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Liverpool Salutes John Lennon as Factions Feud Over Future Fetes

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Yoko Ono is pacing around her hotel suite in Liverpool, England, puffing Marlboros and fiddling with her Porsche sunglasses. Reticent at first, she becomes animated as she talks of her ambitious plans this year to commemorate the 10th anniversary of John Lennon’s death. She recalls her emotions of the night before, after a concert that featured Lou Reed, Randy Travis, Terence Trent d’Arby, Roberta Flack, Cyndi Lauper and other performers singing favorite Lennon tunes. “It was hard for me to control myself at the end,” says Yoko, 57. “I was a wife, partner and fellow artist so I understand and respect him a lot. I might be kidding myself but I feel as though we are still together.” Looking ahead, she describes a projected series of concerts in Moscow, Tokyo and perhaps other cities. She is proclaiming Oct. 9, when Lennon would have turned 50, the Day of Love.

If that happens, it will only be after days of difficulty and confusion. At the show, which promoters hoped would draw 45,000, only about 15,000 showed, despite the efforts of scalpers who reportedly unloaded tickets for less than half price at the last minute. The 3½-hour gala, slated to air as a TV special this fall, also contained weak spots: Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, who declined to attend in person, sent videos; George Harrison elected not to participate at all.

Yet the biggest obstacle to Yoko’s anniversary projects is not fan apathy but a rival group, headed by Lennon’s first wife, Cynthia, 50, which also has announced plans for a series of tributes to the late Beatle. Confusion among performers about which group is doing what when may be hampering each side’s attempts to turn their plans into reality. The rivalry already has led to unseemly squabbling.

The Cynthia contingent, which calls itself We Remember Productions, includes New York City concert promoter Sid Bernstein, who brought the Beatles to the U.S. in 1964; L.A. promoter Jim Rissmiller; and Milwaukeean Perry Muckerheide, a Beatles fan and former waiter turned entrepreneur. Their plans are grand, global and anything but firm. They talk of a Lennon tribute to freedom in Namibia in August and a Beatles reunion—with Julian standing in for his father—at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate in October, which would even include a dance number between Michael Jackson and Rudolf Nureyev. “I’ve had a feeling for the past 10 years that I wasn’t able to pay my last respects to John,” Cynthia said at a press conference last December. “I wasn’t there when he died. There was nothing I could do to say goodbye, so when this cropped up I thought this would be my way of saying goodbye to John.”

The bickering between the two groups has turned on matters of style and substance. Muckerheide has accused Yoko of trying to monopolize Lennon’s memory. Yoko and her spokesperson, Elliot Mintz, claim that Cynthia’s group is in it for the cash (both Bernstein and Rissmiller admit they will be paid for their time); that they have no firm commitments from major stars (spokesmen for Nureyev and Jackson would not confirm that either performer will appear); and that, in Mintz’s words, “John was not a big fan of Sid Bernstein” (“I thought our relationship was close and warm,” says Bernstein).

Despite the contretemps, the two women aren’t slinging mud directly at each other. “I don’t want to be in ‘star wars’ and all that lunacy,” Cynthia said in the Chicago Tribune. “I’m sure if you’re talking about the essence of John Lennon, that’s the last thing he’d want.”

Although Yoko would seem to be holding the trump card—she can, and says she will, forbid We Remember Productions the right to use any Lennon-penned music at their events—the ever-ebullient Bernstein strives to put a good face on even that situation. “It does cause a problem,” he concedes. “But if we can’t play John’s music, we’ll just have to play other music. It will still be a tribute to John Lennon.” Adds United Nations adviser Hans Janitchek, another member of Cynthia’s team: “The significant thing is to bring the Beatles together. If they played ‘Happy Days are Here Again’ at the Berlin wall, wouldn’t that be terrific?”

Given the uncertain status of the rival tributes, the world—alas or luckily—may never know.

—Laura Sanderson Healy in Liverpool and Sue Carswell in New York City