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14 May, 2009

John Lennon exhibit opens in New York

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Display includes bag that carried the blood-stained clothes of the rock legend and the letter that established Nutopia

For someone who increasingly felt compelled to stand against those in power, John Lennon was certainly drawn towards the powerful. He likened New York, his chosen city from 1971 until his death in 1980, to Rome and said there was nowhere else to live. “This is where the action is,” he said.

The action of those nine years – in which Lennon helped to define the city just as much as it defined him – is recalled in a new exhibition that opens this week in the New York annexe of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The display, created by his widow, Yoko Ono, most controversially includes the bag in which New York’s Roosevelt hospital returned Lennon’s bloodstained clothes to her after he had been shot on 8 December 1980. “John came back to me in a brown paper bag. I want the world to know that,” Ono said.

She added that Lennon would want the world to also know that since his death the number of people killed by guns in America exceeds the number of US soldiers fallen during the Vietnam war by a factor of 16. “It’s like living in a war zone,” she said.

The exhibition also includes more cheerful fare. There is the original letter, signed by Lennon and Ono on April Fool’s Day 1973, declaring the establishment of the state of Nutopia, in which there would be “no land, no boundries [sic], … no passports, only people”.

Among his instruments on display are the Steinway piano on which he composed Double Fantasy in his Dakota building apartment in Manhattan. There is also the steel Resonator guitar that he played at a “freedom rally” in Michigan in 1971 in support of John Sinclair, leader of the radical White Panther party.

Lennon’s clothes still have the power to evoke a powerful sense of the man. There is the New York City T-shirt he wears in the famous photograph in which he poses, freckled arms crossed, in front of the Manhattan skyline. It is surprisingly, tenderly small.

A section of the exhibition is dedicated to Lennon’s six-year battle with the justice department, which at Richard Nixon’s instigation tried to evict him from the country. Letters of support from the singer Joan Baez and the then mayor of New York, John Lindsay, are shown, as is the green card that he eventually won in 1976.

Lennon’s fascination with New York was long-lasting. Even before he arrived in the city, in 1970, he drew a sketch of the Statue of Liberty, on display here, in which he replaced Liberty’s face with his own and the eternal flame with the clenched fist of the Black Power salute.

In the end, the city he loved was the city that killed him. His handwritten lyrics to Grow Old With Me, his last recording, are shown in a glass cabinet. “Grow old along with me,” he wrote. “Whatever fate decrees.”

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