Chapter 2


“The music they are planning to use to crumble the morals of America is the rotten, filthy, dirty, lewd, lascivious junk called rock and roll.”
—Jack van Impe

John Lennon had said he’d felt somehow restricted on Beatles records, that there were limits on an individual’s voice when performing as part of a group. The intensely personal songs on his first true solo album in December 1970, John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band,are considered among his finest work. Plastic Ono Band took a stripped down approach long before the term “unplugged” defined back-to-basics music. For Lennon it was simply an artistic choice: raw, naked emotion worked better with fewer instruments. Few artists reveal inner pain more openly than Lennon’s performance of “Mother,” inspired by the trendy “primal scream” psychotherapy he’d tried; the lyrics that describe his absent father and the loss of Julia Lennon are among his most painfully honest.

Lennon had settled into Manhattan just as his second post-Beatles LP, Imagine, was released in September 1971. An enthusiastic Lennon told New Musical Express magazine it was “the best thing I’ve ever done.”20 The band was great, he said, and included “a guy called George Harrison . . . George used to be with the Bubbles or somebody,” and he expected the album to satisfy his more commercially minded fans. “This will show them. It’s not a personal thing like the last album, but I’ve learned a lot and this is better in every way. It’s lighter, too—I was feeling very happy.”

Reviewers were uncertain what to make of it: Good, of course, but not as groundbreaking as Plastic Ono Band. The album includes introspective moments such as “Crippled Inside,” along with more conventional songwriting like “Jealous Guy” and the playful “Oh Yoko.” Lennon’s edgier side comes across in a bitter ode to Paul McCartney, “How Do You Sleep,” and politics dominate the Nixon-baiting “Gimme Some Truth.”

Critics acknowledged the rhetoric of revolution, but expected nothing less than genius from Lennon, both musically and ideologically. Rolling Stone’s Ben Gerson offered observations about the man as much as the music: “John Lennon has carved out a new career for himself—as political gadfly, floating member of the international avant-garde and rock’s most psychologically daring tightrope artist. The other side of the coin is that he hasn’t fallen into the latter-day complacency of various other rock and roll over-achievers.”21

Gerson gave a brief nod to the title track’s philosophical offering: “The consolidation of primal awareness into a world movement,” and how Lennon asked us to imagine a world without religions or nations, “and that such a world would mean brotherhood and peace.” He described Lennon’s singing as “methodical but not really skilled, the melody undistinguished except for the bridge, which sounds nice to me.”

Mostly the review wondered about the absence of a self-reflecting Lennon, the introspective poet of a generation, now given to social commentary. In “Gimme Some Truth,” Lennon said he’d had enough of “schizophrenic-egocentric-paranoiac-prima-donnas.” Was the singer unwittingly playing “truth-teller” about himself?

“Who is he speaking about now?” Gerson asked. “It seems to me that John is facing the most extraordinary challenge of his career, both personally and artistically. But then, great artists, of whom John is one, are nothing if not resourceful.”

“Gimme Some Truth” was Lennon’s coming-to-America calling card; he was willing to try new things but tired of lies no matter the source. Invoking a popular Nixonian nickname, Lennon warned: “No short-haired, yellow-bellied son of Tricky Dickie is gonna mother-Hubbard soft-soap me with just a pocketful of hope.”

• • •

Whether the critics were ready for the new role he cast for himself, Lennon welcomed fresh ideas, either from the leaders of America’s Left or an almost indiscriminately broad spectrum of artists, both musical and visual, and provocateurs.

“They were seeking direction about how to get into what was happening in New York,” John Sinclair says. “Never underestimate the role of Yoko Ono in that transformation. She was already a leading figure in the counterculture in America, especially in the arts of the early 1960s.”

As eagerly as Lennon was welcomed and sought after by the highest levels of show business and radical politics, the avant-garde art world considered Yoko a leading figure in her own right. Shortly before moving to the Village the Lennons had spent a September weekend in Syracuse, New York, for the opening of “This Is Not Here,” the first major American showcase of Yoko’s work at the Everson Museum of Art. Museum Director Jim Harithas told the Syracuse Post-Standard that conceptual art was well regarded, and Yoko was “one of the earliest and most brilliant exponents.”22

Conceptual art was misunderstood by mainstream, suburban America, its abstract symbolism dismissed if not ridiculed. A Syracuse Post-Standard editorial called the exhibit “an affront to good taste,” and not just for the art. Equal disdain was showered on the museum for inviting to town a man who once claimed he was more popular than Christ.

Lennon responded in a letter addressed to “whoever wrote that Hokum about ART.”23 He liked to think he had some knowledge of art, Lennon wrote, and how long artists had suffered the barbs of talentless critics:

I’d forgotten about people like you! Well well—you still exist, of course, in other small towns across the world . . . What on earth has what the husband of the artist said, four or five years ago, got to do with the current show at Everson Museum? Artists down the centuries have been up against bourgeois mealy mouthed gossip from the “grey people” (or Blue Meanies!). Society only likes dead artists.

P.S. Why don’t you come and see the art—I’m sure the man you think I insulted would turn the other cheek and come.

Among the thousands who did attend the show were luminaries including Bob Dylan, Dennis Hopper, and—lured by Yoko rather than Lennon—Andy Warhol, whose Factory included musicians, artists, and filmmakers that were among the Lennons’ new downtown neighbors, a colorful cast as comfortable with Yoko’s work as they were Lennon’s music.

“She was out there, man,” Sinclair says. “You’d just see crazy shit where people would come up with scissors and cut her clothes off. Nobody was doing anything like that at all, and she met [Lennon] as a result of her weird art show in London.”

Yoko’s art pieces included a ladder to climb, atop which a spyglass revealed a card bearing the word Yes; another invited people to pay a coin and hammer a nail into a piece of wood. (Lennon was said to have counter-offered that he’d pay an imaginary coin and pound an imaginary nail.) Other works expanded on the concept he and Yoko introduced in 1969 and called “bagism,” which they explained at a press conference from inside two large canvas bags: “total communication” that prevented appearance-based judgments about race, skin color, fashion, or ethnicity.

“If people did interviews for jobs in a bag,” Lennon had told David Frost, “they wouldn’t get turned away because they were black or green or [had] long hair.”24

Lennon brought to New York the same willing curiosity he had held for music and art a decade earlier, an approach that embraced everything from existentialism in Germany to Indian meditation. Lennon knew there were like-minded souls in New York with messages to deliver, both artistic and political; and he knew how to market and make accessible creative ideas better than anyone on the planet. Lennon turned his honeymoon into a bedroom press conference for peace; he bought billboards in a dozen cities across the world that read War is over . . . if you want it. These initiatives were, Lennon said, a method for sending a simple message:

We’re trying to sell peace like people sell soap or soft drinks, [it’s] the only way to get people aware that peace is possible. It isn’t just inevitable to have violence, not just war but all forms of violence. We’re all responsible for Biafra and Hitler and everything, so we’re just saying “Sell Peace.” Just stick it in the window. Advertise yourself that you’re for peace if you believe in it.

There were inevitable critics, and in response Lennon turned the attention back on the media itself, which meant the message would be repeated. He told New York Times writer Gloria Emerson that he was just trying to balance war headlines with positive thoughts, whether with billboards or the honeymoon bed as photo op.

“If I’m going to get on the front page I might as well get on the front page with the word ‘peace,’” Lennon said.25

Emerson questioned whether Lennon had crossed a line, if he risked looking “ridiculous” with stunts like the bed-ins. She admired Lennon’s work and considered him a man of talent and intelligence, albeit one acting foolishly.

“There weren’t that many that were siding with him,” Sinclair recalls. “How many others were taking out billboards in Times Square for peace? Maybe for their new movie, but not for peace.”

Peace was the ultimate goal embraced by New Left leaders and organizers, Yippie activists, civil rights champions, and women’s liberationists alike—and everyone recognized the potential Lennon’s influence had to bring people together. In turn he was equally eager to meet anyone who was making things happen.

“It wasn’t like sycophants congregating,” Sinclair says. “He was reaching out to people who were doing things and to bring what he had to the table. That was extraordinary. Usually if you wanted somebody to do something you had to get on your knees and beg. He wanted to be part of something.”

• • •

Politically charged rock and roll was a familiar sound throughout the Village and in the hippest New York bars, where local heroes were held in equal if not greater esteem than chart-topping sensations. Lennon heard rave reviews from Jerry Rubin, David Peel, and others about a down-and-dirty street band, Elephant’s Memory.

Headliners at Max’s Kansas City, heard on edgy movie soundtracks, the Elephants practiced their craft at Magnagraphics Studio on Bedford Street, just a few blocks away from Lennon’s Bank Street pad. Magnagraphics owner Bob Prewitt remembers the Elephants as true counterculture heroes who stood out from the mainstream recordings made at the studio, a roster that included Sha Na Na; Blue Oyster Cult; bawdy diva Bette Midler; commercial work for the Electric Company; and, within a few years, Kiss. The Elephants were musicians’ musicians, capable craftsmen who maintained an underground credibility.

“They were the name on the street,” Prewitt says. “There was the establishment, then there were street people. They were a ‘power to the people’ band, right in the thick of it.”

Stan Bronstein, a saxophone player and veteran of Tito Puente’s orchestra, and drummer Rick Frank had formed the group in 1967, leading a rotating cast that briefly included Carly Simon on vocals. One story among many in Elephant mythology was that Carly left after members of the band threw her boyfriend down a flight of stairs; they were that kind of group, born in strip bars and befriended by motorcycle gangs.26

Inexplicably, the Elephants were initially promoted as a bubblegum pop group on independent label Buddah (sic) Records. In spite of the label’s lighter reputation, the 1969 Elephant’s Memory LP featured a time-capsule-worthy photo of the band—including lead singer Michal Shapiro, who replaced Carly in the female vocalist spot—covered in groovy body paint instead of clothing. The album met limited success, although two songs—“Old Man Willow” and “Jungle Gym at the Zoo”—were featured on the soundtrack ofMidnight Cowboy. (The gritty portrait of New York street life was originally rated X when released yet garnered critical acclaim, including a Best Picture Academy Award. It was also one of the top-grossing films of 1969 and helped launch the careers of actors Dustin Hoffman and John Voight, serving as a wake-up call to Hollywood studios that—along with the cultural shift of rock music—a new day in cinema had dawned.)

Notable tracks, but hardly the formula for hit records. No second album plans were made at Buddah Records, and the group continued with a revolving-door lineup.

“That’s all right too, because they weren’t so hot back then,” wrote Toby Mamis in 1971.27 Mamis was an underground boy wonder, a teenage editor of an alternative high school newspaper called the New York Herald-Tribune who would later work public relations for Apple Records. Mamis had written that the band’s early sound was “an obnoxious sort of cross between Blood, Sweat and Tears and Melanie. They bombed out everywhere they played, and in the record racks as well.”

For a new decade the band reclaimed its gritty, from-the-streets approach that matched their lifestyle but hadn’t yet translated into the music. The Elephants “resurfaced,” Mamis reported, and again paid the dues needed to land a record contract; they performed at festivals, high schools, or wherever they could find an audience.

The Elephants returned to Magnagraphics with a new attitude and songs to match. A 1970 album on Metromedia, Take It to the Streets, presents tunes pretty much guaranteed to avoid mass-market radio. The lyrics describe starting fires and killing police officers (“pigs”). One notable track, “Tricky Noses,” ends with what a reviewer described as “a sudden blast of gunfire.”28 A modest hit from the album, “Mongoose,” brought the Elephants a new level of attention and landed them a weeklong gig at Folk City in July 1971.

“Elephant’s Memory Mixes Radicalism and a Rough Sound” read a headline from Mike Jahn in the New York Times: “Usually the most political statement made by a group consists of ‘V’ signs and a modest ‘power to the people’ now and then. A group shouting ‘off the pig’ can expect to find difficulty in dealing with the music business establishment. Elephant’s Memory . . . is one of the latter.”29

The Times cited the group’s previous incarnation as providing “a mild form of good-time jazz rock,” but the new lineup of Bronstein, Frank, bassist Gary Van Scyoc, keyboardist Adam Ippolito, and guitarist Crow Eisenberg played “an aggressive, rough and loud rock, punctuated by indignant radicalism.” Their attitude screamed as loud as the music: “The group is one of the few New York bands with the courage to persist despite lack of great success.”

The Folk City engagement raised the band’s profile, and Billboard magazine took note of the counterculture attitude they brought to the stage: “They perform with irreverence for musical convention and are sometimes oblivious to the audience. But they convey a good musical sense and a hard driving beat . . . a return to rock and roll.”30

For the cover of Take It to the Streets, the first album’s flower-power nudity was replaced with a grainy black-and-white image of the band tearing it up at a protest rally. Hardly teenage heartthrobs, their lack of onstage appeal was described by one fan in Rolling Stone as “uglier than a Grateful Dead with five Pigpens,” referring to the Dead’s drummer. Offstage, club owner Mickey Ruskin said the players maintained some time-honored traditions in lieu of current trends: “It’s interesting to see a band that’s strung out on booze for a change.”31

Ruskin owned Max’s Kansas City, a Park Avenue South music staple where the Elephants were among the core regulars. The band somehow fit the unconventional world of art, culture, politics, and music at Max’s. The Velvet Underground dominated the fabled backroom, and the music at Max’s reflected diverse tastes and temperaments: the Elephants in all their ugly glory; gender-bending glam rock pioneers David Bowie and the New York Dolls; and more than a few of the Village’s most visible political activists.

The Elephants’ five-man ensemble gained considerable experience with the additions of newcomers Van Scyoc and Ippolito; although younger by several years they brought respectable talent to the group. Van Scyoc first found success in his native Pittsburgh with the Dynatones, a pop group on the Hanna-Barbera label that landed a 1966 hit, “The Fife Piper,” before disbanding. Van Scyoc made the move to New York in 1968, bass guitar in hand for everything from commercial jingles to stage auditions including a near-miss with the hot new musical, Hair. The experience was enough to convince Van Scyoc which way his fortunes lay: “The music business was good for me, better than acting.”

Van Scyoc next joined Pig Iron, a New York group of jazz-blues roots that included Ippolito on keyboards; the band’s self-titled Columbia album in 1970 included a rendition of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “I Put a Spell on You.” The exposure brought Van Scyoc studio work at Atlantic with top-shelf talent including Neil Sedaka, and after the band dissolved he quickly landed with the Elephants in early 1971. A solid band, Van Scyoc thought, one with established credentials, a band that could go places so long as the lineup of current band members stayed put.

“The two main guys, Stan and Rick, they were the band,” Van Scyoc says. “Stan had all the talent and Rick had all the business. They had a couple different lead singers, a raft of guitar players; I remember going through five guitar players that first year.”

When a keyboardist was needed to fill the Elephant ranks, Van Scyoc suggested Ippolito, a New Jersey native destined for a life in music thanks to both dad and grandpa being drummers. Ippolito had followed his Pig Iron days with a brief stint in the musicalSoon, which closed after just three performances at the Ritz Theater on Forty-Eighth Street. (Notably, the cast featured the debuts of Richard Gere and Nell Carter, and included Barry Bostwick.) “[It was] a rock opera about a band and their managers and groupies,” Ippolito says. “I was in the pit band. After that, I was looking around and Gary invited me to play with Elephant’s Memory.”

Fans may pay allegiance to one genre of music or another, but musicians—those looking to make a dollar with their talent—are open to and understand a range of styles, tastes, and backgrounds. Ippolito was originally schooled in jazz, his passion when he graduated from high school in 1964, the year of “Beatlemania.”

“I didn’t really think much of the Beatles, to tell the truth,” Ippolito says. “In my sophomore year of college a good friend of mine was a voice major and turned me on to the Beatles, the Beach Boys. By the time I got into that, I wanted to be in music.”

With Elephant’s Memory, music wasn’t necessarily the only factor in an audition. “Rick was probably the political driving force, although Stan happily went along,” Ippolito says. “The first night I went down to play with them they asked me what I thought of their politics.”

Whether they believed the band could represent the Movement, both Van Scyoc and Ippolito said the group’s chances for commercial success improved with the addition of their newest, youngest member, Texas-born guitar player Wayne “Tex” Gabriel.

Gabriel and his mother, Marian, left the Lone Star State while he was an infant in the early 1950s to escape an abusive, largely absent father. Gabriel spent his youth in Detroit’s Highland Park, where high school ambitions on the football field were sidelined by an injury. While recuperating, Gabriel took to the guitar with dedicated, natural ease.

Gabriel’s first nontelevised look at Lennon was at the Beatles’ 1966 Olympia Stadium concert. At the live show, however—as the Beatles themselves realized by then—Gabriel says the music was difficult to judge: “You couldn’t hear anything because of the screaming girls. I mean, they were . . . screaming!”

Gabriel did some paid work in Michigan before testing the New York waters in 1970, a trip recalled mostly for a classic car-broke-down-just-west-of-the-Lincoln-Tunnel story. He went home and worked for a few months with Mitch Ryder’s Detroit, a revamped Detroit Wheels fronted by the “Devil with a Blue Dress On” singer. The New York dream remained, though, and in the summer of 1971 Gabriel returned to Manhattan for another shot. His mother had died a few months earlier, and was unable to share the good news when Gabriel auditioned for and landed a gig with Elephant’s Memory. A promising opportunity, but still very much a struggling-musician existence.

“Tex first moved into Stan’s apartment, but it was like a homeless shelter for animals there, dogs and cats and whatnot,” Ippolito says. “Wayne had two dogs, so he came to live in my apartment. Wayne slept in the living room, sometimes in the kitchen, but I’m not sure why.”

Musically, Van Scyoc said that Gabriel was the answer to the band’s prayers.

“When Tex came in from Detroit I said, ‘We gotta get this guy,’” Van Scyoc recalls. “He loved the band, we loved him. He was such a phenomenal player, I remember telling my wife we found a new Eric Clapton.”

Among his first gigs with the band was their return engagement at Folk City. The impression he made on the group was echoed by the press.

“Wayne Gabriel has only been with Elephant’s Memory for a couple of weeks,” reported Variety on December 8. “He fits in well, even having his own tune, ‘Life’ included in the set. Elephant’s Memory’s reputation is starting to grow.”

The brighter spotlight, Van Scyoc points out, was a dubious benefit. The music-for-the-masses crusade had become a strain and he was considering other options as 1971 drew to a close.

“I was really tired of doing no-money gigs,” Van Scyoc admits.

• • •

What a waste of human power,
What a waste of human lives
Shoot the prisoners in the towers
Forty-three poor widowed wives.
—John Lennon, “Attica State”

On December 16, only a week after he played before thousands of concertgoers who partied and rallied on behalf of a jailed poet in Michigan, Lennon filmed an episode of old friend David Frost’s talk show, now broadcast from New York. Lennon and Yoko took their seats at the edge of a circular riser in an intimate theater, the audience before them just feet away.32

Small talk gave way quickly to “Attica State.” Lennon played acoustic guitar, accompanied by Yoko and Rubin on bongos and two guitarists from the Lower East Side band.

The topic was fresh in the minds of New Yorkers. Just three months earlier, the headlines had been dominated by a riot at Attica, an upstate prison. In a response to the shooting death of California inmate George Jackson, more than 1,200 New York prisoners had seized control of Attica to demand prison reform. Governor Nelson Rockefeller sent along upward of 1,700 troops to take control by any means necessary, and the ensuing battle ended in a controversial bloodbath.

Singing about Attica before Frost’s studio audience, Lennon went further with his lyrics than he had in previous songs and peace anthems. “Attica State” was blunt and specific as it reported the body count from the victims’ perspective: “Forty-three poor widowed wives.” Lennon sang that the “media blames it on the prisoners,” but word on the street held that “Rockefeller pulled the trigger.”

The song ended with Lennon repeating the chorus lyric: “We’re all mates with Attica State.” Polite applause followed.

For many New Yorkers, the suggestion that “all they need is love and care” was not a practical solution, not in a city with crime rates that ranked among the highest in the world. It was a tense time on both sides of the law: Frank Serpico—a longhair hippie cop who lived in the Village—told the internal investigation Knapp Commission in May 1971 of the near-epidemic graft and kickbacks in the NYPD. Serpico’s one-man crusade had ended earlier that year when he was shot during a February drug raid, an ambush likely choreographed by fellow officers.

John Lennon challenged the Manhattan audience. Many were unabashed Beatles fans and in full agreement with one of their generation’s leading spokesmen. They loved John, and might agree with him about civil rights, women’s liberation, gay rights and ending the Vietnam War—but didn’t quite see eye-to-eye with him about Attica.

Some voiced their opinions from the balcony and main floor. Lennon and Frost peered up, tried to see who was speaking through the glare of stage lights, and wanted to make sure they understood the question.

“We can’t hear you up there,” Lennon said. “Why don’t you come down here?”

Frost stood, repeated the invitation, and made room near the stage. A woman and a man, both in their midthirties, took seats in the front row, eye-level with Lennon.

The fourth wall between audience and entertainer came down. Few artists had ever stood as elevated by their audience as the Beatles; fewer still could sit with the same fans in casual comfort. They might as well have been in a living room with friends watching and discussing the evening news.

Of course Attica was a tragedy, the woman said, but Lennon’s song “made it sound like the only worthwhile people in this world are people who committed crimes.”

The “forty-three poor widowed wives,” Lennon replied, included everyone affected by the deaths. “We’re talking about policemen’s wives, anyone who was hurt there.” The word “prisoners” was used in broad terms: “Free the prisoners, free the judges, free all prisoners everywhere.”

New Yorkers, the woman said, couldn’t afford such an approach. “I’m in prison, living in New York,” she added, describing a life spent clutching her purse and “being afraid to walk into my home.” These problems were not as simple as Lennon made them out to be; they weren’t curable by people saying “peace and love.”

“You’ll solve it by bringing up children differently,” she said, “or by having a better penal system. But not by making heroes out of people who hold knives to people’s throats.”

Lennon admitted that there was no easy solution.

“I understand that society hasn’t worked out what to do with people who kill, and violent people,” Lennon said. “We’re not glorifying them. This song will come and go, but there will be another Attica tomorrow.”

The topic—Attica—was specific, Lennon said, and was one of several contemporary issues that he wrote about as a form of musical journalism, the traveling minstrel weaving melodic folktales.

“We’re like newspapermen, only we sing about it,” Lennon observed.

There were few things New Yorkers loved more than weighing in on the day’s headlines. Angry letters to the editor read the same whether in print or addressed to an ex-Beatle on a talk show.

“Wait till they kill your son or daughter or your mother or father,” the man shouted. “You talk about what society’s done to them. Walk through one of those neighborhoods at two in the morning. You wouldn’t be singing about the people who ended up in jail for mugging you.”

Frost moderated the back-and-forth objectively, gave equal time to opposing views, and raised a variety of related topics along the way. Lennon, Frost said, brought intelligence and passion to his new work, as he always had.

“This is an example of the fact that John is writing songs, passing on what he cares about,” Frost remarked.

Lennon seemed frustrated, if undaunted, and was eager to get back on more comfortable ground.

“Let’s sing another song,” Lennon said. He sang of John Sinclair, and of the troubles in Northern Ireland with “Luck of the Irish.” He’d come to America to do just that, to find places and reasons to sing. He told the Frost audience about his next gig, a benefit to support the families of Attica victims at Harlem’s landmark Apollo Theater.

“We’ve been invited to play the song and just go there to show that we care,” Lennon said. “We’ll go along and sing it if they want us to or just say hello, just to show people that we don’t live in an ivory tower in Hollywood watching movies about ourselves, and that we care about what’s going on.”

The night after recording the Frost show, Lennon appeared as promised at the Apollo, where he basked in the spotlight along with some of the musicians that had most inspired him. John and Yoko—again backed by Rubin and Lower East Side guitarists Chris Osbourne and Eddie Mottau—were a last-minute addition to the program and seemed to surprise the audience. Gasps were heard when an announcer stood before the curtain “to introduce a young man and his wife who saw fit to put down in music and lyrics so that it will never be forgotten . . . the tragedy of Attica State.”

Lennon said it was “an honor and a pleasure” to be at the Apollo, and counted down the beat before launching into “Attica State.” The audience didn’t question the lyrics or position, and signaled their agreement that “Rockefeller pulled the trigger” with spirited shouts and applause. Lennon played just three songs—“Attica State,” “Sisters O Sisters,” and “Imagine,” which he introduced as “a song you might know” while he strummed the opening chords on his guitar.

The Apollo show marked the third public performance by Lennon in barely a week’s time, appearances that were kept brief and in which John appeared almost apologetic. Lennon again explained the shortcomings to the audience.33

“Some of you wonder what I’m doing here with no drummers and nothing like that,” Lennon said. “Well, you might know I lost my old band, or I left it.” He’d been trying to put a band together, he said, but he’d been busier than expected in recent weeks.

Lennon never cared if some people misunderstood his art or politics, but subpar music was unacceptable no matter how amusing he found David Peel. After the Apollo show Lennon made it a top priority to identify the right group of musicians for the ambitious plans now underway. Lennon’s new friend Jerry Rubin said he had just the band in mind, straight from the heart of Greenwich Village.

• • •

Bob Prewitt says he was warned ahead of time to keep John Lennon’s meeting with Elephant’s Memory a low-profile affair. The warning probably wasn’t necessary. The Elephant’s Memory band members were as serious about the music as John was.

As a musician Lennon was equal parts avid fan and perfectionist artist. He enjoyed, encouraged, and celebrated creative people, even the often-amateur quality of Village dreamers and dabblers, but held his own performances to elite Beatles’ standards. He’d soldiered through the Ann Arbor, David Frost, and Apollo sets with Peel’s Lower East Side band and the percussion talents of Yoko and Jerry Rubin, but there were bigger plans in the works: television appearances, studio recordings, and taking the show on the road. The man needed a band.

Rubin had played a recording of Elephant’s Memory for Lennon—a performance broadcast on Long Island’s WLIL-FM (a show that also featured a young piano player from Oyster Bay named Billy Joel). The sounds of Stan Bronstein’s blistering saxophone and Wayne Gabriel’s sharp-edged guitar work impressed Lennon, who agreed to a meeting at Magnagraphics.

The members of Elephant’s Memory had no idea what to expect, and quickly learned that Lennon was not as easy to define as many assumed. On their first meeting, Lennon did what he often did—he used humor to break the ice, to deflect the standard “Oh my God, it’s a Beatle” reaction. Lennon turned it around and expressed amazement at meeting the Elephants.

“Are you them?” Lennon asked, saying he’d heard so much about the group. “Are you really them?” Playing it for laughs was an approach he mastered whether the room was filled with hippies or heads of state, rockers or royalty.

“Yeah,” chuckled drummer Rick Frank. “Are you really him?”

The band kept it cool, being the sophisticated, hip players they were. While they weren’t complete strangers to the world of A-list musicians, Prewitt recalls that “seeing him in the flesh for the first time was kind of a shock. All these thoughts start running through your head: Jesus, that’s actually John Lennon! I didn’t want to stare, but the gravity of it struck me—the possibilities were endless.”

No freak show, but a certain circus atmosphere filled the air: Lennon wore what appeared to be the white suit from Abbey Road; the beard was gone, his hair was cropped shorter than the Jesus-twin of the Beatles’ swan song; but the image he presented still invoked memories of the surreal sixties.

Light banter gave way to common ground—music—and that’s where the deal was clinched. They played for hours, running through dozens of rock and roll classics: “Hound Dog,” “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” some Chuck Berry tunes. By evening’s end the Elephants had the gig of a lifetime.

“Both John and Yoko were very impressed,” Gabriel recalls. “He said we sounded great, and that he really liked us a lot. Of course, we already kind of loved him.”

Prewitt’s control-room vantage point took in the scene, an admittedly rough-around-the-edges band playing with a legend. Drummer Rick Frank, who once called himself “Reek Havoc” and pounded through life in the Keith Moon–worthy tradition of lunatic percussionists, scaled down his savage act in front of Lennon. “He was a wild man,” Prewitt says of Frank. “To see him subdued and respectful, like a little kid, it was interesting.”

A contract was offered: Elephant’s Memory was put on retainer and began rehearsals to learn a concert’s worth of Lennon songs. There were meetings with Apple Records to schedule a Lennon-produced Elephant’s Memory album along with the Some Time in New York City sessions. Lennon’s 1972 calendar—with or without the Yippies—promised to be busy.

“He mentioned a TV show coming up,” Gabriel says. “And that he wanted us to meet Phil Spector, who would produce an album we were going to do.”

Plucked from comparative obscurity, this one-in-a-million shot brought as much pressure as promise; playing with Lennon was a chance for the Elephants to prove their musical worth.

“They were proud of being a good band,” Prewitt says. “They had a great sound and were very competent musicians.”

Emotions were mixed: excitement over meeting a Beatle, disbelief over the prospect of working with one. In show business terms it was very much a double-edged opportunity.

“Our careers were basically on the line,” says Van Scyoc.

• • •

John Sinclair knew what his priorities were when he walked out of prison in early December 1971. He cheerfully told reporters that, first, “I’m gonna go home and smoke some joints, man.”

The second thing was to pay a thank-you visit to the man he considered responsible for his release.

“Because John Lennon came, it sold,” Sinclair says. “They made the connection that, Jesus, ‘If a Beatle thinks this guy is all right, we should let him out.’ That’s the mass mind turning when John Lennon said he was coming.”

The court approved Sinclair’s bond for a number of reasons—including the state legislature reducing pot possession from a felony to a misdemeanor—but it was Lennon who made it happen as quickly as it did. Sinclair wasn’t alone in believing his release represented more than one man’s freedom: “Here’s this guy in prison for marijuana and we got him out three days later. That’s the mythology to build on,” he says.

Celebrity endorsements were nothing new—famous faces have a long history of plugging everything from breakfast cereal and cigarettes to candidates—but the politically minded hippies and Yippies knew that Lennon’s influence was something much bigger. Might the Jesus-effect that had forced open the prison gates for Sinclair tilt the scales against Nixon in the upcoming 1972 presidential election?

“It was a great example,” Sinclair says. “See what would happen if the people whose records you liked would also support the other people you like. This could create a thing across the country that people could rally around.”

In the final week of 1971 John and Leni Sinclair flew to New York and brought a celebratory atmosphere to an increasingly popular and crowded Bank Street apartment. Jerry Rubin had been spreading the word of the Lennon-Yippie alliance in the media, and had promised to take John and Yoko “to the center of the revolution.” Bank Street became that hub. Guests that month included the famous and not so famous, the celebrated and notorious. For every musical guest—Lower East Side players or wandering Elephants—there was an activist, including Rubin, Rennie Davis, Stew Albert, Black Panther founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, feminist Kate Millet, poet Ed Sanders, and countless others.

This was the Movement. These were radical leaders fighting to shake up the system and take down the establishment, the same ones as put fear in the hearts of conservative Americans who worried that the longhair freaks represented a Communist threat . . . or worse. During one gathering Rubin played a tape he thought Lennon would enjoy, a fire-and-brimstone sermon by evangelist Jack Van Impe on the evils he found in Rubin’s book, Do It. Rubin’s pages not only contained “178 four-letter words,” it foretold a perverted revolution, pure Sodom and Gomorrah in America: “Sex in the streets of every major city from coast to coast!”34

Van Impe’s outrage put the blame where he thought it should be for the proposed national orgy, a sexual frenzy driven by sinful songs: “The music they are planning to use to crumble the morals of America is the rotten, filthy, dirty, lewd, lascivious junk called rock and roll.” Van Impe remained unconvinced by young congregants who claimed that many rock songs held spiritual offerings of peace and love. A false front, he said. “God help compromising preachers who allow this rock beat into pulpits just because it has ‘Jesus Saves’ tied to it,” Van Impe said. “It isn’t just the words, it’s the beat.”

Lennon laughed. He’d heard the cries of rock and roll as the devil’s music for as long as he’d played electric guitar. Ironically, people like Van Impe actually underestimated rock’s potential power, at least as wielded by a Beatle. There were bigger ideas being kicked around Bank Street than Rubin’s antic predictions of sex in the streets: Could the same type of concert that freed a man from prison be taken on the road as a political tour?

The Sinclair concert was the prototype, the test-run for a national caravan in tandem with the 1972 political campaigns. A roaming cast of activists, poets, and artists gathered with local players and politicians to raise money for local causes, encourage voter registration, and frame a political agenda for the eighteen-to-twenty-year-old rookie voters ready to make important electoral choices. Bank Street speculations were confirmed when the principal planners met in late December at the Peter Stuyvesant farm in Allamuchy, New Jersey. At the Allamuchy meeting Rennie Davis made a concrete offer to Lennon.

“I proposed to John that we go to forty-two cities that had been selected strategically; each city was going to have one focus or issue,” Davis says, a momentum that would build and peak at the Republican convention. “I was very positive about what this could mean, but I didn’t really know for sure if we could pull it off. We were declining, and John coming in was pulling us out of this swamp. I was curious about how this was going to work.”

Any disbelief or apprehensions gave way to enthusiasm when the idea received John’s official blessing. Jay Craven, a Boston University activist who had been serving as Davis’s right-hand man since the two met when Davis visited the campus, represented the next generation of activists. Although only a few years behind Rubin, Davis, and Hoffman, Craven and his contemporaries considered themselves more practical-minded than their predecessors.

“We weren’t the flower children, who were the children of the Beatles in some ways,” Craven says. The big battles of the civil rights movement had already been fought, and he preferred local activism. “That generation of Rennie and the Chicago Seven never really opened the door to my generation. We weren’t in SDS, we didn’t have the same noble-esque views of organization.”

A national tour starring John Lennon would take more than a little organizing to pull off; ready or not, the plan became real at the New Jersey meeting.

“I was taken aside by Rennie and Jerry Rubin,” Craven recalls. “They said John Lennon and Yoko Ono want to work with us, and they’re prepared to go on the road and do whatever in a bus with a boogie band.”

Lennon would headline and attract the musicians; Davis was to line up speakers and causes. Each show would feature an unannounced surprise guest, as Ann Arbor did with Stevie Wonder, building to an August finale pairing Lennon with Bob Dylan. The idea seemed every bit as “brilliant” as Sinclair imagined, but Davis had seen inflated expectations fall victim to apathy or disorganization. He wanted to make sure that there would be the sustained effort and dedicatin required to make the tour a success.

The logistics of the tour would be handled by Davis and Craven, who understood the mechanics of organizing something as massive as a twenty-city political-musical tour. There were increasing doubts about the effectiveness of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, who both were more into their own writing projects by this time and probably distracted more than a little by their own celebrity. Hoffman debuted as an author in 1971 with Steal This Book, which promoted a life of not spending money, and was working on the 1972 effort Vote, coauthored with Rubin and Ed Sanders.

“Jerry and Abbie were writing their books, doing their thing, occasionally invoking the Yippie creed in action or comment,” Craven says. They were highly quotable media darlings, but had little involvement in the nuts-and-bolts of planning effective demonstrations. Davis was a strong organizer, but had been fighting the fight for a long time by then.

“Rennie was pretty burned out, exhausted,” Craven notes. “He felt that the Movement had just peaked and essentially deflated.”

As 1972 began, Craven was set to be the advance man. The strategy was to have the caravan follow the election cycle beginning in states with the earliest primaries and largest populations. The tour would support a number of causes, but according to Craven there was to remain a singular focus: “Making the war the central issue of the 1972 election. Any candidate who did not clearly oppose the war would be isolated and go down in defeat. Nixon [had] continued the war and had to pay the price for it.”

On paper, the idea was an ambitious yet achievable plan. Lennon told Rolling Stone it was all set for ’72.35 Politics aside, Lennon was eager to play benefit concerts that would promote local causes such as day care centers, food co-ops, and health clinics. The real perk for John, however, remained that this would mark his return to the musical spotlight:

I just want to be a musician and transmit some love back to the people. That’s what excited me the most, getting to play with a band again. It will be the regular scene without the capitalism. We’ll pay for the halls and the people will have to pay to get in but we’ll leave our share of the money in town where it can do the most good. We want it to be the regular scene except we also want to raise some consciousness.

Some of Lennon’s ambitions—to be just another New Yorker, just another guy on the street, or to be just another player in the band and not its shining star—bordered on naïveté, but in a spirit he carried off with playful innocence as he fell in love with Manhattan and his new band. He hinted that his work with Elephant’s Memory would be long-range and artistically inclusive. He told the Village Voice the relationship would more closely resemble “Dylan and the Band rather than McCartney’s Wings,” both an idealistic statement and an open shot at his former bandmate’s new project.36

And so the free-for-all circus on Bank Street and in New Jersey welcomed all comers to the cause. Planning meetings included a young woman who took the minutes with a steno book but was not, Leni Sinclair recalls, part of the Movement; she instead turned out to be an informant. The FBI had for some time kept their eyes and ears on Rubin, Davis, and their associates. Heading into 1972, they added former Beatle John Lennon to the list.

• • •

Lennon may have been uncertain about—and soon started to demonstrate caution toward—his new political friends, but as always he took solace in the music. Forming new relationships with musicians perhaps made the thirty-one-year-old nostalgic for the salad days when the Beatles were still a yet-unrealized dream.

Lennon enjoyed simply jamming with his new band; playing music in the studio, at clubs, even on the occasional street corner—which they did one evening—made him feel at home and were all equally suitable venues. It was a simple pleasure that had been lost to Lennon once the screaming girls drowned out the melodies at Beatles’ concerts. And the music itself was more than just the music: they hung out together, jammed for a while, got to know one another. “The inner workings of a band,” Van Scyoc calls it. “Like being married to four other guys.”

Lennon tried to ignore the pressure he and those connected with him must have felt in writing a sequel to the Beatles. Although it was obvious to everyone in the room that the Elephants were auditioning to be supporting players, Lennon tried to put them at ease with tongue-in-cheek goofiness.

“John asked if he could join our band,” Van Scyoc says. “We looked at each other saying: ‘What the hell? That’s not going to work! What do we call it? What’s the media going to say?’”

As if Lennon gave a damn about the press reaction to his decisions—a man who held a press conference while wrapped in a bag with his wife. At the same time, there were things about which Lennon cared very much, primarily the music. Most everything else was a lark: the Beatles admitted that their forays into movies were largely done for a laugh, their concerts had become a noisy joke, and press conferences were an excuse for British silliness in the Goons–Monty Python tradition. Yet few bands ever treated recording sessions with such dedication, nor acted stronger as a team with a shared respect for the final product.

Could that happen again in New York? Lennon approached his new life in Manhattan with the same cheerful gusto so many experience when moving there. Lennon marveled at the change in atmosphere between Greenwich Village and Times Square, from Wall Street’s concrete canyons to Central Park. He described the neighborhood seen from behind his circular glasses to Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker: “It’s like a quaint little town . . . like a little Welsh village, with Jones the Fish and Jones the Milk and everybody seems to know everybody.” He pedaled a bicycle through narrow downtown streets, dropped in without fanfare at the outrageous Village shops and happening places. Tex Gabriel recalls casual times with Lennon, just wandering Manhattan, maybe stopping for breakfast at the Pink Teacup restaurant on Grove Street.

“He wanted to be out walking the streets, which we did many times,” says Gabriel. “For the most part nobody bothered him. Of course, people did come up to ask for an autograph, and he would graciously abide.” There were times when the attention was too much, too strong, and Lennon would politely say “that’s all,” and walk—not run—away, but Lennon was generally friendly and appreciative when encountered by fans.

Lennon felt free in the big city, anonymous among the crowds. The relative newcomer played eager tour guide when John and Leni Sinclair visited and took them to a restaurant on Ninety-First Street called, simply, Home. To Lennon it was a life that would have seemed impossible in London, but he’d convinced himself—for whatever reasons—that he could enjoy life’s simple pleasures in America.

“It’s a big deal when you go out in public and don’t have any life of your own, you’re just this fantasy of people who bought your record,” John Sinclair says. “Lennon wanted to be an artist. He didn’t want to be the head of the fucking Beatles anymore with the girls screaming; he did that.”

It was a far cry from his final days in England, where the privacy of his home was shattered by fans who wanted more than just musical memories, where the press sharpened their pens to attack his wife, where every street held Beatles memories he wanted to put in the past.

“In London they couldn’t do that, they had people camped outside their house,” Sinclair says. “Jesus Christ, what a punishment for making good records.”


20 John Lennon, interview by Alan Smith, New Musical Express, reprinted in Hit Parader, February 1972.

21 Ben Gerson, review of Imagine by John Lennon, Rolling Stone, October 28, 1971.

22 Editorial, “Art of Hokum?” Syracuse Post-Standard, September 27, 1971.

23 John Lennon and Yoko Ono, “Love Letter from Two Artists,” Syracuse Post-Standard, October 7, 1971.

24 John Lennon, interview with David Frost, David Frost Show, June 1969.

25 The U.S. vs. John Lennon.

26 Ed McCormack, “Elephant’s Memory Without the Plastic,” Rolling Stone, August 31, 1972.

27 Toby Mamis, “Take It to the Streets,” Creem, June 1971.

28 McCormack, Rolling Stone.

29 Mike Jahn, “Elephant’s Memory Mixes Radicalism and a Rough Sound,” New York Times, July 4, 1971.

30 “Talent in Action,” Billboard, July 17, 1971.

31 McCormack, Rolling Stone.

32 The David Frost Show, broadcast January 1972.

33 Jon Wiener, Come Together: John Lennon in His Time (New York: Random House, 1990), 198.

34 Stu Werbin, “John & Jerry & David & John & Leni & Yoko,” Rolling Stone, February 17, 1972.

35 Ibid.

36 Richard Nusser, “Beatle With an Elephant’s Memory?” Village Voice, January 20, 1972.

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