‘Give Peace a Chance’: Montreal celebrates John and Yoko bed-in 50 years later

MONTREAL — It was 50 years ago today, John and Yoko told the band to play.

The week-long bed-in that saw a pyjama-clad John Lennon and Yoko Ono host a parade of journalists, LSD gurus, counterculture luminaries and hangers-on in their Montreal hotel suite kicked off on May 25, 1969, and culminated in the on-site recording of “Give Peace a Chance.”

A half-century later, the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel is celebrating their storied pacifist pitch to the world with an art exhibition and tours of the suite they occupied.

“We wanted everybody to enjoy the feeling of the bed-in and to understand, because newer generations don’t know about it. Some don’t know who John Lennon is,” said Joanne Papineau, a Fairmont spokeswoman.

The suite now features vintage-style recording equipment, a flower-print tea set and photos of Lennon and Ono in repose, reading Lao Tzu’s “The Way of Life” and smelling flowers.

“Floor housekeeper was told corridor and suite were very dirty and littered with flower petals,” read the archived housekeeping notes now on display.

Inspired by the sit-ins of the civil rights movement and in alignment with antiwar demonstrators as the Vietnam War reached high tide, Lennon and Ono launched the Bed-Ins for Peace campaign on their honeymoon in Amsterdam in March 1969. Montreal was next on the tour, after the United States turned them away citing a marijuana conviction against the famed Beatle.

Outside the French doors of their modest digs at the Queen Elizabeth, the halls resounded for a week with Hare Krishna mantras, teenagers’ giggles and on-air news reports. Footage of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, actor Tommy Smothers of the Smothers Brothers and psychedelic advocate Timothy Leary — perpetually sporting a blissful grin — lives on as part of the recording session for “Give Peace a Chance.”

The love-in was not without conflict or debate.

Inside the hotel room, American cartoonist Al Capp laid on a heavy dose of sarcasm during his interview with the couple. “I think that everybody owes it to the world to prove they have pubic hair, and you’ve done it,” he said, referring to nude photos from their recent album. “And I tell you that’s one of the greatest contributions to enlightenment and culture of our time.”

Outside the hotel room, demonstrators in a tense standoff with police at the University of California’s Berkeley campus phoned Lennon, who advised them: “If it looks like violence, just get out….”

Lennon’s open acknowledgment of the marketing strategy behind the bed-ins dovetails smoothly with that of the hotel, which promotes a $3,000-per-night package for the fabled suite.

“We’re trying to sell it like soap, you know, and the only way to sell is to focus attention and sell everyday,” Lennon told Capp.

The hotel lobby now features a white Rolls-Royce similar to the one Lennon drove, as well as conceptual art.

“This is called Big Love Ball,” said Wendy Williams Watt, the Vancouver-based artist behind the exhibit, which features gargantuan white balls emblazoned with the word “love” and adorned with signatures from passersby.

“It’s an amplification system, if you will. It puts love in the spotlight, like John and Yoko were trying to do.”

Beatles fans Riley Howarth and Amy Love Samson introduced the renovated Room 1742 to their four-month-old son Mason Wild, who sported a Beatles T-shirt while his mom touted peace-sign earrings, a hippie headband and a mesh shawl.

“I really enjoy the history of it,” Howarth said, picking up a green telephone that runs Lennon audio clips.

The events at the Queen Elizabeth kicked off Saturday and will continue periodically until Lennon’s birthday on Oct. 9.

They include guided tours of the suite, a photo exhibit of the bed-in by Gerry Deiter, book signings by Joan Athey, who curated the photos and various essays into a 2009 book documenting the legendary week, and a concert on May 30.

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