Imagine: The Peace Ballad of John and Yoko
Free Exhibition Through June 21 at Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
By: Charles Giuliano - May 10, 2009
Imagine: The Peace Ballad of John and Yoko
April 2 to June 21
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
1380 Sherbrooke Ouest
Montreal, QC H3G
514 285 2000
From May 26 through June 2, 1969, the newlyweds, John Lennon and Yoko Ono stayed in bed for a week in suite 1738, 40 and 42 of the posh Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal. It may not be that unusual for a couple on their honeymoon to never get out of bed. But with a special twist John and Yoko staged a Bed-in to celebrate their love and promote the cause of peace. Special friends from Tom Smothers to Tim Leary, as well as, hundreds of global media representatives flocked to their bedside.
There was one sour note when All Capp, the right wing jerk, famous for the smarmy comic strip, Lil Abner, came to debate Lennon and engaged in a contentious shouting match. So much for giving peace a chance. What a creep.
More importantly on June 1, the ever inventive Lennon called for recording equipment. Tommy Smothers provided a guitar. Other musicians included Derek Taylor, for a time a Rolling Stones guitarist, and British pop singer, Petula "Down Town" Clark. There was a chorus provided by the local branch of Hare Krishnas and celebrities including the total gonzo, Dr. Timothy Leary, and Montreal's Rabbi Abraham Feinberg. Together they recorded "Give Peace a Chance" which reached 14 on the Billboard chart. The anthem has been sung at peace rallies ever since.
The marriage of John and Yoko on March 20, 1969 in Gibraltar, unleashed a torrent of creative projects in music, political action, installations, and visual art that amused, infuriated, shocked and offended Lennon's legion of fans. There was little affection for Yoko who was vilified for allegedly "breaking up the Beatles." At the time, nobody understood his passion and commitment for the Japanese born (February 18, 1933) conceptual artist with links to the Fluxus movement. Perhaps she was the older and wiser woman (Lennon was born on October 9, 1940) needed to bring focus to his creative energy and desire to reach beyond just being a Beatle and recording pop music.
As this free exhibition, occupying several large galleries in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, through June 21, makes abundantly clear their relationship allowed them both to grow as remarkable artists. No longer despised by Beatles fans, Ono has come to be regarded as one of the major artists and creators of her generation. Whether she would have achieved this status without the alliance with Lennon is of course debatable. But this summer her accomplishments are being honored as a part of the Venice Biennale.
On June 6, Yoko will be awarded a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at this year's Venice Biennale. The Biennale press release,states that she is a "pioneer in performance and conceptual art [and] one of the most influential artists of our time. Long before becoming an icon in popular culture and in peace activism, she developed artistic strategies that have left a lasting mark both in her native Japan and in the West."
Yoko encouraged his art and he supported her music. Not always with the best results. Their "Two Virgins" album with front and rear nude shots was sold in stores with a brown paper bag revealing only their heads. It was an instant cutout that I regret not buying in Harvard Square for just $1.98. Who knew what it would be worth today? This and other albums are included in the exhibition. But I do own the boxed "Wedding Album" which in addition to the album, that I doubt I ever played, also contains some memorabilia. We all bought the albums they created. There are well worn grooves on John's side with a pristine Yoko side. You only had to hear her screech once or twice to get the point. But, the deal was, if you wanted John, you had to take Yoko.
There were mixed feelings when I got to interview her in a suite at the Ritz while she came to Boston some years ago for a Lennon exhibition. I was expecting the lady who broke up the Beatles. But found myself utterly charmed and seduced during what proved to be a poignant meeting. No, she never took the famous shades off but there was genuine melancholy when we discussed John and his legacy. I ended up kind of loving her as John did. She is really a remarkably interesting and generous person.
While I was taking pictures she suggested that we might be photographed together. I didn't see anyone and assumed we were alone. She called out and an assistant mysteriously appeared. I look shocked and disheveled in the photo that resulted. Is it just me but does she seem to be snuggling? Oh those fleeting celebrity moments.
It is truly her spirit and openness that is behind the Montreal exhibition. Most significantly it is free at all times. A gift from John and Yoko. She is willing to share their legacy and not just keep it for herself. Amazingly, visitors are invited to bring their cameras and camcorders. To be photographed sitting and playing John's famous white grand piano. Astrid and I took turns documenting such a memorable moment.
What is most compelling about this project is Yoko's willingness to make available so many rare, archival materials, objects, photographs, and videos. But it is hardly static as we are invited to participate in the work by driving in nails, rubber stamping peace slogans on the walls, sitting on their ersatz bed, making a wish tag and attaching it to a peace tree (a very Japanese tradition of Paper Prayers) or playing his piano. Yoko is very astute in getting people involved with the work and understanding the process of their mandates.
In that sense this project, which is unique to Montreal and will not travel, is poignant, insightful and powerful. It takes us a long way into understanding who they were as artists and human beings. It also emphasized the magnitude of the loss when Mark David Chapman ended Lennon's life on December 8, 1980. John was just 40 at the time and almost three decades have passed since. Whom the gods love.
On a personal note I have long measured my life against John's. I was born just 16 days later in 1940. We were war babies separated by an ocean. We grew up under a nuclear cloud and John recognized it. With Yoko they became persuasive and subversive advocates for peace. How staggeringly brilliant of them not to get out of bed some forty years ago in Montreal. Thanks so much to all involved, the many who volunteered time and energy, for allowing us to revisit and remember.
Not to beatify John Lennon. He was flawed like all of us. Jesus, after all, has proved to be bigger than the Beatles. However magnificent, they were just a blip on the pop radar of history. It seems that he struggled and like Brian Wilson had that wiggy time "In my room" when he was a househusband staying at home, baking bread, and caring for their son Sean. The world wanted him to create great art and music but he had other, more personal ideas. We all struggle with our demons. Fame doesn't seem to let anyone off easy. It always amazes that people who are rich and famous can be so lost and lonely. Who knows just how great a niche Yoko filled in that well of loneliness.
It is ironic then that for all the great Beatles songs and inspired projects like Sargent Pepper, Revolver, Rubber Soul, or the White Album, John composed his masterpiece "Imagine" (inspired by Yoko's writings) alone with the white piano during self imposed isolation in their apartment in the Dakota. From time to time in a bluesy mood I play Imagine on my piano. Not often. At special times when we turn inward for shelter in the storm.
On one of those days, perhaps quite ordinary, and like any other, John walked out of the Dakota where the deranged assassin, so filled with hate, was waiting. Just before that event Annie Leibovitz took their picture for Rolling Stone. John is naked and seemingly clinging to Yoko who is clothed. In hindsight the image is so charged with meaning. It proves to be haunting and prescient. Nobody knew. We never do.