It was a pleasantly warm September afternoon in London, circa 1969, when I dropped into the Apple Corps offices on Savile Row. I was holidaying in England with my wife and I had no idea that music history was about to unfold - or that I was going to be part of an event that Rolling Stone magazine is reported to have described as the second most important event in rock history.
I'd come in to The Beatles' office to confirm an interview with George Harrison that had been scheduled the following Monday to discuss the forthcoming Abbey Road album. But hearing my voice in the corridor outside his Bag One offices, John Lennon called me in for "some advice." Can you imagine? The honor of being asked by a sage such as John for any kind of advice. About anything at all.
I quickly picked up the drift. Turned out that a Toronto promoter named John Brower was on the phone, trying to convince John and Yoko that they should attend an historic musical event featuring a host of '50s rock `n' roll legends in Canada the following weekend . Maybe, suggested the ever-keen and eager Brower, they might even consider a performance piece at the show? Perhaps sing a couple of numbers. Maybe some rock `n' roll oldies, to fit with the mood of the show, aptly named the Toronto Rock `n' Roll Revival.
Jeeeees! Now THAT was a big and threatening suggestion! But I knew Brower and his partner, Ken Walker, and I instinctively was aware that they would aim to do the right thing by an inquisitive and frustrated John. I pushed the `yes' button. ``Do it John!'', I urged. Even though you haven't played a public performance in over three years, this is the re-entry point, the chance to get back on the live flight deck, even (dread the thought!) step out beyond the old boys, your mates in the Beatles. Find out what life is like without Paul, George and Ringo.
Move forward brother! The timing could not have been better for John who had recently realized that in order to produce songs like Cold Turkey, he had to recruit musicians who were in tune with his trip. He did seize the opportunity. And it changed musical history.
Two days later, the Lennons had gathered at Heathrow Airport with guitarist Eric Clapton, Klaus Voormann (bass player with Manfred Mann), Alan White (drummer with Alan Price), Beatles' manager Allen Klein and roadie Mal Evans for the flight to Toronto and a show later that evening. Voorman and White were fairly easy to track down but Eric Clapton was slightly less accessible. The guitar god failed to answer his home telephone and it wasn't until a telegram (remember them!) was received by the estate gardener, that Clapton was alerted to the looming Canadian gig. He quickly packed and rushed out to the airport. Only three first class tickets were available so the newly-formed Plastic Ono Band gathered in the rear of the 707 jet, vamping their acoustic way through a cluster of classic rock `n' roll favorites. Songs that the principal players worshipped.
Perhaps this inspired the bout of intense honesty which unfolded on the wings of the flight. Later it came out that John had informed both Eric Clapton and Klaus Voorman that he was fed up with being in the Beatles and was thinking about starting a new group. He went as far as to enquire about their interest in joining him in this new enterprise. He also told Allen Klein of his plans but the ever-cunning manager - trying to re-negotiate existing Beatles' contracts and deal with a huge offer to get the band touring again - persuaded him against going public with these insights right away.
Considering the enormous cultural implications of the gig - and John's stepping away from the Beatles, hitherto the only band in his life - the payment received by John and Yoko boggles the mind. According to the promoter, John Brower, a long-time associate, the Lennons were in fact paid union scale. There are documents in the possession of the AFM Toronto office stating that John and Yoko received union scale - a grand total of $265.
Plus, as Brower quickly reminds us, ``the cost of airline tickets for the party, which ended up being around ten thousand bucks!" Film rights, as detailed in due course, were a different story. Still you hardly deny it was a bargain by any definition.
At Varsity Stadium, the jet-lagged John was extremely nervous. Stage nerves and the odd illegal substance had him throwing up before the show. With abundant reason. ``Imagine if you were in the Beatles from the beginning and you were never in any other band?," he postulated. ``Then all of a sudden you're going on stage with this group who've never played live together, anywhere. We formed on the plane coming over here and now we're gonna play in front of 20,000 people."
A quick backstage rehearsal and guest emcee Kim Fowley urged the audience to fire up their lighters and matches - and in the process light their communal fire, the early uprising of a collective consciousness - to welcome on stage the Plastic Ono Band, in their debut performance. Kim, of all people - the step-grandson of Rudolf Friml who penned the immortal Hollywood classics Rose Marie and Indian Love Call - recognized history when it was happening. I'd known Kim since 1966 and I could vouch for his sense of rock history, and his perceptive sniffing out of what mattered.
``It was just getting dark and the lights were just going down. This was the first time I'd ever seen an audience light candles or lights all together…it was incredible!'', John would comment.
What a night it was! All faithfully and creatively recorded on camera by award-winning film maker``D E" Pennebaker, to follow his Monterey Pop and Don't Look Back triumphs.
An eager John bounced out on stage, bedecked in a black shirt underneath a white tropical suit, and was bedeviling with his new band.
The Toronto audience was equally uplifted. After whipping through three rock `n' roll chestnuts, Blue Suede Shoes (Elvis and Carl Perkins), Money (Barrett Strong) and Dizzy Miss Lizzy (Larry Williams), John plunged into Yer Blues from the White album. And then to take proceedings to another level, the debut of a new single which would be released five weeks hence, the hard-edged classic Cold Turkey.
And this was followed by a centerpiece selection which John graphically set up as: ``This is what we really came here for - Ev'rybody's talkin' `bout Bagism…'' And plunging into the tune which he and Yoko - and assorted luminaries - had recorded in a Montreal hotel room some four months earlier - the appeal for non-violence: Give Peace a Chance.
Rolling Stone's reviewer Stephen Holden would later note: ``Lennon delivered blistering versions of Blue Suede Shoes, Money and Dizzy Miss Lizzie as well as powerful versions of of two singles - Cold Turkey, a bleak, scary evocation of heroin addiction, and Give Peace a Chance, his first and most stirring piece of street music.'' And Yoko added to the street-theatre vibe by performing two tunes in a bag! Back in London after the momentous 36 hours on Canadian soil, John was extraordinarily grateful to yours truly for having played a role in getting him off his bum and across the Atlantic (and out of the Beatles).
``I can't remember when I had such a good time. We did all the old things from the Cavern days in Liverpool. Gene Vincent was standing on the stage crying when we did our number. Backstage he came up to me and whispered: `John, remember Hamburg? Remember all that scene?' ``The ridiculous thing was that I didn't know any of the lyrics. When we did Money and Dizzy, I just made up the words as I went along. Yoko, who you could say was playing `bag', was holding a piece of paper with the words to the songs, in front of me. But then she suddenly disappeared into her bag in the middle of the performance and I had to make (the words) up because it's so long since I sang them that I've forgotten most of them. But it didn't seem to matter.
``Yoko's first number had a bit of rhythm but the second one was completely freaky. It was the sort of thing she did at Cambridge '69 but it was more like Toronto l984… Yoko just stopped when she'd had enough, walked off and we left all the amps on, going like clappers. It went on for another five minutes, just flat. Then Mal Evens, our roadie, just went out and turned them off!'' History has shown that it was this concert that finally convinced John there was indeed another life beyond the Beatles.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Author Ritchie Yorke has been writing about rock and roll since 1962.
ROCK `N' ROLL REVIVAL BREAKOUT - Radio station CIUT 89.5 FM, the University of Toronto's community radio station, is hosting a four hour broadcast on Sunday Sept. 13 (2-6p.m.). Hart House Theatre is hosting a screening on Sunday night at 9 p.m. of the Canadian premiere of Sweet Toronto, the two-hour documentary that features selective performances by John and Yoko with the Plastic Ono Band, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and the late Bo Diddley. Free tickets are available from Wed. Sept. 2 through UofTtix Box Office ( www.uofttix.ca ) Phone 416 978-8849.