Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Birthday Boys

John Lennon would be 67 today, and while I'm two decades shy of that number (and still breathing), I share the same birthday with the lead singer of the Plastic Ono Band. When I was younger, and being a huge fan of Lennon's, this natal connection meant a lot to me. Over time, having read or seen various accounts of his life, most tellingly from his first wife Cynthia and oldest son Julian, my enthusiasm waned, for who wanted to identify with such a lousy husband and distant father, a rich narcissist lost in his own sheltered world?

Recently, friends highly recommended that I watch "The U.S. vs. John Lennon," the documentary about the U.S. government's surveillance of Lennon and attempts to have him deported. I didn't think much about the film until the wife gave me the DVD as an early birthday present, and I can see why my friends embraced it -- "The U.S. vs. John Lennon" is not only a sharp historical look at the American state's paranoia over and hatred of dissent during the Vietnam era, it reminds us that these state features have never gone away. In fact, as you may have noticed, the state has only been strengthened since that time. "Imagine" that.

I knew about the harassment of Lennon before watching this film, but I didn't realize how deep this campaign ran. When Lennon used his celebrity and popularity to help spring from jail the radical John Sinclair, the powers-that-be became very concerned about what Lennon would do next. Unlike Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Angela Davis, or even the Weather Underground, Lennon's appeal crossed over to apolitical types; and if he could wake them up, or worse, radicalize them, that would be a bad thing for those higher-ups already shaken by the growing opposition to the Vietnam war. So J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, in concert with the Nixon White House, began spying on Lennon and Yoko Ono, assembling a fat file on their every movement and personal associations. They weren't about to let some long-haired dope-smoking limey fag and his Jap wife fuck with their domestic power. This is confirmed in the film by G. Gordon Liddy, who takes pride in that operation which Nixon not only knew about, but obsessed over.

Watching the many clips of Lennon speaking against the war and in favor of the New Left, most interestingly on the old "Mike Douglas Show," which aired every weekday afternoon to a large audience, you can see why Hoover, Nixon, Liddy and their cronies and toadies loathed and feared the ex-Beatle. Lennon was articulate and witty, at times a touch self-righteous, but never so much that he lost sight of the main point. It's amazing, looking back, how many people he reached with his political views. Think about how Lennon would be treated in today's slime-coated media environment. His opposition to war might inspire a fresh orgy of outraged patriots burning and smashing Beatle CDs. His and Ono's theatrical stunts would be mocked from Fox News on down through the rightwing blogosphere (some liberal sites as well). And is there any question that the Bush White House would have him under surveillance?

"Senator Clinton, will you join all God-fearing Americans in denouncing the treason of John Lennon?"

"Well, as a God-fearing Christian myself, I don't endorse everything Mr. Lennon says about this glorious country. I only hope that the American people can find a way to 'Come Together'."

Not a pretty scenario.

There are many criticisms one can make of John Lennon, but you have to hand it to the guy: he could've sat back, counted his money, recorded pop hit after pop hit and kept his mouth shut, like his former bandmate, Paul McCartney. But not only did he speak out, he said things that made liberals nervous or angry, as in his infamous encounter with the journalist Gloria Emerson. Not bad for a working-class kid abandoned by his parents at an early age and raised by his aunt. It's no wonder Lennon had the anger that he did, and his autodidactic understanding of the world ruffled many refined feathers, like Emerson's. That's definitely something I can identify with.

If you haven't seen "The U.S. vs. John Lennon," rent it, buy it, watch it. Not only is G. Gordon Liddy featured, but also Gore Vidal, John Dean, Walter Cronkite, Bobby Seale, Paul Krassner, Tariq Ali, Angela Davis, George McGovern, Ron Kovic, Geraldo Rivera, Yoko Ono of course, and most surprisingly to me, Noam Chomsky. I didn't know Noam was a Beatles fan, or maybe he was more into Elephant's Memory. You can never tell with Noam. Here's one of my favorite Lennon songs -- lip-synched, unfortunately, but I do like Yoko's little performance piece.