John Lennon would be turning 70 years old on October 9. At first, Yoko Ono herself didn’t realize the significance of that date. “I don’t think about age so much,” she tells Rolling Stone. “But I was getting messages from all corners of the world: ‘We’re celebrating John’s birthday as a tribute to him.’ I said, ‘What is going on here?’ It seems like with 70, there’s an explosion [of sentiment].” Over the next two months, Lennon’s birthday will be commemorated with tribute concerts, reissues, a new documentary, the annual lighting of Ono’s Imagine Peace light tower, even an Ono-Lady Gaga summit. Why is all this happening now? “The reason has to do with the social climate, with wanting some of John’s energy, power and conviction,” says Ono. Here are some of the highlights.
Documentary on the New York Years
LENNONYC, which premiered at the New York Film Festival September 25 and will debut on PBS November 22, focuses exclusively on the last decade of Lennon’s life, from the time he and Ono moved to New York in 1971 until his death in 1980. “New York offered him a chance to disconnect from the shackles of the Beatles,” says director Michael Epstein. “It allowed him to be John Lennon and not Beatle John. It offered simple freedoms, like going to Burger King and buying a Whopper, which he liked to do.” The film explores Lennon’s immersion in the city’s downtown arts scene and his raucous rock & roll work with Elephant’s Memory, as well as the depression that followed the critical drubbing of his Some Time in New York City album and 1972 Madison Square Garden concert (which is seen here in newly restored footage). It also covers his “lost weekend” in Los Angeles, reconciliation with Ono and the creation of Double Fantasy. Epstein says Ono had to stop and start several times while talking about Lennon’s death, but she gave her blessing to the film nonetheless. “It’s ‘Gimme Some Truth,’ as John put it, so it’s fine,” Ono says. “Let it all hang out there.”
Ono, Gaga, and Others to Play Los Angeles
On October 1 and 2, Ono will revive the Plastic Ono Band, the avant-garde outfit she and Lennon started in 1969, at the Orpheum Theater in L.A. Joining her for renditions of classic POB material will be Iggy Pop, Perry Farrell, Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, and Lady Gaga — who signed up after recently meeting Sean Lennon in Japan. “Lady Gaga and I speak the same language,” Ono says. “I respect her. I saw her show, and it was incredible. Everyone was mesmerized. John would’ve loved it. He’s like me—he went for wild things. And she’s wild.”
John Lennon Signature Box
As with last year’s Beatle reissues, Lennon’s solo catalog — Plastic Ono Band, Imagine, Sometime in New York City, Mind Games, and Walls and Bridges, along with two albums with Yoko Ono, Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey — has been remastered, and will be re-released on October 5. Ono was heavily involved, according to Paul Hicks, a former Abbey Road engineer who worked on the project: “She knows everything about the songs, and she knows exactly how John’s vocals should sound.” For Ono, though, the experience was unexpectedly difficult. “I thought it was going to be fine — listening to John’s songs has been a routine thing for me for the last 30 years,” she says. “But this time, maybe because I listened to all of them, it was very hard, emotionally hard. ‘I’m Losing You’ — that really hit me.” Double Fantasy will also be packaged with a special Stripped Down edition, featuring bare-boned versions of the original tracks. “John’s voice is right up there, and it’s so beautiful,” Ono says. “His diction was very unique. It’s like listening to a Shakespearean actor. It choked me up. I wanted to tell him but he wasn’t here, and that really upset me.” For fans, a box set, John Lennon Signature Box, will be particularly enticing; a bonus disc includes previously unreleased home recordings of songs from 1970’s volcanic Plastic Ono Band (“God,” “I Found Out,” “Mother,” “Love”) along with other tracks from his subsequent records.
Nowhere Boy film
This independently-made U.K. movie takes an unexpected focus: It’s a biopic concerned solely with Lennon’s teenage years in Liverpool. The film, which is based on a memoir by Lennon’s half sister Julia, hinges on the relationship between the future Beatle; his guardian, Aunt Mimi; and his free-spirited mother, Julia, who abandoned Lennon at four and then reappeared when he was 15. “It’s a love triangle that happens to be about John Lennon,” says director Sam Taylor-Wood. “There were two strong women then — and that [dynamic] played out throughout his life.”
Ono’s Iceland Celebrations
On October 9, Ono will preside over the annual lighting of the Imagine Peace Tower — 15 searchlights pointed skyward — on an island off ReykjavÌk, Iceland. She’ll also present LennonOno Grant for Peace awards to four recipients — authors Michael Pollan and Alice Walker, public health advocate Barbara Kowalcyk, and documentary filmmaker Josh Fox — whose work is “based on their courage and commitment to peace, truth, and human rights.” To cap it off, she’ll give a special Plastic Ono Band performance with a lineup that will include her son Sean along with Cornelius, Yuka Honda, and other members of the current POB. The show will be dedicated to Lennon, who once asked Ono to turn her conceptual idea for a light tower (from her book Grapefruit) into an actual sculpture. “John invited me over and said, ‘I want this in my backyard,’” she recalls. “And I said, ‘This is just an idea.’ But for him, it was real. He was the first person who picked up on that concept.”
Rockers Cover Lennon in Concert
Jackson Browne, Patti Smith, Cyndi Lauper, Aimee Mann, and Shelby Lynne will be among the musicians participating in a Lennon tribute concert on November 12 at New York’s Beacon Theatre. The proceeds will benefit the Playing for Change Foundation, which brings music education programs to impoverished communities around the world. The show will feature covers of songs from throughout Lennon’s entire career — “It’ll be all John,” says organizer Mark Johnson.