After 26 years, rebel with a cause still fascinates us
PRESIDENT Nixon was terrified of him. Secret police followed his every move. And he could gather the world's press simply by deciding to stay in bed.
Yesterday, after a 25-year freedom of information battle, an American historian has secured the release of the final surveillance documents held by the FBI on John Lennon.
What we learn from them is what we knew all along - that Lennon was a concerned, left-leaning musician who had ties to leftist and anti-war groups in the early 1970s. He was not a revolutionary. And he was only a threat to the world order insofar as he dared to imagine a world at peace.
So this is a story about the power and efficacy of art. About how those in power will lock their vaults and black out their documents in the face of a lone, visionary voice. The FBI was so worried about keeping Lennon's secrets they overlooked the fact that he didn't have any.
It also testifies to the devotion of an audience - for a quarter of a century a historian refused to relent until all of the secrets were laid bare. Millions more were eager to find out what the files might contain. Lennon was an artist who posed naked for the world. There should be nothing to hide.
Historian Jon Wiener first requested the FBI documents in 1981, several months after he decided to write a book about Lennon following the singer's murder. The FBI had unsuccessfully argued that an unnamed foreign government secretly provided the information, and releasing the documents could lead to diplomatic, political or economic retaliation against the United States. Now he is wondering what all the fuss was about.
"The content of the files released today is an embarrassment to the US government," said Mr Wiener, 62, who has written two books on the late Beatle, Come Together: John Lennon in His Time and Gimme Some Truth: the John Lennon FBI Files.
"I doubt that Tony Blair's government will launch a military strike on the US in retaliation for the release of these documents. Today, we can see that the national security claims that the FBI has been making for 25 years were absurd from the beginning," said Wiener.
The newly released documents include a surveillance report stating that two prominent British left-wing activists had courted Lennon in hopes that he would finance "a left-wing bookshop and reading room in London" but that Lennon gave them no money. Another page states that there was "no certain proof" that Lennon had provided money "for subversive purposes".
In the juiciest memo, then-FBI Director J Edgar Hoover wrote to H R Haldeman, Nixon's chief of staff, that "Lennon had taken an interest in 'extreme left-wing activities in Britain' and is known to be a sympathiser of Trotskyist communists in England."
Another describes an interview with Lennon published in 1971 in an underground London newspaper called the Red Mole. "Lennon emphasised his proletarian background and his sympathy with the oppressed and underprivileged people of Britain and the world," the document says.
Lennon was under FBI surveillance in 1971 and 1972. Nixon was concerned that the ex-Beatle would support Senator George McGovern for president in 1972, which would be the first year that 18-year-olds could vote. By 1972, immigration services in the US had refused to renew Lennon's visa, beginning deportation proceedings which ultimately failed.
Now that the Cold War is long over, the FBI's concerns about Lennon seem as though verging on the paranoid: The revolutionary musician was not a revolutionary after all. Yet Lennon still remains a hugely powerful political and social figure which every generation seems to rediscover as if for the first time. There is still a deep interest for the man dubbed the "intellectual Beatle".
In a world continually troubled by war and poverty, Lennon's belief was that if people come together as one, anything is possible ...
Say you want a revolution
Well you get on your feet
And out on the street
John Lennon was also the last of a generation of pop stars who stood up for what they believed in: the sort of rebellion the working classes could respect and believe. As pop stars sold out, Lennon remained true to his principles and his Liverpudlian roots; those who loved and followed him from the beginning, continuing to do so irregardless of his international notoriety and success. In short, he was a Working Class Hero, a term Lennon used somewhat ironically.
From the early 1990s, Lennon enjoyed godhead status. Today's generation of musicians are still angry about different issues, and they've sustained that aspect of Lennon's personality. There's also the tragic aspect.
In the end, perhaps, we won't remember John Lennon for his political activism, or for the tit-bits of espionage provided by the FBI. Gunned down by Mark Chapman outside the Dakota Building in New York on 8 December, 1980, his death at the age of 40 freeze-framed Lennon's iconic image. Perhaps he remains vivid as a mirror that reflects the now-sullied idealism of the 1960s.
Or maybe not. Maybe we remember him because his calls were eternal and universal. Even now, always, peace has a chance. Imagine that.
OPINIONS THAT UPSET AMERICA
LENNON'S political notoriety didn't really manifest until 1966, when Lennon famously stated The Beatles were bigger than Jesus Christ, provoking zealous Christians in the Deep South of the United States to burn their Beatles' albums. Such was the Beatle's iconic status, though, that his loyal fans accepted Lennon's begrudging apology, and continued to support him despite his 'insight', satirical commentaries and controversial nature.
In 1969 his bed-in with newly married wife, Yoko Ono, in Montral's Queen Elizabeth Hotel, inspired the anthem Give Peace A Chance, an anti-war protest song against the Vietnam war. Lennon soon sent back the MBE he had received during the height of Beatlemania, "in protest against Britain's involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing and support of America in Vietnam", and spread billboards with the slogan "War Is Over! (If You Want It)" across 12 cities.
By 1972, Lennon was inspiring young people to vote thus turning American youth against Richard Nixon. Not a good idea. Nixon's administration discovered Lennon's plans from an unlikely source: Republican Strom Thurmond, who suggested in a February 1972 memo that "deportation would be a strategic counter-measure." The next month the Immigration and Naturalisation Service began deportation proceedings against Lennon, arguing that his 1968 misdemeanour conviction for cannabis possession in London had made him ineligible for admission to the US.
Lennon spent the next two years in and out of deportation hearings, and constantly under a 60-day order to leave the country, which his attorney managed to get extended repeatedly. The FBI, meanwhile, were busy compiling more pages than the Bible on him.
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