41 years ago, on August 30, 1972, John Lennon played his only rehearsed, full length, post-Beatles performances, headling the "One To One" concerts at Madison Square Garden with his wife, Yoko Ono. Photographer and friend Bob Gruen was there to capture it all on film. Gruen graciously agreed to talk with me, over the phone, about this historic concert, for this two part interview. For part one, please click here.
Gruen was fortunate to witness Lennon from a close angle, watching him sing songs like “Imagine.” “That was exciting because it’s such a powerful song, and to be at the center of attention of 20,000 people all hearing it live, perhaps for the first time - certainly the Beatles never played it - it was quite an exciting moment.
“It’s quite a special song. It’s not about falling in love, and wishing she would like you because of your car, or something that’s typical in rock and roll songs. It’s a really deep song. It was very special putting that feeling out into the world, and to see him singing it in public, and everybody appreciating it, was pretty impressive.”
The general consensus was that the evening show was superior to the afternoon performance. However, Gruen was too involved in the proceedings to be judgmental.
“I’m not a critic, and I don’t listen to things in detail, and certainly don’t compare things in detail like that, and at the time I was so involved with it, it was also a helluva lot of fun for me. I don’t really remember a difference from one to the other at all. I don’t think like that.
“You’ve got to remember. I wasn’t there sitting calmly in a chair watching what was going on. I was running around from the front of the stage to the side of the stage, backstage, out in the audience, covering from all different angles. I was pretty much involved with this whole thing, singing along - not on stage or anything - but I was very familiar with what they were doing, so I wasn’t criticizing anything, or comparing.”
From what I witnessed at the evening show, the crowd was completely into the performances, and all the acts were first rate: The 1950s fun, campy nostalgia of Sha Na Na; Stevie Wonder playing his greatest hits, walking around to play different instruments, and previewing his upcoming single, “Superstition”; Roberta Flack’s set was laid back and soulful, and, of course, John & Yoko were powerful beyond words, totally electric in every sense of the word.
The critics, however, were often less than kind in their assessment of the evening. One of the complaints was that the show was sloppy. I thought the Lennon's set, in particular, was loose and rocking, with John in perfect form, and song selection stellar. His performance should not have been a surprise to anyone following his solo career, or listening to his records, or reading his interviews.
“It was meant to be loose, it was meant to be fun. I think the critics were ... First of all, I think most of the people there were expecting Beatles songs, and they were expecting something as defined and organized as the Beatles’ records had been at that point, which it certainly wasn’t. It was a throwback to the 50’s where people has a couple of drinks and had fun and played loud, raucous, rock and roll. The critics were sitting there, probably without any drinks, just listening to each note ...
“Critics have a different way of listening to concerts,” Gruen continued. “There were people cheering, and loving the show, then the critics were going, ‘Well, there’s a note off here ...’ It’s not the philharmonic. Rock and roll is not meant for every note to be played perfectly. It’s to be played with spirit, with feeling.”
Yoko Ono only performed three songs at the evening performance, but to many, she was apparently not welcomed. I thought she was great, singing three of her own songs. I particularly loved her close-up harmonies with Lennon on “Born In A Prison.” I did not hear any booing from my seat, but Gruen did from where he was.
“It wasn’t the Beatles, so it wasn’t going to be a concert of the Beatles. They were going to be playing a concert of John Lennon, and Yoko Ono, and I think the audience was not expecting to see Yoko, did not like Yoko in general. She was pretty soundly booed when she sang, and people had no idea what she was doing.
“Of course they were all new songs, and ‘Some Time In New York City’ was all topical,” Gruen continued. “They were all about current events, and Yoko’s songs were about feminism. It wasn’t that (the public) didn’t want to hear Yoko, they didn’t want to hear about feminism either. Nowadays, it’s taken as a common topic. Back then, it was not a common topic, not something people wanted to hear about.
“It was kind of nice now to see such acclaim (for Ono), playing sold out shows of her own. A whole new generation that really appreciated what she’s doing. Back then, they had to idea what she was doing, and certainly didn’t appreciate it. A lot of people didn’t get it, and a lot of people still don’t.”
Gruen also denies the allegations that Ono’s keyboard was not even plugged in. “Yes, she was. As far as I know, she was playing. There was no question about that.”
An interesting side note is that two songs in the Lennons’ set had reggae arrangements - Ono’s “Sisters O Sisters,” and the “Give Peace A Chance” finale. The latter was possibly influenced by the version released through Lennon as a single on Apple by the band Hot Chocolate, who later had hits like “You Sexy Thing” and “Every 1’s a Winner.”
The Beatles had been fans of Jamaican music for years, even incorporating a ska interlude into 1963’s “I Call Your Name.” “I didn’t know what reggae was at the time. I remember Elephant’s Memory, their idea of an island beat was more Puerto Rican because in New York, they were more exposed to the Puerto Rican/Latin music, where in England, Jamaica was an English Commonwealth island. There were many more Jamaicans than Puerto Ricans in England, so in England, the general population was more familiar with the reggae music.
“I had never heard of it. The closest I ever came to it was Harry Belafonte and calypso. I remember when John was trying to explain to (Elephant’s drummer) Rick Frank what a reggae beat was, that it was different from a salsa beat, and asking Jim Keltner to explain it to him, as a drummer, what a reggae beat was like and how to do it.
“It was the first time I had ever heard the word ‘reggae.’ John was very familiar with it. A few months later, in December, I actually took my first vacation trip to Jamaica, and I just went into a record store, and I remember telling the guy, ‘I want to buy some reggae records.’ And he said, ‘Which one?’ ‘I don’t know? Some reggae!’ (laughs) I had no idea what I was asking, or who played it, or anything about it! So I brought home about a dozen records that the guy gave me, and I gave Rick Frank half of them. That was the beginning of my reggae education, which continues today.“
The One To One concerts were to be the start of a major tour. Sadly, these would be the only full length concerts Lennon would ever perform.
“They meant to tour. There was talk of going on a tour for peace, which was at the time of the (1972 presidential) election. It wasn’t so much anti-Nixon, as Nixon thought it was. It was going to be a ‘Pro Peace’ tour, but when they were so roundly, soundly, rejected at the One To One concert, I think they scrapped the plans for that also because the (new) album sold very poorly. The album was getting bad reviews, the concert was getting bad reviews, so they scrapped the idea of going on tour ... There was the harassment (by the U.S. government) of Lennon too, so they canceled the tour.”
Lennon and Ono were planning to tour in 1981, but of course, that never happened.
To find out more about Bob Gruen, please check out his website, and if you have not yet seen it, search out the documentary, "Rock 'N' Roll Exposed: The Photography of Bob Gruen."
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