Saturday, 09 May 2009 11:38
By Allan Kozinna New York Times
Walking up Mercer Street toward the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Annex NYC the other day, Yoko Ono and her assistant, Amanda Keeley, shared a quick giggle after passing a group of men unloading a van and then hearing, from about five feet behind them (and for the third time in a short stroll), “Hey, that was Yoko Ono.”
“It always happens that way,” Ms. Ono said, and Ms. Keeley added, “It doesn’t register until a few seconds after you walk past.”
Ms. Ono was heading to the museum, which opened in November, to observe the preparations for “John Lennon: The New York City Years,” an exhibition of memorabilia that opens on Tuesday and provides a glimpse of the nine years he lived in the city, from 1971 until his death in 1980. The show offers a good overview of his creative world, with examples of his art (drawings and collages, some never seenPhoto: Iain Macmillan/Courtesy Yoko Ono
before), video clips of his performances and, most crucially, a collection of lyric sheets and production notes that, if you look closely at Lennon’s changes, additions and annotations, tell a lot about his working methods and his ways of thinking about music.
A display case along one wall in the museum’s large exhibition room holds the white New York City T-shirt, the rhinestone Elvis pin and other items of clothing he wore in famous photographs (with the photographs beside them). Another includes letters, documents and newspaper clippings about his fight to avoid deportation, ostensibly because of a drug conviction in Britain (but really, Lennon always believed, because the United States government found his peace campaigning and political engagement irritating).
Four large video screens play music clips and experimental films. And five cases in the middle of the room present songwriting memorabilia, including handwritten manuscripts for “Imagine” (on New York Hilton note paper), “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” (with cross-outs and lyric changes) and about a dozen others, as well as picture sleeves from a few of Lennon’s singles and the Grammy he won, posthumously, for “Double Fantasy,” in 1981.
“Come here, I want to show you this,” Ms. Ono said as she led a visitor toward a Steinway upright piano in a glass case.
“This is from our bedroom at the Dakota, even now,” she said. “The bed was here, and the piano was there,” she explained, approximating the distance with her hands, “so he could just jump down from the bed and play, if he had an idea. Photo: Courtesy of Yoko Ono
And look at this, here and here,” Ms. Ono added, pointing to a series of cigarette burns on the edges of the flat top and the wood at each side of the keyboard. “He was a chain smoker, and he would leave a cigarette on the edge of the piano when he was writing.”
Nearly everything in the exhibition belongs to Ms. Ono and draws on material she has lent to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s main museum in Cleveland and to the John Lennon Museum in Tokyo. Also featured are items that have never been on public display before, among them a collage that Lennon made for George Harrison during a visit to Tokyo in the late ’70s, that, spookily, includes the surgeon general’s warning about the dangers of smoking. (Harrison died of lung cancer in 2001.)
Other material in the exhibition was contributed by the photographer Bob Gruen, Jim Henke, the hall of fame’s vice president for exhibitions and curatorial affairs, said.
“We’ve had a good relationship with Yoko since before the museum opened here,” Mr. Henke said in a telephone interview from Cleveland. “One of our first acquisitions was a loan from Yoko that included John’s ‘Sergeant Pepper’ uniform, school report cards and handwritten lyrics. And in 2000 she wanted to do an exhibition because it would have been John’s 60th birthday, and also the 20th anniversary of his death.”
Ms. Ono, 76, was an avant-garde artist in New York before she met Lennon in London in 1966. “John’s heart was here,” she said. “Even when he was in Liverpool, and London. He used to show me that famous Bob Dylan album cover, where he’s walking with a girl,” she said, referring to “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” “and he’d say, ‘that should have been me, I could have been a New Yorker.’ So when Jim Henke spoke to me about this, I thought, ‘What a beautiful idea.’ But at the same time, I wanted to do it because we live in a very violent world, and I wanted to show what John was, you know?”
She was referring to his murder in 1980, when he was shot as he and Ms. Ono returned to the Dakota from the recording studio. On the exhibition’s far wall, a poster with the picture of Lennon’s bloodied glasses that Ms. Ono used as the cover of her “Season of Glass” album includes a printed message: “More than 932,000 people have been killed by guns in the U.S.A. since John Lennon was shot and killed on December 8, 1980.” A display case to the right of the poster will hold a brown paper bag marked “Patient’s Belongings.”
“Do you know what this is?” Ms. Ono asked. “When John passed away, the coroner’s office took all his clothes. And I was called in, and they just gave me back this brown paper bag. It was very hard for me, but I insisted on having this bag in the exhibition. I think it’s a very good lesson for people to know what violence means.”
Visitors can sign a petition, alongside the display case, asking for stricter gun laws. It will be sent to President Obama when the show closes in January.
Most of the exhibition, though, is more celebratory, and much of it focuses on Lennon’s creative life. On one screen a black-and-white home video shows Lennon and Ms. Ono working on the 1971 protest song “Luck of the Irish” and writing fresh lines on a typed lyric sheet. That page is displayed a few feet away.
Another piece that captures the songwriting process in flight is a half-typed, half-handwritten version of “Nobody Told Me,” from 1980. Here, Lennon left the final lines of a few verses blank except for the closing words, which show the rhyme he was going for.
Particularly revealing is a list of the songs Lennon planned to record during the sessions for “Double Fantasy,” his final album, in 1980. It’s a long list. Several songs ended up on the posthumous “Milk and Honey” album, released in 1984. The list also includes “Real Love,” a song he never got around to recordingPhoto: Bob Gruen
formally, although a rough demo was embellished by the surviving Beatles for a 1996 single.
Beside each title, Lennon summarized his thoughts about how the song should sound, listing not only instrumentation ideas, but also references to earlier songs he regarded as templates. Next to “Dear Yoko,” for example, he wrote that he had in mind Buddy Holly’s “Listen to Me” and his own “Oh Yoko” and “Imagine.”
A touch of the avant-garde playfulness of Lennon’s early New York period is on display as well. Near the exit is “Telephone Peace,” a white telephone mounted on a wall, with a card telling visitors to answer the phone when it rings.
“This is something we did at the show in 2000,” Mr. Henke said. “Yoko would periodically call in and speak to whoever answers.”
Ms. Ono seemed amused at the prospect. “Yes, you pick up the phone,” she said, “and it will be me.”