Chapter 5


“John and Yoko . . . face deportation. Deportation is usually reserved for high-ranking Mafia officials.” —Dick Cavett

On May 2, 1972, the day of the restraining order that allowed John and Yoko to remain in the US for the time being, J. Edgar Hoover died.

The impact of Hoover’s death far exceeded the usual disruptions caused by the sudden loss of an agency’s top man; the position Hoover had created for himself over half a century inflated the job to one whose power was surpassed only by the office of the president; some questioned at times who truly held more.

Hoover first chaired a department named the Bureau of Investigation in 1924; in 1935 became first-ever director of what had been rechristened the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Through Prohibition, World War II, the McCarthy fifties, and the civil rights era, Hoover held unprecedented authority in Washington, power that grew with each commander in chief he served.

Hoover’s many critics said he interpreted his job as heading the “Bureau of Intimidation” for his legacy of harassment of Communists, subversive elements, homosexuals, dissenting voices, and anyone else he thought unpatriotic. When conventional information-gathering tactics weren’t enough he created additional resources and authority: it wasn’t until 1971 that the American public learned of Cointelpro, Hoover’s counterintelligence program launched in 1956 to seek out dissenting political opinions, what many would call unwarranted spying. Targets in Hoover’s crosshairs ranged from Charlie Chaplin to Martin Luther King Jr. to John Lennon; the former Beatle was one of Hoover’s final projects.

To succeed Hoover, Nixon appointed L. Patrick Gray as the bureau’s acting director. A retired Navy captain turned lawyer, Gray served as a congressional liaison with the Pentagon before he accepted a 1970 Department of Justice appointment. The acting director assumed ownership of Hoover’s many streams of correspondence, although Associate Director Mark Felt supervised day-to-day Bureau operations.

Among Hoover’s final memos were those involving John Lennon. Day one for Gray included a May 3 update on Lennon’s deportation. Any hopes Hoover might have had for a low-key, discreet investigation and forced departure were long gone. Gray inherited a very public battle that would be played out in the newspapers and on national television.

• • •

“John and Yoko were here once before,” Dick Cavett introduced his guests. “They face deportation. Deportation is usually reserved for high-ranking Mafia officials.”62

So began a May 11, 1972, appearance by the Lennons on the Dick Cavett Show, a late-night talkfest helmed by the Nebraska-born writer-comedian. Through the ’60s Cavett had written jokes for Jack Paar, served as a game-show panelist, and hosted a morning chat show before taking a late-night slot opposite Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. Cavett’s intellectual inclinations made finding his place on network TV a challenge.

That his guests might be controversial was by design rather than accident; Cavett pursued and welcomed on-air talk more substantial than plugging a new movie, song, or TV show, including a notable June 1971 debate on Vietnam; arguments for US withdrawal by Veterans Against the War leader John Kerry clearly outscored a “we will win” approach. Cavett recalled the backlash in Talk Show, including President Nixon reportedly asking, “Is there any way we can screw [Cavett]? There must be ways.”

Well regarded among rock’s elite—visitors to his stage had included Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and a fresh-from-Woodstock Stephen Stills—Cavett had eagerly accepted an invitation in the summer of 1971 to meet with John and Yoko in their temporary St. Regis hotel quarters. They struck a show business quid pro quo: Cavett gamely appeared in one of the many short films made by the Lennons; John and Yoko agreed to guest on Cavett’s show and did so for the first time in September 1971. The episode was all talk, no tunes—a free-flowing conversation that took more than the allotted airtime and was broadcast over two nights. Cavett wasn’t about to cut short reflections on a decade by a Beatle; they had been, he said, “the most written about, most listened to and most imitated musical group of the ’60s . . . unequaled in affecting a decade of what young people looked like and thought about.”

That was then, Lennon said. He enjoyed the ride and was proud of the work, but was now ready for life as an adult, not a teen idol: “When you grow up, we don’t want to be dragged on stage playing ‘She Loves You’ when you’ve got asthma and tuberculosis when we’re fifty. I said I didn’t want to be singing ‘She Loves You’ when I’m thirty; I said that when I was twenty-five which in a roundabout way meant I wouldn’t be doing whatever I was doing then at thirty.”

As he said in January 1971 when interviewed by Red Mole and Rolling Stone, Lennon again pledged his commitment to the Movement on the Cavett show, discussing the roles of youth protest and civil disobedience.

“I don’t believe in violent revolution, which is playing the same establishment games,” Lennon clarified. “We’re revolutionary artists, not gunmen. I’m still for peace, but I’m an artist first, politician second.”

Lennon pointed out that even among supporters of the same cause there were disagreements as to how the goals could be achieved. Equally puzzling was how people who supported pacifist ideals had such disparate ideas about how to stage a proper protest; at the time he had yet to meet David Peel, the Elephants, and Jerry Rubin.

“A lot of people say, ‘We don’t want you to demonstrate for peace that way; we want you to do it our way,’” Lennon reflected.

Eight months later in 1972, Lennon would have another Cavett-hosted conversation, ready to talk about getting involved, life under federal surveillance, and the definition of a controversial word in his new song.

• • •

Before he even took his seat upon returning to Dick Cavett’s stage in May 1972, John Lennon unknowingly violated a television taboo.

He didn’t realize his somewhat minor mistake, a by-product of his flawed eyesight. Network rules held that guests on the show were not allowed to endorse a political candidate by name. Prior to Lennon’s segment the first half of the program featured actress Shirley MacLaine, who was campaigning that year on behalf of a Democratic presidential hopeful. Equal-time considerations prevented MacLaine from specifically naming her candidate of choice.

Lennon was introduced, strolling onstage with a wave to the audience before shaking hands with Cavett and MacLaine. He noticed a small campaign button she wore, and leaned toward her for a closer look.

“What’s his name?” Lennon asked, squinting at the badge. “Oh, ‘McGovern.’ I thought it said ‘McCartney.’ Bad eyes, you know.”

Thus was solved the not-much-of-a-mystery as to which candidate MacLaine had been talking about for the past half-hour.

“You can say it,” MacLaine laughed. “You’re leaving anyway.”

That, too, was probably something the network executives would have preferred not to be discussed on a talk show; government policy and court cases were best left to the news programs. Cavett, however, encouraged such debate. MacLaine had shared her experiences on the campaign trail, how people across the country were smarter than some wanted to believe. “They want to be told the truth,” MacLaine said. “People think corruption is synonymous with leadership, and that an honest person can’t govern.”

Cavett was up-front with his interest in Lennon, and had previewed his guests’ status during the show’s opening: “Not only is it interesting to see them perform, but they’re involved in a crucial court case to determine whether they can remain in the country or face deportation.”

Lennon’s life had for some time been an open book that he freely shared. The FBI wondered about his drug use, but he and the other Beatles had acknowledged their experiments, and each in time their reasons for putting drugs in the past. Whether or not that made them role models was another question entirely: “I never felt any responsibility, being a so-called idol,” Lennon said after McCartney had admitted to trying LSD. “It’s wrong of people to expect it. What they are doing is putting their responsibilities on us. They should have been responsible enough and not printed it if they were genuinely worried about people copying [us].”

Lennon had been honest—bluntly so at times—on most every aspect of his life; spiritual matters, fame, his partnership with the Beatles, and relationship with Yoko had all factored in his art and interviews. He was news, and the INS hearings and search for Kyoko were public knowledge.

The deportation effort was fueled by politics, he said, and the tragedy was that the government’s desired result would split up a family.

“There was no arrangement made for the child,” Lennon said of the agreement between Anthony Cox and Yoko. Disregarding the evident motivations of Cox trying to capitalize on his ex-wife’s new wealth, Lennon made it seem as if the conflict was just like the battles fought in any divorce: “You know how those things get, and they got worse and worse until it came that we couldn’t see Kyoko anymore.”

Lennon broke the “fourth wall” between viewer and performer. He stared at the camera and spoke directly to Cox . . . and the INS: “We’re saying it now if you’re watching—we couldn’t hide her anywhere. Yoko always said she thinks the child should be able to see both parents, have the benefit of both parents. Immigration’s policy has always been not to split a family: Let us stay here because her daughter’s here.”

Ever conscious of public and government perceptions, Lennon clarified the reputation of his attorney, Leon Wildes. “He’s not a radical,” Lennon said. Wildes was a seasoned immigration specialist and not a civil rights activist like Chicago Seven counsel William Kunstler.

“It’s very ironic that the government approved our application as outstanding artists whose presence is beneficial to US cultural interests and welfare,” Lennon said. His attorney had been quite surprised by the maneuverings. “It’s the only time he’s had to go to court to force the government to consider an application like that.”

Cavett read highlights from the letters of support received by the INS from diverse sources that included United Auto Workers boss Leonard Woodcock. MacLaine added her agreement, telling Lennon: “You’re more responsible for the expression of love and peace in the arts than anyone practically in the twentieth century.”

As Lennon told anyone who asked, he believed that his deportation was based on political motivations and not a marijuana conviction. His opinions hadn’t changed from “All You Need Is Love” through “Give Peace a Chance.” What was different, he said, was who his friends in New York were. The assumption of guilt by association made Lennon bridle and he hastened to set the record straight: “We want peace; we said the same thing for two years. [But] we’re getting blamed for the Chicago convention now. They think we’re going to San Diego or Miami or wherever it is. We ain’t going. There will be no big jam with us and Dylan, there’s too much going on.”

That statement was not reported by the FBI agents in the audience. Instead, a memo cited Lennon’s passing reference to a gathering at the Washington Square Methodist Church, a small benefit concert where Elephant’s Memory was slated to perform: “After Lennon plugged it on the Dick Cavett Show, the benefit concert for the Attica Defense Committee turned a larger crowd than expected.” The event “netted $2,000 for the Defense Command [and] $200 for the WSM Church.” Even by early 1970s economic standards, hardly a sum worth the trouble to report.63

• • •

What scared the network most was the song title’s single, six-letter word: “Nigger.” Would John Lennon get away with breaking existing broadcast standards?

“I remember talking about it with my wife before we went over to the studio,” Gary Van Scyoc says. “I wasn’t sure it was going to fly, and John might change his mind at the last minute and do something else. But he didn’t.”

The song itself took about five minutes to perform; preliminary discussion of the lyrics took much longer.

“When that song hit, it was like a bomb going off, it was a mess,” Van Scyoc says. “John didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. He was kind of naïve, I guess, as were we all. He just didn’t think it was going to get that kind of reaction.”

Cavett knew the response it would get: the FCC was very clear on certain things. Lennon couldn’t expect to perform, for instance, “Working Class Hero” on TV, not with the word “fuck” in the lyrics. Even the allegedly progressive FM stations hesitated to send the f-bomb through their transmitters; record store owners wondered if the printed lyrics on album covers violated obscenity laws. Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres had addressed the prevailing attitudes: “Stations around the country say they want to play ‘Working Class Hero’ . . . But, with very few exceptions, they’re all too fucking scared.”64

What they were scared of was unclear: penalties were little more than a slap on the wrist, and that was only if someone actually complained. FCC broadcast analyst June Herrick did not recall any specific backlash about “Working Class Hero,” or even Jefferson Airplane’s “up against the wall, motherfuckers” when PBS aired a San Francisco concert performance. The bigger challenge was identifying which lyrics advocated drug use through the use of ever-changing slang terms. Herrick said that about 1,500 letters a month made claims about “drug songs,” most of which were red-herring alarms such as “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and claims that the “LSD” acronym was intentional. Lennon had said he was surprised at the discovery and started checking through old lyrics just to be sure. (When the Beatles wanted to sing about drug use, they did: code-breaking skills were not needed to decipher “I get high with a little help from my friends.”)

In the early 1970s language and drug references took a backseat to other broadcast issues. Federal monitors, said program manager Larry Lee of KPFT-FM in Houston, “were more worried about the political content” of rock songs such as Neil Young’s “Ohio,” which took a decidedly antipresidential stance.

“Woman Is the Nigger of the World” presented so many questions in so short a phrase. Lennon had insisted the song be issued as the first single from Some Time in New York City—against many opposing opinions at Apple—and was equally determined to sing it on the Dick Cavett Show. Lennon wanted people to hear the song, and one method was secured when Apple advertised a telephone number that people could call and listen to the single, a 1972 version of on-demand media.

The performance was approved on condition that the host read a disclaimer, a previously recorded and approved statement that was inserted into the broadcast. Cavett’s discomfort and distaste was obvious as he read the statement:

John and Yoko got into something which ABC feels may develop into, in their words, a highly controversial issue. It revolves around the song, “Woman Is the Nigger of the World,” and the obvious fact that some members of our black audience will or may be offended by the use of that word. In the next segment, John Lennon gives his reason for writing the song and for using the word. I permitted this insertion into the show as the only alternative to a full deletion by ABC of the full segment.65

“This is a song about the women’s problem,” Lennon said. “Obviously there were a few people who reacted strangely to it, but usually they were white and male.”

The song’s title was credited to Yoko, who used the phrase during an interview she had given two years earlier to an English women’s magazine. The poetic nature of the comparison struck a note with Lennon, not unlike occasions when Ringo Starr came up with phrases such as “hard day’s night” or “tomorrow never knows” and unknowingly gave birth to Beatles songs. Yoko’s input was more than just a song title, and he’d frequently acknowledged her awakening—often through artistic means—his own guilt in how he regarded women.

“I was more of a chauvinist than I am now,” Lennon said. “Like everybody else I talked more and more about it in the last two years. It became more of a thing and I had to find out about it myself.”

The feminist movement may have been the song’s driving force, but Lennon said the word choice prompted a separate battle: “A lot of stations were saying we’re not going to play this because it says nigger and a white man shouldn’t say it.”

To support the use of the word as metaphor Lennon read aloud a “definition” as penned by Representative Ron Dellums from California, a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. The definition had been included in promotional materials for the single, including an Apple Records ad in Billboard magazine.

“This great guy came out with this, which is fantastic,” Lennon explained before reading Dellums’s proclamation: “If you define niggers as someone whose lifestyle is defined by others, whose opportunities are defined by others, whose role in society is defined by others, then good news!—You don’t have to be black to be a nigger in this society. Most of the people in America are niggers.”

Lennon finished, and seemed surprised by the spirited applause that followed. He laughed and reminded people he was just a musical journalist; please don’t deport the messenger: “Oh my goodness: we’ll never get in now.”

In spite of ABC’s misgivings, Cavett invited “you two menaces to society” to perform, and John and Yoko took the stage with Elephant’s Memory.

Lennon plugged his guitar into an amp, strummed a chord, adjusted the volume. He turned to his band, kicked the stage four times, counted out loud for another measure. A thump from drummer Rick Frank, wailing saxophone from Stan Bronstein. Lennon belted out the opening lyrics, blues-ballad style: “Woman is the nigger of the world . . . yes she is: think about it.”

The band enjoyed brief spotlights: Bronstein’s solo ended one verse, Gabriel’s guitar pierced with equal rage after another.

“We insult her every day on TV,” Lennon sang.

The song faded to end. John unplugged his guitar and he and Yoko walked down two steps to rejoin Cavett while the band rang out the final notes.

The response, of course, was not what the corporate suits feared.

“As I predicted, there was a great deal of protest—about the mealy mouth apology,” Cavett recalled years later. “I don’t think there were any about the song.”66

• • •

Ron Dellums was well aware that his definition wasn’t normally discussed on national television, let alone by a Beatle.

“I had no idea that a guy like John Lennon would use the term to write a major song,” Dellums says. “‘Woman Is the Nigger of the World’ is a very powerful idea.”

Dellums proudly admits that his definition was influenced by the philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ideology aside, he also knew that he was pushing people’s buttons by defining the word as he did.

“My interest in writing it was not to be cute,” Dellums says. “It was an effort to make a very serious point to the African American community and to the broader community: that we need to mobilize based on our mutual and enlightened self-interest. Many of us in society are being oppressed, and if we come together we can throw off the yoke of oppression.”

Born in 1935 in Oakland, Dellums had served in the US Marine Corps during the early days of troop integration in the 1950s before graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, with the help of the GI bill and whatever part-time jobs he could get. (He had been denied a scholarship after high school; in response he joined the Marines.) He began work both as a psychiatric social worker and campus-based political activist before his 1967 election to the Berkeley City Council. That two-year term led to his election to national office, and Dellums joined the US House as a congressman in 1970, a seat he would hold for nearly thirty years. In 1972 Dellums cofounded the Congressional Black Caucus, which consisted of thirteen members of the House and Senate. Women were equally underrepresented, and accounted for just fifteen seats in that Ninety-Second Congress.

Dellums’s point—and Lennon’s in his lyrics—was that 1972 America was very much a white man’s world. Change—as always—starts from within and is rarely won alone. The feminist movement required a redefinition for men as well as women; the civil rights movement needed more than just black leadership.

“Martin Luther King did not die solely for the liberation of black people,” Dellums says. “Martin Luther King died trying to evolve an egalitarian society. The civil rights movement in many ways was the inspiration for every other movement that emerged in the sixties.”

Dellums says the motivation behind his attempt to redefine a word was an effort to change how people heard it: “The term nigger has been used historically as a derogatory term referring to black people. I decided that somebody black ought to redefine nigger and look at it from a different perspective. Number two was to help people understand the need for coalition politics: we alone—meaning black people—could not change the world.”

But a shared consciousness might be the first step, and the civil rights movement gave birth to movements on behalf of individual liberties and other minority rights movements—Latino rights and gay rights, environmental activism, and consumer advocacy.

“A group of people in this country stood up and said, ‘That’s it, I’ve had enough, and we’ve got to move toward a just society. We can organize the niggers and change America and change the world,’” Dellums says. “If you’re uncomfortable with the term ‘nigger,’ then insert the term ‘oppressed,’ it’s the same point.”

Dellums says that carving a wide philosophical path—with admitted shock value to gain attention—was a risky approach. Those taking that avenue could be easily dismissed; few could successfully put it out to a large audience.

“In walks John Lennon and Yoko,” Dellums says. “Here were people who used their authenticity, their celebrity, and attention to raise issues in different ways. I appreciated and respected that because it was in the aggregate that all of us made our own little contributions that, in the whole scheme of things, added up to significant change.”

• • •

As one of the final obsessions of J. Edgar Hoover, the quest to oust John Lennon made a suitable bookend to the FBI director’s career; the case was eerily similar to that of another artist who was both popular and political. In the early 1920s Assistant Director Hoover had made note of Charlie Chaplin’s alliances with allegedly dissident minds, and considered the actor a “parlor Bolsheviki.” By the McCarthy era, Hoover had listed the Britain-born Chaplin as a likely Communist, and when Chaplin flew to London for the 1952 premiere of Limelight, Hoover had the INS revoke the actor’s reentry visa. Chaplin remained exiled from America until 1972, when he was given an honorary Oscar award.

The similarities with John Lennon’s immigration status did not go unnoticed by the media. “Shades of the Charlie Chaplin fiasco,” the New York Times noted, “for which the country has just got through apologizing.”67 Elsewhere, an ever-broader circle of supporters rallied to Lennon’s defense. Metropolitan Museum director Thomas Hoving told the New York Times in May that if Lennon “were a painting he would be hanging in the Metropolitan Museum, benevolently on the wall.” The Episcopal bishop of New York, the Right Reverend Paul Moore Jr., said he’d gotten to know the Lennons and that he would “welcome and delight in their presence in New York.”68

INS hearings in May featured in-person testimony on Lennon’s behalf, including an appearance by Dick Cavett. In his book Talk Show, Cavett describes not only his courtroom time but, viewed in proper perspective, the odds against Lennon remaining in America.69 Cavett recalls an unsettling segment of the infamous Oval Office recordings: “On one of the Nixon tapes, the president’s henchman and lickspittle H. R. Haldeman can be heard educating his boss—who was minimally knowledgeable of popular culture—about Lennon’s vast popularity, with the words ‘This guy could sway an election.’”70

Having found himself under suspicion from Washington after the Vietnam debate, Cavett was aware of the potential risk in supporting a federal target. Not long after Lennon’s appearances on his show, the IRS audited Cavett’s entire staff. Other similar reports would be heard of Nixon “illegally wielding the IRS as a weapon—sometimes ruining lives,” Cavett said.

Being under constant watch, subject to telephone wiretaps, and often followed by federal agents became just another fact of life for Lennon and his associates, including the members of Elephant’s Memory.

“I used to see them in my building all the time,” Van Scyoc says. “It was something going on in the underbelly, but nobody was letting it get in the way of learning the next song or doing our jobs as a backup band and making John happy.”

Given their own history with Jerry Rubin and other radical souls, they accepted a certain amount of police scrutiny. The intensity of the interest in Lennon, however, was a bit jarring.

“We talked about maybe there being a file on each of us,” Ippolito says. “But that was pretty much it. Hoover and Nixon were trying to get him out of the country. Nixon, being the maniac that he was, you could imagine what went through his brain when he thought John Lennon would get the vote out for Democrats.”

• • •

“I don’t know if there’s any mercy to plead for because this isn’t a Federal Court,” Lennon said to Judge Ira Fieldsteel when INS hearings concluded on May 17. “But if there is, I’d like it, please.”71

The questions being raised—of forcing a woman to choose between husband and child, of singling out a distinguished artist for exile—had now become part of the national discourse. Was the government being unmerciful? Editorialists wondered why Lennon seemed to be the target of a personal vendetta. “Unhand that Beatle,” demanded the Washington Daily News, noting that INS officials “must have better things to do” than deport John Lennon. There were more than a million illegal immigrants in America, “many of them taking jobs from citizens, committing crimes, or collecting welfare payments, and INS would do better to pursue them instead of Mr. Lennon.”72

In late May Washington’s National Press Club hosted a press conference organized by Ken Dewey—a member of the New York State Commission on Cultural Resources—on behalf of the National Committee for John and Yoko. Dewey issued a statement openly challenging the Nixon administration’s use of executive authority: “If, as mounting evidence suggests, this couple is having difficulties simply because of their outspoken, sincere, and nonviolent opposition to the war in Vietnam and to related issues, then very serious questions about the misuse of governmental power must be raised.”73

Speculation as to the government’s motives ranged widely; Rolling Stone was close to the general truth: “selective” prosecution was at work. Fellow Beatle George Harrison similarly had a marijuana bust in his past, and not only spoke of peace but embraced foreign cultures and religions while doing so, yet freely traveled and worked in America. Canadian rocker Neil Young had—with partners Crosby, Stills & Nash—in 1970 recorded the Kent State response, “Ohio,” which called the president out by name in its lyrics, but there’s no evidence that the Nixon administration interfered with Young’s travel plans.

Maybe it was a personal thing. Lennon was not always well liked by the Bible Belt crowd, and in simplistic terms it seemed to Rolling Stone that the government caved in to conservative pressure in the form of “letters and phone calls from a lot of old biddies.”74

Within legal circles the hearings posed procedural and ethical questions that begged analysis. New York Times law columnist Grace Lichtenstein took note of the sometimes-tearful pleas when Yoko addressed the court. “You’re asking me to choose between my child and my husband,” Yoko said. “I don’t think you can ask any human being to do that.” Lichtenstein, like so many others, wondered why the government was trying so hard: “Even if they weren’t John and Yoko, their case might warrant considerable attention as a challenge of American immigration laws.”75

The effort to deport John Lennon had been put into a legal, bureaucratic machine that, if nothing else, could be a painfully slow process. The hearings ended inconclusively: Judge Fieldsteel gave Leon Wildes until July 1 to submit any additional motions or arguments. It was understood by veteran court watchers that, even if Fieldsteel ruled in favor of July deportation, Wildes would have the option to appeal and initiate another round of hearings. The New York Times explained, “Appeals could prolong this case for months, perhaps years. In which case the Lennons ironically would be forced to remain within the borders of the United States.”

• • •

If investigators wanted to keep an eye on Lennon, the daily newspapers provided numerous clues as to his whereabouts and the types of “radical” associates that seemed to be on his side, meaning declared opponents of President Nixon. Lennon was seemingly unaware of the true political motivations against him—to block him from performing concerts to unseat a president—and was convinced that his pro-peace/antiwar statements were the root of his green card problems.

That belief didn’t silence him. Two days after asking the court for mercy Lennon joined a May 19 vigil in Duffy Square, one of dozens held in major cities that day. The events were organized, according to the FBI, “by peace groups demanding complete withdrawal of US troops from Indochina.”76

A growing number of rallies were supported by a broader and more influential demographic than the hippies: established names including Joseph Papp, Arthur Miller, and William Styron endorsed a group called the National Peace Action Coalition; membership included “local politicians and trade union leaders,” as noted in full-page newspaper ads that announced the rally.

While Lennon hid in plain sight, cloak-and-dagger tactics continued but strategies to force a quicker deportation failed. The combined resources of the FBI and NYPD couldn’t put a joint in Lennon’s hand—or at least the appearance of such to make a drug bust—as reported that month: “New York Police Department advised that his department has been unable to make a narcotics case on the Lennons. NYPD continuing.” A separate plan was to prove that Yoko’s claims of her ex-husband abducting Kyoko were false—allowing for a charge of perjury—and agents were sent to track down Tony Cox and the girl. That line of investigation quickly dissolved.

The acting director of the FBI seemed a more cautious fellow than the man he replaced. Without openly stating that any laws were broken—at least not on a piece of paper that might be viewed—Gray reminded agents on May 24 to be careful about bureau involvement in what were decidedly INS matters, whether tracking down Tony Cox and Kyoko or encouraging a drug arrest for Lennon.

“In view of possible court proceedings,” Gray wrote, “active investigations by FBI could result in FBI Agents testifying which would not be in Bureau’s best interest and could result in considerable adverse publicity.”

Maybe it was the government’s turn to succumb to paranoia. Suspicions ruled the day at the White House and throughout Washington in the summer of 1972. In spite of Lennon’s televised assurance that he would not attend the August convention, some on Capitol Hill remained terrified of the prospect. On June 5 Gray advised the Miami office that Lennon was “planning a large rock concert in Miami during the convention, and that the rock concert was to be held in front of the convention hall.”

What to do about Lennon was one of countless perceived problems to be put on the front burner by Nixon loyalists. A variety of sources—federal investigators, former CIA operatives, attorneys, and others—weren’t going to tolerate any disruptive activities from the worst of the hippie radicals. One crew, said to include G. Gordon Liddy, pitched the aggressive plan of abducting certain protest leaders and dumping them in a Mexican desert for the duration. Stories were told by insiders including Jeb Magruder and John Ehrlichman of a proposal to snatch and stash Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman; Attorney General John Mitchell successfully shot down unlawful imprisonment as a strategy.

But the John Lennon case would soon be of limited interest to the press, the public, or within the White House administration, the members of which had far greater priorities waiting for them. Rather than kidnap the hippies, Liddy and E. Howard Hunt directed a crew of burglars who made their way into the Democratic National Headquarters offices in the Watergate Hotel.

• • •

The members of Elephant’s Memory shared a unique rite of passage in John Lennon’s career, that of a record being both a critical and commercial disappointment. Some Time in New York City proved to be everything that critics and the Nixon administration loved to hate. Released on June 12, the double-LP’s cover alone was capable of annoying Lennon’s Washington enemies: dominant on the newspaper-styled front page was a superimposed image of Richard Nixon dancing with Chairman Mao; both leaders appeared to be naked. Song titles were headlines, including prominent placement of “Woman Is the Nigger of the World.” An assortment of puns, jokes, and gags included a small picture of producer Phil Spector, captioned, To know him is to love him, and a nod to the New York Times’ slogan: Ono News That’s Fit to Print.

The first of the double-album’s discs featured the studio work of Lennon and the Elephants, ten songs including “John Sinclair,” “Attica State,” “Luck of the Irish,” “Angela,” and “New York City.” The second disc—“Free Live Jam LP: John & Yoko and Star-Studded Cast of Thousands . . . yours at no extra cost”—was recorded at a June 1971 Fillmore East performance with Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, and a 1969 Plastic Ono Band show at London Lyceum. The tracks included Lennon’s “Cold Turkey” and Yoko performing a long piece entitled “Don’t Worry Kyoko.”

Was it the politics that prevented the album from reaching commercial success, or was there too much Yoko and not enough Lennon? Or perhaps the topics were too specific—one man’s marijuana woes, a black woman activist jailed by the man, British policies regarding Ireland—and Lennon’s was not the only name on the credit lines. The album was the work of “John & Yoko / Plastic Ono Band with Elephant’s Memory plus Invisible Strings”; the last being an inside joke referring to Spector’s wall of sound. Unlike Lennon’s previous post-Beatles albums, Plastic Ono Band and Imagine, on which he’d composed and performed the bulk of the material, Some Time afforded equal space to Yoko’s work: Of the album’s ten original songs only two—“New York City” and “John Sinclair”—were credited as Lennon compositions. Three songs were written by Yoko alone—“Sisters O Sisters,” “We’re All Water,” and “Born in a Prison”; the rest had dual Lennon/Ono bylines.

The sale of 45s had taken a backseat to album-generated revenue by then, but hit songs still factored heavily in the commercial success of an LP. Lennon insisted on “Woman Is the Nigger of the World” as the lead single, a debut that challenged the album’s commercial prospects.

Would the outcome have been different if another song had been chosen as the debut single? Gary Van Scyoc says that Lennon was doubly discouraged, both from the critical barbs and having “Woman Is the Nigger of the World” banned from mass-market play.

“There were a lot of positive things about it at the time,” Van Scyoc says of the album, but the choice of its first single may have been too big an obstacle. “In the back of my mind I remember saying, ‘Man, I don’t know about this one.’ But he was hell-bent on that one as the single. The bottom line is, as a record, when they banned it that was it. John was devastated; that was a new one on him.”

Lennon had expected a certain amount of resistance to the album’s political content. He also knew that the music press would be quick to pounce on Yoko Ono’s vocal work, as she sang lead on several tracks. Some Time generated the harshest reviews Lennon had ever received, lyrically and musically. Rolling Stone’s Stephen Holden described an album that could kill a lesser career: “What can one say when confronted with incipient artistic suicide? Issue a warning and then try to accentuate the positive?”77

Holden did just that, and listed attributes including Lennon’s “solid as ever” singing, and rare praise for the album’s other vocalist: “Yoko’s caterwauling yodel” was “worth a listen” on “We’re All Water,” Holden said. Also in the plus column was the playing of Elephant’s Memory, “a terrific, hard-driving rock and roll band with a raunchy fifties sound . . . the strongest part of the album. Only Elephant’s Memory emerges unscathed, [with] some taut, funky backups that are well suited to the Lennons’ voices.”

But the content of the songs met strong criticism: “Didactic political statements,” in Holden’s opinion, which did not properly address the issues at hand. As Lennon had previously observed, people wanted him to protest but also dictated the method and terms for doing so. “The tunes are shallow and derivative and the words little more than sloppy nursery rhymes that patronize the issues and individuals they seek to exalt,” Holden lambasted.

The reviews were not unanimous, and some found elements to admire, particularly among New Yorkers. Newsday’s Robert Christgau argued that—quality of music aside—the album supported Lennon’s bid for US residency:78

This new John Lennon album . . . proves conclusively that the ex-Beatle deserves to stay in America. My evidence is a line from a tune called “Attica State”: “Come together join the Movement.” No doubt the State Department, which persists in trying to deport him, thinks this makes Lennon a subversive, but I ask you, who but a true New Yorker would exhibit such chutzpah?

Christgau wondered if Lennon’s effort was worthwhile, and echoed the sentiments expressed by Rennie Davis and others that the revolution’s golden years were now in the past: “Among my Movement friends the line seems to be that there is no Movement,” Christgau noted. “We want the world, but we’ll settle for George McGovern.”

The reviewers wanted to like Lennon, to cheer the rebellious voice so beloved by a generation, but a cynicism was developing that a generation’s saviors weren’t likely to come factory-wrapped on vinyl. According to Christgau, “Unless the music business becomes a much stranger business than it already is, the violent overthrow of the US government is not likely to come in quadraphonic sound. It’s no accomplishment to boogie adolescents into youth rebellion any more. The hip young are rapidly turning into another interest group, like labor unions.”

Credit was given for Lennon taking risks, but Christgau was among those who felt the album fell short of its lofty goals. The songs were “more direct,” which also meant they were “more risky. They attack issues so simplistically that you wonder whether the artists believe themselves. This time John appears to have plunged too fast.”

Leaning on the hybrid term for artistic agitation and propaganda, Christgau cut to the chase: “Agitprop is one thing. Wrong-headed agitprop is another. Agitprop that fails to reach its constituency, however, is hardly a thing at all, and since Lennon’s forte has always been the communication of new truths to a mass audience, that possibility is very distressing. He isn’t exploiting his charisma this time, he’s gambling it.”

Separate from the album itself, Christgau used the forum to criticize Lennon’s brief adoption of Washington Square Park’s favorite troubadour, and questioned if certain Village attitudes may have affected his art: “It’s bad enough to praise David Peel and worse still to record him. But imitating his thoughtless hip-left orthodoxy is worst of all.”

The bandsmen of Elephant’s Memory said that the response—or reaction in some cases—weighed heavily on Lennon.

“The problem was, he was really still on his own as an ex-Beatle, and still had a lot to prove,” Adam Ippolito says. “He still had the need to be successful; not financial but on a very basic and broad level.”

In the United States the album Some Time in New York City peaked at forty-eight on Billboard’s charts; the single “Woman Is the Nigger of the World” topped out at fifty-eight. A modest success for average musicians; a harsh disappointment for Lennon. Ippolito says the record’s reviews and chart failure took a toll on John and Yoko, bringing to an end a period of artistic and political exploration.

“They went into hiding for at least a week when it came out,” Ippolito says. The Elephants—and New Left leaders—had no idea what Lennon might do next.


62 Excerpts from The Dick Cavett Show broadcasts of September 11, 24, 1971 and May 11, 1972, copyright © Daphne Productions, Inc., used with permission of Mr. Cavett and Daphne Productions.

63 “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).

64 Ben Fong-Torres, “Lennon’s Song: The Man Can’t F**k Our Music,” Rolling Stone, February 18, 1971.

65 The Dick Cavett Show, May 1972.

66 Jon Wiener, Come Together: John Lennon in His Time (New York: Random House, 1990), 214.

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

68 Albin Krebs, “Notes on People,” New York Times, May 13, 1972.

69 From the book Talk Show by Dick Cavett. Copyright © 2009 by Richard A. Cavett. All rights reserved. Reprinted by arrangement with Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

70 Cavett, Talk Show, xvi.

71 “Lennon Makes Plea at Close of Hearing,” New York Times, May 18, 1972.

72 Editorial, “Unhand That Beatle,” Washington Daily News, May 9, 1972.

73 “John Lennon and Yoko Ono to Have Press Conference,” Rosslyn Review, May 4, 1972.

74 Ralph J. Gleason, “Perspectives: Fair Play for John and Yoko,” Rolling Stone, June 22, 1972.

75 Grace Lichtenstein, “John and Yoko: ‘If There’s Mercy, I’d Like It, Please,’” New York Times, May 21, 1972.

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

77 Stephen Holden, “’Que Pasa, New York?’ Indeed,” Rolling Stone, July 20, 1972.

78 Robert Christgau, “John Lennon’s Realpolitik,” Newsday, July 9, 1972.

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