Sean Lennon, Yoko Ono, and others from the Lennon Tribute show on TNTWe All Shine On: Lennon's Legacy
Commentary on the TNT Lennon Tribute

by Mary Lyn Maiscott (October 9, 2001)

An insightful commentary on the performers,
the feeling, and the experience that was
TNT’s Come Together: A Night for John
Lennon’s Words and Music

A couple of years ago, my partner, Bob, and I were wandering through the Trastevere section of Rome, checking out the nightlife. A sign outside a little club called Kaos got our attention instantly: The Plastic Lennon Band. Bob had just finished writing a book about John Lennon’s last years called Nowhere Man. We walked in to the sound of a young guy playing keys and singing You Can’t Do That, which I hadn’t heard in ages. It sounded just fine with Italian-accented lyrics.

There doesn’t seem to be much chance that musicians--and people in general--are going to forget about the songs of John Lennon, but Yoko Ono, his widow, isn’t taking any chances. When planning last week’s concert Come Together: A Night for John Lennon’s Words and Music, she made sure that such artists as Craig David, Dave Matthews, Marc Anthony, Shaggy, and Nelly Furtado were on the roster to help draw younger fans. The show, which was televised live on TNT from Radio City Music Hall in New York, was originally meant to be a tribute to Lennon, who would have turned 61 today, with proceeds going to gun-control groups. However, because of the September 11th attack, the concert also became a tribute to the heroes of that terrible event, with relief funds added to the beneficiaries.

The 20-year-old British sensation Craig David, whose debut album Born To Do It is also a hit stateside, put his own stamp on the Lennon song that gave the show its name--Come Together. With only a guitarist (inspired though he was) backing him up, David put a little R&B action into the familiar but idiosyncratic tune. He also broke out of the song with his own rap, which addressed the situation of the moment with such lines as “the heroes are the real superstars” and “let’s all come together and bring peace in our lives.”

Well I’m Not the Only One

The night I heard the Plastic Lennon Band in Rome, air strikes had just begun in Yugoslavia, right across the Adriatic Sea. Somewhat scarily, the planes were taking off from northern Italy. John Lennon, of course, wrote many of his songs against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. Perhaps that’s why they are particularly striking during times such as ours. Neil Strauss wrote about the importance of Imagine in a recent New York Times article. Although that song had already achieved the stature of a timeless classic, recent events have given it a new surge of popularity. People have sung it at candle-lit vigils, used it as a soundtrack to Internet slide shows depicting international solidarity, and scrawled the lyrics on posters for makeshift memorials.

John Lennon backdrop from the Lennon Tribute on TNTJohn sang Imagine in an understated, almost restrained way. For the television concert’s opener, Yolanda Adams nearly shook Radio City’s high ceiling with her joyful, gospel-like interpretation. Billy Preston, who used to play keyboards for the Beatles, helped her along--smiling all the way--on the organ. In the Times article, Neil Strauss lamented that his generation’s John Lennon had not yet emerged. That may be true, but Alanis Morissette has written a song that is certainly in the vein of Imagine. It’s called Utopia, and after the September 11th events, she released the track on her website, as did her label (Maverick) on its site, even though she’s still working on her new album. The song, Morissette says, is “shared in the spirit of wanting to offer comfort to everyone who is grieving, with my experiencing my own grief alongside them.” Morissette’s idea of Utopia has a lot to do with communication, with being able to speak up and listen and “be charmed and amused by difference.” Perhaps the most relevant line right now is this one: “We’d rise post-obstacle more defined, more grateful/ We would heal.”

Like the Moon and the Stars and the Sun

Yoko Ono, as co-executive producer of the television special, told the performers to each select one of John’s songs “that they loved.” Morissette chose Dear Prudence, a call to celebrate the universe in a childlike way. (Cyndi Lauper, before singing Strawberry Fields Forever from the area dedicated to Lennon--and named after the song--in Central Park, asked us to hold the thought that it still is a beautiful world and that New York still is a beautiful city.) Similarly, Nelly Furtado, in a duet with Dave Stewart, performed an exuberant Instant Karma, running around the stage and waving her arms, to the delight of the audience.

On the other end of the spectrum, country-pop singer Shelby Lynne chose Mother, a primal scream of a song inspired by the death of John’s mother when he was a teenager and by his father’s abandonment. Lynne’s own parents died gun-related deaths in a murder-suicide. Her husky rendition--even with a needlessly bombastic backing chorus--was mesmerizing. As a songwriter, Lennon was fearless (emphasized by Lou Reed’s intense performance of Jealous Guy), and Lynne, who won the Grammy last year for best new artist, matched that fearlessness. Wearing a short, asymmetrical black leather skirt and black boots, the blond singer melded eros and thanatos in a way that John surely would have admired.

Sean Lennon, Moby, and Rufus Wainwright perform on the Lennon Tribute on TNT

We can only guess how John would have responded to his son Sean singing the ballad Lennon wrote for his mother, Julia. A little of John’s rebellious nature seeped out, though, with Sean commenting that he wasn’t supposed to say anything--why?--but he did want to dedicate the song to his own mother. Sean, who shares his father’s birthday and is 26 today, also harmonized with Rufus Wainwright and Moby on the mystical Across the Universe. (Sean may have been wearing a shirt of his dad’s. The shirt said “Bermuda 80,” and John, with Sean along, spent time on the island in 1980 to write the Double Fantasy songs.) Sean’s album Into the Sun was not very well received, but his voice has a strong-yet-tender quality that’s appealing; maybe he’ll find his way out of the shadow of an icon father and into his own sun. Julian Lennon, John’s older musician son, was conspicuously absent from the program.

Let Your Light Shine Down

The entire cast on stage at the Lennon Tribute on TNTThe performers in the concert--and that band in Rome--are, of course, not the only young artists who have tried to plumb the depths of Lennon’s work. A few years ago, Collective Soul (whose big hit was Shine), Super 8, and Sponge were among those who contributed tracks to the tribute album Working Class Hero. At the publication party for Nowhere Man, Bob’s book, about a year ago, several New York bands put their own distinctive spins on Lennon tunes. One of them was Gloria Deluxe, which chose to do, among others, Come Together, with an inspired musical-saw solo. The band’s lead singer (and saw player) Cynthia Hopkins gave me many reasons why she loved performing Lennon songs, even though she normally doesn’t even like the idea of covers. Cynthia mentioned John’s courage and intelligence in expressing his political beliefs, as well as the craft and surprise in his songs.

I asked Bob why he thinks John Lennon’s songs keep resonating. “They’re poetic and come from the heart,” he said. In Yoko Ono’s view, “It’s very important to remember John and his music because he told the truth...I think he almost gambled his life on it.” But despite his eloquent and sometimes hard-hitting messages, Lennon had a deceptively simple formula for a good song: “Just say what it is, simple English, make it rhyme and put a backbeat on it.” It worked for him.

Copyright © 2001-2002 Mary Lyn Maiscott