Lennon on playing live

Michael Gerber
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Lennon onstage 1972

“Was that a jelly baby?”

NANCY CARR • Why did Lennon play live so rarely after the Beatles’ demise? Michael and Craig have made some interesting remarks about this question on the comments for the “Keep ‘Em Out / Let ‘Em In” post, which inspired me to remind myself of what Lennon himself said about the matter. This is a quote from a June 1975 interview:

“In ’72 it [government harassment] was really getting to me. Not only was I physically having to appear in court cases, it just seemed like a toothache that wouldn’t go away . . . There was a period when I was hangin’ out with a group called Elephant’s Memory. And I was ready to go on the road for pure fun. I didn’t want to go on the road for money. That was the time when I was standing up in the Apollo with a guitar at the Attica relatives’ benefit or ending up on stage at the John Sinclair rally. I felt like going on the road and playing music. And whatever excuse—charity or whatever—would have done me. But they kept pullin’ me back in court! I had the group hangin’ round, but finally I had to say, ‘Hey, you better get on with your lives.’ Now, the last thing on earth I want to do is perform. That’s a direct result of the immigration thing. In ’71, 1972, I wanted to go out and rock my balls off onstage and I just stopped.”

Impossible not to wonder what would have happened if the immigration issues could have been resolved and he’d gone on the road in the early 70s. But why did he feel he needed an “excuse” to perform? Maybe playing for money, or playing what an audience wanted to hear, seemed too close to the Beatles days.

“It’s fun with other people”

Here’s another quote, from December 6, 1980, in which John talks doing the “Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus” show in 1968. It too suggests that he could delight in live performance after the Beatles days:

” . . . actually the first time I performed without the Beatles for years was the Rock and Roll Circus, and it was great to be on stage with Eric [Clapton] and Keith Richard and a different noise coming out behind me, even though I was still singing and playing the same style. It was just a great experience. I thought, wow, it’s fun with other people.”

In the same December 6, 1980 Lennon describes the 1971 Fillmore East show he and Yoko did with the Mothers of Invention as “really heavy” and wonders how much the punk and New Wave movements in music stem from kids having seen that or a similar performance. (A lot of this show ended up on the “live jam” disc included as part of “Some Time In New York City.”)

Double Fantasy on tour, 1981

All this really makes me wonder how the projected tour in support of “Double Fantasy” would have gone. Theoretically, at least, Lennon seems drawn to live performance, and in the 1975 interview he sounds frustrated by having lost the opportunity to tour in the early 70s. But how would it have felt for him onstage, playing songs like “Watching the Wheels”—a song about disengaging from entertainment and audience response? I don’t know, but I wish more than words can say that he (and we) had had a chance to find out.

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  1. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    But why did he feel he needed an “excuse” to perform? Maybe playing for money, or playing what an audience wanted to hear, seemed too close to the Beatles days.

    I think you hit the nail on the head with that comment. Didn’t he say he felt like a “performing flea” towards the end of the Beatle touring days? Going up there for a good cause; a noble charity somehow adds dignity to the proceedings.

    Here’s a personal anecdote. I knew someone who was a major Elton John fan. She liked the Beatles, but her main idol was Elton. She attended the Elton John concert that Lennon performed at. She didn’t think it was anything big. I had to explain to her that Lennon’s performance was a one-time thing. She had somehow assumed that Lennon was on tour with Elton, and that she hadn’t witnessed anything extraordinary. (She had invited me to the show, but I passed, as I was not interested in seeing Elton John).

    I try to picture an alternate universe (one where MDC got the help he needed) with John going on tour in 1981. My guess is that he would have been like Dylan, in that he would have used different arrangements of familiar songs. Dylan always tried to keep things interesting by changing his live versions to reggae, or speeding them up or slowing them down. My guess is that Lennon would have altered his newer material as well as the old favorites. Remember his live version of “Come Together”? He did something interesting and different with his vocal (“come together, right now….”

    Here’s an odd question: according to Albert Goldman, Lennon was scheduled to have part of the roof of his mouth removed, to rebuild the cartilage in his nose? What the hell would this have done to his singing voice?

    – Hologram Sam

  2. Nice post, Nancy.

    Methinks John doth protest too much re: performing in 71-72. Bangladesh was a perfect opportunity for him to perform, and for charity even. The issue with that seems to have been George not wanting Yoko to perform, too…so John might’ve wanted to rock his balls off, but he’s only telling half the story, as was his (and everybody’s) wont.

    Interesting to note that Mark David Chapman DID interact with the mental health world–extensively. In 1977, following a suicide attempt, he was admitted to the Castle Hospital in Hawaii, where he was treated and actually worked part-time until his fateful trip to New York.

    I too have wondered what Lennon’s nose-repair surgery would’ve done to his voice. And an ’81 tour assumes that john would’ve been healthy enough to take that pounding. When he died, he was very, very thin.

  3. Avatar Nancy Carr wrote:

    Sam, what I really wonder about a tour supporting “Double Fantasy” was how that album would translate to live performance, given that it’s importantly about (in my reading) closing the door on the outside world. That’s an album that I think is intended to be insular, to be about private experience. And how weird would it be for Lennon to do “Watching the Wheels” live — however he did it — when that song is about detaching from the entertainment business? It’s a paradox inseparable from Lennon’s getting back into performing music by writing about why he got out of it.

    And of course there’s the question of how an audience would have responded to a mix of Lennon’s and Ono’s songs live. There’s debate about how well the alternation of songs serves the album; how would it have worked in concert?

    I didn’t recall the projected nose-repair surgery; wow, horrible to think of that possibly altering his voice. And Michael, good point about Lennon’s thinness in 1980. He looks positively gaunt in pictures of the time, and it’s not clear to me how well he would have stood the physical strain of touring. I wonder how much of that frailty stemmed from anxiety about needing to perform soon.

  4. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    I believe the tour would have been known as the “(Just Like) Starting Over” tour. “Starting Over” would have been the anthem for the show, celebrating Lennon’s return to his “Elvis/Gene/Buddy” roots. “Cleanup Time” would have been a rollicking live version. As far as Yoko’s songs, like “Thin Ice” this would have been the bridge to John&Yoko’s New Wave/B-52s style. Lennon had that trick electronic guitar, and he would have been having fun making noise-rock behind Yoko.

    I’m not sure how audiences would have responded. I remember being personally thrilled in 1980 that Lennon was back, and ready for a new decade. Folks of my generation had viewed the 70s as sort of bloated and overproduced Eagles AOR, and we were embracing the short, fast songs of the Clash, Elvis Costello. I remember thinking that Lennon would be a welcome addition to the party.

    I’m not sure Lennon’s tour would have been any sort of grueling marathon… perhaps more of a gentleman’s tour, with selected venues, maybe with special guest stars (Paul?). I don’t think he would have knocked himself out, but it would have been quite a show.

    -Hologram Sam

  5. Nancy, your comments about the DF material are what makes me think the ’81 tour, if it happened at all (remember, there were rumblings of divorce, too) would’ve been best done as a series of small, intimate gigs. The question is, would Lennon’s ego have allowed him to do that, while McCartney was packing arenas? Probably not–which leads to your second point: an arena crowd would reacted to Yoko somewhat like they reacted to Ravi Shankar’s sets during George’s big tour. I think some of the “Yoko is my Don Juan” stuff in the DF interviews is preparation for that.

    Sorry if I seem unduly negative about the State of Lennon in 1980. It’s just that I read a ton about it in preparation for Life After Death for Beginners, and there’s such a gulf between what J&Y were doing/saying in private, and what they were saying in interviews, that it’s clear that either they were spinning tales, or (Lennon especially) believed what he was saying, which is worse, somehow. The psychodrama is VERY deep, and it made me quite sad to perceive that a person whose great gift was a kind of shattering clarity and honesty–an ability to connect with strangers over stuff that’s real–was just creating a PR narrative.

    And if there is “construction” going on…The Lennon 1980 resurrection story is so attractive, right down to the martyrdom; it made Lennon into a religious figure, which is what he’d been practicing for since “The Word” on Rubber Soul. In my darkest moments I sometimes wonder if it wasn’t all a planned exit, after some terrible diagnosis. That also explains the thinness; if a macrobiotic diet did THAT to you, nobody’d eat it!

    Forgive the paranoid rambling, but once one realizes that J&Y are mostly unreliable sources about their own lives, literally anything’s on the table.

  6. Avatar king kevin wrote:

    Also remember that the live music game had changed enormously since the Fabs had last toured. The Stones had to relearn playing live on their ’69 tour, and so did Macca, who played Universities and halls in Europe before taking things into the spotlight. Proper PA systems came into being the year after the final Beatles tour. As a live act, Lennon was pretty far behind the competition. It would have taken a lot of work and motivation to get that kind of band/tour together.

  7. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    the ’81 tour, if it happened at all would’ve been best done as a series of small, intimate gigs. The question is, would Lennon’s ego have allowed him to do that, while McCartney was packing arenas?

    I think Lennon’s ego would have spun it thus: “Big arena shows are not cool, they are a vestige of the big, bloated, uncool commercial rock ’70s, (Eagles, Jethro Tull, Foreigner, Wings, etc.) We (John&Yoko) are artists, new wave artists, and we appear in small venues, like the other new wave artists, where the audience isn’t treated like cattle, etc. etc.”

    I agree, Michael, a rowdy arena crowd in the midwest somewhere would NOT have been kind to professor Yoko.

    I agree with you about the official J&Y story vs. the reality. I’m still coming to grips with it myself, as I bought it hook, line and sinker, and I still know otherwise intelligent people (including the boingboing editors) who still buy it. Which is why I find the “if he had lived” scenario so fascinating (aside from the music we missed) just to see how long it would have taken for the official story to collapse into the uncomfortable truth, and if it would have become a happier ending for a solo and Yoko-free Lennon.

    – Hologram Sam

  8. Avatar Nancy Carr wrote:

    Good points about the arena-playing, Michael and Kevin. It could have been tough egowise for Lennon to opt to tour small spaces in 1981, but that would clearly have been the way to go. (And it’s what Ono’s done successfully in more recent years.) But in 1980 the weight of expectation was so huge, because of his years out of the spotlight, that Lennon must have known that playing live in any venue carried some real critical risk.

    Michael, I tend to think Lennon believed what he was saying while he was saying it, but I haven’t researched the subject as deeply as you. As I’ve said before, I get the feeling sometimes that he’s saying what he really wants to believe — that he’s not lying, but is trying to make what he’s saying real. As if he can make it true by speaking it into being.

    And I also wonder about Lennon’s extreme thinness towards the end of his life, Michael. Whatever caused it, it sure looks unhealthy. Whether the underlying cause of it was physical or emotional, whatever was going on was taking a toll on him.

  9. Nancy, I too think that Lennon believed what he was saying when he was saying it. Furthermore, I think he had a cynical attitude towards the press, and didn’t feel that fans had any right to know “the truth.” At the same time, Lennon loved gossip and read Liz Smith et al religiously. It’s all part of his really complicated, very ambivalent relationship with fame, which ended up costing him his life (for a bunch of reasons).

    There was a lot of good in him, and I think at bottom he genuinely wanted to heal himself, help the world, be a good guy, et cetera. But lacking a framework within which to express these impulses, made them conflicted, easily manipulated and intermittent. He never truly found an alternative to the wealth/power/fame celebrity lifestyle, even though he knew it was bad for him, and suited him less and less as he got older. He was only 40.

    All four Beatles struggled with industrial-strength versions of normal people’s problems, and the other three periodically turned to outside structures (George to religion, Ringo to rehab, and Paul to traditional family) for support. John’s skepticism ironically led him to attempt to cobble together a bunch of shifting faddish beliefs. Which he believed in, passionately–until suddenly he didn’t. That’s a lonely, tough way to live, this constant reprise of disillusionment/abandonment, and why I suspect he treated his wife as his religion. But that’s not a marriage that lasts–worship breeds boredom and contempt–and there was definitely a day of reckoning coming for them.

  10. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    i can’t comment on this blog anymore. Yesterday i posted two comments, long paragraphs of my opinion and ideas of john’s “(just like) starting over” tour, and playing at arenas vs. small venues. My comments never appeared. This isn’t the first time it’s happened. I try to make my posts thoughtful and informative, and it’s just ALOT of wasted effort. I’m done.
    hologram sam

  11. Hey Hologram, we love your comments. If there’s ever a delay, just comment like you just did–Blogger can be finicky and the notifications can get buried.

    I’m just about to move the blog over to WordPress, and that should work better. Sorry if you felt ignored–you weren’t.

  12. Avatar db wrote:

    Those two 72 concerts he did got a fair slating in the press at the time, if I recall rightly, so I’m not sure him blaming the immigration issues as the reason for the lack of more touring is necessarily the only reason… but he certainly did sound quite up for touring in 81.

  13. […] own version of “The 14-Hour Technicolor Dream“), creating performance films like “Rock and Roll Circus,” and surprise appearances. In fact, they were moving in this direction before Brian died, by […]

  14. Avatar Michelle wrote:

    I recently listened to ‘Some Time in New York City’ after avoiding it for years because of the bad press. While I don’t care for John’s political shenanigans, I gotta say this album rocks! I don’t know why people call it the worst thing ever. The live songs are really good. There is a video of John doing “New York City” that shows why it’s a shame he didn’t get a chance to tour more. He owned the stage in spite of the Elephant’s Memory band being kind of terrible. John and Yoko’s duet on “Angela” is very good. And to anyone who never heard Yoko’s “Sisters o Sisters”, you should. It’s actually a pop tune and it surprised me how catchy it is. It sounds a bit like Blondie. It’s gotta be her best vocal performance as well.

  15. Avatar Henry wrote:

    I don’t think he really wanted to or particularly enjoyed performing live after things got too much for the Beatles in 1966. He slogged through an extremely difficult touring schedule in the early days during the Beatles rise. Uncomfortable cramped quarters, endless sets (popping pills to get through it all) and Lennon was a guy who by his own admission tended to be physically lazy. Touring and playing live…that’s a big endeavor and you really have to have your life together personally and professionally to embark upon it (and wan it) to do it successfully….and Lennon never really had that during the 70’s. That or need the money and it never got to that point with him either.

    He just simply never had the discipline, desire, or financial need to do so

    Had he lived I don’t think we would’ve seen much of Lennon on stage in the 80’s either. Maybe he’d go out on a few 6-8 show mini tours in support of an album every 2 or 3 years…but even then the shows would have heavy Yoko involvement so who knows where that goes

    And if he made it into the 90’s and into his 50s…I don’t see him bouncing around on stage with the grungers dressed in flannel like Neil Young either

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