A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
December 16, 2005
Imagine this scenario. It’s December, 1971 and President Richard Nixon is sweating like a maniac in some underground White House bunker. He’s just read a FBI report on a concert in Ann Arbor. Mich. -- 15,000 screaming hippies raising their unwashed fists and singing along with an ex-Beatle to demand that some pot-smoking anti-war crank be sprung from prison. The president shivers as he reads every word the FBI agent had written down: “…"gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta set him free."
It wouldn’t end there. Nixon knows that bastard John Lennon was intent on uniting with crazy radicals and marijuana addicts. Not just to disrupt the convention and lead the youth vote against him in next year’s election like some sinister foreign pied piper, but to force him to strip naked and dance with Mao Tse-tung.
He had to be stopped. The FBI was trying, but they weren’t doing enough. The INS were a bunch of impotent gimps. Liddy and the boys were busy with other projects.
There was only one he could turn to, someone who had warned him years ago about those nefarious Beatles, their drugs and their communistic ways. Someone who had offered to help and had already been commissioned as a special law enforcement officer.
Nixon calls in Ron Zeigler and beats him with a flyswatter until he draws blood. That feels better, Nixon sighs. He picks up the phone to make the call.
“Rosemary, get me Elvis Presley.”
Last week, on the 25th anniversary of John Lennon’s assassination, I awoke to a radio interview on Democracy Now with Jon Weiner, a history professor at the University of California who has written two books about Lennon’s political activism in the early ‘70s and the Nixon administration’s attempts to have Lennon deported.
“He wanted to be part of what was going on,” Weiner told Amy Goodman. “What was going on in New York was the anti-war movement, and he became friends with Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman and Bobby Seale and other activists … That's what got him in trouble with the Nixon administration.
And yes, according to Weiner an undercover FBI agent actually attended a “Free John Sinclair” concert starring Lennon and actually “wrote down every word John Lennon said, including all the words to the song (“John Sinclair”) , including `gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta set him free.’ ” (Sinclair was the manager of the MC5 and leader of a group called he White Panthers. He’d been sentenced to 10 years in prison for possessing two joints of marijuana.)
After hearing the interview, I knew that I gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta get myself a copy of Some Time in New York City, which was re-released last month on CD. So I did.
This work, in which Yoko Ono wrote and sang about half the songs, generally is reviled as Lennon’s worst album.
The basic rap on the record is that a mighty Beatle, the mad genius responsible for “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I Am the Walrus” had been reduced to writing third-rate, radical chic political screeds.
It’s true, writing protest songs is tricky business. Recently I received a CD called Christmas in Fallujah by someone called Jefferson Pepper. I can’t figure out how someone could make a song about the ravages of war sound so smug and banal.
On the other hand, the Iraq war has produced several top-notch protest songs -- Terry Evans’ “My Baby Joined the Army” (written by Ry Cooder), “Can’t Make Here,” by James McMurtry” Robert Cray’s “20.” It’s also shown that a good protest song can be timeless. Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,“ Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” and Mose Allison’s surreal “Monsters of the ID” (revived recently by Stan Ridgway) with lyrics about “goblins and their hags … out there waving’ flags…” still resonate.
For the most part, Lennon and Ono’s lyrics to these songs fall well short of “Masters of War” or “Monsters of the ID.”
Only a few of them are outright embarrassing. The worst undoubtedly is “Angela” about jailed radical professor Angela Davis. With a goopy, string-sweetened arrangement, Lennon sings, “They gave you coffee/They gave you tea/They gave you everything but equality.”)
However, Some Time in New York City isn’t nearly as bad as detractors say. And some of the songs are good old-fashioned kick-ass rockers.
Lennon’s band here was a gritty and greasy New York group called Elephant’s Memory, led by sax maniac Stan Bronstein.
“John Sinclair” and “Attica State” are high-powered stompers featuring Lennon on a mean National guitar. “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” about the troubles in Northern Ireland, might also have its roots in Lennon’s rivalry with Paul McCartney. McCartney had recently released a tepid and polite tune called “Give Ireland Back to the Irish.” Lennon’s song, aided by Yoko’s weird warble and Bronstein’s sax, blew McCartney’s song to smithereens. And the autobiographical “New York City” is good, mindless fun.
The oft-vilified Ono even has a couple of good contributions here. “Sisters O Sisters” is the type retro girl-group charmer that would have fit in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. But her song “We’re All Water” with its great beat and crazy images -- “There may not be much difference between Chairman Mao and Richard Nixon/If you strip them naked” -- should have made everyone forgive her for breaking up The Beatles.
There’s some wonderful live bonus material here, including a powerful “Cold Turkey.” My only beef here is that in this release Capitol Records cut some of the Lennon jams with Frank Zappa, which appeared on previous versions of Some Time In New York City, replacing it with a bland Yoko song “Listen the Snow is Falling” and “Happy Xmas (War is Over).” This is a great holiday hit, but it’s already included on who knows how many Lennon compilations.
In the end, Tricky Dick didn’t really have much to worry about in regard to John Lennon. But what a time of wonder, when a rock ‘n’ roll star could make a president shake.
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