The following is my remembrance of John Lennon's One to One concert which occurred 40 years ago in August 1972. The article appears in the August 2012 issue of Beatlefan magazine. My sincere thanks and appreciation to Bill King, editor of Beatlefan magazine, for allowing me to reprint it here.
40th Anniversary of One-to-One Concert, August 30, 1972
Years before he opened Al Capone’s vault, and his current descent into Fox News, Geraldo Rivera was a respected investigative reporter for WABC-TV in New York City. In early 1972, Rivera began documenting the terrible living conditions at a state run home for mentally challenged children on Staten Island. The institution was called the Willowbrook State School. In vivid detail, Geraldo showed the deplorable circumstances in which these children existed...overcrowding, lack of medical attention, filthy living quarters, and physical abuse. His series of reports caught the eyes of the entire New York metropolitan area, and eventually led to the passage of the Civil Rights of Institutional Patients Act of 1980.
Rivera’s newscasts about Willowbrook touched the hearts of two particular New Yorkers, John Lennon and Yoko Ono. In early 1972, Yoko contacted Rivera and expressed the hope that she and John could do something to help. By the summer, both John and Yoko worked with Geraldo on the idea of holding a benefit concert for the state run facilities. The intent of the fundraising was to build smaller, well-maintained, and supervised satellite homes for the mentally handicapped in New York. The concert site chosen was Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. Lennon and Ono agreed to perform with their recent back-up band, Elephant’s Memory. Originally, one evening show was planned, but due to the heavy demand for tickets, an afternoon concert was added. The shows were held on Wednesday, August 30, 1972.
By the summer of 1972, I had graduated from college, and was engaged to my future wife, Donna. In mid-August, we made a trip to Texas, and heard about the Lennon concert upon our return home to Connecticut. My good friend, Gilberte Najamy, who went with me to see The Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965 and 1966, got the tickets for the Willowbrook Concert. Later on, the name of the show was changed to the One-to-One Concert in honor of the One-to-One Day, a fun-filled activities event in New York’s Central Park featuring mentally challenged children in partnership with unimpaired children and adults.
With our $7.50 tickets in hand, Gilberte, Donna, and I rode in Gilberte’s Ford Econoline van from Danbury CT to Madison Square Garden on the late afternoon of the show. During the ride, we listened to the “Some Time In New York City” album on Gilberte’s new 8-track tape player. For what it’s worth, despite its universal critical rejection, I may be one of the few people in the world who actually liked “Some Time In New York City”.
It was the second time I had been to Madison Square Garden, having attended the Concert for Bangladesh exactly a year earlier. I noticed a difference in the crowd right away. The Concert for Bangladesh attendees were more subdued, reverent, and less rowdy than the One-to-One show which was a milieu for left-wing radicals and pot-smoking latter day hippies. The Lennons had been involved in antiwar protests and other social justice causes during the past 12 months. Many people in the audience reflected John and Yoko’s politics...including me. During 1972, I was the coordinator for “Students for McGovern” at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, mostly working in the New Hampshire primary (which is how Donna and I met). In April of that year, I ran for an elected position on the Danbury Democratic Town Committee (I lost). And, like many others in the audience, the three of us attending the One-to-One Concert were often in a slightly altered state of consciousness during the show.
As we entered the Garden, the audience from the afternoon show was leaving. They told us we were in for a treat, but didn’t spoil it by revealing too much. People received free tambourines to play during the concert. However, the supply ran out before we arrived. Our seats were located in the 2nd Promenade...a bit back from the Garden floor, but not too high up. We still had a fairly good view, perpendicular to stage left.
There were three opening acts, Stevie Wonder, Roberta Flack, and Sha Na Na. They each sang a few songs. Always liked Stevie, but I hadn't seen him in person until then. He performed “Superstition”...loved that organ riff. Roberta Flack sang “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, the “first dance” song at my wedding a year later. Sha Na Na was fun to watch. At the time, I was heavily into 50s Doo-Wop songs, and saw the group in concert again a few months later.
Then, Geraldo introduced Lennon and Ono to the rising cheers of the crowd. The first song was “New York City” from the “Some Time In New York City” album. Everyone was on their feet. This was followed by the bluesy “It’s So Hard” from the “Imagine” album. John seemed nervous during these first two songs. Wearing a second-hand military jacket, cowboy boots and blue-tinted glasses, he announced that they were going to perform “Woman Is The Nigger Of The World”, the most controversial song of the evening due to its inclusion of the racist epithet in the title and lyrics. Although not completely relaxed, John sang the lyrics with passion.
Elephant’s Memory was adequate in backing Lennon and Ono during the course of the evening, but they weren’t polished or well rehearsed. Known as a rough-and-tough radical Left band, they lived up to their reputation. During the afternoon concert, Lennon yelled into the microphone, “Welcome to the rehearsal”, implying that they were still working out some of the songs to get it right for the evening concert. Years later, when I heard the afternoon concert for the first time, it didn’t sound as good as the evening show. The band was undisciplined, often not knowing when or how to end the songs.
Next, Yoko Ono sang “Sisters, O Sisters”. Often criticized for her vocals, she was in tune for most of the song. I’ve been told that Yoko also sang “We’re All Water”, but I have no memory of hearing it (bathroom break maybe?). After “Sisters, O Sisters”, the concert found its legs. Beginning with “Well Well Well”, John Lennon became the singer we knew best. His voice was sharp and confident as he spit out each word of the song, and wailed some primal screams at the end. On “Instant Karma”, we sang the “we all shine on” chorus with him. The audience was in a festive mood, shaking their tambourines, and bouncing the omnipresent concert beach ball all over Madison Square Garden.
Lennon had won over the crowd by that point. The audience was so into the moment that on the next song, “Mother”, many sat in silence hanging on to each of John’s words about parental abandonment. A big fan of John’s “Plastic Ono Band” album, I was amazed at his ability to scream out the “Mama don’t go, Daddy come home” ending. There were several moments during the concert when I stepped away for a few seconds, in my mind, savoring the fact that I was actually witnessing John Lennon in concert. Seeing Lennon on stage had been a goal of mine since the proposed Peace Concert in Toronto collapsed two years earlier. And there he was, alternately prancing and strutting around on stage, his hair more red in person than in photographs and film. I believe that Yoko’s presence helped to center him.
All night long, Gilberte, Donna and I wondered if John would perform any of his Beatles songs. The audience cheered when John announced, “We’ll go back in the past just once”, followed by the familiar opening riff from “Come Together”. Lennon messed up the lyrics, but the song gave us one of the more memorable moments of the evening when he sang in the final chorus, “Come together... right now...STOP THE WAR”. Earlier, Eleanor McGovern, wife of George McGovern, the Democratic candidate for president, was introduced from the audience to great applause. However, those three short words shouted by John galvanized the antiwar crowd.
“Imagine” was Lennon’s big single from 1971. The words were simplistic, yet powerful, and when he sang the song that night, the lyrics evoked the general feeling of good will and cooperation surrounding the purpose of the One-to-One concert. John changed the lyrics of the final verse from “Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can” to “Imagine no possessions, I wonder if we can” to answer those who criticized him, a man of wealth, for seemingly excluding himself from materialism in the original song. Lennon added the word “sisterhood” to the lyrics, “a brotherhood of man” as an acknowledgement to the burgeoning Women’s Liberation movement. Donna and I had the small band at our wedding perform “Imagine” after we exchanged vows in September 1973.
In a video dictionary, John Lennon’s version of “Cold Turkey” at the One-to-One Concert could be used to illustrate the word “intense”. To date, I have never witnessed again such a riveting, soul-baring performance. Lennon had no inhibitions in acting out the pain of heroin withdrawal. I was mesmerized. John’s plea during the final verse, “I’ll promise you anything, get me out of this hell” carried over to the agonizing sounds he made during the end. Lennon bargained and begged as he clasped his hands and called out “Mama, Mama, I won’t, I won’t, I promise”...just like a child. This frenzy built up to a cathartic scream of horror. It was difficult to watch, but I could not look away.
The most logical time to do an encore, and call it a night, would have been after “Cold Turkey”, but for reasons known only to John and Yoko, they did “Hound Dog”, which for me was the worst song of the evening. Musically, it was fair, but seemed so out-of-place with all that had come before. The only noteworthy point of the song was John’s adlib, “Elvis, I love ya”.
After “Hound Dog”, the encore arrived with Lennon asking us to sing along. John, Yoko, and the musicians from Elephant’s Memory wore construction worker hardhats as Yoko read aloud a speech from an unnamed politician. It sounded like something Richard Nixon or Spiro Agnew wrote, going on and on about college campus unrest, communist infiltration, and the need for law and order, but it actually was a speech by Adolf Hitler from 40 years earlier. The irony was not lost on the crowd. Then, Lennon and the band launched into “Give Peace A Chance”.
We were sitting about 12 rows back from the front of the 2nd Promenade. When John started singing “Give Peace A Chance”, many people rushed down the stairs to the floor level of the Garden. Instead, we made a run towards the now vacant front row of the Promenade, which gave us a fantastic view of the stage directly below. It was as if we were suspended by wires, hovering over the performers underneath us. John wore a bright red hardhat as he danced to the improvised reggae beat of the song. Stevie Wonder, Roberta Flack, Sha Na Na, and Melanie Safka (best known for “Lay Down: Candles In The Rain”) were also on stage taking turns singing “Give Peace A Chance” into an open microphone.
Four months after the show, excerpts were shown on ABC-TV’s “In Concert” series. The songs were mostly from the evening concert. In 1986, an album and video came out consisting of the afternoon concert and a couple of songs from the evening concert. Granted, the performances at both concerts were ragged around the edges, loose, and not as well organized as they could have been, but that also described John Lennon’s life in 1972. John was wiretapped and followed by the FBI. He faced the constant threat of deportation. He pinned a lot of hope on Nixon’s defeat in the upcoming election, which did not come to pass. However, for that one night, those of us who attended the One-to-One concert were in solidarity with John’s vision of the times.
Copyright: Marc Catone, 2012
Check out my ticket stub from the One to One Concert:
Watch John Lennon sing "Cold Turkey" from the concert: