NOTE:
You've come to an old part of SW Online. We're still moving this and other older stories into our new format. In the meanwhile, click here to go to the current home page.








The pop star the FBI declared a "threat"
John Lennon's revolution

Review by Alan Maass | October 6, 2006 | Page 13

The U.S. vs. John Lennon, written and directed by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld.

J. EDGER Hoover used his FBI as a political police force against any figure or organization in the 1960s that he deemed a threat to U.S. society. Martin Luther King, the Black Panthers, socialist organizations, antiwar activists, the American Indian Movement--all became targets of FBI surveillance and the agency's campaigns of violence and abuse.

In the early 1970s, Hoover added another target to his long list--John Lennon, "a former member," he reported to Richard Nixon's White House, "of the Beatles singing group."

The FBI's harassment of Lennon, culminating in an attempt to have him kicked out of the U.S., where he moved in 1971, is the subject of a new documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon.

The backdrop is one of the more interesting stories in the history of popular music--how one of rock and roll's biggest stars and among the world's most famous celebrities became a revolutionary, committed to radical change and hoping to place his music at the service of the struggle.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

IT'S HARD to think of any individual or band who could rival the Beatles' rise to superstardom. They eclipsed anything that came before, and the pop music audience, while continuing to grow, began to fracture in their wake.

What else to read and hear

John Lennon's first three solo records after the Beatles broke up--John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, Imagine and Some Time in New York City--have their drawbacks, but together are a great document of Lennon's attempt to put his politics into his music, and are definitely worth a listen.

Jon Wiener, who helped the makers of The U.S. vs. John Lennon as an adviser, wrote a biography of Lennon, Come Together: John Lennon in his Time, based in part on FBI files obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

 

Who else in pop music history could say they were "more popular than Jesus"? When John said it in 1966, with the Beatles triumphant final concert tour of the U.S. in the planning stages for later that year, it had the ring of truth.

It also prompted a storm of protest from right-wingers. The U.S. concerts were accompanied by mass burnings of Beatles albums and pickets by the Ku Klux Klan.

The Jesus remark may have been the lightning rod, but the right's hatred was shaped by the way that rock music in this period represented a social challenge--mostly unconscious, meaning different things to different people, but nevertheless real--to the values and priorities of the right.

Rock represented a certain defiance of the code of behavior, especially about sexuality, dictated by the right's morality. The music came to be a symbol of a brewing youth rejection of authority--a common enough conflict in any time, but one that took on special significance in the 1960s for a number of reasons.

Lennon, though, was becoming more explicitly political, influenced by the struggles of the 1960s, especially the movement against the Vietnam War. "The whole culture had been radicalized," Tariq Ali, a socialist and leader of the student movement in Britain, says in The U.S. vs. John Lennon. "He was engaged with the world, and the world was changing him.

At the end of 1966, Lennon met and fell in love with the Japanese artist Yoko Ono. John's head-over-heels devotion to Yoko--think of how often her name shows up in future Lennon songs--earned the derision of many fans, especially after the Beatles broke up and Yoko got blamed for it. But her politics certainly reinforced Lennon's move to the left.

The two came in contact with leaders of the movement in Britain--significantly, Ali and Robin Blackburn, both members of the Trotskyist International Marxist Group. A later interview/discussion among the four that appeared in the IMG paper Red Mole (reprinted in Ali's memoir Streetfighting Years)--gives a sense of the back-and-forth about the questions facing the struggle.

John's song "Revolution" on the Beatles' White Album is a reflection of such discussions. It famously says that "you can count me out," but this is a comment on tactics--specifically, the role of violence in the struggle.

"Revolution" encapsulates a debate John was having with himself and others about how social change should be achieved. In fact, on the album version of the song, John also sings "you can count me in"--because, he later said, "I wasn't sure."

Lennon became more and more determined to use his superstar status to spread a political message. When John and Yoko got married in 1969, they staged a weeklong "bed-in for peace" in an Amsterdam hotel (they later tried to repeat the event in New York City, but were kept out of the U.S., and ended up in a Montreal hotel).

At the Montreal bed-in, John recorded the song "Give Peace a Chance" for the first time. The repeated refrain was soon being sung at antiwar demonstrations, which is exactly what Lennon intended.

The "bed-in" might seem naïve and silly today, but Lennon saw himself as exploiting the media's obsession with the Beatles. "If I'm going to get on the front page, I might as well get on the front page with the word 'peace,'" he says in footage included in The U.S. vs. John Lennon that captures an angry argument with New York Times reporter Gloria Emerson, who condescendingly dismisses John for hoping to have a political impact.

"Can you tell me what they were singing at the moratorium march [in Washington, D.C. against the Vietnam War]?" he asks Emerson. "You were saying that in America they're so serious about the protest movement, but they were so flippant that they were singing a happy-go-lucky song, which happens to be one I wrote. I'm glad they sang it, and when I get there, I'll sing it with them."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

BY 1970, the Beatles had broken up, after increasing conflicts among the four members pulling in different directions, Lennon at least as hard as the others.

John's early solo albums are about everything that he felt was kept bottled up by being a Beatle.

The first, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, is musically stripped down, often relying only on some piano or acoustic guitar, accompanied by spare drums, in place of the elaborate orchestrations of the Beatles' last years. The lyrics, presented with John's devastating honesty, are cries of pain--about being abandoned by his parents, or his loss of faith in religion, for example.

Lennon also gave voice to his continuing politicization, culminating in the 1972 album Some Time in New York City. With the exception of one rollicking tribute to John's new hometown, every song is about some event out of the news or an immediate political issue. A few fall into well-meaning but shallow and cringe-inducing sloganeering--for example, "Women Is the Nigger of the World," which obscures more than it explains about sexism.

But you can still hear the anger on cuts like "Attica State," about the 1971 prison rebellion, and "Sunday Bloody Sunday," about the massacre of Catholic civil rights demonstrators in Northern Ireland, which took place weeks before the album was made. Plus, the album features some of best music John wrote in his post-Beatles career--a return to his devotion to early rock and roll, with its indebtedness to the blues.

With their move to the U.S., Lennon and Ono had begun working with U.S. radicals such as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin of the Yippies. Invited by TV talk show host Mike Douglas to co-host his daytime program for a week, John and Yoko invited a parade of leftists to speak to the television audience--Black Panthers leader Bobby Seale was among the guests.

In December 1971, activists organized a concert in support of John Sinclair, a cofounder of the White Panther Party in Detroit, who was convicted and given a prison sentence of up to 10 years for giving two joints to undercover cops. Lennon and Ono were the headliners--they sang their song "John Sinclair," which showed off John's blues guitar skills.

Three days after the concert, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed a series of earlier court decisions upholding Sinclair's sentence, and released the activist.

Flush with this success, Lennon, Sinclair and others apparently began planning for a concert tour that would follow Richard Nixon around the country as he campaigned for re-election as president.

But the Nixon White House--already plotting their dirty-tricks campaign against the Democrats that would lead to the break-in at the Watergate hotel--set their sights on him. Acting on a suggestion from Sen. Strom Thurmond, they trumped up an excuse for the Immigration and Naturalization Service to begin deportation proceedings. The U.S. vs. John Lennon documents this attempt to silence Lennon.

Though Lennon and Ono were ultimately successful in beating the deportation order, the struggle to stay in the U.S. took a toll. The documentary makers conclude that the Feds' campaign frightened John and Yoko away from their association with the left.

While it's certainly true that Lennon recognized the FBI harassment as a deadly serious threat, there are hints in the movie's documentary footage of other reasons why John became less political after 1972.

For one thing, he and Yoko grew suspicious of the motives and methods of collaborators like Jerry Rubin--who apparently tried to manipulate the two into playing a concert outside the Republican national convention by leaking a plan to the press that John hadn't approved.

More generally, there was the growing disorientation of the left in the early 1970s--a sense among radicals that, however successful they had been in winning laws overturning Jim Crow segregation and discrediting the U.S. war on Vietnam, they were still far away from defeating the old power structure.

At the John Sinclair concert, for example, John gave voice to the sense that the movement needed a new direction. "We came here not only to help John and to spotlight what's going on, but also to say to all of you that apathy isn't it, and that we can do something," he said. "So flower power didn't work, so what? We start again."

Within a few years--even as Nixon was driven out of the White House, and the Vietnam War finally came to an end--the 1960s struggles had gone into a decline, and Lennon had retreated into personal concerns, both in his activism and his music.

Nevertheless, John had followed a remarkable path from beloved and mischievous mop-top to certified "threat" to the American state.

"The authorities were terrified of him because he had so much sway," says Felix Dennis, now a media mogul, but in the 1960s a coeditor of Oz magazine in Britain, who was jailed for violating obscenity laws. "They weren't frightened of people like Mick Jagger. That was just musicians and silly long-haired gits with too much money misbehaving. The trouble with John was that there was some intellectual force behind the argument."

That's a testament not only to John Lennon's personal courage and commitment, but to the power of the 1960s struggles for change--now smirked about so often in the media--to transform the people who were a part of them.

Home page | Current storylist | Back to the top