When the infamous couple who had posed nude for the cover of the album Two Virgins announced that their honeymoon in Amsterdam would be open to the public, the media stampeded. They thought John Lennon and Yoko Ono were going to make love in front of the world.
Instead, the newlyweds were going to make love to the world. "They fought their way in, and their faces dropped," the late Lennon recalled later in an interview reprinted in Anthology (Chronicle Books, 2000). "There we were like two angels in bed, with flowers all around us, and peace and love on [sic] our heads. We were fully clothed; the bed was just an accessory."
It was a sly con; it was a publicity gimmick; it was a way for the couple to turn the inevitable media hoopla around their wedding into a way to have a few laughs; it was most of all a passionate attempt to communicate as far as possible a plea for peace. And it was a work of art.
Two months later, in May 1969, they repeated the performance with a Bed-In for Peace at Montreal's Queen Elizabeth Hotel and got just as intense a response from media becoming aware that what was happening was far more interesting than any peep show. Other celebrities joined in the fun and for some serious dialogue, and the work was crowned by an extempore recording of a song written on the spot, "Give Peace a Chance", which you can now use to start any group of at least six people singing anywhere on this earth, once they've had a couple of beers.
Gerry Deiter, a U.S.--born writer and photojournalist currently living on a boat and recording passing ways of life on B.C.'s coast, was there for the entire eight days the Lennons stayed at the Queen Elizabeth. He was taking photographs for a piece that Life magazine ironically ended up cutting to instead run a story on the death of Ho Chi Minh, leader of North Vietnam in its war with the U.S. After 35 years, Deiter has assembled 25 of the images he captured at the time, to be shown at the Elliott Louis Gallery until Wednesday (June 2), and a selection of the works is being simultaneously displayed at Amnesty International's Give Peace a Chance 2004 celebration at the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal. In black-and-white and colour, John and Yoko perform the spoon and chat with the press.
Peace seemed more viable in those days, not despite Vietnam, but because the resistance to that war was already so strong. In Lennon Legend: An Illustrated Life of John Lennon (Chronicle Books, 2003), there is included a "Letter to the World" he apparently never got around to releasing to the press. It reads, "Dear World/I think we should have peace. Why don't we have it? I would like it today--so would my wife/John Lennon of Ascot/and many others./P.S. You should have seen his face." Contacting Deiter last week at various points on the east coast of Vancouver Island, I asked him if Lennon's simplicity and wry humour would have stood up against the terrorist attack of September 2001, should Lennon have lived to see that horror during one of his morning rambles through Central Park.
"I can only respond in my own way, as a New Yorker, and you know, John loved New York very much. New Yorkers seem to take 9/11 very much more as an attack on New York than an attack on the U.S.," Deiter said, at that point from Swans brew pub in Victoria. He described the typical New York attitude as: "We never attacked anybody, nobody from New York should get hurt," adding, "He would have felt the same way, because he had a very deep love for that city as well."
I pushed the question of whether or not the terrorist attack might have diminished the pacifism of the Lennon Deiter photographed in 1969. "At the time, he was not a seeker for revenge. He was a seeker of a higher solution than 'They did this to us, we've got to do that to them.' I think he'd gone far beyond that point," he said. "There has to be an alternative to this violence. Escalation of violence never did anyone any good. It just leads to more violence.
"That's probably the primary reason I'm showing these photographs. The world is certainly in need of compassion and understanding even more than it was 35 years ago."
Deiter remembered the stamina and poise of the couple over the eight days at the Queen Elizabeth, with as many as 30 people in a bedroom at peak times, and rarely less than half a dozen during each 18-hour day. "They were constantly welcoming--the number of people that moved through the suite was simply amazing. They would see anybody, they would take any phone call. They were completely open, they were completely inclusive, if I can use that word.
"There was a major protest going on that week in San Francisco, the People's Park protests, and they would talk to the people at People's Park every day for a couple of hours, because there were several times they would get calls from these folks saying the cops were going to move in--'Looks like a confrontation'--and they would talk to these people and say, 'Listen, you know, confrontation isn't going to do anyone any good. The only way to do it is to do it peacefully, and don't allow them to push you until it happens.'
"They were actually keeping the lid on a couple of potential conflicts going on various places around the world while they were in bed in Montreal. It was an amazing, amazing thing to see."
Deiter credits Yoko Ono with expanding Lennon's political consciousness in the first place, and then getting him to realize his unique opportunity to combine celebrity, his private life, activism, music, and his own inherent talent for commercial hustle in new artistic forms. "Yoko was one of the pioneers in what we call today performance art, and she showed him the direction. She showed him how to use art in a way to catch the media's attention to get the message out to sell peace instead of selling records--to sell peace and a new way of looking at life."
An adaptation of Ono's performance work Cut Piece was performed at the show's opening Wednesday (May 26). "The art of it embodies the Buddhist concept of complete acceptance of a higher fate," Deiter said. But instead of simply scissoring the clothing away from a sitting woman, in Cut a Piece of Peace, the audience was invited to cut off swatches with the word Peace on them, to be sent to loved ones and political figures. *
Give Peace a Chance runs at the Elliott Louis Gallery in the Waterfall Building by Granville Island until Wednesday (June 2). On Tuesday (June 1), the gallery hosts a sing-in organized by Amnesty International and local peace groups.