In the five years between 1975 and 1980 Lennon retreated from public life and holed up in his luxury apartment in New York’s Dakota building, determined to be a better father to his new son Sean than he had ever been to Julian. Absorbed in domestic life, he changed nappies, baked bread, and took his little boy for walks in Central Park, just across the street, where passers-by were cordial but not smothering. John loved New York, and how the people there just let you be, how they were cool with the Beatle in their midst. At night, he would sit in Sean’s darkened bedroom, watching the lights of passing cars make shadow pictures on the wall, and eventually, the urge to make music returned. This is a demo he recorded right there in his apartment, for the final album he ever released. It’s hard not to think, as you hear this, that at that moment he didn’t have long to live.
Most people think Imagine is John’s greatest post-Beatles song, but not me. I always found its rather forced utopian sentiments a little naive and silly, and not at all like the cynical John we all knew (Lennon may have thought so too; at one point he was bitching about royalties or the like when somebody on staff reminded him “Imagine no possessions, John”, to which John responded “it’s only a fucking song”. That’s our boy). I like Watching the Wheels much better, especially this stripped down acoustic version, it’s honest, and reflects perfectly the state of mind that made him content to stay silent and apart for a while. It’s nice to know that what finally drew him out was hearing one of Paul’s latest hits on the radio, and thinking it was fabulous. Accounts vary, but apparently he exclaimed something like “fuck a duck, that’s Paul, that has to be him, it’s fantastic”. Like before, he was filled with the urge to prove he could do that too, and with Watching the Wheels, he surely did.
These days there’s a little slice of Central Park opposite the Dakota dedicated to John’s memory, officially named Strawberry Fields.