Why you should care

Because the three-song Thanksgiving night encore that the former Beatle performed with Elton John helped turn the tormented peace promoter into the peaceful soul we remember him as being.

I’ve attended some memorable concerts through the years, but none I’ve seen, nor likely ever will, compares to Thanksgiving night in 1974, when Elton John introduced a special encore guest, sending the 20,000-strong Madison Square Garden crowd into an eruption of hysterical screaming that nearly blew the roof off, and I’m sure registered on the Richter scale.

We thought we’d make tonight a little bit of a joyous occasion by inviting someone up with us onstage.

Elton John and John Lennon at Madison Square Garden, 11/28/74.

Elton John and John Lennon.

Source Glenn A. Baker/Photoshot

Touring to promote his album Caribou, the former child-prodigy pianist with the outrageous glasses and outfits had attained rock superstardom with his previous release Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. As concerts go, Elton John’s performance was the finest I’ve ever seen for pure showmanship — albeit from a $4.50 seat three rows from the ceiling, and without the benefit of a Jumbotron.

Then he announced his guest: “Seeing it’s Thanksgiving, we thought we’d make tonight a little bit of a joyous occasion by inviting someone up with us onstage. I’m sure he’ll be no stranger to anyone in the audience. I want to say it’s our great privilege and your great privilege to see and hear … Mr. John Lennon.”

Still in my teens, I was too young to know the remarkable backstory of how the then 27-year-old John was using the occasion to bring his 34-year-old friend and musical idol back from the brink.

Lennon had stepped onstage only a handful of times since the Beatles’ last concert in 1966, in San Francisco.

On that night in 1974, the former Beatle took the Garden stage as a broken man. Beginning in 1972, President Nixon had dispatched the FBI to build a deportation case against him for his antiwar activities, and he was growing weary of fighting. He’d had early solo success with the Plastic Ono Band in 1971 and the now anthemic “Imagine” in 1972, but Lennon had become disillusioned with his fame. He left Yoko and went on an 18-month, alcohol-infused, bicoastal bender with their 22-year-old personal assistant, May Pang, that he called his “Lost Weekend.” Estranged from his wife, hounded by the government and unsure of his career, he was far from the self-assured Lennon most of us remember.

Video:

Whatever Gets You Through the Night

Earlier that year, Elton John had extracted a promise from Lennon: If the title track they recorded together on Lennon’s album Whatever Gets You Through the Night defied Lennon’s low expectations and became his first No. 1 solo hit, he had to appear live with John to perform it. Lennon kept that promise that Thanksgiving night — but not before retching backstage from nerves over stepping out in front of an audience again. He’d performed live only a handful of times since the Beatles’ last concert in 1966, in San Francisco.

Over time, the three songs from what ended up being Lennon’s final public performance surfaced in various forms — the B-side of a single, a John EP and a Lennon box set — and eventually on YouTube in audio clips set to photo collages. Footage of the first song also surfaced, supposedly shot on a Super8 camera by a fan in the 12th row, but since debunked as a clip from a 1985 TV docudrama that was doctored to appear authentic (it did contain the original audio recording).

Their second song, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” had just been rerecorded by Lennon and John — it went to No. 1 two months later. Lennon introduced the third number as “a song by an old estranged fiancé of mine named Paul,” before launching into “I Saw Her Standing There” — thus extending an olive branch to his former bandmate with the last song he ever played in concert.

Video:

Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds

Unbeknownst to Lennon, but fully known to Elton John, Yoko was in the audience. She reunited with Lennon backstage, sparking his transformation into the peaceful soul he ultimately became. Less than two months later, they conceived their son, Sean, and Lennon promised Yoko he’d stay on the straight and narrow and be a “house-husband.” It was a promise he kept until his assassination at age 40 on Dec. 8, 1980.

Video:

I Saw Her Standing There

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