Nowhere Man

September 3, 2013 • 12:54 pm

“Nowhere Man,” written by John Lennon, was released in 1965 on the wonderful “Rubber Soul” album.  It’s ranked at #66 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest Beatles songs, and it’s one of their first songs to deal with issues besides romance—existential angst in this case.

One of the pivotal songs of Lennon’s early Beatle years arrived when he least expected it. “The whole thing came out in one gulp,” he told Rolling Stone in 1970. “I remember I was just going through this paranoia trying to write something and nothing would come out, so I just lay down and tried not to write and then this came out.” What emerged was an expression of the boredom and frustration Lennon was feeling in his cocoonlike existence as a Beatle. The references to a man who’s “making all his nowhere plans for nobody” and “knows not where he’s going to” were, Lennon admitted, “probably about myself.”

But they forgot the line, “The world is at your command”!

Songwriting mystifies me: it’s a talent that seems to either be there or not, one not amenable to developing.  And I don’t understand how a human can just lie down and disgorge a song this beautiful at one gulp.

Wikipedia adds a bit more:

McCartney said of the song:

“That was John after a night out, with dawn coming up. I think at that point, he was a bit…wondering where he was going, and to be truthful so was I. I was starting to worry about him”.

More from Rolling Stone:

In the studio, the weariness in Lennon’s voice and the dirgelike melody didn’t deter the band from reaching for new sounds. Lennon, McCartney and Harrison stacked a wall of sumptuous harmonies, and the beautifully spare solo — played in unison by Lennon and Harrison on their Sonic Blue Fender Stratocasters — cut through the ennui like a machete.

“‘Nowhere Man’ is such a beautiful pop song with a groundbreaking, existential lyric,” says Billy Corgan, who covered it with the Smashing Pumpkins. “It lets you see that moment of discovery.”

Here’s a live version, said to be recorded in Munich in 1966. It’s surprisingly good for a band that I always thought was much better in the studio than live. The three-part harmony is excellent, although it’s a bit drowned out by the guitars:

I never saw the Beatles live, for, after they became famous, they played mainly in large venues like sports arenas. I wasn’t keen on seeing four antlike figures as a distance, with their music drowned out by the incessant screaming of fans.

Just to remind you of the greatness of “Rubber Soul,” which to me marks a real break between the early rocking Beatles and the later, greater artistic ones, here’s a list of its songs.

The only ones I’m not keen on are “Think for Yourself” and “What Goes On”.

Side one
No. Title Lead vocals Length
1. Drive My Car McCartney and Lennon 2:25
2. Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) Lennon 2:01
3. You Won’t See Me McCartney 3:18
4. Nowhere Man Lennon, McCartney and George Harrison 2:40
5. Think for Yourself” (Harrison) Harrison 2:16
6. The Word Lennon, McCartney and Harrison 2:41
7. Michelle McCartney 2:33
Side two
No. Title Lead vocals Length
1. What Goes On” (Lennon–McCartney–Richard Starkey) Starr 2:47
2. Girl Lennon 2:30
3. I’m Looking Through You McCartney 2:23
4. In My Life Lennon 2:24
5. Wait Lennon and McCartney 2:12
6. If I Needed Someone” (Harrison) Harrison 2:20
7. Run for Your Life Lennon 2:18

14 thoughts on “Nowhere Man

  1. My third favourite Beatles album (after Sgt. Pepper’s and Revolver). Its significance can’t be overstated. Inspired Brian Wilson to create Pet Sounds, a true masterpiece.

    Quote from Wikipedia:

    “It felt like it all belonged together. Rubber Soul was a collection of songs…that somehow went together like no album ever made before, and I was very impressed. I said, ‘That’s it. I really am challenged to do a great album.'”

    Pet Sounds, in turn, inspired The Beatles to create Sgt. Pepper’s. And, as legend has it, when Wilson heard Sgt. Pepper’s, it broke his heart and he had a nervous breakdown. He realized he’d never create anything as good as “A Day In The Life”.

    And that chain of influence (Rubber Soul -> Pet Sounds -> Sgt. Pepper’s) simply can’t be topped.

    1. Then again, Leonard Bernstein did call Brian Wilson the best contemporary American composer some time around the mid 60s – I don’t have the reference.

      Re; the mystery of song-writing, well The Fabs had had loads of years’ practice by ’65. Love me do is pretty unimpressive, get a bit of success and self-confidence and 3 months later Please please me was leaps and bounds better; they didn’t seem to buckle with adulation.

      Btw., notice that Nowhere Man has a symmetrical structure from start to finish – musically, it goes nowhere; cute.

    2. By coming out in May ’66, Pet Sounds also influenced the final recording sessions of Revolver – which was in a sense the Beatles first “answer” to Pet Sounds, well before Sgt. Pepper. McCartney claimed that Here, There and Everywhere was an explicit Beach Boys tribute that was fleshed out after a serious listen to Pet Sounds. And his bass playing became especially inventive on Revolver, likely reflecting in part the influence of Brian Wilson.

    3. I just want to point out that the American version of Rubber Soul was different:

      I’ve Just Seen a Face/Norwegian Wood/You Won’t See Me/Think For Yourself/The Word/Michelle/It’s Only Love/Girl/I’m Looking Through You/In MY Life/Run for Your Life.

      Capitol had a habit of breaking up their albums so that they could put out more records and sell more product.
      Rumor has it the ‘Butcher’ cover for ‘Yesterday and Today'(an America only release) was their reply to how Capitol was butchering their records.

      I’m curious if Brian Wilson is referring to the American Rubber Soul which didn’t contain ‘Drive My Car’ or ‘Nowhere Man’.

  2. I’d just like to say that I really like ‘Think for Yourself’. There’s something kind of curmudgeonly about both the words and the melody, and that growly intro, which I think really works.

  3. The fourth album in 2 years – so it’s understandable that there was some filler in it. Eight months after ‘Rubber Soul’ ‘Revolver’ was released. Unbelievably prolific by todays standards. They were constantly touring during this period as well.

  4. I agree that songwriting is mystifying, but I wonder if sometimes it’s a skill that eventually can develop? I tried and failed for years and years to write songs, eventually giving up. But in my 40s, I tried again and in the last couple of years I’ve written quite a few! I actually think they’re pretty good, but I’m definitely mystified with my sudden ability (I won’t call it a talent).

    Anyway, great choice again, Jerry!

    1. Of course songwriting can and does develop. Have you ever heard some of Lennon/McCartney’s earliest tunes? They’re not that good.
      Nobody’s first attempts are that good. See Harrison’s first attempts. ‘You Like Me Too Much’ is almost unlistenable, but later songs, Here Comes the Sun, Something, While My Guitar… are terrific.

  5. There are certainly things, many things, about writing music that need to be learned. Nobody, and I mean nobody, writes great or even just good music without having studied in some way, shape or form.

    That writ, it is also certainly the case that some people have an innate aptitude, in the same way that others have an aptitude for math, or for athleticism, or for language. But the aptitude needs to be developed before great things can be achieved. Mozart, of all people, said:

    “People err who think my art comes easily to me. I assure you, dear friend, nobody has devoted so much time and thought to composition as I. There is not a famous master whose music I have not industriously studied through many times.”

    I’d wager Lennon was engaging in a bit of poetic hyperbole in claiming the whole song just popped out, and only after deliberate effort was ceased. I sometimes experience bouts in which music comes forth easily, but probably because it’s been percolating for some time, semi-subconsciously.

  6. Run For Your Life is an absolutely horrible song. Lennon said it was his least liked Beatles song and regretted having written it. Understandable given that the lyrics describe an abuser threatening his girlfriend with murder if he should ever “catch her with a man.”

    Nowhere Man is, to me, good, but not great.

    1. Agreed re Run For Your Life, and for similar reasons I dislike “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, a “funny” song about a teenage psychopath. Although it does have annoying “earworm” tendencies.

  7. I’m going to take this opportunity to guess your top two songs, Jerry: “A Day in the Life” and “Hey Jude.”

    I also wonder about the the “Golden Slumbers.” “Carry That Weight,” and “The End” medley. Though you may have already covered those 3 songs and my memory is failing me.

    “With A Little Help From My Friends” and We Can Work It Out” should be up there as well – two of their best pure pop songs and both true Lennon & McCartney collaborations.

  8. “Nowhere Man” always reminds me of Joan Baez and her School for Nonviolence (Institute for the Study of Nonviolence) that she set up in Carmel Valley in the mid-60s.

    Joan Didion wrote an essay — collected in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” — about Baez and her school:

    “Four days a week, MIss Baez and her fifteen students meet for lunch. After lunch they do ballet exercises to Beatles records, and after that they sit around on the bare floor and discuss their reading: Gandhi on Nonviolence, Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, Krishnamurti’s The First and Last Freedom, Huxley’s Ends and Means, and McLuhan’s Understanding the Media.

    On the fifth day they meet as usual but spend the afternoon in total silence, which involves not only not talking, but also not reading, not writing, and not smoking.”


    The Didion (a wonderful writer!) essay, “Where the Kissing Never Stops”, is dated 1966, so I like to imagine Baez and her students doing ballet exercises to “Nowhere Man” and “In My Life” in between discussions of Gandhi.

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