Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Yoko Ono in Canada

[with Pierre Trudeau, snowmobiling in Streetsville at Ronnie Hawkins' farm, and arriving at the Ontario Science Centre]

Last month the CBC asked me to write about Yoko Ono's connections to Canada, in a short text* that could also serve as an introduction to her work as an artist, activist and musician.

Much of this activity takes place in the late sixties and early seventies, at the height of Ono and Lennon's peace activities. The first Beatle solo album (excluding experimental outings and instrumental soundtracks) was Live Peace in Toronto, which could have warranted an article unto itself. Recorded live at the Varsity Stadium on Bloor Street (which was demolished in 2002, and rebuilt as a sports arena), the performance was part of the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival, a large festival which featured Bo Diddley, Junior Walker, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent, Little Richard, and several others.

As many of these were early heroes to Lennon, the promotors contacted him a few days prior to the event and asked if he'd be interested in serving as MC, or just attending. He said he and Yoko would  only come if they could perform. A hastily formed band - featuring Eric Clapton on guitar, Yes drummer Alan White, and Hamburg friend Klaus Voormann on bass - rehearsed on the plane ride from London to Toronto. On the trip back, Lennon - invorogited by the experience - announced he was ready to leave the Beatles.

The festival was filmed by D. A. Pennebaker, who released the much-heralded Bob Dylan documentary Don't Look Back, two years prior. The concert is also reported to be the first instance where audience members held up lighters at live performances to show their appreciation, and was the origin of the Alice Cooper "chicken head" myth. Rolling Stone once called it the second most important musical event, ever.

The resulting album featured a cover painting by Fluxus artist Geoffrey Hendricks and contained a 13-month calendar with excerpts from Lennon's In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works, and Ono's Grapefruit. The first side of the record features three fifties classics, Yer Blues by The Beatles, and two recent singles - Cold Turkey and Give Peace a Chance. Side two consists of two lengthy Ono tracks, and is most likely where listeners first heard her now-infamous vocal stylings. She sang  John, John (Let's Hope For Peace), and the brilliant Don't Worry Kyoko (Mummy's Only Looking For Her Hand In The Snow). 

"Yoko did a number, which was half rock and half madness," Lennon remarked later that year, "and it really freaked them out. We finished with Yoko's number, because you can't go anywhere after you've reached that sort of pitch. You can't go 'Ji-jing' like The Beatles and bow at the end of screaming and 50 watts of feedback. So, after Yoko had been on for about a quarter of an hour, we all left our amps on going like the clappers and had a smoke on the stage. Then, when they stopped, the whole crowd was chanting Give Peace A Chance. It looks like this is going to be the Plastic Ono Band in the future."

Give Peace a Chance was recorded in a single take in room 1742 of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, during the couple's Bed In event. It featured Lennon and Tommy Smothers of the Smothers Brothers playing acoustic guitars, with back-up vocals by Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, Petula Clark and members of the Canadian branch of Radha Krishna Temple.

Ono provided the song's rhythm track, by banging on the door of the hotel room's wardrobe. Her song Remember Love, was recorded later in the day, after the guests had left, as the B-side to the single.

The Montreal Bed-In (with a brief stopover in Toronto) was a result of wanting to reach the US media, but Lennon being denied a visa because of a prior drug conviction. The couple had subsequently intended to hold the event in the Bahamas, but after one night they realized that spending all day in bed for a week in the scorching heat would not be possible.

Their local peace campaigns also included a press conference at the Science Centre (announcing two ventures that never came to be), a meeting with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and billboards (and skywriting) for the War is Over (If You Want It) campaign.

The owner of a record store where I once worked remembers himself and some friends being given a stack of War is Over posters to paste throughout the city, with the understanding that they would keep some for themselves, as payment for their labour. He also recalls peering at the pair through the window of the Yonge Street Le Chateau, which had been closed to allow Lennon and Ono to shop for clothes in peace.

The article was posted earlier today, and can be read here:

*this introduction/summary is now almost as long

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