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Covered Classics: Joey Landreth, This Wheel's on Fire

Ron Skinner

"This Wheel's on Fire" comes from one of the most mysterious and fruitful eras of rock 'n' roll. Bob Dylan had just changed the course of his career — and popular music itself — by going electric. Dylan's subsequent sold-out world tour further amplified his fame as the controvery around his electrification continued. One fan was even heard yelling "Judas" at an infamous show in Manchester. And then the unthinkable happened: Dylan got in a near-fatal motorcycle accident, which forced him into a period of withdrawal from the limelight.

It was during this period that Dylan and his backing band, still known as the Hawks, began the most prolific phase of either of their careers. Dylan pounded out page after page of lyrics on his trusty typewriter and the Hawks honed their craft and created the sound that would once again change the course of popular music history when they eventually became the Band.

Lyrics penned by Dylan were given to Rick Danko who thought they would fit perfectly with a tune he had just written. Dylan and Danko sat down and finished the chorus of the song together and "This Wheel's on Fire" was born.

Various reviewers have pointed out that the line “This wheel’s on fire, rolling down the road” may refer to the chariot of fire in Shakespeare's King Lear, or to the biblical prophet Ezekiel’s vision. For others, the more obvious meaning is the crashing motorcycle on which Dylan almost met a premature end. The lyric “Notify my next of kin” also speaks to Dylan’s recent near-death experience.

The song was originally recorded as one of several demos that would soon become known as The Basement Tapes but would make its public premiere on the Band's 1968 debut album Songs From Big Pink, with Danko singing the lead vocal.

"This Wheel's on Fire" became a fixture of both Dylan's and the Band's set lists for years to come and has become a staple of classic rock radio.

In celebration of its induction into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, singer and guitarist Joey Landreth brings a haunting quality to "This Wheel's on Fire" in this live solo performance.