One of the gifts inherent in great music, or any kind of exceptional art, is that you can revisit it and see new things as the years pass. Taking in a creative work always has the subjective to it – there isn’t a right or wrong way, and so much depends upon your own experiences to date, and even your mood at the time. I like to think of it as just being able to access layers; you get the tools or keys to unlock them as you go along, maybe. Even if you amend your original thoughts about a piece later, you still retain them all somewhere. It adds to the appreciation of the work.

I was sparked to this little re-examination today as the most-excellent SIRIUS XM Underground Garage DJ Mighty Manfred played the Beatles’ 1965 song, “Norwegian Wood” on his show today as I was putting on my makeup and getting dressed for the day. It is one of the more unusual songs in the Beatles’ catalogue and has intrigued me since its release. Of course, it receives the most notice for widely being credited as the first Western pop song featuring the sitar (although that’s a bit debatable, as I poked into awhile ago). But as I hear it now in 2011, the sitar is the least-interesting thing about it. It makes it definitely of a certain time, and a little dated-sounding. More interesting are John Lennon’s lyrics.

I have very, very clear memories of hearing this song when I was little, probably because of the compelling story structure of “Norwegian Wood,” and its simple, sing-song-y melody. Whenever it would come on the radio, I would go completely silent and listen to it with the single-minded intensity that only children or crazy people have, as the strange tale unfolded.

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

She asked me to stay and told me 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

And when I awoke, I was alone
This bird had flown
So I lit a fire
Isn't it good Norwegian wood?

My little self knew something was up here…but what it was, I wasn’t sure at all. I knew that John Lennon was married with a son a year younger than me, and wondered why a Beatle was apparently hanging out at some dollybird’s apartment, drinking wine and sleeping in tubs. My speculation didn’t go much further, and couldn’t. I knew nothing of the complex nature of relationships and to me, the Beatles at that point were the lovable Mop Tops and could never do anything wrong, other than smoking cigarettes.

It was all literal to me. Some chick was showing John Lennon her digs, and was super-proud of her paneling, but she didn’t have any furniture, which was very weird. They hung out drinking on a rug until she got sleepy and he went to the can. He was kind of arrogant (“she once had me”) and she was rude not to give him a proper bed to sleep on and not to say goodbye in the morning (“This bird had flown”). But the creepiest thing came at the end: “So I lit a fire, isn’t it good Norwegian wood?” I was fairly convinced that because of the girl’s rudeness in leaving Lennon alone in a bathtub, he set her place on fire, mocking her superior wood. Oh, gee, that is SO not MY Fab Four! Every time it came on the radio, I would listen hard again and again, sucked in by what was said, and what was insinuated.

And now “Norwegian Wood,” like me, is middle-aged. The details of what the song was really about – an affair that Lennon was having, or maybe a combination of all of them – have been known for ages. It’s not like Lennon went very far in hiding it, really. Hell, if a preschool kid knew there was something dodgy there, everyone else (including then-wife Cynthia) had to know too. So if he tried to obscure the fact that he was seeing other women in “Norwegian Wood,” why did he even write the song to begin with? Why leave such a public trail, something that is so curious that critics and reporters and fans would always be asking, “So…what’s this really about, John?”

In looking at the whole of Lennon’s career and life, the answer is obvious. He is not at all the obfuscatory lyricist that Dylan was, and this was an attempt to be just that. No, Lennon was more the confessional songwriter, with just enough pride or sense to hide behind a joke or wordplay or a funny face. He wanted to write about real things, real feelings, his experiences. Even if he didn’t directly cop to a song’s real meaning, the emotions underneath were always plain as day.

Is there a better summation of the changes that fame makes than the opening line?

I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me.

I hear it so differently now – not arrogant, but ironic and resigned, truthful and detached. One day you are John Lennon, trying to find some girl to go out with you at all, and then you are “JOHN LENNON” and millions of girls would give themselves to you on a platter. And you never have to work in the morning, ever again.

And the fire? Oh, the delicious duality…did he warm himself in the cold empty apartment by lighting a fire in her fireplace, or did he torch the joint? Neither, but the lyrical intent was apparently the latter. Ray Davies would deliver a similar killer double-meaning end line in “Lola” five years later: “I’m glad I’m a man and so is Lola.” It keeps people talking, doesn’t it?

And when people are still talking about, thinking about, and marveling over a 113-word two-minutes-and some pop song 46 years after it was written, you’ve lit a pretty damn hot fire.