ROCK WAR PEACE

John Brower
By Bill Delingat

If you were one of the lucky ones to be part of the Summer of Love 1969 in Toronto, Ontario, you will recall that surreal moment when a thunderous sound interrupted the music from the concert stage, as everyone looked to the sky expecting to see an EMS helicopter or a news chopper overhead. What in fact was the perpetrators of this noise was a chopper of a different kind as an escort of motorcycle club members cleared the path as they lead in the fleet of limousines containing the stars of the day’s event, John Lennon and Yoko along with the Plastic Ono Band. (Full story in Cashbox Canada archives)

At this year’s Canadian Music Week, the powerhouse team of Brower and Saunders, writers and developers of this historic film project arrived to flog their wares to the place and people that made it all a reality 40 years ago. Cashbox had a chance to ask a few questions and they got the answers from the illustrious Mr. Brower.

CB: Your name is significant in the archives of rock ‘n’ roll history as one of the most innovated music promoters of our times, from the historic rock ‘n’ roll revival that is now being made into the movie ‘Rock War and Peace’ to “Canada Jam’, which actually held the Canadian attendance record and had only been surpassed by the Rolling Stones SARS Fest “Strawberry Fields”, the follow up concert to ‘Rock ‘n’ R Revival’ and the controversial New Wave Woodstock ‘Heat Wave’. How did a young man like you at the time, with your upbringing and boarding school education ever decide to go into the concert promotion business”? What drove you to take such huge risks to do events like the “Rock ’n’ Roll Revival?”

Brower: I want to start by saying that none of the events I have been involved in were ever the result of my sole effort or ideas. I have been blessed with great partners over the years who sometimes didn’t turn out to be such great friends. This time my producing partner Paul Saunders is a great and longtime friend and we are expecting this film to be the first of a number we have in the pipeline of our company.

To answer your question though, I started promoting my own band during the early sixties Yorkville days. We were called The Diplomats, since we all went to private schools. I would arrange for church basements and even parties where we could play before we became very popular and played the many clubs around Toronto including The Devil’s Den on Avenue Road. Promoting The Doors, after my return from Los Angeles in 1968, was not such a radical departure from the past promotions; just a bigger group, a bigger hall and the need for more money to put the show on.

CB: How did you and your partner Kenny Walker come up with the idea of the Toronto ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival’ and when was it decided to ask John Lennon to attend?

Brower: We did ‘The Toronto Pop Festival’ in June of 1969 and it was a huge success. One of the most surprising aspects of that two-day festival was the crowd’s reaction to Chuck Berry. He really stole the show. Based on that, we decided to roll the dice and book a show with all the top legendary rock and roll pioneers that we could get on one bill. After we booked all the Kings so to speak, we added other acts including The Doors, since I had a longstanding relationship with the group.

CB: There were plenty of logistical problems, and even adversity from The Beatles camp to try and have the show derailed. Can you tell us a little about those challenges and how you surpassed them?

Brower: There were no logistical problems and no interference in regards to The Plastic Ono Band’s appearing at ‘Rock & Roll Revival’. It all happened very fast over a five day period the week of the show. The adversity and political intrigue started when we announced ‘The Toronto Peace Festival’, some months later in the middle of the biggest build up of The Vietnam War.

CB: Now with a green light yourself and partner Kenny Walker along with your friend and radio host Ritchie Yorke, had the incredible task of trying to get the world, especially the media, to believe that John Lennon and The Plastic Ono band, were really coming. Ticket sales were not great in the beginning, when did this all turn around and was it the support of the Detroit and USA Stations that kept it alive as it seemed Canada was more doubtful than our neighbors to the south.

Brower: CHUM Radio refused to go on the air with the story and I don’t blame them one bit. Not only did it sound fantastic and unrealistic, but Kenny and I had promoted The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour movie some months earlier that year and sold it out everywhere but Ottawa. We gave the show there a little boost by starting a rumour that George Harrison was in town to see the show and got a friend of ours to call the local radio station using the on-air number and the DJ went on the air with it the The Ottawa Citizen gave it the front page the next day and we sold out Ottawa. But CHUM had heard this story and figured the John & Yoko tale was just that, another promoter’s little white lie to sell tickets to a failing show. Even when we brought up a tape recording the next day of Anthony Fawcett, Yoko’s assistant, reading the names for the plane tickets, CHUM still thought it was a scam and tossed us out of the station.

Of course by Saturday, after John & Yoko along with Eric Clapton, had been seen at Heathrow Airport, boarding the plane for Toronto, CHUM went on it like crazy all day of the show with great announcements that they were presenting this amazing event. However, it was my friend and fellow club owner and promoter in Detroit, Russ Gibb, from the Grande Ballroom, who went on the air with the tape recording heard it and immediately played it every hour for Wednesday and Thursday night and by Friday we had sold over ten thousand tickets in the Detroit Windsor area.

CB: The show went on and spawned an anthem for peace “Give Peace a Chance” to a new generation, now the incredible media wave and the aftermath of staging one of the music world’s largest feats, what was going through your head at that time and were there thoughts of what is next to be done to top it?

Brower: Firstly, Give Peace A Chance was already a worldwide smash record and song before the revival, but had never been performed live until my show.Of course, no promoter is ever satisfied until he has his next promotion lined up. It was one of Alice Cooper’s managers, Ritchie Miller who came up with the idea of MAPCOW, Music and Peace Conference of The World, which he and I and Ritchie Yorke took to John & Yoko after I had split up with Walker and the Eaton’s and they had formed their new company. This story is the real meat of the film Rock War Peace and leads up to me staging The Strawberry Fields Festival in August 1970, which ends the movie. By the way the movie title is spelled as all one word with the three words capitalized…please…thanks…☺…Rock War Peace.

CB: The Plastic Ono band was formed for your event and later did other concerts with different players; did you have any involvement with John and Yoko on any of their other projects after the concert at Varsity?

Brower: Yes we presented them with the opportunity to return to Canada and announce a festival for peace, which they did. We took them to meet Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Health Minister John Munro and to chat with members of the Le Dain Commission, which was investigating the possible legalization of marijuana. In fact, we all smoked pot with two of the commissioners on our private railway car which we had hired to travel to Ottawa to meet Trudeau. This was the first time ever that a contemporary rock musician had been given an audience with a sitting head of state. It was monumental in the spreading of the message of peace at that time around the world.

CB: Now a Movie: Rock War Peace: the name in itself speaks of a past generation’s struggle to end a war that most felt should never have happened and here we are 40 some years later with the US and its allies in an even larger situation in the Middle East.Do our current times have any thing to do with the idea of putting this film together at this time in history?

Brower: Not directly, but I’m sure in the cosmic synchronicity there is something pushing the film forward at this time.

CB: Now is the movie the promoter’s view documentary style or is there a script behind it?

Brower: There is a completed screenplay written by myself.

CB: Who wrote the script and will there be an original soundtrack to it to go along with the concert recording?

Brower: All the music with the exception of the song “Vagabond” by Canadian songwriter and musician Johnny Lovesin will be from that era. Lovesin’s song, which was written to honour the Toronto motorcycle riders, known as The Vagabonds, will be playing while John & Yoko’s limousine is being escorted into the stadium from the airport in the movie just as it was done in real life 40 years ago. In fact, the leader of the group Edjo was one of the few people in Toronto who believed me when I said John & Yoko were coming and who put his credibility on the line to take 80 bikes out to the airport and wait for a star that supposedly wasn’t coming. The footage of the scene is unique in 60’s rock and roll movies and is depicted beautifully in the documentary by the CBC “John & Yoko’s Year of Peace.”

CB: This does sound incredible, is it a docudrama similar to Emilio Estevez ‘Bobby” where real events mingle into a story creating a full view of a point in history? Also what will your involvement be in the casting of the characters and even the directing as it almost has that surreal feel that one would have to have been there in order to reproduce what happened.

Brower: They say in the movie business the hardest thing to do is to stay in your own deal. I intend to be very involved in this picture for many obvious reasons, not the least of which is historical accuracy. So much has been written about this event and subsequent events with me and John & Yoko that I must continue to ride herd over the production and work closely with the director Mark Racco to bring the real story to the screen and not a politically correct studio whitewash. Mark has a great feel for the material and was one of the top music video producers of the 80’s and 90’s working with Nirvana, Guns & Roses and Jane’s Addiction creating award winning and contemporarily cutting edge videos for many legendary artists.

CB: I hate to ask this but have you given any thought who you would like to portray yourself in the movie?

Brower: It has come up but I will have no opinion on it until I see the candidates and have a meeting with each to see if they get the character as portrayed in the script.

CB: What point are you at in the pre production and what do you need next to get it going and are you looking for any archive footage or recordings from the general public to help in this production?

Brower: The script is being considered by a major independent in Los Angeles currently. They have a slew of very interesting attachments they are proposing and I am riding out the process of hurry up and wait; that goes along with every deal/picture until it gets the green light. Also I know Wayne Thompson, one of our Canadian producing partners, has the longer version of the script at CBC right now for consideration as a two part mini-series.
CB: Having been at the event, I cannot wait to see it. All the best on your project and see you at the Academy Awards.