All You Need is John Lennon

By ROBERT P. WALZER / December 2, 2013

Joe Raiola plans this week to do what he has done every year since John Lennon was shot dead in New York on Dec. 8, 1980: Hold a tribute concert to him.

On Friday (Dec. 6), the Mad magazine editor, comedian, radio host and first-amendment rights activist plans to stage his 33rd annual tribute to the Beatles great at Symphony Space.

This year’s installment, which like the others in recent years is endorsed by Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono, features Steve Earle, the folk-rock singer and songwriter.

“Lennon carried a timeless wisdom of the ages, a message of the sages and the mystics and wise men and women that no one articulated in the 20th century with that kind of power,” said Mr. Raiola. “People need to be reminded of his message: ‘Love is all you need.’ ”

Proceeds will support Theatre Within, a nonprofit that supports development of the theater arts. It will share the proceeds with Spirit Foundations, a charity established in 1978 by Lennon and Ono.

Other performers in the show are Raul Malo, Dan Bern, Teddy Thompson, Dana Fuchs, Joan Osborne, Bettye LaVette, Toshi Reagon, Rich Pagano and The Buffers. They will mainly play songs that Lennon composed.

Mr. Raiola’s annual shows, which began in 1981, evolved into fundraisers in recent years, and each one of those has been a struggle. “It’s like producing a wedding and a funeral and a bar mitzvah all at once,” Mr. Raiola said.

Last year’s edition was nearly cancelled due to Hurricane Sandy. “It was brutal,” he said. “We sold something like 10 tickets in 21 days,” and ended up losing $5,000, but the event was still able to raise cash and food for charities to help victims of the hurricane.

Mr. Raiola’s biggest event so far, held in 2010 at the 70th anniversary of Lennon’s birth and featuring Cindy Lauper and Jackson Browne at the Beacon Theater, was also the riskiest. He he had to take out a $200,000 home equity loan to help finance it. This year, Mr. Raiola said, he borrowed only $25,000.

“Things are definitely moving in the right direction,” he said.