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Title: ‘Nowhere Man’
Where to find it: ‘Rubber Soul’ (1965, Parlophone/EMI)
Performed by: The Beatles
Words by: John Lennon

Being a Beatles fan for as long as I can remember, I had to come to grips that at some point, I was going to have to do a Beatles song here on Music in Notes. The problem for someone like me, who has lost count on just how many Beatles books I’ve bought and don’t even go into the CDs, DVDs, and whatever else I have (you don’t want to know how many bits and pieces I bought off eBay in badges, patches for my backpack, etc.), it’s nearly impossible to choose just one song. So I thought about this cassette tape my uncle gave me when I was really young. I’m guessing I must have been around 6 or 7 at the time and I had my own tape player. He had gone through all his Beatles records sometime in the late ’70s and recorded a bunch of his favourites to tape The ink is wearing off the paper now but if you look closely at side B, the first track on there is ‘Nowhere Man’.

I remember thinking just how different it sounded to the chirpy “yeahs” and “ohhs” of ‘Please Please Me’, even if the harmonies that I loved were still there. At that young age, I was able to discern this track was somehow different. You don’t know a whole lot about the world at age 7, so I think I can be forgiven for not understanding what this song is about way back when. And to be fair, I’m still not sure what it is about, but I’m going to give it my best shot. I seem to recall that there’s a clip of John Lennon talking about the song in The Beatles Anthology, but I am not going to run and find my DVDs, because that would be cheating!

First, the words:

He’s a real nowhere man
Sitting in his nowhere land
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody

Doesn’t have a point of view
Knows not where he’s going to
Isn’t he a bit like you and me?

Nowhere man, please listen
You don’t know what you’re missing
Nowhere man, the world is at your command

He’s as blind as he can be
Just sees what he wants to see
Nowhere man, can you see me at all?

Nowhere man, don’t worry
Take your time, don’t hurry
Leave it all till somebody else lends you a hand

Doesn’t have a point of view
Knows not where he’s going to
Isn’t he a bit like you and me?

Nowhere man, please listen
You don’t know what you’re missing
Nowhere man, the world is at your command

He’s a real nowhere man
Sitting in his nowhere land
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody

Now, the analysis:

It’s inescapable. The whole song is about this ‘nowhere man’. But what is a nowhere man? It sounds pretty heavy, doesn’t it? And if it is heavy, why are there are those “la la la las”? That’s the Beatles for you. When the Fab Four started, the songs were pretty cut and dry in terms of content: boy loves girl (‘And I Love Her’, ‘Love Me Do’); boy does not want to be with girl (‘You Can’t Do That’); boy’s friend is saying girl likes boy (‘She Loves You’). But once they got into the ‘Rubber Soul’ era, there was no turning back; they’d decided it was high time (no pun intended) to shift gears. Luckily for us, switching gears didn’t compromise on songwriting quality, nor signal a change in quality of their playing, which just got better and better and more inventive.

‘Nowhere Man’ was Lennon’s big chance to be philosophical, and when I read the lyrics now, I wonder if they were also meant to be political as well, because it doesn’t matter what year you’re living in, you can apply it directly to your own life, your own society. The song begins and ends with similar words, generally in the style of “He’s a real nowhere man / sitting in his nowhere land / making all his nowhere plans for nobody”. What can this mean? You can never really be nowhere, so he must mean either mentally nowhere. I’ve also considered this might mean nowhere as viewed by, say, homeless people who have nowhere to go and nowhere to turn to. In either case, this person is sat in a state of not being, kind of like in ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ where “nothing is real”. You can sit and dream all day, but you’re not going to get anywhere just by dreaming. You have to do. That’s what I get from the opening and closing of ‘Nowhere Man’. I got all of that out of three lines. Three.

Then the second part goes, “Doesn’t have a point of view / knows not where he’s going to / isn’t he a bit like you and me?” Okay. So this nowhere man doesn’t have opinions or doesn’t know where he is going. This sounds like most young people, doesn’t it? Or older people who still haven’t figured out what they want to be doing or what they want out of life. Again, pretty deep stuff for a ‘pop band’. I also like how he’s including us, the listeners, into his big secret. Also note that the lines are not judgmental. They are just telling us what is happening, like a story unfolding right in front of us.

In the quasi-chorus, we get “Nowhere man, please listen / you don’t know what you’re missing / nowhere man, the world is at your command”. Lennon is talking to this nowhere man and reminding him that there’s a bigger world out there, outside of his head. It’s funny how this reminds me of something I wrote for my first boyfriend. He always said that he wanted me to see the world, which seemed a ridiculous pie in the sky kind of idea when we were together because I was very sick. The thought of just leaving my bed to walk down the stairs most days was an impossibility. He challenged me one day to write something, anything about being able to be healthy and free to go out and do whatever I wanted. The short story I came up with, I have no idea where it is now, but I remember this line I wrote for one of the characters, “I had so many things to show you.” That’s the feeling I get from Lennon in this section. If you don’t look outside your normal everyday sphere, you risk getting stuck. Not saying you have to dream big but you have to dream, or else you might not see what else is waiting out there for you.

The problem seems to come when Lennon realises, “He’s as blind as he can be / just sees what he wants to see / nowhere man, can you see me at all?” How do you talk to someone set in their ways? This goes back to what I was thinking about at the start of this analysis, that maybe this had some roots in political thinking. People tend to be conservative, liberal, middle of the road, etc. and stay there. It takes a lot for someone to be swayed to the left or the right if they seem happy where they began. I feel like America is very much like this right now; neither side wants to back down and is “blind” to everything but their causes and constituents and just see what they want to see, but for us to go forward, there has to be compromises on both sides.

But instead of pushing this poor nowhere man into the deep end of a pool, trying to see if he can swim or not, Lennon is only gently nudging: “Nowhere man, don’t worry / take your time, don’t hurry / leave it all ’til somebody else lends you a hand”. These are some more lines that I adore for their softness. For most people, you need to learn how to fly first, and baby birds being forcibly pushed out of the family nest on the safe, comfortable branch probably isn’t the best way forward. Lennon realises that it’s perfectly fine if nowhere man does this in his own time. It’s the wanting, the desire to do something different, to try a new tack, to try a new way, that is more important than trying to rush into something new.

And I got all of this from a song that doesn’t even last 3 minutes. ‘Nowhere Man’ is a really simple song, but incredibly deceptively so. If you came upon this post not already believing that John Lennon was a genius, think again.

Lastly, the song, a stream of the song. ’nuff said.

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