The first time I’d ever really heard of John Lennon was when I was standing at his memorial. While walking through Central Park with my parents, we stopped at Strawberry Fields, his quiet commemorative in the middle of New York City. I was about 12 at the time, and I knew The Beatles like I knew the Bible: I obviously was aware of its existence, and I’d heard some parts, but I’d never read it and never cared to. There was a “Hey Jude” rendition on TV that I vaguely recalled and I must have heard “With A Little Help From My Friends” at some point. But other than those fleeting moments, The Beatles were nameless to me. John Lennon meant even less.
Like many 12 year olds, I spent half of my time complaining and the other half on my oh-so-cool new flip phone. But this memorial, which epitomized a man and a time of which I was totally unfamiliar, managed to move me from my adolescent trance. I sat on one of the benches and looked around — actually looked around.
Strawberry Fields, a small blip in the massive park, is far less assertive than your average memorial. There are no towering statues, no imposing sculptures, no extended quotes. One word, “Imagine,” sits in the center of a Portuguese mosaic. All kinds of people line the surrounding benches, wearing anything from the all black of a New Yorker to classic ’70s tie-dye. I didn’t make the connection at the time, but it’s a spot on representation of Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” (“For weak and for strong, for rich and the poor ones … for black and for white, for yellow and red ones”). Flowers were placed all around the mosaic forming a peace sign, and at the entrance a man sat and sang the words “love is real, real is love … ”
But none of this can describe the emotion that Strawberry Fields captures. Hope, love, peace or maybe something else entirely, hovers in the air like a warm cloud. It seeps through the looks of the people walking by, the couples on the benches, and the kids running around. In many ways, Strawberry Fields is all of John Lennon and none of John Lennon. While Lennon was straight forward and gritty, his memorial is reserved and kind. While Lennon struggled with inner turmoil, his memorial is serene and at ease. Both represent something much larger than themselves. Lennon may have once been a man, but what he now symbolizes is something far greater than flesh and bone.
Perhaps, though, the most beautiful part of John Lennon was how imperfect he was. He struggled with depression, he cheated, he left his first son, he had violent bouts and on and on. In our era of “problematic” celebrities and TMZ, Lennon would far from fit the mold of perfection and conformity we demand from our idols today. And Lennon didn’t care. He gave out Fuck You’s as easily and eloquently as he sang about love. On “God,” from his solo masterpiece John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, he calls out everyone from Jesus to Kennedy as a fraud. Few then and few now are willing to make such blunt, controversial statements, and even fewer are so universally embraced for it. But above it all, John Lennon loved this world. His music was critical because he saw greatness and hope in humanity. He railed against the Vietnam War, inequality and politicians in the hope that something would change for the better. And yet the violence and hatred he fought was the very thing to take his life, when 35 years ago today he was gunned down in front of his home in New York City.
Those issues Lennon was consumed by in the ’60s and ’70s are eerily similar to those we deal with in 2015. The militant chauvinism he warned us of seems just as prevalent today than before the Vietnam War. Last month, conservative Twitter account Cloyd Rivers posted “ISIS is coming to America … They will come to cities and people with no guns … Arm yourself. Get training. Stand ready.” It was retweeted by thousands. Concerns over inequality have boiled over into protests on our streets and in our universities. The sexism that Lennon’s feminist voice — given to him by activist and wife Yoko Ono — derided is still prevalent, making it stubbornly difficult for women to reach top positions in the workforce and adding to pervasive levels of sexual assault on campuses and across the world. Gun violence, the very thing John Lennon lost his life to, has found its way into our lives with alarming regularity.
But there are moments of hope. Thousands gathered this year in Central Park to commemorate Lennon’s 75th birthday, forming what would become the largest human peace sign ever made. As relatively inconsequential as a moment like that might seem, it shows that for all of the nihilistic comments that are thrown around — “love is dead,” “the world is screwed,” etc. — there’s still a sense of optimism left, something that will hopefully never change.
The same is true with music today. For some reason, certain fans seem to believe that the industry has been in a state of perpetual decline since the ’70s. Detractors said the industry died with Lennon, and then again with Cobain, and again with Tupac. But “real” music is far from dead, assured by leaders like Kendrick and Killer Mike. Their socially charged poetry, while tackling different specific issues than Lennon, is based on the same activist spirit that we hail Lennon for. Take Kendrick’s song “Alright” from his protest album To Pimp a Butterfly. “N***a, we gon’ be alright” might not be as delicate as “imagine all the people, sharing the world as one,” but the message is similar. Both recognize problems that pervade our society while still evoking hope.
We might not all be living in communes or crossing the country in painted Volkswagen vans, but 35 years later John Lennon’s legacy remains strong. Maybe this is because 2015 isn’t so different from Lennon’s own era. We fight some of the same battles and we deal with many of the same problems. And just as they needed Lennon’s voice in the ’60s and ’70s, we need it today. If you look in the right places, you’ll find it.