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Music

The White Album: Side Two

It's the Beatles 'unplugged' -- from stardom, from pressures, from the friendship that held them together -- while simultaneously reaching inward and outward.

13. Rocky Raccoon

Primary Songwriter: McCartney

Recorded: August 15, 1968 at Abbey Road

The Beatles is that rare breed of album where eccentricities and curiosities, like an acoustic Western ditty about spurned love and revenge, can fit in simply because they stand out. The inspiration for "Rocky Raccoon" hit McCartney while the Beatles were visiting India in the late '60s. An Eastern influence, though, is not anywhere evident. "Rocky Raccoon" is a thoroughly American number, complete with a backwoods setting, shootouts, hoedowns, a copy of the Bible, and dubious health care. It almost plays like a send-up of a Johnny Cash tune about the failed wiles of a likeable underdog.

Its frontier-folk nature even compels McCartney into character. He drops the refinement and light Britishness of his usual vocal in favor of rootsy, more roughhewn inflections. The way he mumbles through "black mining hills of Dakota", his down-home delivery of "that boy", and his mispronunciation of "Gideon" ("Gidjin") all insert McCartney, as a sympathetic narrator, into the song's comic theatrics. His bumbling-bard persona is of a piece with the mood and spirit of "Rocky Raccoon".

The story itself is a well-worn account of shame and jealousy-sparked revenge, or the attempt at it anyway. Young Rocky Raccoon, a good-hearted if impetuous chap, loses Nancy Magill, "the girl of his fancy", to another guy named Dan. With a shiner on his face and bad blood in his heart, Rocky plots his vengeance. It would be a showdown at the camp hoedown. But Dan proves a quicker draw and shoots Rocky first, leaving him laid up and in the brief care of a boozy doctor. Down and out, Rocky ends his hoped-for reckoning by defiantly vowing a comeback.

McCartney collaborated with Lennon and Scottish folkster Donovan in fleshing out the concept for "Rocky Raccoon". The broad outline is fairly standard but it's in the story's seeming marginalia, its tossed-off narrative details, that this trio of delightfully whimsical and imaginative minds brings the song to life. Like how the divine seems to maintain a watchful presence in the form of Gideon's Bible or how Rocky intends to harm Dan by shooting off his legs. Perhaps the funniest scene is when the doctor, "stinking of gin", arrives to aid Rocky and immediately lies down on a table himself. These are the sort of quirks that aren't unexpected coming from a late-'60s McCartney composition but they still surprise with their blithe oddity.

As a piece of music, "Rocky Raccoon" is exquisitely textured, though it takes its time in achieving that form. It develops gradually, with McCartney's acoustic guitar initially at the center, garnished by Starr's light high-hat crunches and Lennon's (unusual) go at a thudding six-string bass, which, when emphasized, sounds like a brass section. The smoky grayness of the song's beginning then gives way to an inventive flow of lively and colorful instrumentation: short spurts of harmonica, George Martin's slinky, saloon-style piano on the bridges, and warm patches of an accordion-like harmonium. The story of Rocky's travails is too screwy for just an acoustic folk backdrop. That wouldn't have done him justice. And this is an album where sonic simplicity isn't often the preferred method.

All added up, this is a tune full of charm, wit, and oddball pop pleasure. The Beatles were peerless in their capacity for such songwriting. But can you imagine it without the snappy name "Rocky Raccoon"? Would it have been so lasting and memorable under a different title, like "Rocky Sassoon", which was McCartney's original idea? He later determined that "Raccoon" was more cowboyish and, thus, a better match. In fact, the pairing of "Rocky" and "Raccoon" perfectly captures the character's mix of macho bluster and lowly inadequacy. It's absurdly well-calibrated. Rocky is a lovable buffoon who, from the outset, doesn't appear likely to prevail and probably won't learn his lesson after he falters. The name "Rocky Raccoon" renders him an open book. But the details of his story and the baroque sounds that accompany it are far from predictable. That is truly the hallmark of The Beatles as a whole. It careens, it deviates, it undermines, and it positively wows. The Beatles may have been in collapse, but their art was still soaring.

-- Barry Lenser

14. Don't Pass Me By

Primary Songwriter: Starkey

Recorded: June 5-6, July 12 and 22, 1968 at Abbey Road

Originally called "Ringo's Tune" and also "This Is Some Friendly", the ditty that ultimately became "Don't Pass Me By" was the first solo song written by Starr that the Fab Four ever recorded. Although the album was recorded in 1968, Starr probably wrote the song years earlier in either 1963 or '64; indeed, bits of the song are heard on a 1964 BBC radio broadcast in which Starr and McCartney discuss its beginnings in their interview.

Fans of Starr commonly claim that his songwriting talents go underappreciated. But we have little material to judge his talents by, at least in the context of the Beatles. "Don't Pass Me By" and Abbey Road's "Octopus's Garden" are the only Beatles songs Starr wrote by himself, and therefore the only pieces we have to judge his skill. Fans, digging deep, claim the song's simplicity is endearing, that the lyrics are telling (the line "You were in a car crash and you lost your hair" can be, with some stretching, a reference to the "Paul Is Dead" urban legend), or that the lively performance solidifies its importance in the scheme of the rest of the album. Critics, of course, use the song merely as further proof of Starr's lack of talent in comparison to his bandmates' much more innovative songwriting.

"Don't Pass Me By" is certainly distinct compared to its fellow White Album tracks, possessing a bluesy, folk-inspired bounce. At 3:50, it is the second-longest track on the first disc. But its simplicity (it follows a very basic blues progression, utilizing only three chords) makes it difficult to claim that it holds any real importance, especially compared to The Beatles' more experimental or progressive cuts. However, it could also be said that it is this simplistic form that allows for the freedom found in the track's brief bits of improvisation, both by fiddler Jack Fallon at the song's end, and also in Starr's short, tinkling piano introduction.

The significance of "Don't Pass Me By" is entirely subjective, and ultimately the decision of the listeners themselves. There are a few fans out there who will argue to the end that, although this song is neither technically impressive nor musically innovative, it is most certainly enjoyable. In the context of the avant-garde loops of "Revolution 9" or the poignancy of "Blackbird", "Don't Pass Me By" is a different ballgame if not a completely different sport. But in many ways this is the beauty of the The Beatles, and perhaps "Don't Pass Me By" should simply be seen as what it is -- if not a triumph for Starr himself, then at least a necessary and vital piece of an undeniably triumphant whole.

-- Elizabeth Newton

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