Wednesday, August 27, 2008

You Shoulda Been There: 30 August 1972 Part One

August 30 marks the 36th anniversary of the only full-length, rehearsed post Beatle concert given by John Lennon. It was a benefit concert, at Madison Square Garden in New York City, for the mentally challenged at Willowbrook. As I blogged before, I was privileged to attend the evening performance .I was 13 at the time. Getting tickets for the show was like a dream.

My father took my younger sister and me. By this time I had only been to two concerts that could possibly be categorized as "Rock". They were at the Westbury Music Fair on Long Island. Both must have been around 1970. The first was soul singer O.C. Smith of "Little Green Apples" fame. In fact, that was the only song I knew by him. My father somehow was offered a pair of tickets, and asked me if I wanted to go. Of course I jumped at a chance to go to a concert. I remember getting dressed up in a white turtleneck and a blazer.

Before we left for the show I was in the living room with my father, who had uncharacteristically bought The Who's 1969 rock opera, "Tommy". My father loved classical music and had amassed an entire wall full of classical vinyl in the period of a few short years. While there were a few nods to more popular music - two Tom Jones albums (for my mother), the original cast recording of "Hair", and Simon & Garfunkel's "Bookends"- everything else was classical music. Before we left for the show, I sat on our big red sofa, and listened to the first two sides of "Tommy". Even though I was constantly listening to either WABC or WGLI- the two local AM rock stations- the Who's "Pinball Wizard" for some reason did not register. It's also very likely that I saw the Who on "This Is Tom Jones", but that, too, has no lasting impact. I figured that The Who must be a big deal if my dad had bought a double album by them. While listening, my father explained what a "libretto" was, that an opera told a story with different people singing different parts, and that the "Overture" presented themes that would return throughout the opera, and he liked the pun of something called the "Underture". (Both "Bookends" and "Tommy" somehow mysteriously ended up in my personal collection). I don't remember much about the O.C. Smith concert other than I enjoyed it. It was a mainstream concert, very professional and entertaining, and it whetted my appetite for future concerts.

The next concert was teen idol Bobby Sherman. My sister, of course, was the fan in this case, although I did buy his first hit single, "Little Woman", backed with a cover of Bob Dylan's "One Too Many Mornings". It was on the Metromedia label, which had a really cool powder blue label and sleeve. For some reason, my grandparents (!) brought us. Not too surprisingly, they thought it was too loud . I remember that the opening acts were called Instant Joy and Fat. One of them (Instant Joy ?)I believe were also Sherman's backing band. They announced that they just changed their name to "Bare Feet" after their shoeless drummer. I remember people throwing presents on stage, including a hand made rug that said "Hey Mr. Sun", a song he did not perform. I vaguely recall Bobby performing two Beatles songs. The only one I remember was "I Saw Her Standing There". Sherman would shake his hips like Tom Jones during an added instrumental bit -- Well my heart went boom (drums : booma chucka booma chucka booma chucka) when I crossed that room (booma chucka booma chucka booma chucka), which I thought was pretty cool at the time. I guess I still do !

This was of course bush league compared to my first real rock concert experience, even if I was going with my father and sister. I must have been pretty wide-eyed as my dad lead us through the maze that was Madison Square Garden. My father did get me a small, yellow John & Yoko t-shirt on our way towards our seats. We had a great view - they were behind the stage, about 4:30 from the rear. There were mirrors above the performing area - a short-lived practice I believe used for spotlights to illuminate the musicians. It also helped us see what was happening at the front. I had heard that the shows were sold out (as you would expect), but there seemed to be plenty of empty seats behind the stage. I heard John & Yoko bought a bunch of tickets to be given away - maybe they never got distributed ?

Some random memories: There was some stoner dude behind us who told his date, "I heard that Clapton is gonna be here" (which I didn't really believe). My sister pointed at someone near us and said, "Daddy, look at the funny pipe". My father also informed us that the unusual smell in the air was marijuana.

I was beside myself with anticipation. Geraldo Rivera, the local Eyewitness News reporter who organized the concert, was the MC. (Here's some Fab stuff from Geraldo's vault: ) The first act he introduced was Sha Na Na, a humorous 1950s nostalgia act. I was familiar with them from the "Woodstock" album and movie. They were the penultimate act before Jimi Hendrix. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this group, it featured a backing band in "greaser" attire, with three lead singers (including "Bowser") in gold lame, performing old time rock and roll complete with choreographed moves. I remember they played five songs. The most memorable was "Tell Laura I Love Her", with the singers on their knees, with arms outstretched . I think they also performed "Yakety Yak" and closed with "Rock and Roll is Here To Stay". It was a great way to start the show. One can't help but think that John hand-picked the support acts, as they all seemed to reflect Lennon's musical tastes.

Next up was Stevie Wonder, who also shared the bill with the Lennons at the "Free John Sinclair" rally, in Ann Arbor, the previous December. Fresh off the Rolling Stones US tour, Stevie basically performed a brilliant greatest hits set, and I believe he ended his set with a preview of his next single "Superstition". He was a dynamic performer, and when he would walk around the stage to perform on different instruments, including the drums, my father and I seriously wondered (no pun intended) if he was actually blind !

Between sets, all the equipment had to be removed and replaced with the instruments and amplifiers for the next act. Things were much more primitive in those days - this process is much more efficient now. I didn't mind the wait. I was soaking up every aspect of the event.

Roberta Flack was next. I knew her from her cover of the folk song "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face". Unfortunately, it was getting late, it was a long day, and Flack's unfamiliar ballads were not helping me stay awake. She may have covered Dylan's "Just Like A Woman", which I later saw was released as a single. (I was only somewhat familiar with the song from the "Bangla Desh" album).

Finally, it was time for the MAIN EVENT!

A few minutes before midnight, the house lights went down, the (mostly yellow) spotlights illuminated the stage, and the first two lines of "Power To The People" repeatedly reverberated throughout the Garden. (I thought it was "The David Peel Singers", but it may have just been a tape loop of the single) Geraldo introduced Plastic Ono Elephants Memory, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono (as you can hear on Lennon's "Anthology" box set). Then John and Yoko entered from the side of the stage.

They looked so f*cking cool. Yoko was all in white, and John had his army jacket on, as I'd seen him wear on a television talk show. While I didn't dare try to predict what songs he would play, he did open with what I thought would be an appropriate number, the Chuck Berry-ish rocker "New York City", from the recently released album "Sometime In New York City". While everyone else sat down, I continued to stand up. It was almost too much to handle. The stoner dude behind me told me to sit down. I don't think it was because he couldn't see, but because it wasn't that big a deal, that it was just another concert. But THIS WAS JOHN LENNON!! Sit down ?? The LEAST you could do was stand up ! I'm not talking about screaming teenyboppers. I couldn't understand how you could be so non-plussed. However, I did sit down not too much later, sitting on the edge of my seat until it was time to stand up again at the very end.

There has been much confusion about what was played at both shows. The Lennon Anthology box set liner notes says that the included live tracks were from the "unreleased" afternoon show, but some if not all of them are from the evening performance. The live LP and video (still not out on DVD) were heavily edited, used mostly the early show, often with introductions of some songs from one performance was followed by a performance taken from the other show.

The afternoon show was scheduled , I would assume, so John, Yoko, and the band could "rehearse" before the evening performance - which would be an ABC-TV television special (a "pilot" for the future late night music series "In Concert"), with a simulcast of FM radio, and, idealistically, a live LP (which did not appear until 1986). (Go hear:

I guess Yoko sang more songs (and different ones) during the afternoon performance, but my recollection of the evening show was that the set matched the 1986 videocassette, with the addition of Yoko's "We're All Water" as her last lead vocal, near the end of the show. It's possible I'm mistaken,but I think I would have at least noticed Yoko performing an unfamiliar song or two. From what I remember, "Give Peace A Chance " started sometime after 1:10 a.m., and the concert was over by 1:30. However there are recordings that challenge my memory, so who knows for sure ? Those recordings seem to have a lot of edits, though.

There are certain impressions that have stayed with me throughout the years. First of all - John's magnetism was palpable. He was so vibrant and alive that you felt that if you touched him, you would get an electric shock. There was also this sense of you seeing a living legend. Every little movement he made was cool. Everything he said seemed brilliant, yet funny. I recall squirming in my seat, next to my father, during John's introduction for "Mother".

You were there in the moment - sharing it with John Lennon. He was right in front of you. We were breathing the same marijuana-filled air. It was not a record, or a magazine, or a TV show, or a movie. This was live, and it was unfolding right in front of you. I was riveted, as you can imagine. You didn't know what he would do next. Everything song, every introduction, was unexpected, yet familiar. Remember, this was only the second major planned concert in the US featuring an ex-Beatle. It was an event.

Speaking of electric, the sound of the guitars were much heavier than on the eventual "Live In New Your City" album and video. (This was also a problem with Dylan and the Band's 1974 live album "Before The Flood"). The aural record does not capture the event the way it happened.

Yoko was wonderful as well, as I had expected. Some people stayed away for this concert, fearing an avant garde feedback screech-fest. However, Yoko sang in the traditional, rock and roll manner for the most part, and kept the avant garde stuff to a minimum. I particularly liked the harmonies on "Born In A Prison". While I appreciate Ono as an artist, this was not the most appropriate venue for Yoko "to do her thing all over you".

John only performed one Fab song, which was one more than I expected - it wasn't even necessary. The show was great - he had already established himself as a successful artist both critically and commercially. "Imagine", "Instant Karma", "Cold Turkey", and "Give Peace A Chance" were more than enough to please the crowd. But John went back into the past "just once", and it happened to be the highlight of the evening show. During the first show, Lennon kept tripping up over the words for "Come Together". This was not a problem for the performance I witnessed. The version I was fortunate enough to experience was incredibly heavy, with a very confident Lennon spitting out the lyrics, with John relishing his final, rewritten lines: Come together, right now . . . STOP THE WAR ! (If you listen closely to the version on "Anthology", you can hear me cheering . . )

Yet all of the performances were great, if you ask me. All powerful, all energetic, all inspiring. You could feel it in the air. You could feel it in your bones. I thought I was witnessing history in the making. Maybe not as big as The Concert For Bangla Desh, but historically significant.

However, it seems to have become a footnote in Lennon's career. Perhaps it was too local, not global enough. Maybe there was no album or movie to promote it. It could also be that the Lennons had become too political and controversial. The album "Sometime In New York City" alienated many fans at the time. Plus John & Yoko's problems with deportation were just beginning.

It's a shame these concerts are not better represented in the marketplace. While there's no media that will make you feel like you were at the concert, there is certainly better material in the vault than a CD and a VHS tape that do not use the best mixes , the best edits, or the best (evening) performances. It's possible that there are legal hang-ups, but by now, in this day and age, it seems possible to work out SOMETHING to bring this concert back to the fans, bring John's spirit back into our consciousness, and bring some great music into our lives.

Footnote: As I write this, Stevie Wonder is performing at the DNC.

1 comment:

NutleyDon said...

I was there! 15 years old I went with a friend of my older brother and his cousin. we took the 32 to bus from Nutley NJ to Port Authority. Spent the day getting High in Central Park then to the concert. I had volunteered at Willowbrook earlier that year with the High School. The concert was one of the coolest things I 've ever done. A memory etched in my mind.