Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Come Together: John Lennon In His Time

by Jon Wiener

Engagingly written by a professional historian, Come Together recreates two decades of rock and rebellion, from the formation of the Beatles in 1960 to the assassination of John Lennon in 1980.

"By setting Lennon squarely within his era, Wiener's study is exemplary. Lennon does not appear 'larger than life,' but as passionately involved in it." - Michael S. Kimmel, Newsday

"Stands out as one of the few [books] that don't want to deify, dish the dirt about or otherwise exploit the slain former Beatle. A sympathetic documentary history of Lennon's political thinking (which went through many phases), Come Together says that during the counterculture's flowering, rock music had real clout in the American political arena. Certainly some government officials thought so, or they wouldn't have initiated deportation proceedings after Lennon aligned himself with the activist left. Jon Wiener . . . obtained twenty-six pounds of FBI and immigration and Naturalization Service files on Lennon under the Freedom of Information Act, and there is some grim humor in his chapter about this material." - Stephen Holden, New York Times Book Review

"Documents the campaign of surveillance and harassment against Lennon by the FBI and the involvement of the Nixon Administration at the highest levels in ordering and overseeing this campaign. All the deliberate abuses of power revealed in the Watergate scandal make their appearance here as well." - Ian McMahan, American Book Review

"When history professor Jon Wiener made a Freedom of Information request to the federal government for the late John Lennon's file, he could hardly have hoped for a richer payoff." - Time

JON WIENER is a member of the history department at the University of California at Irvine and the author of Social Origins of the New South.


"The Dream Is Over"

Is rock revolutionary? A burning issue not so long ago, today this question sounds absurd. But it was not so clear in the late sixties that rock was compatible with the status quo. Rock was the music of young people who opposed injustice and oppression. The war in Vietnam and the antidrug laws stood for the injustices of America, and the rock world rallied against them. Rock as a whole was at least antiestablishment, and much of the rock world openly defied and ridiculed the nation's political and corporate leaders.

Time magazine's claims for the political significance of rock were as strong as those made in the underground press. After half a million young people turned up at the Woodstock festival, Time explained rock was "not just a particular form of pop, but . . . one long symphony of protest . . . basically moral . . . the proclamation of a new set of values . . . the anthem of revolution." The FBI files on John Lennon indicate that the Nixon administration held the same view.

The clearest sign that something was wrong with this picture came in 1969, a year when antiwar demonstrators in many cities were being arrested and beaten by police. That year Columbia Records ran a series of ads in underground newspapers headlined "The Man can't bust our music." Ramparts, the New Left's glossy muckraking magazine, explored the issues in an article titled "Rock for Sale." It pointed out that Columbia, among others, was finding the youth "revolution" a source of impressive profits. Rock's proportion of Columbia's sales had increased from 15 percent in 1965 to 60 percent four years later.

The New York Times reported that "several large establishment-oriented corporations are interested in cashing in on the youth market that Woodstock proved exists. These firms are hiring highly paid youth consultants to advise them on forthcoming trends." The most important intermediary between the counterculture and the corporations was Rolling Stone, founded by Jann Wenner in 1967 (with John Lennon in How I Won the War on the first cover), which reached a circulation of a quarter of a million by 1970 and bought the back page of the New York Times to advertise, "If you are a corporate executive trying to understand what is happening to youth, you cannot afford to be without Rolling Stone."

Despite this evidence, those who concluded that rock was nothing more than a capitalist commodity were wrong. The corporate world found that it could not shape youth culture the way it was used to shaping consumer society. In 1967 the record companies had been taken by surprise by the triumph of Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart" and Grace Slick's "White Rabbit." Scrambling to regain control of pop music, they set out to find a successor to this "San Francisco sound," as they dubbed it. San Francisco: lots of colleges, students, bands, something like . . . Boston! Thus MGM Records launched an expensive promotion of the "Boss-town sound."

The effort met with disaster. Young people ignored MGM's claim that Ultimate Spinach was 1968's successor to Big Brother and the Holding Company. Jon Landau led the campaign of refusal, writing a series of scathing reviews in Rolling Stone and demonstrating the self-consciousness and confidence of the counterculture.

Hearst Publications launched a magazine in 1968 aimed at the youth audience. Eye ran John Lennon on the cover, Bob Dylan inside, and an article titled "10 Students Rebels Explain Their Cause." Nevertheless the magazine quickly failed. Heart learned the same lesson that MGM Records had: the counterculture had partial autonomy from corporate domination.

The record companies concluded that they had to advertise in the underground press. Some radicals feared that the undergrounds were being co-opted by the ads, but they needn't have worried. Underground papers did not change their editorial content to get ads, and readers demonstrated an impressive ability to resist being manipulated by the companies. (This situation also precipitated the papers' downfall a couple of years later, when the FBI orchestrated the withdrawal of corporate advertising from the radical newspapers.)

During the sixties black music reached its largest white audience in history. This simple fact marks one of the most significant political dimensions of the counterculture. Fifties rock had led in breaking down some of the racial barriers in America. But not until the sixties did white youth celebrate a black superstar - Jimi Hendrix. Never before had so many whites danced to black music, like the Supremes' "You Keep Me Hangin' On" and Martha and the Vandellas' "Nowhere to Run."

The contrast to the Reagan years could not be more striking. In 1981 and 1982 there were virtually no black musicians played on America's rock stations, and in 1983 there were two - Michael Jackson and Prince. Many stations that had once been leaders of counterculture rock found that on the rare occasions when they played black artists, irate listeners called demanding that the "nigger music" be taken off the air. The stations too often complied.

All this suggests that no simple equation can be drawn between rock and radicalism; that rock is a medium capable of carrying contradictory politics; that the corporations have tried to dominate it, but have not consistently succeeded.

Rock could become a real political force, however, when it was linked to real political organizing. The 1972 anti-Nixon tour John Lennon planned with Jerry Rubin and Rennie Davis was intended to forge that link. Many others worked on similar projects, including radio stations like Boston's WBCN, which mixed music that challenged the status quo with news about protest movements.

In this undertaking, making music posed a problem: what could politically radical rock sound like? What could it be as music? Elephant's Memory was a movement bar band, playing Chuck Berry riffs and singing left-wing lyrics. That was good for raising people's spirits, and for the party after the demonstration. The MC5, which John Sinclair managed, wanted more: they wanted their music to be radical in form. They developed an early version of punk, anticipating by several years the elemental rage of the Clash. The 1970 album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band represented another possibility.

As a politically committed artist, John fought a destructive as well as a creative battle. Beginning in December 1970 with the release of Plastic Ono Band and his historic Rolling Stone interview Lennon Remembers, he worked to destroy his own status as a celebrity, to attack the Beatles as a cultural ideal of joy and fun. He described them as commodities created by a capitalist industry, he exposed their alienation as artists, he portrayed them as "a contradictory and doomed social institution within an exploiting culture," as New Left activist Todd Gitlin wrote at the time. Along with this work of destruction came a struggle to create new music, music that would bring his experience together with the larger issues of the day. With Plastic Ono Band John took rock music across a threshold, beyond the themes of youth rebellion, beyond the established forms of protest music, toward a radical new synthesis of the personal and the political.

The album contains the song titled "God," in which John declares that he doesn't believe in Jesus, in Kennedy, in Buddha, in Elvis; the litany goes on, until he sings "I don't believe in Beatles," when the music suddenly ceases - but only for an instant. It ends

I was the Walrus
But now I'm John
And so dear friends
You'll just have to carry on
The dream is over

In the song John takes the chord changes of the classic rock and roll slow dance, plays them more slowly than they had ever been played before, and builds on them some of the most moving music in all of rock. "God" rejects political, religious, and cultural false consciousness. John undertakes a deliberate shattering of the illusions of the sixties, starting with the dream of the Beatles as the representation of a genuine community, a harmonious group of equals, filled with creative energy. This is a false dream, John says, and it is finished now. He can't and won't serve as our god any more; he declares that he is a person, like we are - he's just "John." For us to carry on, we need to find a way to shatter these gods outside of us, to transfer power from our mythical heroes to ourselves, to each other. In this project we are no longer his fans, but in a much more human way his "dear friends." This suggests a profound and radical truth. In one stroke it brings together the personal and the political.

This view was challenged after John's death by radical journalist Andrew Kopkind in New York's Soho News. "Long before Tom Wolfe, Lennon announced the advent of the Me Generation, declaring his disbelief in every cause, cult hero and movement . . . 'I just believe in me,' he sang." But the litany John recites does not reject "every movement." It was carefully written to include pop heroes, liberal heroes, and the varieties of Eastern mysticism that had captured large parts of the counterculture. Political radicalism is not on the list.

In fact, the same Andrew Kopkind wrote nine years earlier one of the most thoughtful articles on the song's achievement: "What's so startling and so wrenching about the Lennon documents . . . is that they suggest a radical way out; a way to deal with dreams. Lennon's way, it seems to me, is a revival of honesty, a commitment to authenticity of feeling that overcomes real fears of self-contradiction, failure, and pain. In that sense, the value of his personal depositions . . . is not in the promulgation of a 'correct line,' but in the presentation of a real personal and public struggle to be free." Others recognized the song's significance for the New Left: Todd Gitlin, who was putting together an anthology of movement poetry, wrote, "To make private pains and struggles public, as Lennon has done, is to say, 'you can do it too.' Lennon revives the idea of leader as exemplar."

The second song on Plastic Ono Band was "Working Class Hero." In his 1970 interview Lennon Remembers, John called it "a song for the revolution. . . . It's for the people like me who are working class, . . . who are supposed to be processed into the middle class. . . . It's my experience, and I hope it's a warning to people."

Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV
And you think you're so clever and classless and free
But you're still fucking peasants as far as I can see
A working class hero is something to be . . .
If you want to be a hero, well, just follow me

In "Revolution" John had insisted on the separation of the personal from the political: "free your mind instead" of changing institutions. Here he abandons that separation and takes on the project of bringing the personal together with the political, by locating the social origins of his own personal misery. In attempting to "free his mind," he suggests, he remained a "fucking peasant."

Many people took the title "Working Class Hero" as John's affirmation of his roots. In fact, it was profoundly ironic. To be this kind of "hero," he declared, was to be destroyed as a person. John was working to escape that fate, to become a different kind of hero. John wanted to "be real," he often said. But he knew he couldn't achieve that just by being himself. His self was precisely the problem. His Beatle identity was obviously unreal. But the song declared that his pre-Beatle self, his working-class self, was also a creation of oppressive social and cultural forces. To be himself he couldn't simply rediscover his identity in his roots. He had to create his identity. To become real was to take the self as problematic, as a vast field of possibility. John was setting an example for young people who claimed the freedom to "become real" in their own ways. He was undertaking what New Left political theorist Marshall Berman identified as the politics of authenticity.

John was also undertaking a second project; exposing the social origins of suffering that people thought was purely personal and private. Through self-disclosure he hoped to achieve a critical distance from his feelings. He was seeking insight into the historical forces, reproduced in psychological form, that had shaped those feelings of suffering. Although his own experience as a superstar was unique, he was playing an exemplary role for a New Left that was just beginning to examine the personal dimension of social crisis.

John was suggesting that the personal crisis experienced by youth in the late sixties had become a political issue in its own right. He was suggesting that a radical movement had to explain how the isolation people experienced in bourgeois society could be overcome, and what "liberation" meant for personal relationships. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band sought to illuminate the intersection of history and private experience. That project, bringing together the personal and the political, lay at the heart of New Left radicalism.

John could claim "Working Class Hero" as a "revolutionary" song because it confronted the obstacles facing revolutionary movements. John explained, "The workers are dreaming someone else's dream . . . As soon as they start being aware of all that, we can really begin to do something. . . . The idea is not to comfort people, not to make them feel better, but . . . to constantly put before them the degradations and humiliations they go through to get what they call a living wage."

And in his interview Lennon Remembers, conducted just after the album was released, he expanded on his portrayal of the workers as "fucking peasants," powerless despite the appearance of change in the sixties: "The people who are in control and in power, and the class system and the whole bullshit bourgeois scene is exactly the same except that there are a lot of middle-class kids with long hair walking around in trendy clothes . . . The same bastards are in control, the same people are runnin' everything. . . . They're doing exactly the same things, selling arms to South Africa, killing blacks on the street, people are living in fucking poverty with rats crawling all over them, it's the same. It just makes you puke. And I woke up to that, too. The dream is over."

The blackness of John's political mood in that winter of 1970-71 in some ways matched that of the New Left, which had gone through the Chicago Seven trial, the invasion of Cambodia, and the Kent State killings. Despite the most massive protest in the history of American colleges and universities, the Nixon administration continued to destroy the people and countryside of Southeast Asia. Many radicals felt the same sense of powerlessness John expressed in the Rolling Stone interview. The seriousness of their commitments, and the depth of their despair, gave them a growing sense of isolation.

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