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.


Luis Aguirre said...

I remember Lennon's death, and the impact it had in me, vividly. I know where I was, what I was doing the moment I found out, and after the initial, brutal, shock, (he was and still isone of my three mayor heroes), the selfish thought that I wouldn't ever be able to discover more John Lennon songs, as I had recently done with Double Fantasy.
This had been long awaited for by me, and yes, discovering that it was only half an LP, as far as I was concerned, was quite a downer. Everything John recorded for this album was great, but in general I missed some sort of spark, something that would allow me to proclaim in √©xtasis:¡hail hail it's half a masterpiece! But true, WTW is a complete work of art, very hard worked on, and his delivery is as moving as It gets.

Holly A Hughes said...

Oh, the night the news came out -- I was living 30 blocks north of the Dakota and I could not believe what happened. To have John ripped from us seemed like an ugly dream from which I could never awake. But this song gave me hope that his later years perhaps gave him something he had been waiting for. Your passion for Lennon's work is shared, my friend!

Jack said...

No other death of a public figure ever hit me nearly as hard as losing John in such a violent way. Even after all these years it stings, leaves me feeling like John lamenting a broken heart in the song Anna from the very first album: "What am I, what am I supposed to do?" Was there ever a better rock singer? He had a way of reaching that primal place. Your writing, as always is a joy Holly. Thank you for sharing the recollections and insights. Jim