While My Guitar Gently Weeps (1968)
Oh, Paul. Oh, Paul… Yeah, yeah, yeah…
The Beatles’ White Album is often neglected because it rambles and roves, because it has an undue number of filler songs. Some are idiosyncratic (“Wild Honey Pie”); others are unappealing numbers (“Revolution #9” – eight minutes of self-indulgent, Yoko-fied hell). Those undercut what otherwise might have been a composite work that would have rivaled Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s and Abbey Road.
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is inarguably one of the standout songs on The Beatles’ ninth album release. Its odd mood, its unyielding rhythm and Eric Clapton’s spot appearance as lead guitarist, and the palpable tension in the piece turned the work into a major masterpiece by the Fab Four +1. It dominates and goes far beyond the album.
Intriguingly, in a swap, Harrison plays rhythm guitar and John Lennon works in a restrained second-lead electric guitar. You can hear Lennon’s guitar speaking in its unique “voice,” cranky and clashing, right at the outset, whereas Clapton plays a more soaring, melodic line, an approach that prefigures his work on Layla And Other Love Songs. At a strategic moment, Lennon wisely steps aside to let one of the kings of modern guitar wail.
Clapton wanted his playing to fit more harmoniously with The Beatles’ distinctive sound, so it was run through an automatic double-tracking board that was operated by hand to give the take a wobble and whirring that fits in with the rest of the arrangement and tone.
Paul McCartney’s bass is sharper than in most of the group’s songs, lacking its usual bouncy exuberance. His playing is the work of the premier genius of the electric bass. It may be McCartney’s finest effort ever. As if that weren’t enough, Sir Paul also plays piano and organ on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” The former adds another layer of rhythm. The latter lends a never-again-duplicated air of cross-cultural eastern mysticism blended with wired-out, creepy Anglican high-church organ playing. The Phantom of The Opera meets the Bhagavad Gita.
The song is suffused with an exotic flavor that contrasts with the dynamic bluesy, jazzy roots of Rock-N-Roll. For instance, Ringo’s simple, elegant drumming – as always on the backbeat – and his free-handed deployment of the high-hat cymbal is indicative of the contrast. Ringo also adds a gorgeous detail with a “tit-tit-tit-tit” tapped on a light wood block that helps hurry the pace along.
Vocals are Beatlesque to the nth degree. Harrison, who very much feels the song and its existential anxiety regarding mundane activities, is joined in close harmony by John and Paul. The trio once again sounds like the “one voice” that, even a half century later, is still remarkably recognizable, entertaining and beguiling.
The sad irony of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” can be found in the serene, metaphysical lyrics that do not match the kinetic angst of the music. That angst stems from what, by 1968, was the nearly guaranteed break up of history’s greatest Rock band, a disintegration moving in extremely slow motion, but inexorably moving nonetheless.
While George Harrison was undoubtedly making a personal statement, trying to get a grip on his enchantment with eastern philosophy and theology, he obliquely was saying something to his illustrious band-mates.
I look at you all, see the love there that’s sleeping
While my guitar gently weeps
I look at the floor and I see it needs sweeping
Still my guitar gently weeps
I don’t know why nobody told you
how to unfold your love
I don’t know how someone controlled you
They bought and sold you.
As the song descends into its long closing, bar upon bar of an epoch studio jam builds and begins to emotionally overwhelm the listener. Lennon steps back in to trade licks with Clapton who falls effortlessly into John’s adversarial guitar style and they engage in an agonizingly intense duel.
What prompted Harrison and Lennon to apparently ad lib the line, “Oh, Paul. Oh, Paul,” is probably lost to the ages. It is followed by a groaning of those who are suffering, a pained guttural singing far back in the mix, exactly by whom we do not know.
At last, just as the song enters the long fade out, Paul answers – and what else could he answer? – “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” as they had sung on “She Loves You,” six years and an eternity earlier, taking them all back to their earliest days when Bible-thumpers burned their records, when their views on everything from the Queen to Rockefeller Center were solicited, when girls chased them down streets, when they were screamed at in airports and 5,000 teenagers slept in the cold under hotel windows just to…
In the end, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is a reminder that everyone bears his or her own cross, regardless of money or fame. We always admired george for his spirituality. Attainment – enlightenment – comes at a great cost.
- This was Ringo’s first work with The Beatles after a two-week walkout due to high tension among John, Paul and George.
- Eric Clapton was at first reluctant to work in, treading as he thought he would be, on hallowed ground. His presence, though, seemed to force The Beatles to put aside their differences momentarily so they could play up to their expansive capabilities.
Also by The Beatles on SongMango.com:
- A Day In The LifeWhen the transition occurs between the two songs we are totally unprepared, the shift so unpredictable, abrupt yet so smooth.
- I'm Only SleepingIt's not about drugs. It’s about the big snooza-palooza, one of Lennon's lifelong "passions." Hey, nap dog.
- She Loves YouThe yeah-yeah-yeah’s are a foundational assertion that signaled the start of the 1960s. The '60s of lofty legend and conservative loathing.
- No ReplyNo one ever claimed John Lennon was an easy-going, mellow kind of fellow. The height of paranoid stalking songs.