In December 2004, Joe Raiola received a phone call from one of Yoko Ono's assistants who had just read a listing in the New York Daily News about our 24th Annual Lennon Tribute. She had never heard of the show and was wandering what this was all about. Joe told her a little about the Tribute's long history and our commitment to remembering and celebrating John for the benefit of a worthy charity. A few days later, Joe received an email from Yoko inviting him to write a short piece for the book she was working on. A few days later, Joe completed the essay posted here, which was subsequently published in Memories Of John Lennon.
by Joe Raiola
A few years after I graduated college in 1977 I joined an experimental theater group on Manhattan's Upper West Side, just down the street from the Dakota, called the Theatre Within Workshop.
It was founded by maverick director Alec Rubin, who was also a primal therapist. Alec was into working with performing artists on a core emotional level and helping them create raw autobiographical material for the stage. All of the scenes and monologues we developed in the workshop grew out of our experience in what Alec called "primal process."
It's a difficult thing to describe to someone who hasn't actually been in the therapy. Imagine being shut down and neurotic for 25 years when suddenly everything you've been hiding - your pain, anger, tears and fears - erupts with volcanic force. It's both liberating and terrifying.
Of course, it was well known that John had walked a similar path and we felt a special bond with him. His song writing had been deeply impacted by his intensive therapy with Primal Scream author Arthur Janov. The results could be heard on his riveting Plastic Ono Band album, which we loved for its depth of feeling, directness and simplicity: "Mama don't go; daddy come home." "As soon as you're born they make you feel small…" "Look at me - who am I supposed to be?" "My mummy's dead; I can't get it through my head." "We're afraid of everyone, afraid of the sun…" "Love is real; real is love…" "I don't believe in Jesus, Buddha, Beatles - I just believe in me, Yoko and me."
I was 15 when Plastic Ono Band was originally released and I appreciated the album's searing honesty even then. But listening to it a decade later, just as I was embarking on my own journey in primal therapy and coming of age as a man, it was a total revelation to me. I was roused and inspired by John's vulnerability and his unflinching willingness to express his sadness, anger and pain. He was doing the personal healing work that I aspired to and it had completely transformed him - as a man and an artist. It had nothing to do with his celebrity status or wealth; John grew because he was committed to shining light into the dark places within himself. If he could do it, maybe I could too. Maybe we all could.
The next year John was gone. I'll never forget that night he died. I was a taxi driver in those days and I was behind the wheel of my cab when I heard the news. I had never lost a dear friend or family member before, so perhaps that's part of the reason John's death hit me so hard. That, and the utter senselessness of it. Instinctively, I flipped on my "off duty" light and headed straight for Dakota. By the time I arrived a crowd had already gathered. We hugged each other and cried and took whatever comfort we could in singing John's songs.
By 4 AM I was exhausted and in no shape to return home to Queens. So I walked over to Alec's apartment, which was in the neighborhood just two flights above our theater studio. Until then our relationship was that of teacher/pupil, but that morning a friendship was born. We stayed up until dawn talking about John and listening to WNEW-FM where overnight host Vin Scelsa had dispensed with the music and was speaking with callers on the air. Neither of us realized it at the time, but the idea of doing an annual Lennon tribute had taken root in our hearts.
The following summer we were involved with a playwright who was writing a piece about the night John died and how it dramatically changed the course of two couples. We were going to present it as a reading, but a few weeks before it was scheduled to happen, the playwright got cold feet and pulled out of the project. (I've long lost contact with him and don't know if he ever finished it.) Our impulse to remember John was strong and we felt compelled to do something. But what? We had already sent out publicity and the audience would be expecting a show about John and his impact on our lives. Why not present an evening of theater, dance and music as a tribute to him? That first show was incredibly cathartic for performers and audience members alike. I don't recall who suggested it, but we decided that night to make it an annual event, and after a quarter of a century it's still going strong.
Like anything with a long and vibrant life, the Annual Lennon Tribute has gone through some big changes over the years. It began as an outpouring of sorrow and grief and has evolved into a joyful celebration, not just of John, but of ourselves as performing artists in service to our community. As director, I challenge the performers to take creative risks and develop work that grapples with the same perennial issues that John revisited throughout his career: peace, love, rebellion, spirituality, feminism and personal transformation.
That the show continues to inspire us to create new work in his memory and attract a warm audience every year is a testament to the lasting gift that John left behind. We remember him so fondly because he touched us as at the very core of our beings, as only a great artist can.
"While there's life, there's hope," John once said. Well, it turns out there's hope in death too, because the essence of what John embodied can never be snuffed out: it lives on in us.
For me, our Annual Lennon Tribute is an uplifting reminder of that eternal reality.