r-daub-a-blog, February 4, 2007
In early 1995 I made my first major solo trip outside the New York metropolitan area to San Francisco, California. I was a senior in college at the time, and part of the purpose of this journey was to scout a possible location for my post-scholarly life where I could begin my writing career in earnest. Just as important, perhaps, was to make a pilgrimage to the city my hero Jack Kerouac was so fond of, and to visit the intersection of Haight and Ashbury, the cultural crossroads of the 1960s where young people from across the land got on the bus and set out towards a destination known only as “FURTHER”.
When I got there, however, I was a bit disappointed. My impression of the place went something like this:
I envisioned my visit to Haight-Ashbury as a pilgrimage to a place where thirty years earlier the ideal of freedom was exercised to the extent that it changed the world, a place where the pioneers of the counterculture crammed into Victorian-style homes and lived in a way that now, in this age of AIDS and crack, can only be imagined, a place where even today the energy that once radiated from this intersection and called to the youth of the planet to live and be free could still be felt. When I got there, however, and looked up at the signs that said ‘Haight’ and ‘Ashbury’ and the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream store behind me, I didn’t feel anything. I closed my eyes and touched the pole that the street signs were attached to, and, after a couple of minutes, I finally did start to feel something, which, after opening my eyes again, I recognized as a close relation to foolishness. All I saw were cars and buses and people going by, just like in every other intersection in the city. If I hadn’t already known, I never would have realized where I was; there was nothing to be seen, heard, or felt to indicate the significance of the place. I was just another guy in a big city standing on a street corner touching a pole.
Indicative of the experience was the young woman sitting outside Ben & Jerry’s doing nothing at all whom I asked to take a photo of me standing in front of the ‘Haight’ and ‘Ashbury’ street signs. She seemed annoyed at being bothered and perplexed as to why some schmuck with a backpack would want to have his picture taken in front of a street sign. After taking a moment to consider the request, she did finally agree to snap the photo, one that I was later disappointed to see didn’t come out very well—much like the experience itself.
* * *
Twelve years later I am visiting London for the first time, and one of the places I have to visit while here is the crosswalk at Abbey Road Studios in Westminster, setting of the Beatles’ Abbey Road album cover. It is one of my all-time favorite albums, and the cover is the Beatles’ most interesting, far more so than the elaborately contrived Sgt. Pepper, which itself is somewhat contrived and, in my opinion, falsely considered some of the band’s most innovative work. My parents had Abbey Road on vinyl, and, despite the simple and seemingly spontaneous cover conspiracy theorists claim is more contrived than it appears) set in a nondescript neighborhood that looked similar to blocks I had seen not far from where I grew up, it was a place I always wanted to visit.
* * *
I descend into the Underground Jubilee line and head up to St. John’s Wood, but instead decide to go one more stop up to the Swiss Cottage station. It is around three in the afternoon on an overcast, misty winter’s day with a nice London chill in the air, and upon emerging from the depths of the tube and reestablishing my sense of direction, I realize that I had better pick up the pace if I want to get there before dark.
I reach Abbey Road about five or six blocks from the studio. It is an upscale neighborhood with a mixture of detached homes, townhouses, and apartment buildings, and I am a bit surprised at the heavy volume of traffic. Based on the album cover, I thought it would be a quiet sidestreet in the suburbs where one could kick a football with a mate without fear of being struck by a double-decker bus, but this does not appear to be the case.
I stop for a photo in front of one of the Abbey Road street signs, taking advantage of my long arm reach and snapping the photo myself so I don’t have to bother a locals and experience something like the Haight-Ashbury incident all those years ago. Several blocks later I arrive at the heralded building, where at one magical time the Beatles were in one of the studios recording Sgt. Pepper while Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd was across the hall working on Piper at the Gates of Dawn. It is mind-boggling to think how much rock & roll history can be traced back to this place, and I only wish I could stroll through the front door and take a tour, but the Abbey Road Studios website explicitly states that the studio is not open to the public. As if the thought hasn’t already crossed my own mind, I wonder how often people show up here claiming to be band managers considering booking some studio time but first want to check the place out only to be asked moments later to vacate the premises.
I pose for a photo outside the wall with the illuminated Abbey Road studios sign above the front entrance visible in the background. Inside I can see a white-haired gentleman sitting at the reception desk, but I somehow doubt that it is Sir George Martin. Down the street I see what I didn’t see at Haight-Ashbury—an indication that this is a major piece of cultural real estate, as evidenced by the four people posing in the crosswalk attempting to recreate the Abbey Road album cover in their own image. It looks funny from a distance to see their legs forming four triangles while the traffic waits patiently at the crosswalk for this tourist ritual to be completed, a ritual that is probably to be expected if choosing this route, and I wonder if the locals are annoyed or amused by this.
I approach and watch them try once more to get the right pose. The lone female in the group expresses some annoyance at the guy with the camera and asks him what exactly he is trying to accomplish, and he responds by saying that he is merely trying to take a good photograph.
Failing to get the shot, they clear the intersection and head back over to where I am standing on the sidewalk. One of them notices me waiting patiently with camera in hand and offers to take my picture in the walk when they finish theirs. I thank him and ask where they are from, and he says Melbourne, Australia. Meanwhile, the photographer is instructing the others as to which foot should be on which of the white markers painted on the street that would accurately mimic the poses of George, Paul, Ringo, and John.
After this is all figured out, they wait for the next gap in the traffic, which takes several minutes, before finally dashing into the crosswalk to take the shot. As they are heading back to the sidewalk, a taxi rolls by and the driver calls out the window, “You’ve got to take your shoes off!”, but, being accustomed to the warm sands Down Under, they scoff at the notion of pulling a McCartney and setting their bare feet down on cold London asphalt in the middle of January.
I, on the other hand, who on more than one occasion has traipsed barefoot through the snows of upstate New York, am “quite game,” as the female of the group remarks while I am removing my shoes and socks. Unlike the photographer from their group, however, the guy who offered to take my picture is a bit nervous about the heavy traffic volume (or simply does not with to be chastised by an impatient motorist) and is unwilling to do a head-on shot from the middle of the road. Instead he crosses over to the opposite sidewalk so that the Abbey Road Studios wall in front of the parking lot won’t even be in my photo, which is disappointing, but I tell him that this is fine because his companions are looking a little impatient.
With my bare feet firmly pressing down upon the chilly asphalt, the guy snaps a couple of photos and trots back over with my camera. I thank him and we shake hands, and a moment later they are all heading off into the London night. While I am putting my socks and shoes back on, the neighborhood becomes quiet and not a single car passes by.
On my way over to the St. John’s Wood station I am stopped by a young couple who seem to be lost. The guy asks me something that I don’t understand because of his thick accent, even after he repeats it twice. Finally he just starts saying “Beatles! Beatles!”—which is all he needed to say in the first place—so I point to the crosswalk now barely visible in the winter dusk and say, “Beatles, yes, right over there.” ▪