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In London, An Abbey Road Pilgrimage

Updated: Feb 4, 2021

This past September marked the 50th anniversary of the release of the Beatles’ classic album Abbey Road, which included the iconic tracks “Come Together,” “Here Comes the Sun,” and George Harrison’s heartbreaking “Something,” among many others. Revisiting the album got me thinking about traveling, like music so often does, and I thought about our visit to Prague this past summer and the “John Lennon Wall,” the graffiti-soaked concrete wall the Czech youth began creating upon hearing of Lennon’s death in 1980. Under the weight of years of communist suppression, the young Czechs identified with Lennon’s message of freedom, individuality, and nonconformity. Bootleg cassettes were smuggled in and passed around, shared, copied and then copied again, someone’s copy-of-a-copy-of-a-copy so hissy that it must’ve been tough to hear the layers of music beneath. The wall still stands today, etched in layers of paint, quotes from the endless depth of Lennon and Beatles’ songs, or sometimes just an inspirational saying, the wall ever-evolving. It’s a tourist attraction now, something to stand in front of to have your picture taken, but it you can block out the crowds taking selfies and find some quiet space in your head, you might be able, for a moment, to see the tug-of-war of pain and hope they were struggling with.

On a 2013 visit to London we visited the British Library, and after the Magna Carta and the massive Newton sculpture out front, I was excited to see their collection of Beatles artifacts, most notably the hand-written song lyrics on scraps of paper, the backs of envelopes, and on greeting cards. I remember leaning over the glass, shielding my eyes from the reflection, to read scribbled and crossed-out lines to an early version of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Talk about chills.

The next day we took the train north of the city to Abbey Road Studios, near Regent’s Park. We walked along the winding streets of this unassuming residential neighborhood, not entirely sure we were in the right place. Maybe we’d gotten off one stop too soon or too late. But eventually we followed a small group of people who’d gotten off the train as well. They seemed to be tourists, and sure enough, after a few blocks of rights and lefts and bends, we came upon an intersection with clusters of people milling about. I noticed a short brick wall decorated with graffiti, “You may say I’m a dreamer” written in someone’s block letter printing. Behind the wall was a building, rather pedestrian, but with a plaque that read, quite simply, “Abbey Road Studios.”

The most touristy thing I’ve ever done abroad I did next: I waited for my turn at crossing the street at the infamous crosswalk where the four Beatles took a break from recording for the album cover photo shoot, perhaps the most iconic photo in Beatles lore. Traffic motored by at a pretty steady pace; this wasn’t some sectioned-off museum exhibit—it was a regular street with people commuting to and from work. Tourists waited their turns to cross, their friends stepping dangerously out into the street to snap the photo.

I shrugged my shoulders. “We have to do it, I guess.”

Christine shrugged back. “We don’t have to.”

I shrugged again. “We kinda do, I think. We should.”

In the end, I was the one who waited to cross while Christine stood on a small concrete island in the intersection holding my camera. I had to wait for a couple others to get their picture taken, then had to wait for a gap in the traffic, then also had to wait until no one else was in the background or crossing the street from the other direction. Some pedestrians were reading newspapers and eating apples, not at all interested in the annoying tourists trying to capture some cliché photo. I thought about the commuters in their cars, the ones who had to travel this way each day, who had to be on the lookout for ridiculous people like me jockeying for our Abbey Road crosswalk photos. I wondered how many people had been struck here.

When there was finally a break in the traffic and the crosswalk was clear, I offered Christine a questioning look. Ready? She nodded and lifted the camera, and I stepped out into the street and marched across, letting my arms swing, keeping my head straight, and trying to look cool. When I reached the other side, I exhaled. A group crossed coming the other way now, chatting and oblivious. Behind me, two or three others were waiting to cross, left to right, of course. Had to be left to right.

I took a few steps toward the concrete island and looked for my wife. She was looking at me holding her arms up for some reason, as if confused. Then she yelled something my way that got lost in the traffic noise. “What?” I said.

She yelled it again.

“I can’t hear you! What?”

“I said I didn’t get it!”

“You didn’t take the picture?”

“Something happened. It was trying to focus.” Or something like that. I don’t remember exactly what the issue was. So I waited until it was clear of traffic and waited until no one was posing in the crosswalk so I wouldn’t interrupt their photo, and I crossed back to the other side so I could try again, left to right. A few people crossed with briefcases and phones in their hands. I watched six or eight cars come through. Then I saw my chance. I looked over at Christine.

“We good?” I called.

She nodded. Lifted the camera to her face. Held it out steady.

I crossed the street. Head straight. Arms swaying. Look cool.

On the other side I met a cluster of pedestrians waiting to cross. A parade of cars came by. I found Christine through the crowd and gave her a thumbs-up. “Got it?”

She raised the camera at me and, for some reason, shook it. She made a confused face. “It didn’t take it!” I noticed that this time she shifted the blame from herself to the camera by changing the pronoun.

“What! Again? What happened?”

“I don’t know! It’s slow to react!”

We reset everything and tried it again, and again she missed the shot. Then again. She said the photo was out of focus, or I was already off the street by the time she got it. It was a different story each time. And each time it took what seemed forever to get the street clear of cars and pedestrians out of the way and tourists clear of the crosswalk. But, eventually, we did get the shot.

I hurried over to meet her. She came off the island and crossed the street to the sidewalk. I took the camera from her and looked at the screen to check the shot. I looked blurry, my frozen movement awkward, robotic, unnatural, as though I were trying to climb an invisible ladder in the middle of the road rather than walking forward.

“Good enough,” I said.

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