Bigger Than the Beatles

UC Irvine professor Jon Wieners fight for John Lennons FBI file reveals something ugly about democracy in America

Photo courtesy Hulton-Deutsch
collection/CorbisIt was like any rock concert: young people—some in retro tie-dyes, bell-bottoms and muttonchops—crammed beyond capacity into a small hall. But this wasn't the Galaxy Concert Theatre or Linda's Doll Hut or even Liverpool's Cavern. It was a sterile lecture hall at UC Irvine's School of Humanities. And the guy behind the mic was no pop star, but rather a self-described "mild-mannered history professor" who likely can't carry a tune anywhere beyond his shower.

Still, Jon Wiener's March 1 lecture, "Pop and Avant-Garde: The Case of John and Yoko," was a multimedia extravaganza, complete with rock & roll music, black-and-white slides, and a horror story that rivals Scream I, IIand III. Wiener explained how the FBI, CIA and White House combined in 1972 to silence one of the most popular celebrities in the world at that time, Beatles front man John Lennon.

"When you look at the FBI files on John Lennon, what you get is a vivid and detailed picture of how the United States government crushed this guy," Wiener said in his bookcase-lined campus office a couple of hours before the lecture. "He came into the peace movement with so much optimism. Within a few months, he was facing deportation."

If you've heard of Jon Wiener, you've no doubt heard of his 15-year legal battle to open the Lennon files—with a few side projects along the way to look at what the bureau has on Frank Sinatra, Orson Welles and Groucho Marx (the professor once noted playfully that the cigar-chomping comedian provides the perfect bookend to his Lennon work. Marx and Lennon: Get it?).

The most important 100 pages from the nearly 400 the bureau has in its Lennon file are documented in Wiener's new book, Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files. Wiener also wrote Come Together: John Lennon and His Time, which was published in 1984. And he popped up in the news recently after a former British MI5 agent told the London press that the final 10 FBI documents on Lennon that Wiener and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are fighting to get released include reports from undercover operatives suggesting the man who wrote "Give Peace a Chance" helped fund communists and the Irish Republican Army.

All this might suggest Wiener is obsessed with—or, worse, riding the coattails of—a dead rock star. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Truth be told, he's pretty much had it with this Lennon shit.

At the lecture, Wiener repeated a question he has asked:

"Why did I get started on this? I was a Lennon fan. I was a journalist in 1980 when Lennon was shot. I wanted to write something about Lennon's engagement with the peace movement. One of the things researchers do is, especially when their subject is somebody who was under government surveillance like Lennon was because of his deportation case, I filed a request to see if anything's there. I didn't know if there was anything. Turns out there was, and turns out it took 14 years to get it. I would have been much happier to get all that in 1983, to have given this talk to you in 1984 and then to have done something else with my life for the past 15 years."

Indeed, there's much more to Jon Wiener than Sean Lennon's dad.

Ronald Reagan—yes, Ronald Fucking Reagan—may have sparked Wiener's interest in politics.

The 55-year-old hails from St. Paul, Minnesota. A highlight of his years at Central High School, from which he graduated in 1962, was a visit from none other than Reagan, who was then General Electric's pitchman. The nationwide GE-sponsored tour allowed the future California gubernatorial candidate to give speeches attacking, as Wiener recalled Reagan putting it, "Social Security and other communist ideas."

"It was quite a day at Central High," Wiener said. "I remember protesters saying we wanted equal time for Hubert Humphrey." Minnesota was, after all, solid labor country, meaning it was solid Democrat country, meaning it was solid Humphrey country. Wiener said he thought Reagan displayed at least a modicum of courage to deliver his rock-solid conservative message there.

When Wiener arrived at Princeton—where he got his undergrad degree in 1966—he was ready for the anti-war movement, joining Students for a Democratic Society, whose membership also included future California state Senator Tom Hayden, who, as everyone knows, is a raging commie.

By the late '60s, when Wiener moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts—he got his doctorate at Harvard—he began writing for an underground newspaper. That led to a lifelong passion for journalism. He's now a contributing editor at The Nation magazine (for which he has written since 1984), and his work has appeared in Lingua Franca, The New Republic, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian of London and New York Times Magazine.

Unfortunately for Wiener, "it's hard to make a living as a freelance journalist. In Cambridge, I was also interested in grad school, so I went back to that. The kind of teaching I do, I emphasize analysis and argument. So my journalism and teaching have something in common."

Despite the lack of funds to live the high life as a journalist, his writing has helped establish him as one of the nation's leading voices from the Left. He has written on Congress' attempts to thwart the rewriting of classroom history textbooks to reflect the experiences of the common man in addition to those of the elites. When local critics attacked Mike Davis' 1999 book Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, Wiener penned a thoughtful defense of the book and its author.

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