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John Lennon 10/13/10

If John Lennon had lived, last Saturday would have marked his 70th birthday. The media certainly took note and there were numerous tribute stories about John, his family, and the Beatles. Most stories I saw featured the floppy haired guy who was remembered for singing “All you need is love” and “All we are saying is give peace a chance”.

I think John would have hated that.  While John’s music connected with millions and fans differed over what part of his work they loved, I believe John was contemptuous of the simplified Fab Four image which was the lowest common denominator of Beatlemania.

John’s public image was at odds with the John of actual experience. During his life, John constantly evolved. He went through a number of incarnations and he faced adversities that are now little remembered. He had a dark side as well.

Unlike almost every rock star from that era, John faced political investigation and repression. On March 6,1972, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) ordered Lennon deported from the U.S.. For much of 1972 and 1973, he was under order to leave the U.S. within 60 days. Good lawyering kept delaying the deadlines.

Thinking back on the era, there were many political artists. I think of Dylan, the Jefferson Airplane (Volunteers), the Stones, Bonnie Raitt and other folkies like Phil Ochs. But no one else was an object of 24/7 surveillance and likely wiretapping.  John’s persecution was a backhanded compliment for his power and influence.

The evidence about government surveillance comes directly from the FBI. History Professor Jon Wiener, after a long legal battle over his Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, obtained FBI records about the Lennon case. Records show that the FBI essentially tailgated Lennon.  He was under constant surveillance. The FBI proposed: “Lennon should be arrested, if at all possible, in possession of narcotic drugs”. Such an event would have made him immediately deportable. The INS did ultimately try to use an earlier British marijuana conviction as a basis to deny Lennon’s application for permanent residency.

The background to the INS deportation order is quite fascinating. In the FBI files, there was the equivalent of a wanted poster for Lennon. Former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover described Lennon as “a member of the singing group, the Beatles”. The picture of Lennon in the FBI files was actually of another New York musician, David Peel. While unintentionally hilarious, the story did have a sinister side.

Now deceased former senator from South Carolina, Strom Thurmond, had received a secret FBI memo in February 1972 advising that Lennon was planning a series of rock concerts in various primary election states with a goal of recruiting people to go to San Diego to demonstrate during the Republican National Convention in August 1972. The memo noted that the persons engaged in this effort were the same individuals who had disrupted the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968. They were now part of a ‘dump Nixon’ effort.

Thurmond, who was on the internal security committee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, passed the memo on to Attorney General John Mitchell. Mitchell, with assistance from his deputy Richard Kleindeinst, then wrote the INS Commissioner Raymond Farrell asking if there was a basis to deny Lennon admittance to the U.S.. Lennon was already in the country though. However, the INS got the message and revoked Lennon’s visa.

The surveillance of Lennon was a common tactic of the era. One FBI document specifically recommended the tactic as a form of intimidation against the New Left. “It will enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and will further serve to get the point across that there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.

Lennon described the surveillance when he appeared on the Dick Cavett Show on May 11,1972. He felt under siege and he had good reason to feel that way.

It should be noted that the deportation order achieved its desired result. John and Yoko cancelled their tour plans. Out of fear of deportation, they (probably wisely) played it safe and did not participate in later anti-Nixon efforts although John did revile Nixon.

The later self-destruction of Nixon changed the political dynamics of Lennon’s case. Watergate et al made the deportation effort look even more ridiculous. Eventually the Gerald Ford administration allowed Lennon to obtain a green card. The judge on the case ruled that Lennon’s earlier British pot bust was not an adequate basis to deny him residency.  The history around the deportation effort is well-described in Jon Wiener’s book Come Together.

The FOIA battle around complete release of FBI records relating to Lennon went on for many years until 2006 when Wiener prevailed and withheld records were released.  Since national security is now regularly invoked as a reason not to disclose information, I wanted to mention that the FBI had argued, in opposition to release of information, that releasing Lennon’s records could cause military retaliation against the U.S.. I am not making this up.

My personal favorite tidbit of information from the FBI files was the report that the FBI uncovered that a neighbor of Lennon’s had a parrot that would say “right on” when he was engaged in heated arguments.

While John provides a kaleidoscope of images and periods in his life, my impression is that for all his wealth and fame, he was miserable. When he went to the primal scream therapist Arthur Janov, John was quoted saying,

“Well, his thing is to feel the pain that’s accumulated inside you ever since your childhood.  I had to do it to really kill off all the religious myths. In the therapy you really feel every painful moment of your life – it’s excruciating, you are forced to realize that your pain, the kind that makes you wake up afraid with your heart pounding, is really yours and not the result of somebody up in the sky. It is the result of your parents and your environment…
All of us growing up have to come to terms with too much pain. Although we repress it, it is still there. The worst pain is that of not being wanted, of realizing your parents do not need you in the way you need them.”

John never was at peace and his fame and wealth put him at a distance from everyday people. It does not denigrate his music to recognize that he spent much of his life living in a cocoon. His last years do not appear much different than Elvis as far as his personal happiness.  For all the great music, based on credible accounts (eg Albert Goldman) his life appeared pretty awful.

John once said there are two types of people in the world – people who are confident because they know they have the ability to create and people who have been demoralized who have no confidence in themselves because they have been told they have no creative ability but must just take orders. John’s creativity left a legacy of wonderful music that millions will continue to enjoy for a long time to come.

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