Call it playing catch-up or call it being a terrific humanitarian…likely both were true, and about 30 000 New Yorkers were all the better off for it this day in 1972. That was the day John Lennon held two concerts, an afternoon and an evening one, at Madison Square Garden. The concerts were quickly arranged benefit shows, and although no one knew it at the time, they’d be the last full concerts Lennon would ever give. He was the only one of the Beatles who never toured as such after the Fab Four split up.
Lennon decided to do the shows to raise money for the Willowbrook School after seeing a TV news story about it. Willowbrook was a state-run school for mentally disabled kids and none other than Geraldo Rivera, an up-and-coming newsman at the time, brought to light stories of both abuse of the children and poor conditions at the school caused by disrepair. Lennon and Yoko Ono felt moved to act, and so the concerts were arranged, with all proceeds going to the school. They brought in Stevie Wonder, Roberta Flack and Sha Na Na to play on the bill as well; in a surprisingly magnanimous move, Lennon also invited Paul McCartney, who declined.
The idea was wonderful, but it was also highly reminiscent of a double concert George Harrison had done the year before to raise funds for Bangladeshi relief at the same venue. As even the Beatles Bible point out, “the success of George Harrison’s ‘Concert for Bangladesh’ the previous year may well have influenced his decision.” No doubt it irked him a little to see Harrison come to the Big Apple – John’s adopted hometown – and become a hero, not to mention score a hit record, with a charity event that was exactly the type of thing they’d expect Lennon and Ono to do.
Whether a bit of jealousy played a role or not, it was hard to argue with Lennon’s gesture. They sold tickets at between $5 and $10 (depending on seat location) and both shows sold out quickly. ABC filmed it and turned it into a TV special, paying $350 000 to the cause for the rights.
Lennon and his wife brought in session drummer Jim Keltner, and the Elephant’s Memory Band (a group of session musicians from the New York area who often backed Lennon at the time) to play, with John playing rhythm guitar himself. They rehearsed for three days. After Rivera welcomed them to stage for the afternoon show, it was apparent to some that a bit more practice might have helped. The sound was a bit off, and at one point John joked “welcome to the rehearsal.” They played 17 songs, starting with “Power to the People” through a finale of “Hound Dog”. He powered through his Beatles tour de force “Come Together” and a number of his early hits or near-hits like “Imagine,” “Cold Turkey” and “Instant Karma”. Yoko took center stage to do a couple of numbers, “Born in a Prison” and “Sisters, Oh Sisters.” The evening set apparently sounded a bit better, and had 14 songs, including “Give Peace A Chance” to end it. The two Yoko songs were dropped from the bill, with no record of if any fans felt short-changed because of it.
The shows ended up raising over a million dollars for the school, making it a great humanitarian success. Commercially, it wasn’t a massive, or immediate hit. In 1986 (after John’s death of course) a live album and videotape of it were put out, produced by Yoko.
Two surprises came of that fact. One, she chose the afternoon set to use, which even the musicians themselves thought the lesser of the two, performance-wise, and two, that she had an unusual lack of egotism, basically editing herself out of the record. Her songs weren’t included and on songs where she was singing harmony, her voice was mixed very low so as not to detract from Lennon’s. The video had a different selection of songs. Rolling Stone would say of it while it “could have used a few more hours of practice” it was still a decent listen as “classic Lennon, because it’s all here – his humor, pain, anger and unshakeable faith in the power of rock’n’roll to change the world.” Traits his ex-bandmate George Harrison would no doubt admire. The album was a minor success, hitting #41 in the U.S. and eventually going gold.
What no one there knew of course was that it was going to be the last time to see John do a concert of his own. Even though he was active recording through the ’70s and up until his death in 1980, he gave up playing live entirely after this show. The only exception was a brief appearance, also at Madison Square Garden, to be on stage with his friend Elton John in 1974 at one of his concerts.