John Lennon came to New York City in the wake of Beatlemania and found refuge in the City That Doesn’t Care How Famous You Are. He quickly discovered that he could wander the streets, go to movies, and eat at restaurants without being bothered. He developed that specific city loyalty that’s unique to transplants, the gratitude that’s born out of the relief at finding the place you belong, and having that place embrace you wholeheartedly.
When John and Yoko arrived in 1971, they moved into the 17th floor of the St. Regis Hotel, but shortly abandoned their uptown luxury abode for a two-bedroom loft apartment in the West Village. 105 Bank Street soon became a locus of activity, both political and musical, with visitors from all along the spectrum coming at all hours of the day and night — including, of course, the FBI, who were investigating Lennon’s radicalism as grounds for deportation. John and Yoko had immediately gotten involved in a host of social causes, from the Vietnam War, to John Sinclair’s arrest for possession, to the Attica Prison riots. They hung out with the Yippies and the Black Panthers, and commemorated much of their life in the song “New York City” on Lennon and Ono’s Some Time In New York City album.
And, of course, American Beatlemania began seven years earlier right here in New York City, when John, Paul, George and Ringo stepped off a Pan Am flight at the newly-named JFK Airport and headed for the Ed Sullivan Show. They would play at Carnegie Hall, Forest Hills Stadium, and make history by playing Shea Stadium before retiring from live performance in 1966.
In honor of what would have been John’s 75th birthday — and the December 19 broadcast of AMC’s star-studded mega concert that pays tribute to his music — let’s look back at his notable New York City appearances.
February 9, 1964 |The Ed Sullivan Show
The historic debut that would indelibly change the world. The Beatles went out to 73 million viewers, and indelibly altered the culture. Even in their most neutered, lovable, harmless, moptop-sporting state, the Beatles were more revolutionary than anything since they tamed Elvis. The Beatles played five songs, and then went down to the Peppermint Lounge on 45th Street and danced the twist until the early hours of the morning.
August 28, 1964 | Forest Hills Stadium
The first of two nights out in Queens. The Beatles were flown in by helicopter from Manhattan, and didn’t arrive until almost 10 p.m. because the pilot didn’t have clearance to depart. The audience was separated from the stage by an eight-foot high fence topped with barbed wire. Like most of the Beatles live concerts, fans remember the screaming and the attempts to get onstage more than the music. This is also the night the Beatles met Bob Dylan — and marijuana — for the first time, back at the Delmonico Hotel after the concert.
August 15, 1965 | Shea Stadium
The Beatles’ 1965 performances at Shea Stadium broke all of the records and changed the music business. The stage was out at second base, and despite three rows of NYPD barricades, the police still spent the entire concert trying to catch fans running across the infield. No one could hear a goddamn thing, including the Beatles themselves. (They wouldn’t have onstage monitors until they got to Atlanta on this tour, a few days later.)
Despite all of this, the Beatles’ Shea Stadium appearances were actually reasonably good concerts. There is plenty of audio and video available, including a documentary released by the Beatles. (You can even play the Beatles at Shea in Rock Band!) The Beatles would perform at Shea again in 1966, a week before their final concert at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, before completely retiring from live performances altogether.
June 6, 1971 | The Fillmore East with Frank Zappa
John and Yoko had been hanging out with Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, and were invited to join them at their Fillmore East performance later that night. (“I thought he had a pretty good sense of humor,” Zappa was quoted as saying about Lennon). Zappa was already recording the show for an upcoming live record, which is why there is official audio and video footage from both the Zappa and Lennon camps. The trio wrote a song together, known as “Scumbag” or “Jamrag,” depending on whose version it is.
September 11, 1971 | The Dick Cavett Show
This would be the first interview John did after the breakup of the Beatles. Lennon had finished the Imagine album and needed to do some promotion for it. He was addicted to American television; visitors to 105 Bank Street relate that he kept the TV on all the time, even during business meetings. (Bob Gruen details this in his book John Lennon: The New York Years.) This probably explains the Lennon-Onos strong presence on East Coast-based talk shows in the Seventies and why they reached out to Cavett. John and Yoko are initially nervous, practically chain-smoking, before John gets into a rhythm with Cavett, who he clearly likes. You’re also struck by how careful John is to try make sure Yoko gets equal footing and equal time.
December 16, 1971 | The David Frost Show
The venerable UK talk show host moved to the States and began taping shows in New York. Both John and Yoko had already been interviewed by Frost previously in the UK, and felt comfortable with him. The appearance was to publicize the upcoming Some Time In New York City album, and backing John and Yoko would be David Peel and the Lower East Side Band, along with new friend and social activist Jerry Rubin on percussion. Peel was a well-known Village street musician who John had run into on the street, and the pair had spontaneously sung together a few times, in Washington Square Park and once under the awning of the Fillmore East. (Peel would later be misidentified as Lennon by the FBI, and his photo was sent out instead of Lennon’s during their campaign to deport him.)
Lennon would perform four songs from the upcoming album, including “Attica State,” written in response to the September riot at the upstate New York prison based on prisoners’ demands for political rights and better living conditions. Lennon and Ono have a heated debate with the audience over the song, with the audience incensed at what they perceived as their support of the prisoners; the discussion with Frost focused on their current involvement in social activism. David Peel would also perform two original songs, one of which—“The Ballad of New York City”—was about John and Yoko moving to the Village. (Yoko plays bongos and John plays tea chest bass.)
January 14, 1972 | Attica Prison Benefit at the Apollo Theater
John and Yoko played the Apollo Theater in Harlem in a benefit concert for the families of prisoners shot in the Attica Prison uprising. Aretha Franklin also performed. “It’s an honor and a pleasure to be here at the Apollo, and for the reasons that we’re all here,” John said. John and Yoko sang “Attica State,” Yoko sang “Sisters, O Sisters,” and Lennon, explaining that he was still putting a band together, finished the set with a solo acoustic version of “Imagine.” It was John’s second live appearance in the U.S. — his first being at a rally in Ann Arbor to free John Sinclair — but was completely ignored by mainstream media. The only reports would be in Harlem’s local Amsterdam News.
June 12, 1972 | Some Time In New York City
Lennon and Ono would release John’s third post-Beatles solo album, produced by none other than Phil Spector, chronicling their life in New York and their involvement in politics, the peace movement, and social activism. Unfortunately, it is easily Lennon’s worst record, but not because of the subject matter: The themes are fine, but the lyrics are weak and the music uninspiring.
But one of the more likable tracks on the record is “New York City,” an affectionate tribute to his new hometown, featuring talking blues-type lyrics about Lennon’s activities since moving to New York over fairly straight-ahead rock and roll riffs leftover from the Fifties. John started writing the song shortly after moving to New York, and the lyrics explored their life so far, from Zappa to their battles with the INS. Lennon would open the One to One Concerts at Madison Square Garden (more on that below) with the track.
August 30, 1972 | One to One Benefit Concerts, Madison Square Garden
These concerts were a fundraiser for a charitable foundation started by Geraldo Rivera, who at the time was a legitimate investigative journalist and had uncovered abuses against disabled children housed in a group home run by New York State. John and Yoko had befriended Rivera when he was covering their deportation hearings, and offered to help after seeing his report on the Willowbrook home on Staten Island. With Stevie Wonder, Roberta Flack, and Sha Na Na also on the bill, this would be John’s first full concert since 1966.
Backed by Elephant’s Memory, Lennon changed the lyrics of “Come Together” to “Come together/Stop the war/Right now!” as well as “Instant Karma,” “Cold Turkey,” and Elvis’ “Hound Dog,” before Stevie Wonder joined him for an encore of “Give Peace A Chance.” The thought was that these concerts were precursors to a nationwide tour, but audience and media response was negative enough that Lennon scrapped any plans he might have had. Filmed for broadcast, an official version of the matinee performance would be released in 1986.
September 4, 1972 | The Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon
The Jerry Lewis telethon was an annual event for decades, held to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Up until 1973, the telethon was broadcast from New York City. At the time, John and Yoko were in the middle of fighting the U.S. government for the right for John to remain in the U.S. Although the pair were legitimately involved in various charity works, for the sake of their case against the government, it now needed to be as public and as mainstream as possible. That’s how they ended up here, playing an awful version of “Imagine” over-dominated by saxophone, and an equally dire seven-minute reggae version of “Give Peace A Chance” with John and Yoko exhorting viewers to send in their money.
April 28, 1974 | March of Dimes Walkathon, Central Park
In one of the more unusual appearances by John Lennon in New York City, he appears at the rally at the end of the March of Dimes Walkathon held in Central Park. After his introduction, the crowd immediately erupts in shrieks better suiting the height of Beatlemania. Lennon (newly returned from Los Angeles and his “Lost Weekend” phase) and Harry Nilsson sing half a verse of “I’m Walkin’” by Fats Domino before attempting to flee. John’s appearance was not a secret, so there’s detailed film footage of the disaster.
November 28, 1974 | With Elton John, Madison Square Garden
While Lennon was recording Walls and Bridges, Elton John “popped in” and was soon singing backing vocals and playing piano on “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night.” Elton asked John if he would sing it with him when played at Madison Square Garden; Lennon responded that if the song hits Number 1, he’d sing it with him, as Denny Somach recalls in Larry Kane’s Lennon Revealed. Thank goodness it did, because this cameo by John is unforgettable. The two sing “Whatever…,” as well as “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” which Elton had covered and released as a single just one week earlier (with a certain Dr. Winston O’Boogie on vocals and guitar). But the best moment of the appearance was the last number, introduced by John as, “We thought we’d do a number by an old estranged fiancé of mine called Paul.” Their wonderful version of “I Saw Her Standing There” would be later released as the non-LP b-side to “Philadelphia Freedom.” This would be John Lennon’s last live performance.