Tributes to John Lennon on December 8, 2005
25 Years after His Assassination
by George Shriver
A statue of John Lennon was put up in
No such statue went up where the
heirs and appointees of Stalin’s bureaucratic system still ruled. The Stalinist
regimes had a negative attitude toward John Lennon and the Beatles. These rock
musicians were regarded as “unreliable elements,” expressions of youth revolt
against authority, etc. Even in Cuba for a while, when it depended on aid from
the Soviet Union and Stalinist influence was stronger than now, the Beatles
were sometimes frowned upon. But most of the rigid and backward Stalinist
dogmas have been shaken off in
With the simplicity and power that reveal his greatness as an artist, John Lennon left us, in his enormously popular song “Imagine,” the vision of a just and peaceful society, of human beings “sharing all the world.”
This is essentially the vision
of socialism. That’s why it’s especially fitting that the statue of John Lennon
Like many others on this anniversary we reproduce here the lines of Lennon’s immortal song:
Imagine there’s no heaven,
It’s easy if you try,
No hell below us,
Above us only sky,
Imagine all the people
living for today...
Imagine there’s no countries,
It isn’t hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for,
And no religion too,
Imagine all the people
living life in peace...
Imagine no possessions,
I wonder if you can,
No need for greed or hunger,
A brotherhood of man,
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...
You may say I’m a dreamer,
but I’m not the only one,
I hope some day you’ll join us,
And the world will live as one.
Among today’s many tributes we reproduce three below. The
first is from Amy Goodman’s radio and television show “Democracy Now.” It’s
worth reproducing in full because it reveals Lennon as an antiwar and social
justice activist as well as a great artist, and exposes the
John Lennon 1940–1980: History Professor Jon Wiener Discusses Lennon’s Politics, FBI Files, and Why Richard Nixon Sought to Deport Him
25 years ago today John Lennon died after being shot by a gunman named Mark Chapman. Millions mourned the death of perhaps the most famous Beatle. Today memorials are being held across the world.
On this anniversary, we pay tribute to Lennon’s life with historian Jon Wiener, author of the books Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files and Come Together: John Lennon in His Time.
We also hear Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono,
describe their Bed-In For Peace. We play excerpts of Lennon singing “Imagine”
at the Apollo Theater in Harlem at a rally for the Attica prisoners and Lennon
singing at the 1971 Free John Sinclair concert in
Today, on the 25th anniversary of John Lennon’s death, we speak with historian Jon Wiener about Lennon’s politics and his FBI files.
Jon Wiener, history professor at the
[rush transcript follows]
AMY GOODMAN: 25 years ago today, Howard Cosell broke into Monday Night Football with an announcement that shocked the country.
HOWARD COSELL: Yes, we have to say, remember
this is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses. An unspeakable tragedy,
confirmed to us by ABC News in
AMY GOODMAN: John Lennon, dead at the age of 40. As soon as word of
his murder was announced, hundreds of fans began gathering in
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 for the prisoners of
JON WIENER: Well, you know, there’s going to be a lot of media
coverage about the lovable lad from Liverpool and about Beatle-mania, but I
think it’s important to remember that Lennon put a lot of work into fighting
the war in
AMY GOODMAN: You wrote a book about the FBI files and John Lennon
called Gimme Some Truth. Can you talk
about why you started on this quest to get the full FBI files on John Lennon and how much you
have learned. What was happening to him when he left
JON WIENER: Well, Lennon arrived in the
I filed a Freedom of Information request a really long time ago, in 1981, just after he was killed, just to see if the FBI had any documents on him. I thought they must, since they tried to deport him in ‘72. At that time, they told us they had around 300 pages, but they weren’t going to release most of them, because of their national security status. I was lucky enough to get the help of the ACLU of Southern California in taking this case to court. We filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act in 1983.
In 1997, about 15 years later, virtually all of the issues were resolved by
AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re saying, Professor Wiener, that John Lennon is still a threat to the national security of this country?
JON WIENER: Well, I’m not saying that, but the F.B.I. is telling us
that they can’t release these ten pages, because they contain information
provided by a foreign government under a promise of confidentiality. Now, we’re
not even allowed to know the name of the foreign government. My guess is that
And, in fact, there’s a guy in
Our assumption is that’s the information that the government of the
AMY GOODMAN: Jon Wiener, can you talk about what John Lennon hoped to do in this country, joining up with the antiwar 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. In ‘72, Nixon was still president
and preparing to run for reelection. The war in
The concert tour that Lennon was planning would have been quite a big deal,
just because no Beatle had toured the
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
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to John Lennon that night.
JOHN LENNON: Now, we came here not only to help John and to spotlight what’s going on, but also to show and to say to all of you that apathy isn’t it and that we can do something. Okay, so flower power didn’t work; so what? We start again.
This song, I wrote for John Sinclair. Okay, John Sinclair, nice and easy now. Sneaky. [singing “John Sinclair”] “One, two, one, two, three, four — It ain’t fair, John Sinclair, in the stir for breathing air — Won’t you care for John Sinclair, in the stir for breathing air — Let him be, set him free. Let him be like you and me — They gave him ten for two, what else can Judge Columba do? — We gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta set him free — if he was a soldier man, shooting gooks in Vietnam, if he was the C.I.A., selling dope and making hay, he’d be free, they’d let him be — free the man like you and me — They gave him ten for two, what else can Judge Columba do? — We gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta set him free – They gave him ten for two, and they got [inaudible], too — We gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta set him free — Was he jailed for what he’d done or representing everyone? — Free John now, if we can, from the clutches of the man — Let him be. Lift the lid. Bring him to his wife and kid —”
AMY GOODMAN: That was John Lennon singing at a “Free John Sinclair”
JON WIENER: The first thing that happened was that John Sinclair got out of prison two days later on appeal. It was quite an amazing victory that nobody had really expected. When I got the John Lennon FBI file, the first stuff in there is a report from an undercover agent who was one of the 15,000 people at Chrysler Arena that night. He wrote down every word John Lennon said, including all the words to the song, including “gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta set him free.” He sent those to J. Edgar Hoover. They were promptly classified as confidential and kept secret for the next twelve years. But this formed the—this got the Nixon administration concerned that there really might be some potential here to affect the election.
Now, in retrospect, it seems very unlikely, since Nixon won by an
overwhelming landslide in 1972. Only
AMY GOODMAN: The issue that Nixon held over John Lennon of deporting
him over drug charges, even those drug charges were questionable, is that
right? They were brought when he was in
JON WIENER: Well, the Nixon administration’s claim for deporting
Lennon was that it was just a routine administration of the then-existing
immigration law, which held that you could not be admitted to the country if
you had any conviction for drugs, no matter how insignificant, no matter what
the circumstances. And Lennon had pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of
cannabis possession in
AMY GOODMAN: Another major political event he was involved with was
in 1971: the Attica uprising, upstate
JON WIENER: Yeah. In September, 1971, there was an uprising at Attica
Prison in upstate
They killed 32 prisoners and ten guards and injured something like 80 more.
This was, you know, a complete outrage, and the next month, December 1971,
there was a protest meeting and a benefit concert for the families of the
prisoners who had been killed in the uprising. That was held at the Apollo
AMY GOODMAN: John Lennon in
JOHN LENNON: I would just like to say it’s an honor and a pleasure to be here at the Apollo and for the reasons we’re all here. Some of you might wonder what I’m doing here with no drummers and no nothing like that. Well, you might know, I lost my old band, or I left it. I’m putting an electric band together. It’s not ready yet, and these—things like this keep coming up, so I have to just busk it. So I’m going to sing a song now you might know. It’s called “Imagine.” [singing “Imagine”] Two, three, four — “Imagine there’s no heaven. It’s easy if you try. No hell below us; above us, only sky — Imagine all the people, living for today —”
AMY GOODMAN: John Lennon, at the Apollo in Harlem, after the
JON WIENER: Yeah, it was a terrible day, and it’s interesting that Lennon wanted to be part of that protest, too. So, you know, New York was very important to him, and he wanted to be part of the political life of New York and part of the movement in New York, and that’s one of the reasons why it was particularly horrible that he got killed in New York, which was the city that he thought of as the center of the world, the home of the free.
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of freedom, there is a very famous image that
will be no doubt played throughout today, and that was the Bed-In. John Lennon
and Yoko Ono in
JON WIENER: 1968. Well, the first Bed-In was in
JOHN LENNON: What we’re really doing is
sending out a message to the world, mainly to the youth, especially the youth
or anybody, really, that’s interested in protesting for peace or protesting
against any forms of violence. And the things are, the
AMY GOODMAN: So this was in
JON WIENER: That’s—no, he was referring to—
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
AMY GOODMAN: And then, Jon Wiener, there’s “Give Peace a Chance.” Talk about the story behind that.
JON WIENER: Well, you know, Lennon wanted to—basically, Lennon is a
musician, a songwriter, a performer. He wanted to write a song for the
movement, and he did. It was “Give Peace a Chance.” It did become the anthem of
the antiwar movement. Half a million people sang “Give Peace a Chance” in a
demonstration at the
PETE SEEGER: Well, in November 1969, I guess
I faced the biggest audience I had ever faced in my entire life. Hundreds of
thousands, how many, I don’t know, but it stretches as far as the eye can see,
up the hillside and over the hill, past the
He had only heard it once before, but I had, in the back of my mind, I might have to try it. I had only heard the song myself a few days before. And I confess, when I first heard it, I didn’t think much of it. I thought, ‘Well, that’s kind of a nothing of a song. It doesn’t go anyplace, does it?’ I heard a young woman sing it at the peace rally. “All we are saying is give peace a chance.” She gave it a kind of an oom-pa-pa oom-pa-pa waltz, like a German band. I don’t know if John Lennon’s record had that or not. I never heard his record. As a matter of fact, I’ve hardly ever heard any of his records. I admired the guy, the little I heard. I had never heard this song, except as the young woman sang it to me a few days earlier.
JON WIENER: And did you have the impression that everybody who was there already knew it?
PETE SEEGER: I didn’t know if they had ever heard it before, but I decided to try singing it over and over again until they did know it. Well, Kirk and I started singing this, and after about a minute or so, I realized that it was still growing. Sure enough, Peter, Paul, and Mary jumped up to our left and started joining in on another microphone and giving us a little more instrumental and harmony background. Couple of more minutes, Mitch Miller hops up on the stage to our right and starts waving his arms. And I realized it was getting better and better, as more and more people were able to latch onto it, because it was so slow.
And then, they started swaying their bodies in time, and banners and flags would sway to the left and right in a big slow ballet. If you can imagine several hundred thousands of people moving their bodies. Parents had their small children on their shoulders. And it was a tremendously moving thing to realize his song was finally getting through, where not a single other song of the day had really gotten people to join in on it.
JON WIENER: Pete, what do you think about the politics of “Give Peace a Chance”?
PETE SEEGER: Well, undoubtedly, some people wanted to say a lot more than that. On the other hand, history gets made when people come to the same conclusion from many different directions. And this song did hit a common denominator. There’s no doubt about it.
[“Give Peace a Chance”]
AMY GOODMAN: That was John Lennon, singing “Give Peace a Chance.” Jon
Wiener, can you talk about John Lennon in the Beatles, and their political
views and how the
JON WIENER: Well, you know…there was a tension within the Beatles that we only found out about later, where Paul McCartney basically was an entertainer who wanted to sing songs that would delight and thrill people. John Lennon, and also George Harrison, were much more interested in the world and what was going on and how they could be part of what was going on. I mean, it was an exciting time to be young. So, the Beatles struggled with this internal debate they were having.
In 1964, when they came to the
If you look at Lennon’s songs, a lot of them are about what’s going on around them. And, you know, they were spokesmen for the counterculture. They were spokesmen for psychedelic drugs. And they were spokesmen for youth rebellion against authority, in general. You know, the most important thing was that their songs were so great…if the songs weren’t so great, we wouldn’t be talking about them today. But there was more to the songs. There was an interest in engaging with the political spirit of the times that we don’t see very often in the history of pop music.
AMY GOODMAN: Jon Wiener, can you talk about Abbie Hoffman?
JON WIENER: Well, Abbie Hoffman was one of
the people that John and Yoko sought out when they arrived in
ABBIE HOFFMAN: John and Yoko did come and
look up myself and Jerry Rubin, and they wanted it known around the
We must have met at least a dozen times, and we
started to organize demonstrations at the Republican Convention, which at that
time was still in
He had—he talked sheer poetry. I mean, you totally hung on every word, and he was extremely dramatic and ran the gambit from, you know, manic excitation to sad depressive, moody states. And he just pulled off one night and just went over to the corner and in three minutes wrote a song, came back and sang it. It was quite a thing to witness.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Abbie Hoffman. Of course, Abbie Hoffman later, himself, committed suicide. Jon Wiener, this is the 25th anniversary of the death of the murder of John Lennon. Any thoughts on that, on his murder?
JON WIENER: Well, you know, the first thing we think of is who gets
AMY GOODMAN: Jon Wiener, author of Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files. You can visit his website at LennonFBIFiles.com or go to our website at DemocracyNow.org. We will link to all. In 1981, Jon Wiener produced a two-hour documentary for Pacifica Radio called John Lennon: The Political and the Personal. Special thanks to the Pacifica Radio Archives.
[The second tribute we are reproducing for the interest of our readers was posted on the web site CounterPunch.org]
A 1971 Interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono by Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn
CounterPunch Editors' Note: It was twenty-five years ago
today that John Lennon was murdered outside the Dakota building on Central Park
Tariq Ali: Your latest record and your recent public statements, especially the interviews in Rolling Stone magazine, suggest that your views are becoming increasingly radical and political. When did this start to happen?
John Lennon: I've always been politically minded, you know, and against the status quo. It's pretty basic when you're brought up, like I was, to hate and fear the police as a natural enemy and to despise the army as something that takes everybody away and leaves them dead somewhere.
I mean, it's just a basic working class thing, though it begins to wear off when you get older, get a family, and get swallowed up in the system.
In my case I've never NOT been political, though religion tended to overshadow it in my acid days; that would be around '65 or '66. And that religion was directly the result of all that superstar shit—religion was an outlet for my repression. I thought, “Well, there's something else to life, isn't there? This isn't it, surely?”
But I was always political in a way, you know. In the two books I wrote, even though they were written in a sort of Joycean gobbledegook, there's many knocks at religion and there is a play about a worker and a capitalist. I've been satirizing the system since my childhood. I used to write magazines in school and hand them around.
I was very conscious of class, they would say with a chip on my shoulder, because I knew what happened to me and I knew about the class repression coming down on us—it was a fucking fact but in the hurricane Beatle world it got left out; I got farther away from reality for a time.
TA: What did you think was the reason for the success of your sort of music?
JL: Well, at the time it was thought that the workers had broken through, but I realize in retrospect that it's the same phony deal they gave the Blacks; it was just like they allowed Blacks to be runners or boxers or entertainers. That's the choice they allow you—now the outlet is being a pop star, which is really what I'm saying on the album in “Working Class Hero.” As I told Rolling Stone, it’s the same people who have the power, the class system didn't change one little bit.
Of course, there are a lot of people walking around with long hair now and some trendy middle class kids in pretty clothes. But nothing changed except that we all dressed up a bit, leaving the same bastards running everything.
Robin Blackburn: Of course, class is something the American rock groups haven't tackled yet.
JL: Because they're all middle class and bourgeois and they don't want to
show it. They're scared of the workers, actually, because the workers seem
mainly right-wing in
TA: When did you start breaking out of the role imposed on you as a Beatle?
JL: Even during the Beatle heyday I tried to go against it; so did
George. We went to
But you've got to
remember that I'd always felt repressed. We were all so pressurized that there
was hardly any chance of expressing ourselves, especially working at that rate,
touring continually and always kept in a cocoon of myths and dreams. It's
pretty hard when you are Caesar and everyone is telling you how wonderful you
are and they are giving you all the goodies and the girls, it's pretty hard to
break out of that, to say, “Well, I don't want to be king, I want to be real.”
So in its way the second political thing I did was to say “The Beatles are
bigger than Jesus.” That really broke the scene. I nearly got shot in
The continual awareness
of what was going on made me feel ashamed I wasn't saying anything. I burst out
because I could no longer play that game any more, it
was just too much for me. Of course, going to
RB: Wasn't there a double charge to what you were doing right from the beginning?
Yoko Ono: You were always very direct.
JL: Yes, well, the first thing we did was to proclaim our Liverpoolness to the world, and say, “It's all right to
TA: In a way you were even thinking about politics when you seemed to be knocking revolution?
JL: Ah, sure, “Revolution.” There were two versions of that song, 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. There was a third version that was just abstract, musique concrete, kind of loops and that, people screaming. I thought I was painting in sound a picture of revolution—but I made a mistake, you know. The mistake was that it was anti-revolution.
On the version released
as a single I said, “when you talk about destruction
you can count me out.” I didn't want to get killed. I didn't really know that
much about the Maoists, but I just knew that they seemed to be so few and yet
they painted themselves green and stood in front of the police waiting to get
picked off. I just thought it was unsubtle, you know. I thought the original
Communist revolutionaries coordinated themselves a bit better and didn't go
around shouting about it. That was how I felt—I was really asking a question.
As someone from the working class I was always interested in
At one time I was so much involved in the religious bullshit that I used to go around calling myself a Christian Communist, but as Janov says, religion is legalized madness. It was therapy that stripped away all that and made me feel my own pain.
RB: This analyst you went to, what's his name...
RB: His ideas seem to have something in common with Laing in that he doesn't want to reconcile people to their misery, to adjust them to the world, but rather to make them face up to its causes?
JL: Well, his thing is to feel the pain that's accumulated inside you ever since your childhood. I had to do it to really kill off all the religious myths. In the therapy you really feel every painful moment of your life—it's excruciating, you are forced to realize that your pain, the kind that makes you wake up afraid with your heart pounding, is really yours and not the result of somebody up in the sky. It's the result of your parents and your environment.
As I realized this it all started to fall into place. This therapy forced me to have done with all the God shit. All of us growing up have come to terms with too much pain. Although we repress it, it's still there. The worst pain is that of not being wanted, of realizing your parents do not need you in the way you need them.
When I was a child I experienced moments of not wanting to see the ugliness, not wanting to see not being wanted. This lack of love went into my eyes and into my mind. Janov doesn't just talk to you about this but makes you feel it—once you've allowed yourself to feel again, you do most of the work yourself.
When you wake up and your heart is going like the clappers or your back feels strained, or you develop some other hang-up, you should let your mind go to the pain and the pain itself will regurgitate the memory which originally caused you to suppress it in your body. In this way the pain goes to the right channel instead of being repressed again, as it is if you take a pill or a bath, saying “Well, I'll get over it.” Most people channel their pain into God or masturbation or some dream of making it.
The therapy is like a very slow acid trip which happens naturally in your body. It is hard to talk about, you know, because—you feel “I am pain,” and it sounds sort of arbitrary, but pain to me now has a different meaning because of having physically felt all these extraordinary repressions. It was like taking gloves off, and feeling your own skin for the first time.
It's a bit of a drag to say so, but I don't think you can understand this unless you've gone through it—though I try to put some of it over on the album. But for me at any rate it was all part of dissolving the God trip or father-figure trip. Facing up to reality instead of always looking for some kind of heaven.
RB: Do you see the family in general as the source of these repressions?
JL: Mine is an extreme case, you know. My father and mother split and I never saw my father until I was 20, nor did I see much more of my mother. But Yoko had her parents there and it was the same...
YO: Perhaps one feels more pain when parents are there. It's like when you're hungry, you know, it's worse to get a symbol of a cheeseburger than no cheeseburger at all. It doesn't do you any good, you know. I often wish my mother had died so that at least I could get some people's sympathy. But there she was, a perfectly beautiful mother.
JL: And Yoko's family were middle-class Japanese but it's all the same repression. Though I think middle-class people have the biggest trauma if they have nice imagey parents, all smiling and dolled up. They are the ones who have the biggest struggle to say, “Goodbye mummy, goodbye daddy.”
TA: What relation to your music has all this got?
JL: Art is only a way of expressing pain. I mean the reason Yoko does such far out stuff is that it's a far out kind of pain she went through.
RB: A lot of Beatle songs used to be about childhood...
JL: Yeah, that would mostly be me...
RB: Though they were very good, there was always a missing element...
JL: That would be reality, that would be the missing element. Because I was never really wanted. The only reason I am a star is because of my repression. Nothing else would have driven me through all that if I was “normal”...
YO: ...and happy...
JL: The only reason I went for that goal is that I wanted to say: “Now, mummy-daddy, will you love me?”
TA: But then you had success beyond most people's wildest dreams...
JL: Oh, Jesus Christ, it was a complete oppression. I mean we had to go through humiliation upon humiliation with the middle classes and showbiz and Lord Mayors and all that. They were so condescending and stupid. Everybody trying to use us. It was a special humiliation for me because I could never keep my mouth shut and I'd always have to be drunk or pilled to counteract this pressure. It was really hell...
YO: It was depriving him of any real experience, you know...
JL: It was very miserable. I mean apart from the first flush of making
it—the thrill of the first number one record, the first trip to
I began to realize that we are all oppressed, which is why I would like to do something about it, though I'm not sure where my place is.
RB: Well, in any case, politics and culture are linked, aren't they? I mean, workers are repressed by culture not guns at the moment...
JL: ...they're doped...
RB: And the culture that's doping them is one the artist can make or break...
JL: That's what I'm trying to do on my albums and in these interviews. What I'm trying to do is to influence all the people I can influence. All those who are still under the dream and just put a big question mark in their mind. The acid dream is over, that is what I'm trying to tell them.
RB: Even in the past, you know, people would use Beatle songs and give them new words. “Yellow Submarine,” for instance, had a number of versions. One that strikers used to sing began “We all live on bread and margarine”; at LSE we had a version that began “We all live in a Red LSE.”
JL: I like that. And I enjoyed it when football crowds in the early days
would sing “All together now”—that was another one. I was also pleased when the
RB: We only have a few revolutionary songs and they were composed in the 19th century. Do you find anything in our musical traditions which could be used for revolutionary songs?
JL: When I started, rock and roll itself was the basic revolution to
people of my age and situation. We needed something loud and clear to break
through all the unfeeling and repression that had been coming down on us kids.
We were a bit conscious to begin with of being imitation Americans. But we
delved into the music and found that it was half white country and western and
half Black rhythm and blues. Most of the songs came from Europe and
Though I must say the more interesting songs to me were the Black ones because they were more simple. They sort of said, “Shake your arse, or your prick,” which was an innovation really. And then there were the field songs, mainly expressing the pain they were in. They couldn't express themselves intellectually so they had to say in a very few words what was happening to them. And then there was the city blues and a lot of that was about sex and fighting.
A lot of this was self-expression, but only in the last few years have they expressed themselves completely with Black Power, like Edwin Starr making war records. Before that many Black singers were still laboring under that problem of God; it was often “God will save us.” But right through, the Blacks were singing directly and immediately about their pain, and also about sex, which is why I like it.
RB: You say country and western music derived from European folk songs. Aren't these folk songs sometimes pretty dreadful stuff, all about losing and being defeated?
JL: As kids we were all opposed to folk songs because they were so
middle-class. It was all college students with big scarfs
and a pint of beer in their hands singing folk songs in what we call la-di-da voices—“I worked in a mine in New-cast-le” and all
that shit. There were very few real folk singers you know, though I liked
Dominic Behan a bit and there was some good stuff to
be heard in
But mostly folk music is
people with fruity voices trying to keep alive something old and dead. It's all
a bit boring, like ballet: a minority thing kept going by a minority group.
Today's folk song is rock and roll. Although it happened to emanate from
RB: Your album, Yoko, seems to fuse avant-garde modern music with rock. I'd like to put an idea to you I got from listening to it. You integrate everyday sounds, like that of a train, into a musical pattern. This seems to demand an aesthetic measure of everyday life, to insist that art should not be imprisoned in the museums and galleries, doesn't it?
YO: Exactly. I want to incite people to loosen their oppression by giving them something to work with, to build on. They shouldn't be frightened of creating themselves—that's why I make things very open, with things for people to do, like in my book [Grapefruit].
Because basically there are two types of people in the world: people who are confident because they know they have the ability to create, and then people who have been demoralized, who have no confidence in themselves because they have been told they have no creative ability, but must just take orders. The Establishment likes people who take no responsibility and cannot respect themselves.
RB: I suppose workers' control is about that...
JL: Haven't they tried out something like that in
TA: Well, they have; they did try to break with the Stalinist pattern. But instead of allowing uninhibited workers' control, they added a strong dose of political bureaucracy. It tended to smother the initiative of the workers, and they also regulated the whole system by a market mechanism which bred new inequalities between one region and another.
JL: It seems that all revolutions end up with a personality cult—even the
Chinese seem to need a father-figure. I expect this happens in
RB: That's a pretty cool idea—the Working Class becomes its own Hero. As long as it was not a new comforting illusion, as long as there was a real workers' power. If a capitalist or bureaucrat is running your life then you need to compensate with illusions.
YO: The people have got to trust in themselves.
TA: That's the vital point. The working class must be instilled with a
feeling of confidence in itself. This can't be done just by propaganda—the workers
must move, take over their own factories and tell the capitalists to bugger
off. This is what began to happen in May 1968 in
JL: But the Communist Party wasn't up to that, was it?
RB: No, they weren't. With 10 million workers on strike they could have led one of those huge demonstrations that occurred in the centre of Paris into a massive occupation of all government buildings and installations, replacing de Gaulle with a new institution of popular power like the Commune or the original Soviets—that would have begun a real revolution, but the French CP was scared of it. They preferred to deal at the top instead of encouraging the workers to take the initiative themselves...
JL: Great, but there's a problem about that here you know. All the revolutions have happened when a Fidel or Marx or Lenin or whatever, who were intellectuals, were able to get through to the workers. They got a good pocket of people together and the workers seemed to understand that they were in a repressed state. They haven't woken up yet here, they still believe that cars and tellies are the answer. You should get these left-wing students out to talk with the workers, you should get the school-kids involved with The Red Mole.
TA: You're quite right, we have been trying to do that and we should do more. This new Industrial Relations Bill the Government is trying to introduce is making more and more workers realize what is happening...
JL: I don't think that bill can work. I don't think they can enforce it. I don't think the workers will cooperate with it. I thought the Wilson Government was a big let-down but this Heath lot are worse. The underground is being harassed, the Black militants can't even live in their own homes now, and they're selling more arms to the South Africans. Like Richard Neville said, there may be only an inch of difference between Wilson and Heath but it's in that inch that we live...
TA: I don't know about that; Labour brought in racialist immigration policies, supported the Vietnam war and were hoping to bring in new legislation against the unions.
RB: It may be true that we live in the inch of difference between Labour and Conservative, but so long as we do we'll be impotent and unable to change anything. If Heath is forcing us out of that inch, maybe he's doing us a good turn without meaning to...
JL: Yes, I've thought about that, too. This putting us in a corner so we have to find out what is coming down on other people. I keep on reading the Morning Star [the Communist newspaper] to see if there's any hope, but it seems to be in the 19th century; it seems to be written for dropped-out, middle-aged liberals.
We should be trying to reach the young workers because that's when you're most idealistic and have least fear.
Somehow the revolutionaries must approach the workers because the workers won't approach them. But it's difficult to know where to start; we've all got a finger in the dam. The problem for me is that as I have become more real, I've grown away from most working-class people—you know, what they like is Engelbert Humperdinck. It's the students who are buying us now, and that's the problem. Now The Beatles are four separate people, we don't have the impact we had when we were together...
RB: Now you're trying to swim against the stream of bourgeois society, which is much more difficult.
JL: Yes, they own all the newspapers and they control all distribution and promotion. When we came along there was only Decca, Philips, and EMI who could really produce a record for you. You had to go through the whole bureaucracy to get into the recording studio. You were in such a humble position, you didn't have more than 12 hours to make a whole album, which is what we did in the early days.
Even now it's the same; if you're an unknown artist you're lucky to get an hour in a studio. It's a hierarchy, and if you don't have hits, you don't get recorded again. And they control distribution. We tried to change that with Apple but in the end we were defeated. They still control everything. EMI killed our album “Two Virgins” because they didn't like it. With the last record they've censored the words of the songs printed on the record sleeve. Fucking ridiculous and hypocritical—they have to let me sing it but they don't dare let you read it. Insanity.
RB: Though you reach fewer people now, perhaps the effect can be more concentrated.
JL: Yes, I think that could be true. To begin with, working class people reacted against our openness about sex. They are frightened of nudity; they're repressed in that way as well as others. Perhaps they thought, “Paul is a good lad, he doesn't make trouble.”
Also when Yoko and I got
married, we got terrible racialist letters—you know, warning me that she would
slit my throat. Those mainly came from Army people living in
Now workers are more friendly to us, so perhaps it's changing. It seems to me that the students are now half-awake enough to try and wake up their brother workers. If you don't pass on your own awareness, then it closes down again. That is why the basic need is for the students to get in with the workers and convince them that they are not talking gobbledegook. And of course it's difficult to know what the workers are really thinking because the capitalist press always only quotes mouthpieces like Vic Feather* anyway. [Ed. Note: Vic Feather (1908-76) was General Secretary of the TUC from 1969-73.]
So the only thing is to talk to them directly, especially the young workers. We've got to start with them because they know they're up against it. That's why I talk about school on the album. I'd like to incite people to break the framework, to be disobedient in school, to stick their tongues out, to keep insulting authority.
YO: We are very lucky really, because we can create our own reality, John and me, but we know the important thing is to communicate with other people.
JL: The more reality we face, the more we realize that unreality is the main program of the day. The more real we become, the more abuse we take, so it does radicalize us in a way, like being put in a corner. But it would be better if there were more of us.
YO: We mustn't be traditional in the way we communicate with people—especially with the Establishment. We should surprise people by saying new things in an entirely new way. Communication of that sort can have a fantastic power so long as you don't do only what they expect you to do.
RB: Communication is vital for building a movement, but in the end it's powerless unless you also develop popular force.
YO: I get very sad when I think about
TA: No ruling class in the whole of history has given up power voluntarily and I don't see that changing.
YO: But violence isn't just a conceptual thing, you know. I saw a program
about this kid who had come back from
JL: He didn't want to face the truth, he didn't want to think it had all been a waste...
YO: But think of the violence, it could happen to your kids...
RB: But Yoko, people who struggle against oppression find themselves
attacked by those who have a vested interest in nothing changing, those who
want to protect their power and wealth. Look at the people in Bogside and Falls Road in
YO: That's why one should try to tackle these problems before a situation like that happens.
JL: Yes, but what do you do when it does happen, what do you do?
RB: Popular violence against their oppressors is always justified. It cannot be avoided.
YO: But in a way the new music showed things could be transformed by new channels of communication.
JL: Yes, but as I said, nothing really changed.
YO: Well, something changed and it was for the better. All I'm saying is that perhaps we can make a revolution without violence.
JL: But you can't take power without a struggle...
TA: That's the crucial thing.
JL: Because, when it comes to the nitty-gritty, they won't let the people have any power; they'll give all the rights to perform and to dance for them, but no real power...
YO: The thing is, even after the revolution, if people don't have any trust in themselves, they'll get new problems.
JL: After the revolution you have the problem of keeping things going, of sorting out all the different views. It's quite natural that revolutionaries should have different solutions, that they should split into different groups and then reform, that's the dialectic, isn't it—but at the same time they need to be united against the enemy, to solidify a new order. I don't know what the answer is; obviously Mao is aware of this problem and keeps the ball moving.
RB: The danger is that once a revolutionary state has been created, a new conservative bureaucracy tends to form around it. This danger tends to increase if the revolution is isolated by imperialism and there is material scarcity.
JL: Once the new power has taken over they have to establish a new status quo just to keep the factories and trains running.
RB: Yes, but a repressive bureaucracy doesn't necessarily run the factories or trains any better than the workers could under a system of revolutionary democracy.
JL: Yes, but we all have bourgeois instincts within us, we all get tired
and feel the need to relax a bit. How do you keep everything going and keep up
revolutionary fervor after you've achieved what you set out to achieve? Of
course Mao has kept them up to it in
But I've been reading Khrushchev Remembers. I know he's a bit of a lad himself—but he seemed to think that making a religion out of an individual was bad; that doesn't seem to be part of the basic Communist idea. Still people are people—that's the difficulty.
If we took over
RB: ...In Britain unless we can create a new popular power-and here that would basically mean workers' power—really controlled by, and answerable to, the masses, then we couldn't make the revolution in the first place. Only a really deep-rooted workers' power could destroy the bourgeois state.
YO: That's why it will be different when the younger generation takes over.
JL: I think it wouldn't take much to get the youth here really going. You'd have to give them free rein to attack the local councils or to destroy the school authorities, like the students who break up the repression in the universities. It's already happening, though people have got to get together more.
And the women are very important too. We can't have a revolution that doesn't involve and liberate women. It's so subtle the way you're taught male superiority.
It took me quite a long time to realize that my maleness was cutting off certain areas for Yoko. She's a red hot liberationist and was quick to show me where I was going wrong, even though it seemed to me that I was just acting naturally. That's why I'm always interested to know how people who claim to be radical treat women.
RB: There's always been at least as much male chauvinism on the left as anywhere else—though the rise of women's liberation is helping to sort that out.
JL: It's ridiculous. How can you talk about power to the people unless you realize the people is both sexes.
YO: You can't love someone unless you are in an equal position with them. A lot of women have to cling to men out of fear or insecurity, and that's not love—basically that's why women hate men...
JL: ...and vice versa...
YO: So if you have a slave around the house, how can you expect to make a revolution outside it? The problem for women is that if we try to be free, then we naturally become lonely, because so many women are willing to become slaves, and men usually prefer that. So you always have to take the chance: “Am I going to lose my man?” It's very sad.
JL: Of course, Yoko was well into liberation before I met her. She'd had to fight her way through a man's world—the art world is completely dominated by men—so she was full of revolutionary zeal when we met. There was never any question about it: we had to have a 50-50 relationship or there was no relationship, I was quick to learn. She did an article about women in Nova more than two years back in which she said, “Woman is the nigger of the world.”
RB: Of course we all live in an imperialist country that is exploiting
JL: The Russians put it out that we were capitalist robots, which we were I suppose...
RB: They were pretty stupid not to see it was something different.
YO: Let's face it, Beatles was 20th-century folksong in the framework of capitalism; they couldn't do anything different if they wanted to communicate within that framework.
RB: I was working in
JL: Well, I hope they see that rock and roll is not the same as Coca-Cola. As we get beyond the dream this should be easier: that's why I'm putting out more heavy statements now and trying to shake off the teeny-bopper image.
I want to get through to the right people, and I want to make what I have to say very simple and direct.
RB: Your latest album sounds very simple to begin with, but the lyrics, tempo, and melody build up into a complexity one only gradually becomes aware of. Like the track “My mummy's dead” echoes the nursery song “Three blind mice” and it's about a childhood trauma.
JL: The tune does; it was that sort of feeling, almost like a Haiku poem.
I recently got into Haiku in
Yoko was showing me some of these Haiku in the original. The difference between them and Longfellow is immense. Instead of a long flowery poem the Haiku would say “Yellow flower in white bowl on wooden table,” which gives you the whole picture, really...
TA: How do you think we can destroy the capitalist system here in
JL: I think only by making the workers aware of the really unhappy position they are in, breaking the dream they are surrounded by. They think they are in a wonderful, free-speaking country. They've got cars and tellies and they don't want to think there's anything more to life. They are prepared to let the bosses run them, to see their children fucked up in school. They're dreaming someone else's dream, it's not even their own. They should realize that the Blacks and the Irish are being harassed and repressed and that they will be next.
As soon as they start being aware of all that, we can really begin to do something. The workers can start to take over. Like Marx said: “To each according to his need.” I think that would work well here. But we'd also have to infiltrate the army too, because they are well trained to kill us all.
We've got to start all this from where we ourselves are oppressed. I think it's false, shallow, to be giving to others when your own need is great. The idea is not to comfort people, not to make them feel better, but to make them feel worse, to constantly put before them the degradations and humiliations they go through to get what they call a living wage.
[Robin Blackburn, a frequent contributor to CounterPunch, is the former editor of The New Left Review and author of the excellent history of the slave trade, The Making of New World Slavery, and the new book from Verso Banking on Death: the Future of Pensions.]
A Third Tribute to Lennon—from the Marxist.com Web Site
[Among the many tributes paid to John Lennon today, the following one adds some interesting dimensions, and we think it worth reproducing.]
Why John Lennon stood out from the rest
by Steve Jones
The 25th anniversary of the death of former Beatle John Lennon in New York on December 8, 1980, following a shooting incident involving a deranged fan, will no doubt be marked with considerable interest and media attention by many around the world. The mass outpouring of grief which following his death has, for a rock star, only been matched—in the U.S. anyway—by that for Elvis Presley (1977) and Jerry Garcia (1995) and to a lesser extent Bob Marley and Kurt Cobain.
Many other rock and pop stars have breathed their last over the years, some without anyone really noticing, yet the passing of the above individuals was most certainly noticed. What has linked them together was the fact that their deaths were untimely and that they were seen to be, in one way or another, icons whose lives touched a chord in people.
As a former Beatle, Lennon’s death was never going to be a non-event, even if he had died in old age of natural causes, yet the effect his death had on people—and still has—cannot be explained simply by this claim to fame. Nor can it be explained away by the success of his solo career—because compared to many it was not that successful. His early solo albums were largely experimental and only reached a limited market. Later albums such as “Imagine” and “Mind Games” were more mainstream and sold well, but probably do not exist in many people’s current record collections. He had some success with singles but, again, only one song has remained in serious circulation, “Imagine.” After 1975 he released no recordings or did any concerts, going into virtual retirement until shortly before his death, when he released the moderately successful “Double Fantasy” album.
So in many ways it was the man rather than the music which people chose to mourn. As a Beatle, Lennon was seen as being the anti-establishment one, whose songs often revealed a hidden depth as against the happy, commercial one (Paul), the cheeky chappy one (Ringo), or the mystic nutter one (George). He would also be the first Beatle to clearly take up social and political causes. Following the start of his relationship with artist Yoko Ono in 1968, he started an antiwar campaign—a “bed-in!’—and released the anthem “Give Peace a Chance.”
Later songs would deal with racism,
However, even in retirement he remained a strong campaigner for peace and social justice. He had some problems squaring this with his massive personal wealth which he discussed in an interview in Playboy magazine:
PLAYBOY: On the subject of your own wealth, the New York Post recently said you admitted to being worth over $150,000,000 (1980) and…
LENNON: We never admitted anything.
PLAYBOY: The Post said you had.
LENNON: What the Post says—OK, so we are rich; so what?
PLAYBOY: The question is, How does that jibe with your political philosophies? You’re supposed to be socialists, aren’t you?
This dilemma apart, Lennon’s reputation stands as an idealist whose views as a campaigner for a better society remain untarnished even by decades of cynical “reassessments.” Every year, at this time, his most commercially successful song “Imagine” gets played time and again on the radio. But it is not simply a nice, Christmas song full of meaningless platitudes; rather it expresses a world outlook which many of us would agree with:
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...
At a time when the rock and pop world seemed to be obsessed with making money and having a good time and to hell with the rest, and the political world was about to be dominated by the reactionary double act of Thatcher and Reagan, Lennon was seen to be holding out against this lack of humanity. His message was one of unity, peace, and a better future for all—a message which many youth, especially, responded to in 1980 and still do 25 years later:
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one
It is a message that requires us to mobilize the youth and workers of the world to defeat imperialism and capitalism and build a socialist future that will make these lyrics a reality.