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Some people say the Sixties actually happened in the Seventies and there might be more than a grain of truth in that. After all, the Sixties brought us the Beatles, but the 70’s brought us John & Yoko. As a pair, these peace-loving radicals dominated the decade’s news, with their “happening” influenced events that included bed-ins, anti-Nixon campaigning, Acorns for Peace, War Is Over billboards, the highly publicized battle to avoid deportation from their beloved NYC, and of course, amazing art and music by both. And of course, Mark David Chapman’s murder of John Lennon was possibly the most notorious killing since JFK.


On what would have been the occasion of Lennon’s 70th birthday, PBS American Masters is airing Lennon New York City, a revealing, brutally honest and therefore fascinating documentary about his life in that city from 1970 until his death in 1980. 


Yoko Ono, John Lennon

Probably everyone on the planet has their favorite memory of Lennon, even if it’s just a memory of a moment seen on TV, a casual encounter, or a beloved refrain from a song. But for those who knew him well, those memories stand out in living color, as though they just happened. Why that is I don’t really know for sure, but it’s probably for pretty much the same reasons that the world loves him-  for his spirit, his loving nature, his powerful songs and music,  his sense of humor, and his unrelenting commitment to making the world a better place. 


Steve Mark Antonio was 21 years old, when John Lennon’s recording engineer Ray Ciccala hired him to work at NYC’s famed Record Plant studio. He was present at the sessions that took place the last week of Lennon’s life, helping with the recording of the new song “Walking on Thin Ice”. 

Antonio explains, “A lot of the musicians were in awe working with John. I was scared stiff. I didn’t even look at him for the first day. I didn’t want him to think I was staring at him. He put some guitar down, he put some keyboards down and Yoko sang. And, you know, within the next day he just made me feel real—like a lot of people were saying how he just made you feel really comfortable. And that’s the way he was. He was really cool and laid back and down to earth. We hung together for a whole week, and he was really, really nice to me.”

Antonio recalls that “one night, after working in the studio until 3am, I decided to go for a walk. John wanted to come along. We didn’t walk long because it  was freezing. John was telling me a funny story about when he was with the Beatles, when they were real famous, walking down the streets of these neighborhoods that were—where the gangs in the neighborhoods were mad at them because they were intruding on their women. So he remembers running away from one of these gangs. He just tossed his hat, and they just stopped and stomped on the hat. So that’s how they got away.”


Antonio also recalls the painful, fateful day when John was shot, “Well, yeah, you know, that Monday, he came in that Monday—him and Yoko—to listen to the final playback of that song“ Walking On Thin Ice.” It was actually sort of like a disco hit for Yoko. I had this whole thing I wanted to say to John when he left because we got to be—we actually got to be friends. I didn’t get a chance to say it to him and as he was going, you know he was using the elevator, him and Yoko, and I said ‘goodbye’ to him and they waved goodbye. It seemed like to me an hour later we heard the news. And at first I thought it was a hoax because there was no way it could have happened that quick—that everyone found out that quick. I was totally shocked. It was really, for me, very intense.”


In the early 70’s, Henry Edwards was a hugely respected and sought after magazine writer in New York City. He profiled John and Yoko for a cover feature in Crawdaddy, a popular music magazine in its day. At that time, Edwards wrote some prophetic words, “There is a public out there already and that public has substituted the myth of John and Yoko for the vacuum in their own lives. The Lennons are a mythic couple and they love it. They love having their pictures taken; they love publicity; they love success. But they will also open their door to strangers and display their real selves. No reality can ever be the same as myth.”


As the photographer assigned to do the photos of John and Yoko for the Crawdaddy story, I had the opportunity to see the truth of this first hand. It was, as I’m sure anyone reading this story can imagine, enormously exciting to have the opportunity to not only meet them, but to be able to photograph them as well. 


At that time, I had a little studio in the back of my East Village apartment, and that was where the shoot was to take place. I was all ready for the big moment, when the buzzer would ring, and they would be there. Instead, the phone rang. It was their publicist Lindsey Maracotta, informing me that they could not make it that day. Imagine a heart dropping all the way to the floor, and that was the feeling I had. Then she added, could I do the shoot the next day, same time. Heart rises once again.


So imagine this; the same scene repeating like a bad dream, for about 6 days in a row. As I remember it , I was about to go insane.  But now, skip ahead once more, to lucky day 7, when the doorbell finally rang, and miraculously, there they were.  Alone! No Publicist. No Posse. No Entourage. Just John and Yoko and me. Yoko sat down at my little make-up table and John did Yoko’s make-up. He helped her choose her outfit. And with John wearing the most suitable tee-shirt imaginable, one with the word YOKO emblazoned on the front, the memorable session began.


Though I could go on about other sessions we had, at a museum in Syracuse, NY, where Yoko displayed her avante-garde artwork, at John’s birthday party with guests including Phil Spector,  Allen Ginzberg, and Mei Pang, and many more. The point is that Henry, as you can see, captured the essence of their unique existence with his insightful words.


Yoko Ono, John Lennon

But of all of us who have known John, even worshipped John, studied him or bought his records it’s obviously Yoko who really knew him best. In a recent interview she gave promoting Lennon NYC, at which I was present, she shared the following observations.


“Well, even after John's passing, when I think about New York, even when I'm in Europe or something like that, I think -- I think of John in New York because New York was -- he loved New York. He loved New York so much.  He said, ‘Well, I wish I was born here.’  I don't know why.  But you see, the other thing that he used to say is, ‘You know that New York has docks and all that.  It's very Liverpool.’  And the taxi drivers are not speaking normal English, so he thought, ‘Well, it's very, very Liverpool.’”


“I think he also -- and this is in the film -- had the freedom to be a human being in New York.  People didn't bother him. You know, people did approach him in a very nice way. In London, we had a very bad time, obviously because I was there. And so everybody hated John for being with me. And I felt very bad, but I mean, that’s the reality. That was the reality.”


She added, “New York is the city that he loved so much, but it killed him. I mean, that’s the kind of story that, you know, when its about a love affair, I can see that that could happen to people. But I didn’t know that was going to happen, and John didn’t either. So it’s a very strange city. It was his love, and it was his death.”


“Since John's passing, I felt sort of empty -- well, sort of empty -- and I thought, ’What am I going to do?’ Because I was putting all my energy focusing on our relationship.  And suddenly he's gone. And then I thought, ‘Okay, I can put my energy and my feelings for his fans because they knew’ – ‘they had John, but now they need me to sort of bring John back in a way.  And I said -- I promised that I would put up something -- put out something of John's every year, just one thing every year.  But it turned out to be not just one thing.  And I've been doing this for 30 years, actually, yes.  So in the beginning, it was very, very difficult, and I would faint when I'd hear John's voice or something.  But now, you know, I'm used to listening to John's songs, etc.  And this time, with Lennon NYC, I have to listen to so many of his songs.  This was very, very heavy.  And I loved it in a way because it was like John coming back to let me know that those are the songs that he created when we were together.”


“I mean, like Woman -- Woman, you know, I was the inspiration probably, but obviously it's a song for all women in the world, just like, you know, well, Picasso might paint his wife.  Most artists, they painted -- painted or drew their wives, because the wives are the ones who are around all the time.  And I was lucky that I was there.  But it is -- just like Picasso's drawings or paintings are for the universe, for the world, John's Woman is for all women in the world, I think.”


“And with Imagine, well, let's say I’m glad that I was there. I'm very glad that it's like that. I'm trying my best to make sure that John's voice is still heard, but in the way that John would have liked and in the way that we believed in, instead of being trashed or becoming something else.  And so I still think that John's songs are giving heart to people.” 


“And it's so funny because when I go into Central Park on the weekend and all these guys are seriously just sort of pushing the stroller with their babies or children, child, or twins even, and they don't know that before John, no men did it in the world. No men did it because they would be so embarrassed, I suppose.”  


“I think it's very nice that  men with strollers is suddenly something that’s a part of the world, and they don't have to remember that it was John who started it. All big things work that way. And this world is growing and getting more intelligent, and we are getting more wise because of all the things that great people did before us.”


LENNON: NEW YORK CITY premieres Monday, November 22, 2010 on your local PBS station. It will repeat often in the following days, so check your local listings for times. Do yourself a favor! DO NOT MISS IT!


But don't worry if you do! You can also watch the full documentary here. / Issue 117 - September 2018
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