Power to the people
When John Lennon announced a US tour in 1971, the White House set out to stop him. But, as John Patterson discovers, he wasn’t the first musician to have the The Man on his case – and he wouldn’t be the last
Saturday December 2, 2006
The author of the following words was FBI Director J Edgar Hoover. Try and guess who he’s talking about in this memo to Richard Nixon "[He is]… a paradox because he is difficult to judge by the normal standards of civilized life … His main reason for being is to destroy, blindly and indiscriminately, to tear down and provoke chaos …"
Ho Chi Minh? Mao Tse-Tung? Charles Manson, even?
Wrong. He’s warning the White House about that renowned subversive and enemy of the state, John Lennon. Hoover’s bizarre and paranoid outburst is one of the many secrets and revelations that enliven David Leaf and John Scheinfeld’s The US Vs John Lennon. Their documentary focuses on Lennon’s political activities in the early 1970s, in the period after he moved to New York, and on the hysterical reaction of the FBI and the Nixon White House to the "threat" of a man whose benign political worldview was plainly stated in his widely-available music.
Lennon first caught the interest of Hoover and Nixon – allies since the McCarthy witchhunts – in late 1971, when he made a $75,000 donation to an outfit called the Election Year Strategy Information Center, which was gearing up to register voters for the 1972 US Presidential election. With the Vietnam war still in full swing, Lennon’s donation was the first move of a planned US tour, during which he hoped to set up voter-registration booths in concert-venue lobbies and get as many young people signed up as possible, in the hope of voting Nixon out. In previous years this would have gone unnoticed, but the recent passage of the 26th Amendment to the US Constitution, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, meant that there might have been a discernible effect on the election. No one at this point knew that, thanks to the energetic "ratfucking" activities of his political operatives in 1972, Nixon would win in a landslide, and since this would be Lennon’s first US tour since the Beatles quit touring in 1966, it was conceivable that the kids could sign up and throw the Trickster out.
If you can judge a man by the quality of his political enemies, then Lennon was a titan. The White House first got wind of his tour from the ghastly racist dinosaur Strom Thurmond, the segregationist presidential candidate of 1948, who tipped off US Attorney General (and future jailbird) John Mitchell. CIA director Richard Helms meanwhile sent a similar memo to Hoover. And thus a plan was put into motion to have Lennon deported from the USA on a minor visa violation as a way of silencing him.
It won’t spoil this interesting, if occasionally wishy-washy, VH-1 documentary (released on the 25th anniversary of Lennon’s death) to reveal that the Hoover-Nixon effort failed. But the movie is fascinating as much for its historical and contemporary echoes as it is for its many revelations of this forgotten saga.
Hoover, his agents, and those on America’s political right had by 1971 built up a long and disgraceful record of harassing musicians and singers who dared to speak up against social injustice, racism and government criminality. Lennon had Beatle money, celebrity and top-notch lawyers to hide behind, and was thus well-insulated against the day-to-day abuses that the FBI and the US government often wielded against left-wing dissidents with emptier pockets.
John Sinclair, the manager of Detroit’s politically radical MC5, was jailed for 10 years, ostensibly for the possession of two joints, but really in order to silence the leader of Detroit’s political freak-scene, prompting Lennon’s solo single Free John Sinclair and his appearance at a 1971 benefit. Also appearing there was folkie-activist Phil Ochs, a veteran of the Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy campaigns of 1968, a co-founder of the Yippies, and proud possessor of an FBI file that ran 410 pages to Lennon’s mere 280.
Ochs was far more politically active than Lennon, and given to such wised-up conceits as "If there’s any hope of a revolution in America, it lies in getting Elvis Presley to become Che Guevara." When he was brutally mugged in Dar Es Salaam in 1973, he speculated that the US government was behind the three men who choked him and caused him to lose the upper three notes of his vocal range. Perhaps he was being paranoid about this. That’s what people thought when he claimed the FBI had a fat file on him, though, and he was right about that.
None of this was new. Back in the 1940s and 1950s the black singer Paul Robeson, a communist sympathiser and an outspoken foe of racism in America and imperialism in Africa, was stripped of his US passport, barred from performing, and hounded by the FBI. The most famous instance of The Man harassing Robeson and his ilk came in August 1949, when he gave a concert at Peekskill in upper New York state, attended by 25,000 fans. Peekskill was a notoriously reactionary community, with its own active Ku Klux Klan chapter. After the open-air concert, the local police, all 900 of them, deliberately channelled the exiting concertgoers down a rural access road lined with jeering rightwingers. All along the four-mile road, police stood by as hundreds of thugs, screaming "Run, you white niggers!" and "Jew! Jew! Jew!" hurled bricks through car windows, pulled men, women and children from their vehicles and beat them. One man was blinded and hundreds injured as folk singers including Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Lee Hays tried to escape.
Seeger and Hays were also members of The Weavers, a folk quartet who charted in 1950 with a version of Lead Belly’s Goodnight Irene before a mention in the commie-baiting tract Red channels (used by TV executives to keep left-wingers off the air) put them on the blacklist, killing their career and losing them their recording contract.
If you believe this sort of nativist fascism has disappeared in George Bush’s America, think again. The new documentary Shut Up And Sing! outlines the travails of the Dixie Chicks after singer Natalie Maines told a London audience on the eve of the Iraq war that "We’re ashamed the President of the United States comes from Texas."
In scenes that recalled the aftermath of Lennon’s "Bigger than Jesus" remark in 1966, Dixie Chicks CDs were burned across the South, and they were blacklisted from 1200 radio stations owned by the Clear Channel conglomerate – which early in the war drew up a do-not-play shit-list of songs that included Imagine. At a filmed Senate hearing, senator John McCain takes the CEO of Clear Channel apart over his risible claim that his stations all acted independently, when memos prove exactly the opposite. The Chicks went from being Red-state superstars to left-wing cult artists almost overnight, but surprisingly, they found they liked it. At the end of the movie, it’s inspiring to see Maines belting out her answer-song to the fanbase that abandoned her: "I’m not ready to make nice/I’m not ready to back down …"
It’s tempting to think that the Dixie Chicks inspired Bruce Springsteen this year to record an album of protest songs made famous by Pete Seeger, as if to prove that nothing, not Peekskill, not Red Channels or Clear Channel, not Nixon or Hoover, can be allowed to shut up a dissenting singer’s voice.
The US vs John Lennon
Details: 2006, USA, Documentary, cert 12A, 90 mins, Dir: David Leaf, John Scheinfeld
With: Gore Vidal, John Lennon, Yoko Ono
Summary: An insight into the FBI and Nixon administration’s campaign to silence the pop star turned political activist.
The US vs John Lennon
Friday December 8, 2006
Genuine English radical… The US vs John Lennon
At any other time, this documentary would be simply an interesting, if lenient revisiting of the late John Lennon’s life and radical times. Now, in an age of bland acquiescence, when the media and showbiz classes seem so resigned to our military adventure in Iraq, it is an awful rebuke.
David Leaf and John Scheinfeld tell the story of John Lennon’s career in political activism in the US during the 1970s, when furious mass demonstrations against the Vietnam war were a regular occurrence, and when his anthem Give Peace a Chance gave them a focus. The agencies of the state devoted many man-hours and tax dollars to harassing the peacenik Lennon and trying to get him deported, on the ostensible grounds of an old drugs conviction in Britain. It seems incredible that America’s political establishment was so enraged by Lennon, and came to resemble, in Saki’s phrase, a cow trying to tease a gadfly.
Yet Lennon was a brilliant irritant, with a superb line in dumb insolence -and not-so-dumb insolence. When the Beatles broke up, Lennon discovered radicalism, and he and Yoko hung out with the Black Panthers and the Yippies. Yet he also reached back into his career and found something that the American media did not quite appreciate, and which I suspect the makers of this film do not either. Lennon found his inner Spike Milligan, and brilliantly revived the spirit of the Goons, putting it to work in a radical cause. The stunts, the happenings, the bed-ins, the wacky situationist press conferences announcing the new state of "new-topia" – it was all pure goonery.
Lennon’s life ended violently, some years after he had settled into a wealthy lifestyle below the political parapet; the movie does not endorse Yoko’s belief that the authorities had something to do with his murder, yet does not quite repudiate it either. It does show how fascinated the newspapers were by Lennon and how they were never certain how to handle him, or if it was he who was handling them. There are some fascinating scenes showing reporters such as Donald Zec of the Daily Mirror, and a peculiarly awful Gloria Emerson of the New York Times, attempting to patronise Lennon. However, these people found out the hard way that Lennon was a black belt in taking the mickey, and in any case failed to understand that by boorishly failing to get the joke they became part of it.
Like Lennon or loathe him, he had a kind of genius and passion that is nowhere apparent now. We have Live Aid, and Live8, and perhaps these are the projects that, by aspiring to change merely part of the world, will achieve more than those huge gestures from the 1960s and 70s which aspired to change all of it. But the sleek superstars of pop are now very chary of Lennon-ist gestures, or serious dissentient positions, perhaps aware of the treatment meted out to the Dixie Chicks after their anti-Bush statements.
Leaf and Scheinfeld have put themselves in the forefront of the Lennon frontlash, a corrective to the cold, cantankerous recluse that emerged from the Albert Goldman biography, or the easily mocked solo figure with the crazy spouse whose reputation has been Spinal-Tapped by satirists. Lennon was a genuine English radical.
The US vs. John Lennon
Sunday December 10, 2006
The US vs. John Lennon
(99 mins, 12A)
Directed by David Leaf and John Sheinfeld; featuring Yoko Ono, Walter Cronkite, Gore Vidal, Ron Kovic, G. Gordon Liddy
As various historians have demonstrated – Richard Hofstadter in his classic work Paranoid Style in American Politics among them – repression in America is cyclical, and right-wing politics has gone hand in hand with religion. After the First World War the enforcement of prohibition was accompanied by the rounding up and deportation of supposed revolutionaries. After the Second World War came McCarthyism and the pursuit of godless Communists, and since September 2001 the religious right has been closely associated with the Bush administration and evinced a disregard for human rights that extends to the erosion of habeas corpus.
Between the end of the McCarthy era, which coincided with the uncompleted presidency of Jack Kennedy, and the election of Jimmy Carter, there was another period of repression involving religion and right-wing paranoia. In its way as bad as anything that had gone before, it involved criminality that went right up to the White House. This is the subject of a riveting American documentary co-directed by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld, that is both a fascinating comment on history and of urgent importance for our own times.
The film begins in 1966, when the American commitment in Vietnam was steeply escalating, the anti-war movement was spreading widely, and John Lennon, in the course of a rambling interview with the London Evening Standard, remarked of the Beatles: ‘Christianity will go, it will vanish and shrink. We’re more popular than Jesus now.’ Nobody was troubled by Lennon’s statement in Britain. In America it led to denunciations from the pulpit and bonfires of Beatles’ records and memorabilia. Lennon went from loveable mop top to iconoclast, and remained a controversial figure until his assassination in 1980. Shortly after this controversy he began to take an interest in politics, in an unfocused way. The mantra ‘All You Need is Love’ was to be replaced by the equally simple ‘Give Peace a Chance’.
The movie is concerned neither with his private life, which was confused and chaotic, nor with his art other than in the way it expressed his beliefs and influenced his vast following. Equally his marriage to Yoko Ono is significant here only as far as she helped shape his public behaviour. Lennon is viewed from the outside largely as a social and political being, and he emerges as more significant, sympathetic and exemplary than I had previously supposed.
The first phase comes before Lennon and Yoko Ono, who had married in 1969, moved to the States in the early Seventies. This was the period when they protested against the war by staging interviews while covered in sheets, or naked, or in bed at hotels around Europe, a form of performance art John learnt from Yoko, which appealed to that sense of absurdity that informed his early writing. These gestures seem cleverly provocative today and curiously appropriate in the context of the lunacy of Vietnam, and it’s now fascinating to see film of Lennon and Yoko face to face with a sneering Donald Zec of the Daily Mirror and an angry Gloria Emerson of the New York Times
The chief part of the movie, and where it lives up to its title, covers the period in which, bizarrely, Lennon and Yoko were regarded as enemies of the state and there was a determination to deport them. This conspiracy involved Nixon’s chief assistants, Ehrlichman and Haldeman, along with Attorney General Joseph Mitchell, J Edgar Hoover’s FBI and the Immigration Department. The film finds special significance in two particular events. The first was a seven-hour concert in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for John Sinclair, a hippie musician who’d been given 10 years for selling two joints to an undercover cop. John sang a song he’d composed for the occasion, and two days later Sinclair was released from jail. This frightened the government, and Lennon was put under close surveillance. The second event was John becoming friends with the firebrands Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Black Panther Bobby Seale. While they set out to exploit him, John refused to shift away from his Gandhian pacificism or to take part in demonstrations outside the 1972 Democratic and Republican conventions.
When a deportation order was served in 1972, there was a widespread protest, and one of the last acts of America’s greatest man of letters, Edmund Wilson, was to sign a petition protesting against this. Fortunately John and Yoko found an excellent lawyer, the charming, level-headed liberal Leon Wildes, the kind of man that makes you love America and what the country stands for at its best.
The movie features extracts from more than 30 interviews with subjects ranging from the newscaster Walter Cronkite and Gore Vidal to the paraplegic Vietnam veteran, Ron Kovic, and Paul Krassner, the anarchic satirist who coined the term ‘yippie’. There are contributions from two ex-FBI agents, who regret today what the bureau did under the egregious Hoover, and from the frighteningly charismatic, totally unrepentant G Gordon Liddy, who served four years for his involvement in Watergate. Liddy believes that the four students killed by the National Guard at Kent State university were asking for it, and that Lennon was a menace to society. This film is as relevant to present-day Britain as it is to America.