Chapter One: 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 marijuana. 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, America 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 summer 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. 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.”
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.