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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Across, Around, About the Universe


At one point, on my back on AstroTurf, head resting on my bag, I looked away from the movie screen to glance at the sky. Not many stars up there, even though it was a clear night--very dark, yes, but the city lights overpower the stars (which is probably a contributing factor to the whole 'New York is the center of the Universe' feeling most New Yorkers have: when you can't actually see the Universe, you must conclude you are the Universe). A few airplanes here and there crawled across the dark sky like insects.

And there was a breeze. The temperature had dropped since I arrived a few hours ago. I was shivering. My bare feet were cold.

Here's where I was: Rumsey Playfield on the East Side of Central Park, on the ground in front of the VIP section, close to the fat monolithic inflatable movie screen. Behind me were a few thousand people sitting on blankets or in bleachers or folding chairs. On the screen was a forthcoming PBS American Masters documentary about John Lennon's final decade, which he spent in NYC with, of course, Yoko Ono.

Except there was a period of time spent in L.A., away from Yoko. Turns out, when Nixon won a second term, Lennon lost his shit, fucked another woman at a party he and Yoko were attending (a wake more than a party, really), and Yoko told Lennon to leave. L.A. destroyed Lennon, according to the documentary. He drank vodka by the gallon each day, did some various drugs, had mixed results with recording music.

This only helps bolster my theory that L.A. is a place where artists go to have their soul extracted and integrity compromised.

The documentary, LennoNYC, rummaged around in Lennon's post-Beatles life. The extended battle he waged to remain in New York even as Nixon pushed for his deportation (for years, Lennon was on notice that he had to leave the country within 30 days). The love affair with Yoko, the love affair with New York. The growth of his artistry. His semi-retirement to be a father. The recording of Double Fantasy. His murder. His relationship with his former band-mates. His legacy. All there, on an inflatable screen which billowed slightly in the stiff breeze, making the projected image into a undulating soft dream.

Lou Reed, by the way, introduced the movie. Before the show, Reed, limping, moving with an almost audible creak, spindly-spidered his way onto a platform in front of the screen and read a statement from Yoko Ono (Yoko was in Iceland, giving out the annual Lennon prizes or something, to four political activists). Reed read Yoko's statement the way a grizzled 20-year old high school senior might read a book report on Catcher in the Rye, then added at the end: "Clearly I didn't write this. These are Yoko's sentiments." Then he added his own sentiment (I'm paraphrasing): "John wrote 'Mother' and 'Jealous Guy,' and for that alone he's a true artist and genius writer. Just for those two songs. Those two songs were produced by Phil Spector. Now one is dead, and one is convicted of murder. Make of that what you will. Thank you." And then he spindly-spidered his way off the platform.

Behind him, on the screen, these words: Imagine Peace. Below that, much smaller: Love Yoko.

I wasn't sure if those last two words were a request, a demand, or an extension of love from Yoko.

Thirty years on, the only people who love Yoko are, after all, New Yorkers. Even I have come to tolerate her.

Most of the documentary was about Yoko's calming influence on John Lennon, and about his adoration of this city. I share the adoration of the city. I was moved several times, nearly to tears, which is why I glanced up from time to time to stare at the invisible Universe and the insect-like airplane lights crawling around up there. Every now and then, I'd stop listening to the documentary, and focus on the ambient sounds around me, the sounds of the physical city rather than the illusory images being projected on the fake movie screen.

Wind in the trees of Central Park. Rumsey Field is surrounded by old trees, still fat with the last of the season's leaves, and the wind moved through the leaves, stirring them around, rubbing them against one another like music rubbing dancers at a club against one another.

Distant traffic. The thing about Central Park is that it is quiet. But it is a quiet of degrees: one can still hear, faintly, the horns honking and the people shouting at one another and the machine hum of people moving from one end of the island to the other.

The crowd behind me. People had been turned away, so great was Lennon's continued ability to draw a crowd. In fact, I'd only just made it into the Field--directly behind me, the line had been turned away. Thousands of people singing along to the brief musical interludes of the film, laughing at Lennon's wiseass wisecracks, applauding wildly at a few points, murmuring lazily at one statement or another.

And then, the lights came up, and the crowd walked away.

I followed along, shivering. The most logical path out of the park happened to be through Strawberry Fields, but I didn't realize it until I was plunging into severe darkness, dense bushes and close-grown trees. I didn't realize where I was or how it was possible to be in total darkness in the middle of New York City, on the edge of Central Park's West Side.

Candlelight was flickering against the trees, and there was a warm glow, and I suddenly realized where I was. Hundreds of people in the darkness, their skin laced with candlelight: a memorial of candles and flowers was set up on a small hill. Beyond that, around the Imagine memorial, people were gathered. They were singing 'Watching the Wheels' in a sweet, choral kind of way.

Yup. I cried. It's not hard to make me cry. I have my mother's disposition--sometimes, most times, life just seems too beautiful to not cry, and too sad to resist.

As the crowd moved on to another song--'Instant Karma'--I moved on to the street. Not from design but necessity, I walked across Central Park West, past the Dakota and past the spot where John Lennon had been gunned down like some sort of gangster.

Here's the thing: The reason John Lennon loved New York was because he was able to walk about us mere mortals with very little intrusion. Privacy respected. In the center of the Universe, there are no stars. Certainly, he was admired, and certainly he was recognized, but for the most part he was allowed to live his life and be, whatever, normal or average or anonymous.

And he died because of the sense of security and anonymity this little island extended to him.

But ah well.

His love affair with New York was, in the end, as destructive/productive as his love affair with Yoko Ono. And walking past the Dakota, I understood.

This city can be awful. But then you have moments like this: you go to Central Park to see a PBS documentary, thinking you'll be one of a few people to care, and then barely make it in because of the turn-out. Then you walk away from the documentary, and end up in Strawberry Fields. And then you wander away, having sung a few songs with complete strangers, and end up in Dakota.

Then you take a cab home, go into your overpriced New York apartment, and find a very happy dog desperate for attention, seeing in you the entirety of his Universe.

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