Gimme Some Truth - The U.S. vs. John Lennon
There's a trailer out for a new documentary called The U.S. vs. John Lennon (LSL/Lion's Gate, 2006). I cried when I saw it, because it brought back a John Lennon I had all but forgotten, a naïve political activist caught up in events beyond his control, targeted as a threat to a corrupt politician fighting to hold on to power while conducting a hopeless war. Who also happened to have a large influence on the creation of my mind.
The relevance of this documentary to current events is evident when disgraced President Richard Nixon is shown addressing the nation about the Vietnam War. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to George Bush, he says “As South Vietnamese forces become stronger, the rate of American withdrawal can become greater.”
If the documentary is half as good as the trailer, The U.S. vs. John Lennon could be one hell of a movie. It's directed and written by the team of David Leaf and John Scheinfield, who appear to specialize in TV documentaries about musicians. I reserve judgment, as their previous efforts include Rosemary Clooney: Girl Singer (LSL/PBS, 2004), Beautiful Dreamer: The Story of Brian Wilson and “Smile” (LSL/Showtime, 2004) and Sinatra: The Classic Duets (LSL, 2002).
I was on a pay phone in a college dormitory in Storrs, Connecticut, when I learned that Lennon had been killed. The phone conversation was a farewell hiding behind a please-write-often to an ex-girlfriend, as I was days away from boarding the Greyhound bus that brought me to California, where I've lived since. What I remember was my traveling companion, Peter, bursting into the wooden booth, his eyes wild and wet, asking if I'd heard what happened. I thought that the Soviet Union might have invaded Poland, or that the U.S. could have struck at Iran, given Peter's evident panic. When he said “John Lennon's been shot,” my adrenaline must have kicked in, because my perception of reality was suddenly so acute that the words were suspended in my ears, and time slowed. The amber light in the foyer appeared to grow in candlepower, and the sound of the Buzzcocks coming from the stereo in the kitchen was very, very hollow. With Ronald Reagan taking over the White House in January, I was prepared for—even expecting—war, not Lennon's assassination.
My early musical tastes were formed by the Beatles. I was 11 years old when their break-up was announced in early 1970. I'd been aware of their music since I was nine years old—my fifth grade binder was covered with transcriptions of the lyrics to “Help!,” “Nowhere Man,” and other Beatles songs. Abbey Road was the first record I bought with money I'd saved myself. It helped that my parents hated the Beatles. The current image of the Beatles is as cuddly as a Sanrio character, but they were anything but cuddly in 1970. All my parents saw was the long hair, the beards, the drugs, the LP jacket with a full frontal nude photograph of Lennon and Yoko Ono—and for that matter, Ono herself—and they were frightened for my future.
It might appear laughable in the iTunes era that rock 'n' roll could be considered dangerous, but there was a clear link between music and the politics that were dividing America in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Bob Dylan released “Masters of War” in 1963, Joan Baez encouraged young men to refuse to be drafted into military service. San Francisco's Jefferson Airplane was boldly activist, protesting America's war in Vietnam. Detroit's MC5, who performed at the protest outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago right before the riot began, even had its own arsenal.
My family lived just outside the city limits of New Haven, Connecticut, where the promise of the 1960s counterculture came to an end with the arrests of eight members of the Black Panther Party, plus its national chairman, Bobby Seale, for the May, 1969, torture-murder-lynching of fellow Panther Alex Rackley, who was suspected by the Panthers of being a police informer.
The first of two trials began in spring of 1970. Students at Yale University joined the Panthers in protests. The school's president, Kingman Brewster, added fuel to the growing fire when he told protesters that he was “skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve fair trials in the United States.” The first week of May saw demonstrations culminating with some 15,000 protesters on the New Haven Green (about two miles from our home, as the crow flies). Governor John Dempsey ordered the National Guard to New Haven, but police chief James Ahern kept them largely out of sight, keeping a lid on the powder keg, although there are reports of minor skirmishes. That same week, another troop of the National Guard opened fire with live ammunition on unarmed student protesters at Kent State University in Ohio, killing four and wounding nine.
In retrospect, I can almost understand why my parents were worried. At the time, I really didn't know what was going on. I was 11 years old, and I liked rock 'n' roll. That blissful ignorance didn't last. It gradually dawned on me that the Vietnam War wasn't going to end any time soon, and when I turned 18, I would be a likely candidate for the military draft. The only way out of the draft was a college deferment, and my folks, neither of whom had been to college (my mother didn't finish high school), weren't in a position to send me to school. My father suggested I consider the Navy, where he had spent the Korean War as a SONAR operator, well away from combat.
I'd enjoyed the feel-good politics of Lennon's “All You Need is Love” and “Give Peace a Chance.” Who wouldn't be in favor of love and peace, if only as abstract ideals? “Instant Karma,” his single from February, 1970, made me think. The music was great, a hard driving rocker with a literally screaming vocal. The label bore the words “PLAY LOUD.” But I had to look up “karma” in a dictionary. A library's dictionary, because the one we had at home hadn't included the word, which only entered common usage in America after the success of Lennon's song. What I learned was the Hindu definition, which boils down to: your negative actions will come back to you, which seemed to be exactly what Lennon was suggesting:
Instant karma's gonna get you
Gonna knock you off your feet
Better recognize your brothers
Everyone you meet
Why in the world are we here?
Surely not to live in pain and fear
Why on earth are you there?
When you're everywhere
Gonna get your share
This was heady stuff for a Catholic kid who thought he might have a calling for the priesthood. It flies in the face of the basic tenets of Catholicism: That Christ died for my sins, that I can't help but be a sinner, and only by accepting Christ as my savior could I gain everlasting life. Karma suggests I'm responsible for my own fate in this world, and the next, if there is one. This eliminates absolution, the defining event of Catholicism. It bothered me at first that this seemed to make more sense than what I was learning in catechism. But a switch had been thrown in my brain.
About this time, my parents had a party for my father's relatives. Vietnam and the anti-war protests were a major topic of discussion, and I finally understood something that I'd heard from my uncle before. “You've got to remember,” he told my father, “the g---s just don't have the same respect for life that we have.” I'd been reading about the My Lai massacre in the newspapers, and the entire concept of “we” versus “them” was coming undone in my mind. Did any group of people have more or less respect for life than any other group? If so, wouldn't there be at least one group that wasn't ready to slaugher another? The further realization that each of us was ultimately responsible for our own actions—whether or not Christ died for sins—threw the concept of America's moral superiority into question.
Then Lennon released an album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. A raw precursor of psychobilly, it was a deeply introspective record that seemed designed to demolish the legend of the Beatles. The song “I Found Out” featured the lyric “There ain't no Jesus gonna come from the sky/now that I found out I know I can cry.” It went on to skewer another religious option: “Old hare Krishna's got nothing on you/ just keep you crazy with nothing to do/keep you occupied with pie in the sky/there ain't no guru who can see through your eyes.” “Working Class Hero” offered: “They hurt you at home and they hit you at school/They hate you if you're clever and they despise a fool/Till you're so fucking crazy you can't follow their rules.” Lennon was describing his own experiences and offering his own view of the world, but he was also describing my life at that moment.
He delivered the coup de grace in “God,” saying “God is a concept/by which we measure our pain,” then offering a litany of things he didn't believe in, from Jesus to Kennedy to Buddha and finally, Beatles. His proclamation that he only believes in “Yoko (Ono) and me” is frequently and incorrectly cited as a precursor of Tom Wolfe's “Me Generation.” What Lennon was really saying was that no person could realize his potential as long as he sought meaning outside of himself. All gods are false, he says, and he was among the most false:
I was the dreamweaver
But now I'm reborn
I was the walrus
But now I'm John
And so, dear friends
you'll just have to carry on
The dream is over.
Although he'd relinquished his divinity, I found myself looking up to him even more than I had before. His message, which could be distilled to the title of a George Harrison number from the Beatles' Rubber Soul LP, “Think for Yourself,” took some time to take root and grow amidst the citizenship lessons, the “duck and cover” drills, and the fear of eternal damnation. But the looming spectre of being a target in Vietnam was a hell of an incentive to learn how to think. And one of the first things that bubbled up from this new thinking was that I had not yet really formed an opinion of my own—including this new thought. I had formed my first discursive loop.
There were many other influences and causes for my discovery of critical thinking. Books by Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, my ninth grade biology teacher (a devout Catholic who was as big a proponent of evolutionary theory as Stephen Jay Gould), Colin Turnbull's The Mountain People, the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, an interest in science, and my own curiosity were also involved. But I have no doubt that the songs from John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band helped to shape my thoughts.
Lennon and Ono moved to New York in August of 1971, and quickly hooked up with the American anti-war movement. In December, They appeared in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at a benefit concert for John Sinclair, the manager of the MC5, who, in 1969, had been sentenced to 10 years in prison for providing two marijuana joints to undercover cops engaged in a sting operation. Many leftists believed that the harsh sentence was due more to Sinclair's support of the Black Panthers (he formed a “partner” organization naively named the White Panthers) and his anti-war activism. Lennon performed a song he'd composed about Sinclair's situation, and this was noted by an observer for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The feds were interested in Lennon because he had been associating with Yippies Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, and was considering a national concert tour that would directly oppose the re-election of President Nixon.
The 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, permitting 18-year-olds to vote in national elections, was adopted in July of 1971, some 30 years after it was first submitted to Congress. Anti-war protesters frequently pointed to the fact that 18-year-olds were being drafted to fight and die in Vietnam, but that they had no voice at the ballot box. The amendment was resubmitted in the summer of 1968, sailed through Congress, and was ratified by three-quarters of the states faster than any previous amendment. It meant that the 1972 election would be the first time 18-21-year-olds—widely considered to be monolithically anti-war—would help to choose a president. These new voters were also believed to be slavishly devoted to rock 'n' roll, and to Lennon. Keeping Lennon from inciting a democratic uprising became an obsession for Strom Thurmond, a segregationist Republican senator from South Carolina. He advised attorney general John Mitchell that kicking British citizen Lennon out of the U.S. would be a “strategic counter-measure.” Mitchell passed the suggestion along to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which began deportation proceedings against Lennon on March 6, 1972. The reason cited was Lennon's 1968 guilty plea to possessing marijuana—an arrest that was considered by most to be a staged event, with the drugs planted by a policeman notorious for busting rock 'n' roll stars. (The arrest also resulted in Ono's miscarriage.)
A long nightmare began for Lennon, who found himself shadowed clumsily by agents who apparently wanted him aware of the surveillance. The legal proceedings against Lennon continued for more than three years, ending when a U.S. Court of appeals overturned the deportation order in October of 1975. This was 10 months after Rolling Stone revealed the political motivation of the INS by publishing a copy of Thurmond's 1972 memo to Mitchell. In the intervening time, much had happened:
- Nixon was re-elected, then forced to resign in August of 1974, when it became obvious that he was about to be impeached by Congress for obstructing an investigation into a break-in at a Democratic Party campaign office in the Watergate hotel. Lennon and Ono continued their activism, joining New York anti-war demonstrations, attending the 1973 International Feminist Planning Conference in Boston, protesting outside the South Vietnamese embassy, and releasing an album comprised solely of political songs, Sometime In New York City.
- Lennon and Ono separated in October of 1973, and Lennon moved to Los Angeles.
- Compulsory military service in the U.S. ended with the cessation of the draft in 1973.
- Lennon released three albums with little or no political content: Mind Games, Walls and Bridges, and Rock 'n' Roll. He also collaborated with Ringo Starr on Ringo and Goodnight Vienna, Harry Nilsson on Pussycats, David Bowie on Fame, and appeared in concert with Elton John.
- Lennon engaged in self-destructive behavior, exemplified by a widely-reported fracas at a Los Angeles nightclub in March of 1974.
- Lennon and Ono got back together in New York in January of 1975
- The Vietnam war ended with the withdrawal of U.S. forces at the end of April, 1975, and the capture of Saigon by Ho Chi Minh's troops.
After Lennon received his green card, he all but disappeared from public view. On October 9, 1975, Lennon's 35th birthday, two days after the deportation order was rescinded, Ono gave birth to Lennon's second child, Sean. The new father walked away from music and partying and activism, and proclaimed to the world that he was now a “househusband.” Ono ran the family business while Lennon cared for the child. There was no news from Lennon for five years.
I had already moved on. My political and religious views were formed, and they were (and remain) my own, based on readings from diverse sources, many discussions, and my own conclusions. I became bored with Lennon's later records, moving on to the Roches, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, the Ramones, the Dead Kennedys, XTC, the Clash and the Talking Heads. I still loved John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, though. I read anthropology and primatology and worked at a dry cleaning plant and as a reporter and then studied theater at college.Lennon and Ono released a new album, Double Fantasy, in November of 1980. Ono's songs seemed more interesting than Lennon's. Her staccato wailing and application of “music for non-musicians” to pop rhythms, which had once been universally derided, had been discovered by a new generation of musicians raised in art schools. The B-52s in particular owed Ono a great debt. Lennon's songs were tuneful but innocuous. His lyrics seemed self-absorbed and fatuous: “I'm just sitting here watching the wheels go 'round and 'round/I really love to watch them roll.” But the overall effect was pleasant. It was as if Lennon had borrowed from his former partner's palette, while declining the syrupy cuteness that marred much of Paul McCartney's post-Beatles music.
Then Lennon was killed.
An early death is sometimes the best thing that can happen to a pop star's legend, if not the person. Imagine how insignificant James Dean might be today if we had watched him grow old and fat like Marlon Brando. Would Marilyn Monroe still be an icon if she were alive today as an 80-year-old? How much cooler would Elvis Presley be today if the only image we had of him was the young rocker, not the fat man in white jumpsuit? And how sad is the spectacle of the occasional reunion of the surviving Sex Pistols?
Lennon's post-death legend has been carefully cultivated to ensure maximum marketing potential. Most of his political activity has been hidden. What's left is a middle-aged version of the smart Beatle as a saintly father figure. The image wizards working for EMI/Capitol records, the Beatles/Apple trust and Ono have worked hard to strip the controversy from Lennon, as that might affect sales (especially in the all-important Bible Belt). And sales have grown. Since 1981, there have been four different “greatest hits” compilations (plus one released in 1975). There have also been five albums of unreleased demos and live performances (one of which is a four-disc boxset). There's been an official “John Lennon®” eyeglass collection. There have been two different “John Lennon®” baby collections, ranging from bedding and clothing to a series of limited edition dolls wearing “John Lennon®” baby clothes, from the prestigious (and expensive) “Madame Alexander” company. There's even an “exclusive” set of disposable diapers printed with Lennon's baby-oriented drawings available at Wal-Mart, which in itself represents 32 flavors of wrong.
When "John Lennon®" became a product destined for landfills, his legacy as an anti-war, feminist and civil rights activist was buried. Which, I hope, explains why I cried when I saw the trailer for The U.S. vs. John Lennon. The Lennon I'd forgotten had been exhumed. In the trailer, he's shown at the 1969 Amsterdam Bed-In for Peace, saying “We're selling it like soap—peace or war—that's the two products.” It's nice to see Lennon exploited in service of something I can appreciate.
A preview of The U.S. vs. John Lennon will be shown at the Castro Theater Sunday, Aug. 27, following a rare screening of Richard Lester's 1966 How I Won the War, starring John Lennon. It's part of The Beatles, 40 Years Ago Today. More about this soon.
Copyright 2006 by Richard Hildreth, all rights reserved.