Bagism: Library

FBI Rock Criticism

In 1971, the FBI began a campaign of harrassment against John Lennon which included wiretapping, surveillance, and orders for him to leave the United States due mainly to President Richard Nixon's fear that Lennon's political activism may prevent Nixon's re-election. The excellent book "Come Together: John Lennon in His Time" by Jon Wiener chronicles Lennon's political activism and his harrassment by the US government. Dr. Wiener has kindly allowed Bagism to re-publish the introductory chapter.

Buried deep in the twenty-six pounds of files the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Immigration and Naturalization Service gathered on John Lennon, there is a report to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover describing John's 1971 appearance in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at an antiwar rally. The FBI informers who watched him knew what no one else in the audience did: John considered his appearance at the rally a trial run for a national anti-Nixon tour, on which he would bring rock and roll together with radical politics in a dozen cities. He had been talking about ending the tour in August 1972 at a giant protest rally and counterculture festival outside the Republican national convention, where Richard Nixon would be renominated.

The undercover source began his report by explaining, "Lennon [was] formerly with group known as the Beatles." You had to begin at the beginning with Mr. Hoover. "Source advised [that] Lennon prior to rally composed song entitled, 'John Sinclair,' which song Lennon sang at the rally. Source advised this song was composed by Lennon especially for this event." Informers typically exaggerate their own value to their employers. "Source" here was "advised" the same way fifteen thousand other people in the audience were, by Lennon's announcement onstage.

The Reagan administration refused to release the rest of this report in April 1981. The FBI cited its authority under the Freedom of Information Act to withhold "information which is currently and properly classified the interest of the national defense or foreign policy." I filed an administrative appeal. In January 1983 the Justice Department Review Committee declassified the FBI report on the John Sinclair concert, and the assistant attorney general for legal policy released eight more pages of it.

The portion that had been withheld "in the interest of national defense or foreign policy" began with a complete set of the lyrics to the song "John Sinclair." They had been classified "confidential" by the FBI since 1971, even though they were printed on the back cover of John's 1972 album, Some Time in New York City: "Was he jailed for what he done / Or representing everyone?" (Sinclair had been jailed on a Marijuana charge.) Copies had been forwarded to the FBI offices in Boston, New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. Perhaps the FBI thought that John planned to bring a tour to these cities. Along with the lyrics sheet, the FBI sent a report from its files on the performance itself: John's wife Yoko Ono "can't even remain on key"; John's "John Sinclair" "probably will become a million seller...but it is lacking Lennon's usual standards."

Here was FBI rock criticism: J. Edgar Hoover's middle-aged men in dark suits trying to figure out whether John Lennon would succeed in bringing rock and revolution together. No other rock star aroused the government's fears this way. No other rock star was ordered deported, as John was, in a government effort to prevent a concert tour.

Was the FBI justified in regarding John Lennon as a significant political force? Or was it only acting out Nixon's paranoia, his desire to remove every obstacle to his own reelection, no matter how insignificant?

The experiences of anger and exaltation that rock music provided for countless young people were not in themselves political experiences. Lennon knew that. He also knew that rock could become a potent political force when it was linked to real political organizing--when, for example, it brought young people together to protest the Vietnam war. In 1971 and 1972 he made a commitment to test this political power. The twenty-six pounds of files reveal the government's commitment to stop him.

John's appearance in Ann Arbor was his first concert in the United States since the Beatles' 1966 tour. He shared the stage with the most prominent members of the "Chicago Seven," who had led the antiwar protests outside the Democratic national convention in 1968: Jerry Rubin, founder of the Yippies, Bobby Seale, chairman of the Black Panther Party; Dave Dellinger, the veteran pacifist; and Rennie Davis, the New Left's best organizer. Stevie Wonder made a surprise appearance. All of them called for the release from prison of John Sinclair, a Michigan activist. Sinclair had led the effort to make rock music the bridge between the antiwar movement and the counterculture, and between black and white youth. He had already served two years of a ten-year sentence for selling two joints of marijuana to an undercover agent.

On the proposed tour Lennon and his friends planned to raise money to revive local New Left organizing projects and to urge young people to come to the "political Woodstock" outside the Republican national convention in August. John had been talking to Bob Dylan, trying to get him to join the tour. None of these plans had been made public.

Fifteen thousand people cheered in Ann Arbor's Crisler Arena as John and Yoko finally took the stage at three a.m. "We came here to show and to say to all of you that apathy isn't it, that we can do something," John said. "Okay, so flower power didn't work. So what. We start again." More cheering. Then he sang his song: "John Sinclair."

John's appearance at the Free John Sinclair rally marked the culmination of a personal, political, and artistic transformation that had begun much earlier. He had taken his first steps toward radical politics in 1966, when he defied Beatles manager Brian Epstein and publicly denounced the Vietnam war. After that, he went through several phases in an effort to link pop and politics:

Rock against revolution: In 1968 John argued that the path to liberation lay through psychedelic drugs and meditation rather than through radical politics--that genuine liberation was personal rather than political. He expressed himself in rock and roll, in the song that began "You say you want to a revolution."

Avant-garde peacenik: After John got together with Yoko in 1968, he realized that to transform himself he needed to join in transforming the world. With this discovery he took on the project of sixties radicalism as his own: a simultaneous struggle for personal and political liberation. With the 1969 "bed-ins for peace" John and Yoko launched a bold campaign of New Left media politics. They staged pop events, seeking to convey a radical message through the establishment media, to use them to undermine the system of which they were a part.

Personal/political artist: Moving to the left in 1970, John began working as an artist to discover and expose the social roots of his personal suffering, to make music that revealed the painful and bitter truth about his life as a "working-class hero."

Songwriter for the movement: In New York in 1971 and 1972 John eagerly joined the struggles against war, racism, and sexism, and wrote what he called "front-page songs" to spread the word. He was taking up the topical songwriting that Bob Dylan and even Phil Ochs had given up. The album he recorded during this period, Some Time in New York City, was denounced by critics and ignored by fans.

Defeated radical: The Nixon administration tried to deport John because of his political activities. In the ensuing three-year legal battle he lost his artistic vision and energy, his relationship with Yoko disintegrated, and he gave up his radical politics. In this period Lennon became a defeated activist, an artist in decline, an aging superstar.

Feminist father: John could not rest with this betrayal of the most active and creative period of his life. He worked his way back to Yoko and to feminism, a strand of sixties radicalism that had grown in the seventies. With Double Fantasy John linked pop and politics once again, now as the feminist househusband and exemplary father.

Those who find satisfaction in squalid "revelations" about Lennon's life face a problem: John revealed his own weaknesses and failings ruthlessly. He spoke publicly about his heroin use and his drunkenness, and about the feelings of envy and bitterness that intermittently overwhelmed him. He also spoke publicly about his dream of peace and love. But it wasn't his dream that made him a hero; it was his struggle to expose and overcome his anger, misery, and pain.

John's growing self-consciousness in the late sixties was part of a wider cultural phenomenon in which rock critics and antiwar writers began to think seriously about the relationship between the counterculture and the antiwar movement, began to examine the political status of rock music and the cultural dimension of New Left politics. When John Lennon released a new record, it wasn't simply consumed by a passive audience; when he announced a new political project, it wasn't simply observed. People argued about his projects.

His openness to new ideas, his eagerness to try new things and take risks, his willingness to appear foolish, made him an appealing person, especially in contrast to most superstars, who never strayed from their media images. But John also posed a problem for his fans. Often it was hard to decide whether to be embarrassed by him or proud of him. He won both enthusiasm and ridicule. Writers filled the underground and alternative press and the rock magazines with these arguments. This growing self-consciousness of a new generation must also be examined and understood in order to understand Lennon's significance.

John was not the only figure to receive this scrutiny, and he knew it. The counterculture and the antiwar movement constantly measured him against two others: Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger. John regularly glanced over his shoulder at their projects. Sometimes he tried to top them, sometimes he challenged one or the other with a radical change in direction. They did the same to him. At a few rare moments the work of all three converged. To understand Lennon one must also understand the achievements and limitations of Dylan and Jagger.

The phases of Lennon's development that earned the most publicity, and the most ridicule, were his involvement with LSD and then with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. In fact, each of theses phases lasted approximately eight months. John started taking a lot of LSD in the fall of 1966 and stopped in August 1967; he met the Maharishi that same month and broke with him the following April. The period of his most intense political activism lasted almost five times as long, beginning with the bed-in in March 1969 and ending with his last antiwar demonstration in May 1972. This accounting ignores the fact that his withdrawal from activist politics was forced on him by the Nixon administration's deportation proceedings. The three-year deportation battle was also political. John's defense went beyond legal technicalities, as he challenged and sought to expose the Nixon administration's abuse of power.

But in a larger sense, political and social questions were central to John's work as a musician and his thinking about himself in every phase of his life-- from his inchoate teenage rebellion against respectability, and his identification through music with the oppressed, to his repeated posing of questions of personal liberation and its relation to political and social issues. He changed his mind more than once, but he never gave up his commitment to face the questions.

As John's efforts to link pop and politics developed, he worked on a series of problems, which he summarized as "becoming real": how to understand the oppressiveness of rock stardom; how to bring together the struggles for personal and political liberation; how to create art that is both radical and popular, how to tell the truth with rock and roll; how to survive political persecution; how to renew commitments; how to return to music. To understand John Lennon is to understand this struggle to be real.

© 1984 Jon Wiener
Published by the University of Illinois Press, 54 E. Gregory Dr., Champaign, IL 61820; 800-545-4703

Be sure to visit Jon Wiener's John Lennon - FBI Files site for more information.


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Last updated on Oct 9, 2004