“Welcome to the rehearsal,” John Lennon says, kidding the audience two songs into the show. Frankly, Lennon, Yoko Ono and their Plastic Ono Elephant’s Memory Band could have used a few more hours of practice before they took the stage August 30th, 1972, at Madison Square Garden, where they headlined a benefit show for mentally handicapped children. On Live in New York City, you can hear the band skid helplessly across the last chords in “Cold Turkey,” and Lennon even apologizes for their flat finish on “Instant Karma (We All Shine On).” “We’ll get it right next time,” he promises.
There was no next time. The Garden show was Lennon’s last major concert appearance and his last show with Yoko Ono, who produced this release. (Ono’s two spotlight numbers in the show, “Sisters O Sisters” and “Born in a Prison,” have not been included here.) But the historic import of the event is only one reason to buy Live in New York City. The others are the soulful gusto of Lennon’s singing; the surprising breadth of his set list (punky metal stomps like “Come Together,” the primal-scream song “Mother,” even a bow to Elvis, “Hound Dog”); and the uninhibited confessional tone of his entire performance, right down to his stage banter and subtle lyric changes.
“Imagine no possessions/I wonder if we can,” he muses, questioning the honesty of his then utopian politics. In his anguished screams and the angry screech of his guitar on “Cold Turkey,” you can almost hear the yapping of Nixon’s immigration hellhounds on his trail. The left-wing New York club band Elephant’s Memory, with whom John and Yoko cut Sometime in New York City earlier that year, does a credible backup job here. On “Woman Is the Nigger of the World,” they get tough with the song’s simple Fifties-style ballad changes, while Lennon summons up a volatile mix of male shame and feminist outrage in his vocal.
All that, and he makes you laugh, too. “This song is another song from one of those albums I made since I left the Rolling Stones,” he declares dryly before “Mother.” Though it may be a bit underrehearsed, Live in New York City is nevertheless classic Lennon, because it’s all here — his humor, pain, anger and unshakable faith in the power of rock & roll to change the world.