Symptomatic of the times. Now. Then.
Read the news and it’s just about enough to depress you. If you’re not already cynical.
But here comes a boy and a little girl…trying to change the whole wide world.
If you find this film, it likely won’t be under its original title Sweet Toronto.
My copy says John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band: Live in Toronto.
Which shows you how much Shout! Factory thought of the director D.A. Pennebaker.
The changed the title of his fuckin’ film!
Sure, they tacked on a poignant interview with Yoko to the front end, but other than that it seems unchanged.
Reminds us of another director who got shafted making a music documentary: Jean-Luc Godard.
What is most widely available today as Sympathy for the Devil was originally to be called One Plus One.
The producers tacked on the title song to the end of the film (playing over largely inconsequential footage…at least initially) and retitled the sucker.
Godard allegedly punched the producer in the face after the premier…but I digress.
Why should you watch this film under consideration?
There’s a couple good reasons.
The first is Bo Diddley. Sure, it’s only one song, but it sets the stage (literally) for what follows.
Pennebaker uses Diddley’s music to usher in the motorcade of John Lennon and entourage.
And when we really get to watch Bo, he’s dancin’ and jivin’ and (by the way) doing a nice job of not stepping on his guitar cable.
It’s a long, jammy, droned-out piece: “Bo Diddley.” That’s right, the song is titled “Bo Diddley” by (who else?) Bo Diddley.
If you close your eyes you just might think you’re listening to The Velvet Underground. That won’t be the last time in the night for which those words are applicable.
Pennebaker keeps the train a’ rollin’ with a complete change of pace: Jerry Lee Lewis.
Again, it’s only one song, but the director builds the excitement of anticipation for the headliner.
Lewis…smoking his cigar…gold rings and jewelry on that pumpin’ right hand…up high on the piano…and occasionally a brown patent-leather ankle book (Beatle boot?) makes it’s way up to the top register to heel a little tone cluster of exclamation.
At this point, Shout! Factory (perhaps at the behest of Chuck Berry?) makes a decision to cut Chuck’s song.
And so we roll into Little Richard. Again, we can imagine…Prince, Michael Jackson…we are seeing the entire history of rock and roll compressed into 70 (?) minutes…from Jerry Lee singing a song made most famous by Elvis all the way to the headliner who will take us to far out, groovy places which may or may not still exist.
Little Richard has the most cracker-jack band. A couple of sax players…really tight.
And so after three fantastic performers in a row–three originators of rock and roll, we get the rag-tag Plastic Ono Band.
John starts ’em off nice and slow…reverent…”Blue Suede Shoes,” “Money (That’s What I Want),” and “Dizzy, Miss Lizzy” before the curve ball of “Yer Blues”…
So lonely…wanna die…ain’t dead already…know reason why.
Klaus Voormann hits a steaming helping of wrong notes throughout the early part of the set as bass player, but that’s why we love him, right? Reminds me of those bum notes which they left in (didn’t edit out) on John’s first solo album titled (what else?) Plastic Ono Band. But we also love Klaus because he drew the cover to The Beatles Revolver album.
But what Klaus lacks in precision is made up for by Eric Clapton on lead guitar. Clapton with his beard…denim jacket…a generally pensive look on his face the whole time which seems to read, “What the fuck am I doing here? Can’t believe I’m doing this.” Clapton never glares at Ono (at least not in the shots we receive through the miracle of montage), but one can’t help thinking that a musician of Eric’s caliber might have been perplexed (to say the least) regarding Yoko’s musical contributions to the night’s proceedings.
[Alan White is, of course, great on drums.]
And so we slink into “Cold Turkey”…premiered this very night in 1969. The rendition is like Booker T. & the MGs…very cool and groovy…laid back.
But most of all…about this film…John Lennon in a white suit…huge beard…long hair…little circular glasses. His presence…
Remember, this concert was about four months after the Montreal bed-in.
And so the band launch into “Give Peace a Chance.”
And it’s still the most revolutionary statement possible.
Musicians are the only ones who have ever done anything worthwhile…
Truth be told, the rendition of “Give Peace a Chance” is a little lackluster.
“And now Yoko’s going to do her thing all over you”
With those words (or something close to that effect), John takes us into the final act of this opera.
And it is powerful.
Yes, these grungy musicians actually succeed in making time stop.
Yoko wails like a woman on the sea lamenting her lost child.
For all the naysayers, Ono actually did have a good sense of pitch. It’s just that pitch (as the Western ear defines it…narrowly) is not her predominant concern (apparently).
It’s like the Damo Suzuki years of the German band Can…including their two Krautrock masterpieces Tago Mago and Ege Bamyasi. The same criticism that Ono gets for her far-out howling is rarely leveled at Suzuki. Listeners of Can know that they are getting into an experimental vehicle when they plop a Can album on the turntable.
This, arguably, makes Ono even more revolutionary. To go from “Blue Suede Shoes” to “John, John (Let’s Hope for Peace)” is truly high art. The conceptual mind-fuck is equal to anything John or Alice Coltrane ever pulled-off.
And so it is that the night ends on a most bizarre note…a drone…three instruments perched against amplifiers feeding back…as if one is watching…and you will know us by the Trail of Dead.
You’ve gotta see it. Either it speaks to you or it doesn’t. For me, there are few more poignant ways to remember the radical genius that was John Lennon than watching a document like this.
It is incredible how powerful music can be in conveying revolutionary (conceptually and politically) ideas and sentiments.
It reminds me of something McLuhan quoted in The Medium is the Message about TV having immense educational capabilities, but luckily its never used for the purpose.
Also, every contract should prevent a company from simply changing the name of a work. It’s a very basic (and, I would think, inoffensive) requirement for artistic freedom of expression.
The medium is the message…such wonderful words. It gives me confidence as a creative person to remember that sentiment.