Monday, October 09, 2017

"Watching the Wheels" /
John Lennon
Thirty-seven years ago, and it still hurts. I lived just a few blocks uptown from the Dakota the night John was shot, and I remember walking there the morning after, taking my place among the crowds of hollow-eyed, stunned mourners gathering on the sidewalk across the street. No other rock 'n' roll death ever hit me so hard. I still miss him.

I wasn't much of a fan of the Double Fantasy album -- too many Yoko songs. (I actually don't dislike Yoko, not like some people do, but let's be honest, her songs were horrible.) This one track, though, redeemed the whole record for me. It's a delicious defense of John's house-husband years, when he'd finally figured out how to stop being a Beatle and start being a person. But his music mattered so much to the world, the idea of him being a private citizen seemed perverse.

"People say I'm crazy / Doing what I'm doing ," he notes wryly. I'm sure Lennon heard it over and over again, how he was wasting his phenomenal talent by sitting around his apartment baking bread and playing with his little boy Sean. (My other favorite song on this album: "Beautiful Boy.") But it's like something I once heard Orson Welles say -- it's such a Puritan notion, that just because you have talent you have to use it.

"When I say that I'm okay, / Well they look at me kinda strange," John reports, with only a trace of that famous edge of his. "'Surely you're not happy now / You no longer play the game'?" But the thing is, John WAS happy just "watching shadows on the wall." He didn't miss "the big time," not at all. Here was a guy who'd been living in a whirlwind ever since he was 19 years old -- can you blame him for finally jumping off?

There's a hypnotic piano hook lacing it all together, a curling little riff that's the best thing about this whole song. In typical Lennon form, the melody slides around chromatically, the chords morph in and out of seventh and diminished modes, more interested in subtle incremental shifts than the bouncy tunes his partner Paul McCartney tended to write.

"I'm just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round / I really love to watch them roll," he insists in the chorus. "No longer riding on the merry-go-row-ownd" -- jumping upwards for once, an exasperated falsetto howl. "I just had to let it go," he explains, and although this entire song is about being relaxed and contented, the way he punches out that line suggests that it didn't come easy.

I think it's significant that this song shows Lennon recapturing his syncopated groove -- after the primal scream of the Plastic Ono Band album, the woozy introspection of Imagine, and the political rants of Sometime in New York City, the Double Fantasy album found Lennon's creative juices in harmony again. Me, I was happy to hear the famously discontented Beatle reaching a Zen plateau.  The album came out in November 1980; a couple weeks later he was shot. Makes you think.

So, in honor of John Lennon, let's all draw a breath, step off, and watch the wheels for a while. Life's too short to ride that merry-go-round forever.

Sunday, October 01, 2017


"California Girls" /
The Beach Boys
"Back in the U.S.S.R." /
The Beatles

Okay, so maybe this is unfair. The great American band of the 1960s, versus the great British band of the 1960s. Do we vote for Brexit or for making America great again?

Oh, but hold on there, Parnelli, as my driver's ed teacher in Indianapolis used to say.

Let's start with "California Girls." In many respects it's just another sun-drenched SoCal feel-gooder, and the album it appeared on -- 1965's Summer Days (And Summer Nights) still has one foot in the classic Beach Boys mold, with tracks like "Help Me, Rhonda" and "Amusement Parks USA" and a cover of "Then I Kissed Her." This song, however, was written by Brian Wilson after he took his first acid trip, and within it are stirrings of the great Wilson masterpieces to come.

The shuffle beat was, Wilson claimed, inspired by cowboy movies but also Bach's "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring." How's that for a pair of influences?

The lyrics were all written by Mike Love, in the longstanding tradition of Mike Love banality. The first verse contrasts the merits of girls from all sections of the country, and as a Midwesterner I am still offended by the description of us as "farmer's daughters," even if we do "make you feel all right." (Apparently we lack East Coast style, the sexiness of a Southern drawl, or the nighttime heat of Northern girls. Screw you, Mike Love!) Verse two plods through reasons why California girls are the best -- they're tan, they wear bikinis, and they . . . well, um, that's about it.

The melody, though, and the arrangement? Divine. There's that dreamy sun-dappled orchestral intro, which goes on surprisingly long, with its spangly electric piano, Carl Wilson's 12-string guitar, and a laid-back tempo. Then it jumps into line for the song itself; the verses have a finger-snapping sassiness that distills a 77 Sunset Strip brand of cool, with Mike Love's whiny brash vocals evoking previous songs such as "Be True to Your School". But then just as you get used to that, in comes that chorus, exploding into dazzling harmony. "I wish they all could be California girls" they sing repeatedly, but it's hardly repetition. The melodic line crests over and over like a curl of surf at Laguna Beach, with overlapping contrapuntal harmonies like an undertow, while chord changes and key changes continually add new swirls of mood. Production values are top-notch (of course they had the Wrecking Crew studio musicians playing everything), lush and dense and joyful as all get-out. Honestly, "Good Vibrations" and "God Only Knows" are so close you can taste them. 

So jump forward in time 3 years, to 1968, and the Beatles' astonishing, eclectic album The Beatles, known forevermore as The White Album. And this is the lead-off track, Side 1, Track 1: "Back in the U.S.S.R."

Macca wrote this while the Fabs were in India, doing TM with the Maharishi. -- like "California Girls," it's the product of a newly expanded consciousness. You can tell it's a McCartney song because A) the melody leaps and bounds all over the place, and also B) because of the beat-lagging tempo (was there ever a bassist who so consistently played behind the beat?).

Perhaps it's no coincidence that the bridge catalogs Soviet chicks a la "California Girls" -- Mike Love (ever eager to glom onto a happening scene) was in India with the Maharishi too, and he claims credit for those few lines that reference "California Girls": "Well, the Ukraine girls really knock me out / They leave the West behind / And Moscow girls make me sing and shout / That Georgia's always on my mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-hi-mind." (Shout-out to Ray Charles.)

I prefer to imagine that Mike Love was such a dick at the retreat that McCartney wrote those lines to satirize Love's contribution to the Beach Boys hit song.

Because the rest of this song sounds nothing like the Beach Boys. The template is pure Chuck Berry, from his song "Back in the USA". (Okay, okay, I know the Beach Boys were also influenced by Chuck Berry -- just listen to "Surfin' USA. But c'mon, EVERYONE in the 1960s owed a debt to Chuck Berry.)

Listen to the first two verses, and it could just as easily have been titled "Back in the U.K." He's flying in from Miami (did British Airways even fly Miami-Moscow in 1968?) and the flight was awful; he gets home and everything looks different, surreal -- "Been away so long I hardly knew the place . . . ". He's feeling so dislocated, he can't even unpack. I'll admit that I imagine Paul McCartney coming home to his section of the terrace houses in Help! Still, it isn't until verse three that actual Russian references creep in: "Let me hear your balalaikas ringing out / Come and keep your comrade warm . . ."

I'm guessing that McCartney wrote the kernel of this as a "god I'm glad not to be touring anymore" song. At the ashram in India, he may also have been worrying how he'd return to his life in England  -- a sort of "you can't go home again" moment. When they needed material for the double album, he resurrected it with a few topical Cold War references . (And maybe a dig at the exorbitant U.K. tax rate on top earners, which at this point the Beatles were -- might as well be in the U.S.S.R., eh?) With the sound effect of the jet landing at the beginning (love how the jet moves from one speaker to the other), and the chugging Berry beat, it made a handy album opener.

Still, as the Beatles so often managed to do, even their cast-offs had profound impact. Those of you who did not grow up in the Cold War cannot imagine the mind-blowing idea of this switcheroo -- our beloved Beatles pretending to be evil empire Soviets?

Just to show how weird a period it was for the Beatles, think on this: Paul played the drums on this track (Ringo had just walked out and was threatening to quit), while John took over on bass. Paul also did some piano work on this track, with George Martin adding other fills. In such turmoil, any other band would have turned out a mess of an album. The Beatles? Somehow they pulled rabbits out of their hats and ended up with one of the top LPs of all time.

Which brings us to the Smackdown finale: Which song wins?

Man, I love that Beatles track. The White Album is one of the great records of my life (see here for my ride through Side 2). I love the snarkiness of this song, the subversive energy of its rock-n-roll, satire and parody all rolled up in a wicked fun package.

But when the Beach Boys burst into gorgeous harmony on the chorus of "California Girls" -- even this Midwest farmer's daughter (who never ONCE lived on a farm) is swept away.

WINNER: "California Girls" by a nose.