Power to the people
When John Lennon announced a US tour in 1971, the White House set out to stop him. But, as John Patterson discovers, he wasn’t the first musician to have the The Man on his case – and he wouldn’t be the last
Saturday December 2, 2006
The author of the following words was FBI Director J Edgar Hoover. Try and guess who he’s talking about in this memo to Richard Nixon “[He is]… a paradox because he is difficult to judge by the normal standards of civilized life … His main reason for being is to destroy, blindly and indiscriminately, to tear down and provoke chaos …”
Ho Chi Minh? Mao Tse-Tung? Charles Manson, even?
Wrong. He’s warning the White House about that renowned subversive and enemy of the state, John Lennon. Hoover’s bizarre and paranoid outburst is one of the many secrets and revelations that enliven David Leaf and John Scheinfeld’s The US Vs John Lennon. Their documentary focuses on Lennon’s political activities in the early 1970s, in the period after he moved to New York, and on the hysterical reaction of the FBI and the Nixon White House to the “threat” of a man whose benign political worldview was plainly stated in his widely-available music.
Lennon first caught the interest of Hoover and Nixon – allies since the McCarthy witchhunts – in late 1971, when he made a $75,000 donation to an outfit called the Election Year Strategy Information Center, which was gearing up to register voters for the 1972 US Presidential election. With the Vietnam war still in full swing, Lennon’s donation was the first move of a planned US tour, during which he hoped to set up voter-registration booths in concert-venue lobbies and get as many young people signed up as possible, in the hope of voting Nixon out. In previous years this would have gone unnoticed, but the recent passage of the 26th Amendment to the US Constitution, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, meant that there might have been a discernible effect on the election. No one at this point knew that, thanks to the energetic “ratfucking” activities of his political operatives in 1972, Nixon would win in a landslide, and since this would be Lennon’s first US tour since the Beatles quit touring in 1966, it was conceivable that the kids could sign up and throw the Trickster out.
If you can judge a man by the quality of his political enemies, then Lennon was a titan. The White House first got wind of his tour from the ghastly racist dinosaur Strom Thurmond, the segregationist presidential candidate of 1948, who tipped off US Attorney General (and future jailbird) John Mitchell. CIA director Richard Helms meanwhile sent a similar memo to Hoover. And thus a plan was put into motion to have Lennon deported from the USA on a minor visa violation as a way of silencing him.
It won’t spoil this interesting, if occasionally wishy-washy, VH-1 documentary (released on the 25th anniversary of Lennon’s death) to reveal that the Hoover-Nixon effort failed. But the movie is fascinating as much for its historical and contemporary echoes as it is for its many revelations of this forgotten saga.
Hoover, his agents, and those on America’s political right had by 1971 built up a long and disgraceful record of harassing musicians and singers who dared to speak up against social injustice, racism and government criminality. Lennon had Beatle money, celebrity and top-notch lawyers to hide behind, and was thus well-insulated against the day-to-day abuses that the FBI and the US government often wielded against left-wing dissidents with emptier pockets.
John Sinclair, the manager of Detroit’s politically radical MC5, was jailed for 10 years, ostensibly for the possession of two joints, but really in order to silence the leader of Detroit’s political freak-scene, prompting Lennon’s solo single Free John Sinclair and his appearance at a 1971 benefit. Also appearing there was folkie-activist Phil Ochs, a veteran of the Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy campaigns of 1968, a co-founder of the Yippies, and proud possessor of an FBI file that ran 410 pages to Lennon’s mere 280.
Ochs was far more politically active than Lennon, and given to such wised-up conceits as “If there’s any hope of a revolution in America, it lies in getting Elvis Presley to become Che Guevara.” When he was brutally mugged in Dar Es Salaam in 1973, he speculated that the US government was behind the three men who choked him and caused him to lose the upper three notes of his vocal range. Perhaps he was being paranoid about this. That’s what people thought when he claimed the FBI had a fat file on him, though, and he was right about that.
None of this was new. Back in the 1940s and 1950s the black singer Paul Robeson, a communist sympathiser and an outspoken foe of racism in America and imperialism in Africa, was stripped of his US passport, barred from performing, and hounded by the FBI. The most famous instance of The Man harassing Robeson and his ilk came in August 1949, when he gave a concert at Peekskill in upper New York state, attended by 25,000 fans. Peekskill was a notoriously reactionary community, with its own active Ku Klux Klan chapter. After the open-air concert, the local police, all 900 of them, deliberately channelled the exiting concertgoers down a rural access road lined with jeering rightwingers. All along the four-mile road, police stood by as hundreds of thugs, screaming “Run, you white niggers!” and “Jew! Jew! Jew!” hurled bricks through car windows, pulled men, women and children from their vehicles and beat them. One man was blinded and hundreds injured as folk singers including Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Lee Hays tried to escape.
Seeger and Hays were also members of The Weavers, a folk quartet who charted in 1950 with a version of Lead Belly’s Goodnight Irene before a mention in the commie-baiting tract Red channels (used by TV executives to keep left-wingers off the air) put them on the blacklist, killing their career and losing them their recording contract.
If you believe this sort of nativist fascism has disappeared in George Bush’s America, think again. The new documentary Shut Up And Sing! outlines the travails of the Dixie Chicks after singer Natalie Maines told a London audience on the eve of the Iraq war that “We’re ashamed the President of the United States comes from Texas.”
In scenes that recalled the aftermath of Lennon’s “Bigger than Jesus” remark in 1966, Dixie Chicks CDs were burned across the South, and they were blacklisted from 1200 radio stations owned by the Clear Channel conglomerate – which early in the war drew up a do-not-play shit-list of songs that included Imagine. At a filmed Senate hearing, senator John McCain takes the CEO of Clear Channel apart over his risible claim that his stations all acted independently, when memos prove exactly the opposite. The Chicks went from being Red-state superstars to left-wing cult artists almost overnight, but surprisingly, they found they liked it. At the end of the movie, it’s inspiring to see Maines belting out her answer-song to the fanbase that abandoned her: “I’m not ready to make nice/I’m not ready to back down …”
It’s tempting to think that the Dixie Chicks inspired Bruce Springsteen this year to record an album of protest songs made famous by Pete Seeger, as if to prove that nothing, not Peekskill, not Red Channels or Clear Channel, not Nixon or Hoover, can be allowed to shut up a dissenting singer’s voice.