Backstage Pass: John Lennon escapes The Beatles' shadow in Toronto part 2

Just before it was time for John Lennon and the Plastic Ono band to go on stage, master of ceremonies Kim Fowley saw that he was nervous. Lennon said, “I’m terrified. Imagine if you were in The Beatles as the only band you’ve only been in your life. [This is] the first time you are to step onstage with people that weren’t in The Beatles. You’re about to go on stage with  your wife, a friend, a friend, and a complete stranger with songs you had learned acoustically on an airplane on the way over from England with jet lag. You would be terrified. Do something so the kids don’t know how scared I am.”
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Backstage Pass: John Lennon escapes The Beatles' shadow in Toronto part 2

by Harvey Kubernik
And the actual time just before John and the group came on stage.

KF: So I see the Plastic Ono Band. Lennon was nervous. “Are you all right?” “Yes.”

20,000 people showed up and the big moment comes and the lights are blinding. Everything is on and John Lennon summons me to the apron of the stage on the side by the canopy. I was dressed in a purple suit. He was in a white suit. This was not the time to have a MIDEM Publishing-like discussion

Then John threw up. And he started to cry. He said, “I’m terrified. Imagine if you were in The Beatles as the only band you’ve only been in your life. [This is] the first time you are to step onstage with people that weren’t in The Beatles. You’re about to go on stage with your wife, a friend, a friend, and a complete stranger with songs you had learned acoustically on an airplane on the way over from England with jet lag. You would be terrified. Do something so the kids don’t know how scared I am.” He was that vulnerable.

That’s all he knew. “Do something! Please, something so people won’t know how afraid I am to go out there.” He went ahead of his band. They were behind him. He was in a bad way.

So naturally, like Lee Marvin in an episode of “M squad” you saved the day and supplied the remedy, Dr. Kim.

KF: I came up with the following. So, I had seen a movie a decade before, in Catholic grade school, “Our Lady Of Fatima,” based on The Blessed Virgin appearing in front of a bunch of kids appearing in a cow pasture in Portugal in the early 20th century. They had candles and matches lit to honor her presence.

So I figured, and told everybody in the place, they all think John Lennon is God and this is a religious experience and a religious experiment. I said to myself, “Why don’t I take this to the religious level by subliminally recreating ‘Our Lady Of Fatima’ with fire and say the introductory words … ‘Plastic Ono Band please say hello to John and his friends with your matches and your lighters.’” Kim Fowley can be credited with inventing the idea of lighting matches and lighters at rock concerts — in 1969 at Toronto.

It wasn’t as much a stalling tactic for John to compose himself but to put an amber hue over the entire throng, and suddenly, it was a religious spectacle, because John Lennon had a religious position in the culture. And so did the Blessed Virgin, so in my mind there was no difference between our Lady Of Fatima and the Plastic Ono Band showing up, and he was dressed in white, by the way.

So they requested [that] Varsity Stadium to please turn off the lights, and when I said the words “‘Plastic Ono Band’ at the count of three I want everybody to light matches simultaneously.” It was a welcome in a very friendly beatified way for John and his friends.

On the live album you’ll hear “Get your matches ready. Brower and Walker … Present The Plastic Ono Band …” 20,000 matches were lit. It was a beautiful amber glow, and everyone let out a collective gasp and at that moment, Lennon, who was a Beatle, realized there’s the moment that will take away from the nervousness of the moment. And they went up to the stage and went right into “Money.” And it was clear sailing from him and them all the way until the end. It seemed like an hour. Yoko sang in a bag.

So that helped the spiritual subtext of the event. I had talked to Lennon three years earlier, but in 1969, everybody had gotten scruffier after the Mod 1966 and the English version of psychedelic culture and Syd Barrett came along and everybody got dirtier. The guys got dirtier and the girls all threw away their bras away and didn’t shave their armpits or their legs. So everybody was getting more organic. John was a Beatle and larger than life, so nobody was aware if he was tall or short. Yoko was in the band and went into the bag at a certain point.

Run down the set list.

KF: They just went on and played. They didn’t sit there and kibbitz or talk to anybody. The repertoire performed fit the theme of the event, which was a rock ’n’ roll revival booking and appropriate to open with “Blue Suede Shoes” and play “Money.” And do “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” from the Larry Williams’ songbook ...

That night, Plastic Ono Band did simple rock-and-roll songs where sloppiness is a charm — the songs, it’s nighttime outside, people are drunk and stoned. Klaus Voorman on bass was fine. He had been in Manfred Mann before and did one of my songs. Alan White was a member of Yes at the time or a bit later. Eric Clapton had been in Blind Faith the year before, and I was at their L.A. concert at the Forum. I had known Eric from England at The Richmond Athletic Club days when he was in The Yardbirds. And I had met him again when Cream was forming.

Lennon onstage …

KF: John Lennon was a Beatle. You heard that voice and there he was … a Beatle. It was Gandhi and a human jukebox showing up.

I had drunk some beer that day and on the original vinyl pressing of the live album you can hear someone saying, “Kim! You’re always on the wrong mic. Kim!” And I fell off the stage into the pit, drunk, because I could not believe what I had seen. Then I jumped back up onstage. The Doors had to follow this, and this was the first and only time you had John Lennon and Jim Morrison on the same bill. I don’t think they posed for photos.

And what about Lennon’s guitar playing that evening?

KF: As far as John’s guitar playing that night there are four people who were great rhythm guitars players in the history of rock and roll: Eddie Cochran, John Lennon, Joan Jett and Keith Richard. The four supplied the pulse of whatever band they were in, and they could build a whole rock-and-roll universe around the pulse of their rhythm guitar playing. And their guitar was attached to their voice. And [with] those four people, it’s beyond lead guitar and flashy stuff. It’s the rhythm guitar driving the engine of a rock-and-roll band. Jimi Hendrix did something else in his trio as the Jimi Hendrix Experience as well as the Band Of Gypsys. He took guitar playing somewhere else.

How did you bring The Doors to the stage?

KF: After Plastic Ono Band departed, I then said, “Get ready for The Doors, who are coming on next!”

The Doors started doing their thing. Around the third song of the set, out comes Chuck Berry, who saw the movie cameras [and] wanted to walk onstage and approached Jim Morrison onstage. And Jim Morrison stopped the show and said, “Chuck, you never let kids jam with you. You can’t jam with us. Be nicer to kids and maybe someday we’ll let you jam with us.” And he was ordered off the stage by Jim Morrison. [He said,] “Next time some guys want to jam with you, remember. Get off our stage.” The place went wild. They were The Doors. This was the year of the Miami Doors incident. So they did The Doors. This was going down in real time. It was music of the moment ... no passing of the baton or the end of the decade. Any of that. This is fun. Wow. I just saw a Beatle. I saw The Doors…

I remember a while afterwards, Ray Manzarek, who I knew from L.A., felt Lennon’s appearance was some sort of psychic release from the pressures of being a Beatle. In a non-paparazzi time of 1969, no one had the brains to photograph John Lennon and Jim Morrison together. Nobody has the picture, because no one thought of taking one because there wasn’t a paparazzi culture there to document it. They did speak because they had to. Because one followed the other.

And the next day post-show encounter with John and Yoko.

KF: The next day at Thor Eaton’s house, where John and Yoko were staying with the Plastic Ono Band, I was sitting outside with the two promoters and they were happy. “Kim Fowley, you really earned your money. You’re gonna be on the album; maybe they’ll be a movie someday. Isn’t life grand.” Then Eric Clapton came out.

And he said, “John and Yoko want to talk to you.” Eric escorted me to the sitting room of this mansion and a very quiet John Lennon, who was dressed very casual, was sitting on the floor on a Gandhi position, looking at Yoko who was sitting in a chair, and Klaus was next to them. And Eric said, “John and Yoko, Kim is here.” “Kim Fowley.” And I was delighted. “Thanks for introducing us …” We shook hands. He was very gracious to me, and Klaus Voorman was in the room and so was Alan White.

And I had always promised myself in my rock-and-roll journey [that] when I was in the middle of it that I should always ask the right questions because I got the historic part of it. Because previous to this, in 1965, I met Bob Dylan and asked him his concept of songwriting, and he said, “Storytelling and asking questions.” And before that, in 1963, I asked Brian Wilson at Gold Star studio one day, “What is the basis of your songwriting?” And he said, “Well, school is nine months a year and the summer holidays are three months and you write about that and getting in trouble with your parents.”

So I had to ask the question to John Lennon: “Why did the Beatles break up?” The whole room stopped, and Lennon looked at me and said, “May I give you an example?” “Yes.” “It has nothing to do with the wives and the women we married.” He said, “The group was based on us re-inventing our favorite records.” I said give me an example. He said, “You know ‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?’ We were improvising on Canned Heat, and it was our message to Canned Heat and Norman Greenbaum, who had “Spirit In The Sky” at the time. When you do that type of music, put more humor into it. We liked Canned Heat but didn’t think they had enough humor. So we wrote that song as taking the Canned Heat formula and doing something else with it. When The Beatles stopped re-working or improving on the formulas of their favorite songs, that’s when we ceased being a band. Because that’s what we did. Because we improved on formulas that we loved of our favorite records. We stopped listening to records and improving on the formulas, the techniques and expanding, and that’s when we ceased being a band.”

... John was enjoying the fact that he could go onstage and do something without whatever the restriction of being a Beatle was. He didn’t say there was a restriction. He didn’t say it, but it was like playing football after you leave Manchester United team and you go play a football game in the park with your friends from the neighborhood or pub. It’s gonna be different if you’re gonna be David Beckham than if you’re in a jersey out on the pitch, or the field, you know. He hadn’t played music outside The Beatles. The last time he played as the Plastic Ono Band was that December at the Lyceum in England when it was billed as the Plastic Ono Supergroup.

That’s when the Beatles stopped being The Beatles. He didn’t mention all the things they’ve written about since. To him, The Beatles ended because they didn’t want to reinvent music they liked anymore. I told him to have a nice trip back. Goodbye. Never saw him again.

Reflect on John Lennon now.

KF: Rock and roll died with Elvis Presley in 1977, and rock died in 1980 with John Lennon. It might have died again with MTV. What happened was, as Clive Davis told me in his office, MTV assigned pictures to the music where you made your own pictures. When you listened to music of a great record, you would remember the day [and where] you were when you heard it or what it meant to you, where you were sitting or the car you were in. But once some guy put an expensive video on, you always remember the song by the visual image assigned to it, which ruined rock and roll. Same thing that has ruined politics in America. The presidential elections are determined by who is good on TV, not who would be a good person to govern or to lead the country. So too much media takes away the experience of listening to music. And Elvis was the King of rock and roll and Lennon the next King of hard rock, or rock … and then MTV showed up and you had disco.

by Harvey Kubernik