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April-May 2013 – Volume 34, No. 2
Volumes have been written about the life and music of John Lennon. The least appreciated aspect is that his desire to make the world a better place was deeply political, and in turbulent times much like today.
As Marx might have put it, through his music Lennon carried out a battle “now hidden, now open” against injustice as he perceived it during his lifetime. Some of the best known Beatles-era songs were obviously couched in drug-induced metaphors of the ’60s. Others, mostly later in Lennon’s career, identified unambiguously with working class struggle, specific political causes and revolutionary change.
Music and politics reacting. Lennon was primarily drawn to the sound and lyrics of the Black American rock and roll musicians who eschewed religious material and instead sang directly and simply about life and living. The songs of musicians like Chuck Berry and Little Richard resonated especially with his own understanding of the world and how it works.
Although many different influences contributed to his music, Lennon’s overall output embodies a healthy dislike of organized religion, a hatred of capitalism and war, an internationalist perspective, a distinct class-consciousness, and a firm belief that ordinary people can change the world.
Right-wingers of course decried such apostasy. In 1966 he was targeted by evangelists for having remarked that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus now.” Radio stations in the U.S. South boycotted Beatles music, and actually sponsored public bonfires of their records. Check out YouTube for a record-burning in Birmingham, Alabama.
During early Beatles tours to the U.S., Lennon defied manager Brian Epstein’s admonition to say nothing against the Vietnam War, and spoke up. In 1969, he and his partner Yoko Ono staged a “Bed-In for Peace” at a hotel in Amsterdam. Questioned about the consequences a famous musician might face for speaking out against the war, he answered, “If we’re going to be hounded we may as well say what we have to say about peace and things.”
Naturally, the FBI spied on him and eventually accumulated a 300-page file. Not until 2006 was the Bureau forced to release those files. Recently, the Russian female punk-rock collective called Pussy Riot sang a song criticizing President Vladimir Putin, using a Moscow Cathedral as the stage. For their inventiveness, three of them were sentenced to two years in prison, and the persecution continues. In the U.S. today, dissidents confront not only the FBI, but also Homeland Security and secret spies galore.
Getting more radical. Lennon’s music and activities changed following the breakup of the Beatles in 1970. In an extraordinary interview from 1971, which appeared in a small British Trotskyist publication called “The Red Mole” and was just recently published in “La Pluma,” a Mexican Trotskyist journal, Lennon describes the stifling effect of the music industry captains. By the time of the breakup he almost certainly wanted to get out from under the apparatus which controlled his artistry and politics.
In 1972, Nixon was campaigning for reelection. Lennon’s song “All we are saying is give peace a chance” had become the anti-war anthem for millions of young people. Tricky Dick was keenly aware of the impact Lennon was having, turning youth against the war.
In an attempt to head off the pop artist’s potential support for the Democratic Party challenger George McGovern, the U.S. initiated deportation proceedings. In the end Lennon decided not to actively campaign for McGovern or participate in any protest at the Republican National Convention.
Still, his music became more political. Take some of his songs from the 1972 album entitled “Some Time in New York City: “Angela” buoys the mobilization to free political prisoner Angela Davis; “Attica” denounces police brutality; “John Sinclair” pleas for the release of an American poet and supporter of the Black Panthers; “Sunday Bloody Sunday” explicitly condemns the murders of unarmed civil rights protesters in Northern Ireland and calls for the British to get out.
Lennon’s creative output in the last eight years of his life was uneven and decidedly less political. Significantly, during this period, he was often separated from his partner and political muse Yoko Ono who has sustained her political activism to this day.
Ultimately Lennon dropped the political torch for others to pick up. Fortunately there will always be people with courage to carry it on, among them a great many artists.
Dave Schmauch is a musician and longtime activist with FSP in New York City. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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