but always, inevitably, shows up when you least expect it. It is as if once it was released, it was impossible to think of anything before it as modern; just as once you take LSD or have a similar transformative experience, the world does not look or feel the same. There is more than one way to experience the world, and once seen you cannot go back; and there is no way of knowing what your experience will bring to you - there is no guarantee it will be wholly "good."
That was a relief to some, a deep threat to others, and effectively divided the pop music audience. It was one thing to copy The Beatles in '63/'64 - that effort launched a thousand garage bands - but this? Once again they had leapfrogged everyone, even Brian Wilson, who had to pull the car over and listen, dumbfounded, as he heard what he wanted to do with The Beach Boys had already been achieved. (The Smile sessions continued on, but the album was effectively running out of steam by this time; though I must point out the tremendous "Surf's Up*" as something Wilson should have regarded as being just as good.)
As you might expect, UK radio didn't play this too much - psychedelic music was not going to fit in well with the light programme. It got equal airplay in the more open US market, getting to #8 as a b-side - such was the power of the song, the popularity of The Beatles, and the readiness of a large segment of people for this kind of song. (Note that neither this nor their previous double A side were 'love' songs as such, unless you count "Yellow Submarine" as one, in a way.) But there was a percentage who would rather have those conventional love songs - happy or sad, glad or mopey - over anything as quietly disturbing as this song.
It would be facile to say it was all housewives and secretaries who loved Englebert and only hippies and counterculture types who loved The Beatles; my mom, for one, loves this and she was busy looking after me, at the time. My aunt was (and is!) a confirmed fan and she was 12 when she first heard this; for her it was a logical continuation from Revolver, the album Brian Wilson had been trying to beat at the time. Pop music had come a long way in a short time, though, and some were finding things hard to keep up with, found this song a little too strange to love.
The psychedelic box was now open for all who wanted it; but even those who just wanted the licence to make noises that were fuzzy or backwards or just...not...steady had freedom granted to them as well. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that shoegazing gets its emotional start here, as well as its sonic roots; and the space here is vital, the space to explore the inner world as well as the outer. The split starts here, floating and swimming on invisible currents.
...and so he floated; the shock of it was that it had made him free, but seemingly free from nothing. He could observe, see, but could not do, act. And it was tiring; he could travel but never rest, lest he be discovered. He could spy on others, but what could he do with the knowledge? No one could hear him. Only his music was audible now, when anyone bothered to listen to it. He stopped by a house and heard a song coming from the radio in the kitchen; he could not quite make out who it was first. Those boys, he thought, are so lucky. Do they appreciate life?
A cat hissed at him, and he ran, though he didn't need to. It wasn't even a black cat, but he was scared. And yet weren't ghosts supposed to scare others? Back to the town he floated, as night fell...
*This was going to be on the Smile album but then was shelved until '71, when they released an album of the same name.