50 years ago: John Lennon performs his last full-length concert

John Lennon‘s Aug. 30, 1972, an overall benefit performance at Madison Square Garden would ultimately prove to be the last full-length concert of his life.

The show arrived amid a tumultuous time. Lennon had been heavily scrutinized by President Richard Nixon, largely because of his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War, as well as his support for various liberal causes. Nixon believed in the former The Beatles the legend hurt American youth and decided to use a 1968 marijuana-related arrest in Britain as his excuse to have Lennon deported.

To add stress, Lennon’s latest album, Once upon a time in New York City, did not match the sales numbers he had previously enjoyed with the Beatles, or even his previous solo efforts. Lead single “Woman is the N—– of the World” had caused a stir, and for the first time in his career, Lennon’s star seemed to have lost some of its luster.

Yet one thing that hadn’t changed was his social awareness. So Lennon quickly agreed when reporter Geraldo Rivera reached out with the chance to support Willowbrook, a Staten Island facility for children with intellectual disabilities.

“Geraldo Rivera is the one who thought of it, who was really passionate about this issue of the mentally disabled, and he came all the way to San Francisco to meet with us.” Yoko Ono would later recall. “He convinced us to do this. Without him it wouldn’t have happened.”

Dubbed One to One, the benefit featured headliner Lennon, supported by Ono and Elephant’s Memory, on a bill featuring Stevie Wonder, Roberta Flack and Sha-Na-Na. Lennon was so committed that he bought nearly $60,000 worth of tickets to ensure his success. Not that he needed to: Tickets for One to One quickly sold out, prompting Lennon and the rest of the artists to add another, earlier show on the same day.

The matinee was tough, in no small part due to Lennon’s long absence from performing. The last time he performed a full-length concert was the Beatles’ 1966 show at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Lennon, Ono and Elephant’s Memory had been rehearsing together for three days before the early One to One, but there were still some kinks to work out. “Welcome to rehearsal,” Lennon told the matinee audience.

Listen to John Lennon perform ‘Come Together’ in concert

The night performance was by all accounts the stronger of the two. He opened the set with “Power to the People,” the rousing call to action originally released in 1971. From there, Lennon rolled through a variety of material from his solo career. “New York City,” “It’s So Hard” and “Instant Karma” were among the set’s early highlights.

Ono also focused on a handful of tunes. ONE New York Times review argued that Ono’s “extraordinary vocal improvisations may be an acquired taste, but they open up a realm of sound for its own sake, broadening the gamut of what could be an important new rock ensemble.”

Later that evening, Lennon briefly delved into his Beatles catalog and performed the classic hit “Come Together.” The night ended with an all-star rendition of “Give Peace a Chance,” as all of the concert’s previous performers joined Lennon on stage.

“That concert at Madison Square Gardens was the best music I’ve enjoyed playing since Cavern or even Hamburg,” Lennon said NME in 1972. “It was just the same kind of feeling when the Beatles used to get into it.”

Lennon never played another full-length concert, but the One to One shows were not Lennon’s last time on stage. He made a famous guest appearance at Elton John‘s November 1974 concert at Madison Square Garden. His last public appearance followed in April 1975 during a multi-act celebration of music mogul Sir Lew Grade.

Footage from the One to One shows would not see the light of day until 1986, long after Lennon had murdered outside his home in New York City. Lives in New York City won gold, but was still criticized for its editing choices: for unknown reasons, many of the performances from the weaker, matinee performance were used.

Still, the LP and accompanying video recordings offered the most complete on-stage experience Lennon fans would ever have.

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