This, my favorite entry in the Beatles’ prodigious catalog, is one of the few “story songs” turned in by John Lennon, who left us 36 years ago today. Most of the others, from “Eleanor Rigby” to “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da,” originate with Paul McCartney, who has a more Dickensian sensibility.
The story itself is straightforward: the narrator meets a girl, goes back to her apartment, drinks some wine, chats her up till well past midnight, hoping to score—but doesn’t close the deal, winding up in the bathtub instead of her bed. This part, apparently, was John’s contribution to the tale:
“I was very careful and paranoid,” Lennon explained, “because I didn’t want my wife, Cyn, to know that there really was something going on outside of the household. I’d always had some kind of affairs going on, so I was trying to be sophisticated in writing about an affair. But in such a smoke-screen way that you couldn’t tell.”
The next morning, the more ambiguous shit goes down:
And when I awoke,
I was alone:
This bird had flown.
So I lit a fire.
Isn’t it good?
A literal reading suggests that the narrator woke up angry and burned her wooden furniture. No less an authority than McCartney, whose idea this allegedly was, confirms this: The girl “makes [the narrator] sleep in the bath and then finally in the last verse I had this idea to set the Norwegian wood on fire as revenge, so we did it very tongue in cheek,” Paul said. “She led him on, then said, ‘You’d better sleep in the bath.’ In our world the guy had to have some sort of revenge…so it meant I burned the place down.”
Not to suggest that the guy who wrote the song is full of shit, but the guy who wrote the song is full of shit.
This business about the literal burning of the Norwegian wood is just a smoke-screen (and a good one, because pine burns like a motherfucker). We know it’s a smoke-screen, because if you read the quotes again, Lennon says as much.
First of all, there’s no furniture to burn. When she first tells him to sit down, remember, he “looked around and [he] noticed there wasn’t a chair.” Does he strip the paneling from the wall and burn that? What sense does that make?
Let’s say you’re a dude—let’s say you’re John Lennon, even—and this scenario happens to you, just as described. You’re invited back to some “bird’s” apartment; she goes so far as to give you a tour of her boudoir. You’re all, Dig it! Isn’t it good? You might say you want to hold her hand, but what you really want to do is come together. You drink a bottle of wine, you shoot the shit till the wee hours… but she’s a big teaser, she takes you half the way there. You wake up in the bathtub, with a crink in your neck and a hard-on in your trousers so unrelentingly thick it feels like a piece of—yes!—Norwegian wood. You get up to look for her, hoping she’ll help you, ahem, carry that weight, but the girl that’s driving you mad has gone away. Then you recall her saying something about having to work in the morning, as a sort of bullshit excuse, and laughing in your face. And it hits you: you and your hard-on have the place to yourself.
That’s what’s happened, Mr. Rock Star. That’s the dealio. So do you a) engineer some way to torch her wood-paneled room, resulting in a massive conflagration that may well kill everyone in the apartment building and land you in prison for arson, or b) rub one out?
“Lit a fire,” it says here, is a euphemism for masturbation—and a pretty good one, when you consider that a) lust is traditionally equated with fire, and b) rubbing two sticks together is not dissimilar to the process of manual stimulation (the movement you need is on your shoulder).
Does our narrator leave her home in ashes because she ignored his pleas to please please him? No, but he does leave his goo-goo-ga-joob as a souvenir. All you need is love, yes, but in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.