Lennon-Ono bed-in: 40th anniversary
In a Montreal hotel room in 1969, two of the Sixties' most celebrated
figures decided to give peace a chance by sleeping in
May. 23, 2009
It was, as Charles Dickens once wrote in A Tale of Two Cities , the
best of times and the worst of times. It was the age of
enlightenment, it was the age of foolishness, it was the season of
Light, it was the season of Darkness, and we had everything before us.
On the upside, in late May of 1969, here was the most famous couple
in the world the Beatle John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono
nonchalantly sitting in their white honeymoon pyjamas talking peace
and non-violence in a Montreal hotel room. I was one of the throng of
reporters there as The Globe's first full-time rock writer, I'd
been invited by the pair and their press secretary Derek Taylor after
helping them (in a hastily called strategy meeting) to settle on
Montreal as the site of "the bed-in."
Peace and good vibes filled the flower-bedecked room, along with an
ever-changing crowd of celebrity visitors comedian Tom Smothers,
psychedelic-drugs guru Timothy Leary, human-rights campaigner Dick
Gregory, writer Nat Hentoff, singer Petula Clark and Rabbi Abraham
Feinberg. On the walls were pitches for non-violence, scrawled in
John's familiar doodles and handwriting. As the week progressed,
lyrics also went up on the wall for his new anthem, Give Peace a
Chance, which would be recorded on the final day of the couple's stay
in Suite 1742 at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel.
On the downside, also present in that hotel room was one of the era's
most despicable right-wing ranters, the hippie-hating Li'l Abner
cartoonist Al Capp, doing his best to sabotage John Lennon's peace
efforts by insulting his new wife and blatantly attempting to provoke
the Beatle into punching out his lights, and thus besmirching the War
Is Over (if you want it) campaign.
Capp had been invited by a CBC documentary producer as "balance" to
the legion of left wingers drawn to the site of anti-war agitation.
Accurately introducing himself as he sat down by the bed with the
words, "I'm a dreadful Neanderthal fascist. How do you do," Capp
sardonically congratulated Lennon and Ono on their Two Virgins album
cover: "I think everybody owes it to the world to prove they have
pubic hair. You've done it, and I tell you I applaud you for it."
Unlike the half-dozen of us gathered in the suite that afternoon, our
rage approaching the let's-push-this-moron-out-the-window stage, John
could clearly see that he was being set up and would not rise to the bait.
Other than Capp, everything about the Montreal bed-in was supremely
upbeat and positive, almost naively so. (Odd aromas drifted through,
but there were no arrests, despite the regular appearance of familiar
faces, which we much later discovered in RCMP and FBI freedom of
information documents to have been those of police tailing, taping
and tapping our every move.)
Initially, the Lennons had flown to the Bahamas in the hope of
conducting their second bed-in (after one in Amsterdam). But after
finding the tourist hotel had jacked up its prices outrageously for
their visit, the party, composed of John and Yoko, Yoko's daughter
Kyoko, from her previous marriage to filmmaker Tony Cox, Taylor and
two members of the Beatles' film crew, relocated to Toronto. Once
immigration issues were sorted out allowing John as a "desirable
alien" to stay on Canadian soil for the duration, Montreal was the
obvious choice. (John had originally wanted the bed-in to take place
in New York, but wasn't allowed into the United States due to his
1968 marijuana conviction; Montreal was a convenient destination for
the U.S. media he wanted to entice.)
During a press conference at Toronto's King Edward Hotel I attended
the day before the Montreal bed-in, John revealed: "The whole effect
of our bed-ins has made people talk about peace. We're trying to
interest young people in doing something about peace. But it must be
done by non-violent means otherwise there can only be chaos. We're
saying to the young people and they have always been the hippest
ones we're telling them to get the message across to the squares."
To which a reporter responded, "What about talking to the people who
make the decisions, the power brokers?" Lennon just laughed: "Shit,
talk? Talk about what? It doesn't happen like that. In the U.S., the
government is too busy talking about how to keep me out. If I'm a
joke, as they say, and not important, why don't they just let me in?"
In the summer of 1969, there was also talk of bed-ins in Russia
("I've heard it's easier to get into there than the U.S.," John
quipped) and also Germany, Ireland and Tokyo. Once he had obtained a
U.S. visa, John hoped to host bed-ins in New York and Washington.
At the Toronto airport en route to Montreal, I asked John if he was
afraid of the U.S. political climate.
"Yes, we're really scared to go to the U.S. because people have
become so violent even our sort of people. Violence begets
violence. We want to avoid it. But once we do get into the States,
and can do our bed-ins in Washington and New York, I think we'll
start to have some effect.
"I think it will take five to 10 years to change things. Yoko thinks
five, I'm for 10. But we can't do it alone; we must have everybody's help."
London was never in the plan. "I'd have to take me prick out to get
the attention of the English press," he said somewhat bitterly at the
Toronto airport on his way to the Montreal bed-in.
"Now we do events outside [Britain], and the English press comes
along to see them. We need the press very much to get our message
across, so we have to go along with all sorts of bullshit from
reporters. We answer the same questions over and over. Let me tell
you that the Amsterdam gig wasn't the best way I know of having a honeymoon."
The Montreal experience was more laid-back. From their Montreal bed,
John and Yoko devoted a good portion of their time to talking up the
peace message on U.S. radio stations to KSAN-FM's San Francisco Bay
area listeners one day, and the next, to KPFA-FM in Berkeley, Calif.,
where the People's Park march was under way and Lennon was urging
peaceful methods in it: "You can't change anything with violent
means. Violence is what has kept mankind from getting together for centuries."
For the 40th anniversary of the Montreal bed-in, Yoko has launched
her anti-war exhibition, Imagine: The Peace Ballad of John & Yoko, at
the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (see sidebar for details and other
40th anniversary events [see below). She is also to be awarded a
prestigious Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement on June 6 at this
year's Venice Biennale contemporary art exhibition.
"I'm so happy that our dream is still alive and it's spreading and
it's expanding," she said to me at the private opening of the
exhibition earlier this spring. "I think that the whole world is
realizing that peace isn't all that bad.
"I think that we are very lucky that we are still here 40 years
later. When many of us couldn't make it. … We are very lucky." She
indicated that as well as John, she was thinking particularly of
Taylor, Leary, Rabbi Feinberg and photojournalist Gerry Deiter, who
was covering the bed-in for Life magazine (see sidebar for Toronto
Today, Yoko says it's the positive aspects of the bed-in she most
vividly recalls. "Montreal was a place where John and I created a
very important statement," she said. "We didn't think it was going to
be that important at the time but it [made] the beds for our lives. I
remember that when the journalists went home each day around 6
o'clock, John and I would turn around and look at the sky. It was a
beautiful view. I always remember that.
"Without Montreal's vibrations and spirit around, Give Peace a Chance
might not have been born. It was a work between John and I and our
partnership with Montreal."
Writer Ritchie Yorke wrote about John and Yoko Lennon's peace
activities in several Globe articles in the 1968-70 period. He also
travelled the world as the International Peace Envoy for the War Is
Over If You Want It peace campaign. He is researching a book about
the campaign to be published on the 30th anniversary of John Lennon's
death late next year.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Bed-in: 40th anniversary events
Friday, May. 22, 2009
The exhibition Imagine: The Peace Ballad of John & Yoko presents 140
works, drawings, unpublished photographs, videos, films, artworks and
interactive materials. Visitors can play Imagine on a white piano
with a Disklavier sound system and, once a day, speak to Ono on the
phone. Until June 21 at Montreal's Museum of Fine Arts (mmfa.qc.ca).
On June 1, Toronto rock station Q107 plans to host a simulcast from
Suite 1742 at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel to commemorate the recording
of Give Peace A Chance .
Later in the day, the station will broadcast from Toronto's Stephen
Bulger Gallery, 1026 Queen St. W., where an exhibit of the photos
from the Montreal bed-in will be under way. From May 26 to June 2,
the gallery will remain open 24 hours a day, displaying photos taken
by photojournalist Gerry Deiter, who was covering the event for Life
magazine. (Deiter died in 2005. The photos were compiled by
collaborator Joan Athey and have also been published in a new book
Give Peace A Chance: John & Yoko's Bed-In For Peace.)
Toronto theatre company Draft 89 is staging an original play called
John/Yoko Bed Piece at 1087 Queen St. W., until June 7 (johnyokobedpiece.com).
Jerry Levitan's book I Met The Walrus is being released, about the
day, as an impressionable teen, he talked his way into John Lennon
and Yoko Ono's suite at the King Edward Hotel during a stopover in
Toronto and interviewed them both.
Filmmaker Peter McNamee's Let Him Be , a drama based on the
far-fetched notion Lennon might be alive and living in Northern
Ontario, opens Friday May 29 in Toronto.
There are rumours Ono may attend some events, as she appeared at the
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts opening in April.
The bed seen around the world
Two books recall Canada's close encounter with a Beatle
By Ian McGillis, The Edmonton Journal
May 24, 2009
Give Peace a Chance: John and Yoko's Bed-In For Peace
Gerry Deiter (photographer), Joan Athey (compiler) and Paul McGrath (editor)
120 pp., $29.95
I Met The Walrus: How One Day With John Lennon Changed My Life Forever
168 pp., $32.99
- - -
It's so tempting to dismiss it all with a superior retrospective shrug.
A wealthy rock star and his conceptual artist wife install themselves
in a Montreal hotel room bed for a week, espousing peace as though
they have just invented the idea while a media circus dutifully
swirls around them. A hopelessly naive by-product of a hopelessly
naive time, right?
Well, yes. In some ways. Certainly, looking through a new elegantly
designed volume marking the 40th anniversary of John Lennon and Yoko
Ono's pacifist agit-prop project,
responses may vary with knowledge of context. The effect of
touchingly tender portraits of the couple with Yoko's young daughter,
Kyoko, is tempered somewhat by the thought that at this time,
Lennon's first wife, Cynthia, and son, Julian, were being left to
fend for themselves, their only apparent fault being their failure to
fit into the new utopian narrative.
Reminiscences from people who were in the room -- press, recording
engineers, DJs, hangers-on of all stripes and the late Gerry Deiter,
the photographer around whose pictures the book is built -- spin
variations on "this encounter changed my life," yet within a couple
of years the soon to be ex-Beatle had embarked on a very different
political path, one that would have critic Lester Bangs remarking
that Lennon would "jump on any bandwagon to make himself look like a
The photographs themselves evoke an odd mix of timelessness -- John
and Yoko could pass for nouveau-folkie hipsters of 2009 -- and
frozen-in-its-era quaintness. Comedian Tommy Smothers and acid guru
Timothy Leary are present in many of these shots; the former, a hot
name in 1969, is all but forgotten now, while the latter, in the last
gasp of his cultural currency at the time, has been judged a false
prophet by history. For Montrealers, local period details are
understated but still there: faint glimpses of Dorchester Boulevard
from the Queen Elizabeth Hotel room's 17th-floor window; an account
of an exchange, 15 months before the October Crisis, in which Lennon
tells an unnamed "séparatiste" he cannot support a cause that can't
Ultimately, while the sheer audacity of what John and Yoko did may
have been arrogant in its way, it burns through all hindsight-aided
One is certainly hard-pressed to imagine any current celebrity of
remotely equivalent stature so willingly risking ridicule for a
cause. These two had a deep understanding of the inclusive power of
simplicity, in image, words and music.
It's fitting, then, that so many of Deiter's photographs document the
writing and recording, in that hotel room, of Give Peace a Chance,
the classic affirmative protest song that gives the book its name.
Sure, those verses may be dated doggerel, but that chorus is simply
undeniable. As is Give Peace a Chance, the book.
A day before the Montreal bed-in began, John and Yoko were at the
King Edward Hotel in Toronto, where a local 14-year-old fan named
Jerry Levitan, posing improbably as a journalist, snuck into their
suite. It says something for the spirit of the times that he not only
got in, but that instead of being summarily dismissed, the boy was
invited back to do an interview later in the day. Two years ago, the
tape of the resulting conversation served as the basis for the short
animated film I Met The Walrus. Nominated for an Oscar and one of the
most watched clips on YouTube, the film possesses the gently
psychedelic charm of the Beatles' own Yellow Submarine.
Now comes the spinoff book.
Levitan is at his best when he sticks to the specifics of the day he
met Lennon. It is, after all, pretty remarkable that a 14-year-old
armed only with chutzpah was able to enact what was surely the dream
of millions of his contemporaries worldwide. The author's gawky tone
and the children's-book look of the illustrations are well-suited to
these passages, less so to the rest of the book, where an air of
redundancy hangs over accounts of the impact of the Beatles on Ed
Sullivan, the release of Sgt. Pepper, etc.
And the book doesn't really live up to its subtitle, as Levitan
sprints through his life since that day 40 years ago. For many, the
main selling point will be the enclosed DVD, which includes a
charmingly amateur silent film and batch of photographs and, most
important, the complete 1969 interview. Lennon's low-fi voice speaks
across the decades with spectral power.
This reviewer, a lifelong Beatles nut who has only recently found
himself thinking that maybe enough is enough, would still be more
than glad to give these books as gifts: Give Peace A Chance to anyone
interested in the subject and in pop culture history; I Met The
Walrus to someone whose age and need for a worthy hero mirror the