CLEVELAND — Imagine John Lennon were still here? It's pointless if you try. There's no way we could fathom what Lennon would think or do or feel if he were with us today, but a new exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum at least allows us to reflect on — and celebrate — the man he was.
"Lennon: His Life and Work," the first major overview of the former Beatle's life shown in America, opened Thursday night with a gala party attended by Yoko Ono, who donated most of the exhibit's contents, and Jann Wenner, the Rolling Stone publisher who knew Lennon well. Billy Preston, who appeared on the Beatles' Let It Be, performed, along with Cyndi Lauper, Matthew Sweet, and Dexter Freebish, recent winners of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest.
After delivering a long, piercing primal scream ("Sorry. I just had to clear my throat," she deadpanned), Ono greeted the 1,200 partygoers, telling them that her husband was a modest person who would be flattered that people wanted to remember him.
Timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of his Oct. 9 birthday and the 20th anniversary of his Dec. 8 death, the three-floor exhibit examines his family life with Ono and their son, Sean, as well as his professional life and his music. The artifacts range from photographs, art, and clothing to strikingly singular images: the paper bag containing the clothes he was wearing when he was murdered, accompanied by his blood-smeared glasses; the acoustic "Bed-in" guitar, embellished with the now-familiar sketched images of John and Yoko's heads together; and the original lyrics to "In My Life," recently named the "Greatest Song of All Time" by Mojo magazine. The words are scrawled on a manila envelope and hung near a speaker playing the song.
Orchestrated by Ono, the installation skimps on Lennon's Beatle era and practically ignores his years with first wife Cynthia and son Julian. But the inventively designed multimedia displays nonetheless prompt viewers to consider the significance of Lennon's life, particularly the final 15 years, when he nearly convinced the entire world that all we needed was love and it was possible to give peace a chance.
"John was a very public person, and he stood for peace and he stood for music," Ono said during an afternoon press conference. "He was not only a songwriter [and] singer, he was music, but also he was a revolution. He was a revolution that changed the world."
"There is no more important person or artist that we will have in this museum as long as this building stands," added museum president and CEO Terry Stewart. Robert Whitaker, who conceived and photographed the famed "butcher" album cover for Yesterday and Today, called the Cleveland exhibit "a remarkable tribute to Yoko via John." He said it had nothing to do with the Beatles, but pronounced it exceptionally well presented and a credit to the staff.
Ono did include two of her own works: "Telephone Peace," a "talking sculpture" phone on which she'll occasionally call to speak with museum visitors, and what is possibly the most moving exhibit item of all — a "wishing tree" on which visitors hang their handwritten sentiments. Among them were these:
"I wish he had taken a different route home that day." "I hope you're just watching the wheels go 'round and 'round." "I wish love ruled the world! Thank you for your vision." "I wish I could have listened to more great songs from John."