It could easily have ended up in Toronto. It almost did.Imagine?Fifty years ago Sunday, ’round midnight, John Lennon and Yoko Ono touched down at Dorval airport and made their way to the Queen Elizabeth Hotel for a one-week stay that would mark music history and ingrain itself into the psyche and soul of our city.But their Montreal bed-in for peace happened almost by chance. From the decision of where to hold it to seemingly everything that followed, and everyone who found themselves in the midst of the era’s new self-appointed ambassadors of world peace, serendipity played a part.
From their queen-sized mattress at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, John Lennon and Yoko held court over a media frenzy. “Our talk is peace talk and our message is peace,” Lennon told The Gazette.
Tedd Church /
Looking through the Montreal Gazette archives and other sources, one is struck by the array of fortuitous circumstances that led so many regular Montrealers into the orbit of John and Yoko, and led the happy hippie couple to set up camp in Room 1742 (and adjoining Rooms 1738, 1740 and 1744) of the Queen Elizabeth, from May 26 to June 2, 1969.Lennon and Ono were married in Gibraltar on March 20 of that year, and staged a first bed-in in Amsterdam a week later. They had their hearts set on a second, in New York in May, but a marijuana-related drug charge saw Lennon refused access to the U.S.They headed to the Bahamas, instead, but quickly realized it wasn’t what they were looking for. They then boarded an Air Canada flight to Toronto, where Lennon’s publicist Derek Taylor called up his Australian ex-pat journalist friend Ritchie Yorke.Yorke met them at the King Edward Hotel and advised that the city was not the cosmopolitan locale they were looking for. In his Rolling Stone story on the bed-in, Yorke described Toronto as “this staid, conservative capital of Canada.” He recommended they head to Montreal instead.
Marc Anthony Zamora takes a picture of Lennon quotations at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel on Thursday. A photograph by Gerry Deiter in the background commemorates the bed-in’s 50th.
John Mahoney /
Lennon and Ono left the next day, much to the dismay of the rabid Toronto media and legions of teenage Beatles lovers.Throngs of fans awaited at Dorval airport, so they ditched their waiting limousine and were escorted by police to a taxi stand. Instead of arriving through the Queen Elizabeth parking lot, as instructed by the hotel, they came through the front, where “some 50-75 teenagers were waiting for (them),” according to the hotel log book.And then they were here, camped out, bunked up on a queen-sized mattress at the Queen E, holding court for a whole week while a flurry of activity swirled around them.There were American and Canadian reporters; musicians Tommy Smothers and Petula Clark; beat poet Allen Ginsberg; psychologist/drug guru Timothy Leary; civil rights activist and comedian Dick Gregory; confrontational cartoonist Al Capp (who got into a shouting match with Lennon); Hare Krishnas; a rabbi; and fans and curiosity-seekers who had ventured, snuck and slipped their way past security, up elevators or the 17 flights of stairs and somehow gained access to the four connecting rooms Lennon and Ono had commandeered.“Inside the crowded suite,” Yorke wrote, “John and Yoko sat peacefully holding hands, surrounded by white carnations, record players, film equipment, empty glasses and busy phones.”
Those willing to pay the price can step past this door and stay the night.
John Mahoney /
Dave Bist was The Gazette’s rock columnist at the time. Reading through his and Herbert Aronoff’s exclusive two-page Q&A with Lennon and Ono plunks you into the scene, capturing the couple’s flower-power vernacular and stream-of-consciousness thoughts on the path to peace.“Our talk is peace talk and our message is peace and we’re promoting a product called peace and we’ve been on a campaign for a few months and our product seems to be getting underway and we’re talking to anybody who’s interested in peace, which is most people,” Lennon told The Gazette.When The Gazette asked whether advertising was a plausible means toward peace, Ono responded:“Definitely. Because, you know the Blue Meanies, the ones that are selling evil, poisonous stuff, violence, etc. are advertising as much as possible, so if we are going to sell peace, we have to at least push it as much as they are doing … peace talk has got to be just as loud as Marilyn Monroe, or whatever.”
A video clip plays on an old TV in Suite 1742.
Allen McInnis /
In a 1999 Gazette column to mark the 30th anniversary, Bist looked back on the bed-in with a veteran rock writer’s jadedness combined with still-lingering excitement.“I ended up squashed into a media scrum in Room 1738, at the foot of The Bed,” he wrote, “while John and Yoko droned on about peace.“Truth is, nobody quite knew what to make of these freaks and their bed-in for peace, but there was an underlying sense of awe, nonetheless. Hey, we’re talking 1969 here, and this guy’s a Beatle. Let him preach about World Peace and Blue Meanies and we’ll write it down.”And so they did.
Quebec stars Geneviève Borne, right, and Miriam Baghdassarian try out the bed in Suite 1742. The two will be among the performers at a commemorative concert at the hotel on May 30.
John Mahoney /
Reached last week, Bist remained in awe at his chance of a lifetime.“I just still can’t believe I was there,” he said. “It was such a remarkable experience. I think the word I used the most is ‘surreal.’ I went through this whole thing thinking, ‘Is this really happening?’”He came away struck by the down-to-earth charm of the event’s bed-headed hosts.“They were just really human,” he said. “I was surprised how nice they were, how easy to get along with.”Which is perhaps what made the bed-in so memorable. Sure, it was one big publicity stunt for peace. It was also our city’s week-long sleepover with a young couple in love espousing their wild ideas, passion and enthusiasm to anyone who came within earshot.Beyond the manifold mediated versions of the event were many human encounters, which over the ensuing decades turned into stories told over and over again by the lucky ducks who just happened to be — or put themselves in — the right place at the right time.
John Lennon scribbled the lyrics to Give Peace a Chance on a piece of paper that ended up in the hands of Gail Renard. She sold it for US $665,000 at a 2008 auction.
DON EMMERT /
Tommy Schnurmacher was an 18-year-old McGill student when he ventured downtown with a fake press pass and a box of crayons (for Ono’s five-year-old daughter, Kyoko), accompanied by his pal Gail Renard. The pair wiggled their way into the Lennon-Ono entourage and ended up hanging out for the week, babysitting Kyoko.“They got to know us,” Schnurmacher said, recently. “We were there for eight days. It was the place to be at the time, and I succeeded beyond my wildest imagination of what I set out to do, which was catch a glimpse of them.”Schnurmacher briefly mentioned the anecdote in his Gazette column dated May 26, 1989. He revisits the whole adventure next week in his own two-part Gazette article to mark the 50th, and will include it in his forthcoming memoir.He wasn’t the only one writing about the bed-in in 1989. In early May of that year, The Gazette’s Alan Hustak talked to the Queen Elizabeth’s director of security, George Urquhart, who recalled meeting Lennon and Ono two decades prior.“I was 35 years old at the time, a former military policeman,” Urquhart said. “Their music wasn’t my music. I grew up in the Glenn Miller era, Benny Goodman.“I was on duty with them 12 hours a day. It was hectic, but what I remember was that it was a fun time. John and Yoko were very open, very down-to-earth. What they ate, I ate: lots of vegetables, fish dishes, macrobiotic food.”
In town too: Yoko Ono’s 5-year-old daughter, Kyoko, in Lennon’s arms on May 27, 1969.
Jean-Pierre Rivest /
In The Gazette of Feb. 3, 1991, Janice Kennedy reminisced about being a 22-year-old high school English teacher when the bed-in set in.“It was springtime, Montreal was a great place to be and we were living at the giddy end of a dizzying decade,” she wrote. “Life and work, both, felt good.“So when (my student) Mary came into class one day and announced that she’d been down to the Queen E and actually made it in to John and Yoko’s room, I felt as much vicarious exhilaration as the others. As much as anyone else in the room, I pumped her for details … I too wanted an inside glimpse of the celebs who were offering us Montrealers a brush with some kind of greatness.”Encounters with the exalted couple were not always so momentous. In his Aug. 4, 2001, Gazette profile of veteran elevator operator Rita Robidoux, who worked the Queen E lifts from 1958 to 1975, reporter Sidhartha Banerjee got this snapshot of Ono’s daughter:“‘The kid had long hair, I couldn’t really tell if it was a boy or a girl,’ she said, noting that the entire floor smelled of marijuana.”
The lyrics to Give Peace a Chance that John Lennon scribbled.
DON EMMERT /
And then of course there was the song, an anthem that defined a generation and still rings with the euphoria of a timeless moment-in-the-making, hatched during an epic slumber party.Lennon scribbled the lyrics to Give Peace a Chance on a piece of paper that ended up in the hands of Schnurmacher’s friend Renard, who unloaded it for US $665,000 at a 2008 auction. Recorded by Montreal sound engineer André Perry with whoever happened to be in the room at the time, the rowdy anthem includes shout-outs to several of those present, including “John and Yoko, Timmy Leary, Rosemary, Tommy Smothers … Derek Taylor … Allen Ginsberg … Hare Krishna.”All the chaos didn’t make for a great sound mix, however, so Perry brought the tapes back to his Brossard studio and beefed them up with backing tracks by some of his go-to session musicians, and additional vocals by friends including Quebec music legend-to-be Robert Charlebois.“I had no choice,” Perry told the Gazette’s Bill Brownstein, in 2009. “It was like a circus in that room — so many nutty noises. It was out of control.”Perry got his own claim to fame. The name and address of his studio were immortalized along with the hotel room number on all copies of the Give Peace a Chance single.
The Royal Canadian Mint has issued a $20 silver coin to mark the bed-in’s 50th.
John Mahoney /
Perry’s story and many others were collected by Cheryl Sim, managing director and curator of the Fondation Phi Pour l’Art Contemporain as part of the Yoko Ono exhibit Growing Freedom, which continues through Sept. 15.One of the Fondation Phi’s two Old Montreal buildings is devoted to Ono’s interactive artworks, while the other features The Art of John and Yoko, including photos, artefacts and anecdotes from the Montreal bed-in.Among them are the stories of:Jerry Levitan, an intrepid 14-year-old Toronto boy who negotiated his way into Lennon and Ono’s Toronto hotel (during their stopover). “Disguised” as a journalist, he hung out with the couple and scored an interview that decades later was turned into a book and Oscar-nominated short film.Christine Kemp, a British ex-pat and Old Montreal artisan, five months pregnant, who walked over to the Queen Elizabeth one sunny day and gave Lennon and Ono a colourful “All You Need Is Love”-emblazoned blanket. It covered their bed all week, only to get lost and then reappear in 2005 at the Liverpool Museum, erroneously attributed as a gift from the Hare Krishnas. It is now credited to Kemp thanks to a photo — taken by The Gazette’s Tedd Church — that was discovered showing her giving Lennon and Ono the blanket.Francine Jones, who was working in public relations for the hotel when she accompanied Montreal Star journalist Doris Giller for an interview with Lennon and Ono on the last day of the bed-in. Giller, Jones recounts, asked for and was given the “HAIR PEACE” poster taped to the window above the couple’s heads, which never resurfaced.Vancouver native Joan Athey and photographer Gerry Deiter. After Deiter’s death in 2005, Athey acquired and began touring her friend’s collection of 1,000 photos from the bed-in. Deiter’s pictures are on display from Saturday through Oct. 9, Lennon’s birthday, in the Queen Elizabeth Hotel lobby.Radio-Canada reporter Gilles Gougeon, who got an exclusive radio interview with Lennon and Ono that was lost for 50 years and was recently found in the lead-up to the public broadcaster’s upcoming move.Young hotel bellboy Tony Lashta, who was sent out to buy white pyjamas for Lennon, and ended up becoming an employee of the singer.And future Canadian Justice Minister Allan Rock, who as then-president of the University of Ottawa’s student union, invited Lennon and Ono to a makeshift forum on world peace there, to which they came by train immediately following the bed-in. The couple was driven around the nation’s capital in Rock’s yellow Volkswagen Beetle (could it be more perfect?) and even left a note at 24 Sussex Drive for Pierre Trudeau, who was out when they called. (The couple returned to Canada in December for their famed meeting with the prime minister.)
Yoko Ono at the launch of Imagine: the Peace Ballad of John & Yoko, an exhibition held at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2009.
PIERRE OBENDRAUF /
Ono was in Montreal in 2009 for the opening of Imagine: the Peace Ballad of John & Yoko, an exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.“Montreal was a place where John and I created a very important statement,” she said during a press conference, as reported by The Gazette’s Bernard Perusse.“We didn’t think it was going to be that important at the time, but it (made) the beds for our lives.”Revisiting the experience, Ono shared an intimate recollection:“When all the journalists went home around 6 o’clock, John and I would turn around and look at the sky. It was a beautiful view. I always remember that.”It’s a striking image, imprinted in Ono’s memory much like the indelible moments cherished by all those who came into her and Lennon’s presence during their stay.Even for the Montrealers who didn’t make it down to the hotel, the city must have felt different that week. A half-century on, it still does.Because as much as the bed-in was about Lennon and Ono, it was about us.“Without your vibrations, your spirit around, Give Peace a Chance may not have been born,” Ono said at the MMFA in 2009. “It was a work between John and I and our partnership with Montreal.”Peace out, John and Yoko. firstname.lastname@example.org/TChaDunlevy
A year-round 50th Anniversary Bed-In Package, including a night in Suite 1742, can be yours for $2,999.
Allen McInnis /
PLACES TO MARK THE BED-IN’S 50th Montreal’s Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel has an array of special events planned around the 50th anniversary of the bed-in, including:Guided tours of the bed-in suite, Saturday, May 25, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (sold out); a special concert featuring an array of Quebec music acts, May 30 at 7 p.m. at Espace C2, on the hotel’s top floor; Joan Athey signing copies of her book Give Peace a Chance: John and Yoko’s Bed-In for Peace in the hotel lobby, Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and May 27 to 31 from 3 to 5 p.m.; an exhibit of Gerry Deiter’s photographs in the hotel lobby, from Saturday through Oct. 9, Lennon’s birthday; and, for high rollers, a year-round 50th Anniversary Bed-In Package, including a night in Suite 1742, for $2,999.For more information, visit fairmont.com/queen-elizabeth-montreal/promotions/bedin-50th-anniversary/ The Fondation Phi pour l’art contemporain‘s exhibit Yoko Ono: Growing Freedom, divided into The Instructions of Yoko Ono and The Art of John and Yoko (including photos, artefacts and stories from the bed-in), continues through Sept. 15 at 451 and 465 St-Jean St., in Old Montreal. Admission is free. For more information, visit fondation-phi.org