To fully appreciate the history of the Annual John Lennon Tribute it’s helpful to know a little about the Theatre Within Workshop and its founder, Alec Rubin.   

Alec was a director and a therapist, a primal therapist to be precise. It was a powerful combination. As a director, he used primal therapy techniques to help performing artists access deep feelings and develop raw autobiographical material for the stage. The Theatre Within Workshop, which he founded in 1962 and was originally known as Theatre Of Encounter, served as a theater lab and an informal performance space. 

When I joined the group in 1979, there was a photo of John Lennon as a five year-old hanging in the studio. It was the back cover of John’s Plastic Ono Band album, which he wrote and recorded soon after his experience in Primal Therapy with Dr. Arthur Janov. The album, which had been a favorite of mine since it was released in 1970, was adored by workshop members. We saw ourselves as having embarked on a similar path as John. He was a hero to us, not because he was a Beatle, or because he was a rock star, but because he was committed to shining a light in the dark places within himself and authentically sharing his journey.

Fast forward to the summer of 1981: John had been senselessly murdered the previous December and we were planning a reading of a new play: Show Me The Way To Strawberry Fields. (Alec was the director and I was one of the actors.)  The play was about the impact of John’s death on two couples in crisis.  

About a month before the scheduled reading, the playwright got cold feet and pulled the script. But the publicity was already out and our impulse to do something to remember John was strong. So, Alec and I decided to pull together a John Lennon Tribute, a gathering of actors, musicians, dancers, poets and friends.

The finale for the 34th Annual John Lennon Tribute

Featuring Debbie Harry, Ben E. King, Marshall Crenshaw, David Johansen, Kate Pierson and more.  

What I remember most about that first Tribute is how sad it was. We had never envisioned it as an annual event, but it felt important to come together over John, so we just kept doing it.

For many years we flew mostly under the radar. That all changed in 2004 when the New York Daily News ran a short blurb about the Tribute. I soon received a note from Yoko herself inviting me to contribute an essay to a book she was working on called Memories Of John Lennon. That, combined with Alec’s death the following year, served as a major turning point.

The Tribute has changed a lot since then, evolving from a small workshop production to a full-scale concert with legendary artists. Along the way, it has raised money to help feed the hungry, build music schools in developing nations, fund education programs for children living in temporary housing, and support Hurricane Sandy relief.  

Since 2014, all Tribute proceeds have helped fund our own life-affirming workshops — in songwriting, art, meditation and more — at Gilda’s Club NYC for those whose lives have been impacted by cancer. We are especially proud of our John Lennon Real Love Project, a free songwriting workshop which we provide for children who have lost a parent to cancer and adult cancer survivors.

In 2019, we are providing over 40 John Lennon Real Love project workshops for the NY-metro cancer community. Staring in the spring of 2020, in commemoration of John Lennon’s 80th birthday, we will offer this visionary program to public schools and libraries in and around New York City.

And so, here we are nearly four decades down the long and winding road. John’s songs and the message he expressed are timeless. “It’s the word: Love.”

That’s what continues to inspire us.

Joe Raiola
Summer 2019