Imagine

8 Sep

I first heard John Lennon’s “Imagine” in January, 1980. I had just come to America from the country, Romania, in which I was born and lived my first eleven years on this planet. The trip took around three weeks and, no, the ocean passage was not completed on a boat. Before stepping foot on this land, my father and I had to spend a little over two weeks in Rome. It was a condition set by the U.S. government for the both of us, in order that we rejoin my mother, who had defected under political asylum granted by the State Department in early 1979. I do not to this day know exactly what that condition was—something about officially coming from a “western” country or maybe a country practicing capitalism. Or, some version of capitalism, if you are familiar with Italy’s politics. I suppose I could research, but it’s not that important. We were told we had to pause in Rome for some time before “the paperwork comes through” and reuniting with mother.

For a kid like me, for anyone really, being forced to spend a few weeks in Rome, even in a shitty pensione like the one we stayed in where the only hot-water shower available for the entire floor was coin-operated and located halfway down the hallway, wasn’t really an imposition. For many immigrants from communist countries, like my father and me, it was a veritable vacation. We didn’t spend much time in our one-room simple accommodation, so comfort wasn’t important. We had beds and one cold-water faucet in the room. That was enough. We took to the streets nearly every day and walked as much as our feet or legs or muscles could stand. We saw most everything there is to see in Rome, I believe. Truly. One day we even trucked it miles and miles from our pensione in Furio Camillo, crossed the River Tiber, finally reached the Vatican, and got in to see the Pieta, Sistine Chapel, the Dome, and other nooks and crannies of St. Peter’s Basilica.

This is suddenly turning in a different direction from where I was meaning to be headed, so let’s get it back on track. We flew from Rome to Cleveland, Ohio via a long layover in New York City. Tooling around JFK Airport, waiting for our connection to Cleveland, I strolled by a newsstand that was playing “Imagine.” I understood little English at that time, but I dug the melody. It reminded me a little of The Beatles. And I knew The Beatles from having heard them in Romania, smuggled on some audio cassettes my parents had. Those tapes also introduced me to ABBA, Boney M, Glen Campbell, Elvis, and Kenny Rogers. But that’s maybe for another piece here.

At the newsstand in JFK was the first time I heard “Imagine,” but had no idea it was John Lennon. The Beatles that I knew were the “She Loves You” and “Yellow Submarine” Beatles. I did not know John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr by name. Nor had I any idea they all were solo artists by that time. But I liked “Imagine.” And I figured the name had to be “Imagine” just from hearing it over and over. The word is repeated many times in the song.

Over the following six months I learned to speak English fairly well and got to hear “Imagine” many times on the radio. I also became aware of John, Paul, George, and Ringo as artists in their own right. As I understood the words to “Imagine,” I soured to the song. I was young, sure, but I was already cynical (yet another piece for another time). I thought the lyrics were dumb and the tune was wishful thinking. By then I thought it would have been better had The Beatles carried on together instead of disbanding like they had.

But it’s likely I was projecting my parents’ ideas. They were conservative immigrants. Staunch Reaganites. Didn’t much care for other immigrants that didn’t at least struggle as much as themselves. Didn’t really like liberals or Democrats, although my mother did initially appeal to then President Carter and his staff to try to get the Romanian government to let my father and me get out of the country to join her. They despised the hippie vibe of anything, and “Imagine” certainly carried that.

It’s hard to say now what I was thinking exactly. I was eleven years old. It’s very likely I was just parroting what my parents were spewing every evening at the dinner table. But I do admit that groups like Queen, Rush, The Police, and punk music in general spoke to me or connected with me much more than John Lennon’s music did back then, that’s for sure.

On December 8, 1980 John Lennon was shot to death in front of his apartment building, The Dakota, on the Upper West Side of New York City, just next to Central Park. I remember vividly the news footage of the vigils after John’s death. And I remember hearing “Imagine” in a totally different light then. Oh, what a difference ten or eleven months can make in someone’s life.

John Lennon’s death was quickly followed by the attempt on President Reagan’s life in March, 1981. By then, only 14 months in this country, I thought America was insane. I had never in my life experienced murder (or attempted murder) in the open like that, despite coming from an authoritarian country whose Big Brother was possibly one of the most evil, murderous Big Brothers in Big Brother history. Back in the mother country, people disappearing and often never reappearing or reappearing looking like their former selves after having been recruited as snitches for the Securitate (the Romanian secret police; our version of The Stasi in East Germany), was more of a concept for me. The acerbic Romanian humor seeped through with every story of atrocities, and so I grew up with a dark humorous concept of death and dying, not seeing it on live television or in news reports.

In the forty-one years since I first heard John’s “Imagine” I have changed drastically. My wife would probably say the change fully for the better came in only the last decade, but still. I’d rather be here now, at this age and stage, than never. The lyrics to “Imagine” no longer sound naïve to me. The song is no longer wishful thinking but resonates as possibility. Not probability . . . possibility. And my love for art, all types of art, is rooted in just that: possibility. That is all art needs to speak to me.  

John Lennon’s “Imagine” turns fifty years old tomorrow. To celebrate the milestone, Yoko and her son Sean Ono Lennon—as well as the estate of John Lennon and Universal Music Group—are hosting a global party. Among the events taking place to mark the anniversary is a viewing party for the 1971 film “Imagine,” which was one of the first full-length conceptual music films and contains all the tunes from the “Imagine” album, as well as four songs from Yoko Ono’s “Fly” record. And on September 10, one day before another painful, infamous anniversary, Capitol and Universal Music Group will release a limited collector’s edition pressing of “Imagine” as a double LP on white vinyl.

In September, 2019, just months before COVID-19 shut down completely the magical metropolis, my wife and I stayed on the Upper West Side on Sesame Street (aka West 63rd Street and Broadway), in a hotel just across from The Met. We were there as a 50th birthday present for me to see the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra led by the great Wynton Marsalis. We had a magnificent four days walking as much of Manhattan as we could cover, including a chunk of Central Park.

On our second day in the city we strolled up nine streets to The Dakota on 72nd and Central Park West, before we veered into the park itself and across to the East Side to check out how the 1%-ers live. We only paused in front of the building for about a minute, mainly because there were so many people taking pictures of John’s last home and we didn’t want to get our big heads in the way of their mementos. I did not feel sad, nor did I feel melancholic or particularly reflective upon anything. I felt like time had both flown and stayed still at the same time. I recalled seeing on the news the vigils in front of the majestic building in the days following John’s death, so long ago—the very front we were looking at now. Everything looked and seemed as it should be. Normal.

And there was nothing more for me to do. Just a quick smile and an acknowledgement to myself that once upon a time, a tremendous artist and his family lived part of his life here in this space.

And then, suddenly, he didn’t.   

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