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John Lennon in New York City

John Lennon New York City
John Lennon New York City

In “John Lennon: The New York City Years,” the exhibition at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Annex NYC in Soho that opened this week, there is a split-second scene of John and Yoko at an anti-war rally in Central Park. I happened to have been there. Here is all that I remember of that rally: When John and Yoko came to the stage to sing “All We Are Saying/Is Give Peace A Chance,” the audience collectively rose several inches higher. We had all gotten on our toes to get a better look.

The new exhibition, “created by Yoko Ono” and curated by the staff of the museum, promises to give a better look at the last nine years of the ex-Beatle’s life, time spent mostly in New York City.

“John was in love with this city, head over heels,” Ono told reporters on opening day. One of the many quotations from Lennon about New York City in the exhibition: “I regret profoundly that I was not born an American and not born in Greenwich Village.”

In a single large room that gives the feel of “The White Album” or John and Yoko in their white period — white walls, white carpeting, white cases — there are several of his guitars, his upright piano, a lot of home movies and experimental videos by “Joko Films”, photographs (such as the billboard “War Is Over, If You Want It” that he put up in Times Square in 1969), a few of his drawings ( such as his depiction of himself as the Statue of Liberty) and some half dozen cases of hand-typed and hand-written song lyrics. Visitors, having been given listening devices, hear different Lennon songs depending on where they are in the exhibition, and can also read exhibit labels giving Lennon’s take on some of the albums he made during the period. His 1972 “Some Time in New York City” took only nine days to complete. “When we made that album, we weren’t setting out to make the Brandenburg Concerto,” he writes wryly.

There is a section on the successful four-year fight against the efforts by the Nixon administration to deport him, with some of the letters written on their behalf, by luminaries as diverse as New York City Mayor John Lindsay, American Bandshell’s Dick Clark (“It is possible for one to disagree with their personal and public way of life. Their cultural contributions can’t be ignored”) and Anne Waldman, the director of the Poetry Project (“It would be a slur on the face of poetry to have him kicked out.”)

John Lennon's visa to stay in the U.S.
John Lennon's visa to stay in the U.S.

For all his well-known involvement with radical politics and less-accessible cutting-edge art during his New York years, we learn that Lennon never lost his playfulness, especially when it came to his dealings with the press:  For the press kit for the 1974 Lennon album “Walls and Bridges,” Lennon took an interview that Ringo Starr had done for his own 1973 album “Ringo” and used it virtually verbatim, just substituting the names. His bonhomie seems to have been infectious:  Yoko Ono is shown palling around with Fred Astaire!

The exhibition comes to an end, as it must, with Lennon’s murder on December 8, 1980. While we listen to “Imagine,” we see a photograph of Lennon’s blood-stained glasses and the large brown paper bag that contains the clothes he wore on the day he was killed, returned to Ono by the police department many months later.  We are also invited to add our name to a mural of people who support stricter gun control laws, with a promise that it will be sent to President Barack Obama when the exhibition closes. Next to the mural, already filling up, is a wall label: “The number of people who had died by gunshot since John’s death is 16 times higher than the total number of American soldeers lost in the Vietnam War.”