Phone flashlights may have passed the proverbial torch, but for decades fans attending concerts would wave lighters in the air to cheer on their favourite act. It’s a phenomenon seen around the world, but like the sphynx cat and insulin, many may be unaware that the tradition originated right here in Toronto.
Toronto was a changing city in 1969, and so was the world around it. The Vietnam War was grinding on, FLQ terrorists bombed the Montreal Stock Exchange, the Science Centre opened in Toronto, and The Beatles were on the verge of breaking up.
The impending collapse of what was then the world’s biggest music act was already being witnessed in the form of breakaway solo acts like John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band.
Lennon and Ono would be among the performers of the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival festival on Sept. 13, 1969. The 12-hour show at Varsity Stadium included the likes of Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Alice Cooper, The Doors, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard, a guest list that has since elevated the concert to legend status among classic rock fans.
But even with all of those big names to take the pressure off, and the comparatively light crowd of 20,000 compared to the massive stadiums The Beatles sold out on U.S. tours, Lennon was suffering from stage fright and needed a bit of coaxing to get out on stage.
Acclaimed producer and cult icon Kim Fowley was MC for the night, and needed to get the Plastic Ono Band out on stage, and fast.
Gripped with stage fright, the famously cool and collected John Lennon was furiously hacking away through a pack of darts backstage, but Fowley had an idea.
Stepping out onto the stage, Fowley addressed the audience with a simple request:
“Everyone, get out your matches and lighters, please. In a minute, I’m going to bring out John Lennon and Eric Clapton, and when I do, I want you to light them and give them a huge Toronto welcome.”
It clearly worked, as the performance that followed went down in history as the live album, “Live Peace in Toronto 1969.” It also introduced many to Yoko Ono’s trademark shrieking, which was served up through a bag inexplicably placed over her head. Something that still defies explanations over a half-century later.
And with that, a rock and roll tradition was born steps from St. George Subway Station on familiar ground to many longtime Toronto residents.