NOTE from Dr. Wayne Baker: Please welcome journalist and educator Charles Honey for a thought-provoking series based on classes he has taught about the impact of the Beatles’ music. Here’s Charles’ fourth column …
I have never visited Penny Lane, although I fully plan on it. Yet even if fate says no, I can vividly see its blue suburban skies and the fireman with an hourglass.
That’s due to Paul McCartney’s brilliantly colored portrait of the Liverpool street where he used to catch a bus on the way to John Lennon’s house. If you Google street views of Penny Lane, it looks like a nice but unremarkable commercial district. Listen to Paul’s song, though, and it takes on the magical hues of a Maxfield Parrish painting:
In Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs
of every head he’s had the pleasure to know.
And all the people that come and go stop and say hello.
There really was a barber shop with photos of haircuts in the window, Paul told author Barry Miles years later. And there really was a “shelter in the middle of a roundabout,” and a banker on the corner—though Paul invented the bit about the children laughing behind his back. Indeed, it was all a pretty ordinary little district where he and John hung out. But filtered through Paul’s lively imagination years later, Penny Lane becomes a childhood wonderland.
The pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray.
And though she feels as if she’s in a play, she is anyway.
That childlike sense of wonder permeates the Beatles’ world view. Life sometimes feels like we’re all in a play. Come to think of it–or imagine it, anyway–maybe we are.
Both Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields, co-released as a double-A side single in early 1967–two works of genius expended on one 45!–stunningly illustrate Lennon and McCartney’s belief in the power of perception to shape reality.
Remember In My Life—and the way that song describes love as bound up in our memories of people, things and places?
There are places I remember all my life
Though some have changed …
Comparing Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields, Paul characteristically paints reality in joyful Technicolor, while John applies a phantasmagoric brush to Strawberry Field, a former Salvation Army children’s home where he used to play. It was reportedly a lush, beautiful grounds that fed young John’s sense of the mystical. And how:
Let me take you down ‘cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields.
Nothing is real, and nothing to get hung about.
Taking it as given that John drew from equal parts LSD and Lewis Carroll, is nothing in fact real here, or in Penny Lane? Or does the reality lie in how we recall the places of our childhood, and inform those experiences with wonder through our imaginations?
I am indebted to the Beatles for helping me see my world—and theirs—through the wide eyes of a child.
Here’s Penny Lane …
And, here’s Strawberry Fields …
Care to read more?
Charles Honey is a freelance writer specializing in faith, education, music and baseball. He wrote a religion column for The Grand Rapids Press/MLive for 20 years, is a staff writer for School News Network and writes a blog on everyday spiritual experience, Soulmailing.com. He teaches a short adult-learner course called “Love is All, Love is You: The Spirituality of the Beatles.” Recently, Charles was featured in a ReadTheSpirit Cover Story about his new book Faith on First.
ALSO THIS WEEK, our section on Holidays, Festivals & Anniversaries looks at the many ways the Beatles reshaped popular culture in the second half of 1965—a golden anniversary in 2015. Plus, to help you sense what it was like 50 years ago, this column includes two short videos of the Beatles taking the stage at Shea Stadium and then performing A Hard Day’s Night on that historic occasion.