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Interview: Author analyzes Lennon's involvement in politics and antiwar movement

Introduction: James A. Mitchell's “The Walrus & the Elephants: John Lennon's Years of Revolution” goes into an area of John Lennon's life that usually gets little discussion. When John Lennon and Yoko Ono became involved with radicals such as Jerry Rubin, it opened a new avenue for the Beatle to be opened in controversy. Mitchell's book features interviews with members of Elephant's Memory Band, Gloria Steinem, Chicago 7 defendant Rennie Davis and poet John Sinclair, among others. We interviewed Mitchell by email.

Yoko Ono performing at the CBGB Festival in February, 2014.
Photo by Theo Wargo
The cover of "The Walrus and the Elephants: John Lennon's Years of Revolution."
Seven Stories Press

Q: How important was John Lennon's political involvement and did it help him or hurt him historically?
James A. Mitchell: “It's interesting to note that, at the time, he had more than a few critics, even among Beatles fans who thought he'd lost his mind. History, however, has built a mythology around Lennon that has become, however difficult to believe, equal to the stamp the Beatles put on The Sixties as a decade. The Beatles' influence on culture was about much more than just music as entertainment; the solo image of Lennon is forever linked with peaceful activism.”

Q: Was John naive about his involvement with guys like Jerry Rubin and John Sinclair or did he really believe in what they were doing?
James A. Mitchell: “I asked the same question of pretty much everyone interviewed for the book, and perhaps there's a fine line between having an open mind and being naive. Lennon had a history of trying new ideas, particularly those with an intellectual bent (arts, experimental film, etc.). In America his interest in the many aspects of 'The Movement' opened doors for a number of possibilities. At the Sinclair rally Lennon said it was about more than just one guy in jail; he wanted people to realize that 'apathy isn't it, and that we can do something.' He believed in that, but was equally quick to distance himself from individuals whose methods were at odds with his beliefs. He'd participate in peaceful protests -- the FBI duly noted his position in some of their reports -- but Rubin was a bit of a loose cannon who hinted at 'any means necessary.'

"The track record shows that Lennon believed in the positive sides of the Movement: Pro-peace, pro-women's rights, pro-equality. 'Peace and love and all that naive crap,' as he said, and those were the arms of the Movement that stood the test of time.”

Q: How did the pressure of the immigration situation affect him personally?
James A. Mitchell: “Safe to say it put a cloud over most everything he did during that period, and would have even if it had simply been a legal problem to be solved. 'Like a toothache that wouldn't go away,' he said. Consider just how much he had going on: Establishing himself as a solo artist; closing the legal books on The Beatles; the search for Yoko's daughter and contentious custody battle she endured. But the immigration issues were wrapped in a Nixonian blanket, and he was well aware of the surveillance, tapped telephones and cloak-and-dagger games with the FBI. In hindsight it's amazing he kept it together.”

Q: Did the week of John and Yoko on "The Mike Douglas Show" make them any more acceptable to the public?
James A. Mitchell: “Hard to say. The audience was mostly what used to be called housewives who probably had long ago picked their favorite Beatle. They may have seen Lennon -- shorter hair than worn at 'Abbey Road' time -- as having grown up a bit. Not sure how well Yoko's conceptual art went over with most of America.”

Q: What do you think about Yoko Ono's early Apple albums, such as "Plastic Ono Band" and "Approximately Infinite Universe"?
James A. Mitchell: “After doing the interviews with Elephant's Memory bandsmen, I listened to some of Yoko's music from that period with fresh ears. Bassist Gary Van Scyoc talked about taking Yoko's ideas and providing a framework that was more accessible. ('Sisters O Sisters' from the 'Some Time in New York City' album is an interesting pop approach, good tune.) I can't speak with too much musical authority, but those who know point out that her musical approach proved influential to a great many club bands, new wave artists and electronic artists.”

Q: Many people think "Sometime In New York City" is one of John and Yoko's lesser albums. In the context of when it was made, did it do what they wanted it to?
James A. Mitchell: “Not really. If I'm not mistaken it brought the harshest reviews and was his least-commercial success. By design, he'd wanted the album and its topics to be immediate, a musical newspaper to include cover design. Topical songs were not uncommon. Even the Top 10 of pop tunes was heavily populated with Vietnam-themed songs, but the particular subjects may have been a bit too specific if not controversial. Attica State, Angela Davis, the troubles in Ireland were a bit beyond the anti-Nixon/Vietnam chants of the day.

"Musically, though, there are some great moments. 'New York City' is as solid a rocker as Lennon had, and any doubters of the Elephants' talent should check out 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' or 'Woman is the Nigger of the World.' In hindsight, Lennon's insistence on the latter song as the single from the LP didn't help the cause. Even the upstart FM stations had a hard time with that one (not to mention ABC!).”


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