When is a shaky, under-rehearsed performance even better than a polished, high-octane explosion by an artist who is beyond iconic? When it’s September 13, 1969, and John Lennon finds himself in the unenviable position of having to follow Little Richard at the Toronto Peace Festival.
Little Richard’s set, as documented in the newly released DVD Live at the Toronto Peace Festival 1969, was of course a ripsnorter. But there’s more to the story than just an incendiary rock & roll show.
The set was filmed in glorious 16mm by legendary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back, Monterey Pop), for what became Sweet Toronto, a documentary about the entire 13-hour evening also featuring Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley and the Plastic Ono Band. (Rounding out the bill but not in the film: Gene Vincent, Doug Kershaw, Screaming Lord Sutch, the Doors, the Chicago Transit Authority, Tony Joe White, Alice Cooper and an outfit known as Cat Mother and the All-Night Newsboys.)
You don’t see it so much in the Little Richard film but in Sweet Toronto, Pennebaker makes a point of showing this is a contemporary audience of hippie kids — long-haired, probably high, rolling around and groping each other on the stadium field, they’d come to protest the war in Vietnam.
But Little Richard hailed from another era. He hadn’t had a hit in more than a decade and, to understate it wildly, the culture had changed in that time: It was the difference between Leave It to Beaver and Easy Rider. Traditional rock & roll was on the wane: That spring, the Who had released a rock opera called Tommy and prog rockers Genesis, Yes and King Crimson — nothing could be further from Little Richard — all released debuts that year. But Elvis was making a comeback, doo-woppers Sha Na Na had been a highlight of Woodstock a month earlier and Creedence Clearwater Revival was taking classic rock & roll to the toppermost of the poppermost. Some hipsters were even beginning to champion the old stuff (and perhaps providing the first very distant glimmerings of punk rock). Toronto was billed as a “rock & roll revival,” and it’s now regarded as the first; the trend exploded in the early ’70s.
Big-time rock & roll fan John Lennon had been invited simply to host the show, but then at almost literally the last minute he decided to play it, and rounded up a few heavy friends — Eric Clapton, Klaus Voorman, future Yes drummer Alan White and Yoko Ono — to play as the Plastic Ono Band. Only thing was, that upset the billing – now Little Richard would have to play before Lennon. His gloriously massive ego wounded, Richard had to scorch the earth before the bounteously bearded Beatle, who had copped so much from Little Richard (among others), in the process winning previously unimaginable honors, power, riches, fame, and the love of women.
The show begins when Richard strides out with his preposterous pompadour and gigolocious pencil mustache, his face slathered in makeup; he’s resplendent in a brilliant white singlet covered in little square mirrors, like a discofied Prince Valiant. It’s only when he asks for the stage lights to be turned off and the spotlight beamed on him and him alone that it becomes clear that the outfit is part of the light show — he’s a human mirror ball, luminous spots flitting behind him like fireflies. And if you look closely enough into those little mirrors you can see the reflections of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, who gleaned their defiant, flamboyant style… from Little Richard.
Richard and the band knock out “Lucille” in a frantic trance, the horn men in their baby-blue suits nodding like davening priests. Richard’s unaccompanied intro to “Good Golly Miss Molly” is as definitive rock & roll as you’re ever going to hear, a brief but potent burst of bawdy technique that evokes rollicking Nawlins better than a jambalaya fight in a whorehouse. Soon, he’s up on the piano, beaming a 1,000-watt smile and shaking his moneymaker, holding up his fabulous white go-go boots for all to see. He throws one into the audience, then really milks it, taking his sweet time to throw the second boot. It’s great showmanship. “Ladies and gentlemen, you are looking at the true rock & roll! The 1956 rock & roll!” he hollers pointedly.
Then he gets the ladies in the crowd to go “Wooooo!” and the fellas to go “Huh!” He really is going to make this pale English whippersnapper Lennon pay dearly.
”Rip It Up” is only a minute long, So he plays it again. And then once more. It’s utterly shameless — and utterly brilliant. During “Jenny, Jenny” Richard brings up some folks from the audience: a couple of cute white hippie chicks and an African-American fellow who evidently patronized Jimi Hendrix’s tailor. “Whoever dance the best,” Richard quips, “we’re going to take ‘em back to Africa with us!”
His guests dance up a storm and so, not to be outdone, Richard takes off his singlet, revealing a prizefighter’s body, and swings it around his head like a helicopter, teasing the audience until he finally flings it into the baying throng. Then it’s a hyperspeed “Long Tall Sally,” and the band plays Richard off the stage in a hell-bent burst of adrenalized rave-up.
It’s a nine-song, barely 28-minute set. One of rock & roll’s greatest live performers, the one and only Little Richard, had just pulled out all the stops. Imagine following that.
So Lennon was understandably nervous: it was the first time he’d played on stage in three years, essentially the first time he’d ever played live without at least one of the other Beatles, and his band had rehearsed precisely once – acoustically, on the plane to the show — and now they were going to play in front of 20,000 people with sky-high expectations.
To top it off, he was on a bill that included most of his major influences and now he had to follow his idol Little Richard at his barn-burning best. Oh, and he’d just decided that day to quit the Beatles. According to Eric Clapton’s autobiography, Lennon did so much cocaine before the show that he threw up.
To calm down his petrified guest, emcee (and notorious rock Zelig) Kim Fowley got the lights turned off in the stadium and asked everyone to light a match, allegedly the first time this had been done at a rock show. With Ono rolling around the stage in a large duffel bag, the Plastic Ono Band slopped their way through a trio of ragged-but-right rock & roll covers straight from the Cavern days, Lennon’s voice steadily gaining in ferocity and confidence. “Yer Blues” and the debut of the harrowing detox chronicle “Cold Turkey” are right in the vein of the direct, stripped-down approach Lennon would embrace for many years, as rock & roll as anything else played that day.
There’s an obligatory “Give Peace a Chance” before Lennon famously announces “Yoko’s going to do her thing all over you” and the band locks into a lock-groove power-blooz riff under Yoko’s anguished avant vocalizing on “Don’t Worry Kyoko” and then “John, John, Let’s Hope for Peace”; on the latter, Clapton and Lennon conjure caterwhauling feedback that anticipated what Sonic Youth and others would do fifteen years later. The guitarists eventually just leaned their instruments against the amps so they made an eerie, awesome squall; White gamely contributed some occasional icky thumps.
It took me very many years to appreciate it, but Yoko’s performance is electrifying. “Don’t Worry Kyoko” is about the pain of missing her daughter, who was basically kidnapped by her ex-husband; “John, John, Let’s Hope for Peace” came just as Vietnam was hitting its horrific peak. It’s a performance of staggering emotional nakedness and complete commitment, not to mention creative invention. It both sent chills up my spine and made me, I have to confess, a little teary. The Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail remarked, “It sounded as if she was crying, like a child, in fear.”
Even pre-Janov, Lennon and Ono were screaming out their pain — just as Little Richard was. But towering genius that he is, Little Richard was of and about a different time. Amid cataclysmic social strife, devastating assassinations, disorienting technological upheaval and savage, unwarranted war, the Plastic Ono Band spoke to the fierce urgency
No way anyone would want to follow that. Instead of Little Richard, that daunting honor went to the Doors, who at that time were on top of the world. By at least one account, they kicked ass.
[Full disclosure: Shout Factory, who released the Little Richard DVD, also released the DVD of a film I co-produced called Kurt Cobain About a Son]