Late December, 1977, and as I begin to climb the subway stairs leading up to West 72nd, I can already hear the wind swirling. It’s below 20 degrees outside, and I can’t conceive of being seen in the city with a hat, or gloves. When I exhale, my breath is suspended – revealing a diaphanous apparition. In the forefront of the grime on the tiled walls, all of my thoughts seem to stare back at me, and I briefly wonder why I am in New York. But in a second or two, a gust of wind carries the image in different directions and I keep climbing the steps anyway, determined to carry out a plan that I believe might bring some form of absolution.
It all seems to make sense, but then again I am 18 and have no real idea of how to meet a famous person. I am determined to at least catch a glimpse of John Lennon. I have read that he lives by Central Park, in the Dakota building. If I meet him I won’t have much to say, except thank you. His post-Beatles songs, which I have listened to nearly nonstop for the previous two years, have brought an unexpected simplicity and clarity into my own foggy life. Lennon has helped steer me in the right direction: “Imagine” could be liturgy straight out of the Torah; “Give Me Some Truth” bestows street smarts even to the privileged suburban child; “Jealous Guy” seems to absorb all my angst over would-be girlfriends; “Working Class Hero” is a roadmap of a path to avoid; and “God” – well, even God would probably approve.
All of this tutelage has been playing out in my second-floor bedroom that looks out over our backyard, and the maple and oak trees that fill out the neighborhood and lead all the way to the ocean about a mile east. When I turned 16, my parents scraped together a couple of hundred bucks and bought me a Technics receiver, ADC speakers, a BSR turntable and a set of headphones. With this gift, I was able to step into a world that didn’t seem to exist just a few years before when I would diligently place my 45s onto my red record player.
After I got my driver’s license, I would sojourn to Salem to rummage through the used record bins – nestled in between bongs and pipes and black-light Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane posters at a couple of head shops. I glommed onto the $1 vinyl to replace the farrago of cassettes and 8-tracks and 45s scattered throughout the house. The foundation would be built on Beatles records, of course, and while each had a blemish – a scratch here and there, a dimpled cover – I was able to establish a modest library of 33s for about $100. After each purchase of a Lennon or George Harrison solo album, or a Jethro Tull, Dylan or Stones offering, I’d slide the cover into a faux-walnut record cabinet that eventually grew so fragile its sides unstapled when I pushed my hundredth LP into its coffers.
It was at night, long after my parents and sisters and grandmother had gone to sleep, when the epiphanies would arrive. I’d tiptoe toward the receiver, push its power button and the light from the component would signal a connection with the new world – a future where anything seemed possible, that would include adults, and decision-making, and faraway cities, and love and … a career?
I hoped for all of this but really had no idea of how to get there, save for the books I’d read – a bit of Hemingway, Abby Hoffman and Philip Roth. Now, music was fast becoming a paint-by-numbers template of how to enter adulthood. And Lennon had the most accessible message, and delivered it in short, pious bursts: “God is a concept by which we measure our pain”; “Imagine there’s no heaven / It’s easy if you try”; “Instant Karma’s gonna get you / Gonna knock you off your feet”; “Singing power to the people”; “Love is the answer / And you know that, for sure.”
On and on and on it would go, and as the stereo’s dim light grew brighter into the early morning hours, Lennon’s lessons would continue through the headphones. They all seemed to focus on common sense and the importance of listening to your gut and taking action. These songs reinforced what I learned as a child, in, of all places, Hebrew School: I had free will. And so, as a high school senior, I somehow worked up the courage to announce to my parents that I would not be accepting the full scholarship that had been offered from a business school, and told them I planned to write and make documentaries.
At the top of the subway steps, the wind hits my face. I walk over to the Dakota and ask the doorman if Lennon is around. He shrugs and feigns ignorance, and I begin to stroll around the neighborhood. I spend the next four hours ducking into bookshops and bodegas before acknowledging that all of this is unnecessary. Lennon’s lessons had been learned and safeguarded, and that would suffice, I decide. Besides, I had already met Lennon, again and again, on his own terms. On the way back to the subway, I walk by the doorman again and he waves me toward his booth. “John’s in Japan,” the doorman says with a smile. Suddenly, my day makes sense.
Three years later, Lennon is killed outside of his apartment and for decades I cannot bring myself to listen to his music. But this year on Dec. 8, the 40th anniversary of his death, I will stream one of his albums and listen to it from beginning to end. No matter how many times I listen, each song will be like a short story or film that changes ever so slightly. I await the subtle shifts.
Steven A. Rosenberg is the publisher and editor of the Jewish Journal. Email him at Rosenberg@jewishjournal.org.