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From the archives

The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Dear Prudence

A life of exuberance and eccentricity

Who’s Afraid of Alice Munro?

A long-awaited biography gives the facts, but not the mystery, behind this writer’s genius

The Magical History Tour

It was the summer of ’69

David Macfarlane

John Lennon, Yoko Ono and the Year Canada Was Cool

Greg Marquis

James Lorimer & Company

248 pages, softcover and ebook

Conclusions about books drawn from single sentences are reckless adventures, if you ask me. Words don’t operate fully as words except in the presence of other words. The same is true of sentences, which depend on context for their resonance. It is in the variations of their echoes that nuance is established. And nuance, as it turns out, is often what makes writing interesting. As a rule, things are not what they declare themselves to be between a capital letter and a full stop. The story is usually more complicated than that.

Naturally, there are exceptions to this rule. There are sentences that, unassisted, provide readers with a good, solid sense of a book as a whole. I am going to quote such a sentence from Greg Marquis’s thoroughly researched and intriguing cultural history, John Lennon, Yoko Ono and the Year Canada Was Cool. But first, some background.

If, like me, you are a Canadian, a Beatles fan, and a thousand years old, you will recall that John Lennon and Yoko Ono kept showing up here (of all places) in 1969. In my world — meaning the world as I saw it when I was seventeen — this was very big news.

I was one of those nerdy, slightly irritating “John is my favourite Beatle” types, but the position was (I still maintain) defensible. By 1969, I wasn’t following John’s post-Beatle forays with anything like my earlier dedication to the band. But that didn’t really matter. I’d always been a fan. Years before, when I first heard the Beatles’ cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout” (I can picture my friend’s living room on a Saturday afternoon when his parents were out and we could turn up the hi‑fi), I knew Lennon was someone worth idolizing, at least for a while.

The pyjama-clad host and hostess were a “darling couple.”

Pictorial Press Limited; Alamy Stock Photo

It’s hard to convey the excitement — the actual, physical, in-the-pit-of-my-stomach excitement — of John Lennon’s stupendously good, stretched-to-its-limit vocal on “Twist and Shout.” The conditions in my friend’s living room on that long-ago Saturday afternoon were never to be repeated, of course. They relied on the Beatles being the Beatles and on my being almost a teenager. It was the purest blast of rock ’n’ roll I’d ever felt.

Youthful revelations are not always a reliable guide over the long run, but this one was. Lennon (particularly on the pre-Revolver albums, in my opinion) had a truly great pop voice. The whine that made his speaking a bit reedy was perfect for rock ’n’ roll. And I do mean perfect. Just give his vocal in “Anna,” from the Beatles’ 1963 debut album, Please Please Me, a listen.

That same year, the Beatles did a cover of the Marvelettes’ 1961 hit “Please Mr. Postman.” It’s as good as it is for a number of reasons, none more important than Lennon’s voice. Of course, it’s a great song. Dangerously great. The Marvelettes were a tough act to follow. But the Beatles (being the Beatles) pulled it off, and Lennon’s vocal is particularly good. He seems sometimes to be channelling the spirit of the kind of American pop music that other young English musicians were only imitating. He got it somehow.

Lennon was a very good (I would say underrated) rhythm guitar player. He was, obviously, a great songwriter and an inventive musical spirit. But it was in his voice that you could most clearly hear how well he knew and how much he loved the music that inspired his band. His voice was a lightning rod struck by the Shirelles and the Marvelettes, by Ray Charles and Buddy Holly, by Chuck Berry and Elvis. At his best (and here I remain in complete agreement with my younger self), he really was rock ’n’ roll.

So that was what first sold me on John. His activism and superstar celebrity came later, but I was on board with that too. The “War Is Over! (If You Want It)” ad campaign, Yoko’s extremely weird performance from inside a bag (don’t ask) at the Toronto Pop Festival, Lennon’s ongoing battles with Richard Nixon, the military-industrial complex, American immigration, and the other Beatles — this all figured largely in my sense of how the universe was unfolding in those days. By 1969, there were few celebrities, as far as I was concerned, of equal stature. But, of course, I thought very differently about both John Lennon and Canada in those days — and one of the pleasures of reading Marquis’s book is being reminded of that.

Lennon’s name had none of the association with tragedy that it immediately has for me now. He was dashing and bold in a kooky kind of way, and Marquis captures his convictions and contradictions deftly. Lennon was interesting, and he was funny. His outrage at the Vietnam War was entirely justified, and he was trying to figure out how to use his celebrity for good. I see no reason now why I should not have admired him as I did then. On top of which he was a Beatle. And it’s worth recalling, as Professor Marquis does (he teaches in the Department of History and Politics at the University of New Brunswick), that during the period covered in this book, it was not yet officially clear that the Beatles had broken up.

Broken up, like forever.

For the seventeen-year-old me, the ongoing speculation about the Beatles was existential — a word I happened to know thanks to an adventurous grade 11 English teacher. Existentialism makes perfect sense — in fact, it’s obviously how things are — during those interesting, fun-filled years when you have a different body, a different voice, and a different brain every time you turn around. “Man is condemned to be free,” wrote Jean‑Paul Sartre. I wasn’t certain what that meant, but it always got a red check mark when I worked it into a grade 11 essay, and to the extent that I did understand the freedom of existential choice, I could see that each year of my teens had been an advance in some unfated and unpredictable way on its predecessor. The same was true of Beatles records. To this day, if I am recalling something from that distant time, I use the order of those albums as a way of keeping track of my own personal history. Puberty, for instance, was something that happened somewhere around Rubber Soul and Revolver, and an association like that is not to be taken lightly. The Beatles slowly breaking up wasn’t something that was just happening. It was something that was happening to me.

So, for all kinds of reasons, John Lennon was a huge deal for me in 1969, and it was fun to be reminded by Marquis’s portrait of what now feels almost like an old friendship. I’d nearly forgotten the comfortable feeling of thinking of Lennon as something like an admired counsellor, a hip, young teacher, maybe an impossibly cool, moved-out-of-the-house-a-while-ago older brother. Was he a role model for me? You bet he was. Recreating the context of John Lennon’s cultural heroism (cultural heroism, that is, as millions of John Lennon fans imagined it) is one of the achievements of John Lennon, Yoko Ono and the Year Canada Was Cool. It was a different time. For one thing, John Lennon’s worst songs had not yet been played to death every Christmas.

Marquis is quite right to take a good look at this strangely Canadian moment, if only because it sprang from such an intriguing confluence of characters and themes: pop culture meets the Vietnam War meets Quebec nationalism meets Pierre Trudeau meets Yoko Ono meets Thor Eaton. What a strange trip it was, and yet many of the subjects feel contemporary: the ascent of celebrity, the dominance of pop culture, the rise of nationalism, the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of protest, the circumvention of mainstream media. All these are playing out today, just as they played out in Canada in 1969 — most famously, in, on, and around a queen-size bed in a suite in the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, in Montreal, where, along with Timothy Leary, Tommy Smothers, et al., “Give Peace a Chance” was recorded and the term “bed‑in” was (inevitably) coined.

And here, as is his professorial wont, Greg Marquis steps in to translate the ’60s terminology. Which gets us, finally, to the single, unassisted sentence from John Lennon, Yoko Ono and the Year Canada Was Cool that I maintain is a clue to the book’s fundamental nature: “The bed‑in is often portrayed as a spontaneous and somewhat chaotic 1960s ‘happening’ (a term for performance art, or in some cases, a hip social event associated with the counterculture).”

Based on no evidence other than that sentence, a reasonably perceptive reader — someone attuned, perhaps, to the ebb and flow of popular vernacular — could accurately conclude that whatever else this book is, it is most definitely not cool. I’m not all that cool myself, but even I know that nobody cool says “a hip social event.” Ditto for “a somewhat chaotic 1960s ‘happening.’ ”

John Lennon, Yoko Ono and the Year Canada Was Cool is doggedly, you might even conclude deliberately uncool. It took some initial adjustment, but I came to think of this as not a bad thing. If the book were all cool and ironic and clever, it wouldn’t be as vivid as it is. Uncoolness provides a stable platform for the story Marquis wants to tell. This is clear from the get‑go. Consider the title alone: total squaresville.

The book’s title is as square as its design, as a matter of fact. If this were a textbook from a sociology course you had to take in 1975 and the title was Studies in Twentieth-Century Canadian Popular Culture, you wouldn’t have to change a thing. The display copy on the back cover is equally anachronistic: “Follow the celebrity couple on their visits to Canada in 1969 and discover the spirit of the Sixties, Canadian-style.”

And yet . . . and yet. Marquis is an informed guide, and eventually I came to find the book’s absence of coolness interesting. Interestingly ambiguous, to be precise. Does John Lennon, Yoko Ono and the Year Canada Was Cool simply have (and the thought did cross my mind) a terrible title on a terrible cover? Or is the cover — a combination of sans serif text, background blankness, and an absolutely predictable stock press photograph — meant to be ironic?

No subject on God’s green earth attracts ironists like pop music. It is prudent, therefore, to wade into the thickets of cultural history with caution when there are guitars involved. Because (and this thought also crossed my mind) the cover of John Lennon, Yoko Ono and the Year Canada Was Cool could be a perfect imitation of those year‑end roundups that Canadian newspapers published in 1969.

In those distant, pre-digital days, there were creatures called arts reporters who sometimes wrote of their forays into the counterculture, and when they did, they were writing for a readership that comprised teenagers (like me) and adults (like my parents). For this cross-generational reason, arts reporters had to assume that many of their readers (like my parents) couldn’t tell a Beatle from a Rolling Stone, or a Dylan from a Donovan. Everything about rock ’n’ roll had to be explained to people who didn’t get it. Marquis employs the same didactic approach. I found it kind of comforting, frankly. It took me back.

“In the 1960s, no one was cooler than the Beatles,” the professor writes in his introduction. It’s one of a number of sentences in his documentation of Lennon and Ono’s three visits to Canada in 1969 that might as well not be there at all.

Assuming that we are all on the same page about what “cool” is, it’s not an indisputable statement that there was not a single person in the whole entire world who was a teensy bit cooler than the Beatles in the 1960s. And let’s start the list with Nina Simone and Miles Davis. But who cares? How do you measure such a thing? Honestly, what does it matter, and if it doesn’t matter, why say it? If the point is that the Beatles were influential in the 1960s, well, I think most readers would take that as a given.

There are similar sentences scattered throughout these couple hundred pages — sentences that affirm mythologies so well established in pop history that their affirmation seems unnecessary. Did you know, for example, that there was a big rock festival at Woodstock, New York, in the summer of 1969? Well, hang on to your reading chair, because “participants spoke of the memorable music, the spontaneity, the positive vibrations (‘vibes’) and the sense of community, with people helping pick up garbage and volunteering to assist those experiencing bad LSD trips.”

These are flyover sentences that a reader simply skips — but not because they are wrong or offensive or poorly written. Marquis has a calm narrative voice. He has a pleasantly lucid style. And his judgment seems sound. So far as I can tell (and so far as I can remember), he is generally right about what English Canada was  generally like in 1969, although, as he acknowledges, an Indigenous historian or one from Quebec would view the year (and the occasional visits of a rich, eccentric musician and his no less eccentric partner, a Japanese artist) from quite a different perspective. The flyover sentences are flown over because they express obvious truths. Yup, I kept saying to myself, skimmingly.

“Fans in the know (and all guitar players) were aware that rock, like jazz, had a lineage.”

Yup.

“By the end of the year, tens of thousands of American military deserters and draft dodgers were living north of the border.”

Yup.

To be fair, there are lots of things I did not know in these pages. John Lennon, Yoko Ono and the Year Canada Was Cool is a bit of a treasure trove. It’s solidly researched — full of the political, social, and cultural issues that were being discussed (endlessly, it seemed to the teenage me) in the newspapers and magazines and on the radios and televisions of the day. Names and events came back to me as I read about them. I kept saying to myself, Oh, I remember that. Marquis has caught the texture of the time, and his instinct to inspect it through the prism of Lennon and Ono is a good (and oddly revealing) one.

Assisted in his research by his wife, Marquis has drawn on a pretty impressive archive of sources — a thoroughness to which the extensive endnotes attest. He seems to have a firm grasp of the personalities, venues, and general trends of the pop music world of 1969. He’s just as confident in his broad overviews of politics, and here his staid, academic tone comes into its own. Marquis can go from what the seventeen-year-old me would have thought the coolest thing going (John Lennon on stage at the Toronto Pop Festival, let’s say) to the dullest subject in the universe (Canadian politics) without  shifting gears.

Here’s a thing I did not know: Petula Clark of “Downtown” fame was performing in Montreal at the time of the bed‑in. Clark visited Lennon and Ono in their hotel room, and she is one of the members of the ragtag chorus on the unusually long single “Give Peace a Chance.” (So was my late, great friend the writer Alison Gordon.) I also did not know that Jacqueline Susann, author of the bestseller Valley of the Dolls, happened to be in Montreal as well. Susann dropped by the suite for a drink and reported that her pyjama-clad host and hostess were a “darling couple.”

I was interested to learn that (rather like the Queen) Lennon didn’t travel with money or credit cards. He was John Lennon, and as a result he could just show up at one of the better hotels in Montreal, move with Yoko into a suite, have all the furniture immediately moved out (except for the famous bed, of course), and assume that somebody would eventually pay for everything. (Somebody — an official at the Beatles’ company, Apple Corps — eventually did.) But I was even more interested to be reminded by Greg Marquis’s John Lennon, Yoko Ono and the Year Canada Was Cool that there was a time in my life when that’s exactly how I thought a semi-deity such as John Lennon moved through the world.

A moment in time that I’d thought had been mummified by boomer nostalgia turns out to be full of surprises. For instance: I had never known that one Lillian Piché Shirt, a Cree woman from Alberta, gave Lennon the idea for what became his most popular song during a phone conversation she had with him while he was in Canada, of all places, in 1969. Imagine that.

David Macfarlane is the award-winning  author of The Danger Tree and other books.

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