(Editor’s note: An annual John Lennon tribute concert takes place in New York City this Friday, Dec. 5. Local author James A. Mitchell talks to the people behind the tribute and looks back on the former Beatle’s social activism, including a famous Detroit-area concert in 1971. A paperback version of Mitchell’s book, The Walrus & The Elephants: John Lennon’s Years of Revolution [$23.95, Seven Stories Press] comes out in December.)
What would John Lennon be doing today? Early December invites “what-if” scenarios while marking the tragedy that ended his life on Dec. 8, 1980, at the hands of an obsessed fan.
There’s the music, of course. We miss the songs unheard, which make sweeter still a body of work that has more than stood the test of time. Lennon said what a lot of people thought and felt – deceptively simple lyrics about peace and love and the art of being human.
It’s not just the songs, not by a long shot. Joe Raiola, executive producer for Theatre Within — which has staged the Annual John Lennon Tribute concert for more than 30 years — says that people across the generations remain fascinated by the many faces of Lennon.
“The thing about John’s ‘image’ is that he can be just about anything one wants him to be,” Raiola says. “Poet, pilgrim, peacenik, prankster, activist, visionary, drug addict, romantic, misogynist, feminist, revolutionary, rebel, artist, philosopher, hypocrite, socialist, capitalist, outlaw — it’s an endless list really. So even in death he remains a magnetic force. In a sense, we each create our own Lennon myth.”
Fittingly, the Tribute started as one thing and evolved into something more, not unlike Lennon’s idea that music could say and do more than just entertain.
“In the early days its sole purpose was to come together to remember and celebrate John. But it evolved naturally into a charity concert,” Raiola says. “We’ve done our best to support ‘Lennon-worthy’ causes. It’s the kind of loving activism that John could have gotten behind.”
Lennon was a little ahead of the curve on that score. He’d once described plans for a 1972 series of concerts to merge art and activism, raise awareness, and support local causes. “The regular scene without the capitalism,” Lennon said. “We’ll leave our share of the money in town where it will do the most good.”
The prototype for the sadly unrealized tour was staged at Ann Arbor’s Crisler Arena in December 1971, a long night of rock and rhetoric. John and Yoko headlined the “Free John Now” rally in support of Detroit poet and activist John Sinclair, who remained imprisoned on a 10-year sentence for possession of two joints.
Fresh from London and a bitter Beatles breakup, Lennon was taken with the possibilities of the youth “Movement” and demands for peace, civil rights, the women’s movement, and a host of causes. He’d come to town to help Sinclair, he said, but the audience – and artists – needed to do more than just watch the world go by. “Apathy isn’t it, we can do something,” Lennon said. “So ‘flower power’ didn’t work, so what? We start again.”
Lennon performed just four songs that night, but the impact echoed long after. Two things happened next: Sinclair walked free within days of the event; and the Nixon administration took note of Lennon’s influence and spent considerable energies trying to deport him. (Lennon’s eventual “green card” victory was cited among the precedents for President Barrack Obama’s recent executive order of a low- or no-priority status for many immigrants. The legend lives on in so many ways.)
We wonder what Lennon might be doing today — at age 74 — and imagine a continuation of peaceful activism, of helping charities local and global. Raiola said that Tribute funds in recent years have supported the fight against hunger, disaster relief after Hurricane Sandy, and the building of music schools.
This year’s focus is the John Lennon Real Love Project, a therapeutic songwriting program for children and young adults in medical care centers. Performers – including Debbie Harry, Kate Pierson (B-52s) and Ben E. King (“Stand By Me”) – continue a tradition of top artists gathered to celebrate more than just one man’s music.
So what would Lennon be up to these days? Would he bring people together with songs about peace and love and the belief that we can do something?
The Annual John Lennon Tribute is a production of grassroots nonprofit Theatre Within, in association with Music Without Borders; for information and how to help visit www.lennontribute.org.
James A. Mitchell is the author of The Walrus & the Elephants: John Lennon’s Years of Revolution (Seven Stories Press, 2013), available this month in paperback.