By Adrian Flynn
Over the past six years that I’ve lived in New York City, one of my favorite things to do has been to make a trip twice a year to Strawberry Fields to pay tribute to John Lennon. Dozens of people of all ages fill the small area in Central Park containing the Imagine mosaic every October 9th and December 8th for the anniversaries of Lennon’s birthday and date of death, respectively. Each time, a dedicated and motley group of musicians, usually with a surplus of guitarists, finds a spot to set up and spends hours playing Lennon’s songs both as a Beatle and as a solo artist, along with other Beatles hits and crowdpleasers. Depending on the weather and temperature, these gatherings can last well into the night, with many dedicated fans and musicians usually sticking it out in the autumn and winter cold.
Being a Beatles fan and a fan of rock from their era, seeing this many people outside each and every year in unity not only for the incredible music but for the ideology of peace advocated by Lennon has been a supportive buttress for my own views on an ever-more complicated world. For everyone there, there is nowhere else to be nor anything else to do, except to enjoy the music, meet people, and proudly show that we still miss John and celebrate his influence on both popular culture and our own lives.
However, this year was particularly special for me. I will be leaving the city soon to attend college, so these would be my last trips to Strawberry Fields for a while. This wasn’t the only reason that it was special this year, though, as I also got to do what I had never dared before: join the musicians. When I arrived this December 8th on the 39th anniversary of Lennon’s passing, I spotted a friend from past gatherings in the inner circle of musicians who waved me in and gave me his guitar, allowing me to join in effortlessly. It was 3:45pm and the crowd was organized messily around us, but then with the arrival of a pianist with her own keyboard, we moved to the benches further from the mosaic, and in the course of just a few minutes, I found myself at the center of the band at a spot that felt nearly like a stage, looking out at the crowd. Playing through hits I knew the chords to like the back of my hand, I suddenly looked up and saw all eyes on me, with the flashes and lenses of all kinds of cellphones and cameras pointed in my direction. At one point, a local TV cameraman shone a bright light in my face and I later appeared fleetingly on the evening news along with my fellow performers.
The beauty in the gathering is always the interpersonal and democratic community that forms both in and out of the musician’s circle. My friend, Aaron, and I must have played at least five different guitars throughout the evening, which were passed around seamlessly. People brought out songbooks and lights when we launched into songs we didn’t fully master and held them in front of us. Song recommendations came in from the crowd and we would quickly reach a consensus when opening chords were played followed by a chorus of voices ringing in the first lyrics. I was most proud of initiating “A Day in the Life”, a personal favorite, and then being immediately surrounded by everyone as the resounding voices of the crowd came in with the infamous words “I read the news today, oh boy.” Eventually, each part that each person contributes, both vocally and musically, blends in with the whole, and I like to think that we got loud enough to be heard from the apartment in the Dakota in which Lennon last lived, still inhabited by Yoko Ono, his widow. By the time, well into the night, that my fingers were too numb with cold to play another chord and my voice too drained, I left Central Park knowing not only the name of many musicians and spectators around me, but also their personal concerns and struggles. We entered into each other’s lives in Strawberry Fields as Lennon fans and left as friends with common desires and compassion for one another.
Communities can truly form anywhere, with anyone, and around any aspect of a passion or identity which links one with others. While singing together, we were not classifying ourselves as anything except as human beings who love the music and peace that Lennon espoused throughout his life. While I was lucky enough to find a small and tightly-knit community in these gatherings in Strawberry Fields, one can find and build community anywhere, on any scale. The key to this community, importantly, was the collective effort we all made to come out and physically gather together — truly the best way to intersect with other people’s lives. With social media companies, streaming services, and other technological sources of entertainment all vying for our attention and time, it is crucial whenever possible to “Come Together” and keep meeting with people in person who share our common interests. Meeting people eye-to-eye, face-to-face, is, and will always be, the best way to build a real sense of togetherness and better understand each other.
John Lennon was born on October 9th, 1940 in Liverpool, England, and passed away on December 8th, 1980 in Manhattan, New York.