Monday, December 21, 2020

Primal screaming on stage in Toronto

In high school we had our own version of the Fab Four and our very own Yoko Ono, only things worked out much more amicably for us.

I was a member of a very tight group of four guys -- ironically all with the first name of Robert, but that's a story for another post -- who was joined my senior year by a girl named Peggy (no, it wasn't Peggy Sue, but she was from Texas).

Peggy had moved to Missouri with her parents and enrolled in our high school. She met Robert Crawford, one of the Gang of Four, and they quickly became an inseparable item. Peggy was very cool, though, and we accepted her into our group.

After high school we went our separate ways, except for Rob and Peggy, who got married. (Too bad her middle name wasn't Sue because we could have had "Peggy Sue Got Married").

I reunited with Rob and Peggy in the mid-2000s following Rob's retirement from the Air Force and their return to Missouri. (Yes, they had a true high-school romance that lasted). We now live 90 miles apart and, until the world spiraled into a pandemic, saw each other fairly often. Rob and Peggy are among my favorite people on the planet. Rob is an incredibly talented guitarist and Peggy is an exceptionally accomplished artist in several mediums. Both are faithful members of the resistance.

My wife and then-young teenage daughters accompanied me to my first reunion with my old friends. Pardon the cliche, but it seemed that no time had elapsed since high school 30-some years previous. Reminisces flowed as my girls listened to tall tales about the days of my youth. We talked about the four Roberts-and-a-Peggy and joked about her being our group's Yoko Ono.

"Who is Yoko Ono?" the girls chorused.

We explained about The Beatles (thankfully, the girls at least knew who they were) and the breakup of the band and how some blamed John Lennon hooking up with Yoko Ono as a cause of the fracturing of the four musicians. 

I also gave my daughters my opinion of the utter awfulness of Yoko Ono's screeching that she passed off as singing.

My daughters were interested in hearing what Yoko Ono sounded like, so when we returned home, I pulled Live Peace In Toronto 1969 by the Plastic Ono Band from my collection and dropped the needle on Side 2. It did not take long for Ono's screaming and wailing to drive the girls from the room. “Dad,” they exclaimed as they fled, “don't ever tell us again how much better your old music is than ours.”

When I bought the album way back when, all I knew was that it was John Lennon and Eric Clapton playing together. What more reason did I need to justify the purchase? I saw Yoko Ono's name, but all I really knew was that she was Lennon's new significant other.

The album started out with the band tuning up on stage, then Lennon announcing, "We're just going to do numbers that we know because we've never played together before." Oh, crap, I thought on that premiere listen. If you have to make excuses in advance, then you must think what you're about to do is junk.

I was pleasantly surprised.

What followed was talented musicians doing what they do best: playing live and feeding off each other's energies. Six cuts were on Side 1, including three 1950s standards, "Blue Suede Shoes," "Money (That's What I Want)" and "Dizzy Miss Lizzy." Three songs by Lennon (credited to Lennon/McCartney) -- "Yer Blues," "Cold Turkey" and "Give Peace A Chance" -- close the first half of the album. I'm liking this, I thought, as I absorbed the music. Just good old-fashioned rock and roll that appears to have been presented honestly on vinyl as a live concert, not some overdubbed studio recreation of what the band wished they would have sounded like when they played live.

All systems go. Full speed ahead to Side 2.

I was not ready for what I heard next: Seventeen minutes and 29 seconds of Yoko Ono engaged in what sounded like a primal-scream therapy session gone horribly wrong. Over two songs, "Don't Worry Kyoko" and "John John (Let's Hope For Peace)," Ono screamed, wailed and uttered unintelligible noises, ending with a wall of feedback sound.

"What the hell," I muttered as I repeatedly lifted the tone arm up and placed it back down, hoping to find something, somewhere that resembled music. My search was in vain. Other than playing it for my daughter's decades later, that was the one and only time I listened to that side of the album. I'm sure that as a multi-medium artist, Ono has produced work of lasting value. I just didn't find it on Live Peace. I stand accused of being plebeian, a troglodyte, anti-avant garde. I didn't get it then, and I don't get it now.

I guess John really, really loved her.

I imagine a conversation something like this between Lennon and Clapton:

"Hey, Eric, thanks for agreeing to do the show in Toronto."

"No problem, John, glad to do it."

"Eric, you'll get to meet my new girlfriend. She's really cool and has a great singing voice."

Clapton, later to himself: "WTF?"

A gold album despite critical disdain: Live Peace was certified gold, making it to number 10 on the Billboard 200, even in the face of attacks on Ono's performance. Typical was Richard Ginell of AllMusic, who wrote: "Side 2, alas, was devoted entirely to Ono's wailing, pitchless, brainless, banshee vocalizing. ... No wonder you see many used copies of the LP with worn A-sides and clean, unplayed B-sides ... and Yoko's 'art' is just as irritating today as it was in 1969. But in those days, if you wanted John, you had to take the whole package."

Who needs practice when you have talent? This was the first live album released by any member of The Beatles. Lennon was asked to serve as master of ceremonies for the Toronto festival, which was centered around a revival of 1950s rock-and-roll acts. Lennon, instead, offered to play and assembled the band one day prior to the show. They practiced with acoustic instruments on the plane flight to Canada and briefly before taking the stage.

Did the concert lead to the breakup of The Beatles? In addition to the '50s rock stars, the festival also featured contemporary performers such as Alice Cooper, Chicago Transit Authority (later, just Chicago) and The Doors. Lennon was reportedly so enthused by the crowd's reception to the band (just not Ono) that he found the courage to leave The Beatles. More on that here.


  1. What a great recollection of the long strange trip it's been! Peggy and I cherish these memories and your and Debbie's friendship. It's comforting to know that time and distance has not changed the important things.

  2. Thanks, Rob. I cannot overvalue the worth of my friendship with you and Peggy. Fair winds and following seas forever.


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