(Beatles/Plastic Ono Band * Rock & Roll)
Sarah J. Arroyo
California State University Long Beach
Citation: Arroyo, Sarah J.. “John Lennon.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 23, 2021. doi:10.20415/hyp/023.r14
Abstract: In Sarah J. Arroyo’s work, she reflects on the intense impact John Lennon’s song, “Watching the Wheels” had on her at age 10. This impact existed outside of John’s public persona since she was unaware of his cultural influence at the time. Decades later, she analyzes John and Yoko’s last interview conducted hours before his death where they discuss their album Double Fantasy, the album that contains “Watching the Wheels.” She experiences a punctum of recognition and argues that John and Yoko used choric invention in their creative processes and were electrate before their time.
Keywords: electracy, boredom, imagination, chora, choric invention, punctum.
I can’t remember how I got the 45 of John Lennon’s song “Watching the Wheels” when I was 10 years old and hanging out in our basement in small town Minnesota, but I do remember that the song resonated with me in ways I didn’t understand. Maybe it was Yoko’s trendy turquoise romper and heels or John’s hat, cowboy boots and briefcase? I stared at that record jacket for hours while the song played and imagined the lives those two must have enjoyed. This song was different for me, even though I had no clue of John Lennon’s history and cultural impact at the time. I watched Laverne and Shirly kiss their Beatles cut out every time they left their apartment on every episode but didn’t connect that John to the one on the “Watching the Wheels” cover.
During my child and teen years, my older brother and I shared a connection over music. We would save up our money and walk down to the local record store to make carefully selected purchases: Billy Joel’s Glass Houses, Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water, Queen’s The Game, and eventually all the Led Zeppelin albums were some of my favorites. What was odd, though, was that he didn’t like “Watching the Wheels,” and he didn’t want to get the entire Double Fantasy album, so I really did listen to it by myself, solitary, it was all mine. Just the single.
I can now see that I learned many things from this one song even though I didn’t have the album it came from. Since I was only 10 and in a sheltered small town, I had no idea of the backstory including John and Yoko, the Beatles’ breakup, John’s political activity, John’s retreat from music to raise his son, and the extreme cultural significance of the Beatles, John, Yoko, and everything about them to their generation. For me, I was just trying to figure out what the heck the song was about.
It is all a metaphor. I know now that John was responding to critics who wondered why he would take a break from music to raise his son, Sean. But to me, it was an anthem to boredom, something I experienced daily and dealt with by losing myself in my thoughts. My mom still marvels at how I, one of 5 siblings, could swing on our backyard tire swing for a long time just drawing lines in the dirt with my feet, pushing off the tree trunk again and again, and spinning around until I got dizzy. My imagination soared, and I apparently didn’t need any external stimulation from any other humans. Mom would watch me out of the kitchen window and then, when I would come in, ask me how I could stay out there so long lost in my imagination. I didn’t have an answer, shrugged it off, and went about my day.
Anyway, these experiences of lingering in the swing and listening to this song by myself helped me understand “Watching the Wheels.” I kept listening and playing the record over and over despite what my brother said. I thought, wow, John is doing the same thing, just hanging around and not complaining.
Audio Clip: “People say I’m lazy, dreaming my life away”
This spoke to me in that I had no problem as a kid wasting my summer afternoons on the swing or laying on our dock at our lake cabin looking up at the clouds and imagining that I was blowing them into a pattern. As a middle child, I often was too young to run around with my older siblings and too old to be bothered with my younger ones, so I found things to do on my own.
Audio Clip: “I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round. I really love to watch them roll. No longer riding on the merry go round, I just have to let it go.”
I pictured gears spinning and him just sitting in a chair watching them, mesmerized but bored. I thought “I could do that” the gears would give me something to look at while my mind raced and imagination took off.
I pondered: Why would he be happy that he was “no longer riding on the merry-go rou-hound, and what is he letting go?” I loved those scary merry-go-rounds of the late 70s. We nearly killed ourselves jumping off and rolling in the dirt. Maybe that was it - that sensation of pure velocity coming to a crashing end and then the disorienting feeling you get when trying to stand up.
Audio Clip: “Well they shake their heads and look at me as if I’ve lost my mind. I tell them there’s no hurry I-Im just sitting here doing time.”
I had to figure out what “doing time” meant, and when I learned that it referred to being in jail, I was confused. Why was he in jail? My literal mind did not understand that he was referring to simply putting in the time to raise his son. Wow. My mind was blown to think that someone like John would characterize his life as “doing time.”
I had yet in my young life applied this level of analysis to any one song, or anything for that matter, scrutinizing every line and, for the first time, learning about metaphor. Yes, this song taught me about metaphor more than any English class I would take, ever. Little did I know then that John and I share the same birthday, October 9. His son, Sean, who played a big role in the song, was also born on October 9. When realizing this years later, I instantly connected with John and his music at another level, and began to re-think my connection to “Watching the Wheels.”
When revisiting the song again for this project, I dug a bit deeper, since I now have the cultural context and musical history that went along with the song and album. John and Yoko completed an interview on December 8, 1980 just hours before he was assassinated in front of his apartment building in New York City. That in itself triggered a massive punctum for me in the way that Barthes explains happens when you know the exact day and time someone will die but see a photo of them or hear them speak and of course they don’t know about their impending, fatal circumstances.
Hearing John discuss his pure bliss over how the album came to be and how it was different from any other album he had ever produced with my knowledge that he will be dead and cremated within 24 hours was chilling to say the least. Out of hundreds of comments on the YouTube video of the interview, these two capture that incredible punctum: “It really hurts listening to him being interviewed on the same day he was shot (sobbing emoji)” and “I know life is fragile and tomorrow is guaranteed to nobody, but it is almost inconceivable to think that here was a living breathing man speaking candidly about his life and 5 hours later he would be murdered on his doorstep.” Knowing John would be gone soon after this interview and listening to John and Yoko explain their magical, choric-like invention process was chilling and astonishing. They were electrate before electracy was a concept.
They spent the interview discussing their creative process for Double Fantasy, and to the academic I am now, I was floored by what they said and how their process connects to my body of work over the past decades. John called the album “Diarrhea of creativity.”
JOHN LENNON: “It inspired me completely. I got ... as soon as she would sing something to me or play the cassette down the phone I would ... within 10 or 15 minutes whether I wanted to work or not, if you call it work, I would suddenly get this song coming to me. And I’ve always felt that the best songs were ones that came to you, rather than ... I do have the ability to si ... you know, if you ask me to write a song for a movie or something and they say it’s about this, I can sit down and sort of make a song, I wouldn’t be thrilled with it but I can make a song like that. I find it difficult to do that but I can do it, you know I call it craftsmanship. I’ve had enough years at it to sort of put something together, but I never enjoyed that. I like it to be inspirational, from the spirit.”
They characterize Double Fantasy as a play in so many different ways. John says that he thought “Double Fantasy – that’s a great title!’
JOHN LENNON: “‘Cause it has so many meanings that you couldn’t even begin to think what it means, so it means everything you can think of. I mean, it’s a double couple. It’s, it’s real life but it’s still a fantasy, because it’s, it’s now in plastic and in photograph and it’s fantastic (Yoko laughs) and it’s just, it sort of seemed to be perfect for the title of the album. And there’s two of us, and it just sort of said it all somehow, without really saying anything it says everything.”
All of this happening over the phone and through cassette tapes, the technologies of their time. Creative impulses delivered back and forth from where John was in Bermuda to Yoko in New York. An explosion of music.
In the end, John talks directly about who they wrote the album for: incidentally, NOT kids like me.
He says that he was visualizing all the people of his age group, from the sixties, being in their thirties and forties now, just like he was. Having wives and children, and having gone through everything together… He was singin’ to them. He said he hoped the kids would like it, but he was really talking to the people who grew up with him. He said he was saying, ‘Here I am now. How are you? How’s your relationship goin’? Did you get through it all? Wasn’t the seventies a drag, you know? Here we are, well let’s try to make the eighties good, you know?’
John’s hope to lift his generation out of the ‘70s funk is admirable. But it lifted a 10 year old like me into a creative realm of possibility that lasted a lifetime. Boredom doesn’t have to be bad. Boredom can be inspiring.
“Watching the Wheels” was on Double Fantasy but released as a single in the spring of 1981, a few months after John died. I must have picked it up then. Learning about the backstory of Double Fantasy and “Watching the Wheels” revealed a creative process that resonates with our present day world. I just wish John was around to see it.
JOHN LENNON: “And I consider that my work won’t be finished until I’m dead and buried, and I hope that’s a long, long time.”