[2 December 2005]
Because they were so famous a couple, it’s tempting to add a little trademark symbol after the names “John and Yoko” as if they were a favorite brand of peanut butter rather than human beings. While John Lennon will always be best remembered for his tenure with the Beatles, it was his marriage and artistic partnership with Yoko Ono that solidified the idea of Lennon the legend: working-class hero, peace activist, artsy fart, house husband, and every other generalization about the man that comes to mind. And God knows, no matter how many albums and films she’s made or how many art exhibitions she’s had, Yoko Ono will always be best known as John Lennon’s wife. Sometimes it’s hard to recall just what the legendary John and Yoko did to become so famous in the first place. Sure, there was a flurry of artistic activity at the beginning of the 1970s, resulting in some wonderful songs like Lennon’s “Imagine” and some memorable cultural events like the couple’s honeymoon bed-in for peace where they answered reporters’ questions from bed. But by the time the couple retreated from the spotlight after their son Sean’s birth in 1975, problems like Yoko’s search for her missing daughter, John’s fight to stay in America, and the couple’s temporary separation had drained much of their creativity already.
But thanks to the magic of DVD, you can now be transported to 1971 and 1972 to witness John and Yoko in their heyday on The Dick Cavett Show. The third in a series of Cavett compilations, the John & Yoko Collection includes 220 minutes of material, including three entire episodes of Cavett’s ABC late-night talk show on which Lennon and Ono appear as well as a recent interview in which Cavett recalls his association with the famous couple. Cavett, a former stand-up comic and writer for Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, and Jerry Lewis, had been hosting what Lennon considered to be the only “halfway intelligent” TV talk show since 1969. That Lennon and Ono approached him about doing the show was significant, since this was their first American TV interview since the breakup of the Beatles. Although Lennon and Ono would co-host a week of The Mike Douglas Show in 1972, it was Cavett’s program that gave Americans their first up-close glimpse of the couple.
The pair first appeared on Cavett’s show on September 11, 1971; they were his only guests. Watching their appearance 34 years later, two things are immediately striking about it. First, the entire universe of the 1970s talk show is so far removed from today that it might as well have been produced by space aliens. In all three Cavett episodes included in this collection, the conversations with guests seem unscripted, segues into station breaks are often awkward, John and Yoko smoke onscreen, and, most importantly, Cavett and his guests discuss topics that would never be allowed on American television today. Second, Cavett and the Lennons are incredibly nervous although it was not, in fact, their first meeting. Cavett had visited the couple at the New York City hotel they called home at the time, and appeared in a film they were making that day. Still, the tension is palpable. We see Cavett struggling to find the right tone as he asks Lennon about banal topics like the length of his hair, his sense of Englishness, and television. There are awkward moments, but they are also uncomfortably real. It might seem surprising for someone of Lennon’s stature and rapier wit to be so unsure of himself in an interview, but think of Lennon’s position at the time. He was just a year out of the Beatles, trying to establish himself as a solo recording artist, and struggling to be taken seriously as an artist and activist. He was deeply in love with his wife, but many of his fans rejected her as the cause of the Beatles’ breakup and the spark for what they perceived as his “new” radical ideals.
This is likely why Lennon and Ono start off shakily, with Lennon somewhat jittery and Ono shyly reticent. As they loosen up, though, Lennon and Ono acquit themselves quite nicely, coming off as genuine, if somewhat flaky, artists and peace activists. Lennon talks a bit about the illustrators that inspired his work, and the pair spends a good deal of time discussing their forays into filmmaking. Excerpts from their films Fly and Erection are shown, and it’s an amazing time-capsular sight to witness a studio audience’s reaction to these experimental films. Music fans will be most interested in the films for “Mrs. Lennon”, from Ono’s Fly album, and “Imagine” from Lennon’s album of the same name, both of which had just come out. Lennon, in fact, pushes several products while on the show, including the pair’s albums, singles, films, the paperback printing of Ono’s book Grapefruit, and an art exhibit. Rather than coming off as crass commercialism, though, Lennon’s mention of these products and events seems enthusiastic, as though he’s simply proud of his and Ono’s productivity, which is admittedly impressive. There are also a few human moments, as when the couple recounts the story of how journalist Betty Rollin, a classmate of Ono’s at Sarah Lawrence College, wrote a hurtful story in which she compared the pregnant Ono to Ernest Borgnine after Ono congenially made her a home-cooked meal. Lennon also has some insightful comments about drugs, noting that the societal problems that lead to drug abuse are the real issue. “Is there something wrong with society that’s making us so pressurized that we can’t live in it without guarding ourselves against it?” Lennon asks. “People take drugs and drink so they don’t feel what’s going on around them.”
This conversation ended up going so well, in fact, that the Lennons and Cavett had more to discuss than the show would permit. Rather than end the interview, Cavett kept the cameras rolling and aired the additional material on his show of September 24, 1971. Given that this year marks the 25th anniversary of Lennon’s murder, a couple of his comments take on an eerie quality in retrospect. While discussing their efforts for the peace movement, Lennon points out that Ono did a demonstration in London’s Trafalgar Square in 1961 in which she stood in a bag, but says, “I’m not standing in Trafalgar Square; I’ll get slaughtered.” Then, when Ono asserts that the pair is really a “square” couple, Lennon fancifully imagines them spending their old age in Ireland, reminding each other, “Remember when we were on Dick Cavett?” Given the fate that would befall Lennon and Ono the remark takes on an added poignancy. At one point, Cavett allows the audience to ask questions, which leads to some interesting comments from Lennon on how his songwriting evolved from the Goffin/King model to a more poetic sensibility. Lennon also turns the tables on Cavett, questioning him about his interest in Native Americans and their mistreatment by the American government. Apart from the John and Yoko material, this episode of Cavett is also notable for the appearance by satirist Stan Freberg, who hilariously recounts how he was booted from the stage into the audience of David Frost’s talk show to make room for John and Yoko. Freberg also introduces the anti-Vietnam War radio ads he was writing at the time, material, like Cavett’s discussion with the Lennons, which is entertaining but also makes serious political points that would never be tolerated from guests on modern late-night shows.
On the third and final episode to feature the Lennons, the mood decidedly swings in a more serious direction. Before John and Yoko appear, actress Shirley MacLaine discusses her campaigning on behalf of presidential candidate George McGovern, whose name, at the insistence of the ABC network, she is not allowed to utter. The Lennons also have important matters to discuss, as they are in the midst of John Lennon’s battle against deportation and Yoko’s search for her daughter, Kyoko, who was being hidden by her father. Despite the weighty matters on their minds, John and Yoko seem much more at ease during this interview. There isn’t as much small talk and Lennon uses much of his air time to explain the details of his and Yoko’s court battles for custody of her daughter and how their constant traveling to court dates led to suspicion that they were misusing their visas. Then, as now, it was clear that the couple’s political activities, benign as they seem today, played a large role in the deportation attempt. Insidious politics were at work in the Lennons’ lives and also on the show, as ABC censors tightened their grip. When Ono flashes a picture of her missing daughter, the network blocks it out with a Dick Cavett Show logo, a move that Cavett was unaware of at the time and seems furious about today. When Ono solicits donations for a Saigon hospital that performs plastic surgery on children injured in the war, ABC bleeps out the address.
The biggest controversy, though, was over one of the two songs the Lennons perform. After the taping was over, ABC felt that its viewers might be offended by “Woman Is the Nigger of the World”. Cavett balked when the network wanted to cut the performance, so as a compromise, ABC insisted that he issue a warning before the clip aired. Cavett grudgingly complied, and it was his advance apology, not the song, that drew complaints from viewers. Cavett discusses this controversy and several other interesting aspects of his relationship with John and Yoko, in the recent interview included as part of this DVD set. While Cavett is a far more conventional figure than Lennon and Ono, it is clear that he respected them and, more importantly, recognized the importance of freedom of speech. This stance sometimes caused Cavett trouble; on the May 11, 1972 episode, Shirley MacLaine alludes to him having disputes with ABC over ratings, and in the new interview, he reveals that the Nixon White House monitored his show and that his entire staff was audited by the IRS. It is these tidbits that make The Dick Cavett Show: John & Yoko Collection so fascinating. The two videos and two live performances by Lennon and Ono will be of interest to music fans, but this collection will be most intriguing to students of recent history, particularly those interested in issues of the media, free speech, and the Vietnam War. The DVD set reminds us that John Lennon and Yoko Ono played a significant role in these issues while producing art and maintaining a sense of humor.