I don’t recall where I was when I heard of the murder of John Lennon. I remember when it happened and I remember that it was a significant event, but I have no recollection of any feelings on it. I was eight years old and there was no reason for it to have mattered at all to me.
It was not a 9/11 event. My children were tiny when that happened but the image of some madman piloting a plane into a skyscraper, people jumping from buildings and general carnage will stay with them.
My parents, particularly my father, were touched by Lennon’s murder. Probably this is what I remember; my father’s emotions at the time. I think that he was personally hurt by it to some degree. Perhaps this is just what I’d like to believe. A touch of personal connection.
I first came to know of Lennon and the Beatles through my father’s music. He listened to their records and played their songs on guitar. As time passed I grew to understand the cultural and musical significance of the band. I am still astounded to think that the career of the band, from their first hit record to their acrimonious split, was only some six or seven years.
To me John Lennon stood head and shoulders above the other three members. Paul McCartney is a formidable song writer and musician but it was John who brought an edge to their music and consciousness. I think that Paul and he were not as much collaborators as competitors who drove each other onwards towards greater musical heights. John is, together with Chuck Berry, probably the greatest rhythm guitarist that ever lived. In fact many of what we think are George Harrison solos are John’s.
Growing up through the pain of the South African 80’s I could connect with John’s messages in his later songs. I was always arguing some cause or another and even despite his music I could relate to his politics and his methods of communicating them. When a classmate and PAC member was shot dead in the period around the first Codesa ‘Give Peace A Chance’ seemed to fit the mood. Trite, but true.
My matric woodwork class had only four students. A mixed bag of personalities. Our woodwork teacher was himself a bassist and later on after school he and I worked together for a short time. I wanted to change the world, he wanted to get laid.
We were required to complete a significant woodwork project on which most of our exam marks were based and owing to our stuffing around we were far behind. The teacher arranged afternoon sessions in the workshop to enable us to make up for lost time (although most often we just made trouble and layed about). One afternoon we tuned in to hear ‘Imagine’ being played on the radio live from the United Nations General Assembly where the world was recognising the tenth year of his assassination.
I still have a recording of it somewhere. I do not think that I have ever been touched by the significance of a piece of artistic creation as I was by the song on that day. It was as though something really big had just happened even though I had very little idea of what it was.
Look, I long ago gave up the idea that rock ‘n roll can save the world. John never believed it, you can be sure of that. You can be doubly sure that he didn’t believe that lying in bed for a week or sitting in a bag would either, but almost forty years later we remember it. Rock ‘n roll can be nothing more than a marketing tool for ideas. This is not meant to minimise it; in fact it gives it a stature that very few other art forms can claim.
A line in a song can capture the imagination and attention of so many people and change their behaviour. I suppose that if it does this to even one person then it has met its ambition.
These days I am far too jaded and weary to argue any cause. I feel deeply about things, but that’s about where it ends. There are just so many causes and, in truth, I’ve grown every more weary of ‘passionate’ people. There is a danger in passion clouding perspective. Today I listen to John, the Beatles, Dylan, etc. from a perspective of understanding what unique and talented individuals they were and how they could express feelings that are so difficult for most of us to nail down effectively. They give words to our emotions.
In the first week of June 2012 I had the opportunity to visit New York City. This is a city that John loved and one that he fought for seven years against Hoover, the FBI, Homeland Security, the Courts and countless other right-wing politicians to remain in. He eventually won his battle but was murdered very soon thereafter by a man whose motivation for the deed was that he “wanted to be famous”.
John was murdered at the entrance to his apartment building, the Dakota, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan Island at 23:15 on the 10th of December 1980 as he left the building with his wife, Yoko Ono.
I wanted to see the place. I think more than for John for my connection to my late father.
The Dakota is a magnificent residence. John acquired the seventh floor (in the picture it is the floor surrounded by the wrought iron railing). Interestingly, Yoko still lives there despite the history attached to it. On the eve and the time of the murder she lights a candle in the window of the ‘white’ room where Imagine was written. The white room is featured in the video of Imagine and is the first two windows from the left in the picture.
The Dakota is situated on Central Park West, one of the avenues that run the entire length of Central Park. Almost directly across the road an area was set aside in the park for a memorial to John.
The space consists of a section of the park called ‘Strawberry Fields’ in which the actual memorial is placed.
Walking into Strawberry Fields was a very surreal experience for me. I can’t really explain it. It was something of a feeling of entering a place of great emotional significance; like a great Gothic cathedral. I felt my father there. It was a tangible sensation. As though this place, John and he were somehow wound up into one entity.
Look, this is all in my mind and there is no way that I believe that spiritually the three were connected. I think that it is just the connection that a person makes and how some things largely separate can take on an alternate meaning. As humans we do it all the time. We remember someone by something inanimate loosely connected to them – a song, a book, a piece of furniture, a favourite teacup, whatever.
John’s memorial, such as it is, is extremely simple. It consists of a mosaic laid into the walkway through Strawberry Fields. It is monochrome with the word ‘Imagine’ in the centre. All in all I think it to be a great piece of art. Great art isn’t really just a nice picture, it’s something that makes you take notice and moves your mind in a different direction to that in which it was heading before you saw it.
The mosaic was made, without commission, by two craftsmen in the Little Italy district in downtown Manhattan. It is modelled on a mosaic from the ruins of Pompei (I can’t find a connection here) in a matter of ten days. The time span is astounding given the thousands of pieces that it contains. In the centre of the mosaic is, simply, the word ‘Imagine’.
I sat for a few hours in this place, watching the people go by and genuinely feeling emotional. In retrospect I’m not sure why I was quite so emotional.
Believe me, this place is a serious tourist attraction. The numbers of groups that come through during the course of an hour is astounding. You see them filing from the bus, tour leader ahead, the rest in tow. For them I think that it’s just another sight to tick off on the ‘Manhattan must-do’ list. File up, spread out around the tourist guide, hear a two-minute ramble on the significance, explain to your kids who Lennon was (“you know he said the Beatles were bigger than Jesus”), take a snapshot and file off to the Guggenheim or somewhere.
Then there are people who stop, light a candle or incense, say a prayer, place something at the mosaic and those who just sit and soak it in. It is a very diverse spread of reactions in a city where the next attraction is only ever not more than a few minutes around the corner.
Strawberry Fields is very different to most NYC attractions. Walk right up and interact. No tickets, no queues, no metal detector, no cops and no curios.
For me it was an almost spiritual visit. I can’t explain it. Somewhere in my jumbled thoughts there is a reason for it to be so, but I’m not even going to wade into that quagmire more than I already have.
I’m genuinely confused at how some long-haired, freaky, hippie guitar player from Liverpool has come to represent so much to me in terms of my own search to make sense of this complicated world that we live in, my place in it and my relationships with other travellers through it.
Perhaps that is what John ultimately represents to the world. A reflection of its own weaknesses, triumphs, pains, victories and losses .