October 5, 2013
Word got around last week that John Lennon's guitar was up in Bau Graves' office at the Old Town School of Folk Music and so the worshipers began to come.
There were students and teachers, accomplished players and humble pluckers, a parade that came to gawk, to honor, perchance to strum.
Samantha Turner, who works the desk downstairs, made her pilgrimage at mid-day Friday.
"Is that it?"
She stood in the doorway, her palms pressed together as if in prayer, and gazed toward the big 1962 Martin D-28 lying in its case.
"Oh my gosh. Whoa."
She stepped a little closer. "Can I touch it?"
She laid a hand on the guitar, then recoiled with a tiny gasp.
"Oh. That makes a me a little nervous."
Finally, she picked it up. Not everyone who comes to see it is so bold — the relic is too holy — but Turner began, very gently, to play.
"I'm a believer in energy," she said.
To touch the guitar John Lennon had touched came close to touching the great musician himself.
If that sounds a little woo-woo, let me assure you that John Lennon's guitar has shown in the past few days that it can turn the crustiest of folks into misty-eyed mystics.
Here's how it wound up in Chicago:
Years ago, Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, donated the guitar, one of many he owned, to Chicago's Peace Museum, along with a letter noting that her husband had used it for practice. The museum, which was dedicated to preserving artifacts from various peace movements, eventually closed and its collection went into storage.
Last week, Graves, executive director of the Old Town School, got a call saying that the guitar had been freed from its long legal limbo. The school could have it.
When he and Steve Levitt, who has taught a Beatles class at the school since 1995, headed to the Field Museum to pick it up, they weren't sure what they were getting.
Would the guitar be warped? Cracked?
It was neither. It had clearly been played a lot and hard — the top had been repaired and there were belt-buckle abrasions on the back — but it was in good shape.
As soon as Levitt saw it, he knew what he had to do. He had to tune it and play Lennon's song "Imagine."
No sooner had he started tuning — "40-year-old strings maybe last touched by John himself" — than a string snapped.
"I got to break John Lennon's string," he thought, and not happily. For all he knew, he had just ruined the guitar.
He hadn't, though, and when they took it back to the Old Town School, the guys in the music store there, in an attempt to share the bounty of this astonishing moment, took turns reverently changing each string.
Was this the guitar Lennon took to India? Someone looked for images on the Internet. No. That one had a black pick guard.
They found this guitar in Lennon's hands in a 1975 TV concert, apparently his last public appearance. Zooming in on the computer image, they detected the exact same swirls in the tortoise-shell pick guard.
Almost four decades after that concert, as Lennon, on the computer screen, sang "Imagine," Graves stood in the music store, strumming along on the same guitar and they all sang.
"I had goose bumps up and down my spine," he said.
Musical instruments are more than objects. They can seem alive with the places they've been and the humans who have touched them, altered by the music they've made. Or maybe their power is just in the stories we tell about them.
"I didn't think I'd feel anything about John Lennon's guitar versus anybody else's," Levitt said Friday as more people gathered to view the guitar, maybe play a Beatles song or two. "But there's something ..."
He didn't have the word for what.
"It has an aura," someone said.
On Wednesday, on what would have been Lennon's 73rd birthday, his guitar will go on permanent display at the Old Town School. It will live in a case that takes hours to open.
But while it's free, a few more people will get to touch it, to play the same notes and the same chords that John Lennon did, even as Levitt tries to keep its powers in perspective.
"We haven't had any spontaneous healings yet."
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