After seeing the film The U.S. Versus John Lennon, I was interested not just about how the idea of dissent is quieted by threatend to kick people out of the country (see John Lennon and the Politics of Deportation) but also what there was to now learn about someone who had already been such a public figure like Lennon. While most Beatles fans thought that JL lost his noodle when he did his bed-in’s, he was just being wily, using his star power to call attention to his peace initiatives, no doubt fuelled by Yoko’s background in Fluxus performance art. In the film, a number of old friends recall JL and his political convictions, including Black Panther Bobby Seale who insists that he was a close friend of Lennon’s.
That stuck in my mind as I was editing a recent piece for my zine, Buddy Holly: Learning the Game. In there, writer Tim Riley explores Holly’s legacy and how it influenced future musicians like Lennon. As part of this, Riley also digs into other parts of Lennon’s musical roots, including this passage:
“Before Elvis there was nothing,” Lennon would recall. There are conflicting reports, but after Presley’s “Hound Dog” and “Heartbreak Hotel,” the next singles to hit Lennon were Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’,” quickly followed by Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally,” which a Quarry Bank friend Michael Hill bragged was “better than Elvis.” Lennon was skeptical, and then completely seduced. “When I heard it [“Long Tall Sally”], I couldn’t speak. You know how you are torn. I didn’t want to leave Elvis. We all looked at each other, but I didn’t want to say anything against Elvis, not even in my mind. How could they be happening in my life, BOTH of them? And then someone said: It’s a nigger singing.’ I didn’t know Negroes sang. So Elvis was white, and Little Richard was black. ‘Thank you, God,’ I said. There was a difference between them… “
As I read through this, I jotted down a note that I wanted to discuss this with Riley- specifically, I was troubled by the racism in that paragraph and how it was just placed there without any comment or context. I asked him about this and he basically said that Lennon was who he was and that at that time, such an ignorant, naive attitude wasn’t uncommon in a place like Liverpool. After my comments, he struggled over what to add to the piece to explain this but in the end decided that the best thing to do was to leave the quote as is and let the readers make up their mind about this.
I thought about it and was still troubled about this. From his e-mail, I cobbled together a few sentences explaining what he said above, thinking that would help settle the matter in my mind but it didn’t. But why? I asked a few other writers and editors I respect about this and they basically told me the same thing that Riley did. One editor in fact said that it too bad that people think to go out of their way to keep Lennon all squeaky clean instead of exposing him as human, warts and all (though not assassinating his character like Albert Goldman).
It also brought me back to the film. Since it played down the Beatles (they’re barely seen and there’s not a word about them breaking up), Lennon’s horrendous drinking spree in L.A. in the mid-70’s and the fact that after years of being a politico, the last few years of his life were basically an evasion of that, it occurred to me that the movie was trying to do the same thing- put Lennon on a pedestal rather than try to get at all sides of who and what he was. Which isn’t to say that he necessarily was a racist (just ask Seale) but that he and his Liverpool chums did harbor ignorantly racist beliefs- i.e. how could you come up with a pathetically stupid line like “I didn’t know Negros sang” otherwise?
So did I need to explain this to my zine readership or should I let it stand as is and let them think what they will about him? It was also a question of what they would think about me and my own zine and how I presented this. Of course, I didn’t want to look like a racist or in any way promote racism, hence my own worrying about that passage.
After much agonizing, I decided to take the advice of Riley and my peers and leave the piece as it was. I thought this was also a way to show respect to readers by letting them read the passage and make up their own minds. So far, no one’s complained about it in so far that I was printing racist propaganda (which is horrible) or tearing down Lennon’s image (which is relatively much, much, much less important than that).
I did learn a bit about how to treat such matters and why being squeamish about it isn’t always the right answer. People need to hear this and learn about ignorant beliefs like this, even if they seem repellent and oppose everything we believe in otherwise. Until we confront these ideas, it’s going to be impossible to have an honest dialog about race. I still love Lennon and maybe I admire him a bit more because he also obviously struggled with these ideas and that sure as hell doesn’t make him a bad guy.