"If I Fell" is John's conditional love song. The entire song is cast in the subjunctive, the word "if" sung seven times in the course of the 2-minute-and-21-second song as the "I" of the song, on the verge of falling in love, stops and plaintively lays out the conditions that he hopes his girl can meet so that he will be able to allow himself to fall in love again, chief among which is that she not "hurt my pride like her" - the narrator's previous lover.
This is perhaps my favorite of all of the John and Paul close, two-part harmony songs that the Beatles recorded in the early years. I think it is deceptive in its emotional complexity, easily dismissed as a simple moon-June love song.
John himself seemed to do this: When the Beatles performed this song live, it was not unusual for John and Paul to giggle their way through the introduction as John would mockingly call the song "If I Fell Over" while pretending to stumble, which would cause both him and Paul to go into peals of laughter. John evidently did not have a particularly high opinion of this song:
That's my first attempt to write a ballad proper. That was the precursor to In My Life. It has the same chord sequence as In My Life: D and B minor and E minor, those kinds of things. And it's semi-autobiographical, but not consciously. It shows that I wrote sentimental love ballads, silly love songs, way back then.
It should already be clear that I disagree with John's offhand dismissal of this early work of his.
John takes the low harmony on this, while Paul takes the high harmony. In fact, I would say Paul's part is the melody because it is so strong, and I think anyone singing this song to him- or herself would probably end up following Paul's part rather John's; John's part is not particularly melodic, yet it is a superb complement to Paul's vocals.
I intentionally sought out the version of the song on which Paul's voice breaks in the second bridge - he doesn't quite reach that high note on "vain". I think this adds to the sense of poignancy in "If I Fell"; it adds a sense of discord that I think strengthens the song, gives it depth; because in these lyrics, John is asking that this great risk, this risk he is provisionally willing to take again, the risk that comes with making yourself vulnerable to another, to love again, come with a guarantee of sorts: That his lover not "hurt my pride like her" - the perfidious "her" who wounded him so deeply that he now weighs a chance at love in a balance with the risk of hurting his pride resting on the opposite side of the scale; the her who caused him to think of love as conditional, subjunctive, and perhaps not worth the risk.
John and Paul join together to sing the same melody at times on this song and it is interesting and instructive to notice the words on which they break off and go into their respective harmonic parts. For instance, John and Paul sing the same notes in the line beginning "would love me more than ..." and their voices break off, John going low, Paul high, on the concluding word " ...her". In other words, they separate on "her", the harmonic parts themselves suggesting a parting of ways, an element of discord that haunts the song and the mind of the narrator, whose sense of worth and very ability to love has been compromised by the "her", the "she" of his past, the very mentioning of whom in the song is often accompanied by the largest tonal gap in John and Paul's respective harmonies1.
The song, and the narrator, are haunted by "her" and the narrator's inability to let the hurt she caused him go.
"If I Fell" has had a special place in my heart since 1990, when I had, right around this very time of year, what I later realized was my own "If I Fell" moment:
Teh 'Bride and I had met only a few months earlier and it took awhile before I got up the nerve to ask her out on a date2.
On one of our earliest dates, we went out to a restaurant, and something happened. I can't even remember what it was. But we were having a conversation and Teh 'Bride ended up laughing or maybe just saying something that had me convinced that she was making fun of me, laughing at me. I can't be more specific than that because I really don't remember what it was and even if I did it would be something so insignificant that my telling it would not make any of this make more sense to you because it would be so meaningless that it would probably just confuse you more. And I didn't really know Teh 'Bride then, so I didn't yet know that she wasn't like that, that she couldn't possibly be guilty of doing what I for some reason thought she had done.
But, thinking I had been made the brunt of a joke, I nursed my wounded pride by clamming up for the rest of the meal.
Don't hurt my pride like her.
And when I took her home after dinner, I got out of the car with her and basically told her I didn't think this was working out, and maybe we shouldn't see each other anymore. And Teh 'Bride, naturally, was shocked because she had no idea where this was coming from, what had provoked it. And I was vague about it because I didn't want to admit to what small thing it was that made me think she'd been mocking me — and I swear to God that, now, I don't even remember what it was. I just know that I had decided to put the worst possible spin on it and think the worst of it.
I don't know if Teh 'Bride would even remember this incident. But I do because it was a pivotal point in my life. I still sometimes wake up at night remembering, remembering how I nearly threw away my one, my only, chance at happiness.
I nearly did.
But Teh 'Bride didn't let me.
My recalcitrant insistence on not being more specific than saying "It isn't working out" and "We should end this" flustered Teh 'Bride, and confused her, and hurt her and pretty soon, as she insisted I explain myself, she began to cry.
Yes, I realize what an asshole this makes me sound like. I made her cry.
Those of you who read this blog have made it clear that you love it when I tell stories about Teh 'Bride (and Teh 'Dad) and some of you wish she would write more guest posts; and a few of you have suggested that the best way for this blog to increase readership would be to go All 'Bride All The Time. Because you read what I write and you conclude, What an asshole! And you're reading now about how I mistreated Teh 'Bride and you're thinking, He's an even bigger asshole than I thought! And the truth of it is that you don't even know the half of it; because however big an asshole you think I am just from reading my blog, I assure that, in real life, I am an even bigger asshole.
But despite that, Teh 'Bride loves me. I have no doubt of that. Because it's all I need.
And she cried and she refused to accept my vague excuses and she broke through my wrongly wounded pride and soon I fell because I realized that she really, truly already had. She had fallen and was willing to show it. I don't know why she fell for me, but I know it's true.
Because I too, at that time, was looking on love as conditional. I was weighing the possibility of love in a scale that was counterbalanced by my pride: If I give my heart ... If I love you too, don't hurt my pride ... I required her to show evidence that she had fallen first; that she was willing to be vulnerable first.
And I don't think she had done that for anyone else before. But she did it for me.
She had broken my pride. And I fell.
Twenty years ago, I fell. And I'm elated to report that, thanks to Teh 'Bride, I'm still falling.
1 There is also a significant harmonic gap on the word "two", suggesting that the possibility of two acting together, being on the same note, as it were, has been compromised.
N.B. I am not suggesting that these places are the only ones in the song where John and Paul's voices diverge drastically; but I am suggesting that the other places where their voices stray from each other have a tendency to underscore this phenomenon of suggesting discord and distance.
Also, I am obviously woefully ignorant of technical musical/singing terms and the words I use to suggest my meaning are probably just out-and-out wrong and would probably just confuse someone who does know the correct terms. If you are one of those people, I apologize for using such phrases as, e.g., "tonal gap" to describe the distance between the notes John and Paul sing: if that is anywhere near the correct phrase, I confess it is entirely by accident. It's just the best phrase I in my ignorance could pull up. I just hope people can kind of extrapolate my meaning from the context in which I use those problematic phrases and words.
2 Teh 'Bride would claim that we never went out on a date. It was a joke in her family to say that she and I got engaged without ever once going out together. This, of course, is utterly false, but stems from an older family joke.
Because Teh 'Bride would claim she had never been out on a date with anyone. Also false, but closer to true. She was living at home when I met her (she was still in library school), and her doting Irish Dad, Bob, who loved his elder daughter dearly, would kid her, asking,
"When am I gonna get rid of you?"
"How many dates have you even been on in your 26 years of life?"
"NONE!" Bob would shout in his inimitable way. "NONE!!"
Because Teh 'Bride obviously knew a lot of guys, and she had, indeed, dated one or two, but none of them really seriously. And she was friendly with quite a few kinda piggish guys, guys who went through women like Kleenex, and she got some sort of kick out of watching and then giving them infinite shit for being such utter pigs, because she thought they were funny but also kinda sad, and I know a few of them came on to her but she just laughed at them because even though she didn't know it at the time she was waiting for me.
And I realize how grossly egotistical that sounds, but I don't mean it that way. Because if I said that to Teh 'Bride, she might laugh at me or wave her hand in dismissal but I don't think she would disagree with me. Because I'm not saying it in a Of course she was waiting for me — what woman wouldn't want me? way. Because that's absurd. I mean it in the sense that she is the one woman I was meant to be with forever and I am the man who was meant for her and when we met we both knew it, only she knew it before I was willing to fall.