Saturday, July 21, 2018

The U.S. vs. John Lennon (Lionsgate, VH-1 Rock Docs, Authorized Pictures, Paramount, Viacom, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

On Wednesday night Charles and I watched an interesting documentary from Lionsgate in association with the VH-1 cable channel, The U.S. vs. John Lennon, made in 2006 and focusing on one of the most fraught two years of the nearly 11 that elapsed between the breakup of the Beatles and Lennon’s tragic murder in December 1980. Much of the material got covered again four years later in a PBS American Masters documentary called LennonNYC, which was shown in association with a dramatic film called Lennon Naked that told a very “black” version of the prior life of Lennon, especially the two years between the Beatles’ breakup and his move to the U.S. at the end of 1971. John Lennon’s post-Beatles legacy is one of the least understood aspects of the Beatles saga, at least in part because there was so little of it — he retired from music at the end of 1974 when his old EMI recording contract had been finished and didn’t return until 1980, the year he made his public re-emergence with the Double Fantasy album and was killed three weeks after its release. Though Lennon as a solo artist made three of the best rock records of the 1970’s — Plastic Ono Band, Imagine and Walls and Bridges — he also went on an alcohol-fueled destructive path in 1973-74 he called his “Lost Weekend” when he abandoned New York to live in L.A., and he abandoned Yoko Ono to have an affair with his secretary, May Pang, whom Yoko had ironically dispatched to L.A. with him in hopes of keeping him honest and together.

The version of the story told in The U.S. vs. John Lennon pretty much ignores the darker sides of the tale and focuses, as its title suggests, on the efforts of the U.S. government in general and Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover in particular to have Lennon deported in 1972 to prevent him from doing a nationwide concert tour to get young people to register to vote and turn out en masse to defeat Nixon. The story as told here begins in December 1971, when John Sinclair, a white radical activist from Detroit who organized something called the White Panther Party, got himself on the predictable police shit lists and was ultimately entrapped, arrested and given a 20-year sentence for giving two marijuana cigarettes to a female undercover police officer. (I’ve told young people today that once during my lifetime it was possible to draw a 20-year prison sentence for two joints, and they don’t believe me.) Sinclair’s friends organized a benefit concert to raise money for his appeals, which turned into an all-day rock festival in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and they managed to be the right people at the right time: in search of a superstar headliner for their show, they asked John Lennon just as Lennon was wondering how he could get in touch with the American Left and start doing favors for them. Lennon not only agreed to play the Ann Arbor Sinclair benefit (with Yoko Ono and the New York-based band Elephants’ Memory, which had already acquired a reputation as a go-to group for Leftist event organizers looking for a band), he wrote a song for the occasion called “John Sinclair” and played it, intriguingly, bottle-neck style on one of the steel National guitars many of the country blues musicians of the 1930’s had used. Within two days an appeals court heard Sinclair’s case and did indeed set him free, and this apparently gave Lennon a wildly inflated idea of his own power to affect political events in the U.S. In late 1971, the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had been ratified, lowering the voting age across the U.S. to 18, and a lot of political activists on both sides of the ideological divide were thinking that this would swing American politics to the Left since the most visible young people already involved in politics were the political demonstrators and protesters who were turning out en masse for actions against the Viet Nam war and in support of civil rights for people of color and women. Richard Nixon and his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, were worried about that and went ballistic when John Lennon announced that he personally was going to lead a concert tour with voter registars “working the crowds” and hopefully enlisting thousands of new voters to vote against him.

They fought back by dredging up a 1968 marijuana conviction against Lennon and Ono from back home in England — by a particularly dedicated cop who wasn’t averse to planting drugs on rock stars and other celebrities who didn’t have them on hand when he busted them — and using it as a pretext to have Lennon deported as an “undesirable alien” who had overstayed the temporary visa he had got to support Yoko’s custody battle over Kyoko Cox, her daughter by a previous husband. Wisely, Lennon avoided any of the prominent Left-wing “movement lawyers” like William Kunstler who would have turned his immigration case into a political cause célèbre; instead he hired a man named Leon Wildes who was an immigration law specialist who took the case literally having no idea who John Lennon was. In a 2016 National Public Radio (NPR) interview (, Wildes’ son Michael recalled the night his dad told the family who his new clients were: “He said, ‘A singer by the name of Jack Lemon and his wife Yoko Moto,’ My mom looked at him like he wasn’t well. ‘Are you talking about the Beatles and John Lennon?’ My father said, ‘Yeah!’” Wildes was able to file a series of delaying appeals and keep Lennon and Ono in the U.S. through 1972. Later, through a series of Freedom of Information Act requests, Wildes learned that a secret federal policy called “deferred action” existed by which the government could decide not to prosecute certain undocumented or poorly documented immigrants. It had usually been used for ex-Mafiosi who had entered the U.S. illegally and worked with the Mob until they were caught, then turned state’s evidence and therefore U.S. prosecutors needed them in cases involving their former associates. According to Michael Wildes’ NPR article, Lennon’s case was the first time the existence of “deferred prosecution” was revealed, and it was the tool Leon Wildes used to get a final court ruling in late 1974 (significantly, after the Watergate scandal had forced Nixon out of the Presidency) and a green card establishing Lennon as a legal resident alien in 1976. (Lennon would almost certainly have naturalized as an American citizen if he’d lived longer; he was just two months away from his eligibility for naturalization when he was killed.) 

In one interview on Tom Snyder’s late-night TV show, included in The U.S. vs. John Lennon and also quoted in Michael Wildes’ article, Lennon explained that the reason he wanted to live in the U.S. was it was the country where rock ’n’ roll had originated: “I like to be here because this is where the music came from. This is what influenced my whole life and got me where I am today.” In other interviews at the time, he compared New York City to Rome during the Roman Empire, Florence during the Renaissance and Paris in the 1920’s — the place that was drawing artists from all around the world who wanted to be in the cultural hotbed of the time — and there’s one clip in The U.S. vs. John Lennon in which he said in New York he felt treated seriously as an Artist while in Britain he felt like a spoiled boy the British audience and showbiz industry had indulged too long and now needed to take him down a few pegs. John Lennon had always wanted to be taken seriously by the arts community — it was what had drawn him to his boyhood friend Stu Sutcliffe when they both met at the Liverpool College of the Arts, where Sutcliffe was an “A” student and Lennon a “C” student, and though he ultimately drafted Sutcliffe to play bass with the Beatles (until Sutcliffe gave it up and passed the bass to Paul McCartney, who’d previously been the band’s third guitar player) Lennon was far more in awe of Sutcliffe’s talents as an artist than Sutcliffe had been of Lennon’s as a musician. What drew him to Yoko Ono was that she was someone who was a big fish in the small pond of New York’s conceptual art world and that she was someone who could be both his lover and his intellectual buddy; as Lennon once put it with his typical bluntness, “She was the first intellectual I’d met I could fuck” — meaning that all the other intellectuals he’d met had been male and therefore off-limits to the strictly hetero Lennon. Though Yoko was a big fish in a very small pond while John was a huge fish in a huge pond, he was in far more awe of her and her level of success than she was of him and his. Most of the avant-garde experiments Lennon engaged in during the later years of the Beatles (including  putting the musique concrête sound montage “Revolution #9” on the White Album) and his solo years were aspects of art to which Yoko had introduced him.

There’s an interesting clip in The U.S. vs. John Lennon of a press conference in which John and Yoko announced the formation of their own country, “Nutopia,” which you could become a citizen of just by declaring yourself one, and every Nutopian would be an ambassador of the country. In 1973 Lennon included an alleged song called “The Nutopian International Anthem” on his album Mind Games, but its duration was listed on the record label as 0:00 — which isn’t so strange when you realize that before she met John Lennon, Yoko had been a good friend of John Cage, whose most famous piece, 4:33, consists of a pianist sitting at a piano for the titular four minutes and 33 seconds without playing it. (Cage decreed that the piece be divided into three movements, and David Tudor, the pianist who premiered it, indicated the movement divisions by closing the lid over the piano keys and then opening it again.) The U.S. vs. John Lennon depicts a somewhat whitewashed version of him — it doesn’t tell the story that appeared in the PBS documentary LennonNYC that John’s reaction to the TV announcement of Richard Nixon’s re-election as President in 1972 was to take a woman into his bedroom and fuck her, making so much noise in the process that Yoko, in the next room, was sure to hear it (and the other guests tried to drown it out by playing a Bob Dylan record fortissimo), which was the beginning of the way Lennon’s life spiraled out of control for the next year and a half until he finally came to his senses, reconciled with Yoko, moved back in to their home in the Dakota building in New York and eventually fathered their son Sean (after Yoko had had three miscarriages during their relationship) and dropped out of the music business for five years to become a stay-at-home dad. The show doesn’t really demonstrate how much John Lennon withdrew from radical politics even before he withdrew from music; after the critical and commercial failure of his ultra-political 1972 album Some Time in New York City he got the sense that Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman and the other Leftists who had recruited him to their political enterprise had exploited him. While Mind Games contained some mildly political songs, he avoided socially conscious material almost completely on Walls and Bridges and totally on the comeback albums Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey (the last not released until April 1984, over three years after his death). I remember a minor to-do when Yoko released a list of the couple’s recent contributions to charity in the late 1970’s and among the items was a donation to buy bulletproof vests for New York’s police officers. 

The U.S. vs. John Lennon was made in a period in which a Republican President who had been elected without winning the popular vote was mounting a campaign against civil liberties under the ground of “fighting terrorism,” and naturally some of the people directors David Leaf (who’s also worked on documentaries on the Beach Boys and their mercurial leader, Brian Wilson) and John Scheinfeld interviewed couldn’t help but make comments about the similarities between what artists like John Lennon were going through under Richard Nixon and what cultural people were going through under George W. Bush — and every time people like Angela Davis (subject of one of the political songs on Lennon’s Some Time in New York City) and Gore Vidal made comments on how the Bush II administration was bringing back some of the worst practices of Nixon’s and going even farther, one wanted to take them aside and say, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” One of the most effective aspects of The U.S. vs. John Lennon was the use of clips of old, jowly white men in suits to represent the “other side” and prattle on about their definition of “patriotism” and how it was bound up with “faith” — it’s as a contrast to this quasi-official association of the U.S. government (especially when it’s dominated, as during Nixon, Bush II and Trump, by the Right) not just with religion in general but politically, socially and culturally conservative Christianity in particular that the film actually opens with the controversy over Lennon’s “We’re more popular than Jesus now” comment (to an interviewer he was having an affair with, British journalist Maureen Cleave) in 1966 and the Nazi-esque burnings of Beatles records and merchandise organized by radio stations, mostly in the South, in protest against it. (What most people don’t realize is that that comment would literally come back to haunt John Lennon and get him killed: Lennon’s assassin, Mark David Chapman, was not a “deranged fan,” he was a Fundamentalist Christian who had never forgiven Lennon for the “more popular than Jesus” remark or for writing a song with the words, “Imagine no religion,” and had once been part of a prayer group that openly prayed, “Imagine, imagine John Lennon dead.”) 

Seen today, in which the Trump administration and its handmaidens in Congress and on the Supreme Court have taken a repressive agenda even father than Bush II did, which was considerably farther than Nixon did — and the U.S. has continued to divide along political, ideological, racial and cultural lines (with the Right pulling ahead in the first two and the Left in the last two — America is slowly losing its white majority and cultural changes like the quasi-legal availability of marijuana, marriage equality for same-sex couples and at least some level of access for pregnant women to safe and legal abortion, things that were barely conceivable in the 1960’s, have happened) in many of the same depressingly similar ways shown as history in this film, The U.S. vs. John Lennon takes on chilling resonances and also shows that once upon a time, during the lifetime of people living today, it was possible for celebrities to be openly radical and express themselves in their art as well as in interviews and other public fora without the kind of punishment the Dixie Chicks experienced during the Bush administration, losing their radio exposure and much of their audience overnight for saying that as Texans, they were ashamed of Bush. Today the only rock stars who write and record political material are those, like Neil Young and Steve Earle, old enough to be at the end of their celebrity runs and therefore beyond the career suicide it would be for a performer of John Lennon’s age in the early 1970’s (his early 30’s) or younger today to do the same thing. And it’s also depressing to watch this film and realize that some of the people in it depicted as counter-cultural avatars have moved Rightward themselves — like Geraldo Rivera, a friend of John Lennon’s in the 1970’s and now a Fox News commentator and big-time apologist for Trump.