NEW YORK (CBS) – Joe Raiola can remember the day John Lennon died “like it was yesterday.”
He was living in New York; playing clubs as a comedian and driving a taxi cab. He was driving his cab down Queens Boulevard, listening to a radio that picked up television stations. As he was listening to Monday Night Football, announcer Howard Cosell announced that the former Beatle had been murdered.
After almost crashing his car, Raiola told CBSNews.com he drove back into the city and instinctively went to The Dakota, the building Lennon lived in and was fatally shot outside of, where he sang songs with hundreds of others until the early hours of the morning.
Not wanting to go home and with nowhere else to go, he then went to the nearby Theatre Within space, a performance workshop he was a part of. There, he and founder Alec Rubin then planted the seeds for what became the first of three decades of annual tributes to the music legend.
Theatre Within’s annual John Lennon Tribute has now become the longest-running tribute of its kind, and the only one that Yoko Ono, Lennon’s widow, recognizes.
This year, when Lennon would have turned 70 and the 30th anniversary of his death is marked, the 30th Annual John Lennon Tribute will take place at New York’s Beacon Theater on Nov. 12, with performances by artists including music legends Jackson Browne, Patti Smith and Cyndi Lauper. Proceeds from the show will benefit the Playing for Change Foundation, an organization whose mission is to promote peace and positive change.
For Raiola, losing Lennon was very personal, and not just because he’s a fan of the Beatles and Lennon’s solo work. Theatre Within was located on 72nd Street, not far from where Lennon lived. Another connection came through primal therapy – a trauma-based psychotherapy that Rubin and Lennon each had experience with.
“We saw him as a neighbor and a fellow artist,” he said of the former Beatle. “There are a lot of Lennon connections that I have over the years, and when John died, on that tragic night, we took it very very bad. And I think I especially did not take that well.”
Theatre Within’s first Lennon tribute came in 1981. The group was set to perform a play called “Show Me the Way to Strawberry Fields,” which focused on a couple affected by Lennon’s death, but the playwright quit the project. People had made reservations and were expecting a Lennon event, so the group decided to do a Lennon tribute – a gathering of friends, actors, dancers, and artists getting together to remember Lennon and sing his songs.
“The most amazing thing to me – I can’t believe that we were the only ones doing it,” Raiola said of that first event. “I know there was a gathering in the park, but as far as I know we were the only one doing [an organized tribute]. And as it grew over time, it’s gotten more well known, and after 30 years, we’re kind of recognized. This is New York’s Lennon tribute, the only thing like this in the city and in the country. The only Lennon tribute show.”
He stresses the shows are not just about Lennon’s music, but his message of peace.
“John was fond of saying that people mistake the messenger for the message. It’s very important to separate those things,” Raiola said. “Yes, it’s great to remember and celebrate John. And even more importantly, it’s about remembering what John encouraged us to remember. That’s what this is about – ‘Give Peace a Chance,’ ‘Imagine’ – it comes through him.”
Rubin and Raiola produced the tributes together for 20 years, and Raiola took over when Rubin, who died in 2005, retired. Over the years, artists including Rosanne Cash, Joan Osborne, Anais Mitchell and David Bromberg have participated.
The one thing the bill has never had, however – an artist who knew and played with Lennon. It’s something the co-creator is hoping for.
“I’ve invited McCartney, Ringo, I’ve made that try,” he said. “We just got a no from Paul Simon. Elton John – he’s Sean’s godfather and knew John so much and loved him so much.”
He described the surrealness of reaching out to the other half of the Lennon-McCartney songwriting duo.
“It’s not an easy thing to do! I found his office, and they asked me to write him a letter. If you’ve ever tried writing a letter to Paul McCartney, it’s not unlike writing a letter to Santa Claus.”
Ono found out about Raiola and the John Lennon Tribute in 2004, and invited him to contribute an essay to her book, “Memories of Lennon.” Raiola said he was “blown away” by the opportunity, and his essay sits in the book between ones by Bonnie Rait and Billy Preston.
He’s yet to meet Ono, but he’s worked with her office, and said that one of the things she appreciates is that the event isn’t a big-budget spectacle – that it’s grassroots, from fans and for charity.
Raiola, who is now the senior editor at Mad magazine and artistic director of Theatre Within, also notes that this year is a milestone not just for Lennon, but for the tribute he created to honor him.
“It doesn’t quite register that we’ve been doing this for 30 years. It’s the 30th year since his death, but it’s the 30th year we’ve been doing it.”
And Playing for Change, the charity that this year’s event benefits, carries a message in line with Lennon’s – using music to promote peace.
“Theatre Within and Playing for Change are both of like minds in that we believe that artists should serve the world – their communities, their societies and the world. Artists are in service to that. It’s not optional. It’s a responsibility. It’s what you’re here to do.”
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