Chapter 7


“People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I am not a crook.” —Richard M. Nixon, November 1973

Lennon continued to feel the relentless pressure of fighting the immigration department, of being under watch, but there was more to it. He would tell Rolling Stone two years later that the myriad legal issues, professional uncertainty, and the ongoing search for Yoko’s daughter took a toll.89

“It was really getting to me,” Lennon said. “Not only was I physically having to appear in court cases, it just seemed like a toothache . . . a permanent toothache. There was a period where I just couldn’t function, you know? I was so paranoid from them tappin’ the phone and followin’ me. How could I prove that they were tappin’ me phone?”

Life under surveillance was one more restriction, coupled with and causing Lennon’s inability to schedule tour dates. Reviews of the Madison Square Garden show heightened Lennon’s desire to “get it right next time,” and the perpetual “toothache” left him uncomfortable and irritable that fall. In early October he told the New Musical Express that criticism of his musical direction being “self-indulgent” was getting old: “It’s only because I’m not doing what they want me to do,” Lennon said. “They’re still hung up on my past. People talk about not what you do, but how you do it, which is like discussing how you dress or if your hair is long or short.”90

Some appointments had to be kept, like obligations as producer of the Apple-issued Elephant’s Memory album. Lennon tried to sidestep the spotlight when Apple introduced the band and album at an early October press party. Special guests included Mignon, a six-month-old baby elephant that roamed the room, “painted up like a Lower East Side groupie for the occasion,” Rolling Stone reported.91 The Lennon connection, however, remained prominent; the band was introduced as “the working-class heroes we’ve all been waiting for.” Lennon’s actual presence on the record was limited to some backing vocals and rhythm guitar work, but his shadow remained too large to ignore, and not necessarily to the band’s benefit. Apple hosted the one event and scheduled brief tours of the Midwest and in California, but with Lennon unable to headline a series of concerts, bassist Gary Van Scyoc says that neither the producer nor label seemed able to give the time and attention needed by a relatively unknown band. It wasn’t a problem Lennon had experienced in recent memory.

“Being on Apple was a big thrill for the first month,” Van Scyoc says. “Until we went up there and started looking for the promotion department. There was no promotions department. The Beatles put out an album and it just sold and sold. But the Elephants needed help. Basically we signed with a label that had no facilities to promote us. It was a good thing, but it wasn’t going out.”

Elephant’s Memory was very much the band’s creation—but Lennon had enthusiastically put backing vocals and rhythm guitar on some selections; he added a piano piece to Van Scyoc’s “Wind Ridge,” a collaboration the bassist fondly recalls.

“John loved my tune, ‘Wind Ridge,’ and wrote piano lines,” Van Scyoc says. “On the record it’s just John, myself, and Jim Keltner on the track. He sent the rest of the Elephants home that night.”

The album cover itself painted a grim picture, with a moody black-and-white landscape that contrasted with earlier hippie-era imagery. Founders Stan Bronstein and Rick Frank wrote the bulk of its songs—other than “Wind Ridge” and “Life” by Tex Gabriel—which mixed autobiography with the band’s signature politics. The group’s identity was addressed in a semidefiant song by Frank, “Local Plastic Ono Band,” and the guitar-driven “Chuck ’n’ Bo,” a salute to Berry and Diddley after the two legends had shared stage time with the band.

The band’s reputation may have preceded the album, regardless of the quality of the music. By late 1972, political rock had lost much of its edge, and Apple’s promotion of “working-class hero” musicians—well represented in “Liberation Special” and “Power Boogie”—made them difficult to market. Some tried to champion the Elephant’s talent.

“Forget the bullshit and listen to the music,” advised Melody Maker: “They pour beautiful guitar from Wayne Gabriel and wild sax from Stan Bronstein. Listen to Gabriel take off like a sky rocket on ‘Chuck ’n’ Bo.’”92

The consensus was that Lennon’s faith in the band had been justified: New York writers familiar with the group wanted to like the album, although they too wondered if revolution rock was still relevant, or would be again. Village Voice writer Richard Nusser said the sound may not have hit the right notes for the times: “A thundering expression of rage that’s either four years too late, or four years too early.”93

The critics favored Lennon’s “discovery,” but magazine writers don’t buy all the records. Cash Box speculated on the album’s sales potential: “This album will be testing grounds for their live excitement translating itself to record sales.”94

The translation fell short. The LP briefly approached but couldn’t crack the Billboard Top 200, and no single caught the fancy of the record-buying public. Was Lennon’s endorsement of the band as rockers for the revolution a mixed blessing? Gabriel says the sudden national exposure was built on two associations—the Yippies and Lennon—that came wrapped in the same package.

“Sometimes I wondered about that, but if we hadn’t been such a political band would Jerry Rubin have been involved?” Gabriel asks. “Would Lennon have been interested if we were just another rock and roll band? Our political outlook had a lot to do with all of it happening.”

Maybe music for the masses had already had its share of hippie history. Cynical minds said that music just didn’t matter anymore. Rock and roll had sold out, Rolling Stone’s Nick Tosches said, and everyone might be better off remembering that when listening to the album.95 It was “completely ludicrous” to think that the music mattered as a sociopolitical force.

“Elephant’s Memory is just a fuckin’ band and the album is just plain old fuckin’ music,” Tosches concluded. “The artists and media of rock’s aging counterculture have been so comfortably incorporated into the bloodstream of traditional big business economics as to render the mere concept of any viably revolutionary nature absurd.”

If “Movement music” was passé, Lennon’s blessing of the band may have been trumped, Tosches said, by their alliances with “such color sergeants of the revolution as Jerry Rubin . . . and renowned stupid person David Peel. Elephant’s Memory are commonly thought of as being part of the great revolutionary consortium’s going-out-of-business-sale.”

Whatever the band was, in the eyes of many fans the stage area near Lennon was forever reserved for other musicians. In the wake of the critical response to the Madison Square Garden shows, Lennon realized that his onstage collaborations—with Yoko or the Elephants—were destined to be measured against a particular standard.

“I’ve got used to the fact—just about—that whatever I do is going to be compared to the other Beatles,” Lennon said. “If I took up ballet dancing, my ballet dancing would be compared with Paul’s bowling. But I’ve come to learn something big . . . I cannot let the Top Ten dominate my art. If my worth is only to be judged by whether I’m in the Top Ten or not, then I’d better give up.”

By November 1972 Lennon’s immersion in radical politics wasn’t the same as it had been a year earlier. He didn’t change his pro-peace views—and didn’t back down from fighting for the chance to perform political songs. Another time, another year, and the partnership with Elephant’s Memory might well have continued to evolve along with current events, the musicians exploring a sound as well as a message, but too many extenuating factors stood in the way. Reflecting on it years later Lennon said the two motivating factors went hand in hand.96

“The last thing on earth I want to do is perform,” Lennon said. “That’s a direct result of the immigration thing. In ’71, ’72, I wanted to go out and rock me balls off onstage and I just stopped.”

And his role in the Movement? His revolution-inspired forays into writing as if on assignment as self-proclaimed musical journalist ran contrary to his artistic vision. “The art is more important than the thing and sometimes I have to remind meself of it.” The year he’d spent with the Yippies and the Elephants had been productive by output standards, but lacking in Lennon’s own self-assessment.

“I was still putting out the work,” Lennon said. “But in the back of me head it was: What do you want to be? What are you looking for? I’m a freakin’ artist, man, not a fuckin’ race horse.”

• • •

Election night, of November 7, 1972, was not—by all accounts—one of John Lennon’s finest. So many things came to a crashing halt with the president’s overwhelming reelection win with the thought of four more years under Nixonian rule, there was no reason to think Lennon’s life and career shouldn’t follow suit.

John, Yoko, and the Elephants were in the studio that fall to record Yoko’s ambitious two-disc LP, Approximately Infinite Universe, the final piece of their three-part contract with Apple. Since it was election night, sessions had begun early, half-hearted renditions at best, and came to an early end. Nobody felt like playing music: a recording session suddenly seemed pointless, as did a lot of things.

There had been little suspense that Nixon would win as he claimed more than 60 percent of the popular vote, one of the largest victory margins in presidential history. In the electoral contest Nixon all but swept the national board by winning every state except Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia. A generation felt defeated, and Lennon had some renewed personal concerns: given what seemed a mandate of the people, would the president’s men decide now to finish the deportation process?

Gary Van Scyoc recalls a disgusted Lennon calling a halt to playing. An election-night blowout at Jerry Rubin’s Village apartment seemed an appropriate place to drink away the evening’s sorrows.

“It was really deflating,” Van Scyoc says. “A whole lot of drinking going on, even before we left the studio. John’s not a great drinker, as everybody knows. The party was already a disaster waiting to happen.”

As recounted in Jon Wiener’s Come Together and recalled by the Elephants, Rubin answered the door to a John Lennon “crazy with rage,” cursing and screaming.97 Lennon took in the apartment filled with would-be revolutionaries; he considered his host, whose leadership of a movement was now a memory.

Lennon ranted, a drunken tirade of class warfare and lost causes. He had grown tired of the politics as preached by Rubin—by a lot of people—and frustrated by that old familiar feeling that he was being used. And for what? There was no hope, Lennon said; these people couldn’t do anything, couldn’t protect themselves against the forces of Nixon and the man.

Who was gonna do it? Lennon asked. Was anyone in that room ready to take responsibility for their lives, or were they waiting for some savior to show them the way?

Their answer was: Lennon. In spite of Nixon’s victory, Stan Bronstein said it was up to Lennon to revive the Movement.

“You, John,” Bronstein said. “They’ll listen to you.”

That may have been the final straw, an echo of demands that began early in Beatlemania, of fans wanting more than just music. There had been times when parents brought ill or disabled children to concerts and begged for backstage access in hopes that a touch from a Beatle might—somehow, in some way—provide more than just hope. Lennon—the leader of the Beatles—was expected to have all the answers for a generation: What clothes should we wear? they asked. How long should our hair be? What drugs were okay? What religions were okay?

In New York he wanted to be just one of the crowd, but he was never just one of the crowd. He was John Lennon, head of the most influential entertainment force in history. Revolutionaries from every movement and cause wanted more than a casual endorsement: they wanted Lennon to lead them in the march to a better future. He’d given his time, money, and fame to Rubin, the Yippies, John Sinclair, and in return had telephones tapped, threats of deportation, and life spent under federal watch. The Movement, Lennon said, needed another solution.

“They haven’t been listening to me,” Lennon scowled.

Lennon was not a happy drunk, and Van Scyoc recalls a bad scene in the making. “John was making a lot of noise and being generally unruly,” Van Scyoc says. “I was glad to get out of there, to be honest.”

The party crowd thinned past midnight. Lennon drunkenly flirted with a woman he soon took into a bedroom, his actions no secret to anyone in the room, including Yoko. The closed door did not block what obviously took place.

Bronstein discreetly turned up the radio’s volume to mask the noise; Tex Gabriel sat at Yoko’s side, gave her his sunglasses to hide tearful eyes, and made small talk while the party came to an ugly end.

The country seemed destined to four more years of Richard Nixon’s presidency. Far less certain was the state of Lennon’s residency, John and Yoko’s marriage, his partnership with the Elephants, his career, and his mental state.

• • •

While Lennon shared album space with Yoko Ono on Some Time in New York City—a near fifty-fifty songwriting partnership—Approximately Infinite Universe was very much Yoko’s solo album; Lennon’s involvement was limited to a few backing vocals, some guitar work, and a producer credit. The early recording sessions that were interrupted on election night stayed in limbo for several days as Lennon scrambled to apologize and repair a seemingly broken marriage. The bulk of the album would be recorded at New York’s Record Plant studios, but by Thanksgiving Elephant’s Memory had flown to California for several performances and John and Yoko split time between Texas—and the ongoing search for Kyoko—and the West Coast, where some sessions for the album were held.

Musically, the Elephants enjoyed the creativity of putting blues-based backup to Yoko’s feminist poetry. Gary Van Scyoc calls Yoko “one of the most interesting artists I ever worked with,” and that it was her guidance—not Lennon’s—that aimed for a more pop-rock approach than her previous experimental tracks.

“We revamped the chord structures to be more Elephant’s Memory compatible,” Van Scyoc says. “It was actually a fun project, and the bottom line was that Yoko really did have a vision of what she wanted.”

Lennon believed the Elephant’s capable of the project, one that could have tested the talents or patience of other musicians. Tex Gabriel told Calliope Kurtz, sometime music critic and feminist who wrote “The Feminist Songs of Yoko Ono,” that the band was able to meet both producers’ expectations.98

“John had faith in us to do it,” Gabriel says. “We were pretty experienced by that time, and Yoko had faith in us, too.”

In Los Angeles the bandsmen were provided with accommodations at the Century Plaza Hotel. Good times in sunny California for the boys, who compensated for holiday homesick thoughts by inviting more than fifty people to a Thanksgiving blowout. Gary Van Scyoc proudly says the Elephants “were the only band to run up a bigger bill than the Rolling Stones.”

Lennon was around for several tracks, Van Scyoc says, but it was clear that the relationship was fading and that they would never again share a stage. He was there in spirit as supportive friend, though. Van Scyoc recalls a memorable show the Elephants played at the Los Angeles Coliseum, a bill that included the Bee Gees, Cher, and Sly and the Family Stone, which featured an onstage boost from Lennon.

“John and Yoko called in to introduce us over the PA system,” Van Scyoc says. “The crowd went crazy. That’s a heck of a way to start a set: had them in our pocket before we even played a note. It was great.”

Lennon wanted to be there, Van Scyoc says, perhaps join the band onstage, but the timing for Lennon and the Elephants was not in the cards. During the five weeks the Elephants spent in California, John and Yoko were again tracking down possible leads as to Kyoko’s whereabouts and scrambled between New York, Texas, and Los Angeles.

Lennon’s parting with the Elephants was, if not inevitable, perhaps mutual in some regards. The band struggled, in odd ways, under a Lennon-generated spotlight. Critics may have advised that the band’s own album was worth a listen, but media attention inevitably circled back to Lennon. The three younger bandsmen fully hoped to capitalize on the professional opportunity, but Bronstein and Frank retained some feelings that being too famous meant being a sellout. Their respect for Lennon stopped short of sucking-up to a star, and the band hadn’t tried to abuse Lennon’s friendship; the end of the ride had nothing to do with how they related personally.

The band’s political identity seemed to be fading as well. Their association with Jerry Rubin seemed too dominant in Frank’s assessment of their future, and relations had cooled considerably between Lennon and the Yippies, and within the radical ranks, to include its long-loyal troubadors.99

“There is no Movement,” Frank snarled. “We were bozoed on that. I’m not into endorsing any political groups at all.” Everyone was at odds with each other, Frank said, and when the Elephants played benefits they found support from some—the Black Panthers or Young Lords—yet scorn from others.

“The women’s libbers would yell, ‘Sexist, macho bastards,’ and we’d get pissed off,” Frank said. “That’s just where the ‘Movement’ was at.”

Frank and Bronstein told Rolling Stone they wanted to be “more than a Plastic Ono band,” but a possible direction forward remained unclear. The opportunity was exactly what the younger players—Gabriel, Van Scyoc, and Ippolito—had hoped for, but Cavalier’s Lenny Kaye wondered why founders Stan Bronstein and Rick Frank seemed reluctant to cash in.100

“They’re a funny group, the Memory,” Kaye observed. “Proud and not a little hard-headed, and where most other bands would be content to bask in the reflected stardom of the Lennons, the Elephants have steadfastly held to the concept that they’re nobody’s band but their own.”

The Elephants ended their recording work on Approximately Infinite Universe as 1972 drew to an end. The third and final piece of their Apple contract didn’t improve the band’s chances to ride the Lennons’ waves to success. The album was released in January 1973 to limited sales—sneaking into the Top 200 at 193—and the predictable harsh reviews published in February and March. The band earned kudos, but Yoko’s vocals once again proved too challenging for critics, as did lyrics that ranged from feminist issues to attempts at a more commercial sound. Lennon seemed resigned to few critics paying attention to his wife’s work, with those that did offering mostly unsympathetic commentary. In another era Yoko’s music would be better appreciated—her musical influence was seen a decade later in postpunk bands such as the B-52s, who freely acknowledged that the origins of their unique sound included Yoko’s work.

Perhaps more telling in Nick Tosches’ Rolling Stone review was an increasingly common feeling among cultural observers that it was perhaps time to mothball the spiritual-Aquarian overtones of a now-bygone era.101

“What is this search for meaning, anyway?” Tosches wondered. “Didn’t that go out in ’68?”

The release of Approximately Infinite Universe closed the books on the band’s association with Lennon, who remained stuck in immigration limbo and unable to schedule dates or tours. Van Scyoc says he understood that ride wasn’t going to last forever.

“It came to a standstill,” Van Scyoc says. Equipment valued at six figures would be returned, and regular salaries discontinued. “We were on retainer, but there were weeks when I was rehearsing with Neil Sedaka and collecting John’s salary. It was kind of silly for Apple to keep spending money on us every week. He had to cut us loose.”

Back in New York, a courier showed up at each of the Elephants’ doors one early spring morning bearing a letter sealed in wax, an unnecessary yet theatrical gesture separate from official paperwork that followed from Apple. A personal message, five copies of the “parting of the ways” letter that Van Scyoc remembers fondly for its good spirit, grace, and humor. With true regrets Lennon said the gig was over, but he knew they’d soldier on and take the world by storm.

“You can’t keep a good band down,” Lennon cheered, and explained that “because of the green card and Apple up in the air,” he would be in Los Angeles for a while:

It’s costing too much bread to keep you “on retainer” and I/we have no plans to tour or anything . . . I hope you enjoyed yourselves (we did), your names known enough now to keep you going. See you round, love John and Yoko.

• • •

In a March 1973 deportation order, Lennon was once again ordered to depart the country within sixty days.102 The paper chase continued even after its motivations were moot. The FBI had officially closed its file; the bureau’s final report in December indicated that Lennon and the Yippies had parted ways, with Lennon the jilted radical partner: “In view of subject’s inactivity in Revolutionary Activities and his seemingly rejection by NY Radicals, captioned case is being closed in the NY division.”

The attempt to deport Lennon, however, had worked its way into a system that couldn’t be stopped; untangling the red tape was a process that would outlast the presidential administration that started it. As White House staff scrambled to explain who knew what and when they knew it, the Lennon deportation attempt put INS district director Sol Marks in the uncomfortable position of kicking out a beloved cultural figure. It was the government’s right to do so, Marks said at a March 24 press conference, even if they didn’t really want to. Marks stressed that while the decision was based on the 1968 marijuana conviction, it was one step in a long process, and the order did not necessarily mean that Lennon would leave soon; he “might thus be able to stay in the US for years as he goes through due process.”

The order included an offer of sorts: if Lennon voluntarily left the country, “he might be able to return” under a similar visa to the one issued in 1971, provided a waiver could be obtained for the marijuana conviction. Lennon was effectively being asked to go away for a while and trust the INS and the Nixon administration to do the right thing.

“Having just celebrated our fourth wedding anniversary,” Lennon said in a responding statement that was quoted widely, “we are not prepared to sleep in separate beds.”

Lennon held a press conference of his own at the offices of the New York City Bar Association. Lennon appeared in the Stimson Room before a crowd of New York attorneys, wearing a badge that read: Not Insane. America, Lennon reflected, was “a place to be in, rather than just scoot in and out with the loot.” His wife, he said, taught him to love the US, New York in particular, and its ideas of freedom.

Seated at a table with Yoko and Leon Wildes, Lennon said the occasion for which they were gathered that day was to announce the birth of a nation: Nutopia, for which John and Yoko were the first ambassadors. Lennon then read the “Declaration of Nutopia,” which he said would duly grant him diplomatic immunity from further deportation hearings:

We announce the birth of a conceptual country, NUTOPIA.

Citizenship of the country can be obtained by declaration of your awareness of NUTOPIA.

NUTOPIA has no land, no boundaries, no passports, only people.

NUTOPIA has no laws other than cosmic.

All people of NUTOPIA are ambassadors of the country.

As two ambassadors of NUTOPIA, we ask for diplomatic immunity and recognition in the United Nations of our country and its people.

The day of the Nutopia announcement was, of course, April Fool’s Day, with the signed declaration containing a return address from the Nutopian Embassy at One White Street. (The address of the Tribeca townhouse built in the 1800s may have been chosen at random, yet forty years later remained a destination for letters of peace and support addressed to Yoko.) Lennon waved a white handkerchief—the Nutopian flag—to conclude the bit of theater, a surrender that was mostly but not entirely a joke.

But Lennon wasn’t giving up, or going away quickly. The sixty days came and went and he remained on American soil, although no longer keeping company with the Elephants or downtown radicals. In April 1973, John and Yoko became the newest residents of the storied Dakota apartment building at West Seventy-Second Street and Central Park West. The building itself boasted considerable screen time as a frequent backdrop in movies, most notably Rosemary’s Baby; the Dakota’s long list of celebrity tenants included at the time Roberta Flack, Lauren Bacall, and Leonard Bernstein. A change of scenery was in order, one that hopefully left behind the days of electronic surveillance.

• • •

John and Yoko maintained a relatively low profile as they settled into their new home, dramatically scaled back from the previous year’s flurry of activity and appearances. One public outing took place in early May, when they obtained the hottest tickets of the season to watch a day’s worth of Watergate testimony courtesy of Democratic Senator Sam Ervin—a key player in the prosecution of Nixon and his administration—and made a quick in-and-out visit to Washington.103 Lennon extended his appreciation in a follow-up letter in late June: “Thank you very much for your kindness in arranging our visit to the historic Watergate Hearings,” Lennon wrote. “We’ve been following it on TV—but there’s nothing like the ‘real thing.’ We apologize for leaving without saying goodbye—we had to escape rather quickly! We would have loved to have met Senator Ervin, but thought his time was occupied with more serious matters! Perhaps another time . . .”

In July the Lennons attended the one-year anniversary party for Gloria Steinem’s Ms. magazine. Guests at the party—a boat ride up and down the Hudson and East rivers for an elongated circle around Manhattan—barely noticed the two. But aside from these brief appearances, a more isolated Lennon spent the summer working on his next album, Mind Games, which was recorded in July and August at the Record Plant. He gave only a few scattered interviews after the Nutopia press conference until that fall when it was time to start promoting the album.

Lennon returned to effectively “solo” status with the record. He took the producer’s chair himself rather than offer a return engagement to Phil Spector, and brought in guitarist David Spinozza and old friend Jim Keltner on drums. No Plastic Ono incarnation or Elephants, no shared credits with his wife—marital tensions born the previous November were nearing critical mass. As recalled in Lennon in America, the album was “an interim record between being a manic political lunatic and back to being a musician again.”104

The album mostly steered clear of politics, at least in terms of protest anthems or topical bits of musical journalism, but “Bring on the Lucie (Freeda Peeple)” has been called Lennon’s last great protest song, its lyrics clearly bringing an end to Lennon’s active involvement:

Well we were caught with our hands in the air
Don’t despair paranoia is everywhere
We can shake it with love when we’re scared
So let’s shout it aloud like a prayer

Lennon often dismissed claims that his songs held greater depth and meaning—even after years of having reviewers and fans scrutinize his thoughts. In the song “Intuition” Lennon offered one explanation for his role as both artist and activist: “My intentions are good, I use my intuition, it takes me for a ride.”

Yet Mind Games may have included Lennon’s final thoughts on the Movement, the revolution, the lessons learned. Lennon restated and affirmed his philosophies in the title song, originally called “Make Love, Not War”—the phrase echoing the song’s ending—which Lennon knew was by then an overused cliché. “Mind Games” featured one of Lennon’s finest post-Beatles vocal performances and a positive message free of any bitterness that may have built up by then.

“Some call it magic,” Lennon said, “to search for the Grail.” Positive energies over angry rebellion: “Yes . . . is the answer.” A string of phrases formed a consistent picture: “Chanting the mantra of peace on earth; faith in the future out of the now; raising the spirit of peace and love.”

The song was well received when released in November. But overall the album met reviews similar to those for Some Time in New York City; Rolling Stone said the LP included “his worst writing yet.”105 Commercially, however, the record returned Lennon to respectable sales: the album cracked the Top 10, and the title single the Top 20.

Critical backlash couldn’t target Yoko, who did not perform on the album but was present as a topic: the musical chronicle of John and Yoko continued with “Aisumasen (I’m Sorry)”; Lennon borrowed a Japanese phrase of apology to beg Yoko’s forgiveness for the sad ending to election night at Jerry Rubin’s apartment.

The apology wasn’t enough to heal a wounded marriage. By the time Mind Games was in stores Lennon was back on the West Coast, unable to tour, too tired to fight. Lennon had gone to Los Angeles in October after he and Yoko agreed to separate for an indefinite period. He wouldn’t see Yoko again for more than a year.

• • •

The start of what John Lennon later called his “lost weekend” of California partying weren’t his prettiest days, but there was a lot of that going around. The climate in Lennon’s adopted home country wasn’t promising.

In November 1973, President Richard Nixon felt compelled to address the growing number of questions and suspicions about his administration; during a rare Nixon press conference with the managing editors of the Associated Press, the president answered Watergate questions. That brief speech included one of the most repeated sentences in political history.

Nixon had never once profited from his life in public service, he said. He “earned every cent,” and had never mislead the public or obstructed justice: “I welcome this kind of examination, because people have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I am not a crook.”

The humorists had a field day: “Not a crook” became the national punch line in a comedy that would take months to unfold.

Despite Lennon’s unequivocal feelings about Nixon, he had lost interest in composing political songs, writing words for the Movement. Lennon knew there was no Movement to speak of anymore, but where exactly he would go was one of many unresolved questions. At the top of that list was a matter of far more importance to Lennon than any music, politics, or business: his separation from Yoko, his wife and constant, day-in, day-out companion of several years.

“As a friend says, I went out for coffee and some papers and I didn’t come back,” Lennon later said of the separation and fleeing New York.106 “It’s not a matter of who broke it up. It broke up.”

Lennon was accompanied by May Pang, who had been a personal assistant of the Lennons. Pang was sent by Yoko to keep an eye on Lennon and, as has been often chronicled, to serve as sexual surrogate while John ran wild on the West Coast—to keep him honest in his cheating during a nearly yearlong party.

It was, as Lennon often described, the extended bachelor party that only a top-level rock-and-roll star could have. A Los Angeles duplex hosted a barroom roundtable of some of the hardest-drinking musicians in the business, notably Harry Nilsson and Keith Moon, and the bash mixed some business with lots of pleasure.

In October Lennon had begun recording Rock ’n’ Roll, an album born in court but that became a celebration of his musical origins. Not long after Lennon shared the stage with Chuck Berry on the Mike Douglas Show, his publisher filed a lawsuit claiming that “Come Together” sounded a little too similar to Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me,” even including the shared lyric, “Here come old flattop.” The case reached New York courts in 1973, and ended when Lennon agreed to record “You Can’t Catch Me” on his next album.

However unfortunate the motivation, the timing was right for Lennon to take a break from writing songs of cutting-edge importance and simply enjoy playing old-time rock and roll.

“I had enough of trying to be deep,” Lennon recalled of his ambitions.107 “Why can’t I have some fun? When I wasn’t singing my own deep personal thoughts, it was to sing rock ’n’ roll, which is what I started with.”

Jukebox nuggets from those sessions included “Peggy Sue,” a take on Little Richard’s “Slippin’ and Slidin’” that confirmed Lennon as one of the great singers of straight-out rock and roll, “Be Bop a Lula,” “Ain’t that a Shame,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and what became the album’s best-known track, “Stand By Me,” which was stamped with Lennon’s distinctive signature on the Drifters’ classic. (The eventual release of Rock ’n’ Roll was a story in itself: Lennon deferred the producer role to Phil Spector, whose eccentricities by then were more than just quirky. Spector stormed into one recording session dressed as a surgeon and fired a gun at the acoustic tile ceiling, the report originating within inches of Lennon. “If you’re gonna kill me, kill me,” Lennon shouted.108“But don’t fuck with my ears, I need ’em.” Recordings made in California in late 1973 disappeared with Spector for independent production until he was sidetracked by a March 1974 auto accident. Lennon later attempted to recreate the work in New York, and dueling versions and legal claims stalled the album’s release until 1975.)

Playing some simple rock and roll numbers, which was a kind of home for John, a place he could always get back to whenever he wanted, now became another long and complicated process. Outside of the studio in Southern California, Lennon’s life took a drink-fueled downward spiral. The duplex-centered party was fun at first: musicians, movie stars, and former Beatles lounged poolside, bar-hopped with abandon, and gave in to their urges. It was an oddly productive time too, during which Lennon produced Nilsson’s Pussy Cats. Ringo was around, living and enjoying a Hollywood life; the brief presence of Paul McCartney prompted the obvious speculations.

McCartney had been in Los Angeles for a few days, perhaps prompted by the opportunity to have time with Lennon sans Yoko. While McCartney was in town, he and Linda dropped in on a March 1974 session Lennon helmed at the Record Plant in Burbank for Nilsson’s Pussy Cats; work on that album suddenly seemed irrelevant. The room fell silent when the Beatles’ coauthors were present, in the same room yet somehow separate from Nilsson, Stevie Wonder, and several seasoned studio players. As recalled in Christopher Sandford’s McCartney, everything froze until Lennon broke the tension.109

“Valiant Paul McCartney, I presume?” Lennon greeted his old partner, the name pulled from a Christmas play the boys had performed on British radio so very long ago.

“Sir Jasper Lennon, I presume?” McCartney responded on cue. They shook hands, a warm but subdued atmosphere enhanced by the attentions on them.

“There were fifty other people playing,” Lennon exaggerated later when he recalled that night in an interview. “But they were all just watching me and Paul.”110

They jammed to a few oldies with Paul on drums and Lennon on guitar, as always returning to the familiar ground they shared as teenagers—before the Beatles, screaming fans, triumphs and tragedies, wives, and endless lawsuits. They hadn’t broken up because of the music. They ripped through “Lucille,” “Cupid,” something called “Bluesy Jam,” and two takes of “Stand by Me.” Tapes of the impromptu performance resurfaced years later as a bootleg product entitled “A Toot and a Snore in ’74,” the title a reference to an overheard offer of cocaine. The product was not something they would have released, scattered bits and pieces of songs pulled from strained memories amid the unspoken expectations. It was fun, but the time and place weren’t fated for anything further.

Pang captured a few photographs of the former partners seated on patio furniture, hands shielding their eyes from the bright California sun. They appeared relaxed in this casual moment away from the public’s expectations. Paul later admitted he was among the first to realize that Lennon may have needed a true friend.

• • •

For Lennon, the party spun out of control. He had approached the perceived freedom of being away from Yoko with gusto, but the over-the-top antics eventually dragged him into an abyss. “It was a madhouse,” he later said. “I realized I was in charge, I wasn’t just one of the boys. A company was expecting me to produce this record out of a gang of drunken lunatics.”111

The lost weekend faded in time and Lennon returned to New York—although not immediately to Yoko—and in the summer of 1974 recorded Walls and Bridges, what would be his last collection of new material for six years. Back in the Record Plant, Lennon passed on the gun-toting Spector and produced the sessions himself, the songs inspired by his separation from Yoko and downward spiral in California.

Lennon missed Yoko, perhaps the other Beatles. He would later describe on the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test a situation not of peer pressure but peer acceptance: that Nilsson, Keith Moon, and company weren’t going to keep Lennon’s behavior in check.

“I usually have somebody there who says, ‘Okay Lennon. Shut up,’” he remarked, whether referring to Yoko, former wives, or fellow Beatles. “But I didn’t have anybody round me to say ‘Shut up,’ and I just went on and on.”

Recovering from a lengthy hangover in many ways, in “Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down and Out)” Lennon recalled a bad night of drinking, a legendary romp when he was bounced out of the Troubadour club in LA, a three a.m. bar-worthy confession of self-pity. He wondered in lyric where his true friends, his own peace, might be found.

“Nobody loves you when you’re down and out,” Lennon sang. Instead of reliving his youth, his recent antics had him feeling his age: “Nobody loves you when you’re old and gray . . . I’ve shown you everything, I’ve got nothing to hide.”

Lennon told the tale himself through song of the fallen idol response: “Everybody loves you when you’re six foot in the ground.”

• • •

Tired of waiting, John Lennon took the offensive.

There had been limited progress with immigration during Lennon’s California blowout. In early 1974 Leon Wildes had finalized “nonpriority status” for Lennon, which allowed them time to properly address the many remaining questions through the system.

“I requested documentation relating to the nonpriority program,” Wildes says, “a humanitarian program that was not part of the statute or regulations and simply a matter of secret law.” Wildes documented numerous cases where, due to hardship or family obligations, “aliens who were fully deportable—including those with multiple convictions for serious drug offenses, murder, and rape—were nevertheless permitted to remain in this country.”

Wildes sensed some encouragement when he was able to convince the federal prosecutors to publish the complaint. “The US attorney said it had to be published, even though it was against his client,” Wildes says. “They have limited capacity to remove aliens and they should only be removing the serious aliens, not disrupting lives. It was later called ‘deferred departure.’ He ordered that the Lennon case should be considered, and nobody would touch the case before.”

Wildes fought long and hard to get his hands on the documents and memos that told the tale of the true motivations behind the deportation attempt, dating back to Strom Thurmond’s cover letter advising that deportation would be a good “strategy countermeasure.” A paper trail began to emerge, and Wildes soon reviewed files including the Senate Internal Security Committee report that attempted to link Lennon to plans for disrupting the Republican convention.

Wildes returned to court in October 1974 with a judicial challenge: it was the government, not the rock singer, that had crossed legal lines. Given the developments of the Watergate investigation that resulted in the unprecedented August 1974 resignation of a president, Lennon’s paranoia suddenly didn’t seem as far-fetched.

The affidavit submitted in Lennon’s name to Judge Fieldsteel launched a counterattack, an accusation that a few years earlier might have seemed the product of ego but made far more sense given the current state of political affairs. Lennon had been “selectively prosecuted in a discriminatory manner,” the affidavit began: “I have been the subject of illegal surveillance activities on the part of the government; as a result, my case and the various applications filed in my behalf have been prejudged for reasons unrelated to my immigration status.”112

• • •

Lennon may not have known he was about to take an extended bow.

If falling short of the sales success achieved by other Beatles bothered Lennon, the Walls and Bridges album reached the top of the album charts, aided by the number one hit duet with Elton John, “Whatever Gets You Through the Night.”

When they had recorded the song in July, Elton John made a bold studio declaration that the single would top the charts, which Lennon doubted. A bet was made, and Lennon “paid up” by returning to Madison Square Garden as surprise guest during an October 28, 1974, Elton John show. The hit duet was joined by renditions of “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” which Elton had recorded that year as a tribute.

Lennon walked offstage to find Yoko waiting in the wings, as orchestrated by Elton John, who had become friend to both that year. The public was unaware of backstage, private conversations among friends who—no matter the harsh opinions aired about Yoko—knew that the couple belonged together. Paul McCartney’s West Coast time included more than a few heart-to-hearts on the topic, brotherly chats that had nothing to do with Beatles or rock and roll. It was time for the two to talk, to start over if possible.

“It was a great high night,” Lennon told Rolling Stone. “A really high night. Yoko and I met backstage. I didn’t know she was there, ’cause I’d have been too nervous to go on, you know. There was just that moment when we saw each other and like, it’s like the movies, when time stands still? So it was a great night.”113

The reunion proved permanent. One final issue was left to settle, a matter of principle absent any concerns of fame or fortune.

• • •

There were some concerns over bad publicity generated by the lost weekend, and Lennon had accepted a few invitations to portray himself in a positive light: Lennon and Harry Nilsson had made a walk-on, nonperforming appearance at a Central Park March of Dimes benefit concert in April 1974, and in May he spent two days in Philadelphia for radio appearances during WFIL-FM’s “Helping Hands” marathon fundraiser before turning his attentions to Walls and Bridges. Approaching fall and winter, nearly three years after the INS first filed an order with the name John Lennon on it, Lennon took his turn at the legal plate and submitted a lawsuit: a basic First Amendment issue in which the rock star took on two former attorney generals of the United States.

As reported in a Rolling Stone article, “Justice for a Beatle,” Wildes filed a case against the INS and former AGs John Mitchell and Richard Kleindienst, charging that “selective prosecution” was born of political motivations, and that the information used in making that case was obtained illegally through unwarranted surveillance and wiretaps. The lawsuit simply asked US District Court Judge Richard Owen to let Lennon prove the claim, and Wildes did just that.

Litigation, especially when involving a government agency, can take time; the months crawled by, and Lennon’s priority turned to his marriage more than his career. Patiently, Lennon’s legal case grew with each new piece of discovery. As with Watergate coming to a head, insiders came forward with damning information as INS and FBI documents were revealed. A June 1975 United Press International story explained that Wildes had the documentation to prove the deportation attempt came from Washington, and that the INS had misled the press: New York INS director Sol Marks had previously said that he made the decision on his own to proceed against Lennon; in 1975 a different story was told: “Marks said in a deposition last week he acted as a ‘conduit’ for instructions from Washington, which he understood to mean that ‘We were not to give this man a break.’”114

Wildes never thought they would beat the INS on this one; the odds were too long, the deck stacked too high against Lennon. As far as the INS was concerned, Lennon’s appeal was rejected and on July 17, 1975, he was again ordered to leave the country within sixty days.

On the other hand, things had changed. The lawsuit filed by Lennon remained undecided, other voices still to be heard.

Four years after their initial introduction, Wildes was now among the Lennons’ closest friends in New York. It was, then, more than just a professional pleasure when he placed an October phone call with the latest and final report on the matter: “You remember I told you we’re probably not going to win this case,” Wildes asked Lennon, “but that we might survive long enough for the law to be changed? I’m now calling to tell you we actually won it.”

On October 7, 1975, the US Court of Appeals overturned Lennon’s deportation order, confirming that the allegations made regarding the Nixon administration’s role were all true.

Wildes called while Lennon was heading to the hospital, where Yoko was expected to give birth at any moment. On John Lennon’s thirty-fifth birthday, October 9, 1975, so soon after hearing that their protracted fight for free speech had ended in victory, John and Yoko welcomed their son, Sean Ono Lennon.

Lennon was finally granted permanent residency in July 1976. (Asked if he harbored ill will toward Mitchell, Nixon, Thurmond, et al., Lennon shrugged and smiled at the reporters present: “Well, time wounds all heels.”)

After more than a decade of fame, wealth, adulation, and the grandest trappings of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, John Lennon was—finally—a happy man.


89 Pete Hamill, “John Lennon: Long Night’s Journey into Day,” Rolling Stone, June 5, 1975.

90 Roy Carr, “Instant Karma!” New Musical Express, October 7, 1972.

91 “Random Notes,” Rolling Stone, October 26, 1972.

92 Toby Mamis, review of Elephant’s Memory, Melody Maker, December 2, 1972.

93 Richard Nusser, “Riffs,” Village Voice, October 5, 1972.

94 “Pop Best Bets,” Cash Box, September 30, 1972.

95 Nick Tosches, review of Elephant’s Memory, Rolling Stone, November 5, 1972.

96 Hamill, Rolling Stone.

97 Wiener, Come Together, 253.

98 Calliope Kurtz, “The Feminist Songs of Yoko Ono,” Perfect Sound Forever, May 2007.

99 Bill Dowlding, “em, not just another pretty band,” Milwaukee Bugle-American, November 8–15, 1972.

100 Lenny Kaye, “Sound Scene,” Cavalier, December 1972.

101 Nick Tosches, review of Approximately Infinite Universe by Yoko Ono, Rolling Stone, March 15, 1973.

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

103 Davies, ed., The John Lennon Letters, 251.

104 Guiliano, Lennon in America, 54.

105 Jon Landau, review of Mind Games by John Lennon, Rolling Stone, January 3, 1974.

106 Hamill, Rolling Stone.

107 Francis Schoenberger, “He Said, She Said,” Spin, October 1988.

108 Tim Riley, Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music—the Definitive Life (New York: Hyperion), 2011.

109 Christopher Sandford, McCartney (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2007), 228.

110 John Lennon, interview with Bob Harris, The Old Grey Whistle Test, BBC Radio 2, April 1975.

111 Giuliano, Lennon in America, 60.

112 Anthony Fawcett, John Lennon: One Day at a Time, A Personal Biography of the Seventies (New York: Grove Press, 1976), 145.

113 Hamill, Rolling Stone.

114 Wiener, Gimme Some Truth, 283.

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