Thursday, October 9, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 282): "WATCHING THE WHEELS" (1980) John Lennon

For John Lennon’s birthday today, why not one from his last album, Double Fantasy, made with his wife Yoko Ono alternating tracks?

I had mixed feelings about the album when it came out—in mid-November of 1980. Then Lennon was killed in early December and the status of the album changed. Whatever its quality, we were glad to have it. It had been five years since Rock ’n’ Roll, his album of covers of oldies, was released and six since Walls and Bridges, which I rather liked. Yet Lennon’s vaunted comeback in 1980 still seemed too minor. Whatever one’s feelings about Yoko’s music, it decidedly is not Lennon music. And new Lennon music is what was wanted. I don’t know that the world was waiting for more Yoko Ono tunes, hers equal his in number, so you only get half an album of Lennon.

As time goes on and things change, the fact that Yoko’s tracks sound very Eighties—with rhythms smacking of Talking Heads with a bit of disco worked in—doesn’t distract so much. At the time—1980—it seemed a bit too much like pandering. And what one wanted was Lennon music that would remind us why we cared about him in the first place.

Double Fantasy almost convinces in that way. Lennon’s portion is pretty much as good as anything he did post-Beatles, with the exception of the standout tracks on his earlier albums, and with the exception of Plastic Ono Band, which, like a good Leonard Cohen album, simply has to be accepted in toto. Double Fantasy, because it comprises a portrait of a couple—of a family—based on John and Yoko and kids, works as a glimpse of the joys and the tensions of couple-life.

Today’s song seemed to be a sop to the Lennon of old, the one who wanted to end war, have people dispossess material things, the one who was a bit of a hippie, bit of a rabble-rouser, bit of an ironic showman. Lennon the savant, the guru. But not in all seriousness. Lennon was too tongue-in-cheek—and cheeky—to be preachy, usually. He seemed to be appealing to decency and intelligence more than to some particular ideology. But what can you expect from the man who sang “all you need is love”?

“Watching the Wheels” defends Lennon’s decision to drop out of “the game” and “the big time” in favor of raising his son, Sean. This was a few years before the film Mr. Mom (1983) put the idea into general parlance—and that for the sake of humor—that a man could be the child-tending, homebody while Mrs. Dad went out into the work-a-day world to find meaning in a career. That’s not quite the Lennons, of course, since our particular Mr. Mom was no doubt making a decent income from the music he’d worked “like a dog” to make as a young man. He’d already played “the game” and hit “the big time” in one of the biggest ways imaginable. Still, the song indicates that he’s often approached and reproached for his decision to drop out and throw it all away. That he’s “lost his mind” or is simply “lazy.”

Ah, the work, the work, just the working life. In one view, work is soul-robbing drudgery; in another, it's fulfillment and meaning. Depends on the work, we say. What Lennon is saying is, though he found great success and has people asking him questions because they want more meaningful work from him, he himself questions the worth of the whole process. He contrasts with his meaningful—and lucrative—activity—that he prefers “watching shadows on the wall.” Or “watching the wheels go ’round and ‘round.”

What I like about that formulation is that he’s not suggesting he’s following a higher calling. He doesn’t seem to be saying he dropped out for the sake of some spiritual non-attachment to the materialistic pursuit of success. Rather he’s saying that, having had all that already, he doesn’t particularly feel the need for more of it. In other words, his view is that he’s an artist taking time off and that he has the wherewithal to do as he likes.

It was 1980 and the gifts that made The Beatles international celebrities as well as respected, admired and emulated recording artists had long since made their mark. We might say that competing with one’s earlier self is a losing proposition. And the Sixties and Seventies, as the time of using the public eye to protest and to spend time on television on the Mike Douglas Show, with Yoko, explaining themselves and their causes, to say nothing of the time of his infamous “lost weekend” in LA with hard-partying friends like Harry Nilsson, had waned. Lennon fashioned himself as the heart and soul of his marriage and Double Fantasy bears that out. But the “Yoko and me” raison d’ĂȘtre had already been espoused and become the dominating mantra of his life after The Beatles. Was there really anything new in touting the couple above all other ties, causes, pursuits?

Well, yes and know. The songs on Double Fantasy, by Lennon, are all easily likeable. Gone is the brash, abrasive Lennon. The bluesiest is “I’m Losing You,” the catchiest is “(Just Like) Starting Over,” the sweetest is “Woman” and the most profound is today’s song. And I say “profound” because Lennon’s detachment in the song is almost that of the guru who has found “the way.” Or rather, as Nietzsche’s Zarathustra would say, “his way, for the way does not exist.” The way to be happy? And does he not have the right to exercise that? So the questioners are really those who don’t believe he is—that something’s missing. Or who believe that the bottom will fall out and he’ll have nothing—a long forgotten has-been. Or who make statements “designed to enlighten me” as though there is some worthwhile pursuit he is unaware of. But what could that be? Saving the world? Teaching the world to sing? Making a name for himself? A mark?

“I tell them there’s no problems, only solutions.” Well, that’s a nice bit of zen-like paradox. And aren’t the wise given to quips like that? Maybe he has attained wisdom? Or maybe, at least, he knows that everything being offered as a “solution” to his “problem” presupposes the existence of a problem that’s not there. That does not exist, for him. As when Lou Reed proclaimed, with glee: “Oh there are problems in these times / Oh, but none of them are mine.” Or Dylan: “And I know you’re dissatisfied with your position and your place / Don’t you understand it’s not my problem.” These are ready dismissals of a certain kind of fellow-feeling that says, Christ-like, I will carry your cross, I will help you surmount the difficulty of life. Lennon, it seems, was content to carry that burden for himself, his wife and his kids. And the rest can take care of themselves.

The interesting phrase “I’m such sitting here doing time” is perhaps revealing. The incarcerated “do time” in prison. The release from such time could be, if he’s feeling imprisoned by parenthood, the moment when his child is ready to be on his own. But the release from the “time” we’re all doing is, of course, death. How much time do we have? We never really know. What shocked us, hearing the song—as the third single from the album—after Lennon’s death, was that he was no longer “doing time”—neither in the marriage nor on the planet. He was “no longer riding on the merry-go-round” in any sense—except to the extent that his music continues to live and to be played and listened to (unless you believe his spirit is still strapped to some karmic wheel).
What that promoted, to me, was a detachment from the enraging aspects of the manner of his death, and, perhaps, an inkling of the more cosmic contemplation that Lennon might have found more appropriate: you just have to let it go.

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