Saturday, July 5, 2008


Part One : The One-To-One Benefit Concert, NYC
August 30, 1972 (Evening performance)

One of the advantages of being a Beatles fan growing up less than an hour away from New York City was the exposure to unique Beatles-related events that the rest of the country - indeed the planet - would not have been able to easily experience. The Big Apple was the host of many legendary Fab appearances - The JFK airport arrival, The Ed Sullivan Show, Carnegie Hall, Shea Stadium, and other iconic events. When George Harrison organized The Concert For Bangla Desh in 1971, he chose Madison Square Garden for the most impact. I did not experience any of them in person. In 1972, that was about to change.

After much transatlantic traveling in 1971, John Lennon, along with wife Yoko Ono, left England for NYC on August 31, once John's "Imagine" and Yoko's "Fly" albums were finished. To Yoko, this had been home for many years, the city where she put on many of her controversial conceptual art exhibits. In England, the couple were treated with scorn, and Yoko was the object of racist threats. John and Yoko stayed at New York's St. Regis Hotel for about ten weeks before settling in at 105 Bank Street, Greenwich Village. With neighbors like Bob Dylan, John Cage, and Jerry Rubin, both John and Yoko seemed liberated by their acceptance in the fast paced artistic lifestyle that Greenwich Village had to offer, where they were not seen as freaks, but as artists.

You never knew where John would show up. During an all day "Beatles '72" celebration on New York's WPLJ-FM station, where Beatles songs and tracks from the brand new "Concert For Bangla Desh" were interspersed with interview snippets, one of the DJ's showed up at the Lennon's home with a tape recorder, and interviewed John and Yoko with Beatles music playing on the radio in the background. There was a 1972 PBS broadcast of Yoko's "This Is Not Here" opening exhibit (featuring John) filmed the previous October in Syracuse-- where Ringo unexpectedly showed up with opened arms. John and Yoko were making surprise concert and television appearances, many times in New York. To have a Beatle so accessible seemed surreal at the time, as the Fabs seemed untouchable, basically holed up in EMI studios since 1966, rarely able to interact with their fans, prisoners of their own fame.

Before 1971, the only news programs I was aware of were very dry, serious, evening broadcasts such as The CBS Evening News hosted by Walter Cronkite, and NBC's Huntley-Brinkley Report. Since I was quite young, I preferred watching syndicated reruns of 1950s and 1960s sitcoms like "I Love Lucy" and "Get Smart" , which my whole family would usually watch, even during dinner. Then somehow we started viewing something called The Channel 7 Eyewitness News, hosted by Roger Grimsby and Bill Beutel. This was a new format which became very successful for WABC-TV in New York. While the broadcasts still showed daily robberies, accidents, murders in and around NYC, explicit footage of the Viet Nam War, and other "serious" news items, these were balanced with much lighter fare, such as movie reviews, silly news stories (often delivered by a dead-pan Grimsby before going into the commercial break), and a Friday night cooking lesson at a local restaurant reported by Joel Siegel, where the recipe could be obtained by any viewer by sending in a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the station. I had a cat that loved this feature- he tried to figure out how to enter the television to get at the fish dishes.

One of the reporters at the station was named Rose Ann Scamardella, who was said to be an inspiration for Gilda Radner's SNL character Roseanne Rosanadana. Another one of the reporters at the time was a young go-getter named Geraldo Rivera. He was making a name for himself by exposing the inhuman conditions at a facility to house and care for the "Mentally Retarded" (as they were called at the time) known as Willowbrook, located in Staten Island, New York. There had already been other reports about various abuses, and Rivera followed up with both planned and unannounced visits, complete with a microphone and a cameraman. There had previously been a similar scandal captured in the controversial documentary "The Titicut Follies", about the treatment of patients at a correctional institution in Bridgewater, Massachusetts.

Another big story Rivera was covering was an updated ballad of John and Yoko. Rivera would visit the Lennons at their home, covering their fight against deportation. It was a monumental battle as Lennon was being forced out for 'overstaying his welcome" and for what we now know was a framed drug conviction, in England in 1968, for possession of marijuana (technically a narcotic) . Lennon, however, felt he was being forced out of the country unfairly because he was a "peacenik", and a possible threat to the re-election of Richard Nixon. Other musicians with similar arrest histories, like the Rolling Stones, had an easier (but by no means easy) time visiting the country. Although Lennon appeared to be paranoid - adding to his already bizarre public persona-- secret FBI files, obtained by Jon Wiener after Lennon's death, have proven John to be right. Adding to the problem was Yoko's daughter, Kyoko, who was kidnapped by her ex-husband Tony Cox, and was hiding out somewhere in the US. If John was deported, Yoko would have to choose between leaving the country with John, or staying alone and continue to look for her daughter.

Being a complete Beatle freak, I watched The Eyewitness News religiously. I become more aware of current events, of course, but I knew that at any moment, Geraldo Rivera might have a report about New York's own Beatle. Not only that, I noticed after a while that if I stayed up to watch the 11 pm half-hour version of the news, they would often use a different soundbite of Lennon outside of a courthouse as he fought for the right to stay in the country. I have no idea how many times the Lennons appeared on Eyewitness News, but a handful of clips have appeared in documentaries and in the hands of collectors. However, one of my favorite quotes seems to have been lost (although you never know when and where rare footage will show up ): it was shown on the late news broadcast, and from what I remember, a reporter asked if he thought he'd be allowed to stay in the country. Lennon laughed and had a different response than during the 6 pm broadcast - and said something like "I don't see why not ? They let Nazis stay here! "

So every weeknight I'd be glued to the set, hoping for some more news about John Lennon. He was an inspiration to me growing up. I admired the way he stood up for what he believed in , proved all his critics and teachers wrong - and, in this case, he even took on the U.S. government. This struck a chord with every young person in America who was sick of what was going on in the country, where you felt helpless--that the country (and the world) were run by dangerous fools that were making deadly decisions that were paid for by everyone, but mostly by the young in the fields of the Viet Cong. It had been a long, difficult decade, full of assassinations, corruption, cover-ups, racism, sexism (feminism still in its infancy), and a war tearing the country apart. In the middle of it all were the Beatles - a welcome reprieve from the death of JFK. Their youth and optimism was the antidote for the repressed, stagnant, drab, conservative, conformist, violent world we were growing up in. The Beatles continued to change with the times, yet still filled us with hope, and Lennon continued to fight for what he believed in after the band split up. Despite all of his contradictions, he was still spouting "Peace" just as the Fabs sang about "Love" the previous decade. Plus, he rocked better than Elvis.

Like Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and the other Beatles, Lennon seemed almost like a mythical character - someone who only existed in recordings, movies, magazines, and television appearances. Beatles didn't really "tour" anymore, especially in the United States - only Paul McCartney's new band, Wings, toured, playing colleges in Europe unannounced. In New York, it must have been almost impossible to get tickets for The Concert For Bangla Desh. And that was just two special concerts in one day. You just waited impatiently for the albums and the movie. You didn't actually see a Beatle in the flesh.

So while watching Eyewitness News in the late spring or early summer of 1972 - a year after Bangla Desh, six years after the Beatles stopped touring, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. While John sat cross-legged on a bed, playing an electric guitar into a tiny amp, singing some rock and roll oldies, with Yoko at his side, Geraldo Rivera announced a benefit concert for the patients at Willowbrook - known as "One-To-One" after the idea of each patient having one caretaker. The line-up would be 50s revivalists Sha-Na-Na, Talma-Motown's Stevie Wonder (fresh off the Stones tour), Roberta Flack (later billed as a surprise guest for some unknown reason), and headliners John and Yoko with Elephant's Memory, a New York combo the Lennon's recently recorded half of their new album, "Sometime In New York", with. A second, matinee show was soon added.

I turned around to my parents (particularly my father) and said (probably in unison with my sister) "CAN WE GO !?!?" Thinking it was futile to even think we'd be fortunate enough to see an actual living Beatle in a rare concert appearance, my father didn't really rule out the possibility. My dad kept a poker face. I hoped for the best, but did not hold my breath.

I didn't hear much about it for a while. It seemed unreal anyway. Me, seeing John Lennon, giving a concert. No way. But soon after, my father announced we were going ! He had three tickets, one for my sister, one for my father, and one for me. I believe they were $10 each. I asked - How did he get tickets? They were available through Ticketron, the defunct predecessor to Ticketmaster. At the time, there were not many Ticketron outlets on Long Island.

So what did my father do ? He called a friend of the family (an older friend who was a neighbor while we lived in Queens, NY) who must have lived near a Ticketron She went to the outlet and bought three tickets, with seats located behind the stage. Turns out we had great sight lines. There were also mirrors above the stage go you could see everything better. The tickets were sent to us in the mail ( I assume). At the end of the summer, right before school started, I was going to see the coolest person on earth. Give a concert. In New York City. At Madison Square Garden. With an all-star line-up !

I went into my room and picked through my Lennon solo vinyl - I wanted to hear the first loud song I could come across. I picked "Well Well Well" from Plastic Ono Band (which he ended up performing) . I was bouncing around my room. I figured it would be a real, rehearsed concert, with lots of solo material, and some songs by Yoko. I didn't need any Beatle songs. I didn't even care if it was one of those experimental avant-garde, feedback-drenched, freak-out events (which seemed unlikely). I was seeing John Lennon. My dad brought his camera and took 20 Kodak slides, half from the Lennon set. He also bought me a yellow t-shirt with a drawing of John and Yoko, with the words "Willowbrook One-To-One" on it.

These performances turned out to be the only rehearsed solo Lennon shows ever did . I've been to many concerts since then, including George Harrison in 1974 and Wings in 1976, but there are none I treasure as much as this one.


stranded said...

I recently saw this concert on tv. It would of been great being there. I was taken back by the 2 songs Robert Flak sang. I have been trying to find out the names of the 2 songs to no avail. Would you happen to know them?

Brian said...

I, too, went to the John lennon One On One concert at Madison Garden in 1972. John was fantastic! Yoko not so much and that is why John never toured with this line-up as originally planned. He did not appreciate the negative reviews of Yoko's performance. That was thge first and last time I saw the miror thing out front above the stage at a concert. Worked well, I thought.