What a modest, incongruous sight. A plain upright piano—a Steinway—standing in the grass, a few dozen yards from a courthouse.
Inside the courthouse, people were curious. “It’s a piano that John Lennon used to own,” I said. “He used it when he composed ‘Imagine.’”
Some asked, “What’s it doing here?”
“Well, there’s this project, to take the piano to places where terrible violence has occurred. And the people who organized it want to have someone play ‘Imagine’ in all those places. They want to respond to the violence with peace—and maybe soothe some pain.”
The ensuing silence told me I hadn’t really answered the question, so I added, “It’s here because of the three little boys.”
Everyone remembered. 1993. Stevie Branch. Michael Moore. Christopher Byers.
Of course, there was more to the story. Some of us who’d come to Marion this morning to see John Lennon’s piano on the lawn of the Crittenden County Courthouse also believe that the violence that began with those murders 14 years ago continues to this day.
We see violence in the rush to judge three teenagers who were found guilty of those murders, even without evidence.
We see violence in the sentence of death that was handed to one of the accused, and to the slow death sentence of life in prison that was dealt the other two.
We remember the images of people lined up at this courthouse, snarling and shouting at the three when they were brought here for arraignment. Fear replaced by hatred.
But on this May morning, all that seemed far away. In the shade of magnolia trees, everything seemed placid.
The violence must have felt similarly distant when the piano was taken to the Ford Theater where President Lincoln was shot, almost a century and a half ago. There was also probably a disconnnect when it was set down at the sites where President Kennedy and Martin Luther King killed.
Life goes on, but it is an illusion to think that the air at such places has not been disturbed. A sense of suffering lingers. There is a need for healing, for something gentle to offset the pain.
And so, John Lennon’s piano.
The British musician George Michael bought the piano in 1970 for $2.1 million. For the past year or so, he and his partner, Kenny Goss, have had the instrument on the road, visiting places with names that resonate in the American consciousness: Waco, Columbine, Oklahoma City—and now, Crittenden County, site of the West Memphis murders.
After leaving Arkansas, the crew hauling the piano was headed to Virginia Tech, scene of another bloody horror. Eventually, it will arrive at the site of World Trade Center.
“By taking the piano to all these sites,” Michael said, “we are reminded that violence has long been a part of our history.”
In Marion, photographers traveling with the piano prepared their cameras. At some point, organizers say, the journey will result in a book—and maybe a DVD.
A musician from Memphis pulled up a stool and positioned herself in front of the piano. She spread out the sheet music to “Imagine.”
Three clerks who worked in the courthouse, came out to join the small gathering around the piano. Everyone else who worked in the courthouse stayed inside.
Newspapers and tv stations in the region had been notified of the event, but no reporters came. In all, fewer than a dozen people, including the clerks, attended the event.
The pianist began to play, and sing. “Imagine there’s no heaven. It’s easy if you try…”
I stood under a tree, joining Lennon in his dream. Then came the words, “Nothing to kill or die for…”
For a moment, everything seemed light—and too heavy to bear.