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John Lennon: Essence and Reality
“Strawberry Fields Forever”
Off the edge of memory, rationality and time: Lennon invites us to accompany him. “Let me take you down, ‘cos I’m going to Strawberry Fields, nothing is real … Strawberry Fields forever!” As other commentators routinely say, this song, released as a single in February 1967, does indeed deal with nostalgia and childhood and fame. But these themes are only the platforms of departure. Our destination is floating and dreamlike; we land in meadows which have something of paradise about them: “Nothing is real, and nothing to get hung about! Strawberry Fields forever!”
I cannot think of any song from the rock and roll era which goes deeper. Lennon’s lyrics move in many directions at once, searching for what is real in himself, his identity, reason and art. Lennon probes his own depths: what is the significance of his innocent childhood? What is this faith he has that somewhere there exists an endless bliss? Who am I to be in relation with you, and who are you to be in relation to me? What is the truth about us?
There is a wondering questioning here: a perception of reality always awakes innocent surprise. Relationship with others and relationship within myself go together, because they each depend upon me as an individual – upon my central “I”, to the extent that I can be said to have one central “I”. This takes us to the eternal question of ultimate human identity: the mystery of our souls, or of our essences, to use a term from Gurdjieff’s system.
“Essence”, lest we forget, derives from the Latin root esse, “to be”. It is the pure being of a living organism – whatever form that life may take.Behind Lennon’s search is the understanding that a nothing cannot be related – it is superfluous. That he might in fact be a nothing, that he might not be needed was, I think, Lennon’s greatest fear. So deep a fear was it that even Lennon could not name it. Perhaps very, very few of us are different from Lennon in this respect: we share this unnameable anxiety. That, I suspect, is why, so far as I can see, writers have missed the significance of the five words: “let me take you down”. They are words not only of movement, but also of a desired relationship. Lennon offers to assume the role of guide, and, of course, a guide is in relation, he is accompanied by his charges:
Let me take you down, ‘cos I’m going to …
Strawberry Fields …
Nothing is real …
And nothing to get hung about.
Strawberry Fields Forever!
Living is easy with eyes closed,
Misunderstanding all you see.
It’s getting hard to be someone
but it all works out –
It doesn’t matter much to me.
No one, I think, is in my tree,
I mean it must be high or low
That you can’t, you know, tune in,
But it’s alright,
That is, I think it’s not too bad.
Let me take you down, etc.
Always, no, sometimes think it’s me
but it’s all wrong,
That is, I think I disagree.
Let me take you down, etc.
The music is masterly. When Lennon says “let me take you down”, I almost feel drawn into a secret opening beneath my feet. There is a firm pressure on that word “down”. The singer is in transit to another world, and through the sympathetic power of listening, we find ourselves drawn into his gravity. Lennon is the psychopomp, or soul-guide of this Elysian realm. On Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,the psychedelic Lucy sprang from his head to play the role of guide (“follow her down …”). “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane” had been the first two recordings for that album, but when they were released as singles, it was decided not to include them on the album. It is striking then, that when he speaks in his own name on this song, he stakes his authority in a way that never happens on “Lucy”.
Speaking in the first person also makes “Strawberry Fields” more personal. The tone of the invitation is enfolded within the music and the singing: it is gentle and undemonstrative. The tones of the mellotron, which open the song (courtesy of Paul McCartney), prime the canvas in warm, hazy tones, almost speaking with a voice like blended strings and woodwinds. There is something other-worldly about it, yet, I would not call it dreamy. It is more as we are withdrawing from the earth. In these respects, “Strawberry Fields” builds on “I’m Only Sleeping”, released not long before on the Revolver album. In that song, Lennon lays in bed; Lucy’s cosmos is in the sky’; and in “Strawberry Fields” he takes us down. They’re all part of a consistent pattern of exploration which lifts Lennon’s work beyond the merely haphazard.
The image of Strawberry Fields is at once quite plain, and perfectly elusive. In his 1980 interview with Playboy magazine, Lennon said: “Strawberry Fields is a real place. After I stopped living at Penny Lane, I moved in with my auntie who lived in the suburbs in a nice semidetached place with a small garden … Near that home was Strawberry Fields, a house near a boys’ reformatory where I used to go to garden parties as a kid with my friends Nigel and Pete we would go there and hang out and sell lemonade bottles for a penny. We always had fun at Strawberry Fields. So that’s where I got the name. But I used it as an image. Strawberry Fields forever.”
“Strawberry Fields” evokes a definite place, but it’s used in an indefinite way to open the doors to something which goes beyond the one site. What Strawberry Fields stands for is actually a joyous and carefree childhood. It is significant that it is strawberry fields, as in the succulent forest fruit. In Lennon’s time, few children would not have had the experience of hunkering close down and searching among the leaves of the short bush for its delicious fruit. Nowadays, we can go to the supermarket, buy a punnet, and consume them without a thought. But, for kids, a strawberry they’ve found themselves in the garden is a treat.
However, the most important thing Lennon says, or more precisely, sings about these fields is “forever”. This word could simply be an expression of affection, it could also be the echo of a prayer, and, like any real prayer, it also takes us out of time. It reminds me of the posthumously released “Grow Old With Me” (see blog 4), with its doxology: “World without end, world without end.” The same prayer is offered in Strawberry Fields. “Forever” is almost the perfect petition: it is fiat or “let it be”. In “Grow Old”, Lennon sings: “whatever fate decrees, we will see it through.” This is an attitude to aspire to: I may not understand this portion of the journey, but I affirm. Adie said that deep down, we all love of life. But life brings sufferings. Only when we arrive at our final destination are all our difficulties, and all our failings along the way reconciled, because only at the end is there an Absolute reality in which they find their final shape and complete meaning. The real world, the divine world, appears to us, we are told, as a transfiguration.
And this, I think, is the secret of “Strawberry Fields Forever”: it is the transfiguration of our lives, a mystery which Lennon had some intimation of. Thus, when Lennon says “nothing is real”, the first thing he means, I think, is that nothing is real as we see it. And this has a certain element of truth. I shall not pursue it here, but briefly, we see only a portion, and even that we only perceive in dim outline. But the dim outline is real, it’s just that we cannot see the whole reality.
The second thing which, it seems to me, Lennon means, is that especially in Strawberry Fields everything is transformed. Strawberry fields is a blessed realm: its reality is not that of our day to day reality. I doubt that he meant nothing whatsoever is real: after all, he says later in this song “you know I know when it’s a dream”.
Apparently, the phrase “nothing to get hung about” alludes to Lennon’s youthful reply to his aunt’s directives not to jump the fence into Strawberry Fields: “They can’t hang you for it.” In the song it’s more positive: it means that there is no sorrow there.
The way is not an easy one: Lennon does not hide this; some of the lyrics reflect being misunderstood. Lennon once said of the song that: “The second line goes, ‘No one I think is in my tree.’ Well, what I was trying to say in that line is, ‘Nobody seems to be as hip as me, therefore I must be crazy or a genius.’” A person sitting in the branches of a tree is high up. Lennon felt that by his art he was elevated above the mediocre. But did he deserve this exaltation? He wasn’t sure of that, but he was sure that there are standards: “it must be high or low”. He also experienced it as lonely: “…you can’t, you know, tune in.” Was this bad? Maybe, maybe not: “But it’s alright, That is, I think it’s not too bad.”
Lennon expresses the same sentiments in the next verse: he starts to say that he always “think it’s me”, when he changes his mind mid-sentence, “no, sometimes”. In other words, when his false ego is there, it seems there’s nothing else and never has been. That’s why at those moments he could believe that he is an eternal megalomaniac. But as soon as he starts to examine this, he realises that this is not the whole of the truth. While we are in one “I”, as it were, we can see nothing else. But as it loses its hold, other “I”s appear, and we experience this to-and-fro as doubt and confusion: “…but it’s all wrong, that is, I think I disagree.”
Before leaving this, it’s worth mentioning that in the version Lennon made at his home in Weybridge, released on the Beatles Anthology vol. 2, he sang not “let me take you down” but “let me take you back”. This confirms the line I have taken here, that Lennon is, in his mind, returning to his childhood, folding the folds of time into one fabric. It is a remembrance not of facts but of the self wherein the line between the present and the past disappears. We are granted a moment when we have an instinctive feeling of truth, and suddenly we sense a relationship with others which is so close, and so self-less, that we experience our lives as woven into a vital unity. Community is not amalgamation; the whole is made up of parts which have integrity. But there is no integrity without some form of inner unity.
In this song, Lennon reveals perhaps his most sacred belief: that in the end it all comes out right. This optimism is why, in the final analysis, so many people invested so much of their hope in Lennon.
© Joseph Azize, 2011
JOSEPH AZIZE has published in ancient history, law and Gurdjieff studies. His first book The Phoenician Solar Theology treated ancient Phoenician religion as possessing a spiritual depth comparative with Neoplatonism, to which it contributed through Iamblichos. The second book, “Gilgamesh and the World of Assyria”, was jointly edited with Noel Weeks. It includes his article arguing that the Carthaginians did not practice child sacrifice.
The third book, ‘George Mountford Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia’ represents his attempt to present his teacher (a direct pupil of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) to an international audience.The fourth book, edited and written with Peter El Khouri and Ed Finnane, is a new edition of Britts Civil Precedents. He recommends it to anyone planning to bring proceedings in an Australian court of law.
“Maronites” is pp.279-282 of “The Encyclopedia of Religion in Australia” published by Cambridge University Press and edited by James Jupp.
The ideas presented in this article were much influenced by what the author learned of the Gurdjieff system through George Adie, a personal pupil of Gurdjieff. Something of Adie’s approach to Gurdjieff’s ideas and methods can be found in George Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia, G. Adie and J. Azize, Lighthouse Editions, available from By the Way Books.
This is the final article in the series, Lennon: Essence and Reality.