Chapter 3


“We’d like to talk about love, peace, communicating, women’s liberation, racism, war. That’s what’s going on.”
—John Lennon on the Mike Douglas Show

John Lennon wasn’t being paranoid; he was being watched, even more than in the usual music-fan fishbowl way that had been his life for years by now.

He was a celebrity, of course, and even on the jaded New York streets he attracted attention. The Bank Street residence was fairly well known in the neighborhood, his rehearsals with Elephant’s Memory at Magnagraphics common knowledge. Much of it was familiar, whether in London or America: people lingered near his home or recording studio who wanted nothing more than the gentle smile and quick autograph he offered without pause.

But something more was going on. The same men—who didn’t look like they belonged in the West Village—seemed rooted to nearby parking spaces; Lennon’s studio-trained ears picked up on more than just static on the telephone line. Photographer Bob Gruen, a neighbor familiar with the quiet street, had become a friend of John and Yoko’s and remained so throughout the decade. In a photo book published years later Gruen recalled when the local climate changed: “My neighbors told me they often spotted guys out on Bank Street wearing trench coats and the trademark fedoras. These men would ask passersby if they’d noticed anything suspicious about John and Yoko.”37

“What became clear was that the surveillance on John and Yoko was intensifying,” says Jay Craven, whose activities were likewise monitored. “There was a sense of danger,” he continues. “There was a desire by the government to make them feel that their every move and every word was being monitored. That clearly made John nervous.”

Craven was well acquainted with life under surveillence; he’d spent enough time in the company of what the Federal Bureau of Investigation called “known radicals,” including Rennie Davis, Jerry Rubin, and others in the Movement, documents that included references to his involvement.

“The FBI knew everything that was going on,” Craven says.

Lennon’s name began appearing in federal reports as plans for the concert tour were laid at the start of an election year, linking him with those considered a threat to national security. A New York bureau agent reported on January 4, 1972, that Rubin and activist Stewart Albert were “in constant contact with John Lennon in New York. Reasons unknown (possibly financial).” A January 6 follow-up hinted that the first concert might take place that March in New Hampshire, and would include “John Lennon, of the Beatles.”38

Craven spent much of January setting the foundation for the planned tour, to be run from an office on Hudson Street in a building John and Yoko purchased. He made several snowy trips up and down the eastern seaboard and hauled files and typewriters from the Washington office that he and Rennie Davis had used during previous protests.

This, too, was known in Washington; a January 10 memo reported the relocation and confirmed that the principal players were together in New York. A concert was being planned, but New York field agents didn’t call it that. Instead they used terms such as “peace rally” in their reports, and the political nature of the scheme caught the highest attentions possible in Washington: FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was sent a January 23 “priority report” on “protest activities and civil disturbances”; copies went to the very top of the national ladder, including the president, vice president, secretary of state, CIA, and armed services brass.

Hoover’s summary first identified those involved, the so-called Allamuchy Tribe, named for the location of the New Jersey meeting that confirmed Lennon’s commitment to the tour. Among the leaders of the tribe were “Rennie Davis, one of the defendants in the Chicago Seven trials, and will include Stu Alpert and J. Craven,” along with John Lennon.

The “tribe” name coined by the FBI to describe the group was an agent’s invention—it wasn’t a title that Davis and Craven said was used by those involved—but the reported purpose was clear: “To direct Movement activities during the election year, which activities will culminate with demonstrations at the Republican National Convention.”

How those plans would be funded was also cause for concern. A follow-up memo from the New York FBI office for the first time referenced an alleged $75,000 contribution given by Lennon for the tribe’s formation, an amount cited in subsequent reports as being the seed money for the Election Year Strategy Information Center—for practical purposes the same group under another name.

Intelligence reports were often precise in their accuracy; other times the investigation seemed amateurish when trying to gather basic facts about a high-profile subject. A February 2 memo reported that John and Yoko vacated their last known residence, the St. Regis hotel: “Lennon has since moved to unknown address.” By then, Lennon was several months into his stay at 105 Bank Street; the agent was unable to learn what pretty much everyone in the West Village knew. Perhaps to make sure of identities, the same memo requested background information, “including photo of subject.” For some reason, obtaining a photograph in New York City of John Lennon required assistance from HQ.

He wasn’t difficult to find. Lennon joined an early February protest—raised-fist photos of John and Yoko were widely published—at the New York office of British Overseas Airways. The demonstration called for the withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland in the wake of the Bloody Sunday riots. The agent noted that there was no evidence that Lennon supported the Irish Republican Army militant group and its any-means-necessary stance in their quest for independence from Britain.

Still, Lennon’s associations with political activists—under any name—stirred considerable interest: the combination of the radical leaders’ history and Lennon’s wealth and influence could very well be a political force in the forthcoming election. A bureau summary described Lennon’s recent activities, along with the reports by undercover agents at the Ann Arbor concert. John Sinclair’s near-immediate release from prison was duly noted. In New York Lennon kept company with Rubin, Davis, Craven, and assorted “New Left leaders,” known advocates of a “program to ‘dump Nixon’” through a series of rock concerts; people who had been “instrumental in disrupting the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.”

Plans that involved the Chicago Seven—who’d been found guilty of riot-inciting—qualified as a matter of national security. As such, copies were sent to ranking defense officials including the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, longtime South Carolina lawmaker Strom Thurmond.

“This appears to be an important matter,” Thurmond wrote in a February 4 cover letter sent with the report to William Timmons, legislative affairs assistant to President Richard Nixon; another copy went to Attorney General John Mitchell. These youth rallies against Nixon might work—certainly with the rookie eighteen-to-twenty-year-old voters—now that they had “John Lennon as a drawing card.” The Chicago Seven seemed able to make use of Lennon’s name for a show guaranteed to “pour tremendous amounts of money into the coffers of the New Left.”

Thurmond advised that the information be strongly considered “at the highest level,” and that something should be done about it. “As I can see, many headaches might be avoided if appropriate action be taken in time.”

For “appropriate action,” Thurmond suggested the obvious solution to a trouble-making foreigner, although it should be done carefully: “If Lennon’s visa is terminated it would be a strategy counter-measure. The source also noted the caution which must be taken with regard to the possible alienation of the so-called 18-year-old vote if Lennon is expelled from the country.”

The goal for which Lennon’s deportation would be good “strategy” was not specified, but referencing eighteen-year-old voters—a real wild card in the upcoming election rather than merely a demographic—strongly suggests that the motivation was the election, not security.

The FBI investigation of John Lennon stands apart, rare if not unique for several reasons: the plan to monitor and deport Lennon came from within the government; the allegation was of what he might do, not anything he’d already done; and the threat was not of potential attacks on America. It was all about the job security of the president. The hippies and Yippies believed that Lennon could influence the election, and so did the politicians holding elected office.

In a report entitled “New ‘New Left’ Group Formed” in the February 11 FBI Current Intelligence Analysis, Lennon was described as more than just a concert participant casually helping the Election Year Strategy Information Center and its opposition to Nixon, but perhaps its driving force: “Lennon’s money and name have placed him in a position of considerable influence in EYSIC. No key planning sessions are held without Lennon.”

An image of John Lennon dominated the cover, an illustration rather than a photograph. Apparently, the FBI still couldn’t seem to find a picture of one of the world’s most photographed men.

• • •

“I’ve been practicing with Elephant’s Memory. Have you heard of them? They’re a New York band, good musicians. I really like them. They understand everything that’s going on, too. I’m going to play with them on the Mike Douglas show.”
—John Lennon in
Rolling Stone 39

Elephant’s Memory was well known in New York; people on the downtown scene were accustomed to seeing the band’s name in the Village Voice or rocking the crowds at Max’s Kansas City. Even the youngest man, Tex Gabriel, had already experienced a measure of celebrity in Detroit, onstage with Mitch Ryder before loyal, local fans. But playing with John Lennon was something else entirely.

“It was happening, but it was so bizarre, like I was in some fog, a dream,” Gabriel says. “Being that way kept me from going, ‘Oh my God, this is John Lennon: I’m going to fuck up so bad!’ Your consciousness sometimes protects you from drama; it put me in a surreal mode where I just went along for the ride. Where could it go from there?”

Lennon’s musical future was as much a matter of speculation as his political plans. The Elephants were in the unfortunate position of appearing as temporary substitutes in the eyes of fans who would have preferred to see a reunion.

“A lot of people asked him when the Beatles were getting back together,” Gabriel says. “He’d just point to us and say, ‘These are the Beatles, now.’”

Not quite. The “Plastic Ono Elephant’s Memory Band” was not destined to replace the Fab Four by any means; nobody—including a star-studded group featuring Eric Clapton that had played with Lennon in Toronto—would be capable of doing that for any Beatle. Clearly, though, the bandsmen could bask in the reflected spotlight. Bob Dylan’s supporting players, simply known as the Band, used their time behind a star of near-Beatle brightness as a launching pad for a sound and style decidedly their own. Could the same thing happen for the veteran Village players?

“I was really rooting for them,” Magnagraphics owner Bob Prewitt recalls of the opportunity. “I thought, ‘Damn, these guys are really gonna make it.’ And . . . yeah . . . if they made it, I was gonna make it with them. Lennon held the promise of putting us all on the map, so to speak. This was perfect.”

The band was cautious, however, of the pitfalls of backing a legend. Stan Bronstein and Rick Frank wanted to make sure the Elephants weren’t lost in the glare, and Lennon encouraged the group to maintain its identity.

“He wasn’t asking them to mimic what he did,” Prewitt says. “He wanted the Elephants to maintain autonomy throughout the tracks. He wanted them to be them.”

The proximity and hours spent together invited a camaraderie where Lennon was most comfortable—the recording studio. A particular kinship formed between Lennon, whose mother, Julia, was killed by a drunk driver shortly before her son made his first record, and Gabriel, still adjusting to his mother’s recent passing.

“They had something of a bond,” Van Scyoc says. “Besides the obvious that they were both guitar players, they had a lot in common: Tex’s mother just died, and John had lost his mother. It was pretty intense. They were always just sitting there on the floor cross-legged, face-to-face for hours playing and talking.”

Getting to know Lennon revealed more than a few surprises to the band. Certainly they held preconceived notions—as had a generation—which they soon learned were often false, usually blurred. To those who didn’t really know the man, Lennon was often a complicated puzzle to be solved, a walking contradiction. Was he funny or sarcastic, kind or harsh, generous or self-serving?

Was Lennon arrogant? That was one perception, a smart-ass image dating back to the Beatles’ introduction to America on Ed Sullivan’s stage, Lennon grinning like he knew something everyone else didn’t. Instead the musicians met a man not quite as cocky as they assumed. Lennon was sincerely apologetic, even humble, during his early appearances with improvised bands. Heading into another album, TV appearances, and possible tour, Lennon knew the music would be judged according to an almost impossibly high standard.

“Sometimes I thought he was more nervous than we were,” Gabriel says. “It was the first time he’d been with a group other than the Beatles, his buddies, and now he was coming together with this street band.”

Then there was Lennon’s relationship with Yoko Ono. Some, including the Beatles, had questioned his habit of letting her share stage time or be a studio presence. Critics said that when Yoko was around Lennon might have lost his musical edge. Not quite: the Elephants saw a man serious about his craft and not always tolerant of distractions, no matter the source.

Early rehearsals featured Lennon showing chords and arrangements to the group. Lennon sat at the piano; Yoko shared the bench as he ran through “Imagine.” He played the introduction and began singing. Yoko interrupted with a word of advice.

Lennon stopped playing and politely asked Yoko to be quiet. He started playing again, and within seconds was interrupted by his wife.

“Please,” Lennon said. “Just let me show the guys the song, okay?”

He started again, and the inevitable happened. On the third interruption, Lennon’s fingers slowed neither a beat nor a measure in their playing.

“Yoko, shut the fuck up,” Lennon said, and finished the song.

The Elephants learned that Lennon’s life was far more complicated than what they read in magazines or saw on television. In the aftermath of the Beatles there were endless assumptions made about Lennon’s relationship with Paul McCartney, tales that had them either ready to reunite or at each other’s throats, depending upon the day and mood.

“You heard a different rumor every other week that they were getting back together,” Gary Van Scyoc says. “It wasn’t going to happen then. But I didn’t really sense any animosity between John and Paul. At the Record Plant, Paul would call on the phone and the session would stop and they’d talk for an hour and a half. Then you’d see an article the next day about how they hated each other.”

The Elephants were not expected to be McCartney-caliber collaborators, but Lennon sought input from the musicians. Gabriel was amazed when Lennon requested feedback while writing songs for Some Time in New York City.

“He really wanted an opinion,” Gabriel says. “Here he was, this rhythmic genius, but he didn’t stick that in your face. His ego was really in check. If anything, I think he was more insecure than a lot of celebrities.”

Lennon wanted to work with, not necessarily guide, the musicians, and treated the Elephants with professional respect. What surprised Gabriel most was how relaxed Lennon made the bandsmen feel, and how the barely twenty-one-year-old Gabriel felt in Lennon’s company.

“I can really look back and see how far out it was to have that natural comfort with someone of that magnitude,” Gabriel says. “I mean, there I was learning a tune, and he’s asking: ‘Do you like it?’ I never felt like, ‘This is John Lennon the Beatle, what am I doing here?’ You felt you belonged there. He made you feel that way.”

Lennon relaxed during such times with the group, ending work sessions with late dinners or at Bank Street; quiet, low-key times that allowed—at least in Lennon’s mind—the illusion of anonymity.

“It was cool not to be too in awe of him,” says Prewitt. “It was cooler to just walk the street, ‘Oh, hey John, how ya doing?’ Occasionally there would be people outside the studio, but never big crowds. He felt really comfortable there.”

Sometimes that same innocent attitude clouded Lennon’s vision. After a recording session ended in the predawn hours, Van Scyoc was driving uptown when he spotted John and Yoko by themselves on an Eighth Avenue corner trying to hail a taxi.

“What the hell are you doing?” he yelled. “Get the hell in the car!” He couldn’t believe they hadn’t arranged a driver, or weren’t aware of the boundaries they crossed—regardless of their celebrity—in a neighborhood populated mostly by “derelicts and prostitutes” at that hour.

“But they loved New York so much they thought nothing about walking down Eighth to catch a cab,” Van Scyoc says. “They thought they were totally incognito and nobody would notice, but that’s just not the way it was.”

• • •

Suspicions about John Lennon had been aired in the Oval Office prior to Strom Thurmond’s early February memo suggesting deportation. A year earlier Nixon had been warned about those troublesome Beatles by the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley.

The landscape of America had changed since Elvis joined the Army in 1958; at the time Presley was clearly the top name in the pop universe, and some cynically considered the induction a patriotic career move. If so, the strategy was misguided as Presley never again reached the chart-topping dominance of his early, Sun Records era. After his days in uniform, Presley spent the “Beatlemania” years making formulaic movies that produced a few hit records, but the British invasion, explosion of rock talent, psychedelia, and the passing of time seemed to leave the King and other ’50s pioneers behind. Like Nixon, Presley staged a brief comeback in 1968, a leather-clad glimpse of his rock and roll roots before a final career stage of cabaret spectacle, with Vegas neon reflected off his sequined jumpsuit.

Among other hobbies, Presley developed a fondness for law enforcement and collected guns, badges, and honorary titles from police agencies. Presley was sincere in his concern for his country, and in December 1970 reached out to the president of the United States to offer his assistance.40

While sharing first-class airline space with Senator George Murphy (a California Republican and show business veteran of movie musicals including For Me and My Gal), Presley wrote a letter that was delivered to Nixon. The nation faced enemies from within, according to Elvis, dissident elements that trusted him in ways that conventional investigators couldn’t achieve. Presley offered to be the highest-profile spy since Marlene Dietrich vamped for the Allies: “The drug culture, the hippie elements, the SDS, Black Panthers, etc., do not consider me their enemy or as they call it the establishment. I call it America and I love it. Sir, I can and will be of any service that I can to help my country.”

Presley asked to be named a “Federal Agent at Large.” He wanted a badge, of course, but not a formal “title or an appointed position.” With unintended, tragic irony, Presley said he spoke with authority on the matter: “I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse and Communist brainwashing techniques and I am right in the middle of the whole thing where I can and will do the most good.”

A White House meeting was scheduled. Presley was taken to the Oval Office on the morning of December 21; in preparation for the visit deputy assistant to the president Dwight Chapin advised White House chief of staff H. R. Haldeman that Presley’s credibility included a recent award from the Junior Chamber of Commerce (Jaycees): “Presley was voted one of the ten outstanding young men for next year and this was based upon his work in the field of drugs.”

The historic meeting began with photographs that, decades later, are described as among the most requested from the National Security Archive’s considerable collection: Presley, wearing a velvet cape of sorts under a wingspan collar, enormous belt buckle shimmering amidst the glare, eyes more glassy than seductively sleepy, shook hands with a visibly uncomfortable Richard Nixon.

The Nixon-Presley meeting was summarized in a memorandum, “For the President’s File,” written by attorney Egil “Bud” Krogh, who had served as Nixon’s liaison to the FBI and Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. The first paragraph described introductory small talk. Presley said he was currently headlining in Nevada.

“The President indicated that he was aware of how difficult it is to perform in Las Vegas,” Krogh noted. An understanding man, Nixon.

In the second paragraph, Nixon explained his hopes that Presley could help reach young people; Elvis said he did that while singing. They both agreed that Elvis should maintain his credibility with America’s youth.

Then they discussed the Beatles. The third paragraph begs the question of Elvis’s own paranoid tendencies: “Presley indicated that he thought the Beatles had been a real force for anti-American spirit. He said the Beatles came to this country, made their money, and then returned to England where they promoted an anti-American theme. The President nodded in agreement and expressed some surprise.”

The heavy-drinking president and prescription-loaded singer then spoke of America’s enemies within. “The President indicated that those who use drugs are also those in the vanguard of anti-American protest,” Krogh wrote, echoing the White House philosophy that opposition to the war was unpatriotic. “Violence, drug usage, dissent, protests all seem to merge in generally the same group of young people.”

Some people wondered, based on the report and photo, if Elvis was under the influence of various pills at the time. Krogh made several references to Presley’s emotional state: passionately telling the president he was “on your side”; humbly saying he was “just a poor boy from Tennessee” who’d been blessed by America and wanted to return the favor. At meeting’s end Presley repeated his support for Nixon, “and then, in a surprising, spontaneous gesture, put his left arm around the president and hugged him.”

Presley’s embrace of the president—symbolically and literally—ranks among the most awkward moments in Oval Office history. The legendary meeting ended inconclusively. Gifts were exchanged: a faux Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs badge for Presley; a commemorative World War II–era Colt .45 pistol joined the Nixon arsenal (“encased in a handsome wooden chest,” according to the thank-you note). Elvis continued sweating it out on Vegas stages, and little or no evidence exists that he made any headway in infiltrating the hippies, SDS, or Black Panther Party.

Many insiders maintain that Nixon was sincere in his attempts to communicate with the young, to find common ground with those who so actively loathed him. Efforts to reach across the generational divide included a 1968 campaign-year cameo on Laugh-In,when Nixon delivered the “sock it to me” catchphrase as a question rather than invitation. It was no secret that Nixon wasn’t always comfortable in social settings.

“He was clumsy with people,” says Joseph Blatchford, Nixon’s 1969 appointee as director of the Peace Corps. Blatchford recalls the president sometimes trying odd methods of connecting with young people, including an early morning Lincoln Memorial visit with protestors who had flocked to DC after Kent State. Accompanied by just a single aide, Nixon climbed the steps of the memorial and truly freaked out the hippies who awoke to a private audience with the president of the United States.

“It was a bizarre thing to do,” Blatchford says, especially at a time when the White House was prepared to go on lockdown status if post–Kent State demonstrations took a turn for the worse. “He was troubled and he tried to talk to them.” Nixon stopped short of asking the kids about their favorite subjects in school as he struggled to make conversation, bringing up football and surfing, among other topics. Travel, the president advised the young, was a good way to broaden one’s mind.

From Blatchford’s perspective, international trips were a delicate topic. He’d been warned that Peace Corps volunteers should not be wandering the globe and bad-mouthing the president or the nation’s defense policy. “The Vietnam War really split up the country badly,” Blatchford says. The Peace Corps mostly attracted idealistic youth fresh from college. “They were torn: they desired to take Kennedy’s call and go overseas and serve and, at the same time, were coming out of college where all the campuses were saying no, stay here and fight Nixon and the war.”

In spite of the seeming divide, with Nixon seen as top antagonist, Blatchford says the president had a soft spot for the young generation, however ill-expressed, that was sometimes revealed. “I was surprised when he told me he was all for the eighteen-year-old vote,” Blatchford says. “I was trying to encourage him to move forward with it. Others in the administration said it would cost him the ’72 election. He said, ‘I don’t care, I think they should have the vote.’”

Blatchford says Nixon himself supported the Peace Corps and its mission; others would have preferred ending the program after the Kennedy administration. One notable problem involved Peace Corps volunteers who took part in antiwar protests. Blatchford stood his ground admirably in the face of considerable pressure.

“I had some dealings with the White House, some unpleasant ones,” Blatchford recalls. “Strangely enough, I got most of my support from Nixon himself. Vice President Agnew got all upset and wanted me to fire these people.”

Blatchford struggled to keep the corps neutral and met resistance from both sides of the aisle. After Kennedy the agency became part of the government, which made it vulnerable to politics.

“Nixon was very positive, but not so much some of his aides. They wanted to go after the young guys with long hair. It was tense.”

However superficial, hair length was very much a barometer of the decade’s conflicts, fashion attributed to rock and roll and certain bands in particular. In the early 1960s, Blatchford was a Berkeley law student and founder of global-action group Accion. He visited London just as the times began-a-changing.

“I’d never seen young men with long hair before, [or heard of them] except in Shakespeare’s time,” Blatchford says. “And here were these guys on the street with long hair and funny suits imitating the Beatles. That was the first time I saw the youth antiestablishment message, before I saw it in this country and before the Vietnam War became a big issue.”

By 1972 the war in Southeast Asia was the most telling symptom of the national condition. The confusion in Washington was matched by uncertainty throughout the land, which Blatchford said included journalists and activists.

“There was an attempt in society, fanned by the media, where people were trying to get a fight going,” Blatchford says. “It was hard to figure out who were the dangerous guys, who were the criminals, who were the saints and spiritual leaders. It was a very confusing time.”

Confusion, as with politics, made for strange bedfellows, and Blatchford says that many well-meaning people may have stepped into situations ill prepared. No one, including Elvis Presley and John Lennon, knew quite what to make of the Black Panthers, often perceived as a militant threat.

“A lot of naïve people got involved with some very dangerous characters,” Blatchford says. “I remember Leonard Bernstein giving a fundraiser for the Black Panthers. It was a time of liberation for women, for blacks, and the whole racial thing going on, and at the same time there was the voice of Martin Luther King.”

In February 1972, Blatchford himself was on the same roster as Black Panther Party cofounder Bobby Seale, among others, in a decidedly unexpected forum.

“Mike Douglas turned the show over to him for a week,” Blatchford says. “Lennon asked for me to come on the show; he wanted to hear about volunteerism and so forth.”

• • •

Mike Douglas found his days with Lennon to be memorable for many reasons, describing their time together as “one of the most interesting, most trying and, in the end, most rewarding week of shows we ever produced.”

Add “unprecedented” and “unusual” to that description. For Douglas, having John and Yoko as his cohosts for five one-hour installments of his talk and variety program was obviously a show business and ratings coup. In his memoir, I’ll Be Right Back, Douglas considered the Beatles “the most sought-after guests in the entertainment world,” an opportunity he was “determined not to waste.”41 If certain allowances had to be made to accommodate the whims of the guest hosts, Douglas knew it was a small price to pay.

It was customary for Douglas to offer his weekly cohosts a chance to bring on guests of their choosing, “but never to the extent that we did for John and Yoko.”

Lennon had a few visitors in mind, names more likely heard on the evening news than on an afternoon talk show. Viewers expected from these shows nothing more than family friendly comedians, middle-of-the-road ballads, and favorite recipes shared during cooking demonstrations. Douglas, a former big-band singer who provided Prince Charming’s vocals in Cinderella, called his easygoing ambitions “an enjoyable way to pass part of the afternoon watching television and sell some soap.” (The genial Douglas said that with false modesty: he was a quiet champion of civil rights and during the early 1960s featured more black leaders than any show on national television at the time. A network memo called Douglas out for having “an excess of Negro activists that may not be appropriate for our daytime audience,” and Douglas responded by inviting to the show Stokely Carmichael, the Trinidad-born “honorary prime minister” of the Black Panther Party credited with popularizing the term “black power.”)

Of course, Carmichael hadn’t been recently convicted of starting a riot, as had two of John and Yoko’s wish list of invitees, Jerry Rubin and Bobby Seale. Lennon’s broad range of interests and recently made friends resulted in a wildly diverse cast from the worlds of entertainment and politics. Some of the ideas fell short—Lennon had hoped to bring Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Groucho Marx to the party—but the assembled cast guaranteed a week of television history: Washington-based names included Joseph Blatchford from the Peace Corps and consumer advocate Ralph Nader, whose 1965 auto industry exposé Unsafe at Any Speed ushered in a new era of safety watchdogging; comedy came courtesy of George Carlin, who had recently dropped the suit-and-tie approach in favor of long hair and social commentary. The eclectic atmosphere was complete with Yoko Ono art demonstrations, a civil rights attorney, and a macrobiotic cooking expert sharing space with conventional guests such as veteran TV comic Louis Nye.

Advance guest list negotiations gave the bandsmen of Elephant’s Memory their first up-close look at the level of clout held by Lennon.

“The fact that Mike Douglas would do anything to have John on his show is a testament to who John was as a musical icon,” Adam Ippolito says. “There were a number of major debates over some of the guests before the show started taping; he even had Eldridge Cleaver on the list if I remember correctly.”

“Those people were a condition that John gave,” Tex Gabriel says. “I don’t see Mike Douglas calling for Bobby Seale on his own.”

In turn, John and Yoko felt that some of the conventional guests had been forced on them. Lennon vented in a letter to friend Pete Bennett, an American public relations man working at Apple Records: “I don’t know whether you heard of all the problems we’ve had with the people on Mike Douglas’s show? They keep trying to spring ‘surprise guests’ on us, and we can hardly control them. We don’t see much chance of getting you on the show—we can only just get the people we originally wanted on! They fight us every step of the way!”42

Musically, the show introduced Elephant’s Memory in their new role as Lennon’s backup band. The Daily News made note of the group’s recent promotion “after a long, crazy underground life making music without ever making it as an overground name.”43

Anticipation was high: the musicians prepared to share a national stage with a Beatle; Rubin delighted in turning a mainstream entertainment program into a Yippie forum; and Douglas recalled a frantic buildup as he and his Philadelphia staff and crew prepared for a week that “drew more interest from disparate groups of people than any other show in our history.” Executives from sponsor Westinghouse made appearances on a set they hadn’t seen in years; relatives of Douglas and the staff suddenly decided a visit to Philadelphia was long overdue.

Douglas was also aware of “at least a half dozen conservatively dressed men in attendance every day,” later confirmed to be FBI agents who were sent “to keep an eye on the suspiciously radical Beatle.”

• • •

Each day, the Mike Douglas Show began with a song, something perhaps appropriate for the cohost. In the case of Lennon, Douglas opened the Monday, February 14, show with a well-intended if ill-chosen selection.

The stage had been set, the cast in place while an announcer welcomed the studio audience and America to the day’s show. Douglas held a microphone onstage and performed the day’s first number.

“In the wings, I’m standing beside John,” Gary Van Scyoc says. “The show begins and all of a sudden we hear Mike Douglas singing ‘Michelle.’”

Douglas or his staff failed to recognize that the Lennon-McCartney byline on Beatles compositions was often deceptive; many songs were effectively solo pieces, such as Lennon’s “In My Life” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” or McCartney creations including “Yesterday” and “Michelle.” The music hall melody, French verse, and floating vocal of “Michelle” were very much the work of Paul McCartney, and not necessarily one of Lennon’s favorites.

Lennon shook his head. “Fuckin’ hell,” he scowled.

“You could hear somebody’s face drop,” Van Scyoc says. “John couldn’t believe it. He was totally nervous anyway, going on television for millions of people, but Mike comes out and does a Paul song. Just a terrible way to start the week.”

The viewing audience—the studio crowded with friends-of-friends, Beatles fans, and FBI agents, plus millions of housewives at home—was unaware that Lennon had been spewing a string of curses moments before he strode onstage. Always the pro, Lennon accepted Douglas’s gracious introduction, which may have made matters worse by crediting Lennon for the composition.

John and Yoko appeared on cue, smiled, and shook hands with Douglas while the audience cheered. The central stage area featured an arc of seats for Douglas and his guests, and John and Yoko made themselves comfortable before their microphones. Lennon gently made note of the true authorship of “Michelle,” and allowed that he did help write part of the song, just to make Douglas feel better.44

After the introductions Lennon offered a simple yet broad statement as keynote for the week: “We’d like to talk about love, peace, communicating, women’s lib, racism, war. That’s what’s going on now.”

The first day’s guests included Ralph Nader, whom Lennon introduced as “the kind of guy who sets an example, he does something.” When asked by Lennon about any political plans, Nader said he would “not ever” be interested in running for president, even though Lennon volunteered his service as minister of music.

The hour went easily with performances by the Chambers Brothers and Louis Nye, John and Yoko sang “It’s So Hard,” and Yoko exhibited two interactive art pieces whose titles were self-explanatory: Mending a Broken Teacup and Reach Out and Touch Someone in the Audience. Douglas had no preshow concerns about the first day’s talk or topics, and thought the episode went well.

But the following day was not one that Douglas looked forward to, not with a guest list that included a man he described as “an unrepentant anarchist.”

Before Jerry Rubin was brought onstage, Douglas explained his reservations: “My feelings are quite negative about this young man. But John wanted him on the show.”

Ever the diplomat, Lennon introduced Rubin by acknowledging that he understood the reputation of the Chicago Seven and the Movement’s hard-core radicals; he, too, had wondered if they were “bomb-throwing freaks” to be avoided.

“When I first met Jerry Rubin I was terrified,” Lennon said. On the other hand, Lennon had a soft spot for people who may have been misrepresented in the press, having been subjected to that once or twice: “We thought we’d give them a chance to show what they think now, not two years ago or three years ago, and what their hopes are for the future. They do represent a certain part of the youth. I think it’s time they spoke themselves.”

Which Rubin did, and confirmed Douglas’s worst fears by immediately launching into anti-Nixon rants. He blamed the president for creating an automated war, “so that it’s machines killing people,” and claimed that Nixon’s storm-trooper mentality was demonstrated at Attica and Kent State.

Lennon interviewed Rubin on the “Movement,” and where it stood. Rubin said that the cause was more necessary than ever “because the repression is so heavy that anyone who does anything gets arrested, jailed, killed.”

Douglas interrupted: “This is the only country in the world where a man can say something like that on television.”

Rubin said he himself faced prison time for speaking his mind, for saying the harsh truths that needed to be heard. Douglas changed the subject to one that he hoped would shine a more positive light, a topic that was agreed upon before the broadcast. Douglas said he heard Rubin was now against drugs, a reversal of positions.

“That’s not true,” Rubin responded, mugging for the cameras and audience. “I’m not against drugs; just heroin.” According to Jerry Rubin, heroin was a tool employed by the police to keep minorities in their place.

“He just got on my nerves,” Douglas later said, frustrated by Rubin’s predictable antigovernment rant.

Lennon steered the conversation toward voting and the need to encourage now-eligible eighteen-year-olds to register and participate. Rubin, of course, said the voting should only be done to remove Nixon, and that young people should vote as a bloc.

After a commercial, Rubin encouraged young people to attend both the Democratic and Republican conventions, “and nonviolently make our presence felt.”

“Nonviolently,” Lennon repeated the qualifier, although Rubin couldn’t resist explaining why nonviolence was the only wise course.

“Because if we do anything any other way we’ll be killed,” Rubin said. “That’s the kind of country we live in.”

The audience was not of the same mind, and responded with some booing, catcalls, and jeering; the gentle talk show atmosphere turned tense. Lennon tried to tone things down as he had the David Frost conversation about Attica. “Everybody’s entitled to their opinion,” Lennon said. “Whatever is going on, we’re all responsible for.”

In hindsight, Douglas recognized a born peacemaker. “John picked up the mantle of Kind and Gentle Host and he did it quite well, reinterpreting Jerry’s comments to take some of the sting out and adding a little humor to keep things cool.”45

The Rubin show came and went, an exercise in rhetoric where few viewpoints were changed, some confirmed. Certainly the FBI agents in the audience took note of a man focused on the removal of a president.

Politics aside, Lennon’s personal highlight for the week was on Wednesday, when the former Beatle jammed with rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry.

“John was just in heaven,” Gabriel says. “He’d never worked with Chuck Berry; he was in awe of Berry the way everyone else was in awe of Lennon.”

Lennon and the Elephants joined Berry for two songs: “Johnny B. Goode,” one of the cornerstone riffs that made the electric guitar rock and roll’s instrument of choice, and “Memphis.” Like Lennon, Berry had his own stubborn, defiant streak. Van Scyoc says some adjustments were needed when Berry began the song differently than he had in rehearsal.

“He proceeded to do the song in his key, even after we all agreed on what key to play in,” Van Scyoc says. “John wasn’t very happy. The look he gave when we started the song said it all. We were in a panic, not only performing live on national television but starting in the wrong key. I thought we did a good job; John was straining a little with his voice because of that.”

Another voice caught Berry by surprise during “Memphis.” The first verse went fine. When the chorus came around, the background singing included Yoko’s unique, piercing vocalizations. Berry’s eyes popped wide for a moment, but the veteran entertainer took it on the chin and continued unfazed.

A close-up captured Berry sharing the microphone for a duet with Lennon, whose smile summed up the experience. No matter the radical politics of the week, John Lennon’s heart was captured in those few minutes. Douglas said a grinning Lennon told him that, no matter what else, playing with Berry was “worth the whole gig, eh?”

Yet it was a guest on the fourth episode who provided the most nervous anticipation of the week: it was time for the housewives to meet a Black Panther. Douglas, hardly a stranger to the civil rights movement, admitted that his audience might not have been ready for some guests.

“After the trying experience with Jerry Rubin, I was hardly looking forward to Bobby Seale,” Douglas said. “The public viewed the Black Panthers as heavily armed, white-hating militants. Talk about the perfect way to alienate my core viewing audience.”

Douglas expected attitude from a man likely to use the word “pigs” to describe police officers or phrases such as “up against the wall” to raise militant anger. Instead, Douglas heard descriptions of Panther clothing drives, breakfast programs for inner-city students, and other community-based activism.

Lennon explained that when he met the Panther leader he was surprised by what he learned.

“He had a lot to say,” Lennon said. “He’s doing a lot that was not what I’d read in the paper about him. The Foundation, giving food to people, the programs of education . . . and we thought, well, let’s see that side of these people.”

Seale discussed the Panthers’ ten-point program, a controversial doctrine yet one that contained a philosophy of empowerment and local responsibility.

Douglas readily admitted his surprise, and pleasure: “All I can say is, God bless Bobby Seale. There was no trace of the rancor I expected.” Douglas welcomed Seale’s descriptions of programs to collect shoes for the needy, and film clips showed the Panthers giving out bags of groceries. What was said seemed less important than how it was presented—with civility and genuine passion.

By week’s end, Douglas realized “the headaches were minor,” and the respect he held for Lennon the musician was matched by his assessment of the man. “He was smart, funny, gregarious, and beguiling,” Douglas said. “He was as good a listener as a talker, with a genuine compassion for other people and respect for other philosophies.”

As a bonus, Douglas was given a look at what some still considered the mystery of the ages: “I came to understand something about John’s affection for this woman,” Douglas said of Yoko Ono. “She was strange and could be difficult, but she was a powerful character.”

Throughout the week Yoko showcased her music and art, including telephoning random numbers and telling whoever answered, “We love you,” or what Douglas called a “baffling” piece, a mirror-lined box for people to hold and grin at themselves. “Collecting smiles” was the concept, and Yoko passed the box around for all to try.

“John turned to me and said, ‘I live with her and I still don’t get a lot of this stuff,’” Douglas recalled. “You had to like the guy.”

Not everyone appreciated Yoko. People who adored John, including fans and colleagues, often made her the scapegoat for the Beatles’ breakup and Lennon’s seemingly strange stunts like the bed-ins or bagism. She was perhaps an easy target for critics, and the bandsmen saw some who took advantage of that. Rehearsals for Yoko’s singing performances generated harsh laughter and comments from the show’s crew.

“She was crying during rehearsal,” Ippolito says. “That had to be smoothed over.”

Yoko wore a brave broadcast face even when—as legend has it—the crew kept her microphone muted during musical segments. Ippolito recognized that, as a musician, Lennon may have given her the benefit of the doubt, a case of the things you do for love.

“He knew what she sounded like,” Ippolito says. “He was also into freedom of expression and art, and was taken by her mystique.”

Yoko Ono was a woman of mystery, which may have been Joseph Blatchford’s assessment after they shared a stage. Blatchford was largely unaware of Lennon’s politics and knew the man primarily for his art. “I had not followed him much other than as a musician with the Beatles,” Blatchford says. “It came up during the show.”

On air, Lennon interviewed Blatchford about volunteerism. What the audience may not have seen was Blatchford’s exchange with Yoko during a commercial break. Blatchford recalls Yoko, polite and friendly, discreetly taking his hand.

“She passed me a note, secretly, written in red pen,” Blatchford says. “Her personal phone number; and she either wrote or whispered to me that she was looking for help with the authorities for John. She wondered if I could help them.”

Blatchford didn’t give too much thought to Yoko’s request; there really wasn’t anything he could do from the humble Peace Corps office. He found Lennon to be “very pleasant and very nice,” and thought the show went well.

He soon learned that the Nixon administration put Lennon in the same category as what they considered “provocateurs with secret missions to undermine our security.” Given his experience with an increasingly paranoid administration, Blatchford found it sadly believable that a presidential staff would place a musician under surveillance, consider him a threat, and try to force deportation.

“It wouldn’t surprise me at all if those guys were saying, ‘Let’s get the FBI on this guy,’” Blatchford says. “They overdid it.”


37 Bob Gruen, John Lennon: The New York Years (New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2005), 52.

38 The research in this and other FBI sections is largely based on publicly available documents from the FBI’s declassified files: “John Winston Lennon,” FBI Records: The Vault, Additional contextual and background information can be found in Jon Wiener, Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).

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

40 Transcripts and correspondence from the Nixon-Presley meeting on December 21, 1970, can be found at the National Security Archive at the George Washington University,

41 Mike Douglas, with Thomas Kelly and Michael Heaton, I’ll Be Right Back: Memories of TV’s Greatest Talk Show (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 257–262.

42 Hunter Davies, ed., The John Lennon Letters (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2012).

43 Night Owl Reporter, “Here They Come Again,” New York Daily News, February 15, 1972.

44 Mike Douglas Show, February 14–18, 1972.

45 Douglas, I’ll Be Right Back.

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