“I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go ’round and ’round. / I really love to watch ’em roll. / No longer riding on the merry-go-round, / I just had to let it go.” – Watching the Wheels, John Lennon, 1980
Novelist J.D. Salinger and “leftist” historian Howard Zinn passed away this week, both at an advanced age (91 and 87, respectively). To honor these two giants, I found myself thinking of some lyrics from another literary giant, John Lennon. All three were brave, well-known “radicals”, each in their own way, each in a different era and genre.
Many people probably think of “Imagine” as Lennon’s most important intellectual and spiritual statement in song. And it is a good song, despite being an over-simplified, overplayed, simple little ditty. But for me, I have always taken two songs from Lennon’s final years as much more meaningful.
One is the above song Wheels, a gentle criticism of Western economic and personal values, in the tradition of Howard Zinn’s influential “People’s History of the United States”. The other song, “Nobody Told Me” (Strange Days), was actually a posthumous release in 1984 [click here for Chip Madinger’s “Strange Days”/Beatles books & blog]. The lyrics are witty and weird, classic Lennon. And the chorus: “Nobody told me there’d be days like these”, was the world-weary wisdom of a disillusioned idealist.
According to the Almighty Wiki, “Watching the Wheels”:
“was the third and final single released from Lennon and Yoko Ono‘s Double Fantasy album, and reached #10 in the U.S and #30 in the UK. “Watching the Wheels” concerns Lennon’s dismissal of those who were confounded by his “househusband” years, 1975-1980. During this period, he stayed away from the music industry and raised his son Sean with Yoko.”
Sounds a bit like Salinger, doesn’t it? Famous guys who hated being famous, and who paid a steep price for it.
The particulars on J.D. and his reasons for “turning on, tuning in, and dropping out”, are better stated here in the NY Times obit article. Salinger was probably the last truly great Modernist writer of fiction, and his heavy use of irony in novels and short stories taught generations of “post-modern” writers how to reinvent or overturn a thousand years of literary tradition. Sadly, his last published work appeared over 44 years ago, in June 1965 (just a few months before I was born, in the early days of the Vietnam War –of which Zinn was a steady and loud critic). But Salinger saw 2010 coming a mile away, and didn’t like what he saw. So he retreated, becoming the nation’s most famous recluse.
By contrast, Howard Zinn stayed very much engaged with the world. He was on the faculty of Boston University for years (where my late mother-in-law, an educational psychologist, worked with and respected him). Zinn kept speaking out for reform, both political and academic (would the term “revisionist history” even exist without him?). And he maintained that honest, fierce idealism and populist perspective all the way to the end, even when the Lennons, Salingers and most of the Baby Boomer generation had long given up the revolution to join the loyalists. I heard Zinn speak at Northwestern University a few years back, at the height of the Iraqi conflict, and he was as brilliant and reasonable at 84 as he probably was at 44, or even 24.
Here’s a quote from boston.com:
“He’s made an amazing contribution to American intellectual and moral culture,” Noam Chomsky, the left-wing activist and MIT professor, said Wednesday. “He’s changed the conscience of America in a highly constructive way. I really can’t think of anyone I can compare him to in this respect.”
Each of us can think what we want of the ideology put forward by these men. Schools can continue to ban Salinger. Politicians can continue to keep us in the dark and use the poor as cannon fodder for silly little wars. The FBI can keep tabs on the activist/artist inheritors of John Lennon’s legacy, like Hoover and Nixon did to Lennon. ( For example, CSIS –the Canadian version of the CIA– has hassled progressive Christian musician Bruce Cockburn for years.) But no one can deny their intelligence and their courage.
We’ll take it from here, J.D. and Howard. Big shoes to fill, but we’ll do what we can.