By John “Jay Jay” French
The year 2020 is important in Beatledom. John Lennon would have turned 80 on October 9, and December 8 is the 40th anniversary of one of the darkest days in Beatles history.
Last year I started to think about December 8, 2020 — the 40th anniversary of Lennon’s assassination.
I am reminded about it every day as I live very close to the Dakota apartment building where Lennon lived and was gunned down. I walk in Central Park almost every morning and often get stopped by tourists who ask me two questions: 1) Where is the Metropolitan Museum of Art? and 2) Where is Strawberry Fields?
I usually walk them over to the Strawberry Fields, where there is always someone playing Beatles songs on an acoustic guitar. No matter the season or the weather, someone is always there playing Beatles songs.
The Strawberry Fields memorial was created in partnership with New York City and Yoko Ono and was officially opened on October 9, 1985 — what would have been Lennon’s 45th birthday.
The two dates — Lennon’s birth date on October 9 and December 8, the day of his murder — bring the memorial into an even greater significance to worldwide Beatles fans.
I decided that I wanted to write a positive story about Lennon’s legacy upon the 40th anniversary of his murder.
On the night of December 8, 1980, I had just returned home from a dinner with my girlfriend, turned on the radio and heard the devastating news. I ran out of my apartment and took the 10-minute walk down to the Dakota. I was in shock and I stayed there, keeping a vigil across from the building until about 4 a.m.
There really isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about John Lennon — precisely because he was like a neighbor, and I look at that building and walk into Strawberry Fields all the time. I wanted to know about the people who sing there and provide the soundtrack to this remarkable fixture funded by Yoko that sits directly across from the Dakota. You can’t miss it.
Before the coronavirus (for the past 35 years), tourist buses were always parked on 72nd Street and Central Park West. People who enter the park on West 72nd Street want a photo by the “Imagine” mosaic in the center of the area.
And, always, Beatles music is being played live by someone.
Well, after going to Strawberry Fields numerous times, I found the person who is the organizer of the singing minstrels of Strawberry Fields. His name in David Muniz, and he has quite a story to tell.
Muniz is 58 and a native New Yorker, growing up in Queens Village. His father was a jazz singer and exposed Muniz to music early on, and to The Beatles in particular, when his dad played him his favorite Beatles song, “And I Love Her.”
Muniz was in California the night of December 8, 1980.
Muniz walked into Strawberry Fields for the first time shortly after it opened, strictly as an observer, but with an eye to performing. He looked around, and there were lots of players performing at the same time.
“It was chaos because the money was so good,” Muniz told me. “The scene was also bad. There were junkies showing up and shooting in the woods.
“There was a previous ‘Mayor of Strawberry Fields,’ ” he added. “This guy kind of took over after it first opened. He wasn’t even a musician. He looked at this as a goldmine.”
Muniz left New York, but when he came back to Strawberry Fields in 2012, he was told that this guy was sick in the hospital.
The guy never returned. He died.
As there was no discipline among the musicians at this point, a lot of intimidation took place. Loud guys took over and chased others away. “A lot of these little guys were not ‘street’ and couldn’t defend themselves,” Muniz said.
One “bipolar guy” (Muniz’s description) used to curse at the crowds (which is an absolute no-no) when people didn’t put money into his guitar case. Muniz volunteered to bring order into the “system.”
“Everybody had cellphones,” he said, “so I suggested that I would do a list. If you come late into your hour time slot and that ate into your time, too bad.”
I can tell you that after talking to Muniz, he is the kind of streetwise New Yorker that one needs to deal with this kind of scene.
“So,” Muniz continued, “there were about 15 people available when I took over. I told everyone, ‘Hey, even if I don’t like you, I’ll give you a slot!’
“I did the list for a couple of months and everybody loved it. I had to leave town for a while to see my mother, but kept it going by text, and realized that I didn’t have to be there every day.”
I asked Muniz if he was the “enforcer.” He said he prefers to be known as the “Keeper of the List.”
Muniz went on: “I believe in all the teachings of John Lennon and Gandhi ... but I’m a New York guy!”
Performing time slots begin at 9 a.m. and end at 7 p.m. An important unwritten rule is that your instrument can’t be amplified. No electric guitars. No profane language either. Your performance needs to be rated G. There are no repertoire requirements, although people do expect to hear Beatle songs, especially if you want to make money.
Do you have to play Beatles songs to play at Strawberry Fields?
Muniz: There was a girl who only played The Godfather theme song on an accordion. I don’t care. Lennon would have agreed with that.
The most popular requests?
Muniz: “Imagine,” “Let It Be” and “Hey Jude.”
Does the weather stop the performances?
Muniz: I’ll post the next day’s weather with the list; it’s up to the performers if they want to play. I’ve played during snowfalls. Wind is hard to play through, though.
Crowds are consistent, although things really slow down after New Year’s through March, but the tour buses never stop coming.
Do you consider yourself a keeper of the Lennon legacy?
Muniz: Yes, I do, in a small way. I tell the guys, “Hey, remember how important it is that every day, every performance, matters to the person who is there and listening to you.” And I know that on the 40th anniversary, December 8, a lot of New Yorkers will come down.
Out of about 15 performers, there is a core of five that Muniz can always depend on.
Ono, who lives across the street, has come over many times over the years, according to Muniz: “Before her stroke, she would come over with her bodyguards and dance around. We all saw her several weeks ago, she was in her wheelchair, but she saw us all and waved to us.”
Muniz’s favorite songs to sing, among many, are “Girl,” “Michelle,” “In My Life” and, of course, “Strawberry Fields.”
I asked Muniz if the tradition of the Minstrels of Strawberry Fields could continue without him.
“I think about it, but I have no plans as to how long I will continue,” Muniz told me. “But, in my mind, I know who I would designate to carry on the organization, because this could go on forever.”
If you want to see and hear David Muniz, he is there almost every day, usually between noon and 2 p.m.
Of all the stories I have written about in my column, this 2020 milestone has loomed large over me. I have run this idea over and over trying to figure out, in words, my feelings about John Lennon and The Beatles.
This band is why I do what I do.
Lennon’s image was the image that I followed the most. His voice reaches very deeply into my soul, and his writing, as in songs like “In My Life,” represent the art of songwriting at its most emotionally involving.
Add to this that my mother passed away on December 8, 1974, and this makes this anniversary date even more emotional.
This December 8, I will be there, standing in Strawberry Fields, and then standing in front of the Dakota. I will be there to show my respect and to reflect on all the good things that Lennon did, created, wrote about and fought for.
This December 8, I will also play out in my mind what could have been had Lennon lived to be 80.
This December 8, on the 40th anniversary of John Lennon leaving this world, I, along with millions of Beatles fans around the globe, will celebrate the life of John Winston Lennon.
“In My Life” I’m sure it will feel like “Yesterday.”