I wasn't able to go to Strawberry Fields tonight to commemorate the 30th anniversary of John Lennon's death. After my visit last year, it's probably just as well.
Every December 8th for the last 30 years, I have quietly paid tribute to my fallen hero. Last year, I went to John's memorial in Central Park to remember the man who changed the world in a way few have. For so many fans of John Lennon, the relationship remains deeply personal, even after all these years.
Throughout high school, I spent much of my free time locked in my room with headphones on studying every beat, every note, every second of every Beatles song. My love of their music inspired me to play the guitar and write songs. And when my band wasn't playing our songs in the basement, we were in my room marveling over the magic of Abbey Road's medley or speeding up the end of Strawberry Fields to hear John's "I buried Paul" or isolating the vocals to hear Paul's voice crack for a split second on "If I Fell."
We would then consume books and devour documentaries like "15 Hours With the Beatles." We would have heated debates over albums and songs. Since I was the unabashed McCartney worshiper, I would take on the unenviable task of arguing how "London Town" matched up to "Abbey Road" or how "Girl's School" was every bit as driving as "Get Back."
And while our friends at school were listening to AC/DC, Kiss and Cheap Trick, we were isolated in the corner of the cafeteria talking about "Somewhere in New York City" and laughing over lines from the "Rutles." This lonely obsession that started in 1977 made us seem more than a little quirky to our friends. It also had to be the cause of more than a few raised eyebrows from our parents.
I can understand now why they didn't get it back then. That disconnect was laid bare the night we heard the news from Howard Cosell that John Lennon was dead. I sat watching Monday Night Football stunned and silent as my Dad walked through the room muttering that he liked Paul better. A friend on twitter, @Otoolefan, remembers his father telling him the next morning that "they shot Jack Lemmon last night."
Many parents who suffered through the Great Depression and lost loved ones during World War II surely saw our angst as a little too much to bear. But my mother was a musician who understood the transcendence of music. She also understood that it was probably best to leave me alone with my headphones and Beatles records for the next several weeks.
What I found alone in my room is what I rediscovered last year when a dream of mine came true backstage at Radio City.
As a young congressman, I had been blessed to be able to meet any president, prime minister or politician. I had also met music heroes from B.B. King to U2 to Elvis Costello. All were exciting to meet, but none were Paul McCartney.
That chance came when Carole King was sweet enough to take me backstage to meet Sir Paul. Even the possibility seemed surreal since McCartney had impacted my life more than anyone outside of my family. As the day of the concert neared, a strange ambivalence swept over me. The day before the concert, I even told my wife I was thinking of skipping the chance at shaking my hero's hand.
"What???" Susan asked incredulously. "I've never seen you scared of anyone or anything. Why in the world would you be afraid to meet Paul McCartney?"
It was a good point. People are people. Nothing more, nothing less. I have yet to meet a star who was worthy of worship. They just don't exist anymore. In fact, I'm pretty sure they never did.
But I still couldn't answer why I wanted to skip out on my lifelong dream of meeting Macca. Maybe it was Paul Simon's fear that everything looks worse in black and white. Or maybe it was the fact that I could never tell him in a few seconds how he brought so much joy to so many years of my life. I just knew that the meeting would be short, awkward and leave me feeling a little empty.
Better not to pull back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz.
But I went ahead to Radio City, met Sir Paul McCartney, got my picture taken and managed to get out a few words. I don't remember what they were but it was so surreal that I wouldn't be surprised if I blurted out "I like purple" before quickly being escorted from the room.
After Carole and I left the backstage area and made it to our seats at Radio City, I realized that I had been right all along. I should have skipped the meeting and stayed home with my family. That regret lasted only as long as it took McCartney to strap a Hofner around his neck and rip into a supersonic rendition of "Jet."
I was immediately transfixed--not by the myth, not by the legend, not by Beatle Paul. Instead, it was the music. As Carole and I jumped to our feet that night, I realized in an instant that the secret to their success had always been simple. The Beatles wrote remarkable songs.
For almost half a century, reporters and critics have tried to dissect why the Beatles had such an staggering impact on our times. After arriving in America in 1964, some suggested that Beatlemania was a needed distraction after the horror of JFK's assassination. A few years later, critics would claim that the band was an outlet for a youth culture in rebellion against authority. And tonight, I am sure we will hear many try to explain again why so many of us still care about the Beatles 30 years after John's death.
But in the end, all the philosophizing about the Beatles cultural transcendence is unadulterated bullshit. After all that has been written and said about the Liverpool band over the past 50 years, it still comes down their music.
The same music that moved me in 1980 moves my 7 year old daughter 30 years later. And the same magic that made me smile the first time I heard the back side of "Abbey Road" makes my 2 year old laugh when I pull out my guitar and sing him "Yellow Submarine."
I spent a few hours Wednesday watching a BBC special on John's life. The most revealing part of the documentary for me was a piece of film taken during John's "Imagine" session. Lennon was told that a young, burned out straggler had made his way to John's garden where he was spending much of his time.
The former Beatle left his session and walked outside to try to convince this lost soul to go home. As Lennon shot down every suggestion of cosmic connectivity between his songs and the drifter's life, the Beatle who often had the sharpest edge revealed an inner sweetness that he seldom showed the world.
"Don't confuse my songs with your life."
The kid pushed back. Surely the lyrics to "I Dig a Pony" had a deeper meaning.
"I was just having fun with words" replied the retired dreamweaver.
"I'm just a guy."
Maybe. But he and his bandmates also happened to create music that will bring joy to generations long after we are all gone. So tonight, I don't have to go to Strawberry Fields to remember John. All I need are his songs.
I'll put on my headphones, turn on "Number 9 Dream", close my eyes, relax and float downstream.