That Time the FBI Went After John Lennon
Recently, in defiance of all logic, a Beatles documentary has become the focal point of Internet pop culture. The documentary The Beatles : Get Back is streaming on Disney+. It's an eight-hour marathon split into three parts, directed by Peter Jackson (whom has never been accused of brevity).
Noah Berlatsky over at NBC pins the bug to the board, calling it "the documentary we didn't need." The Beatles, after all, are probably the world's number-one most overexposed band. There are movies and TV series and comics and cartoons and more movies about them, not to mention the billions of blog posts whose ranks the current post will soon join.
But since Beatles are a viral topic on Twitter now, we're kinda compelled to chip in. Your present author hasn't actually written that much about them (they've kinda been covered already, you know?). But while we're on the subject, there is one illuminating story about the cultural times of the Beatles which is worth more exposure…
The FBI Investigated John Lennon in 1972
Start with the US-Vietnam war, its background in the larger canvas of the US-Russia Cold War, and one very nervous, soon-to-be-impeached US president. The 1960s Flower Power culture was vocal in opposing the war in Vietnam, and its musicians were thought to be the ringleaders. Chief among the suspects: John Lennon.
We would never know about this FBI targeting of Lennon were it not for the efforts of journalist and historian Jon Wiener, who waged a battle with the US government that lasted some 25 years. Wiener tried to use the Freedom of Information Act to request the FBI files on John Lennon, once he had learned of their existence. US Intel resisted, but through a series of lawsuits, much of the information has been released, though some is still redacted. This took multiple trials up to a Supreme Court ruling, and the last of it wasn't resolved until the mid-2000s.
ANYWAY, the whole concern of the FBI over John Lennon was based on his supposed connections to radical left-wing groups opposing the Vietnam War. That's right, the nice, gentle, bearded man going around playing a guitar and singing "Give Peace a Chance" was considered a threat by the US government.
Chilling, isn't it? "ALL EXTREMISTS"! Up against the wall!
Allegedly, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover thought Lennon was as a sympathizer of Trotskyist communists in England. Several interior memos point to supposed meetings between Lennon and leftist groups, several of which had indeed courted Lennon for funding but Lennon wasn't about to give money to them. Falling back, a document makes reference to Lennon's "revolutionary views" stated in "the content of some of his songs." Nixon feared that Lennon was planning a "tour that would combine rock music with anti-war organizing and voter registration."
The FBI Tried to Have John Lennon Deported
At this time, John Lennon, a citizen of merry old England, was in the US on a B-1 Visa, but was applying for dual citizenship.
The chain of command went from then-president Richard Nixon through Senator Strom Thurmond to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, with the order to deport John Lennon in 1972. This effort was not any kind of secret, either. It got so much press that no less than Bob Dylan wrote to the Immigration service with an impassioned plea to "let John and Yoko stay."
In fact, thousands of people joined a campaign to persuade the US to allow Lennon and Ono to remain on US soil. The Nixon administration was not at all swayed, as you might predict, and kept up efforts to force through Lennon's exportation until - wait for it - Nixon left office and the matter was dropped. Lennon would eventually win the legal battle for his green card in 1976. Ironically, had the US succeeded in deporting Lennon, he would not have been a resident of the Dakota Apartments in New York City on December 8, 1980, and hence would have missed his fatal encounter with his assassin.
John Lennon Allegedly Had Political Ties to the Yippies
First off, here it is 2021 and I have to explain to a bunch of Millennials and Zoomers what a "Yippie" is. So: "Yippie" stems from the acronym "YIP" for "Youth International Party," a very leftist spin-off from Flower Power. The Yippies had, at the time, a reputation similar to the modern reputation of Anonymous, the kids with the Guy Fawkes masks. They were a loosely organized collective which managed some half-assed demonstrations and were taken seriously by nobody, right up to being dismissed as "Groucho Marxists" (named after the comedian and member of the Marx Brothers).
The Yippies were off the radar, as far as the FBI's list of threatening groups were concerned. That is, until the fateful day of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when a group of Yippies staged a demonstration so disruptive that they were tried in court as "the Chicago Seven." The trial, highly publicized, drew a new wave of resistance, protests, civil unrest, etc.
Two members of the Chicago Seven were activists Rennie Davis and Jerry Rubin, who later founded the "Allamuchy Tribe" in Allamuchy Township, New Jersey. John Lennon did indeed cut them a $75K check, and the group planned a demonstration at the 1972 Republican National Convention. And bam, here comes the FBI:
FBI memos cooked up Lennon's involvement with the group to sound like a dastardly plot out of a James Bond movie, if James Bond was The Phantom of the Paradise. Supposedly, Lennon would use his connections and know-how to cobble up a series of concerts which would combine radical political messages and voting registration after-parties, while also scraping up more funding from the concert tickets and motivating the youth to question their government (you know, like that Commie doctrine the First Amendment tells us we have every right to do).
The main aspect that tempered Lennon as an activist, according to sources, was his drug use. Advice to the FBI from an informant (yes, they had a plant inside the YIP) held that Lennon "does not give the impression he is a true revolutionist since he is constantly under the influence of narcotics."
Lennon Was Appointed to the Presidential Council for Drug Abuse
As if all of the above wasn't enough of a circus, the FBI was trying to nail John Lennon on a drug charge, which would bolster their case to have him deported. But Lennon had somehow managed to be appointed to the Presidential Council for Drug Abuse, as well as being on the faculty of New York University.
John Lennon had indeed been nailed on a drug charge back in London, England, but had no such record stateside. Despite the fact that his chemical experimentation was no secret, the FBI just couldn't catch Lennon at the right time. FBI memoes documented this frustration as well.
One more thing… allegedly, these underground Yippie meetings hosted a parrot. Jon Weiner, in promotional interviews around his book Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files, tells us that the host for the Yippie meetings in the East Village had a pet parrot who would chime in occasionally with a hearty "Right on!" That went into the report too.
Ponder that, folks. J. Edgar Hoover, chief of the FBI, once sat in his office reading quotes from a parrot in the pursuit of a pop singer who was suspected of leading an infiltration movement against the US government through the power of rock and roll. Your tax dollars at work!