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John Lennon would have been 70 years old on October 9 this year and December 8 will mark 30 years since he was tragically shot to death outside his New York City apartment. John Waters (whose birthday is December 8, as it happens) is about to bring his one man show paying tribute to Lennon, to the Sydney Opera House. It’s a cross between a concert and a monologue, Waters tells Andrew L. Urban.

Even at school, John Waters would entertain his class mates with his ‘John Lennon voice’ – a near-perfect replica in tone, phrasing and of course the Liverpudlian accent. So perhaps it was part of his destiny to devise a special tribute performance to Lennon many years later, in which the ‘John Lennon voice’ is heard again, this time for the entertainment of his many fans.

But he’s quick to point out that in Looking Through A Glass Onion he does not claim to impersonate Lennon. “It’s a cross between a concert and a monologue, a performance combining singing with acting,” he says. “It’s me standing on stage and somehow John Lennon’s voice is coming out of me…”

"as a bit of an experiment"

The show was first performed – as a bit of an experiment - in the local pub environment of Sydney’s Tilbury Hotel in 1992; he now brings it to the Sydney Opera House, a few small steps from the Tilbury, a giant leap in status. “The Opera House is a great platform,” says Waters, dressed in black jeans and funky black top, the trademark gear of the professional rock n’roll muso. He looks every inch the part: charismatic, with his trim torso, cropped salt & pepper hair and an easy rapport with people; he’s comfortable in his own skin, as they say.

The Glass Onion has had a few incarnations, including a season in London’s West End, but Waters is especially looking forward to the Opera House gig. He and the old team, the four piece Stewart D’Arrietta band, will have a limited season, the show “pared back to the original.” This is a the darker version without the string quartet that was added in the 90s “to try and make the sound more lush,” he explains, “but now we’re going back to the original”.

The show is not a biography or a chronological snapshot of Lennon’s life, more a collage of imagery. “I conceived it like a TV documentary and you hear Lennon responding to questions from an unseen interviewer.” Chunks of the Waters-written monologue are peppered with actual Lennon quotes. “It’s just a collection of great songs within which you find a man’s life.”

Waters has a high opinion of Lennon, needless to say. “Lennon has been ridiculed and praised in life as much as in death. That doco made about his hassles with the US over his visa shows why he was so scary to the US administration at the time.” The US versus John Lennon (2006) traces Lennon's metamorphosis from a lovable Moptop of The Beatles in the 60s, to anti-war activist to inspirational icon in the 70s as it examines how and why the U.S. government tried to deport him. “It was his power to speak to young people,” says Waters, when the Vietnam war and the peace movement were volatile socio-political issues.

"an acutely political animal"

To Waters, Lennon is “more than just a pop star; he was an acutely political animal. Having survived a pretty difficult childhood,” as depicted in the feature film Nowhere Boy (2009), “he had a severe but well meaning aunt to bring him up after his single mother gave him up when he was five years old. These days he might have spent years in therapy but Lennon poured everything into his art. The anger and sadness came out in his songs. He’s been called self serving and even self obsessed,” says Waters, but there’s no denying Lennon’s extraordinary legacy.

The show comprises 31 Lennon songs, including A Day in The Life, Strawberry Fields Forever, Revolution, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Working Class Hero, Imagine, and Glass Onion - a song which, Waters says, “reflects on the Beatles past and represents the imagery of somebody looking at a crystal ball – not at the future, but at the past.”

Waters knows that the Lennon fans of his generation will again respond with knowing warmth, but, he says, “I hope I’m also illuminating to the younger generation how unbelievable those years were to us – how transformative. That was the musical era when we moved from listening to Sinatra and the orchestra to The Beatles and a four-on-the-floor band. They took this new musical form and then sold it back to the Americans - with a twist!”

And that’s how, Waters reckons, they created the template for all modern music. As for The Rolling Stones, “they are clearly one of the best rock n’roll bands ever … but The Beatles developed an incredible musical diversity. When John and Paul (McCartney) stopped writing together they started competing with each other and created a new, unique formula. We all waited for their next album to see what new things they’d come up with.”

"a multiple milestone"

Looking Through A Glass Onion gets its Opera House debut at a multiple milestone: John Lennon would have been 70 years old on October 9 this year and December 8 marks 30 years since he was tragically shot to death outside his New York City apartment. Coincidentally, December 8 is also John Waters’ birthday (his 62nd).

It’s a great time in his life for his “second fatherhood …” with 4 ˝ year old boy and girl twins, Gloria and Rusty, and 7 ˝ year old Archie, all with his third wife, Zoe. (Waters has two older children, Ivan and Rebecca, from his previous marriage to Jennie Cullen.) “She’s a Leeds lass,” he says of Zoe with a grin in a credible Yorkshire accent. 

They met 10 years ago in a bar; “well, actually I was playing Capt von Trapp in the Sound of Music at the Lyric Theatre at Star City and had recently broken up, so after the show on Christmas Eve (1999) I was sitting in the bar on my own. Zoe, in Sydney on a work contract for a year, was out for a drink with a young couple – she was the spare. She saw me and with Yorkshire brass came and asked if I’d like to join them instead of drinking alone.” 

Zoe didn’t know who Waters was; she hadn’t noticed his face (next to Lisa McCune, who played Maria) on the giant billboard outside Star City promoting the show. They got talking, Waters invited her to see the show, “then she came backstage … and we sort of went from there.”

Although Zoe is not in showbiz (she is office manager for a large civil engineering firm) she has mucked in and sold merchandise after the Glass Onion show on previous tours. 

That drink at the bar on Christmas Eve was almost the last time Waters has touched alcohol. “I wanted to get rid of it before it got me.” And he feels the better for it; good enough to tackle the challenge of another tour with Glass Onion (after the Opera House season) and in between making another season of the Ten Network comedy-drama series, Offspring, in which has starred to great acclaim.

"I love it, I love the effect it has on people"

“I am irresistibly drawn back to the Glass Onion. I love it, I love the effect it has on people; I often sense a deep well of emotion out there, especially from those of his and my generation. And thanks to the audiences, each night is different – I don’t vary it greatly but it just feels different.”

Published first in the Sun Herald

Published November 25, 2010

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John Waters

Looking Through the Glass Onion, The Playhouse at Sydney Opera House, from November 30, 2010

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