John in "Nether-Nether Land"?

Michael Gerber
Ya follow?
Latest posts by Michael Gerber (see all)

Commenter CMO#9 writes (slightly edited by me):
I’ve been reading the latest issue of Vanity Fair and there is a profile of the late war correspondent Marie Colvin. The article mentions that growing up, Colvin idolized The New York Times war correspondent Gloria Emerson.

That name should ring a bell for some of you and I have no doubt that you are familiar with her brief but polarizing entry into John’s life, Michael. I believe it was either 1969 or 1970 when Ms. Emerson interviewed John (and Yoko) at Apple. She basically calls him a fool for him believing that his songs and slogans could and would change the world. I used to feel Ms. Emerson was living in the past, a relic left over from the previous generation and clinging to relevance by publicly challenging a Beatle. I think my opinion began to change with something that you (Michael) wrote on Hey Dullblog. You felt that John made the conscious decision to appear and be taken more seriously towards the end of the Beatles. He believed, as you stated, that in the future (aka now) his participation in marches and demonstrations would be remembered more fondly and admiringly than to a video of him bopping his head along to “She Loves You.” But do you agree with Ms. Emerson?

My response to this is too long for the comments, and I expect a lively back-and-forth, so I’m putting it up as a post.

Watching this again, I’d like to agree with John and Yoko—I’m a comedy writer, not a war correspondent—but I think that Gloria Emerson has been proven correct. Yoko’s point at the end is particularly wince-worthy: “Can you imagine anybody killing someone with a smile on their face?” My god. And I think it’s really interesting how defensive Lennon gets—how he stops trying to connect with her almost immediately, and starts using buzzwords like “middle-class” and “fascist.” He knows he’s playacting, but his ego won’t let him stay calm. Emerson’s no better—”dear boy” ugh—but the intervening 44 years has made her points weather better than Lennon’s. And I want to emphasize that, as a comedy writer (our era’s version of a protest singer), I want to agree with Lennon. I want to think my jokes can change the world, just like he wanted to think his songs could.

But that’s not what the history tells me. My opinion on Lennon as a peace activist is based on nothing more than public sources—I don’t claim any special insight—and it’s idiosyncratic enough to have pissed-off many of my friends in progressive politics. Most not only wholly buy the St. John myth, but see it as a model of virtuous, effective political action in the media age.

The conventional wisdom is that John and Yoko simultaneously led and followed a mass social uprising of youth which ended the Vietnam War. And that John’s future status, his icon-hood, is built on this vision of him as a Man of Peace, similar to Gandhi or Martin Luther King. I think all of this is, if not exactly bullshit, then a questionable reading of the history of the time. It’s very romantic, and very flattering to ex-Movement types now residing in academia, and neither of those things are a big deal. The big deal is that it’s derailed liberalism ever since, and turned it from a largely effective, somewhat unified political force to a largely ineffective, fractured one.

Sincere, but wrong

john and yoko war is over

Did they want it? Sure — sorta.

I think John Lennon was absolutely sincere in his desire for peace; the Bed-Ins were rooted in a psychological need that was always there, kindled by the immense upheaval he went through in 1968-69. But I think that his basic assumptions are flawed. I think he (very understandably) overestimated the power of cultural figures in general and himself in particular. I don’t think war exists just because the masses don’t demand peace; often the masses are the ones demanding war (see: WWI, Niall Ferguson notwithstanding). And I don’t think you can “sell peace like soap,” because peace—even if Lennon ever had taken the time to define it, which he never really did—isn’t a product that can be exchanged for money, it’s an idea.

The power of a “sale” comes from the money that exchanges hands; I buy a Dixie cup, and the Koch Brothers get a dime’s worth of frozen power from me. John and Yoko’s “peace” had to be defined into some real-world action injuring the baddies and/or helping the good guys. You have to not pay the salt tax, or not ride the buses, or fill the jails, or enroll in the University. John and Yoko shied away from this, and they said exactly why: people who do that get shot. So what John and Yoko were doing was performance art, not politics. As “happenings,” their activities were very successful, but they did not make the world more peaceful then or now, and had zero measurable impact on the struggle to end the Vietnam War.

Ideas are powerful, but it’s incumbent on a leader to offer that next step—“if you believe in idea x, then do y”—and if by doing y, people get x, society changes. John Lennon telling kids who are about to go to Vietnam “grow your hair for peace” is like FDR saying to people in the breadline “grow your hair for prosperity.” Ideas are something, but it’s peculiar to suddenly think that they’re the only thing, and this attitude isn’t present before the guns started ringing out. Symbolic action is, by 1969, a substitute for the leaders that aren’t there—from conventional ones like JFK and RFK, to more radical ones like MLK and Malcolm X.

By the time of the Bed-Ins, no American male of draftable age needed a John Lennon song to “Give Peace a Chance”; they had the immensely more real threat of being drafted and dying in a rice paddy. That’s what motivated the mass demonstrations from the Mobe on; and we know this because when the draft stopped, the marches stopped. (In fact, the whole thing we call “the Sixties” stopped.)

What Stopped the War?

Vietnam draft resisters

When the draft ended, so did the Movement.

So, if not John and Yoko, what stopped the War? My belief is that, after Tet, a significant number of the power elite began to believe that we could not “win” in Vietnam, and that the economic impact of an endless quagmire was too great. If we couldn’t win, and staying was bad for business, the only reason to keep fighting was an implacable fear of Communism—which detente showed was waning. The anti-war movement, while undoubtedly a powerful personal experience, and an undeniable cultural shift, doesn’t seem to have made much of a political impact. Unlike Reconstruction or Progressivism or the New Deal or Civil Rights, the New Left didn’t get anybody elected (cough George McGovern 1972 cough), and didn’t change US policy or laws. The moment the immediate personal threat was removed, its members dispersed. “The Movement” was Vietnam; and all the other parts of it, from brown rice to drug humor, were immediately and seamlessly incorporated into mainstream capitalist culture without a hiccup.

And yet, the Left still really believes in leaderless, ill-defined, transitory mass displays of opinion as effective political action. This is an immensely appealing idea that simply seems unsupported by data, either in the individual case (remember all the people who marched against the second Iraq war?) or in the mid- or longterm view of American politics. Today the US is more culturally progressive, and more politically right-wing, than it’s even been. The personal simply isn’t the political, and once you get rid of that shibboleth, things make a lot more sense.

An Idiosyncratic Commitment

Hoffman Lennon Rubin

Down in the Village with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, before things soured.

Lennon’s peace activism was entirely—100%—personal. He supported no political candidates, disliked the New Left leaders he came in contact with (he thought were using him), and did not follow through on any of his pledges to mobilize his personal popularity into votes. I can’t blame him, because the world was strangely full of “lone nuts,” and by 1971, the FBI was making it clear that powerful people had taken an interest. He was both prominent enough to be in trouble, but not effective enough for the trouble to be worth it.

The only way John Lennon’s political commitment could’ve stood up under that kind of pressure, was for it to have flowed from a deeply felt, rocksolid set of personal beliefs. That wasn’t his nature. Unlike Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X (and maybe even JFK and RFK, if you believe Jim Douglass), Lennon’s activities did not take place in, or grow from, any well-defined tradition, religion, or anything more than what he wanted to do that Tuesday morning. In this, Gloria Emerson was right. But she was wrong to think he was insincere. They were, while deeply felt and well-meaning, fundamentally narcissistic, and when he moved on to Primal Scream, he’d moved on.

Why War? Why A Roomful of Fur Coats?

King Poor People's Campaign

In 1967, King publicly opposed the War, and devised his last crusade: a Poor People’s Campaign.

Lennon was never brave enough to acknowledge that modern war is rooted in the scarcity mindset of capitalism—that is why both Gandhi and King and Malcolm X lived (and died) as poor men. Lennon was calling for everyone else to make a better world, while he enjoyed every possible benefit and protection of this one; there simply is not enough moral authority there. It didn’t work when he did it in 1969; it doesn’t work when Yoko or Bono or [insert celebrity here] do it now. It’s merely a symbolic gesture, and if one takes it seriously, it’s apt to be actively irritating. Don’t ask me to buy your latest single so that people in Ethiopia can have a meal; give your money, and ask me to give mine; and hungerstrike until the UN sends relief. Do something real, with real consequences for you personally; otherwise, it’s just talk, and that goes for me, too. Unlike the Jesus comment—which was not a calculated political action—Lennon lost nothing, risked nothing, with his Bed-Ins. The people who liked him would like him; and the people whose respect he’d lose—like Gloria Emerson—he didn’t care about. Does anybody know of any valued friend Lennon lost over his peace activities? I can’t think of one. He was, via the world’s media, talking to himself. But it was harmless, and who knows, maybe it inspires/d others to do real stuff. That’s great, but the kudos should go to them, the ones who risk, not the rockstars doing what rockstars do (write songs, give interviews). That most rockstars are horrible clods doesn’t make John Lennon a Saint, and for my money he’s not even the most virtuous rockstar in The Beatles.

Only the Political is the Political

Saint John Lennon

Saint John Lennon

Which leads me to my final point, and the only real bone I have to pick with John Lennon on this matter. I’m glad he was “for peace.” I’m “for peace,” too. But as it turns out, the personal isn’t the political, only the political is the political; the Left has spent the forty-four years since 1968 marching, making scathing movies, cracking endless jokes—and has less power than ever. As Mort Sahl said, “The right’s taken everything, left us Hollywood, and convinced us we won.” The Bed-Ins hastened the emergence of (seemingly) virtuous consumption, which is the economic equivalent of f**king for chastity. What the 60s counterculture got right was that the dehumanizing horrors of modern life are inextricably linked to our desire for more, more, more, on a planet of finite resources. You don’t make the world a better place by buying stuff—but that is the mass-cult application of what John and Yoko were doing in 1969. They were saying that right attitude, not right actions, mattered; that you could change everything without changing yourself. That wasn’t true in 1969 and it’s not true now.

If you liked this, share it!
Share on Facebook
Tweet about this on Twitter
Share on StumbleUpon


  1. Avatar Annie McNeil wrote:

    Fascinating post. So much to think about.

    And I think it’s really interesting how defensive Lennon gets—how he stops trying to connect with her almost immediately, and starts using buzzwords like “middle-class” and “fascist.” He knows he’s playacting, but his ego won’t let him stay calm. Emerson’s no better—”dear boy” ugh—but the intervening 44 years has made her points weather better than Lennon’s.

    John’s demeanor is what bothers me most about this clip. He obviously cannot tolerate being challenged, and that’s disappointing.

    You’d think, if his motivation was really more peace- than ego-oriented, that when faced with a critic who has actually DONE STUFF and SEEN STUFF and who really has skin the game, he’d spend less time defending the wisdom and efficacy of his chosen course and instead say something like, “Hey, you could be right that this isn’t the most productive method. What do you suggest?”

    But no; John’s opinions and actions were centered so overwhelmingly around HIS feelings, HIS needs, HIS perspective (and, yes, his momentary hare-brained whims), that it didn’t leave a whole lot of room for things like, oh, critical thinking skills or intellectual rigor. That’s not such a bad thing, per se (it’s part of what made him such a brilliant artist), but it leaves him rather lacking in the political leader department.

    I believe it was you who said in an earlier post that John wasn’t so much a leader of the peace movement as its mascot. And there’s nothing wrong with that; the world needs mascots, too. But it’s a bad day when the guy in the purple dog costume mistakes himself for the coach — or worse yet, when the players do.

    Ultimately, I can’t help but think that John would have been a more powerful force for good in the world if he had concentrated on making art, as well and as purely as he knew how.

    OTOH, what, I’m ragging on Lennon for not doing MORE for the world?! Pffft. (How middle-class of me.) 😉

    Thanks again for the great post!

  2. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    Interesting read. This thread may get hot but then, no guts no glory. 🙂

    “So what John and Yoko were doing was performance art, not politics. As “happenings,” their activities were very successful, but they did not make the world more peaceful then or now, and had zero measurable impact on the struggle to end the Vietnam War.”

    Precisely. Too often, the purpose of their performance art seemed as much to promote John and Yoko as it was to promote “peace.” So many of their stunts were so pointless. John Lennon was a smart man but he was not an intellectual or a politician or an activist. He didn’t have the interest or commitment to truly “get involved” in a sustained, practical way in politics. He got bored of that gig very quickly. And he also found out it was bad for business as his record sales slumped throughout the 70’s. Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure John believed what he was saying. But I have always had the sneaking suspicion that his dalliance with the left was partly just a way to put the spotlight on himself. He liked the rep and the attention. And Yoko continues to do things that have no practical impact — like spending a lot of money to light her Imagine Peace tower in Iceland that always brings her a lot of publicity but doesn’t achieve anything else.

    In the end, though, John’s actual, practical impact on progressive politics or on politics in general was, as you say, negligible. Nothing he or Yoko ever did brought us any closer to “peace” — then or now. It did, however, years later help Yoko establish their brand, and sell a boatload of Imagine-themed T-shirts and umbrellas. But that’s just the cynic in me talking, I suppose.

    The biggest irony in all of this is that the only Beatle who actually had a real and lasting influence on a social and political issue — in a progressive, practical way — is Paul. Paul’s decades of steady quiet activism on behalf of vegetarianism and animal-rights took a fringe issue in the 70’s and made it seem mainstream to a whole lot of his fans globally who were not rabid leftists but were middle of the road politically. I would liken Paul’s influence in spreading vegetarianism to Nixon going to China: If Paul McCartney was doing this vegetarian thing, it must be “normal.” It must be OK. Influencing the way we eat and getting people to think about how food gets to our table is a highly political issue, and the McCartneys arguably had more influence globally on that issue than any other celebrity. And Paul is still out there with his Meat Free Mondays campaign, talking about climate change, supporting the Greenpeace campaign against drilling in the Arctic, going to Canada to perform and speaking out against seal hunting, going to do a concert in France recently and urging the French to allow veggie options in school lunches, and taking public stands on animal rights issues (most recently in favor of a ban on testing cosmetics on animals). All practical, pragmatic stances.

    Paul never gets much credit for any of that influence from progressives. Funny, eh?

    — Drew

  3. Avatar CMO#9 wrote:

    Yikes! I didn’t mean to bring politics into the blog, but I guess I should’ve realized it might happen.

    Thanks for responding, Michael.

    So many good points made by Mike and both Annie and Drew as well. I don’t love this sentence, however:

    “In the end, though, John’s actual, practical impact on progressive politics or on politics in general was, as you say, negligible. Nothing he or Yoko ever did brought us any closer to “peace” — then or now.”

    -Drew, while I believe you are mostly correct on this issue, it’s tone is bordering on the ‘pessimistic, why bother’ sentiment that I absolutely hate. The overly pessimistic and negative feelings people seem to have regarding this particular issue really bothers me. So John didn’t do all he might’ve or could’ve? Perhaps he wasn’t as invested as we would’ve liked. Maybe he didn’t accomplish anything afterall. So what, I ask? He put himself out there, and advocated peace and understanding throughout the world. No matter how corny or naiive it sounds or actually is, I still admire it and think John was doing something positive. Who wants the celebrities we have today who refuse to say or do anything that might possibly alienate a percentage of their designated demographic? Not me. Give me the John Lennons of the world every time. (not trying to say that this is how you feel, Drew, I just used your comment as an example of negativity which I dislike)

    “Ultimately, I can’t help but think that John would have been a more powerful force for good in the world if he had concentrated on making art, as well and as purely as he knew how. “

    -Annie, this is something I meant to include in my original question but seem to have forgotten. Thanks for bringing it up! It’s something Michael has touched on earlier and it’s fascinating to think about. What would John have accomplished if he had said “screw this peace sh*t” and went full-on into trying to create some more amazing and classic music? Alas, it wasn’t meant to be, but fun to imagine a separate world where this occurred.

    Anyone ever get in a (sexual) relationship with someone in which you are so enamored with and/or insecure at the same time around that person? You try to do anything you can to impress them and show them you are a truly great guy/girl. You do things you would ordinarily never do, never even consider doing if not for that person. Was Yoko this person to John? (random little theory I just started to shoot around in my head, I’m sure it’s been discussed before)


  4. Avatar J.R. Clark wrote:

    The comparison of John and Paul as avatars of change put me in mind of this line from the movie, “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”…

    Paul Rudd (as John Lennon, pointing to Jack Black, as Paul McCartney): “I write songs about peace and love. He writes Sussudio.”

  5. Avatar CS wrote:

    In my humble and respectful opinion, many of you dullbloggers are too cynical when it comes to John and his peacenikking and pontificating days of the ’70s. What he said and did should be put in the context of the spirit of the times and should be looked at with affection for his genuine passion mixed with idealistic naivete. Yes, he sometimes took himself too seriously (though sometimes he didn’t, as well), but how many of us have ever been handed the world stage in our 20s? At least John decided to try and do something positive with his position.

    If you’re disappointed by John’s defensiveness in the video, what about Emerson’s rudeness? She was not just challenging him, she was straight-out attacking him: “What do YOU know about a peace movement?” and “You’re a fake!”

    Remember that John himself had mellowed a bit by age 40, but he never abandoned his ideals. One of the last things he said to us was, “It’s not out of our control. I still believe in love, peace. I still believe in positive thinking. While there’s life, there’s hope.” I was 17 when I taped that interview off the radio (still have the Memorex cassettes!), and those words stick with me to this day, they still inspire me.

    He never claimed to have THE answer, just the passion to try and find some truth and the guts to share it with us when he thought he had found some. Could he be overbearing at times? Sure… but he could also be charming as hell!

    Honestly, there is so much more I could say about this subject, but I just want to leave it at: Beatle peedles, give John a break. He was a very flawed man with many serious issues raging inside him that he put out there for everyone to see… and criticize… and love.

  6. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    J.R.: Come on. That’s the best response you can come up with? A tired cheap shot at Paul? I offered specific examples of the actual impact Paul has had on a political issue — vegetarianism and animal rights. And you offered … what?

    No evidence at all that John’s “activism” had any practical impact.

    And when you say that Lennon offered a lot of empty rhetoric, it’s also typical for his fans to accuse you of cynicism. I think that’s a handy way of deflecting the real issue — which is that John’s “peace and love” brought him lots of attention but didn’t actually achieve much in the political world.

    — Drew

  7. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    Craig: Well I WAS being cynical when I wrote about Yoko’s Imagine marketing and money-making machine. Guilty as charged!

    But i don’t think I was being cynical about John. I think I was being factual. I wasn’t suggesting he should have kept quiet. I’m glad he spoke up. But we were talking about his impact: And I really don’t see that his efforts amounted to much practically, other than bringing him and Yoko attention. I don’t see anything he did or said that had any pragmatic outcome then or now.

    I read a recent article about the Occupy movement that I think is relevant here. Basically the author was saying, “OK, Occupy, you got our attention. NOW what are you going to do? Camping in tents isn’t going to take the movement to the next level? What are you going to do NEXT? The author was basically saying that Occupy, to have a real impact, had to begin doing the sort of grassroots politics that the Tea Party did. So far, unfortunately, Occupy doesn’t appear to be taking that advice. And I think the same thing could be said of John’s activism: He got the media’s attention, and then he didn’t do anything with it.

    That’s also why I was comparing John’s activism with Paul’s lifelong activism. The things Paul has gotten involved with, politically, are VERY pragmatic and not pie-in-the-sky at all. What we eat. How it gets to our table. Vegetarianism. Animal Rights. Climate Change. Anti-seal hunting. Anti-arctic drilling. He’s been very focused and specific in his activism. And maybe that’s his personality, but it’s been far more effective than John’s activism ever was.

    Craig, you wrote: “Who wants the celebrities we have today who refuse to say or do anything that might possibly alienate a percentage of their designated demographic? Not me. Give me the John Lennons of the world every time.” I would agree with you — except I would also include Paul McCartney. And I would also point out that Paul HAS for years risked his popularity on behalf of issues that are unpopular with the majority. He’s helped to make vegetarianism more mainstream but the much of the world (especially the UK and US) is still dominated by meat eaters. He has gotten a ton of grief over the years about his activism, when it would have been in his interest — financially — to just keep quiet. I’m glad he spoke up. And it rankles that certain posters refuse to acknowledge the man’s decades of activism. But then it’s typical.

    — Drew

  8. Oh, this is fun–thanks so much everybody for commenting so far, and those who will comment in the future.

    @CS: Totally agree that Gloria Emerson was obnoxious and condescending. But keep in mind, she’d actually BEEN to Vietnam. Vietnam wasn’t a concept to her, and I think it was John and Yoko’s conceptualizing that offended her. This from Wikipedia: “Emerson said at the time—and repeated decades later—that she believed the Beatles and Lennon ‘could have stopped the war’ had they performed for U.S. troops in Vietnam.” And if she believed that, she had every right to feel rage when she saw Lennon sitting in bed pontificating instead. Is she right, could they have stopped it? That’s an interesting question worth another post if people are interested. It will take some research on my part.

    I also agree, @CS, that Lennon’s activities should be judged affectionately, and in context; and that it was extremely laudable for him to try to use his public persona to influence the world positively. At the same time as John and Yoko were staging Bed-Ins for peace, people were claiming that Charlie Manson was a political prisoner and declaring 1969 “the Year of the Fork,” because of the fork left stuck in “that pig Tate’s belly.” Strange-ass time.

    IMHO, there wasn’t a thing wrong with what John and Yoko did, and there was some right with it, too. But the amount one thinks that was right with it, is precisely the amount that makes one wish it was more pragmatic. That may have been impossible; John Lennon was not a very practical person.

    The damage comes from the inflation of these stunts into Stations of the Cross, which they have been since 1980. First, this behavior often have an unseemly commercial aspect, and as explained, I believe that works at cross-purposes to a message of peace. Second, this image of Lennon has spawned a generation or more of people on the Left who believe politics is largely an exercise in publicity, celebrity and symbolism. Publicity, celebrity and symbolism are involved, but they can’t be the whole enchilada.

    Think about this: for all the good that John did, and all the people who loved him; and for all Yoko’s indefatigable promotion of him (and herself), we still do not have meaningful gun control in the United States. But we do have a persistent trope of celebrities adopting causes–often very sincerely–and adding a usually inconsequential, narcissistic political dimension to their fame. This ain’t progress, and I’d hope that, were John alive today, he’d agree. But he’s NOT alive, in large part because “our side” can’t muster the pragmatism necessary to turn even popular ideas like gun control into laws and institutions. We can, however, arrange for beams of light to be projected into the sky from October 9th to December 8th. That’s nice, but I think that should come AFTER the real stuff.

  9. Avatar Annie McNeil wrote:

    If you’re disappointed by John’s defensiveness in the video, what about Emerson’s rudeness? She was not just challenging him, she was straight-out attacking him

    Oh, absolutely; she was not being civil, either. But I see that as the semi-righteous wrath of a person with actual involvement in the peace movement, who feels said movement is being materially compromised by some rockstar’s whim. And maybe that was an overreaction on her part, but I do think that’s what’s going on with her — especially after John’s “If it saves a life” line, where you can just feel her flip her lid internally (“Good gravy, this man actually thinks he is saving lives…”)

    Whereas John’s incivility (IMO) was 100% about ego. At his first peace demonstration. To “save lives”. Ahem.

    All that said, I’m totally with you on the rest of your comment; John was, overall, super awesome. And when I view his activism merely as one aspect of his changeable, brilliant, exasperating, lovable personality, then I have no complaints, only love.

    But within the context of political activism itself… yeah, I have issues. And those issues are infinitely compounded when conventional wisdom waxes rhapsodic over him — OH the wisdom, and OHHH the vision, and OOOHHHH the philosophical genius. Cuz, nope. In that particular outfit, dude is the nakedest emperor that ever emped.

  10. Avatar McB wrote:

    I’ll go a step further and say that I don’t just view Lennon’s peace years as sincere but ineffectual, or something like that—I think they are an abject embarrassment and tarnish his legacy as an artist, which is the only way in which most people beyond the relatively small number who buy into the mythology Yoko has promoted since 1980 perceive the man.

    Lennon wasted vast amounts of his artistic capital on the peace movement. “Power to the People”, “Freeda People”, “Only People” and most all of the STINYC album are among the worst songs I’ve heard from any respected classic rocker, especially well into their career. They are vacuous, melodically simplistic, and uninspiring. For a man who so often had the knack of marrying the perfect musical phrase to the perfect words, Lennon often seemed to be at a complete loss to say anything surprising, meaningful, or unique in his peace numbers. And if he couldn’t communicate peace activism effectively in his music, what good was he as an activist? People, as Michael points out, were plenty aware about the Vietnam War prior to Lennon taking it up as a pet cause.

    Not just that—him nailing himself to that platform may well have got him killed. Yes, MDC is insane, and yes, it’s entirely possible he would have sought Lennon out anyway. But had John not preached trite truisms that he never had any intention of practicing and stuck to singing about politics either in more detached, less sanctimonious ways (“Revolution”, for example) or confined his social comment to the type of lazy existentialism we heard from him back in 1966, it would not be nearly as easy to level charges of hypocrisy at him. Lennon made himself a target, and for what? For Yoko?

  11. Avatar CMO#9 wrote:

    This is a great convo guys.

    Drew you are right on with Macca. Whether his method was thought out ahead of time or not, Paul’s baby-steps policy of activism, slowly but surely chipping away at the food industry and increasing awareness of its horrors has seemingly been effective (though I have nothing to back this up with at the moment). In johns typical but adorable fashion he tried to solve world peace overnite (and in bed) and then seemed to forget about it soon thereafter. Good comparison, drew.

    Ya know, I’m usually the last guy to defend Yoko but I like all her PR and weird stunts like the Light Tower in Finland. It keeps John in the news pretty much every week, around the globe. If it does nothing else, that makes it worth it to me.

    *sidenote: did anyone see Yoko and Sean on Jimmy Fallon about 10 days ago? They were blathering on about something or another and showed a picture John had drawn at age 11 that was dated February 18. Yoko and Sean seemed to think this was particularly amazing, that it was some sort of a sign all bc that date happens to be Yokos birthday. Silly stuff. Also, Sean has longer hair now and looks EERILY similar to his father now more than ever.

    Regarding John’s activist years McB says

    “I think they are an abject embarrassment and tarnish his legacy as an artist”

    This is kinda what I was getting at with my original question to Mike. Is this true, do we think (I know how McB feels)? I think John definitely felt he wanted to contribute more and/or be remembered for contributing more and that’s one of the reasons for his activism. Not the whole reason, but certainly some, IMO. Little did he know (or maybe he did?) that his legacy would really be: music, music, music, music, music, bed-in, music music, music.


    I kinda agree with your point but we’re just trying to have a little convo here, a little back and forth. We all LOVE John probably more any other musician or ‘civilian’ for lack of a better word (besides the other 3). To me, it’s fun to think and discuss what-ifs and various other unanswerable questions.

  12. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    McB writes: “Lennon wasted vast amounts of his artistic capital on the peace movement. “Power to the People”, “Freeda People”, “Only People” and most all of the STINYC album are among the worst songs I’ve heard from any respected classic rocker, especially well into their career.”

    Agreed. And thanks to McB, this is the first time I’ve realized that the acronym for John’s Some Time in New York City album is STINYC — as in Stink, which it does.

    Ha. 🙂 Immature, I know, but that gave me a bit of a giggle. I shall forever think of it now as John’s Stink album. Ahem. Sorry!

    — Drew

  13. Avatar CS wrote:

    Excellent points, all of you. Yes, John’s foray into the political arena may have been (not completely) ineffectual, but when you realize that his activist period only lasted about 3 years, it takes on much too great a proportion of what was to become too short a life. And while I concede that Yoko’s “indefatigable promotion of him” contributed to the John as Peace God meme, I just have never fully agreed with the notion that our man Lennon was deified after his death. If anything, I have seen too much of the Goldman mythology creep into the public perception of him.

    I suppose my point is had he lived longer, we would have seen so much more from him, including, I would suspect, a political maturity… and @Drew, that would’ve included taking up many of the causes that you have attributed to Paul, who wasn’t really politically vocal until well after John passed. (And who, like John, was influenced by his wife… both Linda and Whatshername!)

    @Michael, I get where you’re coming from re: “publicity, celebrity and symbolism,” but I also feel that the failure of the Left for the last 30 years goes way beyond celebrity tokenism (and I know you do, too). John hinted at it himself when he told Emerson that nobody reads the peace manifestos written by intellectuals. The Left has failed to bring its message to the common people, while… well, you know what havoc the Neocons have wreaked. (And, may I add parenthetically, that some celebrities have learned to become more intentional with their causes. George Clooney and Mark Ruffalo come to mind.)

    @CMO#9, I’ve read the blog enough to know where y’all are coming from. 😉 I appreciate everyone’s candor.

  14. @McB, John didn’t just pay creatively for his politics. He was also bugged, followed, and had to spend several years fighting to stay in the US. For what, indeed. And after ALL THAT, he’s planning to march in Japan in December of 1980.

    As stated in Life After Death for Beginners, my theory is John saw the Maharishi and thought, “THAT’s a good job.” He was practically a guru anyway, and it was a place he could go that normal ol’ nice ol’ humble ol’ Paul could not. Secular gurudom was a way to be bigger than The Beatles, and that’s what John’s wounded ego wanted.

    Ironically, John’s splitting away to “be his own man” was a great way for everybody manipulate him, to get a piece. To her credit, Yoko seems as committed to “peace” as John was, but the permanency of JohnandYoko was hardly guaranteed in 1969, and Yoko surely knew that the more they were publicly connected at the hip, the higher-risk it would be to drop her. Remember, John hadn’t been big on commitment (except for Mimi and his mother), but he didn’t want to look a fool to the world. “Love of your life, eh John?”

    So. Psychoanalyzing someone else’s marriage. That’s a nice thing to do on a Sunday morning! But here’s why it’s germane, and this touches on @McB’s comment: secular gurus die. John knew this, even in 1968-69, and so for the rest of his life, any periods of political activity were built on a knowledge–sometimes it seems almost a hopeful expectation–of martyrdom.

    That was his choice, but Yoko encouraged him to go down that road–and KEEP on that road, and that’s a peculiar act for someone who loves you. What makes it genuinely icky is how much she’s benefitted; if John hadn’t turned himself into a secular guru, Yoko would be just an interesting lady (and probably a better artist–her work basically stopped developing the moment she became mega-famous). But when John became Christ, Yoko became the Virgin Mary, and while that was a slight bump up for JL, it’s given Yoko a whole new life.

    It’s OK for Yoko Ono to be a secular guru–nobody in power has ever been threatened by her. Her game is to seem daring; that’s OK, lots of contemporary artists work this ground and I like pictures of vulvas as much as the next person. But John Lennon was a genuine bellwether, immensely more popular and influential than a conceptual artist could ever be. Political action was much, much riskier for him.

    These are the questions I keep coming back to: after the hell they’d gone through in the early 70s, was it the action of a loving spouse to start up the whole JohnandYoko political machine in 1980? How about wrecking their security? How about hitting the recording studio the day after her husband was shot? Or continuing to live in that building, passing by his murder scene, every day for 30 years? Would John have done any of this? Or any other Beatle spouse? Or you? It’s truly bizarre.

    @McB’s right that JohnandYoko’s peace campaign was the beginning of a self-destructive behavior that would eventually cost John Lennon his life, and–especially if one judges it pragmatically it seems like a terrible, terrible waste. Whatever the provenance or backstory of MDC, in retrospect he was inevitable. Not because Lennon was megafamous (many people are) or even committed to causes (Paul and George are/were for decades), but because he was playing Yoko’s pseudo-confrontation game–but when HE did it, his fame and esteem gave the confrontation a dangerous, indeed deadly, weight.

    Her haughtiness aside, Gloria Emerson understood something that John Lennon did not. His petulant unwillingness to learn it probably cost him his life.

  15. @CS, this is super:
    I suppose my point is had he lived longer, we would have seen so much more from him, including, I would suspect, a political maturity… and @Drew, that would’ve included taking up many of the causes that you have attributed to Paul, who wasn’t really politically vocal until well after John passed. (And who, like John, was influenced by his wife… both Linda and Whatshername!)

    Lennon would’ve been an essential, and fascinating, political person as he aged. It’s almost too sad to think about.

    Let’s not forget George as an avatar of change, either. Bangladesh was a much more effective leveraging of rock godhood for genuine good, and everybody knows what I think of meditation.

    In the end, The Beatles’ cultural impact has been hugely positive–unique–and JohnandYoko’s Peace Campaign was a part of that. Whatever else it was, it was positive and optimistic, and that’s wonderful.

  16. Avatar J.R. Clark wrote:

    Regarding Paul’s activist songs…let me cite the unintentionally funny lyrics for “Looking For Changes”…at least his heart was in the right place even though the lyrics are terrible…

    I saw a cat with a machine in his brain

    The man who fed him said he didn’t feel any pain

    I’d like to see that man take out that machine and stick it in his own brain

    You know what I mean

    I saw a rabbit with its eyes full of tears

    The lab that owned her had been doing it for years

    Why don’t we make them pay for every last eye that couldn’t cry its own tears

    You know what I mean

    When I tell you that we’ll all be Looking For Changes

    Changes in the way we treat our fellow creatures

    And we will learn how to grow
    When we’re looking for changes

    I saw a monkey that was learning to choke

    A guy beside him gave him cigarettes to smoke

    And every time the monkey started to cough

    The bastard laughed his head off

    Do you know what I mean?

  17. Avatar J.R. Clark wrote:

    Oh, I almost forgot another unintentionally funny McCartney protest tune…the lyrics to “Give Ireland Back To The Irish”…

    Give Ireland Back To The Irish
    Make Ireland Irish Today

    Great Britain You Are Tremendous
    And Nobody Knows Like Me
    But Really What Are You Doin’
    In The Land Across The Sea

    Tell Me How Would You Like It
    If On Your Way To Work
    You Were Stopped By Irish Soldiers
    Would You Lie Down Do Nothing
    Would You Give In, or Go Berserk

    Give Ireland Back To The Irish
    Don’t Make Them Have To Take It Away
    Give Ireland Back To The Irish
    Make Ireland Irish Today

    Great Britain And All The People
    Say That All People Must Be Free
    Meanwhile Back In Ireland
    There’s A Man Who Looks Like Me

    And He Dreams Of God And Country
    And He’s Feeling Really Bad
    And He’s Sitting In A Prison
    Should He Lie Down Do Nothing
    Should Give In Or Go Mad

  18. Just for comparison, here’s John and Yoko’s “Luck of the Irish”:

    If you had the luck of the Irish
    You’d be sorry and wish you were dead
    You should have the luck of the Irish
    And you’d wish you was English instead!

    A thousand years of torture and hunger
    Drove the people away from their land
    A land full of beauty and wonder
    Was raped by the British brigands! Goddamn! Goddamn!

    If you could keep voices like flowers
    There’d be shamrock all over the world
    If you could drink dreams like Irish streams
    Then the world would be high as the mountain of morn

    In the ‘Pool they told us the story
    How the English divided the land
    Of the pain, the death and the glory
    And the poets of auld Eireland

    If we could make chains with the morning dew
    The world would be like Galway Bay
    Let’s walk over rainbows like leprechauns
    The world would be one big Blarney stone

    Why the hell are the English there anyway?
    As they kill with God on their side
    Blame it all on the kids the IRA
    As the bastards commit genocide! Aye! Aye! Genocide!

    If you had the luck of the Irish
    You’d be sorry and wish you was dead
    You should have the luck of the Irish
    And you’d wish you was English instead!
    Yes you’d wish you was English instead!

  19. Avatar J.R. Clark wrote:

    We can agree…John and Paul were no Pete Seeger or Bob Dylan.

  20. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    J.R.: You’re dodging the point again. Paul has never claimed to be a protest singer or a writer of protest songs. John DID claim to be a protest singer and he’s the one who produced the weak song that was Luck of the Irish, and the even more embarrassing Some Time in New York City album.

    Give Ireland Back to the Irish is a better song in every respect than Luck of the Irish — though not by much. Both songs are weak. But given that Paul was the one living in the UK at the time he released that song, and the title itself was VERY controversial at that time, it was Paul who took the biggest risk personally and professionally in writing his protest song about Ireland. John, who was living in New York, didn’t risk anything at all.

    — Drew

  21. Avatar J.R. Clark wrote:

    Drew: I call your attention to the following article:

    The money quote:

    “I’d love to write more protest songs, but I don’t think I have the knack for it that other people do. I’ve complained about situations – Give Ireland Back To The Irish, Big Boys Bickering – but they’re not necessarily my better songs.”

    At least he’s honest about it.

  22. Avatar J.R. Clark wrote:

    And Drew, I didn’t even list Paul’s most egregious effort (in my opinion), “Freedom”—a PRO-WAR protest song!

  23. Avatar Nancy Carr wrote:

    I’ve really enjoyed reading this thread so far. This is such a complex subject that it’s hard to sort through.

    I’ve never doubted that John Lennon was sincere in his peace campaign, and he deserves credit for getting out there and helping to focus people’s attention on the issue. I think he felt that with fame came responsibility, and he was trying to create an atmosphere in which positive change could happen. No discussion of how effective the campaign was should leave out of account that it was honorable of him to stand up for something he believed in strongly.

    But I also agree with Michael that the “what NOW?” question is huge. OK, what do people need to DO to create this change? Unless you get down to the level of daily life and decisions, it’s all hot air. That’s why you can buy merch emblazoned with peace signs at your local Wal-Mart, Sears, etc. — “peace” as a concept is no threat to anything. I recognize that the atmosphere was different in the late 1960s/early 1970s, but the flaw was there. Talk without meaningful, concrete action just doesn’t go that far.

    Drew, I agree with the comparison you make with McCartney’s vegetarianism and animal activism. (And it’s a fair point that he was influenced by Linda , as another commenter pointed out.) I don’t think McCartney’s explicitly agenda-setting songs are very good, but I do admire his dedication to what he believes in, and I respect that his activism on the subject of animal rights and vegetarianism grows out of his own daily practice.

    J.R., I don’t know why you’re so hard on McCartney’s songs in comparison to Lennon’s. The fact is that both have written duds — for example, “Only People,” from “Mind Games,” is a “peace and love song” that, however well-intentioned, is flat-out terrible. We can give the laurels for writing idealistic political songs to Lennon without needing to kick McCartney in the kidneys, yes?

    I think the Beatle who wrote the most convincing (to me, anyway) songs about changing your head is George. And I think “Brainwashed” is his best album in this respect — free of bitterness and saturated with the understanding that you’d better work on yourself first before you tell others what to do.

    And I’m glad that this conversation has degenerated into vitriol and name-calling, as too many online ones do.

  24. Avatar Nancy Carr wrote:

    Re: my last comment, I meant “HASN’T degenerated into vitriol or name-calling,” of course. [This should teach me not to post after having only one cup of coffee in the morning.]

    One of the major reasons I love this blog is that it can host forthright debate without its tipping into frenzy.

  25. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    I think it was Michael who raised the issue of how John and Paul were influenced by their wives — in terms of their political activism. Here’s my 2 cents. I’m just typing off the cuff so feel free to shoot this full of holes but here goes: It seems to me that Linda was better for Paul’s activism — in the long term — than Yoko was for John’s.

    First, both women played a major role in getting their husbands more politically involved. So points to both Linda and Yoko for that. And points to both men for loving strong women. Most rock stars choose models for their wives. John and Paul chose bright, ambitious career women. Which is cool.

    But Yoko’s performance art, her tendency toward the conceptual, toward the theater of the absurd, and away from specific causes and issues influenced John to indulge in a lot of flighty political gestures that were at odds with his strong suit: his brains, his deep interest in the news, and his ability to be articulate about specific issues. He already was an impractical person and she encouraged his worst tendencies. In some ways, Yoko took away his edge in the political realm by pushing John toward the vague and away from the specific. As Nancy writes, John and Yoko today are now associated with “peace” as a vague concept that is no threat to anyone and doesn’t offer any answers either.

    Linda, by comparison, was the female version of John politically — outspoken on the issues of animal rights and vegetarianism. She was the extremist of the McCartney family, the sort of person who really got in people’s faces on animal-rights issues (which is one reason why she wasn’t well liked while she was alive). But her outspoken, extremist approach influenced Paul to be far edgier in his activism, and far more specific in his advocacy, than he would otherwise have been. Even after her death, and after his divorce from HM (a woman even more strident about animal rights and veganism than Linda), Paul has continued his activism. Except now he’s found his own more measured style: His Meat Free Mondays campaign (a modest campaign that I can’t imagine Linda coming up with; it’s too moderate for her), or the way he has people at his concerts quietly handing out free copies of the video he narrated for PETA about the animal torture at slaughterhouses. His style is, “Here, try this, watch this, you might like it.” But would he have done any of that without Linda? I doubt it. She gave Paul his edge politically. She brought it out of him.

    In short: Linda’s extremism and Paul’s moderate conciliatory style combined to better effect than did Yoko’s conceptual style and John’s outspoken yet impractical personality.

    Any of this make any sense?

    — Drew

  26. I think that does make sense, @Drew. My only suggestion would be that Yoko changed John’s focus not from the specific to the vague, but from the personal to the theoretical/conceptual.

    When John was writing or talking about something he’d experienced personally, he was magnetic. When he talked theory, he was extra-boring because you wanted to hear about HIM.

    @JR, you’re harder on Paul than I am, but I agree that “Freedom” is distasteful. Paul pleases to a fault; John antagonized to a fault; political songs are not really their forte.

  27. Avatar Nancy Carr wrote:

    J.R. and Michael, I have to respond about “Freedom.” I don’t like this song, and I think in general McCartney’s songs decrease in quality as they become distant from the personal, but I also think this is one song that needs to be put in context.

    It was written right after 9/11, remember. And not with the hindsight that the Afghanistan/Iraq wars have given us, either.

    The first couple of lines, “This is my right, a right given by God /To live a free life, to live in Freedom” sound a lot like the portion of the Declaration of Independence that states “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

    And even the lines “I will fight, for the right/
    To live in Freedom” seem to me more realistic than strident.

    I truly hate war. I wish all conflicts could be resolved without it. I think we’ve fought far too many for the wrong reasons, and have made things worse thereby. But can I be against it in all circumstances? No.

    For example, I think fighting the Nazis was necessary. They weren’t going to be stopped by negotiation — that was clear. And frightening as it is to contemplate, we now have groups, the Taliban chief among them, who believe it is their God-given right to prevent women from being educated or enjoying practically any freedom, to impose their views of what is and isn’t religiously allowed on everyone in a country, and to run things as they see fit without giving citizens a recourse.

    I’m far from agreeing with everything the U.S. did in response to 9/11, but the atrocity of the terrorism on that day also remains.

    So, while I don’t like this song and don’t think it helped matters at the time, I can’t really fault McCartney’s sentiments in it, as I understand them. It’s worth noting that in 2006 he publicly apologized for the song and its “pro-American” sympathies, after he was criticized sharply for it.

    Which brings me back around to “peace” as a commodity. Real peace requires real work. It requires acknowledging, among other things, that there are substantive differences between people and nations. Just saying you’re “for peace” isn’t enough. And I’m talking to myself as much as to anybody else here.

  28. I keep wondering how to chime in usefully on this, but people are hitting all the sides of this issue in terrifically articulate and insightful ways.

    There are a number of ways to feel about John’s and Paul’s particular forms of activism, and impossible (for me anyway) not to feel a number of them in simultaneity. John’s 1969 peace period was foolish, but on a certain level quite gutsy. Paul’s issue-engagements have been mostly safe and uncontroversial, but also consistent and practical.

    As noted here, both wrote political songs that were unredeemably awful. They break even there.

    John’s fuzzy-brained theoretical-conceptual-Yoko-derived approach is necessary to the degree that, as Paul Goodman, Norman O. Brown and other pre-Beatle-era avatars of social change kept insisting, change is impossible without first being able to imagine change: if he did nothing else, John drilled the importance of that into the collective-commercial mind. (To the point perhaps where, being so well aware of it, we no longer have to do anything about it.)

    Many people (including me) have tapped Paul publicly for his advocacy of “soft” issues (landmines, animal rights) over “hard” (abortion rights, gay marriage). But the soft issues matter too, no matter that only psychopaths would claim to be in favor of children losing arms and legs, or of killing rabbits so that dowagers can paint their eyes purple.

    These are very complex (or very simple?) guys doing what they felt was right or at least compulsively unavoidable at particular moments. Moments have a way of passing quickly, leaving the rest of us a lot wiser and the guys themselves exposed, unable to take back their choices even if they could.

    In response to the specific film clip that started this off, I can deplore Gloria Emerson’s style (that heavy-lidded, cigarette-lofting “Oh, dear boy” bit), but I cringe at John’s defensiveness, self-righteousness, and self-delusion. When he tries to shout Emerson down (“IF YOU CAN SAVE LIVES–!!!!!”), what we hear is not a human being thinking but the mindless motor of ego revving hot, its noise drowning out any contradictory reality.

  29. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    Devin: I agree that land mines — like peace — is a soft cause that no one would oppose (except nut jobs).

    But animal rights doesn’t strike me as a soft issue at all. The majority of people in both the US and the UK love their meat and many of them get VERY hot when they’re challenged about the ethics of meat consumption or the ethics of factory farming. People also get very hot about the use of animals in medical research, which Paul has opposed but which many people — normal people, not just psychopaths — are in favor of if it saves human lives. Those are controversial issues on which thoughtful people are very much split. I’ve seen Paul get absolutely roasted in the British papers when he speaks out on vegetarian and animal-rights causes, so I would argue that his advocacy on those issues has been risky for him, career wise, and sometimes done him far more harm than good.

    I can’t see Paul getting involved in abortion rights (since he’s not female) or gay rights (since he’s not gay, or so he’s said). For him to get involved in gay rights now just would look like he’s jumping on a bandwagon. Anyway, he lives mostly in Britain, and neither of those issues seem to be anywhere near as “hard” in the UK as they are in the U.S., are they?

    — Drew

  30. To me, Drew, the difference between a “soft” and “hard” issue is how likely it is to divide audiences, inspire anger, perhaps even lose an artist fans. Very few popular artists are willing to brave that territory at all, and Paul, given what we know so well of his musical and personal tendencies, is even less likely than most.

    To a degree, then, it is unfair to call him on that. To another degree, it is still what it is: soft politics. I bow to your assertion that animal rights is a riskier advocacy in England than it is here; certainly in the US, the warm-and-fuzzy Paul of “Hope of Deliverance” etc. couldn’t raise a hackle in the direst conservative or corporate quarters.

    (Sideline on the UK-US thing: Considering that Paul has spent much of the last forty-odd years shuttling between our two countries; that the US fan-base is almost certainly his staunchest; that he has for many years maintained a residence in New York City; and that two of his wives, including his current one, have been US citizens, I don’t think it’s unreasonable give Stateside matters equal weight when we’re specifically dealing with Paul’s responses to social issues. He has hardly been the sequestered Londoner all these years.)

    I’m frankly stupefied, Drew, by your suggestion that only women can or sensibly should care about abortion rights, or that only gays have a stake in marriage quality. These are social issues that in the US touch, actually or symbolically, everything that is being contested in public life today. I don’t know if this is what you meant, but it is definitively what it sounded like.

    For the record, the piece I wrote about pop-star politics (Paul and many others) appeared in 2004, long before gay marriage had the momentum it has now, when the bandwagon was still in the design stage. Perhaps if Paul were to embrace gay marriage today it would look to some like bandwagon-jumping, but that doesn’t mean it would be meaningless: some bandwagons are worth jumping on.

  31. I found more on Paul’s various homes in this article. He’s thoroughly mid-Atlantic.

  32. Avatar Nancy Carr wrote:

    Devin, no question that everyone, male, female, gay, or straight, can and should speak out about issues that matter. But I also like the fact that McCartney’s animal rights advocacy is rooted in something he actually DOES on a daily basis — not eat meat, and not use products tested on animals.

    It’s clearly something he’s passionate about and feels called to advocate for. And I’m not convinced it’s such a “soft” issue in the U.S. — depends on where you live, and who you talk to.

    I don’t think McCartney is cut out to be an advocate for “hard” issues that he doesn’t feel a deep personal connection to. Lennon did feel connected to “harder” issues, but faltered when it came to working out what to do with that on a daily, practical level, IMO. I can feel for them both, God knows.

  33. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    Devin: Sorry to be unclear. I’m not saying only women should “care” about abortion rights, or only gay people should “care” about gay rights. Obviously everyone should care — and does. I’m saying that, for me, when I hear celebrities/activists talk about abortion rights or gay rights, they have more credibility if they are (1) a woman whose right to an abortion is directly at issue or (2) a gay person whose rights are directly affected. I”m saying that Paul jumping on either of those issues would not have as much credibility as, say, Susan Sarandon talking about her past abortions or Elton John talking about his treatment as a gay man.

    As for animal rights being a “hard” issue, i think that’s the case both here in the States and in the UK. I’ve read a lot of stories on these issues, and debates about the ethics of meat eating and about animal rights inspire as much ire in comments sections as debates about abortion or gay rights. People get amazingly ugly and amazingly defensive about eating meat, because it’s so personal.

    These are not matters everyone agrees on like “peace.” In fact, people get quite emotional in the U.S. talking about hunting, about medical research that uses animals. And god forbid you suggest that meat be banned for one day a week in a school cafeteria. You get all sorts of people acting like you’ve take away their right to breathe.

    I don’t think this is a “safe” issue for Paul to be involved in. Not by any stretch. And like Nancy, I respect the fact that he has a direct personal connection to this issue. He’s been a vegetarian for 30-plus years. So he has a certain credibility on the issue.

    — Drew

    — Drew

  34. John’s and Paul’s activisms come so clearly out of their personalities: Paul’s desire to work within the mainstream, John’s to appear brutally truthful. We can deplore or applaud their efforts in proportion.

    Paul’s animal-rights stance, as it took form in the 1990s, was initially far more anti-lab-testing than anti-meat-industry, which is where the attention has swung in the last decade or so (documentaries like “Meat Inc.”), and you’re right, Nancy, it does depend on where you are and who you talk to. For what it’s worth, I grew up in Iowa, where my family still lives, and where the cattle and meatpacking industries were suffering long before PETA came long: in other words, there wasn’t much heated reaction to anti-meat rhetoric because the industry had bigger problems to deal with. I know the situation is quite different in, for instance, Texas. (But then most things are.)

    You’re also right that Paul’s issues have a home-baked appeal simply because they so clearly grow out of the things he enjoys, like horseback-riding and communing with nature. But by the same token, every pop star has had his or her career advanced by gay people. And Paul McCartney has, I would bet, paid for an abortion or two in his day. Those are issues that come directly out of matters of unique importance to pop stars. The difference between them being that, whereas even Paul’s heartland fans would not forsake him for promoting vegetarianism or supporting PETA, if he were to take up for gay marriage or reproductive rights, you can damn well bet they would.

    Again, that doesn’t make Paul a quisling for elevating certain issues over others. To quote the current all-purpose cop-out: I’m just sayin’.

  35. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    One other point: However much property Paul owns in the U.S., he is not an American citizen, he does not live here full time, and he does not vote here. So any comments he makes on hot-button American political issues — especially ones he doesn’t have a personal connection to — would lack credibility with the public.

    Still, McCartney has made many, many public comments in support of Obama, and that has made him a regular focus of nasty attack from the Fox News/Tea party crowd. So he has, in fact, pissed off a big portion of his fan base for his loud support of Obama. So to suggest he hasn’t risked his popularity is wrong.

    Lots of American celebrities own property in London, and spend a lot of time there but you never hear them commenting on British politics, either. Why? Because they’re outsiders and any comments they made would be treated by British citizens with disdain, like “What do we care what an American thinks on a British political issue?” I think Paul would be treated the same way if he got directly involved in American politics. It would be different if this was his primary place of residence, but it isn’t.

    And frankly, for Paul to say he’s in support of gay rights or abortion rights — at this point in his career — wouldn’t hurt him much at all. He’s already perceived as being on the left, so those stances would not be surprising. And the circle he hangs with in LA and NY are the people for whom abortion rights and gay rights are “safe” issues.

    — Drew

  36. Avatar J.R. Clark wrote:

    You all are right—I am tough on Paul even though he is my favorite Beatle. He set such a high standard for songwriting craftsmanship, experimentation, and productivity between 1965 and 1970 that only a handful of his contemporaries (Lennon, Harrison, Bacharach/David, Holland/Dozier/Holland, Stevie Wonder, and maybe Ray Davies) were even remotely in Paul’s league as a composer.

    Re the video: Who is this spoiled, self-indulgent rock star? Was this the guy in the back seat of the limo who caught onto Bob Dylan trying to take the piss out of him and turned the tables on Dylan?

    Was this the same guy who eviscerated a patronizing Al Capp and sent the cartoonist fuming mad from John & Yoko’s hotel room?

    John must not have been himself that day, because Lennon usually ate impertinent journos as between-meal snacks.

  37. I’m sorry I misconstrued the meaning of your comment, Drew. Thanks for clarifying it for me.

    You’ve seen what you’ve seen and I’ve seen what I’ve and what we have here is a flat and simple case of dueling perceptions. My perception tells me that many British critics of American policy have been granted great credibility by US audiences (Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan come to mind). But if your perception is that Paul would be found not credible for his foreignness, I can’t tell you you’re wrong. Hitchens and Sullivan were/are certainly disdained by some–yet their words have helped shape the discourse nonetheless.

    Likewise, if the evidence of your observations suggests to you that Paul has placed his popularity at significant risk by advocating vegetarianism and animal rights, who am I to contradict? All I can do is respond that my observations tell me something different.

    But to clarify one thing, while certain positions (say, on gay marriage or abortion) may be safe within the bi-coastal celebrity circles, that hardly makes them safe out in the rest of America, which amounts to something like 99 percent of the population. If Paul came out in favor of gay marriage, he wouldn’t risk his popularity with the studio execs or CEOs who pay thousands for luxury boxes at his concerts. But he would, my perception tells me, risk it among the sorts of Americans who still boycott companies for being gay-positive, and vote for homophobic or misogynist politicians. But again, that is merely perception based on my observations and impressions of the current situation, and therefore not provable.

    In the midst of this, I cannot but think that Paul has become so vaunted (a British paper may roast him, but he’s the one with the knighthood) that it’s likely no position he could take would dent his stature. Leaders of the world pay him obeisance. Rockers and rappers, white and black, geezers and day-schoolers alike worship the man. He is one of the untouchables of our planet. There are different kinds of credibility, but the only kind that means anything is the kind that is earned. Paul has earned the credibility of an intense and all but unprecedented celebrity that now spans nearly five decades, and runs across all nations and ages. I think–my perception is!–that Paul could say literally anything he cares to and get away with it. Disdain would roll off him like raindrops off a monument.

  38. Except, Devin–and forgive me, my prose isn’t going to be up to your calibre, I haven’t eaten anything all day and am typing solely from limbic reactions and muscle-memory–except that Paul’s five decades of celebrity have been explicitly based on him being an nice, polite, crowd-pleasing guy. Rather than Lennon whose public persona was that of the loud-mouthed weirdo.

    So Paul has to be more careful than one might expect. Even after all he’s done, most people consider him a lightweight (see that Sussudio joke earlier in the thread). Lennon was considered a serious political activist, wrongly; McCartney isn’t, wrongly. Lennon got rope the same way Andrew “Bareback” Sullivan and Christopher “Raging Drunk” Hitchens do/did. McCartney has not, and would not.

    To me it comes down to sincerity: I find McCartney’s political activism to be rooted in his own life and experience, and thus have no trouble believing that it is sincere, and that he tries to practice what he preaches. I find Lennon to be the guy–very common here on the Westside of LA–who avoids his own internal pain by concentrating on “the big picture.” You know, the incredibly privileged, hyper-aggressive shithead who cloaks his rage in the language of enlightenment. The term I’ve heard for this is “spiritual bypass.” George does it when he says, “You’ll stay on the fucking label. Hare Krishna.”

    No disrespect to either guy, but it’s McCartney–the supposedly insincere one–who’s lived his truth. John lived Yoko’s truth, which is that you can talk peace, freedom, and equality, while you live like royalty, enjoying all the benefits that accrue thereto. Maybe there’s more to her, but she doesn’t make it easy to see.

    John and Yoko had a great belief in the ability of simple messages, repeated incessantly, to become reality. When he’s considered to be the political visionary of The Beatles, it’s difficult to argue that belief was wrong. But that’s not a positive message, at least not to me. It’s a deeply cynical, elitist and manipulative one. John Lennon was so conflicted, such a mess, that it’s hard to call him a hypocrite–I believe he truly wanted peace, and believed “Imagine” when he sang it. But if I had a kid, and I wanted him/her to emulate one person or the other–in this particular regard–I would probably pick McCartney.

  39. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    “Disdain would roll off him like raindrops off a monument.”

    Lovely sentence. And to a degree I think you’re right. If Paul said he was in favor of gay marriage or abortion rights, that wouldn’t affect his career much at this point. He’s rich enough that he doesn’t have to care anyway. That said, I’m not sure such pronouncements by Paul would really have that big of an impact. As Michael says, people don’t take Paul seriously enough as a political activist — and they took John way too seriously, which put a lot of pressure on Lennon.

    All of which makes me wonder how John would be perceived today if he was speaking out on issues. Because the challenge for celebrity activists today is that there is a huge backlash against the very concept of a celebrity activist. It’s the “shut up and sing” phenomenon.

    As I said, I read a lot of American and British newspaper sites (just because I’m a news junkie). And celebrity activists like Bono and Sting are regularly pilloried. People are just savage about them and love to call them hypocrites (Bono for urging people to give to Africa yet moving his own money out of the financially depressed Ireland to avoid its high taxes; and Sting for lobbying on behalf of the rain forest and yet jetting around the planet leaving a huge carbon footprint). I constantly see “shut up and sing” comments about them, and worse.

    I think John — the fabulously wealthy man who sang about imagining no possessions yet had loads of them, the man who sang about peace and yet wasn’t all that peaceful in his personal life — would be at risk of getting exactly the sort of disdain and hatred that Sting and Bono seem to inspire these days.

    McCartney gets attacked too, (especially from the meat-eating crowd and, here in the U.S., from the anti-Obama crowd) but because Paul’s approach is more congenial and less confrontational, and because he tries to practice what he preaches about vegetarianism, Paul seems less of a target. And he probably also benefits from being taken less seriously, as Michael smartly pointed out, than Lennon was. So the reaction to Paul is often “Silly left-wing hippie smoked too much and fried his brain.” Somehow I have a feeling the reaction to John’s activism in our times would be far more vicious.

    Thanks all. This has been a really thought-provoking discussion.

    — Drew

  40. Avatar Nancy Carr wrote:

    Michael, you said better than I could pretty much what I was thinking about Lennon’s and McCartney’s respective forms of activism.

    J.R., I think Lennon’s defensiveness in this encounter with Emerson is telling. He can’t simply dismiss her, as he did with some other journalists, and I think that’s because she’s touched on something he suspects himself. Lennon was too smart not to wonder if his and Yoko’s peace campaigning was making a real difference. Part of Lennon’s reaction is certainly due to Emerson’s “dear boy” attitude, but more of it, I think, was due to her having raised questions he had to have himself, however he might suppress them.

    About being hard on McCartney because he was so great in the 1960s: I’ve said before that I don’t think any of the former Beatles achieved separately the same level of greatness they had together. And that’s too much to expect, really. At one level it makes sense to be extra harsh on a musician because you think he’s capable of better things, but at another this attitude is one of the main things that drove Lennon in particular crazy about fans. What the Beatles achieved together often became a flail for people to smack them with, once they were pursuing solo careers. Having people love a particular body of work and period of your life that isn’t reproducible, and measuring everything you do against that and finding it wanting, had to be a literal drag on them all.

  41. @Drew, the interesting question to me is: to what degree can John and Yoko–being the pioneers–be faulted for creating this fundamentally flawed template of celeb activism? ‘Cause they weren’t wrong–stars can motivate fans to behave differently. And the pushback doesn’t usually come from fans disagreeing, but implicitly or explicitly resenting the elitism and hypocrisy embedded (ha!) in John and Yoko-style activism. Two things you really couldn’t call John Lennon before Yoko was elitist or hypocrite.

    I don’t think people’s “shut up and sing” reaction is just meanness on their part (though that’s some of it). As my friend who works in progressive politics jokes, “Not only are we celebrities richer and more successful than you, and have more sex, we’re also better people.”

    If a celeb is going to start suggesting behavior, he/she had better reflect behavior themselves. So Bono pays 98% tax on all monies earned in FY2012–what the hell does THAT guy need with more money? I mean, really…if he’s not getting it taxed, he should be giving every penny of it away. He’s a devout Catholic; does he not believe Jesus about the rich? Or does he engage in all sorts of petty rationalizations like we all do? If he gave every year’s money away from now until he died, people would revere him–but reverence doesn’t come cheap. You can’t buy it wholesale.

    Activism cannot simply be another form of conspicuous consumption, sincere but unthoughtful. And any celeb who engages in public activism can, and should, be held to a personal standard as lofty as his/her commitment. Not because it’s convenient for the celeb, or always fair, but because reverence costs more than fame, and respect must be paid to the cause and to the fans.

    Whenever John and Yoko use the word “artist,” just substitute “king/queen.” It’s more accurate, and THAT’s why their political activism didn’t work. Whether they wanted it to, or what “working” even means in such a conceptualized framework, is another story.

  42. Avatar CS wrote:

    Re: Paul’s ever-emulable and praiseworthy pragmatic and practical approach to politics. Here’s a line from his HuffPo blog entry today: “My name will be among at least 2 million that Greenpeace is taking to the pole and planting on the seabed 4 kilometers beneath the ice.” I dunno… sounds a little like acorns for peace to me. 😉

  43. LOL! Touche, @CS, Touche.

  44. Avatar Peter Deville wrote:

    Thought-provoking post and debate. I disagree, however. Lennon was right then and his message is still right now.

    In my opinion, his intention was to cut through the minutiae and obfuscation of the debates on specific conflicts or Cold War politics and say ‘I am for peace’. Because he realised as a popular artist that simplicity is the most effective vehicle of the message.

    He’s frustrated because Emerson doesn’t get it, or won’t see it. To John, she represents the bourgeois mistrust of simplicity, and the patronising, elitist dismissal akin to ‘Oh, it’s much more complex, you wouldn’t understand, dear boy’ is exactly the kind of attitude he was trying to cut through.

    But John was trying to promote a message for everyone, saying it’s OK, you can stand for peace without having any esoteric knowledge of the political situation or the philosophical arguments; you don’t have to be for this movement or against that movement – you can just stand for peace.

    Of course, he wasn’t alone in doing this. But I believe more people were empowered to express anti-war message through this simplicity, and have been since.

    I think many other people in the public eye have been inspired by this simplicity, too – not least Paul McCartney.

    I don’t think John was as naive as some people think. But he realised that ‘give peace a chance’ and ‘war is over if you want it’ were simple messages that had a better chance of getting through to people than a wordy, well-argued and articulated pamphlet.

    Of course, it’s difficult to quantify the effect they had, but they undoubtedly did have some kind of positive effect. And in the circumstances I’d agree with Lennon that it was the most effective thing he could do.

    Emerson’s concern seems to be Lennon’s credibility as either an artist or campaigner, or both. I’d argue that, through all the vicissitudes of the following years, both remain intact. Which is why I believe Lennon has been proved right.

  45. @Peter, that is a SUPER comment. Sometimes I think you’re right, but then I think this: replace the word “peace” with “motherhood.” What does it mean, being “for motherhood”? If you asked 100 random people if they were “for motherhood,” You’d get 95 yeses. Moms are great.

    But what does it mean for your behavior? That woman you cut off on the way to work, she’s a Mom. So’s the one who you’re fighting for a promotion. Sarah Palin’s a Mom–if you’re “for motherhood,” does that mean you vote for her because she’s a Mom, or against her because her policies would be anti-Mom? Do people “for motherhood” support or oppose Planned Parenthood? How about the right for women to see combat in the military? Being “for motherhood” makes you feel good, but it doesn’t give you any ground-level guidance on how to create a better world.

    Are people “for peace” for or against a strong military? How about the UN? Do they pay their taxes, or not? Do they buy Lennon records, knowing that some portion of that money will go to Biafra?

    I totally get what you’re saying about the bourgeois prejudice against simplicity, and I think there’s some validity to it. But John’s message was so simple, it was impossible to know how to apply that message, especially in the face of opposition.

    The other thing–and I think this was definitely something Lennon did NOT understand–is that everybody’s “for peace,” just on different terms. Nixon and Ho Chi Minh were both for peace–providing certain conditions were met first. Ignoring the reality of conditions is a type of magical thinking.

    And of course even John and Yoko ran into this problem. The very same period of the Bed-Ins, they were fighting savagely with people. “But John, shouldn’t you let Lee Eastman manage the group, just in the interest of peace?” “But Eastman’s a pig, he’s Paul’s boy! And besides, it’s MY MONEY!” That feeling right there is what war’s about.

    It would’ve been more peaceful for John and Yoko to have accepted the US government’s desire to bar them. They could’ve lived happy, productive, peaceful lives in any number of wonderful places; The Stones did, so did the other Beatles. But because the Lennons wanted to live in the US, they fought for years to do that. As an American I’m flattered that they cared, and glad they won. But John and Yoko preached peace on a macro-level while remaining thoroughly enmeshed in all of the emotions, desires, and core beliefs that create war. Ego, wealth disparities, status–these are the roots of conflict, not people unwilling to “stand up for peace.”

    Any type of peace, micro or macro, starts with standing up to YOURSELF, and that’s something John and Yoko weren’t interested in doing. They were “for peace”–but that’s a platitude, not politics. And it was completely predictable that a movement built on such a flimsy philosophy would not bring peace, but frustration, disillusionment, and eventually widespread disengagement. That’s been a consistent trend in the West since the 60s, and I think the theoretical politics of the majority Left–as opposed to the concrete lockstep tactics of the minority Right–is largely to blame.

  46. Avatar Peter Deville wrote:

    @Michael, I think what you say is right – you cut to the heart of the flaws in Lennon’s message (more effectively, incidentally, than Emerson could).

    Everyone, or most, as you say, stands for peace, or at least they think they do. But once you verbalise that, even if only internally – if you make the conscious decision to stand for it – then it might act as a template or something by which your subsequent opinions must be justified;

    “The govt says we have to fight this war – hey, I stand for peace, so how does this square up?”

    Maybe it makes a difference, maybe it doesn’t, but maybe it gets a thought process moving that was previously static, or asks a question that wasn’t being asked before.

    War is over (if you want it). That’s a hell of statement. No one was really saying that before in such simple (that word again) terms. Makes you think, no? For such a short statement, it opens up a lot of avenues. A platitude? Or something more profound (if you want it)?

    But you make the point, and it’s entirely valid, that it’s so simple it doesn’t do enough. Beyond the thought process or the questioning, there’s no tangible solution or answer, at least not that can be seen to make any real difference.

    So it’s not enough. But it’s a starting point.

    And there’s the argument in a nutshell, if you ask me. And the failure of the Lennon-Emerson encounter was to polemicise it, or create adversarial positions from it.

    What Lennon should have been saying was ‘this is the starting point’. What Emerson should have been saying was ‘it’s not enough on its own’.

    Instead, they were saying ‘you’re wrong’.

    But you’re also right in saying Lennon was advocating a position that was impossible for him, or perhaps anyone else, to live up to. As is often pointed out, he sang ‘Imagine no possessions’ when in reality he showed no inclination to surrender his considerable collection of possessions. But wasn’t the whole point that imagination might be the first key to the first door of a long corridor filled with locked doors on the way to the seemingly unobtainable? Isn’t the very concept of ‘unobtainable’ a failure of imagination?

    These, I concede, are less fashionable ideas today. But I’m wary of any analysis that labels the 60s peace movement a failure. For sure, it didn’t achieve its utopian aim, so perhaps by its own ultra-high, or indeed ultimate, standards it failed. But we have no solid alternative reality to judge its achievements against.

    What world would we be living in now without those insistent, repetitive and, to some, irritating calls for peace and a different, ultimately unobtainable way of life?

    It’s an unanswerable question. Nevertheless, it’s a worthwhile debate, and it’s refreshing for Lennon’s methods to be questioned among his fan base.

    Lennon and Emerson both had valid points to make, but neither represented them particularly well in their encounter.

  47. Avatar CMO#9 wrote:

    I go away for a week on business and come back and “my” post has over 45 comments! Love it. I just skimmed through many of your comments and like always here on DullBlog; I learn new things, begin to see the different angles of stories and basically just expand my mind on all things Beatles. Thanks for a great discussion guys. When I have time tomorrow to fully read everyone’s comments, I shall respond if need be.

    (an unneccesary comment by me but I wanted y’all to know how much I love this stuff)


  48. Thanks @Peter. Lovely comment. Comment more often!

    My impatience with John is simply this: the position he was advocating is NOT impossible. It is difficult, but possible. War really IS over if we want it–but that’s what we have to want most, not everything to stay exactly the same, except without war. It’s not so complicated–but it is connected.

    People have, and do, live their lives consistent with John’s message–Gandhi, of course, and Martin Luther King, and many many less well-known people, religious and secular. But they aren’t rich, or famous, or even secure. John’s cake-and-eat-it behavior bugs me because it leads people away from their own liberation into a happy feeling dead-end, and that’s where the left has been since the 60s.

    To your point, John himself said that the 60s were only a beginning–but here’s what I would say to that: there were plenty of people working for peace before John Lennon woke up; I just read a book about the Peace Movement in WWI. The idea of peace isn’t new; people wanting peace isn’t new; what could be new is a way to translate that into the present world. John avoided that whole discussion–“Well, I’m an artist, I point the way, etc”–and he was and did, but if we’re ever gonna get there we need more than that; we ALSO need people like Gloria Emerson, people who can come and say, “This is what’s going on in Vietnam, these are the conditions on the ground, this is what is necessary to bring peace there.”

    Peace is more important than ego; ego is, in fact, the kernel from which war grows. And it’s a tragedy because, “Poor boy, when you’re dead, you won’t take nothin’ with you but your soul.”

    If people emulate Gandhi or Martin Luther King, we get closer to peace. If they emulate John Lennon, we don’t.

  49. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    Interesting debate. A few thoughts, for what they are worth.

    1. John was politically active for the majority of his adult life, not just 69-73. From the moment the Beatles began making serious money, a percentage of his income was automatically tithed and donated to various causes, a practice which he maintained right up to the end of his life, with no fuss or publicity. The Bed-Ins etc were merely the most public manifestation of John’s activism, but for years he tried to use his money to make a difference, and it’s surely interesting that his political consciousness seemed to develop apace with his wealth.

    2. The Bed-Ins are often attacked as naive and pointless acts of ego-ism. I’d argue context is everything; throughout 1968, students across Europe and the USA had used the Sit-In (i.e. occupying universities in order to generate publicity for causes) as a tactic. (What were John & Yoko going to occupy? Shea Stadium?) As John said, the whole thing was nothing more or less than an “advertising campaign for peace”, an attempt to use his huge fame and influence to get people to think about peace as an issue. “Stay in bed for peace” or “Grow your hair for peace” were simply attempts to come up with slogans, in the way that Coke or Pepsi might, in order to sell the product, the “product” here being peace.
    As regards the “saving lives” comment, it’s not inconceivable that someone might have thought about what was said during the Bed-Ins, and then decided to avoid the draft (by whatever means) as a result. If so, then lives would have been saved – either their own, or the people they would have been involved in killing. I stress these are Rumsfeldian known unknowns, but I don’t think the possibility can be as easily discounted as Gloria Emerson et al would like.

    3. Re. John’s defensive attitude towards Emerson. I agree that he wasn’t on top form here, but again his actions and attitudes during this period shouldn’t be divorced from context. John and Yoko were pilloried in the British press throughout 1969, and the daily abuse heaped upon them was often not just vitriolic but explicitly racist regarding Yoko. Of course, I’m not accusing Emerson of that, but she was condescending and rude (which I think was a matter of regret to her later), and it may be that John had simply had a skinful that day of rude, condescending journalists. He relished the fight much of the time, but he was only human after all.

    4. John’s “message” songs are often attacked for being things which they aren’t. Imagine is the most obvious example; would people criticise him for having 2 arms if he’d sung “Imagine having 8 arms (to hold you)”? The point of the song is to “imagine” a society run along completely different lines. You can’t attack John because it isn’t actually run along those lines – that’s hardly his fault, and the song would be redundant if it were! At the end of the song he invites the listener to join him – not in renouncing possessions, but simply in imagining a different world order – i.e. taking a first tiny step. That’s all. Anyone who lambasts him for singing the song in a mansion has completely missed the point.
    All You Need Is Love is another example; it’s an easy target for a lot of people (Oh yeah? What about food, clothing, shelter etc.). But, as John once said, try thinking about it as “need” meaning “lack” – i.e. All You Lack Is Love.
    One other point – Sometime In NYC was never intended as a piece of “Great Art” a la Day In The Life etc. It was a piece of editorialising set to music, an instant comment on the events of the day, and like all editorials, destined to lose relevance pretty quickly.

  50. Anon, your great comment deserves a detailed response.

    John…tithed and donated
    Throughout his life John showed a marked DIS-interest in his own finances, and to suggest that he was passionately political in this way seems a stretch. Did some of his income go to political causes? Sure, and I’m glad, and wish he’d done more because that works. But if John really thought of money this way, where are all the Lennon Foundations for things he cared about? Drug treatment; music and art; early childhood development. Go look at his last will; that’s a man who really DOESN’T care about using money as a political tool.

    political consciousness seemed to develop
    To me, the interesting thing about John’s political consciousness is how it seems NOT to develop after 1972; listen to his comments about Reagan in his last interview. IIRC after ’72 he’s interested in societal change via personal development, not politics.

    The Bed-Ins…Sit-ins
    Occupying a lunch counter or Dean’s office prevents it from being used, paralyzing the apparatus you’re trying to change; it’s a version of “filling the jails.” Sitting in a hotel bed does not affect anything. There is no pressure except publicity, and that’s not a force that the Pentagon cared about. I’d agree with you as to where the idea came from (“sit-in…teach-in…be-in…bed-in”) but it shows a fundamental misunderstanding–or a desire not to get beaten. I’m not faulting John for wanting to avoid injury, but equating his Bed-Ins with authentic nonviolent protest diminishes the latter.
    (Role-play before a “Sit-In” protest, Freedom Summer, 1964:

    the British press…explicitly racist
    The press was awful to Yoko, in the 60s and after, but one can find that abhorrent AND critique their political tactics. John conducted his early relationship with Yoko in a public, explicitly confrontational way; negative publicity was courted. To the degree it was racist, it was utterly wrong. To the degree it was “I don’t like Yoko’s breasts” it was fair, because they put Yoko’s breasts on the LP!

    You can’t attack John because it isn’t actually run along those lines
    …but you can criticize him for not changing his own behavior. Imagining is “easy if you try”; it’s DOING that’s tough.

    With “All You Need Is Love,” there’s no obvious conflict between what it says and what John did. John loved a great deal, and tried to make the world a better place through that love. But somebody singing “sharing all the world” while living in The Dakota with people starving on CPW…I’m not saying John shouldn’t have written the song, I’m glad it exists and glad it inspires people and hope it inspires good. But I wish there’d ALSO been a John and Yoko Soup Kitchen on W. 72nd St. That “isn’t hard to do” if you’re worth $150 million (John’s net worth in 1980). But he DIDN’T do that; there’s a persistent disconnect between words and deeds.

    Sometime In NYC was an instant comment
    If that was John’s intent he could’ve, say, written a song a day and played it on some radio station–imagine that! Writing a bunch of editorials, then waiting six months for them to come out on LP–that’s not clear thinking.

    All of this–from the Bed-Ins to STINYC to his activities in 1980–shows a guy who’s either not getting good counsel, or not listening when he does. It’s Too Famous Disease. Even so, John retained most of his humanity and humor, and did some good and didn’t cause much damage. That all speaks so very well of him, and suggests that, had he lived, he would’ve become a much more effective political actor. Anyway, just my opinion. I liked reading yours, Anon–please keep commenting!

  51. And sorry Anon, if my brutal edits mischaracterize your points–I had to cut about 50% of my response to get in under the 4,096 character comment limit!

  52. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    where are all the Lennon Foundations?

    Well, he started one – the Spirit Foundation, in 1978, which was set up with the sole purpose of supporting causes. How many was he expected to set up?
    Re. his will. I’m not sure that was anything other than a functional document (ie someone told him that he really should have a will) by someone who expected to live for another 40 years. I guess it would have become more detailed as he’d got older. If he’d been 80 when he had it drawn up, I’d agree with you.
    after ’72 he’s interested in societal change via personal development, not politics
    I wouldn’t draw such a big distinction as you. It’s attacking the same problem from a different angle, and I’d regard anything which has societal change as a goal as political (whether conventionally so or not).
    Sitting in a hotel bed does not affect anything.
    It may be unquantifiable, but it seems strange to discount the possibility that a number of people (and maybe a relatively large number) were influenced by J&Y’s peace campaigns to some extent. If I were a betting man, I’d put money on it (certainly as compared to the idea that no-one was affected by it in any way whatsoever).
    But I wish there’d ALSO been a John and Yoko Soup Kitchen on W. 72nd St. That “isn’t hard to do” if you’re worth $150 million (John’s net worth in 1980). But he DIDN’T do that; there’s a persistent disconnect between words and deeds.
    First, meaningful action has to start with thought, which is the only point that Imagine makes. I really hate the way lazy iconoclasts (I’m not calling you that, by the way) reach for Imagine as the first stick to beat John based on an entirely wrong reading of the song.
    Second, there may not have been a J&Y soup kitchen, but how do you know? There are lots of examples of John spontaneously donating money, over and above the formalised donation (tithe, Spirit Foundation), and I bet the ones we know about are the tip of the old cash mountain.
    If that was John’s intent he could’ve, say, written a song a day and played it on some radio station–imagine that! Writing a bunch of editorials, then waiting six months for them to come out on LP–that’s not clear thinking.
    Nah – John liked both having as wide an audience as possible, and making money, because he knew that money equals freedom and power. Releasing an album rather than just doing a few songs on the radio meant his “editorials” reached as wide an audience as possible, and made him some cash into the bargain. Pretty clear thinking, I’d say!
    Anyway, it’s been fun “sparring” with you. We’re probably both completely wrong…

  53. Good points, Anon! And back at you!

    Spirit Foundation
    And tax deductions–not that there’s anything wrong with that. Just keep in mind the complexity of John’s finances, and the kind of income sheltering/manuevering that was going on precisely then.

    For a rich rock star with a brain and a conscience–which is what I think John Lennon was, and all he IMHO needed to be–Spirit’s plenty. But for someone who is a prime political mover of his generation, a standard bearer of leftist politics, and sometimes even mentioned as an heir to genuine political visionaries like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, that’s not nearly enough. YMMV.

    someone told him…a will
    Anon, John Lennon surely had a will from the moment he started making serious money (ie, from the moment he had lawyers representing him). The complexity of his finances demanded it.

    I’d regard anything which has societal change as a goal as political (whether conventionally so or not).
    Much as I WANT to agree with you, my reading of contemporary history suggests that there is a pretty hard delineation between political action and everything else. “The personal as political” has given us 50 years of bogus culture war, where both sides trot out their symbols (long hair vs short, God vs Darwin, the Flag vs Imagine), and meanwhile real power is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, and technology is making our nightmares come true. Me no likey.

    a number of people (and maybe a relatively large number) were influenced by J&Y’s peace campaigns to some extent.
    And perhaps the Frankie Goes To Hollywood song “Two Tribes” also influenced people, maybe many people, against the Cold War. Heck, there was even a video! 🙂 I get your point, but…What John and Yoko did was fine–surely it helped–but it was a gesture. That’s all.

    Second, there may not have been a J&Y soup kitchen, but how do you know?
    “So where do people get off saying that the Beatles should give $200million to South America? You know, America has poured billions inot places like that. It doesn’t mean a thing. After they’ve eated that meal, then what?”–JL, 1980
    Does this sound like someone funding a secret soup kitchen to you? 🙂

    I bet the [donations] we know about are the tip of the old cash mountain.
    Gosh I hope so–to those whom much is given, much is expected. FWIW, people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King never really HAD a cash mountain. As I said earlier: John Lennon was a rock star with a brain and a conscience. That’s a good thing; my only beef is with people who insist that he was more than that, or that he created some sort of template for effective political action. I just don’t think the available record suggests the former, and I don’t think the 40 years since 1970 suggests the latter.

    his “editorials” reached as wide an audience as possible, and made him some cash into the bargain. Pretty clear thinking, I’d say!
    By this logic, think about how many more people he would’ve reached, and how much more money he would’ve made, if the songs had been with The Beatles! If John’d been thinking clearly–with the motivations you suggest–he would’ve called up ol’ Paul and George and Ringo…Which Lennon song gets plays today, “Revolution” or “Attica State”?

    See, that’s where the bad advice comes in: it’s all about ego, about telling the King what he wants to hear. In 1972, John Lennon couldn’t bear to hear that his cultural reach, and even his political statements, would’ve had infinitely greater impact within the context of The Beatles–and there’s no music on Imagine that suggests he couldn’t have done just that. But the courtiers tell the King what the King wants to hear, until the King’s ruined and they move on to another King…It’s the oldest story in showbiz.

  54. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    1. You criticise John for not setting up Foundations, but then when it’s pointed out that he did set one up, you suggest it must have been for tax purposes. He can’t really win, can he?
    2. John may have had a prior will, but a) why hasn’t it come to light? And b) if he did, that kind of proves the point that his “later” will can’t be taken as a definitive statement.
    3. You’re not arguing, I take it, that in the world of activism and/or conventional politics, both/all sides don’t trot out their symbols too, to similar effect?
    4. The obvious difference between the Bed-Ins and Two Tribes was context; the Bed-Ins were part of a wider Peace Movement that made waves. Two Tribes…errr…wasn’t.
    5. I wasn’t seriously suggesting that there was a secret Dakota soup kitchen, but rather making the point (clumsily) that John regularly donated to causes known and unknown throughout his life.
    6. I entirely agree that John shouldn’t be put on a pedestal, or seriously compared to Gandhi or Martin Luther King. But them lazy iconoclasts do love to stick him up there with the sole intention of knocking him down again. John never said (or sang) “Thou shalt have no possessions”. The iniquities of capitalist society were not of his making. I don’t blame him for being successful. I think he was at least savvy enough to recognize that this may not be the best of all possible worlds, and did what he could in his own way, nothing more or less than that.
    7. “…reach as many people as possible.” At that time, regardless of whether John wanted it or not, it wasn’t possible to get the Beatles back together again, and certainly not in order to support John’s “radical” causes. See the behind the scenes shenanigans at the Concert For Bangladesh as a test case.
    8.Revolution still gets played because it has a tune.

  55. Anon, if thinking of John the way you do makes you happy, and gives you confidence to do political things that you feel are important, God bless. I do not wish to control what you think, and am confident that you are exactly as you ought to be.

    Some final thoughts from my end:

    I don’t think of it as bad; sheltering is what rich people do. It’s why they bought cows in 1977. The timing, and quietness, of Spirit makes me think that its goal has not been a Carnegie-like disbursement of John’s fortune. Maybe John had a burning desire to make the world a better place via donations proportional to his massive fortune—but that hasn’t happened yet.

    Tithing 10% of income, or even 50%, when you have a fortune of $150m doesn’t impact your life. Tithing 10% when you’re a church Deacon making $45K, that’s different. I’m glad John tithed, but I put it in context.

    Two Tribes
    Everyone at the anti-nuclear weapons rally in NYC in 1982 (1m people) would disagree with you; as would the people in Britain’s CND movement, at its peak in the 80s; not to mention all the people, such as myself, who were convinced that Reagan was going to end the world. “Two Tribes” was most definitely within the context of a larger movement. That doesn’t make it an historic blow for human freedom, but it’s just as political as “Imagine” or the Bed-Ins. My point is that music, without additional sacrifice, wasn’t enough to end Vietnam in 1969, stop Reagan in 1984, and certainly isn’t enough to class John with people who did make immense personal sacrifices, both leaders like Gandhi, and normal people whose names we don’t know.

    I don’t think we can assume that he donated a LOT secretly; some, sure, but not a lot. I think we can only assume what he explicitly said in 1980–that he tithed, and was defensive if anybody suggested he could/should do more.

    I admire John for doing what he did, while also wishing he did more. Because–and here’s the core of my argument–the things that stopped John from giving away $145 of that $150 million and living comfortably (and surrounded by devotion and respect) for the rest of his life, were things that caused him immense personal suffering: Ego, competitiveness, greed, fear…These are serious demons for us all, and if John’d really conquered them–or simply showed that he was 100% committed to trying–that would’ve been an immensely powerful act. A rock star singing (and making royalties from) a song with nice sentiments is no risk. A rock star saying, “There are more important things than me living in a mansion–I don’t need all this stuff, here take it,” is a revelation. Which, btw, strikes at the root of what causes war: ego, competition, money. The moment John Lennon couldn’t get past “this money is MINE, I earned it, so fuck you” he closed the door to real happiness and freedom for himself, and perpetuated the culture of war over that of peace.

    John didn’t play Bangladesh because George didn’t want Yoko, and John was afraid of getting upstaged. In other words, John’s ego (“How dare you insult my wife!”) and John’s ego (“George is the kid brother! And what if everybody likes Bob Dylan more?”). Even in 1980, John Lennon’s ego was so big that he couldn’t bring himself to admit that George raising $234,000 for a bunch of starving strangers was a good thing. To him, it was “caca.” Poor fella.

    John had a long way to go, as we all do, but he was trying, and would’ve gone farther. But your “lazy iconoclasts” aside, I think we do John Lennon no favors by overstating his political accomplishments. If we want a better world, we have to show more courage than he was able to; we have to go further than imagination and gesture.

    I’ve said all I need to say. Thanks for the comments!

  56. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    Anon, if thinking of John the way you do makes you happy, and gives you confidence to do political things that you feel are important, God bless. I do not wish to control what you think, and am confident that you are exactly as you ought to be.

    I’m really not sure what this is supposed to mean, but it does seem a bit patronising. Having said that, it made me laugh, as I have clearly not expressed myself at all well if my comments lead you to believe that I regard John as some kind of political collossus (or that John “inspires” me politically). My main point was actually similar to one of yours; namely that John was a rock star not a politician, with all that entails. But yes, enough of this, for me too. I enjoyed the debate.

  57. Anon, if that was your main point, I missed it. My apologies. I want my two hours back! 🙂

    Far from being patronising I was trying to go out of my way to express respect and generosity towards a different viewpoint, two qualities I find sorely lacking on the internet in general, and in comment threads in particular. But if you found it patronising, I apologize for that, too!

  58. Avatar CMO#9 wrote:

    Trying to convey feeling and emotion and seriousness can be mighty difficult via text. That being said, I enjoyed that little back and forth (mainly for the misunderstandings and perceived slights!). In summing up what both of you guys were saying….what the hell, I have no clue! Each of you went from one side to the other and then back again, it seemed. Here’s to John – the best (or worst) rocker activist this world has ever seen!

    (This said, I feel confident the above text will be misunderstood and I thus apologize)

  59. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    Now I feel totally offended by everyone who has ever left a comment on here. (Joking.)
    I have a feeling, Michael, that we may actually agree fundamentally, over a few beers, for example, about John, regarding his status as a “political” figure.
    My thrust (if you’ll forgive the expression) was that, not being an explicitly political figure in the way that Gandhi or MLK were, he deserves credit for what he did, rather than criticism for what he didn’t, particularly given that his “potentialities”, whatever they may have been, were not fulfilled for one obvious reason… which is a ridiculously long sentence.
    But I absolutely acknowledge that you made the point about “potentialities” in your comments.
    As I said, I enjoyed debating it with you, and thanks for your last comment. It’s all good here, peoples.

  60. Avatar CMO#9 wrote:


    Good stuff anon. Now that you’ve joined the blog and continue to post (worthy) comments, you need a name. No one likes anonymous (especially me!), so whaddya say, let’s get a name. It could even be TheDesk14 for all I care, up to you.

    And I tend to lean more towards your argument regarding John’s activism. I think we should be happy and thankful for all that John DID do, rather than feeling that he didn’t do enough. For all of everyone’s arguments, this is basically a glass half full/empty scenario. You either are happy he did anything at all or unhappy he didn’t do more.


%d bloggers like this: