Forty-one years ago today, a very significant musical event took place. Following a three year hiatus from live performances, John Lennon and his very newly formed Plastic Ono Band took the stage at Varsity Stadium in Toronto as part of the Toronto Rock & Roll Festival. The show has since been officially released (CD & DVD) as Live Peace In Toronto 1969. Today we take a look back on this legendary performance which featured John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Eric Clapton, Klaus Voorman (Manfred Mann), and Alan White (future Yes drummer) – an impressive lineup, to say the least. Here’s the story, with the help of some quotes from John himself:
“Well, it was late, about 11 o’clock one Friday night, I was in my office at Apple, when we got a phone call from this guy saying, ‘Come to Toronto’. They really were inviting us as King and Queen to preside over the concert and not to play. But I didn’t hear that part and I said, ‘OK. OK. Just give me time to get a band together.’ So, I thought, ‘Who could I get to come and play with me?’ So it all happened like. We left the next morning.”
So, at the last minute John rounded up the finest musicians he could gather and headed off for Toronto on a commercial jet. With the band tucked into the first-class cabin for the extended plane ride, they started to kick around their acoustics to get the chemistry flowing for the show that lay ahead. Lennon had actually used Clapton in a previous band called Dirty Mack (which featured Keith Richards on bass!), so the two had already developed a musical relationship. The legend holds that a magical jam session occurred on that flight between Clapton and Lennon that inspired much of the music that would unfold later that evening. However, following the flight John became very ill which is noticeable throughout the video of the performance.
“My God, I haven’t performed before a large audience for four years. I mean, I did the Rolling Stones’ Circus film with a small audience, and I did the Cambridge ’69 gig; but they didn’t even know I was coming. So we didn’t sleep at all on Friday night, and I was nervous all the way across…I threw up for hours until I went on.”
But, much like Michael Jordan in the 1997 playoffs (battling a 103 degree fever) versus the Jazz, John Lennon rose to the occasion wearing a white suit with a Gretsch in hand. The band instantly connected, taking on new and old tunes from various artists including one of my favorite Beatles tunes “Yer Blues”. Clapton can be heard laying down fierce guitar lines all throughout the show, and John is simply pouring with a new-found sense of creativity that would inspire some of his great later work. If you can just get around Yoko’s incessant shrieking (which is actually, as Clapton put it in his book, rather amusing) there is some very raw, but magical music underneath.
“Yer Blues” (Live Peace In Toronto 1969)
“I can’t remember when I had such a good time. Yoko was holding a piece of paper with the words to the songs in front of me. But then she suddenly disappeared into her bag in the middle of the performance and I had to make them up because it’s so long since I sang them that I’ve forgotten most of them. It didn’t seem to matter…The ridiculous thing was that I didn’t know any of the lyrics. When we did Money and Dizzy, I just made up the words as I went along. The band was bashing it out like hell behind me…Then after Money there was a stop, and I turned to Eric and said, ‘What’s next?’ He didn’t know either, so I just screamed out ‘C’mon!’ and started into something else.”
The show also featured the first ever performance of “Cold Turkey,” a song that opens the door to John’s heroin addiction. This was significant as this show was not long after John had beat heroin, and in this debut performance the struggle he had been through is painfully apparent.
“It gave me a great feeling, a feeling I haven’t had for a long time. It convinced me to do more appearances, either with or without the rest of the Beatles. Everything went down so well.”
“Blue Suede Shoes”
“You Make Me Dizzy Miss Lizzy”