There’s a certain serendipity to the thirtieth anniversary of John Lennon’s death. Lately, and not entirely by chance, he’s been in the news a lot--especially in the money-making department. The Beatles’ long-awaited availability on iTunes has been unceasingly advertised over the past month. This fall a flurry of reissues hit the market in commemoration of both his death and what would have been his 70th birthday in October. None provide any added insight to Lennon the artist, and it’s hard to view them as anything more than a crass effort to make a buck off his ghost.
This is nothing new. Dead men can’t protest, and the past three decades have seen the man who once invoked us to “imagine no possessions” transformed into a commodity. In recent years his music has been used to sell fountain pens and cars. The blood-stained clothes he wore on the night he was killed have been put on display in museums--an act of almost literal calcification. Even his native city of Liverpool named an airport after him, and adopted the slogan “above us only sky.”
And yet, there seems to be a flip-side to Lennon’s inescapable popularity. Namely that it has opened the door for others outside the pop mainstream to take him off the pedestal and place him in a real human condition. From the troubled teenager who saw music as an escape from a repressed working-class reality (the recently released Nowhere Boy) to the man perceived by the United States government as a credible threat (2006’s The U.S. vs. John Lennon), this is the Lennon that really fascinates people. It also happens to make your average record executive more than a bit squeamish.
The contradiction is obvious: for as much as some would love the real Lennon airbrushed out of history, doing so would mean ignoring some of his best and most iconic work. Showing him for what he truly was--a man whose views and work was shaped by a changing world--might be to admit something very dangerous.
Tariq Ali knew this well. In 1970 he, along with Robin Blackburn, interviewed Lennon and Yoko Ono for The Red Mole, newspaper of the International Marxist Group, a Trotskyist organization in Britain. Lennon was a reader of The Red Mole, and there are pictures of him selling it at demonstrations. The interview itself has, largely thanks to The U.S. vs. John Lennon and the re-release of Ali’s autobiographical Street Fighting Years, found a new audience.
“The whole culture had become radicalized, and it’s in this atmosphere that the Beatles were being forced to engage with the world,” says Ali. “The thing you have to understand which people don’t understand about John is that his thought processes were shifting. He was in a process of evolution.”
Even during his few remaining years with the Beatles, when he often felt his most hemmed in by fame and media expectations, that evolution was evident. In May of ‘68, while French workers were taking to the streets in the biggest general strike in world history, Lennon was penning “Revolution.” It’s a song that can’t stop generating debate even today. The version released in August includes the well-known lyric “don’t you know that you can count me out,” provoking a wave of wrath from the New Left. But within two months the words had been modified to include “in” on the album version.
“There were two versions of that song” said Lennon in the Red Mole interview, “but the underground left only picked up on the one that said ‘count me out.’ The original version which ends up on the LP said ‘count me in’ too; I put in both because I wasn’t sure.”
By the time the Beatles broke up, he seemed pretty sure. Ono had encouraged his rebellious, conceptual streak, and together their public artistic personae began to broaden. It might be easy to look at the “Bagism” and “Hair Peace” media stunts as silly out of context. But they were profoundly rooted in Ono’s background in Dada, Fluxus and other avant-garde movements as much as Lennon’s desire to use his platform to say something useful.
“Give Peace a Chance” was one musical outcome of these experiments. The live hotel room recording included along with Lennon and Ono such counter-culture figures as Allen Ginsberg, Tommy Smothers, Rosemary Woodruff Leary and Dick Gregory. Lennon said that he intended it as an anthem for the anti-war movement, and sure enough, it was later sung by half a million who marched in Washington demanding U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.
Says Lennon: “I felt an obligation even then to write a song that people would sing... on a demonstration. That is why I would like to compose songs for the revolution now.”
By the time he was interviewed by Blackburn and Ali, Lennon had released Plastic Ono Band and was hard at work on Imagine. The former contained “Working Class Hero,” whose dark acoustic simplicity blended with a scathing hatred of the repression and exploitation doled out by capitalism, and remains one of Lennon’s absolute best.
It was with Imagine, however, that Lennon struck an almost-perfect axis between music and radical politics--and not just in the iconic title track. Though not as experimental as its predecessor, its sound seems to nonetheless walk the gamut between subtle delicacy and chaotic swirl. His lyrical outlook is uncompromising, but never veers into the realm of blunt propaganda, retaining a solid personality throughout. Lennon and Ono had been aware of the fragile interplay between art and activism; never mistaking one for the other, they nonetheless saw what was going on in the outside world, chose a side, and integrated it wholly into their musical evolution.
When the two arrived to live in New York City in August of 1971, the radicalism in the United States had fermented, permeating into most walks of life. It was a qualitatively different kind of radicalism than that which had influenced Lennon in Britain, colored much more by the vague “youth rebellion” of Yippies like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin (both of whom befriended Lennon).
Still, Lennon and Ono both remained committed to using their art as a platform for their first few years in NYC. It was here that they recorded “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” and conceived of the global billboard campaign to promote it. They took advantage of their week-long stint co-hosting The Mike Douglas Show by bringing on such guests as Rubin and Black Panther Party Chairman Bobby Seale. His appearance at a Michigan concert-rally supporting imprisoned radical John Sinclair was the final straw for the feds, who initiated deportation proceedings against him soon after.
The best musical expression of where Lennon’s head was at, though, is represented in 1972’s Some Time in New York City. Leaning heavily in the direction of straight agit-prop, it championed women’s liberation through songs like “Sisters, O Sisters” and the infamous “Woman Is the Nigger of the World,” and called for the freedom of Angela Davis. Two songs denounced the British presence in Northern Ireland, and one was written in tribute to the prisoners who had risen up at Attica the previous year.
Some Time was a commercial flop and almost universally panned by critics, who complained of its musical and lyrical bluntness. To be sure, it still divides journalists to this very day, but has also in retrospect been credited as a key influence in the nascent punk movement. Still, Lennon was devastated by its failure, and didn’t record any more music for over a year.
When he finally did return to the studio, the radical wave had begun to recede and he and Ono were heavily embroiled in the legal battle to stay in the States. Lennon wouldn’t be granted permanent residency until 1976. By then he had started to distance himself from the far-left, and the next year he and Ono were guests at Jimmy Carter’s inaugural ball.
A month after Lennon was gunned down in front of his New York apartment on December 8th, 1980, Ronald Reagan took the White House. Margaret Thatcher was already Prime Minister in the UK, and the New Left that had once inspired him was a shadow of its former self.
It’s no stretch to say that the collapse of those same movements has provided the space for countless opportunists to make a mockery of his work. On her Washington Post blog, Alexandra Petri--on the anniversary of Lennon’s death no less--claims herself to be a fan of Lennon, then dedicates the next thousand words to explaining why “‘Imagine’ is a terrible idea.” The whole post is little more than snarky cynicism posing as vague analysis.
Unlike Petri, Lennon was never the kind to condescend to his audience. Facts are stubborn things, and for all the attempts to separate his best work from the wave of revolt sweeping the planet at the time, there are bound to be plenty of folks who see through the marketing. With a new revolt stirring in Lennon’s native country today, dreaming of an alternative doesn’t seem so fantastical. One has to imagine--if you’ll pardon the pun--that the world Lennon dedicated his best work to isn’t just possible but necessary.
Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist living in Chicago, is a columnist for SoCiArts.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.