Revolutionary Man: John Lennon As Political Artist

[22 November 2010]

By Rachel Johnson

In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, John Lennon began to actively endorse a wide variety of progressive and radical political causes. He championed the anti-war movement as well as Native and African-American rights while demonstrating a deepening interest in feminism. Lennon began to forge potent links between his music and the politics of his time. His craft became a weapon of social and political change. The Englishman demonstrated against US involvement in Vietnam and provided the American anti-war movement with one of its most consequential anthems, “Give Peace a Chance” (1969). In 1971, he also released what is widely recognized as one of the greatest and most important pop songs ever written, a humanist plea and Socialist anthem called “Imagine”.

Lennon and Ono’s peace protests were highly individualistic and idiosyncratic. Following their marriage in March 1969, the couple spent a week in bed in Amsterdam to protest the human suffering caused by global conflict. The ‘bed-in’ protest was dismissed by many as politically illegible, pointless and ineffective. From a pacifist perspective, however, the eccentric protest does make sense as it denotes a light-hearted continuation of Gandhi and King’s principles of non-violence. “War will cease when men refuse to fight,” went the 1930s British Pacifist slogan. The bed-in protest could be said to endorse a loving stasis, a playful passivity over dynamic violence. The protest was intended as an amusing political happening, a stunt with a serious message.

Whether righteous or silly, what can’t be denied is Lennon and Ono’s willingness to take risks. Lennon was prepared for public mockery and vilification. He explained, “Bed-ins are something that everyone can do and they’re so simple. We’re willing to be the world’s clowns to make people realize it”. (Richie York, 1969) Another bed-in was soon held in Montreal where Lennon reiterated his commitment to non-violence. Although sympathetic, Lennon did not believe that an on-going people’s occupation of a park south of the border in Berkeley was a cause worthy of dying for. In evaluating the effectiveness of such protests, it is perhaps worth quoting Joan Baez on peace: “The only thing that’s been a worse flop than the organization of non-violence has been the organization of violence.” (Joan Baez, Daybreak, 1987) The protests were not as spontaneous and stupid as perceived but creative, studied acts with roots in conceptual and performance art. They were an example of what Lennon described as a ‘revolutionary happening’. (The Dick Cavett Show, 1972)

Lennon’s involvement with anti-war movement grew deeper and more directly political. “Give Peace a Chance” was the chant of the massive Vietnam Moratorium March in Washington in the fall of 1969. As detailed by Jon Wiener’s Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon F.B.I Files (2000) and shown in fairly recent documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon (David Leaf and John Scheinfeld, 2006), Lennon become the target of FBI surveillance for his part in the anti-war movement and engagement with the leftist politics. A planned 1972 anti-Nixon tour with Jerry Rubin and Rennie Davis caught the attention of the authorities.  A past drug’s offence would be used to threaten the singer with deportation. The American government appeared genuinely fearful of the singer’s talent and power. He would struggle to gain permanent resident status in the U.S. period to come. 

While Lennon cannot ultimately be said to have advocated violent class war, he was profoundly aware of the politics of class. As a child of working/lower-middle class origins in Liverpool, Lennon was shaped and marked—if not scarred—by the English class system. As early as 1966, Lennon noted, ‘The class thing is just as snobby as it ever was. People like us break through a little—but only a little.’ (“A Shorn Beatle Tries It on His Own”, Leonard Gross, Look, 1966) The observation would be developed in the 1970 track “Working Class Hero”. The song reveals a strong political awareness of the deceptions of a class-based society. Social mobility is a con: “Keep you doped with religion and sex and t.v./ And you think you’re so clever and classless and free?/ But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see.”

Lennon critiqued the lauded break-through of the working-class Beatles in an interview with the British Trotskyite magazine Red Mole: “But nothing has changed except we are all dressed up a bit, leaving the bastards running everything.” He also affirmed, “when it comes to the nitty-gritty, they (the establishment) won’t let the people have any power; they’ll give all the rights to perform and dance for them, but no real power.” (Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn, Red Mole, 1971) “Working Class Hero” is also about working-class psychic pain. The psychological effects of the English class system on working-class children have perhaps never been fully grasped and acknowledged. It is difficult perhaps for an American to understand what it is to be entirely defined when you open your mouth in the United Kingdom.

Lennon was direct and open about the psychological trials of a working-class kid as he navigates a class-ridden society. To Ali and Blackburn, he related: “I mean we had to go through humiliation upon humiliation with the middle classes and showbiz and Lord Mayors and all that. They were so condescending and stupid. Everybody trying to use us. It was a special humiliation for me cause I could never keep my mouth shut and I always had to be drunk and pilled to counteract the pressure. It was really hell.” The wounded lines in “Working Class Hero”, “As soon as you’re born, they make you feel small” and “When you can’t really function, you’re so full of fear”, are perhaps particularly compelling and revealing.

It was also in Red Mole interview that Lennon reflected, “you can’t take power without a struggle”. This remark would have undoubtedly fuelled the paranoia of the U.S. government. Lennon identified himself as a left-winger. He also expressed left-wing beliefs in his most popular song. Imagine is a Socialist song. It asks the listener to contemplate the destruction of property: “Imagine no possessions / I wonder if you can / No need for greed or hunger / A brotherhood of man / Imagine all the people / Sharing all the world.” It is a bland song with an ideological bite as Lennon himself noted: “Imagine is anti-religious, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic… but because it is sugar-coated, it is accepted.” (David Scheff, All We Are Saying, 2000) Its radicalism also lies in its powerful secular humanism. Lennon pointedly explained: “The World Church called me once and asked, ‘Can we use the lyrics to Imagine and just change it to “Imagine one religion?” That showed they didn’t understand it all. It would defeat the whole purpose of the song, the whole idea.” (David Sheff, All We Are Saying, 2000)

It was also during the early seventies that Lennon began to express a deeper commitment to the concerns of oppressed people of color. Lennon backed both Native-American and African-American rights. He expressed a human sympathy for the African-American struggle and an understanding of the need for black consciousness. In a 1972 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, Lennon stated support for the 10-point program of the Black Panthers and their faith in self-defense. The 10-point program encompassed calls for black self-determination, a decent education for black children free of racist historical bias as well as “land, bread, housing… justice and peace.” (Huey P. Newton, War Against the Panthers, 1966) The Panthers were criminalized and pathologized by the White Establishment. Hoover even called the group the greatest threat to America’s national security and subjected it to FBI surveillance. The party’s radical reputation was partly due to its commitment to armed self-defense. Its community programs also sought to provide free health care and clothing for the poor as well as hot breakfasts for children.

Lennon’s music in this period sought to reawaken the moral conscience and political consciousness of the people. He wrote songs for Black Panther campaigner Angela Davis and the co-founder of the White Panther party, John Sinclair. The latter had been sentenced to 10 years for a drug possession charge in 1969. Lennon performed at a concert for Sullivan in Ann Arbor in December 1971. He also wrote about Ireland (“Sunday, Bloody Sunday”) and in early 1972 attended a demonstration in New York City against the January killing of 13 Catholic civil rights demonstrators in Northern Ireland by British forces.

He penned “Attica State”, a song about the insurrection and repression of prisoners in Attica prison and attended a concert benefit for the relatives of the slain inmates on December 17th, 1971 with Ono. He also participated that year in a demonstration with the Native-American tribe the Onondaga Indians against the government’s planned construction of a freeway through their land. In 1971, Lennon released an album containing several of these political songs. Some Time in New York City was not a great commercial and critical success but remains a fascinating social and historical document.

Lennon Becomes a Feminist

Encouraged and influenced by Ono, Lennon also began to show a growing commitment to the cause of feminism. In 1972, Lennon released the provocative and controversially-entitled “Woman is the Nigger of the World”. The song was co-written with Ono and the words of the title, it must be noted, were originally stated in 1968 interview she had with the contemporary British women’s magazine, Nova. Lennon passionately defended the song’s title and polemics when he performed the song on The Dick Cavett Show in May 1972. He insisted that it was mostly white males who ‘reacted strongly’ to the song- it was banned by most radio stations- and claimed that his black friends supported his artistic and political use of the hateful and hurtful racist term.

He claimed the support of Ron Dellums of the Black Caucus and cited the Democratic Congressman’s following observation: “If you define ‘nigger’ as someone whose lifestyle is defined by others, whose opportunities are defined by others, whose role in society is defined by others, the good news is that you don’t have to be black to be a nigger in this society. Most of the people in America are niggers.” It is also worth noting that the African-American comedian, social satirist and civil rights activist Dick Gregory also supported Lennon and Ono. Lennon and Ono had appeared together on the front cover of Jet with Dick Gregory the previous year (“Ex-Beatle Tells How Black Stars Changed His Life”, Jet, 1971). The title implies recognition of the historical and contemporary oppression of black people.

Although Lennon contended on The Dick Cavett Show that usage had ‘changed’, the song actually returns the word to its awful origins: a viciously racist term intended to denigrate and dehumanize. Used politically to express identification and alignment with oppressed people of color, it is then universalized to underscore the condition of all women everywhere. Of course, the moral and artistic right of non-black men and women- particularly those gifted with power and privilege- to use such a word and to further imply that white women have been as equally victimized as black people throughout history may be questioned if not damned. The word is socially and historically specific as it is painfully redolent of African-American suffering, what James Baldwin memorably defined as “the specific and peculiar complex of risks we had to run”. (The Fire Next Time, 1963) Accusations of inauthenticity, superficial radical chic and even racism are not without basis.

Ono was, however, surely aware of the potency of her words. The direct, loaded rhetoric of the song’s title angrily aims to underscore the transnational and ahistorical oppression of women. Women of all colors, creeds and economic backgrounds are specifically denigrated and dehumanized because of their gender. The song should also, of course, be seen in historical context. Despite the sexual revolution of the sixties, women in the West were still subject to a sexual double standard and sexual objectification. Women were still paid less than men and suffered sexism as well as lack of professional opportunity in the workplace. Vietnamese women were being particularly dehumanized in the Vietnam War because of their race and gender. American servicemen had themselves testified to the rape, torture and murder of Vietnamese women.

The statement may also have carried a deep, personal import for Ono. Although she had enjoyed a privileged upbringing, the artist came from a deeply patriarchal society. She had equally experienced professional disparagement in the art world and racism from the both the media and the public in the West. The song also, of course, refers to the daughters, mothers and wives of oppressed men. Encompassing the experiences of black women and working-class women, it evokes the observation of Lucy Parsons, a feminist labor activist of African, Native and Mexican American blood in a 1905 speech: “We (the women) are the slaves of slaves. We are exploited more ruthlessly than men. Whenever wages are to be reduced the capitalist system use women to reduce them.” (Manning Marable, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, 2000). On The Dick Cavett Show, Lennon quoted the reflection by Socialist revolutionary and feminist James Connolly that “the female is the slave of the slave”. The Irish leader’s remark is included in the track itself. Class is a crucial consideration in the song. As Lennon noted on the Cavett show, the subjugated status of poor men does not prevent them from abusing their gender-based power: “it’s the woman who takes it when they get home.”

The song aims to unsettle, persuade and enlighten. Lennon addresses men in the song and asks them to recognize the particular patriarchal oppression of women: “Think about it, do something about it.” Women can’t win: “We tell her, home is the only place she should be/Then we complain that she’s too unworldly to be our friend.” They are sexually objectified and exploited: men make them “paint their face and dance”.  Intended as a simple, powerful statement about man’s inhumanity to woman, the song arguably epitomizes Lennon’s growing feminist consciousness. Lennon recognized the misogyny of men on both the left and right. He insisted, “We can’t have a revolution that doesn’t involve and liberate women.” (Tariq Ali, Robin Blackburn, Red Mole, 1972) Lennon was honest about his chauvinist past. On meeting Ono, he confessed: “I was a working-class macho guy who was being served and Yoko didn’t buy that. From the day I met her, she demanded equal time, equal space, equal rights. I said, ‘Don’t expect me to change in anyway. Don’t impinge on my space.” She answered, ‘Then I can’t be here. Because there is not space where you are. Everything revolves around you and I can’t breathe in that atmosphere. I am thankful to her for that education.” (Barbara Graustark, Newsweek, 1980) Radically, he added his wife’s family name to his own.

By 1975, politics had become a dangerous game for Lennon. When asked about Nixon’s departure, he confessed, “I’m even nervous about commenting on politics. They’ve got me jumpy these days.” (“A Long Night’s Journey into Day: A Conversation with John Lennon”, Pete Hamill, Rolling Stone, 1975) It was in that very interview that Lennon expressed the opinion that his political engagements had had a detrimental effect on his art: “It almost ruined it, in a way. It became journalism, not poetry.” In 1980, he made the striking comment about his past political activism:  “That radicalism was phony, really, because it was out of guilt. I’ve always felt guilty that I had money, so I had to give it away or lose it. I don’t believe I was a hypocrite. When I believe, I believe right to the roots. But being a chameleon. I became whoever I was with.” (Barbara Graustark, Newsweek, 1980)

The “revolutionary artist” as Lennon had characterized himself in the early ‘70s (The Dick Cavett Show, 1972) now distanced himself from his radical past, manifestly wary and disillusioned. It is easy to give an ungenerous interpretation of Lennon’s motives but perhaps his struggles over his immigration status had silenced him. It would be also be incorrect to say that his life and art were now without political significance. ‘The personal is political’ was the cry of feminists in the sixties and seventies and it is a credo Lennon lived by in the late seventies. His retreat to the Dakota building represented a rejection of the homo-social and a radical embrace of the private feminine space. Lennon became a house-husband and primary caregiver of his young son, Sean. He now amusingly confided to journalists that he fed the baby, baked bread and cleaned up cat shit while his wife ran the family business.  Lennon’s last album Double Fantasy (1980) is a Valentine to those years. The beguiling lullaby “Beautiful Boy” and courtly confession of male vulnerability “Woman” express alternative ways of being a man.

Perhaps the most enduring political, social and cultural legacy of John Lennon is his contribution to changing popular attitudes towards race, nationality and migration. In an interview with Rolling Stone before his death, Lennon gave the moving anecdote, “One kid living up in Yorkshire wrote this heartfelt letter about being both Oriental and English and identifying with John and Yoko. The odd kid in the class. There are lots of those kids who identify with us. They don’t need the history of rock ‘n’ roll. They identify with us as a couple, a biracial couple, who stand for love, peace, feminism and the positive things in the world.” (Jonathan Cott, Rolling Stone, 1980) Interracial marriage remained a rarity in the ‘60s as interracial lovers were still subject to a virulent racism. This made the marriage between John Lennon and Yoko Ono extraordinary. Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando and Sammy Davis Junior were of the few figures in pop culture in public interracial unions.

Any student of pop history is aware of the persistent targeting and castigation of Yoko Ono as the singular culprit of the Beatle’s break-up. What is often obscured, however, is the level of racist and sexist vitriol directed against Ono and Lennon for their union. Although many young people in the United Kingdom were questioning the imperialist and racist attitudes of the past, the union greatly roused both veiled and overt racism in both the British media and public. This was perhaps exacerbated by Ono’s national origins. As World War II was still a relatively fresh memory for many Britons, xenophobia against the former Axis Powers also persisted. In marrying Japanese-born Ono, John Winston Lennon was effectively marrying his father’s enemy. Lennon described the rabid response of some to their union to Red Mole: “When Yoko and I got married, we got terrible racialist letters- you know warning me that she would slit my throat. These mainly came from Army people living in Aldershot. Officers.” (Tariq Ali, Robin Blackburn, Red Mole, 1971)

The union also testifies to the couple’s ability to liberate themselves from the racism and xenophobia of their respective countries. Although he had Irish blood, Lennon would have been influenced to a greater or lesser extent by racist Anglo-Saxon attitudes. While his childhood coincided with the downfall of the British Empire, he grew up with Empire Day and nostalgic imperialistic beliefs. As a young man, Lennon expressed an appreciation for the culture of the subjugated peoples. Playing Indian classical music for the journalist Maureen Cleave in 1966, Lennon remarked, “This music is a thousand years old; it makes me laugh the British going over there and telling them what to do.” (“How Does a Beatle Live? John Lennon Lives Like This”, Maureen Cleave, Evening Standard, 1966)

Americans were equally racist and sexist in their characterization of Ono as ‘an Oriental witch’ who cast a spell on a defenseless English lad and broke up the best band in the world. Racism towards interracial couples in the United States thrived. In fact, interracial marriage was illegal in many states until 1967. A majority of Americans, three-quarters, still opposed interracial marriage in the United States in that year. The castigation of Ono continued throughout the ‘70s. John Lennon was still pleading to journalists in 1980, “Why do you want to throw a rock at her or punish me for being in love?” (David Sheff, Playboy, 1981) Attitudes towards race of course evolved throughout their lives and it is easy to understand why Lennon chose to stay in the gorgeous multi-racial mosaic that is New York.

Lennon’s capacity and desire to move across cultures is evident in his art and politics. “Imagine” has been defanged and sanitized through kitsch oversaturation and appropriation by those committed to the constraints of borders. Espousing a radical humanism and internationalism in its conception of a world without borders, it is, however, more revolutionary than ever. How many people, particularly those in the wealthy nations of the North, would be willing to surrender their nationality, to effectively do away with their country? Imagine no land to defend, no national sports team to support. Inspired by the ethos of “Imagine”, Lennon called a press conference in 1973 to announce the establishment of Nutopia, “a conceptual country” that “has no land, no boundaries, no passports, only people.’ Nutopia’s national anthem- a brief line of silence- appears on the album Mind Games (1973). The event was intended to be both playful and provocative. The following words by James Joyce suggest Lennon’s spirit: “When the soul of a man is born in this country, there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language and religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.” (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916).

John Lennon helped to transform the art and image of the pop star. His very public political activism and socially and politically aware lyrics have earned him a prominent place in the creative and political history of rock. Lennon was at once noble and narcissistic. He had both an artist’s arrogance and empathy. But what cannot be doubted is his creative intelligence, intellectual curiosity, capacity for growth and willingness to take risks.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/133778-revolutionary-man-john-lennon-as-political-artist/