John Lennon Shines On

John Lennon would have turned 70 this month. Over the next couple of months there are several noteworthy, commemorative releases and events, including: all of John Lennon’s solo recordings, re-mastered and released this month; a new documentary called LennonNYC, an independent film called “Nowwhere Boy” that focuses on Lennons teen years, and the annual Imagine Peace Tower lighting in Iceland that Yoko Ono will preside at and present Peace awards.

A couple of years ago, after watching the documentary, “The U.S. vs. John Lennon“, my interest in John Lennon was renewed. Not only was this man a musical genius, but he remains an icon of the peace movement. He used his fame to influence public opinion about the Vietnam war, and in response, the US government tried to deport him, spied on him, and used intimidation to silence him. In the end, Lennon was murdered by an obsessed fan. But his legacy remains. Three songs stand out as anthems to the peace movement:

  1. Imagine
  2. Give Peace a Chance
  3. Happy Xmas (War is Over!)

These songs, and others, have been sung by hundreds of artists. In 2008, Amnesty International produced a double-disc tribute to Lennon, as a fundraiser for the crisis in Darfur, Sudan. Some of the remakes are stirring. Check out the additional material at the iTunes store; you will find numerous artists with remakes of, for instance,Imagine, including Jack Johnson, Avril Lavigne, Willy Nelson, and Josh Groban. Also, .

Beyond the power of Lennon’s music, his message of peace is inspiring, and the context of his story is legendary. Richard Nixon is the perfect villain in Lennon’s hero story. The Nixon administration sought to deport Lennon because he was seen as a threat in winning the coming 1972 election—with a new voting demographic, between ages 18-21—a threat to public support for the Vietnam war, and to the establishment in general.

Isn’t it nice that we have moved beyond illegal government spying in today’s world?
(Unless you count what the Bush administration was doing for 8 years)

Lennon’s story resonates with today’s political situation in profound ways. What can we learn from Lennon and his willingness to confront the powers of his day?

First, he did not just speak out. He was also a man of action. He made donations, attended rallies, performed countless benefits concerts, and traveled to–and influenced–areas where there was injustice, such as South Africa. Also, he and Yoko purchased billboard space all over the world with a message: “War is Over! (If you want it) – Merry Christmas, John and Yoko Lennon.”

Second, he was positive about the possibility for change. He did not give up to the hopelessness that power pushes on to the masses. He empowered himself and others. His message “War is Over – If you want it” really says to us that it is not an impossible dream. He was optimistic in this regard.

Third,  he made a meaningful personal life for himself. He spent time improving his marriage with Yoko, and delighted in the birth of his son, Sean. He also spent time educating himself about issues in the world. John was a true patriot of the United States. Becoming a citizen was an honor for him. One could say John had “family values” and was, nevertheless, involved in what his FBI records calls, “revolutionary activities.”

We want to highlight some other exemplary traits of John Lennon (from Larry Kane book on Lennon:Lennon Revealed).

The thing the sixties did was to show us the possibilities and the responsibility that we all had. It wasn’t the answer. It just gave us a glimpse of the possibility.

—John Lennon

Some of the peace folks want violence…I want peace in the world…You gotta remember: the establishment is just another word for evil.

—John Lennon

In his provocative biography of Lennon, Larry Kane writes,

“From his childhood on, John utilized his own bully pulpit to promote social and political causes, many of them unpopular when he began to champion them…There was no stopping John. Protest was woven into the very fabric of his being…He was clearly anti-establishment from the very beginning.”

“John was years ahead of his time in his perspective on he war in Vietnam. His view of a mighty power fighting a lost cause for all the wrong reasons would be validated by the succeeding decade…Lennon used almost every one of the news conferences on the 1966 tour to lament America’s escalating role in Vietnam.

“John spent many spare moments reading. He was the most well-read of the Beatles, pouring over newspapers, magazines, and, sometimes a novel…In the morning…he would devour the New York Times cover to cover…John was so on top of world affairs that he was prepared for a verbal duel with anyone who cared to debate him.

“A common thread that runs through…is [Lennon’s] sense of caring about fans and the average person, and hatred for the wealthy and those with authority…Lennon saw humor in people and enjoyed chiding and cajoling the people he met and worked with…One trait endured over the years, that gnawing desire to be champion of ordinary people.”

“[Allen Steckler said of Lennon,] ‘This man had a genuine sense of compassion, a real sensitivity to other human beings.’

“In March of 1980, John traveled to Capetown, South Africa…as an activist to stand up to the architects of the country’s repressive apartheid policy.”

We hope you also enjoy these excerpts, from Democracy Now!, about Lennon—

From a Democracy Now! Report:

AMY GOODMAN (host of Democracy Now!):

While the highlights of Lennon’s career with the Beatles are well known, Lennon is less remembered for his political activism and dedication to peace. Lennon wrote some of the most famous songs of the anti-war movement: “Give Peace a Chance,” “Imagine” and “Happy Christmas, War is Over.” He sang at political protests against the Vietnam War, in support of the radical John Sinclair and even for the prisoners of Attica. He and Yoko made international headlines simply by lying in bed as part of their Bed-In for Peace.

The U.S. government saw Lennon as such a serious threat that President Nixon attempted to have him deported in 1972. In addition, the F.B.I. closely monitored his actions and amassed a file on Lennon of over 300 pages.

JON WIENER (history professor at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of two books on Lennon):

…Lennon put a lot of work into fighting the war in Vietnam. He was an activist in the peace movement, and he paid a very heavy price for that. In 1972, Richard Nixon tried to deport him because of his peace movement activity. I think that is a legacy that’s worth remembering today, more than Beatle-mania and more than “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

AMY GOODMAN: Jon Wiener, can you talk about what John Lennon hoped to do in this country, joining up with the anti-war movement, registering voters, and how he was thwarted, specifically how he was dealing with the Nixon administration?

JON WIENER: Yeah. Lennon tried to figure out ways that he could use his power as a celebrity to help end the war. And the idea that he developed, along with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin and other people, was that he should headline a national concert tour in 1972 that would coincide with the presidential election campaign. ’72, Nixon was still President and preparing to run for re-election. The war in Vietnam had reached a peak. It was clear that this was going to be a big issue in ’72.

The concert tour that Lennon was planning would have been quite a big deal, just because no Beatle had toured the United States since the lads waved farewell at Candlestick Park in 1966, but what Lennon had in mind was something different. He wanted to combine rock music with radical politics and use the tour to urge young people to register to vote—1972 was the first year that 18-year-olds were given the right to vote, so that was going to be an important project—and vote against the war, and that meant voting against Nixon.

Nixon got wind of this plan and promptly began deportation proceedings against Lennon to try to get him out of the country to prevent this tour from ever happening. They were able to do one concert. It was in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in December ‘71, where they tried out this idea. It was the “Free John Sinclair” concert. John Sinclair was a local movement activist and leader who had been sentenced to ten years in the Michigan state prison for possession of two joints of marijuana. It was a big national issue in 1971, and Lennon headlined a fantastic show that involved political activists. Jerry Rubin spoke, Bobby Seale spoke, Stevie Wonder showed up to play. And we have tape of Lennon’s appearance that night. It’s in Ann Arbor at Chrysler Arena, December 1971, 15,000 people in the audience.

AMY GOODMAN: “Imagine” is a song that has tremendous power through the decades, through the ages. After 9/11, it was reported that Clear Channel had it on a list of songs that would not be allowed to be played on their stations, and that was significant, because Clear Channel owns more than 1,200 radio stations in this country.

JON WIENER: Yeah. Well, he does say, “Imagine no more countries. It isn’t hard to do.” And he also says, “Imagine no religion. It’s easy if you try.” Of course, the Christian right in the United States finds that a completely outrageous statement, and they have been campaigning against that song ever since he recorded it in 1970.

October 2007 – Democracy Now!

AMY GOODMAN: As we were playing that song [“Imagine”] for our TV viewers, Yoko Ono, we were showing images. One of them was a poster that said, “The war is over!” Explain.

YOKO ONO: Well, one day I thought, well, it’s great to say “War is over” and have all these people—well, this was the first idea, that I would have many famous people partying

in Ascot House, and then somebody would just come in and say, “War is over.” And they all say, “Oh, my god, the war is over, if you want it.” But the thing is, then, you know, we decided to do it as a poster, and then John decided to do it on a billboard. And it just became “War is over! If you want it.” It was much better than having a party and then having some TV camera crew to come and film it and all that, because it was a much better idea, so we just did it that way.

Excerpts from Lennon’s FBI RECORD