By John W. Whitehead
You say you want a revolution.
We all want to change the world.
You tell me that it's evolution.
We all want to change the world.
But when you talk about destruction
Don't you know that you can count me out.
-- John Lennon and Paul McCartney, "Revolution"
By the mid-1960s, Beatlemania had taken the world by storm and a revolution was in the making. Unlike their predecessors, the Beatles soon revealed themselves to be more than just entertainers. They were willing to critique and even debunk tradition--something that virtually no one did at that time. The defining moment came in 1966 with John Lennon's famous remark: "We're more popular than Jesus Christ right now."
The critical fallout was massive. The Beatles were lambasted as evil, their records were burned in bonfires, and they received death threats. However, within a year, with the critical acclaim of their album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles were back on top.
By 1968, cracks began to appear in the group's solidarity. Lennon grew disgruntled, longing for a more radical artistic freedom. He divorced his wife and struck out on his own with avant-garde artist Yoko Ono.
By 1969, a radicalized Lennon had philosophically moved a long way from the early Beatles' song "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." As he proclaimed: "You gotta remember, establishment, it's just a name for evil. The monster doesn't care...It's not thinking logically, it's out of control, it's suffering, it's a careless killer."
Thus, Lennon became a peace activist, staging bed-ins with Ono and creating media events to end war. His influence was amazing. For instance, on November 15, 1969, during a peace rally in Washington, DC, Pete Seeger led nearly half a million demonstrators in singing Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance" at the Washington Monument. "The people started swaying their bodies and banners and flags in time," Seeger later recalled. "Several hundred thousand people, parents with their small children on their shoulders. It was a tremendously moving thing."
The Beatles eventually broke up in 1970. By this time, Lennon had one of the most recognizable faces in the world. And in March of 1971, when his song "Power to the People" was released, John and Yoko were posing for publicity photos, decked out in Japanese riot gear.
With his move to New York City that same year, Lennon was ready to participate in political activism against the American government, the "monster" financing the genocide in Vietnam. By now, Lennon had learned that rock 'n' roll could serve a political end by proclaiming a radical message and mobilizing the public.
Lennon's 1972 album Sometime in New York City set the stage for conflicts with the U.S. government. The album cover depicted Richard Nixon and Chairman Mao dancing together, nude.
Left-wing radicals also began congregating at Lennon's West Village apartment, including Abbie Hoffman, "Yippie" Jerry Rubin and Black Panther Bobby Seale. All of them, by the way, had fallen under the intruding eye of government surveillance agencies such as the FBI because of their shared interest in bringing down the Nixon administration.
Meanwhile, government officials were watching the ex-Beatle they called "Mr. Lennon." Lennon's phone was tapped, and agents followed him. Earlier in 1972, Lennon had been served with deportation orders on the grounds of his 1968 marijuana conviction while still in England. What Lennon didn't realize at the time was that President Nixon himself was making moves to have him deported. In fact, as documented in Jon Wiener's Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files, in 1972 FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was personally reporting to the Nixon White House about the Bureau's surveillance of Lennon.
Lennon's FBI file, which is now public, reveals how paranoid government agents can be. For example, the subject of the file is the Nixon administration's efforts to "neutralize" Lennon, a term that carries ominous overtones, although never really defined. The file includes lengthy reports by confidential informants detailing Lennon's daily life, memos to the White House, transcripts of television shows on which "Mr. Lennon" appeared, and a proposal that Lennon be arrested on drug charges.
Nixon's pursuit of Lennon was in large part based on the perception that Lennon and his so-called comrades were planning to disrupt the Republican National Convention in Miami in August of 1972. The authorities' paranoia, however, was misplaced. When Rubin, Hoffman and others revealed that they were planning to cause a riot, Lennon, a peace activist, balked. "We said, 'We ain't buying this,'" Lennon later said. "We're not going to draw children into a situation to create violence so you can overthrow what? And replace it with what? It was all based on this illusion, that you can create violence and overthrow what is, and get communism or get some right-wing lunatic or a left-wing lunatic. They're all lunatics."
In 1976, Lennon won his battle to stay in America. Afterwards, he said, "I have a love for this country. This is where the action is." In 1980, after about five years of silence, Lennon released Double Fantasy, his final album.
"You have to give thanks to God, or whatever it is up there, the fact that we all survived," Lennon mused in his final interview on December 8, 1980. "We all survived...but we're still all here, and while there's life there's hope."
When Lennon returned later that night, Mark David Chapman, an obsessed Beatles fan, was waiting for him in the shadows at the entrance to the Dakota apartment building. Instead of driving through the passageway, Lennon decided to stop by the sidewalk, sign autographs and greet the fans congregating outside.
As Lennon stepped outside the car, Chapman's voice called out, "Mr. Lennon!" Lennon turned and was met by a barrage of gunfire as Chapman--squatting in a military combat stance--emptied his .38-calibre pistol and pumped four bullets into Lennon's back and left arm. Lennon stumbled and staggered forward, still clutching the tapes from that evening's studio session. With blood pouring from his mouth and chest, Lennon collapsed to the ground. John Lennon was pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital. He had finally been "neutralized."