As fans pause to remember John Lennon on the 35th anniversary of his death, there is one clip that summarizes his life and career with incredible efficiency. Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, famously co-hosted the daytime chatfest The Mike Douglas Show for a week in February 1972. One of Lennon’s guests that week was his idol, rock pioneer Chuck Berry, and the two performed a supremely memorable version of Berry’s 1959 composition, “Memphis, Tennessee.” What makes the performance stand out, apart from the chance to see John Lennon and Chuck Berry sharing not just a stage but a microphone, is the fact that the backing band includes Yoko Ono. A little over a minute into the number, while Lennon and Berry are singing about the Mississippi Bridge, Ono decides that what the song needs are some dolphin-like vocalizations, so she proceeds to add those to the mix. For Lennon, this is par for the course, but Berry is visibly shaken and gives the camera a startled, wide-eyed look. He recovers, though, and also performs his famous duck walk.
The Lennon/Ono/Berry summit has gained some pop cultural infamy thanks to a routine by comedian Bill Burr, who cites it as example of how profoundly “pussy whipped” Lennon must have been by his wife to allow such a deranged performance to happen. Burr gives an incensed play-by-play:
Anyway, she’s up there, playing the bongos, right? So John Lennon, Chuck Berry, two of the greats of all time, harmonizing, singing this hit from the 1950s. That’s what this moment’s about. And Yoko, in the middle of it, can’t handle that she’s not getting any shine. She takes the fucking microphone out of the stand, stops playing the bongo, and as they’re singing .... she picks up the mic and I swear to god goes, “IIIIIEEEAAAAYYY!” Some fucking crazy shit! And you see Chuck Berry’s eyes fucking open as wide as they are. And it’s that fucking look!
A kinder observer might say this was an act of gallantry on John Lennon’s part, a sign of his true devotion as a husband. Either way, this performance captures John Lennon surrounded by the things he truly loved: raw, vital rock ’n’ roll, and the avant-garde stylings of a Japanese conceptual artist.
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