When John Lennon was shot to death outside his Manhattan apartment building on Dec. 8, 1980, hundreds of thousands of people gathered to grieve outside his home. The following year, they returned. They were there again the next year and the next. In fact, every December since, fans have congregated outside the Dakota on West 72nd Street and across the street in Central Park, at the memorial to the former Beatle that is known as Strawberry Fields. Their breath turns white in the winter air as they light candles, swap stories and sing songs. Some winters draw only a small crowd, but this year, the 30th anniversary of Lennon's death, thousands of people went to pay their respects throughout the day. To some, the continued enormity of Lennon's death seems to outweigh his contributions in life. He was just a rock-'n'-roll star, after all. He wrote some good songs and gave us some good laughs, but that was it. Lennon didn't guide the nation like John F. Kennedy or change the world in the manner of Martin Luther King Jr. And yet, 30 years after his death, his fans return.
"He represented everything good in this world," says Elaine Bell, who drove for an hour and a half from New Jersey with her husband to attend the Strawberry Fields vigil. Bell holds a white candle, which she shields from the wind as she alternates between crying and smiling at the scene surrounding her. "It's very mixed emotions here," her husband Ron explains. "We're here for a somber reason, but we're celebrating someone we love. I can be laughing the one minute and then welling up with tears the next."
In the center of Strawberry Fields, musicians lead the crowd in a continuous Lennon sing-along, alternating between the melancholy ("Working Class Hero") and the uplifting ("I Feel Fine"). Teenagers hop over fences and fathers hoist children onto their shoulders for a better look at the crowd. "That was his Christmas song," a young man says to his girlfriend apparently a Lennon novice after a rendition of "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)." "There, now you're all caught up."
If you ask a Lennon fan in Strawberry Fields what drew him or her to the late singer, you'll likely hear the same three words a lot. "He promoted hope and peace," says one fan. "He was all about love," remarks another. In life, though, Lennon was more complicated than that: the edgy Beatle who rebelled against the group's mop-topped persona, he complemented Paul McCartney's "Good Day Sunshine" with songs about pain, loss and failure. He was an imperfect man. "I was a hitter," he told Playboy magazine in 1980. "I fought men and I hit women ... I am a violent man who has learned not to be violent and regrets his violence."
When he died in 1980, Lennon had just re-emerged after a five-year musical hiatus with Double Fantasy, an album about fatherhood that's filled with a sense of contentment. Initial reviews seemed unsure of what to make of the newly subdued rock star (though this would change after Lennon's death, when the album received near universal praise). In interviews Lennon alternated between optimism for the future and resentment that his output with the Beatles overshadowed his later work. "These critics with the illusions they've created about artists it's like idol worship," Lennon said in a recently released Rolling Stone interview, conducted just three days before his death. "I'm not interested in being a dead f___ing hero."
"I think we were not that popular at the time," Yoko Ono says, speaking to TIME by phone from Japan, where she gave a concert on the anniversary of her husband's death. "We had an incredible passion for wanting to change the world, but most people didn't want to think about those things in that day." Ono can't say what exactly has changed, but 30 years after Lennon's death she feels that people have grown more accepting of his utopian ideals and her role in his life.
At around 10 p.m., the band in Strawberry Fields begins to play "Give Peace a Chance." Fans singing along quickly discover that the famous protest song has many more lyrics to it than anyone ever remembered. "Everybody's talking about bagism, magism what's he saying?" asks PR Newswire manager Thomas Hynes, 30, from Brooklyn. "Oh, nobody remembers this part let's just get to the chorus." Above the crowd, on the seventh floor of the Dakota, two burning candles sit on the windowsills of Lennon and Ono's White Room. "I put the candles in the windows to give some light so people know that I'm there," in spirit, Ono explains. She still keeps the apartment she and John bought in 1973, but she hasn't spent the anniversary of his death there for several years, choosing instead to give memorial concerts on that day. But she says that when she is home, she always notices the crowds outside. "Sometimes [I think], 'Oh, well, John is not here,' but then I remember that John was here, and how great it was. He was giving out a lot of positive energy. You can look around and see that energy and remember him. Then it's not so bad."
Perhaps that's why fans still stand in the cold every December to honor a man now dead almost as long as he lived. We may not remember the verses to "Give Peace a Chance," but we will always remember the chorus.