Friday, September 12, 2008

In Defense Of John Lennon


The U.S. vs. John Lennon, directed by David Leaf, 2006

In a recent DVD review of A Tribute to John Lennon, a film that chronicled a concert held in New York City in early October, 2001 in the immediate aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks, I started the review with the following paragraph:

“I am here to rain on this tribute to the work of John Lennon in New York City in early October 2001 on two counts- musically and politically. As to the music. I make no bones about the fact that, as a product of the Generation of ’68, I grew to adulthood with this music, however, in any choice between The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, in my book The Stones win hands down. The same applies to comparisons to Lennon as an individual artist. John Lennon could write lyrics with the best of them, no question, but here is the real question- which song, for example, better expresses the sense of working class alienation and, more importantly, what to do about it- Lennon’s Working Class Hero or The Stones’ Street Fighting Man?"

I then went on to detail my militant leftist political differences with Lennon’s essentially pacific, almost childishly na├»ve politics. I stand by those remarks here. Nevertheless, as my headline indicates, in this documentary we are dealing with a different issue that traces the American government’s (with who knows what other governments’complicity) nefarious persecution of Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono for their brand of radical political activities. In their efforts to avoid deportation all our sympathies are with the Lennons (as they would be for anyone in that situation, cultural icon or not). We do not have to agree on Lennon’s “music is the revolution” ideas or anything else to know this simple fact- Against one Richard M. Nixon and his cohorts (as represented here by J. Edgar Hoover, various INS officials and, seemingly, G. Gordon Liddy) we are comrades in arms.

This somewhat choppily-segmented documentary that is moreover top heavy with ‘talking heads’ nevertheless does a good job of presenting the progress of John Lennon from the moppet Beatle to somewhat angry working class youth to a Gandhi-like prophet to something like America’s Public Enemy Number something as opposition to the Vietnam war escalated. And the American government reacted to Lennon, as it to others, in its pathological fear of anything left of Billy Graham in the spiritual field (or any field for that matter). This film traces the illegal harassment of the Lennons and their co-workers, their forthright long drawn out legal fight with immigration authorities to avoid deportation and their vindication after several years with the award of permanent resident status.

Along the way we get a glimpse back at the various be-in activities conducted by the Lennons, their various attempts at making political connections with other well-known political radicals and their essential political retreat in the face of the American governmental onslaught over their visa status. Add in an all-star cast of those, mainly repentant, radicals on both sides of the Atlantic like Tariq Ali and John Sinclair and you indeed have a trip down memory lane. But here is the kicker- yes, remember John Lennon’s visa fight- yes, remember when you take on the American state be ready for any madness, and I mean any madness and, no- do not for a minute believe "music is the revolution” or other notions presented here. That is the lesson we ultimately learn from this film.

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