ROADIE HENRY SMITH TALKS ABOUT THE JOHN LENNON TOUR THAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
Henry Smith was in Auckland, New Zealand on December 8, 1980, serving as road manager for Roberta Flack on her latest European tour and, of equal importance, mentally preparing himself for what was coming when the Flack tour ended. His preparations for that night’s show were interrupted by a phone call.
“It was Roberta,” recalls Smith during a recent conversation with Back Page Magazine. “She told me that John Lennon had just been killed.”
Smith, who has worked for the likes of Led Zeppelin, The Yardbirds and Aerosmith over the years as both a roadie and road manager, relates that the immediate response to the call was both sadness and concern.
“The people at The Dakota (where Lennon was living at the time) had called Roberta. They didn’t know if John’s murder had been a part of a conspiracy or what and, since she had lived at The Dakota, they wanted to make sure that Roberta was going to be alright.”
Smith’s reaction to the news was two-fold. Like everyone else, there was unparalleled sadness. But, unlike others, there was also an element of self interest at the news.
“I stood a chance of making some good money with John on that tour,” he admits of Lennon’s long anticipated One World, One People tour set for May 1981 in which he would serve as both road manager and de facto booking agent. “I could have become a very wealthy man.”
Smith was introduced to John Lennon late in 1980 by producer Jack Douglas, who produced the album Double Fantasy. It was shortly after the completion of the album and Lennon, for the first time in a long time, was getting ready to tour.
The official announcement that Lennon would undertake a U.S. and Europe tour was made on October 8, 1980. The musicians who had worked with him on Double Fantasy were in active rehearsal for the concert tour that Lennon hoped would hit the road in seven months. At the point when Smith was contacted, Lennon was looking for a road manager and crew support. Smith laughs at the memory of how nervous he was at that first meeting with Lennon at the famed Record Plant in New York City.
“I mean this was John Lennon! I was so nervous that I was pinching my leg so hard when I was talking to him that I had black and blue marks. I didn’t want to sit there, just smiling and laughing at him.”
Smith found Lennon to be extremely down to earth when discussing his upcoming tour. “He said he knew nothing about sound and lights because Brian Epstein had always taken care of those things for him. He joked that “‘I know how to turn on the lights with a light switch and I can turn the sound up and down on a radio.’” And that was basically all he knew!”
So it was agreed that Smith would be road manager for the Lennon tour and pull together a core group of technicians that included long time crew mates Dick Hansen and John Conk from the famed Brittania Row sound and lighting company. However as the conversations with Lennon continued, Smith managed to get the legendary musician’s attention in another area.
“John told me that he was in the process of getting Bill Graham to promote the tour as well as a booking agent. I told him, ‘You don’t need all that! You’re John Lennon!’ To prove my point, I called up a booking agent I knew in Texas called Lewis Messina and told him ‘I said if I can give you ten John Lennon dates, would you take them?’ The guy just laughed. I told him ‘I’m serious.’ When he realized I wasn’t pulling his leg, he said ‘Of course I would.’
“John understood what I was telling him,” he continues. “He understood that there was no need to give up a huge chunk of his money that really wasn’t going to do anymore for him than my just calling up people I knew and asking if they were interested in John Lennon shows. So John agreed that I would promote the tour for five percent of the gross and save him forty percent of the money he would have had to pay Graham and a booking agent.”
Smith next turned his attention to the particulars of the stage setting for Lennon’s return to live performances. Everybody was in agreement that Lennon’s shows had to be nothing short of spectacular. Smith, in discussion with long time sound man Dick Hansen, envisioned a stage in which none of the instruments would be visible. But Smith recalls that video was ultimately an approach to the live Lennon experience that would have been groundbreaking.
“Playing with video would have been totally new in 1980. We immediately thought of Mark Fisher (a British based architect who had forged a second career creating the stage magic for such super groups as Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones and U2). I called him in the afternoon, he got on a plane that night and flew to New York. By the time he got there, he already had a few ideas penciled out and we gave him a few of our ideas.”
Ideas, explained Smith, that would cement Lennon’s attitude of being up close and personal with his audience.
“What we were going to do was take John and Yoko to each city on the tour a day before the show and film them just walking around the streets and famous points of interest and finally walking into the show. We would set up five video screens at five different points on the stage. When the people would walk in for the actual show, they would see John and Yoko on the screens, walking through their city and into the show. We also had the idea of filming the actual audience as they were walking into the show. There would be a time delay of about 20 minutes and the people already in the arena would see themselves walking into the arena. For the time, it would have been pretty trippy.”
Smith was under the impression that the set would consist of primarily songs off of Double Fantasy and was not sure as to whether Lennon would perform any Beatles’ or Lennon solo material. Rumors would abound on just what Lennon would play. Lennon was quick to stir the pot by indicating the tour set would include some reworked early Beatles’ songs, some Lennon solo songs and some 50′s rock and roll to go along with the Double Fantasy selections. But he did indicate that a novel way of presenting the songs had been set up.
“A lot of what was going to happen during the show was John and Yoko on stage, drawing pictures of what the songs meant to them. So, as a song was going to be played, the audience would see a stick figure that John drew, representing what the song meant to him. It definitely would have been different and very personal.”
Sadly, all the ideas and predictions of Lennon’s triumphant return to the stage were wiped out in a hail of bullets from the gun of Mark David Chapman. Thousands of miles away, Smith remembers how his small group of performers and crew honored the life and untimely death of John Lennon.
“Roberta wanted to sing a song at that night’s show that would bring closure to what happened to John and what he meant to the world. So she had us go out and buy a copy of the Imagine album, she learned the song and sang Imagine that night. What can I say?
“It was very emotional and very sad.”