Thursday, December 12, 2013

"Laura": He's Just Not That Into You - But Man, He's Really Into The Beatles

Ever had that one friend of the opposite sex who just ... couldn't take a hint? That one girl who simply couldn't figure out that, as the saying goes, "he's just not that into you"? "Laura" is that girl.

"Laura" may be the best '80s song about guilt - not that I can name any others, but hey, I'm in a bold mood. It's the Mamas & the Papas' "I Saw Her Again" of the '80s. Let's just say that if there are any other '80s songs about guilt, we don't really need them, because "Laura" pretty much covers it:
Laura, calls me
In the middle of the night
Passes on her
Painful information
Then these careless fingers
They get caught in her vice
Til they're bleeding
On my coffee table

Living alone isn't all that
It's cracked up to be
I'm on her side
Why does she push the poison on me?

Has a very hard time
All her life has
Been one long disaster
Then she tells me
She suddenly believes she's seen
A very good sign
She'll be taking
Some aggressive action

I fight her wars while she's
Slamming her doors in my face
Failure to break was the
Only mistake that she made

Here I am
Feeling like a fucking fool
Do I react the way exactly
She intends me to?

Every time I think I'm off the hook
She makes me lose my cool
I'm her machine
And she can punch all the keys
And she can push any button I was programmed through
It's a dance as old as time. Here's this guy, he really wants to make a good clean break, this twisted dynamic needs to go, it's no good for him, and hell, it's not even good for her, but he just ... can't ... do it. Chuck Klosterman writes:
"Laura" is about a relentlessly desperate woman (possibly his ex-wife, possibly someone else, possibly somebody fictional) who is slowly killing the narrator by refusing to end a relationship that's clearly over. Making matters worse is the narrator's inability to say "no" to Laura, a woman who continues to sexually control him ... This is a song about someone whose life is technically and superficially perfect, but secretly in shambles. It's about having a dark secret, but - once again - not a cool secret. This is not a sexy problem (like heroin addiction), or even an interesting one ... it's mostly just exhausting, and that's how it feels.
Well, exhaustion never felt this good. Billy goes all-out to capture the protagonist's agonizing, crawling, suffocating claustrophobia. "Laura" probably contains some of the most artful, twisted, and dense lyrical couplets in Billy Joel's entire catalog. We've got poison, vice grips, electric chairs, umbilical chords - it's like a bad David Lynch movie:
Laura, calls me
When she needs a good fix
All her questions
Will get sympathetic answers
I should be so
To all of her tricks
She's surviving
On her second chances

Sometimes I feel like this
Godfather deal is all wrong
How can she hold an umbilical chord
For so long?
I used to hear "I'm on her side/Why does she push the poison on me?" as "I'm on her sidewinder/She pushed the poison on me," which is wrong, but it kind of works too. I also I used to hear "umbilical cord" as "a musical chord," but if Billy's comments in a 1982 British radio interview are to be believed, then it's definitely "umbilical cord":
I didn't really want to give the person in the song a sex. What I referred to as "Laura," it's a woman obviously but I didn't mean it to be that. I meant it to be anyone who knows how to give you guilt. For a lot of people, it's mom. Only mom knows how to stick that knife in, how to turn the blade. For some people it's pop, for some people it's the wife or the husband, or the kids, in reverse. But really it's about anyone who knows how to push the right button.
This would jibe with Klosterman's story of eventually asking Billy about meaning of the song in an interview, where Billy hinted that the "umbilical cord" line was "a complete giveaway line." Sounds like a ... great relationship. I just have one question: did Billy Joel's mother happen to know about this?

At any rate, mother/lover/sister or whoever the hell she may be, Laura is an absolute pro. Billy pulls out all the stops in the last verse, which arguably features the best use of the word "absolution" in a pop song ever: "Laura loves me/Even if I don't care/That's my problem/That's her sacred absolution/If she had to/She would put herself in my chair/Even though I/Faced electrocution." That's the kind of devotion that you'd actually rather not receive. Thanks, Laura, but no thanks.

To the shock of Billy Joel fans everywhere, at the start of the first bridge, the Piano Man even drops an "F" bomb in there. This ain't your grandma's Huey Lewis record! When I was fourteen I thought the cursing was cool, then later I thought it was laughable, but these days I just kind of forget that it's there. Hmm, I wonder why "Laura" never received much radio play?

But "Laura" is the tale of two obsessions. While the lyrics describe a woman's obsession with a waffling male, the music reveals Billy Joel's complete and total obsession with the Beatles. Although ELO, Todd Rundgren, XTC, and Tears for Fears might beg to differ, Beatles homages don't come more blatant than "Laura." There are so many sonic references, I decided to make a list:

1) The intro, with its baroque, descending cello line: sounds like the intro to "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"
2) The tempo: reminiscent of druggy Lennon White Album songs like "I'm So Tired" and "Sexy Sadie"
3) The choppy guitar chords: straight out of "Oh! Darling"
4) The "ah ah" backing vocals: probably flew in from the "Oh that magic feeling" section of "You Never Give Me Your Money"
5) The sudden, jarring double-tracking of Billy's voice: utilized in "Run For Your Life," "I Am the Walrus," "Hey Bulldog," and countless other Lennon vocal mixes
6) The guitar solo: vintage Harrison circa 1969
7) The massive echo on the drums: "Instant Karma!" anybody?

The song is so chock-full of Beatles bits that the surviving members could have sued for plagiarism. But they probably had better things to do. At the very least, you have to admire the ability of the musicians in Billy Joel's band to emulate the style so accurately. In the end, the nice thing about "Laura" is that, as much as the music reveals a strong case of Beatlephilia, the narrative has nothing to do with the Beatles or any particular Beatles song. Although, come to think of it, Laura does sound an awful lot like a description of Yoko.

No comments: