John Lennon, Popular Icon and Revolutionary
On the 9th of this month, the late John Lennon would have celebrated his 69th birthday. A deranged assassin’s bullet in 1980, of course, forever sealed him into a certain age, place and time. The John Lennon of 1980 was a husband and a father and a quite touchable New Yorker who’d just released his first record album in several years. Those who knew him said he was staring down a long, positive road ahead, planning a world tour with Yoko and watching his latest single race up the charts. But none of us who lived through December that year shall forget where we were when we learned of his passing. The loss was not only of a popular icon or a rock star, but also of a man who’d struggled against injustice, war and Nixon and lived to tell the tale. The imprint of John Lennon the revolutionary is also sealed forever in our minds and our hearts.
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 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.
--John Pietaro is a cultural worker (a musician and writer) as well as a labor organizer from New York. His website is www.flamesofdiscontent.org