A handful of words, expertly woven into a fierce melody, reveal a plaintive story of crushing disappointment, framed by the strained and aching timbre of John Lennon’s voice. I heard “No Reply” for the first time when I was 10 years old. I got the album Beatles ’65 and played it on my little record player with its tweed case, in my bedroom in Casitas Springs, California. It’s a song about betrayal. He saw her walk in the door with another man. He’s been watching her, but it’s not creepy — it’s heartbreaking. He is so full of desire that he can’t help himself. The shock of finding that you aren’t loved is the deepest cut.
My dad was the singer Johnny Cash. In Casitas Springs in 1965, I was in my parents’ bedroom, looking at my mother’s clothes and trailing my fingers over the beautiful things in her long closet — the white chiffon and gold-sequined cocktail dress, the tweed suits, the silk blouses and capri pants — when the phone rang. I picked up the receiver at the same time as my mother, Vivian, who was in the kitchen. She didn’t hear me. My father’s voice was on the other end. They spoke for a few minutes, and then my father hung up. It’s odd that I don’t remember their words, but I remember the devastation I felt. Cracks in the foundation of their marriage were clear. I dropped to the floor. I couldn’t hang up the phone. I sat and listened to the dial tone for several minutes, until I heard my mother walking down the hall, and then I quickly put the receiver back in the cradle. She walked into the room and acted as if nothing had happened.
The subtext of my own life was the same as the one in “No Reply”: one of disappointment and longing. I knocked on my parents’ door and no one answered. My mother and father were not at home. Just like the song: “When I came to your door / No reply.” Perhaps it’s only now, a half-century later, that I realize why those eight words held such power: They embodied shame and desperation. And the shame of desperation. Why is there no reply from the woman behind the door, who apparently once loved the singer? Why is there no reply from my parents? There is a terrible reason: Someone else is in the house.
Romantic betrayal is a sophisticated concept for a 10-year-old. What do promises mean if they are nullified by sexual restlessness? This was beyond my understanding in 1965. The song was mysterious. Betrayal was incomprehensible, but thrilling and dark. There was a roiling inner world behind the stoic facades, and that world could be the doorway to art and music. It might be a door I could walk through.
But “No Reply” is a song, not a short story or a cautionary tale or a letter to an advice columnist. The heartbreak in the words isn’t separate from the infrastructure of the lyric form, nor is it detached from the melody, and — even harder to pull off — it is of a piece with Lennon’s vocal performance. Ray Charles said that singers were better at 50 than at 25, because a whole life showed up in the voice at 50, but John Lennon was nine days shy of turning 24 years old when he recorded “No Reply.” Just this once, Ray was wrong.
Lennon’s howl that he “nearly died” is the denouement of the emotional arc. He says it twice in the second verse. It has the stark intensity of Hank Williams’ line “I’m so lonesome I could cry.” Or my dad singing “I walk the line”: plaintive to the point of transcending the meaning. The life that shows up in the voice is made of choices.
I am often a guest teacher in various college songwriting classes, and I find that many young writers want to show off their poetic ingenuity with complicated and clever lyrics that overuse adjectives and nature metaphors, all for the purpose of a vague and grand theme: Love, Loss, Pain. The problem is that they forget people, and real time and place, and the “furniture” in the scene. In “No Reply,” the window, the door, the phone, the couple, the person who answered the phone are all part of the same tapestry. It’s not a new story. But the specificity — the clean capture of a normal scene — gives it soul and, as is always the case in a great work, the personal becomes universal. Everyone has had their moment at the doorstep, and if they haven’t, they will.
And there’s the principle of songs that become part of the permanent record of our musical consciousness: Truth isn’t dependent on fact. Even though the song is credited to Lennon and Paul McCartney, it’s widely accepted that John wrote the song. Shortly before he died, in 1980, Lennon said in an interview, “I had that image of walking down the street and seeing her silhouetted in the window and not answering the phone, although I never called a girl on the phone in my life. Because phones weren’t part of the English child’s life.” Lennon constructed a scene and created characters to fit an existing emotional template. Some might say there is no great truth in “No Reply,” that it’s just a catchy pop tune, cleverly arranged, sung by a riveting vocalist. Oh, yes. That as well.
Eventually, we stop knocking. We stop calling. We receive the message. Maybe we come back later, after years have gone by and feelings are more moderated and maturity provides perspective.
I’ve returned to “No Reply” in every stage of my life. You develop a relationship with a song over a half-century. The early years are flush with passion, strong territoriality and a slight confusion. The middle years are a little numb, and there isn’t a lot of gratitude. The hallmark of my current phase is benevolent agitation. And love. I love the girl who cheated. I love the boy who had his heart broken. I love myself as I was on both sides of the door. The sequence of events is switched, however: I nearly died, then I saw the light. But I’m still reaching for “No Reply."
Rosanne Cash, 63, is a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter. Her most recent album is The River & the Thread. This essay is adapted from the book In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs.