Norwegian Wood: peace and love and senseless murder

By Patrick Vecchio

I have a jukebox in my brain that starts playing as soon as I get out of bed. It plays all day long unless my mind is occupied. Music at the start of the day is not necessarily a good thing, because sometimes I hate the song. This morning, for example, it was a song by Olivia Newton-John. It’s gone, and only now can I mention Ms. Newton-John, having purged the earworm.

Later, while I was driving, my shuffling brain cued up The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.” I’m not a Beatles fan. Hadn’t heard the song in years. But there it was as I motored along:

I once had a girl
Or should I say, she once had me.
She showed me her room,
Isn’t it good, Norwegian wood?

The song did not make me think of a long-ago tryst. It made me think of death.

I was a high school senior the first time I heard “Norwegian Wood.” It was at a party suffused with wannabe ’60s sincerity, a handful of people in a circle on a living room floor while a guy our age with an acoustic guitar sat in a spare wooden chair, playing and singing. He looked like Donovan, a wisp of a fellow, the Sunshine Superman, the Hurdy-Gurdy man.

We all were trying so hard to be groovy. The guitarist—James, I think his name was—was digging his part. Go through some Google images of hippie clothing from the late ’60s, and James was wearing most of it—much of it paisley, as I recall. His brown hair waved over his shoulders.

She asked me to stay and she told me to sit anywhere,
So I looked around and I noticed there wasn’t a chair.
I sat on a rug, biding my time, drinking her wine
We talked until two and then she said, “It’s time for bed.”
She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh.
I told her I didn’t and crawled off to sleep in the bath.

There was nothing out of the ordinary going on at the party: no candles, incense, pot, hash, acid, draft-card burnings or student occupations of city hall. No one stayed to sleep with anyone. I can’t remember James playing any other songs. I never saw him again.

Here’s where the mist of yesterdays fogs my memory, but I’m pretty sure I’ve got the story right:

James, as it turned out 10 years later, developed mental health problems. His mother had him admitted to the local hospital’s mental health unit. But one day, he simply walked away.
Somebody called the police. An officer came by in a squad car and spotted James. James probably still looked like Donovan. At the party where he had played a decade earlier, he struck me as a guy who would lose a boxing match with a butterfly. The officer approached James, and James, this hurdy-gurdy man, this butterfly boy, threw a punch that freakishly struck the officer just the right way in just the right place.

The officer died.

I was a cops-crimes-courts reporter at the time. I went to the funeral home for calling hours, not because I was after a story, but because I saw this officer every morning when I stopped at the police station to check the blotter. He was helpful, sometimes when he didn’t need to be. I was there to show what respect I could.

On my way in, a lieutenant from the force was standing on the funeral home’s porch, just off to the side. I stepped over to offer quiet condolences. The lieutenant—the epitome of the tough cop, the hard-nosed guy with the seen-it-all callousness that only cops have—kept looking at his shoes as if he could find answers in their shine. He shook his head.

“So senseless,” he whispered. “So senseless.” I stood there for a couple more minutes. He never said another word.

I don’t recall the resulting court case. My memory is that a police officer, a good man, was killed, but not by a bad man. He was killed by a confused young man who ten years before had epitomized the peace-and-love attitude of the ’60s. And dammit, that peace-and-love mantra wasn’t just drug-addled claptrap. We really thought we could change the world, all of us, a little at a time. Without even planning it, James changed two worlds: his and the police officer’s.

And when I awoke, I was alone, this bird had flown.


Image: The Beatles Wiki