“The Fool on the Hill” – The Beatles, 1967.
Once dismissed by a critic as a “most unworthy Beatles standard,” and certainly not one that gets any regular airplay, “The Fool on the Hill” makes my list for a single shining reason: it was my father’s favorite Beatles song. When he was alive I didn’t give a lot of thought to why people liked certain things and not others, so it never occurred to me to ask him his rationale for preferring this song over some of the more popular Beatle hits. When I picture him singing – as he did, whenever possible, and loudly – this is the chorus I hear:
“But the fool on the hill
Sees the sun going down
And the eyes in his head
See the world spinning round.”
Paul McCartney once said that the song was about Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (prior to the Beatles’ disillusionment with him), or, more generally, the idea of the man who sits off by himself and is thought of as lesser by his peers because of his methods or appearance, but who regardless appears to have all the answers – or at least thinks he does. I’ve attempted to speculate as to why the lyric appealed to my father so much. Did he see himself in the song? Did he feel like that ostracized outsider watching the world turn on its merry way without including him? Or did he just like the melody? It could very well have been the latter. My father dragged us to church each Sunday, yet the Bible was never spoken of at home, nor were we expected to pray, or even do the barest minimum of saying grace except at large family holiday gatherings. No, Dad went to church so he had an excuse to belt out hymns at the top of his lungs. It didn’t matter that he didn’t appear convinced of the message in those hymns; for him it was the sensory reverie of notes flowing from the larynx and reverberating from nave to narthex. Mostly that came from his own mother – more on that when we get to “Q” – but you got the sense from my father that singing was the only time he ever felt truly free, and song choice was irrelevant.
Back to “The Fool on the Hill,” though. Many years later I finally saw Paul McCartney play live and at one point in the set his bandmates left the stage, and without introduction he plunked himself down at a psychedelic-hued piano and started playing this “most unworthy standard.” Did I chance to look up, even for just a second? Maybe. Certainly I paid much closer attention to the lyrics, picturing the man sitting at the crest of a sea of tall, windblown grass, knees to chest, overlooking the village in the valley below and contemplating the great mystery, instead of staying where he ostensibly belongs. As I mentioned in the previous post, I fancy myself a questioner of things, looking evermore for the solutions to the riddles that evolve into new riddles themselves. Wondering why things work the way they do and if there is a pattern to it all lingering just out of reach. However, the biggest questions, indeed, the biggest doubts, are reserved for myself. I doubt my ability, my purpose and my voice, endlessly, and find solace to these doubts in fleeting, empty validations. I fear that I am missing out on life by commenting on it rather than participating in it; that while some might consider the unexamined life not worth living, there must be some life there to examine first. I wonder if that makes me the fool, and if the whole enterprise would be served better by me shutting up, packing it in and going down the pub for a few pints with the lads. Few are the days when these particular thoughts don’t flit across my consciousness. Fewer still are the days when I confidently think the reverse.
It seems eerily prescient that even though my father was long gone before all of this took shape – whatever this turns out to be – whenever he dusted off “The Fool on the Hill” he could have very well been describing his son, the man his son would one day become. Though he never thought of me as foolish; like most fathers the slightest of my accomplishments merited praise to anyone who’d listen. Perhaps, though, he noted the eyes in my head seeing the world spinning round. Certainly the moment he died was the instant I became obsessed with making sense of why the world operated as it did, why fairness remained elusive and why history was built on reactions to random occurrences. Or finding meaning in a boy losing his father when there was so much yet to learn and so many Beatles songs left to sing together.