JOHN LENNON’S REVOLUTIONARY HEART
Thirty Years After His Passing, Lennon’s Legend Shines On
By John Pietaro
There is a chill in the evening air as shoppers hurry through metropolitan streets, clinging to shiny bags and expectations. “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” has been blaring over store intercoms since at least Thanksgiving (or was that Halloween??), and the merchants have gone all-out in their decorative pursuits of cheer, like carnival barkers peddling holiday spirit. Jingle-jangle-jingle, its Christmas time in New York--in the days of war and financial madness.
But early December, especially in New York, carries another connotation. The eighth of the month, for people of conscience, is reserved for thoughts of John Lennon. Especially now. Christ----it’s been thirty years, hasn’t it? Conversations in real time or on the blogosphere inevitably ask, “where were you when you heard?” and all of us old enough to recall will. Sure, I was listening to WNEW-FM that night in my Brooklyn apartment and the D.J., 10:30-ish, broke in and said he’d gotten a strange report that John Lennon was apparently hurt in a shooting. Huh? It seemed to me that Lennon was simply engaging in a wild publicity stunt now that his first album in years had been released shortly beforehand. No one dreamed he would have, could have already been gone. That came a few minutes later as the jock became choked up and stumbled over his words, reporting this unimaginable news. Ironically, I cannot recall which jock it was that night. Could it have been Dennis Elsas? Scott Muni?? No matter, his words and delivery remain in my head, especially in early December. Especially today.
Yes, Virginia, we lost John to a crazed assassin’s bullet three decades ago. This incredibly gifted and crafty writer of songs, preeminent rock singer, powerful rhythm guitarist who’d founded the Beatles and wrote the greatest and most lasting music of our time was taken. But there’s so much more to ponder. Lennon could easily have continued being a Beatle, or even writing Beatle-like tunes once he’d broken out as a solo artist, but he didn’t, couldn’t. John Lennon, in maturity, discovered his own radical heart. Where he’d established a persona in Liverpool as being something of a rogue, a ‘Teddy boy’ who preached rock-n-roll to anyone who’d listen, Lennon would shape that anger into revolutionary fervor as the late ‘60s exploded not only in the streets but on your turn-table, too.
Rather than simply reflect on what age John would be now or how wonderful his latter-day albums may have been, we on the Left often imagine what John would have done during the Reagan years, fighting the false bravura of hiding behind the flag with agitational pop that could only come through his snarl. And can you even picture the extent of the material this man could have gotten from George W. Bush’s catalog of stupidity, lies, criminal actions and stable of corporate whores. Wow. I could see room for a 4-CD set dedicated to the Ashcroft years alone. But Lennon, ever the revolutionary, was unafraid to offer fight-back to any politician. While it seems all too obvious that he would have been among those campaigning for Obama in ‘08, one wonders how John would have responded to the grave choice for military escalation in Afghanistan, as well as the continuing war in Iraq, the overwhelming jobless rate across the nation, and of course Obama’s infuriating tendency towards conciliation. And then stop to consider what material Lennon would have farmed from the overflowing orchards of the ignorance and manipulations of the tea-baggers ‘oeuvre.
Silence would not have been an option. John Lennon’s heart would never have allowed him that much of a retirement…
In 1969, as the Beatles were in the process of going through a slow, painful disintegration, John Lennon began to loudly voice his protest against the Vietnam War and speak out in support of radical social change, even as he experienced the full wrath of the Nixon Administration’s ire. Lennon’s songs such as “Power to the People”, “Give Peace a Chance”, “Working Class Hero”, “Woman is the Nigger of the World” and especially “Imagine” opened up, for mainstream audiences, new realms of progressive ideals and angry dissidence. Though a ‘legitimate’ rock star, Lennon by the early 1970s could be found performing at large peace rallies and also the benefit concert for anti-war activist John Sinclair’s defense, following the latter’s framed arrest for drug possession. Working closely with the Left-wing radical artist Yoko Ono, his life mate, Lennon replaced his mop-top image with that of a bearded, long-haired, counter-cultural force to be reckoned with. Lennon’s voice in support of Sinclair, Angela Davis and the Attica Prison rioters, as well as time spent in the company of Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and other members of the Yippies, was of great importance to the movement, adding a credence that lesser-known artists could not have.
Lennon’s endlessly long FBI file clarifies the US government’s belief that he was a political revolutionary, and his eventual ability to secure citizenship and rebuff the forces of reaction which tried desperately to deport him were a testament to the power of the youth culture and the New Left. His crowning achievement of protest art is the album Sometime in New York City, which includes songs about the Attica uprising, the Yippie movement, the case against Angela Davis, the trial of John Sinclair, the struggle for women’s equality, the Black Panthers’ fight for survival, the imperialistic violence in Northern Ireland and other issues of great importance to the political Left-- Old and New.
The rock star’s battles with the Nixon Administration and the agents of J. Edgar Hoover were well-documented in the 2006 documentary ‘The US vs John Lennon’. The film depicts the machinations of Nixon’s increasing paranoia as well as the continued hysteria of the Cold War, a virtual minefield of Rightist reaction for Lennon as he sought citizenship. The underground, arch-Right working with elected officials was a constant threat to any progressive, let alone one of such high notoriety (we’d seen the same happen some twenty years earlier as the neo-fascists closed in on movie actors, writers and directors). Hoover remained closeted, as the case may be, but all-powerful. COINTELPRO was operating at full force and Washington was run by this secret government not seen before in the annals of American history—at least not until Cheney went into hiding in his bunker. Lennon’s songs heard in the film, and also seen in historic performance footage, stand out as deeply relevant to the people’s fight-back.
“Power to the People”, a song from his Plastic Ono Band period, stands out as anthemic. With this piece, Lennon was responding to his own trepidation of just three years before; his Beatles release “Revolution” refused to actually commit to the action of its own title. By 1971, he was more than ready. And while “Power” was a great rallying cry, it went even deeper. This song also addressed the sexism that is often evident in the movement, so it offered empowerment—and exposition--beyond the obvious. Once this song actually went to the pressing plant, there was no turning back for Lennon.
While ‘The US vs John Lennon’ soundtrack includes the usual suspects, so to speak, special attention has been placed on rarely heard numbers. And herein lies the treasure. “Gimme Some Truth”, a Plastic Ono Band number from ’71 is a classically angry protest song though it is slow and deliberate in nature and artfully arranged (including George Harrison’s soaring slide guitar). Surely this selection could be about rebellion from anyone’s perspective, especially that of a teenager. In this sense it’s timeless, yet it’s also very much a timely song, what with the politics Lennon encountered.
“Attica State” is a recording made as Lennon and Yoko Ono performed at the Michigan rally in support of Sinclair. Supported by acoustic guitars and, apparently, a thumping foot, Lennon and Ono sound about as raw as can be expected. Unwelcoming feedback from the sound system creeps up more than once, but this just adds to the immediacy. Lennon is even heard commenting on the stripped-down nature of the performance: “I haven’t done this in years”. Another song from the same concert, “John Sinclair”, offers some specifics on the case of the peace activist. But most important is Lennon’s opening statement to the crowd: “We came here not only to help John, but also to say to all of you that apathy isn’t it. We can do something. Okay, so Flower Power didn’t work—so what? We start again”. With this, Lennon gave acknowledgement to the gorilla in the parlor—the reality that the youth movement did not immediately change the nation’s direction—but in identifying it, he also insisted on the need to maintain the fight. This is the difference between a musician of social commentary and one of social protest.
Also present on the CD is “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier Mama, I Don’t Wanna Die” from 1971. Credited to “John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band with the Flux Fiddlers”, here one can appreciate Ono’s effect on Lennon: repetitive motives with an almost droning harmonic structure, improvisations atop that structure, with extra musicians added for an orchestral feel, and emotive vocals all point to Yoko’s own experiments in the Fluxus art movement. 1969’s “Bed Peace” is a brief slice of Lennon and Ono’s campaign of ‘bed-ins for peace’. Most profoundly is the song “Give Peace a Chance”, a work which has since become immortalized due to its use at major anti-war rallies during the Vietnam era and today. As Nixon and Hoover both knew, a globally popular rock star with political awareness is perhaps the most dangerous weapon against the confining, repressive grip of the status quo.
And this message carries beyond the boundaries of time and space.