By 1972, John Lennon had all but retired as a live performer. The Beatles famously stopped touring in 1966, and when Lennon kicked off a solo career, he showed little interest in returning to the road. Instead, one-offs became his preferred performance style, usually for charitable causes. His appearance at the Toronto Peace Festival in 1969 was one of his first significant steps as a solo artist, and he would have performed at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh if Harrison had allowed Yoko Ono to perform alongside him.
When Lennon and Ono moved to New York in 1972, they firmly established themselves as activists and left-wing talking heads, willing to toe the line whenever needed. That year’s Some Time in New York City is a dense and overly ambitious slog featuring three different backing bands (Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, the American outfit Elephant’s Memory, and Frank Zappa’s group The Mothers) and fairly surface-level analysis of major political issues. But it accurately represents Lennon’s headspace at the time, with the US government attempting to deport him and his progressive ideals failing to connect with the pro-Nixon tide of American conservatism at the time.
Lennon was still dedicated to various organisations and causes, but it would take a major figure to get the mercurial artist to commit to full live performance. That major figure, in somewhat unlikely fashion, turned out to be future Fox News correspondent Geraldo Rivera. Rivera, back when he was doing actual journalism, won a Peabody Award for his report on the mistreatment of patients with mental disabilities at the Willowbrook State School in Staten Island. Lennon was moved by the piece, and the two put together a benefit at Madison Square Garden entitled ‘One to One’ that also featured Stevie Wonder and Roberta Flack performing.
The concert was heavy on Lennon’s recent political material, but he also managed to throw in all-time classics like ‘Instant Karma!’ and ‘Imagine’ into the setlist. His performance of ‘Mother’ is stirring, while his take on Elvis Presley’s ‘Hound Dog’ is a playful tribute to one of his major influences. But it was one song in particular that thrilled and delighted fans in equal measure: the Abbey Road opener ‘Come Together’.
Lennon’s lack of live appearances means that there are very few recordings of him playing Beatles songs during his solo career. He famously performed ‘Yer Blues’ at both the Toronto Peace Festival and at The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus, and would later play ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ as the final song of his career as a live performer, sharing the stage with Elton John in 1975. But his performance of ‘Come Together’ is exhilarating, as it combines his political edge with the crowd-pleasing aura of breaking out a Beatles song.
Backed by Elephant’s Memory, Lennon acquiesces to “go back in the past just once” before acknowledging that the audience “might remember this better than I do.” This version of ‘Come Together’ is bluesier and higher than the original, with Lennon improvising and flubbing some of the original lyrics. All in all, it’s a loose version that is still well-executed, voice cracks and all. The reception given by the audience proved just how potent The Beatles’ music still was years after the members went their separate ways.
After the benefit, Lennon would start to spiral. His heavy support of Democrat George McGovern in the 1972 Presidential Election left him uncertain of his activism after McGovern was defeated in a major landslide. His relationship with Ono was also faltering, and he departed to Los Angeles for his famous ‘Lost Weekend’, which saw him abandon politics for drunken debauchery. It would take the birth of his son Sean in 1975 to create a sense of balance and stability, with his subsequent turn away from the music industry creating a vacuum for fans who wanted to see and hear their hero one more time.
They would get the opportunity, but never again would Lennon perform a full-length concert.