Come Together: John Lennon in his Time
By Jon Weiner
Faber and Faber, 1995. 379 pp., $18.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon
John Lennon angered all the right people. During the Beatles' first tour of the States in 1966, fundamentalist Christians in Memphis, incensed by John's statement that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus", organised record-burnings whilst the Klan, objecting to the black influence in rock and roll, picketed the Beatles' concert. Franco's Spain and apartheid South Africa banned Beatles' records. Nixon spent three years in the early '70s trying to deport Lennon and had the FBI bugging and tailing the rock artist, who was trying to mobilise the masses against Nixon through music.
John Weiner's biography of Lennon charts the (sometimes wayward) attempt of Lennon to mix rock and roll with radical politics. Born in Liverpool in 1940, Lennon imbibed what he called the "instinctive socialism" of the working-class port city, becoming a defiant rebel, living the life of hard, macho, rock and roll. Fame and popularity for the Beatles smoothed the rough edges, however, and the Beatles became much more parent-friendly than their rivals the Rolling Stones.
Nevertheless, for '60s youth, the Beatles helped to dispel the social chloroform and to shatter the conservative freeze of the '50s with their "playful, witty, irreverent" interviews and films, their music's driving rhythm and innovative chord structure, which broke through the limited three or four chord norm, and with John and Paul's "exhilarating, joyous, exuberant" singing. Beatlemania opened a window to youth facing the grim world of school and work.
None of this was inherently political, but Lennon wanted to be "more than a Beatle" and explored the world of politics. In 1966, he publicly defied the Beatles' manager, Brian Epstein, and denounced the Vietnam War. In 1967 and 1968, however, he got his directional finder askew, and sought personal, not political, liberation through LSD and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (a "bloody old con artist", according to the radical London School of Economics student and antiwar protester, Mick Jagger).
"All You Need Is Love" (1967) was John's anthem of flower power. The hippies made a wonderful contribution to social liberation by confronting in a direct, personal way the conformist taboos of sexual repression, private property, individualism, competition, sex roles and the family, but they had no analysis of power and thus no political strategy for tackling the cause of all they opposed. It would take more than love and peaceful vibes to revolutionise capitalist society.
In May 1968, with "Revolution", Lennon stumbled badly, in what Weiner calls "John's great failure of intellect and imagination". With campuses, schools and workplaces ablaze with radical politics and militant struggle, John's message to the New Left was "Don't struggle, protest, organise — free your mind instead".
Whilst the Stones were celebrating fighting in the streets, "Revolution" deserved to be, and was, dismissed by the left. Whilst one magazine's view — the song was the "hawk plank of the Democratic Death Party" — was over the top, "Revolution" did bear the marks of "betrayal", a "petit-bourgeois cry of fear". Nina Simone wrote a song to counter "Revolution". Time, as if to confirm the left's judgment, found "Revolution" "exhilarating". Were the Fab Four no more than "rock's liberals"?
Lennon, who was "hostile to organised left politics but deeply anti-authoritarian, committed to personal liberation from bourgeois conventions", could, like the counterculture, slide into an apolitical swamp that de facto sided with the status quo, but he could also be pulled into political struggle. A drug bust, which contributed to the loss of John and Yoko's baby, helped Lennon's radicalisation. John and Yoko became fervent opponents of the Vietnam War. They only occasionally demonstrated, preferring media stunts such as the "bed-ins for peace", making (hefty) donations, symbolic gestures such as Lennon's return of his MBE and, far more valuable, writing songs for the movement.
In 1969, on the last night of their Montreal "bed-in", Lennon wrote and recorded "Give Peace a Chance". A few days later, Pete Seeger led half a million antiwar protesters in Washington singing it. It spontaneously became the anti-Vietnam War anthem. Weiner is right to say that the song was strategically vague and apolitical (Lennon disparaged politics as ideological "this-ism, that-ism"), which accounted for its success in a peace movement that avoided deeper analysis of the war, but it was an example of the successful merger of music and mobilisation.
As the political '60s peaked, Lennon went with them. In touch with Tariq Ali (Trotskyist magazine editor and antiwar leader), Lennon shifted left, seeing class power as central to both oppression and resistance. As students at Kent State and elsewhere were realising that more than pacifism was necessary, and were giving "Give Peace a Chance" a class twist ("all we are saying is smash the state"), Lennon came out in support of a struggle for popular power to end the Vietnam War, apartheid and British imperialism in Northern Ireland, and in support of the labour movement.
From his pen came another anthem — "Power to the People" in 1971. This was "a street song, a marching song, a fighting song". No longer should the oppressed ask their rulers for peace, they should take power into their own hands. Melody Maker tried to beat back the waves of political protest, diagnosing the song as suffering from "the dreadful curse of the brainless militant", but "Power to the People" outsold both "Revolution" and "Give Peace a Chance".
As the '60s wound their way from drugs and mysticism, through the flower power of the counterculture, and on to New Left politics, carrying Lennon along, so, too, did the ebb tide transport Lennon with it. After "Power to the People", came "Imagine", a fine song about "restoring the utopian imagination" but lacking the urgency and drive of its predecessor. "Imagine" could demobilise as well as inspire — Ray Conniff recorded a soothing orchestral version which made it into the graveyard of elevator music.
Sometime in New York City in 1972 was Lennon's last fling with political activism through music. Topical songs in the mode of Phil Ochs and Woodie Guthrie about the repression of the Attica prison uprising, Angela Davis, Northern Ireland and feminism generally lacked artistic energy and vision. Phil Ochs didn't like the album much, praising those few songs (such as "Woman is the Nigger of the World") which, unbeknown to Ochs, were Lennon's sole compositions, and panning the rest, which were Yoko's. If John was not very good at writing topical songs, Yoko was worse.
Nixon's re-election in 1972 destroyed Lennon's political hopes and the multimillionaire socialist, under threat of deportation, moved away from militancy and public activism (Mind Games, 1973) to pointless, Paul-like hit-singles ("Whatever Gets You Through the Night", 1974), the private world of domesticity (Double Fantasy, 1980) and donations to the New York police for bulletproof vests.
Some of Lennon's radicalism survived in his longstanding and sincere commitment to feminism (Double Fantasy is about his decision to become a househusband) but with wealth estimated at $150 million, a cook and a nanny, this was feminism for the rich. The rich have always been able to buy all the child-care they need. Double Fantasy is musically anodyne and a hymn to private life.
In 1980, Lennon described his intensely political years from 1969 to 1972 as "all shit". But the "instinctive socialist" in Lennon had not died — in December 1980, he was planning to attend a demonstration in support of striking Japanese-American workers, when a bullet from a one-time fan suffering from clinical paranoia ended Lennon's life and music.
Lennon's musical brilliance, from early Beatles to some of his later work, and his (shifting) involvement with the world of left politics and oppositional movements ("Zen Marxist" is his own description of his politics — and is not that inaccurate) is one of the best, if erratic, examples of the alliance of music and politics. Lennon's music (and Weiner's biography) are highly recommended. "Power to the People — Right On!".