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Photo: AP/The Canadian Press
John and Yoko. Photo from AP/The Canadian Press
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John Lennon and Yoko Ono Rock Varsity Stadium

An iconic Toronto concert in 1969 heralded the breakup of the Beatles and the launch of new acts

Sept. 13, 1969: In its 104-year history, Varsity Stadium has hosted its share of iconic Toronto sporting moments, but the place has also played a vital role in the city’s vibrant music scene. It was here, in September 1969, just days before John Lennon told the Beatles that he was leaving them, that Lennon and Yoko Ono first performed live as the Plastic Ono Band, with Eric Clapton on guitar and Ono handling vocals.

Lennon, in his trademark white suit, premiered “Cold Turkey,” which many believe chronicles his anguishing withdrawal from heroin. The song was so new, Lennon couldn’t remember the lyrics. He read the words off a piece of paper that Ono held up next to his guitar.

The 12-hour rock concert included 1950s rock ’n’ roll stars Fats Domino and Bo Diddley (and Chuck Berry did his signature duck walk across the stage), as well as new sensations, such as Alice Cooper, Chicago and the Doors. But it was Lennon who sold out the 22,000–seat football stadium. When he and Ono sang “Give Peace a Chance,” they swayed in front of a field of twinkling lights. The tradition of waving lit lighters and matches at concerts may have originated that evening at Varsity.

In later years, Varsity crowds welcomed Pierre Trudeau, Mother Teresa and Kiss. The stadium was rebuilt in 2007 and this summer, hosted archery for the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games. But ever since its inception in 1898, when the leaves change colour the field belongs to the Varsity Blues.

 

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