By no fault of my own, 2010 turned out to be the year that I would follow in John Lennon's footsteps. This could mean many things: that I'm a Beatle, I married Yoko Ono, I locked myself in a hotel room for a week, or I wrote a hit song. But I mean it literally – throughout the year I actually followed his footsteps and went to many of the places where he once was. This happened over the course of only a few days spread throughout the year, but for a Beatles fan it was like taking several pilgrimages.
I admire John Lennon. I have for years. Granted, he was killed exactly 11 months to the day before I was born, so he has always been little more than a historical figure to me, but that hasn't stopped me from studying and appreciating all of his contributions to the world. There was just something honest about what he said and what he did. Controversy followed him everywhere he went, and that isn't surprising considering how outspoken he was about unpopular topics. Still, he was a self-made man who followed his own dreams and stuck to his wits. I respect that. It's also important to mention that the guy knew how to write a song.
Like all of us, he had his faults. He wasn't perfect by any means, and although time has a way of erasing the undesirable traits of our heroes, we can't pretend that he didn't cheat on his wife, use drugs or try to trick the governments of at least two countries. I find these traits make him human, and the human is what I'm interested in. I'm not interested in some deified rock martyr. I'm interested in the human being; the man named John Lennon.
I don't think I'm too presumptuous when I say that most people who want to pay tribute to Lennon gather at Strawberry Fields in Central Park, usually on Dec. 8, the day he was killed in 1980 when he was shot outside his West 72nd Street apartment building, the Dakota. This area of the park, which contains the famous Imagine mosaic, certainly serves a purpose – as a place where Lennon's memory and message can live on. I've been there before, and I would be back on Dec. 8 of this year, but I've always felt that in order to really understand a person, it's important to see what they've seen and walk where they've walked. It's the history lover in me, but I think it carries some weight.
My year in Lennon's footsteps began in July, on my honeymoon, in London, England.
On July 16, our second day in London, after we had seen Buckingham Palace and Big Ben, we found ourselves on Abbey Road, the site of the studio and location of the iconic photograph (the cover of the Beatles album of the same name). What the travel guide doesn't tell you is that it's also a busy thoroughfare devoid of any stop signs, yield signs, traffic lights or common courtesy. I always wondered what would go through my head if I ever had the opportunity to use the most famous crosswalk in the world. I always imagined that I would float across with a smile on my face, trying to step in the exact same spots as the Beatles. I would take my time and enjoy the moment. I never, ever, thought that Abbey Road was a real road. It was always this magical place, a place where four lads stepped into the history books forever. Yet when I actually found myself on the curb looking across Abbey Road at the other side, suddenly the reality of the situation became apparent. Instead of my weird, fantastical dream sequence, the thoughts in my head were more along the lines of "go now, walk faster, look to your right, NO, your left, almost there, whoa dude watch where you're going!" It didn't help that I was looking the wrong way and the drivers didn't care. I was sprinting. My wife was almost run over – legitimately squashed – by a van. Twice. On legendary Abbey Road. That's one to tell the grandkids.
A few days later our trip took us north to Liverpool, famous for its docks and as the birthplace of The Beatles. Here, I walked down Penny Lane, stood at the gates to Strawberry Field, and walked to the site of the original Cavern Club, where the band got its start. I stood on the grass outside of Lennon's childhood home where he lived with his Aunt Mimi. These places are forever a part of our cultural lore, yet when seen in real life, they're just as normal as any other street, or house, or block, or town. But actually being there was surreal, because now I know what inspired all of those great songs, and as a result I feel a closer connection to the music.
Aside from all of the incredible places and sites, perhaps the most memorable thing that I saw in Liverpool was Lennon's orange tinted glasses that he wore during the early 70s while recording Imagine. It's one thing to stand around with a group of people and remember someone or something, or walk down a street where a person once was, but it's another to be able to see something so closely that was once an integral part of someone's everyday life. Through those lenses he wrote the lyrics to "Imagine," probably his best known song. He read news stories through those lenses that inspired countless other classic songs, and yet he also searched his fridge for something to eat for lunch. Through those lenses he inspired millions of people, yet he also had candid conversations with his wife. Those glasses represent a real person; a dichotomy of public figure and private citizen. His round glasses were such a part of who he was that they had become nearly as mythical as the person himself. Seeing the spectacles up close brought them, and him, down to earth.
Dec. 8, 2010 was the 30th anniversary of John's Lennon's death. It was a cold day, but sunny. Chilly, but mild. I was layered.
By a stroke of good fortune I had the day off and was able to take the train into New York City with the commuters. My main goal was to just be in the city on this brisk Wednesday. For a Lennon fan, it was a big deal. I knew that Central Park would be full of the Lennon faithful and they would be taking over the place. Surprisingly, as I entered the park, I noticed that it was actually quite peaceful, empty, and quiet. My destination was Strawberry Fields, just off of Central Park West and West 72nd Street, so that I could join the throngs of people who were listening to amateur musicians sing Beatles songs.
Since I was already in Central Park, and it was actually pleasant to be there, I decided to take this rare opportunity and embark on an hour-long stroll through the park. John Lennon loved Central Park, so I thought that I would continue my year in his footsteps by visiting some of the places that he enjoyed. I strolled down the Mall, the long stretch just off of Central Park South, and looked at statues of Shakespeare, Columbus, and Walter Scott. I walked to the Naumburg Bandshell, the stage that looks like a half-egg. I had seen some video of Lennon dancing on this, so I figured I would check it out. It was a sunny day, so I took my time and snapped some photos of the scenery. Eventually I headed over to Strawberry Fields. The crowd had started gathering hours earlier, so I avoided the main pathway.
I entered Strawberry Fields from the back entrance just as a massive group of school children made its way out. After surviving that stampede, I took my place on a bench. Standing, of course. On this day, the generally quiet oasis was marred by metal gates, police officers, several media outlets, and hundreds of people circulating in and out. On a regular day the traffic is mild. Onlookers come and go, and there are never more than a dozen or so people in there at one time. Every Dec. 8 it fills up, but never like this. These people were here because it was the 30th anniversary. Since I was there early in the day it wasn't too bad, and the crowd was peaceful and singing.
I stayed for a few minutes and took in the atmosphere. The energy of the crowd can charge a person up; the claustrophobia can make the same person hyperventilate. It was time to move on. I walked out of Strawberry Fields and headed across the street to the Dakota apartment building on West 72nd Street, Lennon's former residence, where he had been shot. I didn't spend too much time there, it's not a happy place to be on that day, so I just glanced and kept going. In a strange twist, my friend contacted me about having lunch with him while I was in the city. He works at Roosevelt Hospital, which is where Lennon died, so I walked past the Dakota and kept going until I got there. I felt that, while kind of creepy, it was sort of an appropriate place for my journey to end. I had my lunch, a good conversation, and went home.
An artist takes a risk every time he or she creates something. To create good art, there has to be a piece of the person in it. Lennon did that. He was a normal guy who shared his imperfect life with the world. And if my short journey helped me to further understand his words and music, then mission accomplished.