If you look at the handwritten lyrics for John Lennon‘s song “A Day In The Life” below, there’s one thing that strikes me right away. Not many corrections!
The lyrics, which are scribbled in black felt pen and blue ballpoint pen on two sides of a single piece of paper, are being auctioned at Sotheby’s in June. The photo on the left looks like the earlier draft of the two sides.
According to the CBC website: “Signed by Lennon and including crossed out words, corrections and a few annotations in red ink, the paper once belonged to Mal Evans, the Beatles’ road manager.
“An unnamed collector purchased the lyrics at a Sotheby’s auction in London in 1992 and attempted to sell the page in a sealed-bid auction at Bonhams in New York in 2006. However, it failed to sell at that time.”
Now I don’t know if this first page was the first draft or the 10th, so that might impact on how little Lennon edited it.
When I’m writing lyrics, I quite often have several drafts. One reason is practical: it gets too messy the more I edit or change words and lines. The other reason is that I like to have something to go back to if I feel like I’m off course. Sometimes you realize your first version of something was the best.
One line that Lennon changes on the first page is from “And all the people turned away” to “A crowd of people stood and stared”. It is referring to the previous lines “He blew his mind out in a car, he hadn’t noticed that the lights had changed”. Changing the subsequent line to “a crowd of people stood and stared” is an interesting move because it more accurately reflects what human beings do when we see an accident. Lennon’s first attempt with people turning away implies some kind of indifference, but that’s not really the normal human reaction. He may have at first thought that it had more of an emotional impact, implying that no one cared, and then decided that standing and staring was actually an even colder reaction.
The other change is to the verse at the bottom of the page. He was referring to a newspaper article about potholes in the line “Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire” when he went off in another direction in describing the size of the holes and how “although the holes were rather small, they had to count them all”. At first his line was “they had to count them all, they counted every one”, but then he changed his mind and came up with something that sounds like a one-liner: “they had to count them all, now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall”. This leads to a different melodic line as well. It’s hard to say if he had the melody in his head as he was coming up with that line change, but it was definitely a brilliant twist on the pattern of the rest of the verses.
On the other side of the paper, the lyrics are re-written with the new lines included. However, one line is changed from “And though the people turned away” to “A crowd of people turned away”. This reflects his earlier line change on the first side. He couldn’t refer to “the people” turning away in the earlier line in the same way anymore. He also took out the word “just” from “just having read the book” probably deciding it was unnecessary. The only other edit is a word change from “very” to “rather” in the line “and though the holes were rather small”. Rather tends to roll off the tongue better, and though it’s a small and almost imperceptible difference when it comes to the big picture, paying attention to little details is a sign of a dedicated writer.
It’s difficult to get inside another writer’s head and know what their thought process is, of course, but a person can almost imagine what he MIGHT have been thinking as he wrote his subsequent drafts and changed things around. There’s an interesting discussion of A Day In The Life on the Guardian website, mostly around the question “What were the four thousand holes in Blackburn Lancashire?” One writer, referring to how the 4000 holes relate to Albert Hall, says:
“Although the answers above offer an explanation for the origin of the 4,000 holes, none explains how this relates to the Albert Hall. I believe this to be the significant missing piece of this mystery into the workings of Lennon’s mind. Another popular cult belief is that a “hole” refers to a unit of decaying flesh as discussed in the “Tibetan Book of the Dead.” At the time, Lennon was influenced by Eastern Misticism and The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The reference, so the cult belief goes, is that Lennon was poking fun at the wealthy folk who attended concerts at the Albert Hall (referring to them as “decaying flesh”).”
They could be right 🙂 The fact is that none of us really knows what was going on in Lennon’s head, but it’s a lot of fun trying to “Imagine”.