Chapter 4


“If the man wants to shove us out we’re gonna jump and shout: the Statue of Liberty said, ‘Come!’” —John Lennon, “New York City”

The Nixon administration’s attempt to send John Lennon packing began with the US Department of Immigration and Naturalization. On March 1, 1972, the Lennons were informed that their visitor visas would not be renewed, and that they must depart these shores no later than March 15.

A second notice went out just five days later, after the INS district director concluded that the Lennons “had no intention to leave,” and they were notified that deportation proceedings would soon begin.46

Washington observers believed the matter was settled, and that the election-motivated “counterstrategy” suggested by Senator Strom Thurmond appeared successful. Thurmond was told by White House aide William Timmons that Lennon wouldn’t be around by August convention time. The perceived threat to presidential security had been addressed: “You may be assured the information you previously furnished has been appropriately noted.”

The Lennons had several valid reasons for being in the country, the most compelling of which had been so Yoko could be near her daughter, Kyoko, who was in the custody of her former husband Tony Cox. Beginning in early 1971 John and Yoko had made several trips to America seeking clarification on parental rights from Texas courts; both Cox and Kyoko were US citizens believed to have a Houston residency. Yoko’s custody quest sparked thoughts of making America their home, hand-in-hand with Lennon’s need to distance himself from London bitterness in his post-Beatles world.

Attorney Leon Wildes says that renewing passport papers should have been a relatively routine matter, and the family issue alone qualified for extensions. “I was surprised by the whole thing,” Wildes says. “They really weren’t asking for much.”

Wildes had been a law school classmate of Alan Kahn, who served as house counsel to Apple Records. When Lennon, one of Apple’s founding artists, was served with deportation papers, Kahn thought first of Wildes & Weinberg, among the best and most INS-experienced firms in New York. He called his old friend to offer him the case, and was amazed by Wildes’s first question: “Alan, tell me, who is John Lennon?”

“Never admit that you asked me that question,” Kahn advised.

Born and raised in a small Pennsylvania town, Wildes was more familiar with classical music and his beloved opera than contemporary music styles. While it’s difficult to imagine living in New York City through the late ’60s unaware of Lennon and the Beatles, Wildes instead viewed John and Yoko as he did the East-West romance in Verdi’s Aida.

“I didn’t know who John Lennon and Yoko Ono were,” Wildes says. “I knew even less about their music. I just saw a beautiful couple, a beautiful marriage that seemed to go beyond the usual. When I found out who they were, how important they were, I grew to appreciate it even more.”

Wildes went to Bank Street for an initial consultation. Most guests hung out in laid-back fashion in the largest room—space organized around a central bed and sprinkled with guitars and peace signs like any groovy Village pad, except for the Academy Award (Let It Be) on a crowded bookshelf—but business was business and the Lennons paid due courtesies to the attorney. “They came out to a back room, and that was kind of a respectful stand,” Wildes says.

Wildes appreciated John and Yoko’s desire to remain in America, and assured them that Yoko’s need to have access to her daughter—with her husband at her side—made a compelling legal argument.

There was one possible problem: Lennon traveled with the baggage of a 1968 misdemeanor conviction for possession of cannabis. Sergeant Norman Pilcher and the London Drug Squad had arrested Lennon as part of a series of pop-star busts; Pilcher’s mug shots included George Harrison, Donovan, and no fewer than three Rolling Stones—Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Brian Jones. On advice of counsel Lennon had pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge and paid a small fine.47

That conviction was a relatively minor stain on a passport application, but technically enough to cancel a visa. During previous visits Lennon had obtained a waiver for temporary stays, but John and Yoko now wanted more time in America, perhaps another year; Lennon had been told that the conviction could be dismissed after five years, and could clear the way for more permanent arrangements. Lennon asked if Wildes could somehow get them just a little more time.

A grace period should be easy enough, Wildes said. Even better, why not apply for permanent residency?

“If you’re as important as everyone says you are,” Wildes told Lennon, “I may be able to put the government in a very embarrassing public posture.” Wildes knew that the INS preferred to avoid trials that involved famous names. INS district director Sol Marks—who had shared more than a few Long Island Rail Road commutes with his friend Wildes—and lead prosecutor Vincent Schiano handled cases ranging from mob bosses to Xaviera Hollander, author of The Happy Hooker. (Hollander reportedly sent Schiano a copy of her book, in which her inscription asked if he really thought she was an “undesirable” alien.) Going after Lennon would invite considerable media exposure; Marks could only imagine the public backlash if he tried to kick a Beatle out of the country.48

Wildes planned to argue that Lennon was an “outstanding person in the arts or sciences,” and challenge the harsh result of asking a woman to choose between staying with her daughter or leaving with her husband. Informally, Marks told Wildes that an extension of one or two months would likely be granted; but only one, no more.

Marks’s response suggested to Wildes there was more to the matter than he thought: “Don’t ask me any questions,” he told Wildes. “These people will never get another extension. And Leon: tell them to get out.”

• • •

Another protest briefly caught Lennon’s attention in early March, one inspired by profit rather than politics. Lennon had more than a casual interest at stake; the players involved included a business partner, a fellow former Beatle, and a rock legend.

Allen Klein, a fireball attorney and sometime rock impresario, had been entrusted by Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr to represent the Beatles post-breakup. (That choice was at odds with Paul McCartney’s idea of having his in-laws manage the Apple holdings.) Anointed by three-quarters of the band to handle their affairs, Klein had worked with Lennon on the Imagine promotional film, and in 1971 produced Harrison’s massive charity benefit, the June “Concert for Bangladesh” at Madison Square Garden. The crisis-driven humanitarian blowout—said to be the first of its kind on such a scale with a superstar cast that included George and Ringo, Eric Clapton, and Bob Dylan—seemed successful at first: millions of relief dollars were generated by concert attendance, record sales, and film rights.

A closer look at the accounting, however, called into question Klein’s credibility and the extent of aid actually realized by the show: A February 28, 1972, New York magazine article revealed that the bulk of donated funds never made it to Bangladesh. Some went straight to Klein’s pockets.49 A. J. Weberman, a Greenwich Village character and self-declared activist, seized the opportunity for righteous anger and populist protest. Weberman recalls that Klein had employed some creative accounting that was legal if unethical.

“Allen Klein claimed that 85 percent was used for expenses,” Weberman says. There were no legal requirements as to a certain percentage of donations making it to the recipient, and Klein’s answer gave the impression that he had taken money intended for those in critical need.

“I decided that if he needed to rip off the starving people of Bangladesh, he must be one hungry gentleman,” Weberman says. “We decided to have a free lunch program for starving music executives based on the Black Panther breakfast programs.”

A week after the New York article appeared, Weberman and “a bunch of hippies” stopped by several fruit stands, did some dumpster diving, and took a supply of spoiled produce to Klein’s office building; the “free lunch” they deserved, delivered as promised.

“We started trashing his office with rotten fruit,” Weberman recalls. A confrontation followed, with arguments over who was helping or hurting the children of Bangladesh. Outside of the office, Weberman claims to have had a sidewalk showdown with producer Phil Spector, who had supervised the Bangladesh recordings.

“I told him I was gonna punch him in the nose and he wouldn’t be able to snort coke anymore,” Weberman says.

The confrontation had little impact on a matter that took years to resolve. Several lawsuits followed before rights and royalties were straightened out. Ongoing sales of the album, CD, video, and DVD continued into the twenty-first century to benefit the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF.

Weberman enjoyed brief counterculture credibility after taking on the suit-and-tie crowd. Tales were told on the street, in the Village Voice, and through the underground grapevine before reaching the ears of John Lennon. Klein’s credibility was obviously important to Lennon—the relationship was not fated to be long-term—and any controversy over the Bangladesh concert qualified as a dodged bullet: Lennon had considered joining his former bandmates onstage.

Weberman was invited to Bank Street, “after they heard what we did,” he says, and enjoyed talking with John and Yoko about “religion, atheism, politics, the third world, national liberation, the Vietnam War, topics of that nature. Lennon was quite responsive, and we were basically on the same page at the time. We were friends.”

John and Yoko indulged Weberman at first, and paid for a postage meter to distribute his Yippie Times newspaper; the Lennon/Rubin connection included having Elephant’s Memory play at a “Smoke-In,” a festival Weberman recalls for a ten-foot-long stage prop: “We rolled this giant joint out of straw at the band shell in Central Park.”

It was a brief alliance, one of many fleeting encounters during Lennon’s nascent months in Greenwich Village. Lennon willingly met with anyone and everyone; some of those he met then claimed strong relationships after only slightly making John’s acquaintance. Weberman had a minor reputation somewhere between cultural critic and curious crackpot, known for stunts in some ways similar to the Yippie model, and for a brand of psychological research he called “garbology,” the study of someone’s trash to uncover their true nature.

Of particular fascination to Weberman were the garbage cans of Bob Dylan. Weberman stalked Dylan long before that term was coined, and had drawn speculative conclusions from his findings. He declared himself head of the “Dylan Liberation Front” out of concern that the voice of a generation was a drug addict. Weberman claimed that his garbage-can investigations revealed indications of heroin use—which Dylan had reportedly wrestled with briefly—although the science was hardly credible given the recreational residue that might be found in Village trash cans, whether or not generated by the resident. Weberman also believed that Dylan’s political loyalties were driven by a need for drugs. In Weberman’s view, Dylan was not the liberal voice many believed.

“I had come to the conclusion that Dylan was once a leftist and sold out in order to take heroin and make a lot of money,” Weberman says. “I was wrong: he was never a leftist, he was always on the right to begin with.”

That’s where Weberman lost Lennon, who considered Dylan a friend, a songwriting influence, and pioneer messenger of New Left ideals.

“Lennon and I had our differences about Bob Dylan,” Weberman acknowledges. “If I said something bad about Dylan, he got really agitated and Yoko had to hold him back. People hated me when I went after Dylan. Everybody loved John, and if you loved John you hated Weberman.”

When he went after Allen Klein, Weberman said his actions were on behalf of the Rock Liberation Front—yet another name to confuse federal investigators—an organization he said had evolved from his own Dylan Liberation Front. His claim that John and Yoko were the newest RLF soldiers had already been publicly denied in a Village Voice letter from the true Rock Liberation Front, which consisted of the Lennons, Rubin, and David Peel.50 They denounced Weberman for his Dylan obsession and wild accusations, and deplored the tendency within the Left of attacking one another: “A. J. Weberman’s campaign . . . is in the current fad of everyone in the revolution attacking each other and spreading false rumors about each other.”

There had been more than enough of that in Lennon’s life already by that point.

• • •

Was John Lennon merely a means to an end for his new friends in the Movement, a bit player in an ongoing political game, or had he assumed a more powerful role? FBI reports in March 1972 struggled to clarify Lennon’s place in the Movement, the leadership of which seemed to be in transition. Undercover agents, informants, and investigators pooled information from sources both credible and inflated.

By then Jerry Rubin’s populist act had eclipsed his usefulness in the eyes of many of his former friends in the Movement. After his embarrassing performance on the Mike Douglas Show, Rubin was questioned about—among other things—his outrageous statements that did more to harm than help the cause. In a March 5 report, FBI informant Julie Maynard described a recent gathering of Yippie leaders in Rubin’s Prince Street apartment. The report did not specify everyone involved in the leadership intervention, but noted that Chicago Seven vet Stew Albert was among the participants. The session began with Rubin complaining that his so-called friends were responsible for the “bad press” he’d been getting lately, which “hurt him politically.”51

Rather than the hoped-for sympathy, Rubin was called onto his own carpet.

“They replied that they thought he was an asshole,” Maynard said of the response. The group proceeded to list their “bitches” with Rubin: He wasn’t a team player, and he had profited financially while theoretically raising funds for the cause. He had “a superstar ego which enables him to appear to lead . . . he does none of the work yet gets the credit.” As a final thought, Rubin was chastised on a personal level for “his b.o. and other bad habits.”

Rubin had not only lost the respect of his colleagues on the Left, they also wondered if his reputation-saving trump card was still valid: word on the street said that Rubin’s friendship with John Lennon had ended. Lennon’s once-assured participation in an upcoming rally—let alone the August convention—was now a tentative commitment that came with qualifications. Lennon insisted on low-key involvement, and would not go along with Rubin’s any-means-necessary strategies for civil disobedience.

The FBI now realized that Lennon was more than just a “drawing card” to be played at Rubin’s discretion; more like a wild card. Investigators didn’t seem to know from one day to the next where Lennon stood with the radicals or what his actual plans were, and their reports varied in accuracy and credibility. One dispatch said that the Lennon-fronted concert tour was ready to start, “the first to be held in Ann Arbor Michigan in near future.” By “near future” they may have meant several months earlier: the Michigan show was old news by then, as was Lennon’s relationship with the Detroit hippies; the report incorrectly suggested that Lennon and John Sinclair were working together to plan the August showdown.

Another point of uncertainty offered a possible method to force Lennon’s departure, if reports of his drug use were accurate. A March 16 summary suggested that Rennie Davis, Rubin, and Lennon were “heavy users of narcotics,” and that the three were at odds with each other because of their unspecified drug use. Lennon’s consumption was said to be “excessive” and included pills “referred to in the vernacular as ‘downers,’” although specifics on that score varied. The memo dismissed Lennon’s passion for protest on the basis that he was too stoned to care: “Lennon appears to be radically oriented, however he does not give the impression he is a true revolutionist since he is constantly under the influence of narcotics.”

There are varying accounts on Lennon’s actual drug use—and he was certainly no virgin to the drink, pills, hallucinogens, and even narcotics that had been tried by most of his contemporaries. At one extreme Lennon had admittedly tried heroin, and sang of withdrawal in “Cold Turkey.” Yet some unflattering biographies painted an exaggerated portrait of Lennon spending weeks at a time in drug-induced stupor—supposedly during periods when he maintained a rigorous schedule and was making credible public appearances. Elephant’s Memory bandsmen recall a time and place where smoking a joint was as casual as having a drink, but claim that Lennon fell far short of rendering himself unable to function. They all saw—and would sadly continue to see—too many of those types of cases not to know the difference.

That Lennon used drugs was understood, but to what extent depended upon witness perspective and bias. The FBI may have been simply repeating rumors that the agents heard, but “constantly under the influence” was among many internal contradictions found in field reports, memos, and directives.

There was an equal amount of confusion as to the various organizational names used by the Movement leaders—and their purpose. A collective People’s Coalition for Peace and Justice was said to represent more than one hundred “disruptive” groups nationwide; convention plans fell under the watch of the Lennon-funded Election Year Strategy Information Center. These people had a history of “using massive civil disobedience to combat war, racism, poverty and repression.”

One thing the FBI reports agreed upon, evidence notwithstanding, was the plan of this particular organization: “To conduct disruptive demonstrations during the Republican National Convention.” In spite of the bureau’s own report the previous month that quoted Lennon as specifying peaceful—therefore legal—means of protest, J. Edgar Hoover declared that Lennon’s plans were not passive, thus allowing further investigation. According to Hoover, Lennon had an “avowed intention to engage in disruptive activities” at the convention.

In turn, the bureau tried to prevent that by any means necessary. If Lennon was the “known drug user” they assumed, agents with evidence of that drug use should promptly report to the New York Police Department for an easy arrest. A subsequent directive informed the home office that the NYPD was “attempting to obtain enough information to arrest both subject and wife Yoko based on PD investigation.” And yet no such evidence was forthcoming. Maybe Lennon was more drug-free than some of the rumors suggested.

• • •

Word spread quickly when Lennon and the Elephants began a month’s worth of sessions in late February for Some Time in New York City at the Record Plant studio on West Forty-Fourth Street. The studio experiences were memorable far beyond the musical adventure for the bandsmen, with near daily reminders of just how famous their new friend John really was. Recording sessions often receive guests or friends of the musicians, but the Elephants were stunned at the variety of people who called on Lennon. Tex Gabriel remembers a visitor who probably wasn’t used to politely waiting a few minutes to see someone as she did for Lennon.

“I remember having Jackie Onassis come down to the studio,” Gabriel says. “That was a big moment for me; I’ll never forget that.”

A lifelong memory for the Elephants, who learned that time with Lennon was precious, as so many had sought what they casually enjoyed. Working with Lennon brought endless surprises, Gary Van Scyoc says, including time-management and logistical challenges to productivity.

“Talk about distractions,” Van Scyoc says. “One night Mick Jagger was there for a couple of hours. Rudolf Nureyev, all these people coming at John for various reasons.”

Additionally, Lennon’s diplomatic skills were called into play with Phil Spector, contracted to serve as producer. Spector had met the Beatles in 1970 when he had been asked to salvage the scattered Let It Be tapes. The legendary producer’s signature on certain tracks—notably Lennon’s “Across the Universe” and McCartney’s “The Long and Winding Road”—had added something new and different to the Beatles’ repertoire: the multi-track, multi-instrument “wall of sound” he’d mastered with Tina Turner’s “River Deep—Mountain High,” the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’,” and dozens of other classics.

Spector’s reputation as a producer was matched by notoriety for his eccentricities. By the time Spector worked with the Beatles he had become something of a recluse and would only work with A-list musicians; to the Elephants he offered at best a cold shoulder.

“He didn’t want anything to do with us,” Tex Gabriel says. “He did not want to deal with unknowns, and didn’t know why Lennon wasn’t working with Clapton. We weren’t stars; he liked to work with celebrities.”

He met his match with John Lennon; Spector’s objections were overruled by one of the few musicians able to trump the producer’s clout.

“John just told him how it was gonna be,” Gabriel says. “Lennon said, ‘These are my guys, they’re working with me, and I want you to treat them with respect.’ He really liked the band, and John could be very direct and forceful when he needed to be.”

Once again, Lennon fulfilled the role of peacemaker, smoothed the bumpy introductions, and told the band not to worry about “Phil and his attitude. He’s just here to produce and do what he’s gotta do.” It was agreed that Spector would be a rare studio presence and instead would work independently with the material as he had with Let It Be.

The Elephants began to see the potential genius of this unexpected pairing, of what Lennon had seen in choosing them over all the other bands he could have picked. They were, in fact, John Lennon’s full-time band. They had done the Mike Douglas week, were in the studio to record an album, and were told of very tempting possibilities for the year ahead. Lennon was ready for more, and the Elephants were an integral part of the plan.

“John didn’t do anything together without us, musically, for that period,” Van Scyoc says. “It wasn’t like we were a side project. He was talking about a world tour.”

That plan, as with other ideas, awaited the outcome of Lennon’s immigration status. It also made pinpointing the schedule for rehearsals, recording time, and promotional efforts a bit more vexing than it might have been otherwise.

“They were trying to set up some high-profile things with John,” Van Scyoc says. “And he couldn’t do it because of the green card. That was a big part of what was happening. He had that, and the search for Kyoko, and they were always taking off. He wanted Yoko to have his total, 100 percent support.”

The hectic schedule often changed at the very last moment. A phone call inviting the band to get together meant little an hour later when they learned that Lennon had flown off to Houston; conversely, unexpected calls to grab their instruments were not uncommon.

“It was just absolutely crazy,” Van Scyoc says. “You never knew where they were. You’d get a call, ‘Let’s rehearse in an hour.’ Then there were weeks at a time when they wouldn’t be around and we resumed our normal thing. That was his career at that point.”

• • •

They worked fast because they had to, and also by artistic design. Recording enough material for an album over several weeks was a relatively short production; Lennon wanted Some Time in New York City to have the immediacy of a newspaper, a “concept” album in both content and delivery.

“We’re like journalists only we sing about it,” he had said to David Frost, and the sessions were approached with deadline urgency as they worked on the tracks. Work typically began at seven p.m., all-nighters that allowed enough time to relax, warm up on the guitars, kick around song ideas. The recording room itself was fairly small, its walls lined with amplifiers bearing paper cups or beer cans. Cushioned cubicle-walls dampened a drum kit; microphone and music stands stood in clusters; guitars dominated the center area. Lennon was the focal point as he explained each song to the band.

Musical familiarity formed during early rehearsals in the Village continued when they recorded tracks. Lennon asked for and welcomed opinions, although he brought to the sessions songs that were mostly formed, his efficiency honed after a decade spent in recording studios. The routine worked well: Lennon sketched a foundation in need of bass-and-drum rhythm, keyboard or lead guitar lines, saxophone work from Stan Bronstein. The Elephants were more than capable of keeping pace with Lennon’s range of styles; their own credits spanned an impressive spectrum of rock, blues, jazz, and pop.

Some of the songs had been previewed by Lennon in December: “John Sinclair” and its bluesy backing; “Attica State” and its thumping protest chant; Yoko’s feminist cry “Sisters O Sisters” tinted with a reggae accent; and “Luck of the Irish,” a pub-worthy sing-along voicing the troubles in Northern Ireland. Additional songs included “Angela,” a ballad telling the story of activist Angela Davis and her incarceration; “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” also about the Derry massacre in Ireland; and the autobiographical “New York City,” which in classic rock and roll style continued the story told in “The Ballad of John and Yoko.” Lennon’s chorus shouts of “Que pasa, New York” joined verses that described meeting Rubin and Peel, hearing the Elephants at Max’s Kansas City, jamming with the group to old songs, and absorbing all things Manhattan.

A straight-out rocker, some thought “New York City” could have been another hit for Lennon if selected as the first single for the LP. “Such a great song, to this day,” Van Scyoc says. “In my opinion one of the best songs on the record.”

Instead, Lennon defied convention and expectations. The first song from Some Time to vie for radio play reported society’s treatment of women; Lennon’s feminist ballad invited controversy beginning with its title, “Woman Is the Nigger of the World.”

• • •

John Lennon’s take on the women’s movement may have been puzzling to some old-boy Beatles fans, but feminist leader Gloria Steinem wasn’t surprised. Steinem recalls Lennon’s history of embracing causes. It was a trait she saw early on; in 1964 she had accepted a Cosmopolitan magazine assignment to shadow the Beatles around Manhattan, and the hordes of young women who followed them everywhere they went.

“He seemed to be much less interested in them than the other Beatles,” Steinem says. “Perhaps I was biased because I’m a writer, too, but I found him more interesting than the others.”

Steinem says she’d “read some writings and realized how imaginative he was. He had a great heritage in cockney, rhyming words; you get a sense of them and they contain meaning in an imaginative way.” Steinem disagrees with critics who claim Lennon’s earliest work reflected a chauvinistic if not misogynistic man, and says Lennon’s 1964 book of prose, In His Own Write, reveals a deeper soul.

“It’s not antiwoman; it doesn’t take on sexism,” Steinem says. “It’s whimsical and imaginative and humane, so he must have been unusually open.”

Contrasting with previous perceptions of Lennon in the early Beatles days—when the band and its entourage were seen as very much a boys’ club—Lennon welcomed the rise of feminism and the women’s movement, which in the early 1970s was in its heyday. Just as the struggle for black civil rights required white awakening, the feminist movement needed the involvement of men. Lennon, Steinem says, had the strength of his convictions and a willingness to defy stereotypes, to walk a different path on principle: “He was antiwar in a country and a world that sometimes measures masculinity by being aggressive. He was creative, again in a world where men are more rewarded for being aggressive than creative. His life—as well as his work—was and still is a liberating influence for everyone, especially for men.”

Lennon credited his awakening to Yoko’s influence; she asked to be referred to professionally as “Ms. Ono,” with the recently coined hybrid of Miss and Mrs. In turn, Lennon legally added “Ono” to his own name, hardly a common practice for men in the late 1960s or any era. In his 1971 Red Mole interview, Lennon said that the feminist movement needed to be part of the New Left agenda, whose male leaders were guilty of sexism even as they accused the establishment of being racist: “We can’t have a revolution that doesn’t involve and liberate women. It’s subtle the way you’re taught male superiority. It took me a long time to realize that my maleness was cutting off certain areas for Yoko. She’s a red hot liberationist and was quick to show me where I was going wrong, even though it seemed to me that I was just acting naturally. That’s why I’m interested to know how people who claim to be radical treat women.”

In many ways, Steinem says, the women’s movement rose from the shadows of the antiwar and civil rights movements. There were few opportunities at the battlefront, and female volunteers found themselves taking a backseat to the new-boy network.

“If those movements had been equal for women there probably wouldn’t have been a women’s movement,” Steinem says. “Women were still expected to make coffee and do the mimeographing—there’s a word from the past—and provide sex and be supportive.”

No matter how solemn the issues being addressed—the need for civil rights and an end to war—Steinem says that a certain percentage of men inevitably degraded women in sexual terms, a difficult if not impossible environment to remain sympathetic. Steinem says the problem was best displayed at an antiwar rally in Washington.

“A woman activist got up onstage speaking against the war,” Steinem recalls, “and the veterans yelled, ‘Take her off and fuck her.’”

Lennon seemed sincere in his feminist values, and Steinem says she understood his decision to sing about it in a shocking, potentially offensive song. In what may be the first feminist pop song of the late ’60s or early ’70s to come from a man—Helen Reddy’s 1971 “I Am Woman” was the unofficial anthem—“Woman Is the Nigger of the World” was released in April 1972. The title was guaranteed to add to the obstacles facing the record in terms of getting radio airplay and the other mechanisms that might make it a hit. Steinem says the effort was notable in ways other than record sales.

“A very serious and important song,” Steinem reflects. “Sometimes in order to get one thing taken seriously you have to compare it to something else that is already taken seriously. Women had been called the ‘mule of the world,’ but not as a phrase in a song.”

As often happened with Lennon, lyrics followed the title statement with both a confirmation and a challenge to white men everywhere: “Yes she is, think about it; do something about it.”

• • •

Round one went to John and Yoko. The March 16, 1972, hearing at the Department of Immigration and Naturalization concluded with an adjournment until May, giving Leon Wildes time to prepare residence applications and for Lennon to try to have the marijuana conviction expunged.

A recent Texas court ruling that granted Yoko custody of Kyoko largely supported the decision. It was, however, a semihollow decision that failed to immediately reunite mother and daughter. The New York Times called the victory “a pyrrhic one, for the child and her father, Anthony D. Cox, have vanished.” According to Yoko, Cox planned to remain in hiding and wait out the deportation.52 Other sources believed that Cox recognized a potential payoff: new husbands of ex-wives are rarely welcomed by the former spouse, but a multimillionaire rock star invited certain obvious speculations about Cox’s motives.

Justice faced a conundrum: The custody order required that Yoko live in America, leaving the INS burdened with splitting up a family if they deported Lennon. Yoko was certain to be granted semipermanent residency; Lennon appeared ready to fight for his, publicly if necessary. On the steps of the INS building, extension in hand, Lennon held an impromptu press conference.

Journalists weren’t the only ones taking notes: “A representative of the FBI,” as described in a memo, joined the crowd of “eighty-five reporters including radio and television.”53

When asked, Lennon told what he believed was the truth. According to the memo, “he inferred the INS was attempting to deport him due to his political ideas and present policy of the US government as to aliens who speak out against the administration.”

The battle lines were drawn. From the FBI perspective, Director J. Edgar Hoover seemed frustrated that what he considered a problem—Lennon fronting an anti-Nixon concert—had not been quickly solved.

“Strong possibility looms that subject will not be deported any time soon,” Hoover advised in early April. “And will probably be in US at least until [Republican National Convention].”

A summary of where things stood after the hearing was sent to individuals not typically involved in deportation hearings, including US attorney general John Mitchell and White House chief of staff H. R. Haldeman. They were in for a fight: Hoover advised that Lennon was more than capable of financing a lengthy legal challenge, and that the media would gladly tell Lennon’s side of the story. John Lennon was hardly the exclusive interest of the underground press or Rolling Stone; the man whom the FBI had difficulty obtaining a photograph of was a frequent presence in the New York Times, Daily News, New York Post, and countless other publications.

The deportation effort became a public drama, and since the true motivation was supposed to be a secret, the rush to kick Lennon out puzzled many. Support for granting residency came from a growing number of people whose standing in the community demanded attention. On behalf of the city Lennon loved, New York mayor John V. Lindsay was among the first to step forward. Lindsay authored an April letter to INS commissioner Raymond Farrell.54

Deporting Lennon would be “a grave injustice,” Lindsay said. “I consider it to be very much in the public interest, from the point of view of the citizens of New York as well as the citizens of the Country, that artists of their distinction be granted resident status.” Lindsay said he’d met with John and Yoko and was told “of their love for New York City and that they wish to make it their home.”

Citing the compelling motivation of a mother wishing to be with her child, Lindsay said “the removal of the Lennons from this Country would be contrary both to the principles of our Country as well as the humanitarian practices which should be implemented by the Department of Immigration.”

Lindsay did not address Lennon’s marijuana conviction, but instead questioned the true reasons for the harassment. Yes, John and Yoko spoke their mind on the issues of the day, but that alone is not a crime: “If this is the motive underlying the unusual and harsh action taken by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, then it is an attempt to silence constitutionally protected 1st Amendment rights of free speech and association and a denial of the civil liberties of these two people.”

Well aware of potential public backlash, Lennon told the New York Times that Lindsay’s letter was “a beautiful thing,” and he hoped “no one would be offended by it.” Lennon was prone to speak positively rather than critically. Talking to the press he maintained his political ground but also expressed great admiration for the country he sought to call home, an America he hadn’t really seen . . . at least not as he would have wished.

“All I’d seen of New York was hotels when I was here as a Beatle,” Lennon explained, but he’d grown to love the Village and the life he’d found. He spoke of simple pleasures like coffee ice-cream malts and his desire to see more of America, landmarks like the Grand Canyon or cities such as New Orleans.

Mayor Lindsay’s voice was not unique. An announcement at Washington’s National Press Club reported the formation of the National Committee for John and Yoko (yet another “organization” that bore watching by those concerned about radical groups). Artist and friend of the Lennons John Hendrix rallied the cause and told a gaggle of Beltway journalists that the true reason for the deportation was Yoko and Lennon’s “antiwar stand, their ability to affect the thinking of youth and their support of unpopular beliefs.”

Preparing to fight a government clearly out to harass him, Lennon and attorney Leon Wildes welcomed support from an impressive body of notable individuals.55 Letters from the creative world poured in, prominent and respected names, some either as representatives of the Committee for Artistic Freedom, others independently yet with shared outrage and sympathy: actor Tony Curtis; Dick Cavett; artist Andy Warhol; filmmakers Stanley Kubrick and Elia Kazan; novelists Joyce Carol Oates, Joseph Heller, and John Updike, who said of John and Yoko, “They cannot do this great country any harm, and might do it some good.” Composers John Cage and Leonard Bernstein weighed in; Bernstein called Lennon “an important creative force in music.” Joan Baez added a handwritten comment to the boilerplate letter: “Keeping people confined to certain areas of the world was one of the reasons we’ve had six thousand years of war instead of six thousand years of peace.” Actress and singer Diahann Carroll wrote, “If an appeal to the ethical or moral position of these freedom loving artists will not move you, perhaps you will give special allowance to Mrs. Lennon’s position as a mother and the terrible potential danger that she might lose her child by this action. I beg you to give a favorable answer to Mr. and Mrs. Lennon in this matter.”

Support also came from outside of the entertainment world. United Auto Workers chief Leonard Woodcock said, “It would be an outrage and a tragedy for this country if John Lennon and Yoko Ono are deported,” and cited Lennon’s “clear eloquent commitment to nonviolence, and to participation in action for constructive social change.”

Rock and roll was represented by Bob Dylan, in a suitably poetic, handwritten scrawl introduced as “Justice for John & Yoko!” that included a healthy dose of cynicism:

John and Yoko add a great voice and drive to this country’s so-called ART INSTITUTION / They inspire and transcend and stimulate that by doing so, only they can help others to see pure light and in doing that put an end to this wild dull taste of petty commercialism which is being passed off as artist art by the overpowering mass media. Hooray for John & Yoko! Let them stay and live here and breathe. The country’s got plenty of room and space.

• • •

The names Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, and Rennie Davis were notably absent from the defense side of the showdown between the INS and John Lennon. The New Left and Yippie leaders—those who had enlisted Lennon to play the concert that kick-started the deportation effort—didn’t rally to the cause. Curiously, there was also a void in support from the antiestablishment rebels of rock and roll. Rolling Stone writer Ralph J. Gleason wondered, “Where the hell is everybody?” The very musicians whom Lennon inspired were sadly silent. Had the generation become as apathetic as Lennon hinted in Ann Arbor?

“There was no effort by Jerry or anyone to make the John Lennon immigration issue a Movement issue,” Jay Craven says.

On the other hand, support from suspected criminals—including those with active suspended sentences—might have been more trouble than help, something Lennon seemed to realize by then. Recording work and trips to Texas demanded much of his time, and he hadn’t formally committed to Rubin’s uncertain plans. The anticipated tour leading up to an August finale was an idea that faded into memory. And perhaps the absence of letters of support from people in the Movement was judicious, came from their recognition that their letters might hurt rather than help Lennon’s case.

“Things just went on hiatus then moved, before long, to backing off,” Craven says. “For all intents and purposes, that was it. There was not going to be anything further.”

The assumption by some was that Lennon felt conflicted because of the pressures of deportation, and perhaps didn’t want to rock that particular boat. Rennie Davis says he was disappointed, but understood.

“The Justice Department came down on John with all fours,” Davis says. “When John Sinclair was released, John [Lennon] was basically threatened with deportation. I have no criticism for John and Yoko for what they did. They stood tall and fought their fight. But the long and short of it was, John withdrew from the plan to go to the convention.”

Going on tour was something Lennon had wanted to do for months, regardless of the political motivation. He liked the idea of a concert being one element of a larger rally for the benefit of New Left ideas, but he also knew what he didn’t want.

“I don’t want to create a riot or a fight in each town,” Lennon said. “I just really want to paint it red.”56

Rubin may have made one too many cryptic, by-any-means-
necessary comments for Lennon’s taste by then, which is not to say that there was any softening of his political views. Leni Sinclair says that the decision to distance himself from Rubin was singular.

“He felt they mislead him and he was not really in agreement with their tactics,” Leni says. “So he disassociated himself from them.”

Lennon told his friend, photographer Bob Gruen, that he wanted no part of Rubin’s disruption-based protests. “John made it clear that he was not in total agreement with his revolutionary friends,” Gruen wrote years later. “In everyday conversations he stuck to his view that the only way to change the system was to do so nonviolently.” Lennon was clear in his convictions of promoting peace, but told Gruen it wasn’t an Englishman’s place to openly support a candidate or partisan platform.

Although Lennon decided not to join Rubin’s anticampaign, he continued voicing his opinions publicly with appearances that included a rainy April 22 antiwar rally in New York’s Bryant Park, a date sandwiched between INS hearing appointments. Lennon told the crowd he remained committed to a campaign for peace.

“I’ve heard the Movement is over—ha-ha!” Lennon mocked.57 It wasn’t over: he was still there, on full display as seen in the next day’s newspapers, joined by demonstrators who had a personal stake in the game, Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

Among the leaders of that group was a recently returned soldier whose combat decorations included three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, and a Silver Star. A few weeks prior to the Bryant Park event, Massachusetts activist John Kerry had fronted an Operation POW march to Boston and joined a “ragtag crowd of veterans” who sang “Give Peace a Chance.” Kerry was invited to introduce Lennon in New York, as related in Douglas Brinkley’s biography, Tour of Duty:

“Lennon had seen my Senate Foreign Relations Committee speech on TV,” Kerry recalled. “He liked what I was saying. Our government was giving him some flak because of his antiwar statements. So he asked me to be the guy to introduce him at the New York event. I met him ahead of time. We just hung around and talked.”58

The moment was captured in a photograph of the bomber-jacket-wearing Kerry side by side with Lennon; four decades later, that image hung with pride in Kerry’s United States Senate office. “I love the picture because I love John Lennon,” said Kerry, who transferred his office in 2013 to that of secretary of state.

Lennon stood proud at public rallies, gladly taking stage or raising a fist in support of the cause, well aware that those images would make the newspapers—and surveillance reports. Everything Lennon did was subject to scrutiny, some of which was comically misdirected. In April Apple issued a Lennon-produced LP by David Peel and the Lower East Side Band, The Pope Smokes Dope; Peel’s pro-pot position was attributed to the album’s producer in federal reports. One FBI source asked of Lennon: “Didn’t he say something about the pope should smoke grass?”59

Lennon’s music had long been misunderstood by some, especially those with a hidden agenda. As reported in Rolling Stone, investigators considered the merits of using the man’s music against him as a legal strategy for deportation. The idea was to bring a stereo into court and play “Lennon albums [and] songs supporting such subversions as Irish freedom, women’s lib, the rights of blacks and Indians, the decriminalization of marijuana.”

According to the FBI, feminism and civil rights for blacks and Native Americans qualified as “subversions.”

• • •

Rather than keep quiet and go away, John and Yoko stood strong from a nondescript brownstone in Greenwich Village. Justice appeared to be on their side, or at least willing to give them some time.

On May 2, Judge Bernard J. Lasker signed a temporary restraining order that blocked the INS from holding a scheduled deportation hearing.60 Wildes would be given adequate time to file motions, which would be heard by the court before anyone was ordered out of the country. Typical of court dockets everywhere, it would be a while before the parties went back before a judge.

Distancing Lennon from US shores would not be as simple as the administration initially thought. The INS ruled that John and Yoko were “outstanding artists,” a declaration that—coupled with Yoko’s custody order—could offset the marijuana charge and pave the way to permanent residence.

The New York Times explained the case in an editorial, “Love It and Leave It,” and observed the irony of a government agency attempting to remove an unabashed cheerleader for a city and country.61 True, Lennon rubbed some people the wrong way. The Timesquoted a former Liverpool headmaster who told a tale of having to “cane” the fifth-grade future Beatle. He forgot the crime for which corporal punishment was dealt, but recalled Lennon as being “a thorough nuisance.”

Perhaps, the Times suggested, in some people’s minds Lennon was the same “nuisance” as he’d been as a child. Others disagreed passionately, but it didn’t matter—the government was grossly overstepping its bounds and trampling on the First Amendment by penalizing a man for his opinions. The Times echoed the volume of letters that said forcing a separation of family was nothing less than cruelty, absent any sense of justice: “It would be ironic if the guardians of this country’s private morals and public safety were to become known as the authors of a new slogan: ‘America—Love It and Leave It.’ What the Beatles might have done with such a refrain!”

Leon Wildes was justifiably encouraged by the temporary injunction, yet concerned that there was more to the story. Wildes was surprised at the level of importance given the case. INS district director Sol Marks was among those Wildes felt was taking a too-active interest in the matter.

“When the immigration judge rendered his decision, he held a press conference,” Wildes says. “He’d been saying that nothing could be done for Lennon, and he had an obligation as district director to remove or deport every illegal alien. That wasn’t so.”

Wildes encountered opposition that he hadn’t seen in his considerable experience with INS proceedings. A technical error—the name of a federal agency used as a reference for Lennon—created a minor yet telling disturbance.

“The Lennons worked with the American Bar Association, which had a drug function to encourage young people to get off drugs and so on,” Wildes says. During his arguments Wildes mistakenly referred to the ABA’s efforts as being part of Nixon’s antidrug organization. An honest mistake, corrected in later briefs, but the scope of the response told Wildes there was more to the fight than he first thought.

“The FBI went into a tizzy,” Wildes says. “They investigated it with four different officers. It didn’t take much to mislead them.” Wildes watched in amazement as amateur mistakes piled up and revealed a sense of desperation, an unusual amount of effort to deport two relatively harmless individuals.

“The director, J. Edgar himself, was on the job and wrote some of the memos,” Wildes said. “They were breathing down our necks, Lennon’s and mine. They were getting nastier all the time . . . we were fighting for our lives there.”


46 “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).

47 Philip Norman, John Lennon: The Life (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 577.

48 Joe Treen, “Justice for a Beatle: The Illegal Plot to Prosecute and Oust John Lennon,” Rolling Stone, December 5, 1974.

49 Peter McCabe, “Some Sour Notes from the Bangladesh Concert,” New York, February 28, 1972.

50 Jon Wiener, Come Together: John Lennon in His Time (New York: Random House, 1990), 182.

51 “John Winston Lennon,” FBI Records: The Vault; Wiener, Gimme Some Truth.

52 Albin Krebs, “Notes on People,” New York Times, March 4, 1972.

53 “John Winston Lennon,” FBI Records: The Vault; Wiener, Gimme Some Truth.

54 David Bird, “Lindsay Deplores Action to Deport Lennons as a ‘Grave Injustice,’” New York Times, April 29, 1972.

55 “John Winston Lennon,” FBI Records: The Vault; Wiener, Gimme Some Truth.

56 Lennon, interview by McCabe and Schonfeld, Tittenhurst Park.

57 The U.S. vs. John Lennon, directed by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld (Paramount, 2006).

58 Douglas Brinkley, Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War (New York: William Morrow, 2004), 399–400.

59 Treen, “Justice for a Beatle,” Rolling Stone.

60 Albin Krebs, “Notes on People: Lennons’ Deportation Hearing Delayed,” New York Times, May 2, 1972.

61 Editorial, “Love It and Leave It,” New York Times, May 2, 1972.

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