'Just Imagine,' all you need is love

05:00 AM, Feb 21, 2013

Tim Piper stars in Just Imagine, an acclaimed John Lennon tribute coming to Nazareth College Arts Center. (Provided photo)/

Written By Jeff Spevak | Staff music critic

If you go

Just Imagine.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday (Feb. 23). A 7 p.m. pre-performance lecture is led by Piper.
Where: Nazareth College Arts Center, 4245 East Ave.
Tickets: $30, $45 and $60, available at (585) 389-2170, artscenter.naz.edu and the box office from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and 11 a.m. until curtain time on the day of the show.

For a short while, Tim Piper was pointed down the wrong musical path. His elementary school orchestra needed a cello player. So, by default, he was handed a cello. Even at that young age, Piper suspected this wasn’t going to get him anywhere. “I knew girls weren’t going to chase cello players,” he says.

Yo-Yo Ma may beg to differ. But this was New York City in 1964.

When they came to New York City, even though I was young, that was all the buzz the next day at school,” Piper says. “Everyone was saying, ‘Did you see these guys, with those guitars?’ “

They,” obviously, being The Beatles. The course of music history underwent a seismic shift, and Piper was on a new road. Fueled by a nearly lifelong obsession with The Beatles, Piper brings his multimedia John Lennon tribute, Just Imagine, to Nazareth College on Saturday.

The premise, is, “What if the legend came back for one more night, and you were there?” Piper says. Backed by a band, he performs Lennon’s music to images and words from that era, a show tracing, “the arc of his life.

If you want to bring people to tears, I’ve done that. In earlier versions, the show was more heavy-handed, where you experienced what took him away from us.”

That’s Lennon being shot to death on Dec. 8, 1980, outside of his New York City apartment. But now, “the show opens with people mourning, crying, you hear bells tolling,” Piper says. “You know he’s been shot without hearing the gunshots. Without seeing the horror.

He comes back in a magical way, because he liked to be that way. He loved Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, magical things. So the whole tone is kind of whimsical.”

Piper stepped into Lennon’s life slowly but purposefully. He was 10 when his family moved to Los Angeles. “In high school, my bands played in all of the small clubs in L.A., and I mean all of them,” Piper says. “The Beatles always leaked onto the set list.”

Soon enough, that leak would develop into a torrent. It was when Piper saw the Broadway show Beatlemania! that he realized: “You can make a living doing Beatles?”

Beatles tribute acts were starting to happen, and Piper jumped on board. “When I first joined the Beatles business, I answered an ad looking for a Paul McCartney,” he says. “And I played Paul for a little while. I’m like Paul in my personality. John Lennon was more irreverent and acerbic than I am, and did all of the things in real life that I probably wouldn’t do. But he was the one who always pulled me. And, I look like John more than I do like Paul.”

So, John it was. “There were 12 casts of Beatlemania!, and I played in bands with some of those guys,” Piper says. “I wanted to do it my way. That’s when I started putting together groups. Revolution was mine, it still plays Royal cruise lines. There was Rain, who I played with. The Fab Four, who I played with. Everybody in the Beatles business knows everybody. They borrow what they need to get it done.”

Apparently, the Beatles business is like Legos. The Ringos are interchangeable.

But Piper still wasn’t doing it his way. Then he saw Hal Holbrook’s one-man performance of Mark Twain. If Twain, why not Lennon? “I decided, maybe I’m the guy to do it,” Piper says. “I read all of the books, saw the videos, went to the various websites. You can unearth endless amounts of trivial facts.” Facts that Beatles purists insist on, like the Rickenbacker guitar that Lennon played early in his career. And insight into his relationships with manager Brian Epstein and Stu Sutcliffe, the Beatles’ original bassist.

John came from a totally dysfunctional family and had to choose between his mom and dad at 5 years old,” Piper says. “Although they loved him, they abandoned him.

His mother, Stu Sutcliffe, Brian Epstein, they all died on him. Those he loved the most. Here’s a guy who sings about love, yet he was hurting very deeply. Yoko was more than a lover, she was a mother figure. He called her “Mother.” He was always looking for love. I think he had it with Sean, who was Caesarean-born. From what I understand of the Japanese culture, they used to believe that if the son was born on the same day as the father, the son inherited the father’s spirit.”

Both, in fact, were born on Oct. 8.

If John had lived, he might have come to terms with McCartney and the rest of the Beatles,” Piper says. “Not that there would have been a reunion, but I think they would have put the past behind them.”

Piper has met McCartney. It was an anti-landmine benefit in a hotel ballroom, organized by Heather Mills, now McCartney’s ex-wife. McCartney was playing, as was Piper. Simon & Garfunkel, too. “A pretty heady crowd,” Piper says. “A friend of mine had too many drinks and walked up to Paul’s table. I’m thinking, We’re gonna get tossed out of here. But Paul says, ‘Oh great, bring him over.’

Your head’s spinning. I told myself, ‘To meet a guy like that, this is your one and only opportunity. I just remember the feel of his hand, soft. Long, soft fingers. And he was my size, not 10 feet tall like I’d imagined. I was talking to a hero. My mind was gone, all I knew is I was touching Paul McCartney.”

But one other incidental meeting affected Piper even more. It was at Los Angeles International Airport. “Midnight, I’m coming back from a tour, totally fried, carrying my guitar, heading toward baggage,” he says. “I turn the corner and there’s only one guy within 100 yards. He has the Beatles haircut, glasses, kind of Asian looking.”

Sean Lennon.

He’s sitting there, talking on a cellphone, and I don’t know if I should wait for him to finish, because I don’t want to stand there and just gawk at him. Then, at just that moment, he puts the phone down.

” ‘You don’t know me,’ I said. ‘I do your dad’s music.’ “

He looks up through his glasses, with John’s eyes, and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. He knew, you could see the half-smile in his eyes. He said, ‘Yeah, I see the Rickenbacker.’ “