Watch David Bowie Perform “Imagine”: A Touching Tribute to His Friend John Lennon (1983)

John Lennon’s “Imag­ine” is one of the most cov­ered songs in rock his­to­ry. Its sim­ple mes­sage is ever­green, its sen­ti­ments not hard to get across, but few ren­di­tions are as mov­ing as David Bowie’s one-night-only per­for­mance when his 1983 Seri­ous Moon­light tour wrapped at the Hong Kong Col­i­se­um.

It was espe­cial­ly fit­ting giv­en that this, the final night of the tour, coin­cid­ed with the 3rd anniver­sary of Lennon’s mur­der.

While legions feel a deep per­son­al con­nec­tion to that song, Bowie and Lennon were “as close as fam­i­ly,” accord­ing to Lennon’s wid­ow, Yoko Ono.

Lennon cowrote Bowie’s 1975 hit, “Fame,” join­ing him in the stu­dio with his gui­tar and a mem­o­rable falset­to. As Bowie recalls below, he also pro­vid­ed some much-appre­ci­at­ed coun­sel regard­ing man­agers.

As the anniver­sary loomed, Seri­ous Moon­light gui­tarist Earl Slick, who played on sev­er­al Lennon albums, sug­gest­ed that a trib­ute was in order. He sug­gest­ed “Across the Uni­verse,” which Bowie had cov­ered in the same ses­sion that yield­ed “Fame.”

Bowie report­ed­ly respond­ed, “Well if we’re going to do it, we might as well do ‘Imag­ine.’ ”

It was the final song played that night, Bowie set­ting the stage with some per­son­al anec­dotes, includ­ing one that had tak­en place at a near­by vendor’s stall, where Bowie spied a knock-off Bea­t­les jack­et and con­vinced Lennon to pose in it. (What we wouldn’t give to be able to share that pho­to with read­ers…)

Fre­quent Bowie col­lab­o­ra­tor back up singer George Simms told Voyeur, the fanzine of the inter­na­tion­al David Bowie Fan­club:

If I remem­ber well, we didn’t rehearse that song. The night David did the ‘Imag­ine’ song, none of us in the band had any idea how that song was going to come off. David told us before, at a cer­tain point, he would cue the band to start the song instru­men­tal­ly. We didn’t know what he was going to do in the begin­ning but he had it very care­ful­ly worked out with the light­ing peo­ple. We were on stage and it was dark. David was sit­ting on the stage at one par­tic­u­lar place and, all of a sud­den, a sin­gle spot­light went on David and hit him exact­ly where he was sit­ting. David start­ed to tell some­thing about John Lennon. Dur­ing this, it went dark a few times again, but then when the spots went on again David was sit­ting some­where else on the stage. David cued the band and we start­ed the song. It was the third anniver­sary of Lennon’s death; it was Decem­ber 8. We all grew up lis­ten­ing to The Bea­t­les and John Lennon. After we did “Imag­ine,” we all went off the stage and back into the hold­ing area. Nor­mal­ly we’d be slap-hap­py, talk­ing and laugh­ing, but that night there was absolute silence because of all the emo­tion of doing a trib­ute to John Lennon—especially know­ing that David was a friend of his and that David was speak­ing from his heart. We didn’t know how dra­mat­ic the lights’ impact was going to be. Nobody want­ed to break the silence; it was like a sledge­ham­mer into your chest.

Lennon’s admi­ra­tion mir­rored the respect Bowie had for him. He may have bust­ed Bowie’s chops a bit by reduc­ing the glam-rock­er’s approach as “rock n’ roll with lip­stick,” but he also described his own Dou­ble Fan­ta­sy album as an attempt to “do some­thing as good as (Bowie’s) Heroes.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Get a Fly-on-the-Wall View of John Lennon Record­ing & Arrang­ing His Clas­sic Song, “Imag­ine” (1971)

Watch John Lennon’s Last Live Per­for­mance (1975): “Imag­ine,” “Stand By Me” & More

The Mak­ing of Queen and David Bowie’s 1981 Hit “Under Pres­sure”: Demos, Stu­dio Ses­sions & More

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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