On December 8, 1980, twenty seven years ago this week, John Lennon was gunned down in the streets of New York by a deranged man seeking Herostratic fame. His widow, Yoko Ono, whom Lennon met at an art gallery fourteen years before, has now guarded his legacy for almost twice as many years as she actually knew him in life. In death, Lennon is forever frozen in time at age 40, never aging into the inoffensive parody that Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Mick Jagger, and so many others would later become. Thus, he remains an attractive symbol and image to be appropriated by various political movements. Last year saw the release of The U.S. v. John Lennon, a documentary chronicling Lennon's fight against U.S. government officials seeking to deport him for his antiwar activism. Written and directed by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld, II, the film rapidly degenerates into hagiography and bittersweet nostalgia.
The tone of the film is best exemplified by author and prominently featured interviewee Gore Vidal: "Anybody who sings about love and harmony and life is dangerous to somebody's who's singing about death and killing and subduing," Vidal says, oversimplifying what could have been a very interesting portrait of an important musical figure. The film's apparent purpose is to resurrect the anti-war image of Lennon to combat today's war and president (considered by the film-makers to be identical to the 1970s era's war and president, both of which Lennon held in disdain.). In the film, Vidal calls Lennon the "born enemy" of those who governed the United States at that time, and attempting to draw parallels, notes that Lennon "represented life and is admirable, and Mr. Nixon and Mr. Bush represent death, and that is a bad thing."
There is certainly a vanity in the notion that a single, very talented musician could so affect and shake the political establishment in a county not his own to such a degree that it retaliates. New Left figure and interviewee Tariq Ali observes in the film that "[t]he notion that the world's largest most powerful imperial nation, the United States of America, could be seriously threatened by a writer, an intellectual a singer, a painter is laughable . . . [but] indicates how nervous they were." Indeed, Ono praises Lennon for "daring to speak up" and presumably, having an effect on the political landscape. But she alleges consequences to his activism; she claims they both feared attending the 1972 Republican convention for fear of possible violence against them. They incurred the wrath of federal authorities who sought to deport him.
The film focuses less on Lennon and opts for a parade of 1960s has-beens desperate to reclaim their relevance by attaching themselves to the singer's legacy. There are multiple interviewees who describe themselves as "radical activists" or even "radical journalists," including Ali, Robin Blackburn, the late Stew Albert, John Sinclair, and of course, Angela Davis, who pauses in her interview to note the "transformation" of The Beatles when "Revolution" was released. It is difficult to contend that Lennon's themes and arguments were universal with this lot.
The film is at its most interesting when it turns from New Left nostalgia to the specific legal and political troubles faced by Lennon in the 1970s. In 1972, U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond (R - South Carolina) suggested to President Richard Nixon in a 1972 memo that "deportation would be a strategic counter-measure" against a planned tour by the anti-war Lennon. This is the story; this is the tale that needs to be told fully and completely. It cost Lennon years of his life and no small sum to free himself from the proceedings that would ensue. Only briefly interviewed is the film's historical adviser, Jon Wiener, who, according to his online biography at The Nation, was a pivotal figure in the release of certain documents regarding the attempts to deport Lennon pre-textually for certain minor offenses (but actually for his speech):
Wiener sued the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act in 1983 for their files on John Lennon. With the help of the ACLU of Southern California, Wiener v. FBI went all the way to the Supreme Court before the FBI settled it in 1997, releasing all but ten of the contested pages. That story is told in Wiener's book Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files.
Unfortunately, Wiener is trotted out less frequently than Vidal and only then to report that certain memos referencing Lennon were addressed to White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, and thus in effect, to Nixon himself. Last year, Wiener, writing for The Nation, described in detail Lennon's fascinating 1969 encounter with journalist Gloria Emerson. Narrating footage of the confrontation (which also appears in the film), Wiener sets the scene:
Emerson was a celebrated war correspondent for the New York Times who had just returned from the bloody battlefields of Vietnam; Lennon had just written "Give Peace a Chance" after he and Yoko declared their honeymoon a "bed-in for peace"--they had stayed in bed for a week, "in protest against all the violence in the world."
Emerson told him in her haughty upper class voice, "You've made yourself ridiculous!"
"I don't care," Lennon replied, "if it saves lives."
"My dear boy," she said, "you're living in a nether-nether land. . . . You don't think you've saved a single life!"
"You tell me what they were singing at the Moratorium," Lennon shot back -- he was referring to the biggest anti-war demonstration in American history, which had been held in Washington DC a month earlier.
Emerson wasn't sure what he was talking about: "Which one?"
"The recent big one," Lennon explained. "They were singing "Give peace a chance."
"A song of yours, probably."
"Well, yes, and it was written specifically for them."
"So they sang one of your songs," she said with some irritation. "Is that all you can say?"
Now he was angry. "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."
In that piece, Wiener pauses to reflect upon the worth of protest songs and whether they are, indeed, capable of saving lives. Consider Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance," one of Lennon's more notable songs (and one which former presidential candidate George McGovern sings during the film). Its lyrics: "All we are saying, is give peace a chance." Songs like that, coupled with the infamous bed-in, make it a challenge to believe Lennon offered anything truly substantive to a political debate. Ultimately, perhaps because he is a longtime contributor to The Nation, he finds that Lennon energized the movement and "today the people who were singing 'Give Peace a Chance' in 1969 can be glad they sang it." But, really, considering his audience, what else would we expect Wiener to say? That protest songs are sung in vain? Likely not.
But as Wiener asks in the piece, was Lennon actually saving lives by writing such songs and encouraging them to be sung at anti-war rallies? Or, is there an arrogance in his assertion that he was doing so while recording a song (which pales in comparison to most in his body of work)? Rather than saving lives, wasn't he simply creating a feeling of community in a movement whose participants were attempting to halt a war they felt unjust? The protesters advocated peace, Lennon advocated peace, why not bring them together with a song? Whether it be through emblem or anthem, a sense of community is important in any social movement. But surely Dallas, Texas blogger Hardy Haberman is being tongue in cheek when he observes:
[I]t is fitting that someone remember [Lennon] by singing his song "Give
Peace a Chance". Perhaps soon, it may be sung in Iraq where the civil war we
facilitated rages in ever increasing intensity. If the factions that were held
in check by the brutal reign of Saddam could take a few moments and try to form
a unity government, Iraq might have a "chance".
Take out the record player, Mr. Bush and play that old song of John's. Remember the days when you smoked pot and were mellower. What the heck, why not try peace?
Using his blog to advance peace as opposed to war, Haberman no doubt considers himself a member of that community, albeit three decades removed from the one to which Lennon sang. The song is "his" in a way that it is not for, say, those who do not oppose the war or Mr. Bush. That is likely the worth of Lennon's work in this context; it provides them a soundtrack.
But Wiener's commentary, and Haberman's response, beg the question: Wasn't Lennon just preaching to the choir? He's not saving lives if he is only convincing those citizens who already agree with him. To say that he was doing so seems to be wildly overreaching and indulging in delusions of grandeur. As with any movement, there are those who truly and sincerely believe in the cause, whatever it may be, and those who are along for the ride. What does that save?
Does a soundtrack to their efforts, written by Lennon or another sympathetic celebrity, give them street cred, or does the song simply become a general slogan akin to "Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, this injustice's got to go!" Do protests, or protesters, make a difference in the world they seek to change? Many protesters do themselves a disservice by protesting everything that they have the energy to address. To be more effective, they should wisely choose their battles. If protesters are ubiquitous, their intended recipients simply tune them out. Then, it is as if they are present at none of those events, and their resources and efforts are wasted. Whatever the answers to these questions, it is clear modern protesters aren't asking them. They should.
Lennon, a household name, may have had an easier time bringing attention to a cause, although then as today, some hold celebrity political activism in disdain. In his essay, Wiener notes that the footage of the exchange is used in The U.S. v. John Lennon to showcase "the mainstream media's relentless hostility to Lennon's peace activism." Perhaps the more conservative elements of the mainstream media did not embrace Lennon or his message; certainly, the Nixon administration was unappreciative of his music and activism and attempted to unconstitutionally thwart it. Free speech is free speech for the famous, the unknown, the studied, and the ill informed, and clearly, the exercise of same should not be targeted by the government. (Trivia: Thurmond would have turned 70 in 1972, making him out of touch with any youth movement even then.). But the point of this observation, or of Wiener's in the originally excerpted article, isn't that Lennon had the right to make such protestations, but whether they were effective, or as Lennon claimed, saved lives.
So what, then, is the legacy of Lennon? Ono revisits it every so often. There was 1988's Imagine: John Lennon, less a semi-official documentary film than a commercial for its soundtrack. This may also be a partial motivator for The U.S. v. John Lennon: with access to Lennon's discography for use as a soundtrack, the producers took a cutesy route. "Oh, Yoko" plays during a montage of Lennon and Ono, "Mother" plays when Lennon's own mother is being discussed, "The Ballad of John and Yoko" plays when the bed-in mentioned in its lyrics is depicted, "I Don't Want to Be A Soldier" at Kent State, "New York City" plays upon his move to that city, and "Beautiful Boy" for his son Sean Lennon's birth. Heavy handed much?
Ultimately, his legacy is inseparable from his famous band. But he was more interesting, and certainly funnier, than his counterparts in the Beatles. (He's hilarious in the film, A Hard Day's Night, which, if you've not seen, rush to Blockbuster to do so, if Blockbuster is your only source of cinema.). Some time ago, a writer opined that Lennon and McCartney's Beatles song's will be celebrated as long as songs are sung. There can be no greater compliment to a musician.
As for his activism, Lennon certainly seemed clever and sincere, and he was articulate when he wasn't trying too hard to be meaningful. In fact, Lennon's political philosophy seems far more coherent and mainstream than any of that espoused by the interviewees in their heyday in the 1960s. Lennon notes that revolutionaries advocating violence will not succeed and that peace should be sold as a marketable product, like soap. Thus, there was a pragmatism to his activism not explored in the documentary, which is full of more idealistic leftists of that era.