Near The Heart Of ‘The White Album’

Originally posted July 29, 2008

One of the exercises into the hypothetical that bloggers and other music fans will on occasion break into is wrestling with the question: What if the Beatles had released The Beatles (more commonly known as “The White Album”) as a single LP instead of two? Which of the thirty songs on the album stay and which are trimmed to get down to forty or so minutes of music?

It’s an interesting exercise, and I’ve seen several good takes on the idea over the past couple of years. It seems to me that – whether they said so specifically or not – those who’ve wrestled with the question of editing the White Album by half begin with the task of deciding which song sits at the thematic center of the album. The Beatles was such a hodgepodge of styles and ideas that it’s perhaps not easy to see a center. There is one, though, and to me that center seems one of grief and loss.

Consider the songs that touch those themes in one way or another, either expressing current grief, grief already endured or grief anticipated: “Dear Prudence,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “I’m So Tired,” “Blackbird,” “Sexy Sadie,” “Helter Skelter,” “Long, Long, Long,” “Cry Baby Cry” and the closer, “Good Night.” (The pretty lullaby has one of the sadder lines in rock music: “Now the sun turns out his light.”)

Sharp-eyed readers will notice that I slid over two songs that belong in that list, the pairing of “I Will” and “Julia,” which end Side Two of the LP version of the album and the first disc of the CD package. “Julia” may be the most gorgeous and desolate piece John Lennon ever wrote, and to my mind, if one looks for the heart of the White Album, one finds it there. But its partner, “I Will,” is not far behind, as Paul McCartney’s brief (1:46) pledge of fealty to Jane Asher hides its grief in a line that’s almost thrown away in the first verse:

“Who knows how long I’ve loved you.
“You know I love you still.
“Will I wait a lonely lifetime?
“If you want me to, I will.”

“Will I wait a lonely lifetime?” Good lord, was there ever a line better written to grab the attention of a teenage youth whose current object of affection was quite happily pledged to another? Well, not that I recall hearing, and from that moment on, the center of the White Album resided in those two songs, “I Will” and “Julia,” with the narrator of the first pledging to endure separation from the one he loves, and the narrator of the second letting us know how that separation truly feels. As a young listener, I embraced the first tune and knew that there was something inside the second one that I did not understand.

And so, though “Julia” may be the better song, “I Will” holds a place inside me. Were I a recording artist, “I Will” would be the song I’d choose from The Beatles for a cover version. (I should note that my favorite song on the album is “Back In The USSR,” but as a musician, I’m a singer/songwriter type and not enough of a rocker – would that I were! – to pull that off.)

I’ve not heard many covers of “I Will” over the years. All-Music Guide lists 224 CDs that have a track titled “I Will.” Of those, a little more than fifty are covers of McCartney’s tune: There are versions by Eddy Arnold, Steve Barta, Big Daddy O, Pat Boone, Pete Calo, Tim Curry, Connie Evingson, Art Garfunkel, Pamela Hines, John Holt, Jeremy, Kristin Jericho, Kathy Mattea, Lauren Kilgore, Don Altars, John McNeil, Fred Mullin, Maureen McGovern, Maura O’Connell, Phish, Julia Rich, Diana Ross, Tom Scott, Tuck & Patti, Kit Walker and Ben Taylor.

In other words, the usual mix of knowns and unknowns that take a shot at recording any good song. I’m sure some of them do a creditable job, but they’d have to go some distance to better the one cover version of “I Will” I have in my collection.

Guitarist and banjo player Tony Furtado recorded the song for his 1992 CD, In Reach. And he was wise enough to enlist one of the best voices in American music to take on the vocal: Alison Krauss. As I wrote, I’ve not heard a lot of covers of the song in question, but any versions I hear would have be extraordinary to be better than the job that Furtado and Krauss do on “I Will.”

Tony Furtado & Alison Krauss – “I Will” [1992]

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