American Dreamer - John Lennon
Idealism under siege in The U.S. vs. John Lennon
By JOHN PAYNE
Wednesday, September 13, 2006 - 6:00 pm
Let them be: Persecuted peaceniks Lennon and Ono (Photo by Barrie Wentzell) ďJohn Lennon represented life, and Mr. Nixon and Mr. Bush represent death.Ē So says Gore Vidal, succinctly, in one of the many testimonials by friends and ex-foes to the former Beatle in The U.S. vs. John Lennon, which traces Lennonís life from lonely, rebellious orphan to international teenbeat idol to politically engaged fist raiser to cross-generational cultural emblem. Outwardly focused on the American governmentís persecution and attempted deportation of Lennon and his partner, Yoko Ono, for countercultural activities deemed dangerous by the Nixon administration, David Leaf and John Scheinfeldís documentary/love letter comes at a time when parallels to current affairs would seem obvious.
Leaf and Scheinfeld draw these parallels in a series of scenes that highlight Lennonís performances at political rallies and at contentious or fawning press conferences, intercut with the expected gooey-sweetie stuff between him and Ono. Itís a high-sheen, fast-moving work, which has the look, feel and sound of the VH1 broadcast it will, in fact, be in tandem with in its theatrical release. Produced with the blessing of Ono (who gave the filmmakers access to previously unseen archival footage and photos), and illustrating in vivid pictorial the remarkable detective work of Jon Wienerís book Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files, The U.S. vs. John Lennon is a gripping and moving homage that brings in some new-old faces to flank the usual suspects in telling the story of Lennon and his badgering by the FBI: Mario Cuomo, George McGovern, John Dean, a comforting Walter Cronkite, a scarily unrepentant G. Gordon Liddy and a surprisingly cogent Geraldo Rivera.
The film opens with scenes from the 1971 benefit in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for political activist John Sinclair, whoíd been sentenced to 10 years in state prison for selling two marijuana cigarettes to an undercover agent. Lennonís appearance at the concert, alongside Black Panther Bobby Seale, poet Allen Ginsberg and inaugural yuppie Jerry Rubin, was monitored by the FBI, which knew the event would draw wide attention to the Sinclair case and had planted informants in the audience. Lennon chose the event as a warm-up for a proposed whistle-stop concert tour that would follow the Nixon campaign nationwide and mix music with anti-war demonstrations. The FBIís Lennon files detail the Nixon administrationís attempts to prevent the tour from happening and to put Lennon further out of Nixon-harming way.
As a record of the intermingling of rock music with anti-war and civil rights activism in the late í60s and early í70s, the film retreads a lot of ground thatís been detailed before, particularly in Andrew Soltís 1988 documentary Imagine: John Lennon, which similarly attempted to convey the complexities of a man seriously engaged with the political and cultural tumult of his times yet increasingly conscious of his essentially limited ability, as an artist, to effect change. Leaf and Scheinfeld make a similar point in a digital-era package of artful, rapid-cut editing and enhanced picture quality on archival footage. Beefed-up audio on a well-chosen selection of Lennonís music, in both concert and studio versions, adds to the filmís considerable visceral slam.
The U.S. vs. John Lennon propagandizes somewhat by zeroing in on the open pores and shiny pates of the baddies and isolating the colorfully tailored and lovable goodness of our hero. We see, for example, a clip of Nixon telling a big whopper about the withdrawal of troops in Southeast Asia, wiping the sweat from his upper lip. Quick cut to next scene for cheap but satisfying laughs. More chilling sequences place clips of Nixon speechifying righteous and cute against images of flaming death in Vietnam, or students being battered bloody at protest rallies.
It was Lennonís engaging drollery and sense of the absurd that made his forays into direct and indirect political action to most of our liking, and often seemed like the only available human alternative to the cold proclamations of the more rigidly revolutionary types who regarded him as a mere wealthy rock boy playing at grown-up politics. And then there were those in the ostensibly progressive-minded media establishment who viewed Lennon as nothing more than a lightweight bigmouth with his head in the clouds. On that last score, The U.S. vs. John Lennon offers up the singerís famous, filmed confrontation with the ludicrously snotty New York Times writer Gloria Emerson, who calls Lennon ďdear boyĒ as he heatedly attempts to defend the role of the artist in political discourse. No devious editing required here: Although Lennon seems to lose his composure in the encounter, Emerson looks an utter clown all on her own.
When asked by a reporter why he was always in trouble, Lennon preferred a response like ďI just have one of those faces, yíknow, people never liked me face.Ē Repeatedly, he shed humorous human light on his politics, a stance that often made him appear deceptively naive about his own real political significance. That was ultimately the supposition of single-minded idealists such as Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, who, without informing Lennon, advertised his appearance at a rally outside the Republican convention in Miami in 1972, in which Lennon then refused to participate. Yet Lennon kept his cool when this kind of cynical leftist contempt was shoved his way; always, he clarified that he and Yoko were artists, not politicians, and certainly not intellectuals. And he really knew how to push a program; as he shrewdly characterized it at his and Onoís infamous ďBed-InĒ press conference, ďWeíre selliní it like soap: Peace or war, thatís the two products.Ē
Lennon also said, ďOur society is run by insane people for insane objectives, so Iím liable to be put away as insane for saying that.Ē But he wasnít put away. He was vindicated, his case played a major part in Nixonís eventual resignation, and weíre all a little bit transformed if for that reason alone. The worldís a bigger mess than itís ever been, but itís a better mess, and we have dreamers like John Lennon to thank for that.
Give Peace a Chance (1969)
Mixing the Beatle''s nonsensical bent and Ono''s art pranks, John & Yoko pulled up the covers on a Montreal hotel bed, and invited the world to join them. Amid the media hoopla surrounding their unusual peace protest, they recorded this chant with a mess of visitors that included poet Allen Ginsburg, LSD guru Timothy Leary, and comic Tommy Smothers...all name-checked in verses made up on the spot. In 1991, Sean Lennon did his own version to protest the Gulf War.
Key lyric: "Everybody''s talking about/ Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism, Ragism, Tagism/ This-ism, that-ism, is-m, is-m, is-m./ All we are saying is give peace a chance."
Yes, he wanted to work for his political ideals, and fighting for them wasn''t out of the question. But first and foremost Lennon was a peace freak, often worried about the cost that street skirmishes. Here, in one of The Beatles'' most animated rockers, he''s trying to reconcile both sides of the story.
Key Lyric: "If you''re talking ''bout destruction/ Don''t you know that you can count me out/in."
Working Class Hero (1970)
The insidious pressures of blue collar life have been documented by everyone from Hank Williams to Ani DiFranco, but this sober ballad from John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band was chilling. A stark guitar, a seething vocal -- the investigations into childhood woes that drove the rest of the disc simmer ominously here. A moral warning for all who encounter it.
Key Lyric: "There''s room at the top, they''re telling you still/ But first you must learn to smile as you kill."
I Don''t Wanna Be a Soldier (1971)
This Imagine cut sounds like a raw hangover from Lennon''s primal scream phase, explored on Plastic Ono Band songs like "Mother." The singer not only refutes the obvious abominations of war, he resists any attempt at pigeonholing his identity, whether it be sailor, lawyer, churchman or thief. The groove buries the lyric like a steamroller. Once you start serving in another man''s army, death is the only certainty.
Key lyric: "Well, I don''t wanna be a soldier mama, I don''t wanna die."
Get these and other John Lennon tracks at URGE
Power to the People (1971)
When this hard-hitting and wildly catchy anthem was released as a single in 1971, the package''s artwork showed John and Yoko, in separate photos, sporting helmets and throwing hippie-era hand signals; he a "right on" fist, she a two-fingered peace sign. And the music? Making revolution sound like a cosmopolitan house party, the singer yelps his way through a mildly funky groove that''s flecked with Jr. Walker soul sax. In typical fashion, Lennon throws a punch at class inequity.
Key Lyric: "When your man is working for nothing/ You''d better give ''em what they really own."
Lennon''s most utopian song is also his "Yesterday." It''s been revisited by artists as diverse as Andy Williams, Madonna, and right after 9/11, Neil Young. Lennon took many of the lyrics from Yoko Ono''s 1964 book Grapefruit, fusing her whimsical notions into a dream of communal joy. Call it mawkish, but anybody who isn''t moved by those muffled piano chords at its opening has a very hard heart indeed.
Key lyric: "You could say I''m a dreamer/ But I''m not the only one/ I hope one day you''ll join us/ And the world will live as one."
Sunday Bloody Sunday (1972)
On an album comprised political portraits -- Black Panther Angela Davis and White Panther John Sinclair are both saluted -- John & Yoko bust out a jaunty, banjo-strummed attack on the English forces that were putting the screws to the Irish. The title refers to an infamous Derry debacle where soldiers killed 13 unarmed civil rights protesters. U2 revisited the event on their "Sunday Blood Sunday" in 1983.
Key Lyric: "All you Anglo pigs and Scotties sent to colonize the North/ You wave your bloody Union Jacks and you know what it''s worth."
Gimme Some Truth (1971)
With America bogged down in Vietnam and Richard Nixon ignoring political reality to cater to a "silent majority," Lennon unleashed this torrent of indignation. He sings with such fury that George Harrison plays his stinging solo prematurely just to let him off the hook. It''s gained renewed power in recent years, with Pearl Jam covered it on their 2003 tour and many liberal talk DJs taking it up as a theme song.
Key lyric: "No short-haired, yellow-bellied, son of Tricky Dicky/ Is gonna Mother Hubbard soft soap me/ With just a pocketful of soap."
Woman is the Nigger of the World (1972)
Yoko''s feminist ideology quickly opened Lennon''s eyes to the imbalance of power faced by half the planet. Though this tune is a knock-off musically, its button-pushing title and vivid lyrics helped fuel the fire that was burning in the gender wars. It was part of the blatantly political Sometime in New York City album, whose cover art was a mock-up of the daily paper. Yes, all the broadsides contained inside where torn from the era''s headlines.
Key Lyric: "We make her bear and raise our children/ Then we leave her flat for being a fat old mother hen."
Happy Xmas (War is Over) (1971)
In December 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono paid for billboards reading "War is Over! If You Want It" to go up in cities around the globe. The refrain pops up at the end of this carol, sung by children from the Harlem Community Choir. Lennon starts out pointing the finger at the seasonal celebrants, but it turns out all he wants from Santa Claus is a little world peace. He''s still waiting, but the song has endured.
Key lyric: "So this is Christmas/ And what have you done?"
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