No sign of love

A love letter to the lyrics of For No One by The Beatles.

Paul McCartney is the Benjamin Button Beatle. He was at his most mature, his most deep and his most meaningful at his most young. He peaked early.

He was 23 when he wrote Yesterday, 34 when he wrote Silly Love Songs and 41 when (why oh why?) he released We All stand Together (The Frog Chorus). The wisdom, significance and emotional intelligence of his early work had a half-life of about ten years and it all decayed into inconsequence not long after Live And Let Die.

He was born great, achieved frivolity and had Heather Mills thrust upon him.

At the peak of his powers, at what should have been the unripe young age of 24, he wrote For No One.

For No One is a candidate for the most underrated Beatles song. It is a finely nuanced masterpiece that deserves more recognition than it gets.

It is a song about loss or, more accurately, losing. It is a harrowing study of the wretched, going, going but not quite gone phase of a one-sided break up. She is over it. He isn’t. She has moved on but she hasn’t moved out. He clings to the forlorn hope of a love resurrection, condemning himself to a limbo state of soul-crushing indifference.

How can so much greatness be packed into two short minutes?

One of the song’s striking characteristics is the way in which it dispenses with pleasantries. There is no attempt to break you in gently. No easy introduction. No burying of the lede. It’s more a case of a lyrical fist buried in your solar plexus.

Your day breaks, your mind aches
You find that all her words
Of kindness linger on
When she no longer needs you


It is all in stark contrast to a song like Girl by John Lennon, with its conventional beginning/middle/end storytelling structure.

Is there anybody going to listen to my story
All about the girl who came to stay?
She’s the kind of girl
You want so much it makes you sorry
Still you don’t regret a single day.

For No One has no time for such Jackanory niceties. No “are you sitting comfortably?” No once-upon-a-time scene-setting. It’s more like someone smashing a bottle over your head without prior warning.

And it is written in the second person, in the present tense. It isn’t Paul’s story, it’s yours. It is raw, immediate, up close and very personal. It is happening to you. It is happening now.

And in her eyes you see nothing

You want her, you need her

You stay home, she goes out

God help you if you listen to this song when you are that hapless dumpee. And, God knows, in the midst of such misery is precisely when you will listen to it. You won’t be able to help yourself. It’s like playing with a loose tooth. You know it is going to hurt but you wobble it just the same.

Then there’s the voice, that soulful, plaintive voice. A voice that was born to ballad. The voice that issues from that boyish McCartney face. He with the slightly lazy, lopsided eyes. He with the guileless innocence of a baby seal about to be clubbed. Surely no one could willfully hurt such a beautiful creature. But someone has.

McCartney, not Lennon, had to write this song, and McCartney, not Lennon, had to sing it.

For No One is an emotive song, but the writing is remarkably low on emotion. The lyrics make no attempt to tell you how to feel. They are the verbal equivalent of a brilliant piece of monochrome photo journalism. The tableau is expertly framed but is otherwise recorded without embellishment. It is you, the second person listener, who colours the scene in with your own recollections.

Capturing an emotion in words requires skill. Capturing the absence of emotion, the awful indifference of a lover turned cold, requires mastery.

Wordsworth explained it thus:

I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility…

McCartney’s approach to tranquil recollection is to serve it cold, mundane and mechanical. This is no tempestuous break up. There is no smashing of plates over heads, no setting fire to beds.

She wakes up, she makes up
She takes her time and doesn’t
Feel she has to hurry
She no longer needs you

My friend Deana is one of the relatively small band of cognoscenti that considers For No One its favourite Beatles song. She had this to say about the subtlety required when you eschew the more obvious aspects of the end of a relationship — the anger, the jealousy, the sense of betrayal.

The depression phase, when you’re locked in a loveless relationship, or after the adrenaline wears off from a break-up, arguably clocks in as both the most miserable and the most enduring. And since you don’t have the high drama tools at your disposal, it takes real nuance to do it justice in such a short song.
The monotony of the verses invokes a feeling of a low-level pain that’s hard to place but you know is a sign of something terrible to come. It’s like the first signs of a migraine.
What’s worse than watching someone move with ease while you are stuck in a rut? When you are wallowing, and your loved one is flourishing? FOMO at it’s worst. There is so much cruelty in indifference.

The only other song I can think of that comes close to conveying such profound meaning from such mundane observation is A Good Year For The Roses, written by Jerry Chesnut and performed first by George Jones and then Elvis Costello.

I can hardly bear the sight of lipstick
On the cigarettes there in the ashtray
Lyin’ cold the way you left ‘em
But at least your lips caressed them
While you packed
Or the lip-print on a half-filled cup of coffee
That you poured and didn’t drink
But at least you thought you wanted it
That’s so much more than I can say for me

I’d argue that, based on this sample of two songs, Mr Chesnut’s lyrics are more, well, lyrical than Mr McCartney’s. But For No One still edges it for gut wrenching impact because the she in question is still there. Her callous disregard is explicit rather than inferred.

Both songs press hard on an emotional bruise that we are all born with and never lose. It is called separation anxiety or loss aversion. It is primitive and primal and hardwired into our psyche through the most reptilian part of the brain {{citation almost certainly needed}}.

Maisie, the brilliant therapist who guided me through the year of magical thinking after my wife died, explained that only when we believe that we can emotionally survive such loss or rejection are we equipped and prepared to take the risks associated with forming a deep attachment to another person.

For No One picks at our scabs of doubt.

And on that cheerful note, here it is. For No One. A lesser-known version. Paul McCartney in a studio singing the song to George Harrison (off camera) and George Martin.

It’s great, but it’s just a genius singing a song. To watch it performed is to distance oneself from the concept, whose impact is thus diminished.

Listen to it in the dark on your own. Embrace the emptiness. Accept your pitiful inconsequence.

There is no sign of love behind the tears.

No sign of happy ending.

No sign of redemption.

She doesn’t need you.