“When I was five years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.” –John Lennon
I blame the Great Escape.
Every year, starting from when I was about 8 or so, my family would make a road trip down to the Great Escape, which was an amusement park in the southern part of New York. On the way, we’d stop and visit my great-aunt (who had all the coolest knickknacks and awesome kids who were older than I was and I thought just the epitome of cool – and guess what, I still think they are, even now, in their forties) and then we’d hit the Great Escape.
Now, the Great Escape has been bought out by Six Flags, but back then, it was kind of rinky-dink. It had originally been Storytown, which was just a bunch of fairytale scenarios like Old Mother Hubbard’s shoe sized just right for children to enter, and that stuff was all still there, falling apart, in the ghetto area of the park. The Three Little Pigs were there, the paint all flaking off their faces making them look maniacal. Little Red Riding Hood looked like she had leprosy. It was horrible and fantastic all at once.
(Side note: ironically, I now live closer to the Great Escape than I ever did then, but haven’t been back since my senior year of college. I don’t want to see it, now that it’s Six Flags. I want it fully-formed in my mind with the scabrous Jack and Jill and the Big Bad Wolf kind of falling over, as if huffing and puffing was just too much for him and he had to take a recuperative breather.)
The Great Escape end was shinier. Rides and games and fair food and a circus (with scary clowns who would pull children from the audience and force them to participate on stage. I know. Talk about horrifying.) We looked forward to it every year. We still talk about how my poor father, who gets very dizzy on anything that spins, was begged, pleaded, and cajoled every year to go on the teacups with us because he could get those cups whipping around, and then he’d spend the rest of the day headachey and nauseous but he loved us enough that the simple joy we got out of just flying in that teacup because our father was the best at it was worth it.
One of the rides my brother and I enjoyed most was the Magical Mystery Ride. It was enclosed in a creepy, flaking, yellow-painted dome, so you couldn’t see what was inside, and for years, we were too scared to go inside. I was petrified of upside-down rides, and was sure that’s what was in there. Finally, one year, we got our courage together and entered.
It was The Octopus – does anyone remember The Octopus? Still one of my favorite rides to this day – and the ride took place in pitch darkness. You sat in the dark, which smelled of metal and whatever oil was used to keep the ride running and, frighteningly, of electricity, and then the ride started. Strobe lights started going crazy. And the music started.
Roll up, roll up for the mystery tour,
Roll up, roll up for the mystery tour
And it was LOUD. So loud it took the breath out of your lungs. You were being flung around in the darkness, with strobe lights your only light, which made it look like the people in other cars were going to hit you, and the music was so loud it made your chest ache, but that good ache, that happy, good ache that you wanted to last forever.
The magical mystery tour is dying to take you away
Dying to take you away, take you away
Once my brother and I exited the ride (which seemed to last a very long time, but I don’t think the song played more than once or twice, so it was obviously only long in kid-time, which is very different than grown-up time, because in grown-up time, one day you’re 22 and the next day you’re 35 and you’re like, what the FUCK? where did these gray HAIRS come from?) and ran to our anxious parents, bubbling over about our adventures, my mother said, “Oh, they played The Beatles in there? That’s why the ride’s named what it is, I guess.”
I’d never heard of The Beatles. I was a pre-teen in the 80s. I was listening to Top 40 radio, Casey Kasem spinning the hits and stupid sappy stories in his unctuous used-car-salesman voice every Sunday. I was a musical heathen. I grew up in a small town where we barely got a decent radio station at all (only decent station came out of Canada, so we heard a lot of “abooot” and “soh-ry” for “about” and “sorry”), and we didn’t get cable. Music was whatever we caught when we caught it.
My mother was a big Beatles fan in her youth – she could remember crying, watching them on the Ed Sullivan show when she was a pre-teen herself – and had some of their singles on 45 that she let me borrow. I remember giggling because on the record jacket of one of them, in my mother’s careful, young script, was written “I love Paul!!!”
But I didn’t “love Paul!!!”, although I liked him well enough. I liked Ringo well enough, too, and George. No, no. I was a John girl, through and through. Does this surprise any of you who read me regularly? That I’d fall for the rebel of the group, who couldn’t keep his mouth shut? The poet? The dreamer? With the groovy little round glasses? No, didn’t think so.
I listened to their music and listened to their music and I fell madly, passionately in love with it, and with the 60s, in general, and when I started bubbling to my mother how much I loved it, and talking to her about the music she’d grown up with (this must have been something special for her, since we had very little in common, and it was something we could discuss) she asked, “Well, here’s the question everyone has to answer – who’s your favorite Beatle? It’s Paul, right? I always loved Paul. He was so cute.” And I said, “No! Mom! JOHN. It’s JOHN. He’s the BEST. Is he still singing? I know Paul is – Wings, right? But I don’t remember John having anything on the radio recently. Did he stop performing?”
Remember, musical heathen. Really out of the loop, musically. Grew up in a small town. Only 6 years old in 1980.
“Oh,” my mother said. “Oh, no, Amy. No. Honey, no. He was murdered. In New York City. A while ago. A crazy man shot him. He died.”
As the years passed, I read everything I could get my hands on about The Beatles, John Lennon, Mark David Chapman, Yoko Ono, the careers of the remaining members of the band, the music of the era, the culture. I watched movies, documentaries, listened to recordings of interviews, read articles, books, searched photo shoots for clues. I’m a sucker for research. I love research like some people love watching football or meeting friends for drinks or breathing. It’s this need I have to impose order on things, read into that what you will, OCD, control issues, whatever it is, I like to research things, I like to write it down into lists and categorize it and try to sort it out and make it fall into line. I like a project. I like to fix things. I dislike messiness and chaos.
I couldn’t remove the chaos from this. I couldn’t make this less messy. I couldn’t make it hurt less that someone who I loved this much, someone who made me so happy, someone so absolutely filled with talent and joy for life, with a wife and a child and so much love, just so much goddamned love for everything and everyone, had been murdered, for no reason my research could ascertain, when I was learning simple addition and how to write basic sentences in my winter-quiet first grade classroom.
I could listen, though, over and over and over, to the music. And I did. And I still do.
“How does it feel to be/one of the beautiful people” when the popular kids were being total assholes.
“Ob-la-di, ob-la-da” on a happy day when it perfectly fit my mood and the music needed to be as bubbly as I was.
“Nothing’s gonna change my world” when I was lonely and homesick freshman year of college.
“You know I’d give you everything I’ve got/for a little peace of mind” during a disastrous relationship.
And, over and over and over, “life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” Still. Still, all these years later. One of the most perfect lyrics ever written; a jewel of a line, set sparkling in a love song written to a son he would never get to see grow up.
A few years ago, I got to see Sean Lennon perform, and when he came out, and started singing, I quietly started crying. Not like a crazy person; I wasn’t going to boil talented, adorable Sean Lennon’s bunny. I was crying for the fact that his father never got to see the wonderful man his son grew into; a perfect blend of both his mother and his father, who, every once and a while, hit a note that sounded so much like his father that my heart surged in my chest.
And also, a few years ago, my best friend came to visit, and we went to New York City for a long weekend. Because he loves me, he allowed me to add two stops into our very packed itinerary: The Dakota and Strawberry Fields.
I didn’t go too close to The Dakota. It’s a gated building. People live there. It’s also haunted. No, not really. But in my eyes, it is. I’ve watched the news footage from that day, this day, thirty-one years ago, over and over. If any entrance to any building is haunted for me, it’s that one. It feels wrong. It feels dangerous. I stood across the street with tears in my eyes and I repeated, over and over in my mind, “I’m here. And I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m sorry.”
Strawberry Fields was the palate cleanser. There are ghosts there, too, but they are happier. They are more well-fed. There was a guitar made of flowers on the memorial mosaic. A group of teenagers were singing “Imagine” softly, reverently, like they were praying. If the ghosts across the street are still screaming, the ghosts here are quiet, and happy, and cared-for, and loved. Because they are remembered here, not for how they ended, but for what they gave us while they lived.
Thirty-one years ago today. Let’s go back to the regularly scheduled humor and chaos and messiness and snark tomorrow; today I’m going to go home and listen to John sing for me, a little. I let the sadness in today, but it’s not all sadness. There’s the music. There’s always the music. We’ll always have that.
“I’m not afraid of death because I don’t believe in it. It’s just getting out of one car, and into another.” –John Lennon