We marked the 34th anniversary of John Lennon’s murder on Monday the eighth of December. The failure to neutralize an unsettling agent in America's midst by the paranoid Nixon administration and the machinations of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was carried out, eventually, by Mark David Chapman, a born-again Christian and a mad, misguided devotee of J.D. Salinger.
Like most of my contemporaries, Baby-Boomers every one of us, I admired The Beatles. And John Lennon was omnipresent in my life until he was gunned down on that cool New York City night outside of his apartment in 1980.
My older brothers were already buying Beatles singles and LPs when I crawled out of Eternity’s abyss to join the party in this world. John and the lads taught me how to speak, how to frame my thinking and my aspirations. John was like a terribly cool uncle from overseas that I knew so well from what he wrote to us; but a guy I never got to meet.
There is no doubt that Lennon was as excited as the rest of his bandmates when they made it big in their musical home, America. They had truly arrived, when the country that produced their heroes -- Elvis, Chuck Berry, and all the black roots and blues artists that inspired them -- embraced them as one of their own.
But America proved to be a fickle lover; and John Lennon’s story is, in retrospect, a cautionary tale for us all.
Let me remind you of what America was going through at the time The Beatles made their mark. Only months before The Beatles first played in the United States, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. As their popularity turned into “Beatlemania,” the civil rights movement was gaining steam at the same time that the War in Vietnam was dividing public opinion.
By the end of The Beatles’ run in the late ‘60s, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Sen. Bobby Kennedy were dead. And the War in Vietnam was still an ongoing conflict, little understood by the folks back home who saw their kids being shipped back home in flag-draped coffins night after night on the evening news. What we didn’t see in equal measure, were the over 2,000,000 Vietnamese people slaughtered at the same time.
John Lennon, at this time, was doing something remarkable for a man with working class, Liverpudlian roots. He was coming to the realization that The Beatles were finished. The fame that he had aspired to, the chance to be “as big as Elvis,” was a dream as empty as it inevitably always is. The money, the chicks, the drugs, universal adulation -- none of it could provide his Life with meaning, with purpose.
So John Lennon retreated from the spotlight, hung out with his marvelous last-chance at love, the gutsy artist Yoko Ono at his side; and he decamped to America, his spiritual home. He loved New York, and NYC gave him an exultant high-five in return.
We need to realize that John had a political awakening at about this time too. Already on The Beatles’ album “Rubber Soul,” he was reaching out politically with songs like “Nowhere Man” and “Think For Yourself.” But now that he was away from the chaos of England and The Beatles, he could focus on what was most important to him: doffing the trappings of celebrity in exchange for an opportunity to send out a real message of peace, and love and hope. Even if many thought him the fool for doing so.
John and Yoko made friends in America, of course. The media loved them for their wacky antics and their newspaper-selling celebrity. They ate up whatever Lennon and Ono served them, from bed-ins for peace, to performances in support of dissidents, to expensive advertising campaigns featuring billboards in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Europe. They also made common cause with civil rights activists and leaders like Jerry Rubin and Bobby Seale.
And it’s the making of common cause with radicals, with naysayers, that’ll getcha every time.
As Gore Vidal wryly observed of John Lennon and the Nixon administration with simple accuracy, “Anybody who sings about Love, and Harmony, and Life is dangerous to somebody singing about Death, and Killing, and Subduing.”
The rest of the story is, of course, depressingly familiar. A criminal American federal government brought its massive power and weight to bear upon two butterflies.
Directives from President Nixon’s Oval Office to the FBI and the INS ensured that Lennon and Ono would be under constant surveillance and that some measure would be found to extricate the couple from America once and for all through deportation proceedings. This must have been a terrifying time for both Lennon and Ono.
But as a kid used to being up against a wall (the man was, after all, a working class hero), Lennon declared something mad and wonderful to all the Nowhere Men seeking to destroy him and Yoko. To wit:
"We announce the birth of a conceptual country, NEWTOPIA.
Citizenship of the country can be obtained by declaration of your awareness of NEWTOPIA.
NEWTOPIA has no land, no boundaries, no passports, only people.
NEWTOPIA has no laws other than cosmic. All people of NEWTOPIA are ambassadors of the country.
As two ambassadors of NEWTOPIA, we ask for diplomatic immunity and recognition in the United Nations of our country and our people."
In some respects, the death of John Lennon marks a line in the sands of our political development. And while Lennon was no political philosopher per se, he did alight upon some simple facts that ring even truer today than during his time. Namely: those in positions of power will watch you, they will monitor your movements at all times; deviate from the societal “norm” and you will be crushed; express your counter-arguments and every effort will be made to silence you. The information gleaned about you will be stored and (in Frank Donner’s chilling conceptualization) used against you, when the time is right, for “deferred reckoning.”
Of course, those of us on the side of the Truth and Justice know that, in the end, and to echo John and Yoko’s Christmas billboard message from all those years ago: “War is Over. If You Want It.” It’s easy, if you examine the issues at hand squarely and with the simple mantra of adults still lucky enough to think like children: “All you need is Love.”
— Having lost his 2,500 volume library in the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire, Jeffrey is beginning to fill the void by writing his own. Reach him at jeff.loewen(at)gmail.com