David Duchovny on “Dear Prudence”
The Beatles’ iconic album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, turns fifty on June 1, and, to celebrate, the book In Their Lives hits shelves today (May 23).
Edited by Andrew Blauner, the book features essays by the likes of Roz Chast on “She Loves You,” Jane Smiley on “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” Rosanne Cash on “No Reply,” Gerald Early on “I’m a Loser,” Rick Moody on “The End,” Maria Popova on “Yellow Submarine,” David Duchovny on “Dear Prudence,” Chuck Klosterman on “Helter Skelter,” David Hadju on “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)” and more.
TIDAL was lucky enough to get an exclusive excerpt of Duchovny’s piece for your reading pleasure. Read on below, and check out a playlist of tracks featured in the book.
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I’M GONNA DO THIS from memory. I’m not gonna listen to the song again, because this is about memory, the song in my head. Maybe I’ll get the words wrong or the sequence, but that’s the music of my mind. There’s the Beatles song on the record and the Beatles song in my mind. This is the latter.
The guitar. You’d have to call it Beatlesque. But that’s not what I thought when I was nine or ten. It was ringing and beautiful. And haunting. It’s pretty, but sad. It’s not hard to play, but I didn’t know that. Most of the songs I would’ve liked at ten were catchy and upbeat. “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies comes to mind. “Grazing in the Grass.” “Crocodile Rock.” A ten-year-old boy’s ears have no pretension or shame. But something about this guitar riff is calling me, pulling at my heart. This isn’t a single. It’s a song. There’s a moment when you start to grow up and you stop listening for singles and start listening for songs. This may have been mine.
And then the words — Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play? Prudence. Not a common name. Not easily rhymed, like Barbara Ann, or Renee who walked away. A name that is of a quality like Patience or Chastity or Honor. A girl’s name. A name that means caution or wherewithal or looking before you leap. This is a girl who has trouble letting go. I relate to that. The ten-year-old boy relates to that field of back-and-forth with his parents and teachers. And the singer, it’s John, he’s nasal but full of care, he addresses Prudence as dear, he likes her, he cares for her, he respects her, he wants her to come out to play. There’s the turn already. He wants Prudence, full of worry, to let go a little and play. It’s all there in the first line. Something is inhibiting Prudence and John is asking her, he’s not demanding, he’s not the John of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” He’s very courtly — Dear, Miss… is he writing a letter? He’s being gentle with Prudence. He’s being prudent.
Why? So she can meet the brand-new day. Well, you can’t fight that logic. Maybe yesterday was tough for Prudence. It seems so, because she is inside and isolating herself. And John is saying: It’s okay; it’s a new day. And look outside. He talks about the sun and sky. Go on, Prudence, just look out the window. And then he tells her that the day is beautiful and so is she. It’s all terribly simple. And now Prudence is beautiful, but it doesn’t feel sexual. She is beautiful like the sun and the sky. She’s alive like the world and should take part. And then John brings it full circle, asking again if she won’t come out to play. He’s gentle, yes, but he’s not giving up.
And Prudence is not easily convinced. She needs another verse. Then the second verse begins, but now Paul’s bass starts heaving, bringing an entirely new energy into the equation. The bass sounds like a pumping heart or deep breaths, insistent where John’s pleading has been gentle. You feel Paul’s bass in your chest. Now John asks, still courtly, if he can see her smile. That’s nice. Like a little child. And the way he turns child into child with three syllables kills me to this day. He’s starting to syncopate with Paul’s bass, and he wants her to look outside again at the natural world, at nature. The clouds are a daisy chain. He wants to see her smile again. It’s a nursery rhyme. Prudence is a young girl, or a young girl who lives on in an adult lover, but even at ten, I know I’m in a fairytale space and things are not as they seem. Prudence has stopped smiling for some reason. Again. She has smiled, but not now. What loss has she suffered? I sense an adult is to blame.
And now we enter the bridge, though it feels like falling off a cliff, and John is telling Prudence to look around, in a deeper, almost mechanical tone, drained of feeling. And as courtly as he has been, now it’s dreamy and chanting. It’s a whole new musical feel, like a different song, but the message is the same. Again, look outside, Prudence, you’re too focused inward, that’s the cause of your sadness, look at the blue sky, look at the clouds, look around. The world is beautiful because you are a part of it, not apart from it. And that last around feels like voices circling down literally around and around until we are back to the beginning. But now the drums and bass are interlocked and in step, driving John, whose diction is still courtly and fatherly but more rhythmical and insistent, to repeat the verse, same as the first. And when he hits on “beautiful” this time, it is beautiful, it’s a cry now, his sympathy for Prudence has overwhelmed him, and he is reaching out. He elongates and rises up on “you” just so Prudence knows how much her pain is paining him. That liberation from self-seeking and self-doubt and from Prudence itself is just outside your door. And then we are back at the beginning, almost absentmindedly, the guitar, slipping in and out of the riff, fading into longer notes, a different song almost. Like the guitarist is looking up from his instrument because something else has his attention now; maybe it’s Prudence coming out her door to play. That must be it. Maybe it’s a ten-year-old boy opening up a door of his own to somewhere else.
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