Continuing with a look at some of the songs on the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band for that album's fiftieth anniversary, I turn to "Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds."
We all know the story. John Lennon rode over in his chauffeured limousine to his son Julian's nursery school to pick him up, and there was Julian with a painting he did in class, showing a little girl wearing sparkly orbs and surrounded by stars. When John asked Julian what his painting was supposed to be, Julian said, "It's Lucy in the sky with diamonds." John loved it and wrote a song about it, thus engaging in the art of ekphrasis - bringing a piece of fine art to life in music and/or verse (and one could argue that "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!," though based on a commercial poster, was yet another form of ekphrasis).
When "Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds" came out on Sgt. Pepper, fans immediately saw the acrostic spelled out by the first letter of each noun in the song's title - "Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds" - and immediately thought the song was about an acid trip. As for John Lennon's explanation of how the title was prompted, well, no one was going to buy that.
Except that the elder Lennon was telling the truth. And here's a picture of the younger Lennon's art work to prove it.
It may be the most valuable piece of refrigerator art ever conceived. :-)
Not only was the painting real, so was Lucy. She was one of Julian Lennon's nursery school classmates, and by all indications, Julian liked her a lot. Why else would he immortalize her in a painting? And I'm sure he thought she was cute.
In fact, she was. Below is Lucy O'Donnell, Julian Lennon's first muse.
It's worth noting that John Lennon's song characters were almost always real people. Lucy, Mr. Kite, Dr. Robert, Bungalow Bill, Polythene Pam . . . all were based on folks John knew or learned of in his travels.
Lucy herself remembered the painting. "I remember Julian and I both doing pictures on a double-sided easel, throwing paint at each other, much to the horror of the classroom attendant," she said in 2007. "Julian had painted a picture and on that particular day his father turned up with the chauffeur to pick him up from school."
But what of "Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds" itself? The song is musically unique in that the verse sare in three-quarter time with the choruses in a 4/4 time signature. A good deal of the verses are chordless, and the melody abruptly shifts keys, going from A major in the verses to B♭ (B-flat) major for the pre-chorus, and G major for the chorus. Performed mostly with an organ and a Leslie-speaker-filtered guitar riff played by Paul McCartney and George Harrison, respectively, "Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds" also features an Indian tamboura that gives it a more exotic flavor, topped with a really spaced-out John Lennon vocal. No wonder people thought the song was about LSD.
I've always loved this song for having such literary words, and when someone finally got around to asking John Lennon if the lyrics were, umm, pharmaceutically inspired, John replied that the lyrics were inspired by Lewis Carroll's writings, which meant that John inadvertently answered yes. Carroll was a heavy drug user, explaining why "Alice In Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass" were so trippy. But John couldn't have known that when he read those books as a boy. And who cares? A land of tangerine trees under marmalade skies with cellophane flowers of yellow and green growing so incredibly high certainly sounds like a wonderful paradise.
The song would become a favorite of Beatles fans and make its way into popular culture in unforeseen ways. A human fossil discovered in 1974 in eastern Africa, projected to be almost four million years old, was named Lucy because one of the paleontologists at the fossil excavation site was playing the song on a cassette tape. That same year, Elton John covered "Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds" for a single that, apart from greatest-hits compilations, is not included on an Elton John album (paradoxically, the original Beatles version is an album track that was never commercially released as a single); Elton's cover went to number one in the U.S., and it featured John Lennon himself on guitar and backing vocals. And a short time after the release of Sgt. Pepper, New Orleans rocker John Fred listened to the song and misheard the title as "Lucy in disguise," the misheard chorus subsequently producing a parody song called "Judy In Disguise (With Glasses)" . . . but that's another story.
(Less well known is Lindisfarne's parody, "Alan In the River With Flowers," written by Lindisfarne leader Alan Hull.)
The story of "Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds," however, does not have a happy ending. Lucy O'Donnell - who got married as an adult and became Lucy Vodden (her adult photo is above) - eventually came down with lupus and died of the disease in 2009 at the age of 46. Julian Lennon, who had reconnected with his old friend, wrote a new song for her, simply called "Lucy," and recorded it with his friend James Scott Cook and American songwriter Todd Meagher, releasing it soon after. The proceeds of the record's sales go to lupus charities in Britain and America.
"Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds" still remains an astonishing song and a worthy part of the Beatles' canon.