C h a p t e r On e
THE ADVENT of THE HIPPIE MESSIAH “We came here . . . not only to help John and to spotlight what’s going on . . . but also to show and to say to all of you that apathy isn’t it, and that we can do something.” —John Lennon, (Ann Arbor, MI, December 1971)
IN DECEMBER 1971 John Lennon stood onstage to sing and speak on behalf of John Sinclair, a radical leader who was serving a ten-year prison sentence for possession of two joints of mar- ijuana. Sinclair had been incarcerated for more than two years when Lennon pleaded his case. The decade of the sixties was over. A new decade was beginning.
Two days after Lennon sang, “Let him be, set him free,” a state circuit court reversed a previous decision and Sinclair walked out of prison.
With the nation reeling after years of political turmoil, Amer- ica needed a new kind of leader. The recently turned ex-Beatle was one of the most famous and influential people on the planet. If he could get a man out of prison, what else might he do?
A government eager to silence enemies asked the same question. They thought Lennon might use his considerable clout to, in their words, “sway” the upcoming presidential election. It would be better for some people if he just went back to England, and the Nixon administration tried to make that happen through methods legal and otherwise.
“So flower power didn’t work,” Lennon said from the stage between songs that night. “So what? We start again.”
• • •
JOHN LENNON FELT like a newcomer to New York in the sum- mer of 1971. He’d been to the city before, of course, but those were whirlwind Beatles visits, frantic tours where Manhattan was seen from limousines and hotel rooms. Lennon sought a lower-profile life, ironically in the very place where, seven years earlier, he had launched the “British invasion” of English rock and everything that followed. Back then all it took was an electric guitar, a smart- ass grin, and “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
But this time there were no teenage screams to drown out the music, no mobs of girls desperate for a glimpse at a Beatle. It wasn’t the sixties anymore, a decade of war and assassinations, flower power and protests. Lennon was no longer one of the “Fab Four,” a point he made often.
“Tried to shake our image just a cycling through the Village,” Lennon wrote in “New York City,” among a fresh batch of songs inspired by his new home. He and wife Yoko Ono had stayed first in Midtown’s St. Regis hotel before settling that fall at 105 Bank Street on the west side of Greenwich Village, a space formerly occupied by drummer Joe Butler of the Lovin’ Spoonful.1 The downtown neighborhood suited Lennon’s frame of mind: a gritty yet colorful free-for-all of music, radical politics, art, and dope smoked openly on the streets; an atmosphere worthy of the finest psychedelic “Sgt. Pepper” vibes.
The apartment was modest by New York standards, barely two rooms more functional than spacious. It was worlds apart from Tittenhurst, the English estate Lennon left behind, a home that made an ironic setting in the eyes of more than a few critics of the Imagine
promotional film (“imagine no possessions”). Lennon was apparently embarrassed by his wealth, among other by-products of Beatlemania. He told authors Peter McCabe and Robert Schonfield, who that summer had been researching a book on the Beatles’ breakup, Apple to the Core
, “I can’t really go on the road and take a lot more money. What am I going to do with it? I’ve got all the fucking bread I need.”2
It wasn’t a random thought; he’d recently discussed the “Imagine” lyrics with Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker
.3 “I began to think: I don’t want that big house we built for ourselves in England,” Lennon acknowledged. “I don’t want the bother of owning all those big houses and big cars. It’s clogging my mind just to think about what amount of gear I have in England. All my books and possessions; walls full of books I’ve collected.”
Lennon thought those books belonged elsewhere, in libraries and prisons, as with most of his other belongings.
Lennon was trying to get away from the trappings of wealth and fame, and with equal intensity longed to take part in some- thing larger than himself and bigger than the Beatles, if that could be imagined. The explosive political and cultural conflicts that had been brewing in America demanded his attention. In early 1971, Lennon had given extensive interviews to Rolling Stone
and Red Mole
, a British underground newspaper edited by Tariq Ali. Lennon was “ashamed” that he hadn’t been more active in antiwar and civil rights movements. He had often felt torn between the commercialism of early Beatles success—“ev- erybody trying to use us”—and the desire to sneak more adult topics into their songs: “We’d turned out to be a Trojan horse.”4
He had been cautious, though, understandably hesitant after enduring media scrutiny and public backlash on more than one occasion. There had been legendary scandals including his taken-out-of-context, blown-out-of-proportion observation that British youth weren’t too keen on the church and that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Himself. He told Ali that, back in those days, manager Brian Epstein begged the boys not to weigh in on what had become the dominant issue in America.
“Epstein tried to waffle on at us about saying nothing about Vietnam,” Lennon explained. “George and I said, ‘Listen, when they ask next time, we’re going to say we don’t like the war and we think they should get right out.’ . . . That was a pretty radical thing to do, especially for the ‘Fab Four.’”
There were, at the time, internal differences of opinion about the Beatles’ place in the world as artistic or revolutionary leaders. Before leaving England Lennon had exchanged letters with Paul and Linda McCartney, prompted by public statements regarding the group’s legacy. “Do you really think most of today’s art came about because of the Beatles?” Lennon asked. “I’m not ashamed of the Beatles—(I did start it all).”
He also wanted to keep their achievements in perspective: “Didn’t we always say we were part of the Movement—not all of it? Of course we changed the world—but try and follow it through—GET OFF YOUR GOLD DISC AND FLY!”
Lennon and McCartney realized that more involvement had been expected of them as a group. Red Mole
publisher Ali, an Indian-born, British-raised journalist who was among the new breed of counterculture scribes, had written that artists of Lennon’s stature had an obligation to do more than just flash an occasional peace sign. At the same time, Lennon hadn’t fully come to terms with his newfound revolutionary status.
“He was very modest about it,” recalls Ali. “He said, ‘Are you sure you want to do an interview with me? Your magazine is so intellectual.’”
For the better part of two days they discussed Vietnam, poli- tics, activism, and the challenges the ’60s generation now faced. “It was John Lennon’s ‘State of the Union’ message,” Ali says. “That’s what it was to the world at that point in time.”
Lennon wanted to be involved, and had been among the first to admit that the youth culture of the sixties had perhaps been a bit too laid-back in its approach.
“The acid dream is over,” Lennon said. “That’s what I’m trying to tell them.” As a musician he could offer songs that brought people together, like the 1969 anthem “Give Peace a Chance,” written and recorded during a very public honeymoon spent on bedded display before the world’s cameras. He envisioned that the song could be sung “in the pub or on a demonstration.” He took it a step further in 1971 with “Power to the People,” and told Ali that his post-Beatles plans included a more active role in the Movement: “I would like to compose songs for the revolution. . . I hope they see that rock and roll is not the same as Coca-Cola. That’s why I’m putting out more heavy statements now and try- ing to shake off the teeny-bopper image.”
In America Lennon was ready to practice what he preached. “Get on your feet,” Lennon said in “Power to the People,” and “into the street.” He loved the idea that he could, more or less, freely walk around Manhattan just like everyone else. The
city was alive; the Village a heartbeat that measured the pulse of the streets. Lennon felt it in the basement hangouts of St. Marks Place, the bars on Bleecker, and in Washington Square Park, where the central fountain was a magnet for struggling musicians with talent ranging from up-and-coming to proba- bly-not-happening but no less passionate. John and Yoko casu- ally joined the crowds who enjoyed music played for its own sake, songs not likely to be heard on Top 10 radio.
“Up come a man with a guitar in his hand singing, ‘Have a marijuana if you can.’” David Peel and his Lower East Side band, as immortalized in Lennon’s “New York City,” were among the park’s regular acts, singing and playing for fun and whatever spare change people tossed into an open guitar case. Pot featured prominently in Peel compositions, earnest songs about street life and being a hippie in the city.
In spite of Peel’s amateur abilities, Lennon was taken by the music. The songs were of, by, and for the people, and to Lennon’s ears seemed far more intimate, more relevant than the inher- ently commercial nature of popular music. Being too successful wasn’t necessarily considered cool in the Village.
“Why do we have to pay to see stars?” Peel asked his audience, a rhetorical question from the perspective of a struggling musician.
“He must be talking about me,” Lennon reportedly mused. He’d been wrestling with the very nature of being a pop star just as he had his standing in the revolutionary world.
• • •
IN WASHINGTON SQUARE Park Lennon first met Jerry Rubin, a friend of Peel’s and one of the “Chicago Seven” defendants who, three years earlier, had been charged with inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic convention.
Lennon said that upon arriving in New York, “the first people who got in touch with me were Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. It’s as simple as that.”8
Lennon seemed the answer to the radical leaders’ long-mum- bled prayers; it was “love at first sight” from Rubin’s perspective. “Great vibes,” Rubin described the meeting, confident that Len- non shared his vision. “The Yippies had been applying Beatles tactics to politics, trying to merge music and life.”
The Youth International Party—the “Yippies”—were an informal group of antiwar and civil rights activists fronted by Rubin and Hoffman. In Chicago they had joined forces with New Left leaders including Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden. Their Chicago activities made them famous in some circles, notorious in others. Supporters who gave trial testimony on behalf of all the Chicago defendants included Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie, Norman Mailer, Timothy Leary, Reverend Jesse Jackson, and others, but the 1970 court proceedings were mostly seen as a media circus dominated by Hoffman and Rubin’s absurdist theater tactics. Among other stunts, they wore judicial robes to court one day, underneath which—certain they’d be ordered to remove the garments—were Chicago Police Depart- ment uniforms. The Seven had been found guilty of crossing state lines to start a riot, and lived with a suspended sentence hanging over their heads for two years before being acquitted.
The Chicago Seven—Rubin, Hoffman, Davis, Dave Dellinger, Hayden, John Froines, and Lee Weiner—had followed separate paths since the trial; some as de facto leaders of the antiwar movement, others as media-fueled celebrities. By 1971 Hoffman and Rubin’s act may have worn thin: ABC News dismissed them as “Groucho Marxists,” not to be taken seriously given their street-theater gags like a mock campaign to elect a pig president (Pigasus the Immortal) or throwing money onto the floor of the stock exchange for a laugh. Davis says there was essentially a schism on the Left around the effectiveness of Hoffman and Rubin, and a guiding force was needed if they were to reenergize in time to replace Nixon as president.
Maybe it was only the end of a difficult decade, but the nation’s spirit of rebellion seemed broken. Many activists continued their work, but on a local level—in schools and com- munities rather than on the international stage of the antiwar movement. Time
magazine wondered if the dreaded bomb of student protest was a dud. “Something has happened in Amer- ican life—or has failed to happen,” offered a February essay entitled “The Cooling of America”: “In dead winter, 1971, after months of recession, a decade of war abroad and domestic vio- lence, a mood approaching quiet has fallen like a deep snow.”
“There was so much steam to oppose the war,” says Davis, a Michigan native who cut his revolutionary teeth in Ann Arbor. “The steam ran out. Everybody could see it; you couldn’t get anybody to do anything.”
Davis recalls reading John Lennon’s revolution-fueled inter- views and recognizing not just a kindred spirit, but one who could revitalize a fading antiwar movement.
“It was an extraordinary moment to me,” Davis says. “Here was this human being, who symbolized so well his entire genera- tion through the Beatles, making statements that clearly indi- cated he was not just saying, ‘I’m for peace.’ This was someone saying, ‘I’m an activist, I’m ready to join up.’”
Lennon landed in America at a precarious time, a time when thousands were being arrested, when a few protesters had been killed, and when thousands were dying in Vietnam. So you didn’t necessarily hang back. You put yourself on the line. You made a statement of your active involvement. Lennon had never considered himself a political man, but maybe times had changed. In an Octo- ber interview with the underground Los Angeles Free Press
, Lennon said he’d only recently understood what he might have to offer.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve given up politics in that way,” Lennon reflected.9 “I mean, I never took up politics. Things I do—or for that matter anybody does—are done politically. Any statement you make is a political statement. Any record, even your way of life is a political statement.”
The Movement too was at a crossroads: Was the spirit and passion that had begun with the civil rights movement nearing an end? Davis waxed nostalgic for the sheer right-ness of the struggle as it had been, that had begun when four black stu- dents sat at a Woolworth’s diner reserved for “whites only” and inspired a six-month boycott of the store . . . and for the decade that had followed.
“It was clear to everyone, especially myself, that this enor- mous thing that began in 1960 at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, was now a phenomenon, a historic event,” Davis says. “And now, clearly, it was ending.”
Or was it? In John Lennon, Davis and Rubin saw a glimpse of hope. Rubin needed something to restore his credibility, not only with mainstream American but within the Movement itself. In some ways, Rubin faced similar life issues to Lennon’s—con- cerned about his future and uncertain of the legacy he’d thus far written. Rubin told Rolling Stone
that he had more than a few doubts about his—and the revolution’s—future.
“Everyone around me was depressed and confused,” Rubin said. “Everyone in the Movement was condemning everything ... condemning our whole history.”
Lennon in New York presented a rare opportunity that Rubin eagerly seized. He placed a shot-in-the-dark call to Apple Records, and was as surprised as anyone when Yoko called him back. Rubin and Hoffman’s first encounter with John and Yoko fittingly took place beneath Washington Square’s landmark arch; Lennon wore American-flag sneakers, Yoko was all in black. After excited introductions they left the park and spent several hours in Hoffman’s apartment. Rubin told John and Yoko that their bed-ins for peace were great, not unlike his own political stunts. John and Yoko said they considered Hoffman and Rubin to be artists; the radical leaders saw Lennon as a new kind of political activist.
Rubin asked early and often what exactly Lennon wanted to do. To be involved, Lennon told him. He wanted to put a band together, play music, and “give all the money back to the people”; to use his music and do his part for the Movement. He had said he intended to “compose songs for the revolution,” and hoped to take those songs on the road and maybe shake things up a little.
“I want to do something political, and radicalize people and all that jazz,” Lennon said. “This would be the best way . . . taking a really far-out show on the road, a mobile, political rock and roll show.”
If he’d been back in London Lennon would have had all the contacts he wanted, as he dipped a tentative toe in British revolutionary waters, but in America he required some introduc- tions to find the right causes to rally. Rubin’s usefulness relied
on whether the Yippie leader could serve as Lennon’s tour guide into Left politics, Yankee style. He had to bring something to the Bank Street party to stand out from the dreamers and schemers who sought Lennon’s friendship, confidence, and favors.
A specific issue piqued Lennon’s interest, the struggles of Rubin’s friend, Detroit activist John Sinclair, who was serving a harsh prison sentence: ten years for marijuana possession that instead seemed like punishment for his political views.
Either the sales pitch or the cause—ten years for two lousy joints!—clinched the deal. The immediacy of the effort appealed to Lennon—grab a guitar, fly to Michigan, and get involved, and for the crowd to do more than just scream in delight.
“We want the audience to participate fully, and not just admire God onstage,” Lennon told French TV reporter Jean-François Vallee, who spent a day filming a Bank Street bed-chat with John, Yoko, and Rubin in early December.11 Lennon described the vision he’d been forming of a politically charged concert, free of super- star trappings, with the people and performers united in spirit.
That seemed to have been the problem when the Beatles last tried to perform in front of a crowd—and who knew what might happen if all four took the stage together again. “I am still mainly a musician,” Lennon said, perhaps wistfully, as he prepared to begin a new chapter in his career. Partly, his goal was to be just another musician, one without the superstar trappings; at the same time, in his writing and performing he was seeking to shine as an artist in ways that might even surpass what he had accomplished as a member of a group, even if the group did happen to be the Beatles.
“As an individual I still have a lot of power, I can always get on the media . . . because of the Beatles,” Lennon said. “Our job now is to tell them there is still hope and we still have things to do and we must get out now and change their heads. We can change! It isn’t over just because flower power didn’t work. It’s only the beginning.”
Lennon thought he’d found exactly what he’d hoped for when he left Britain, a chance to serve the Movement with his guitar and presence.
Excerpted from The Walrus and the Elephants by James Mitchell. Copyright © 2013 by James Mitchell. Excerpted by permission of Seven Stories Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.