Bigger Than the Beatles

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

Then and now, Wiener said he was "impressed" by Lennon's "commitment to try to use his power as a celebrity to mobilize young people to vote against the war in the 1972 election." Indeed, Lennon's song was a wake-up call to the anti-war movement, an attempt to get them to put aside their differences for the greater good.

"He called the debates between radicals and liberals 'isms,'" Wiener said. "He sings, 'Everybody's talking about madism, bagism, shagism, badism. All we are saying is give peace a chance.' That was an intentional argument against political debate in the peace movement leading to fractionalization."

Lennon got excited when he saw press coverage of the D.C. demonstration on British TV. Newsweek hailed "Give Peace a Chance" as an anthem for the peace movement. But the pop star wasn't satisfied. He developed a new strategy he called "front-page songs," quickly written tunes ripped from the day's headlines. He played one front-page song, "The Luck of the Irish," at a commemoration for the Irish Republican Army demonstrators who were killed on "Bloody Sunday." After finally being allowed back into the U.S., he sang at the Apollo Theater in Harlem for families of victims of the Attica Prison uprising.

The front-page songs won Lennon friendships with such anti-war leaders as Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman and Bobby Seale. With them, he determined to take his front-page songs on a national concert tour to coincide with the 1972 presidential-election season.

"This was not going to be the usual concert tour," Wiener said. "This was an amazing idea because none of the Beatles had played in the United States since waving goodbye at Candlestick Park to end their 1966 tour."

It was also amazing because it would mix radical politics, anti-war songs and a voter-registration drive aimed squarely at defeating Nixon, the commander in chief of the war in Southeast Asia.

"They were hoping to use Lennon's power as a superstar to draw in young people and get them engaged in the anti-war project," said Wiener, who noted this would be the first time 18-year-olds were given the right to vote. Everyone assumed that created the potential for a large number of voters opposed to the war and, thus, Nixon. After all, how many 18-year-old voters would want to sign their own death certificates?

Within a month of the Nixon White House learning of the proposed concerts, Lennon was facing deportation, and J. Edgar Hoover was recruited to ensure the tour never happened. The world now knows this because of Jon Wiener.

Shortly after Lennon was shot dead outside the Dakota in December 1980, Wiener decided he wanted to write a book on the former Beatle. But instead of yet another rock bio, Wiener wanted to explore Lennon's political life in the '60s. Wiener remembered Lennon's immigration problems, so he reasoned the FBI had a surveillance file on the rocker. When he first filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see the Lennon file in 1981, he didn't he know he had signed on for such a long and winding road toward the truth.

The FBI showed no enthusiasm for releasing the documents. With the help of the Southern California chapter of the ACLU, Wiener used the courts to force the bureau to release hundreds of pages of documents—mostly blacked-out documents, which the Justice Department said had to be kept secret because of national security.

Another Justice Department argument was that it didn't want to release the Lennon files because it feared for the safety of informants cited in some documents.

"Look, I'm certainly not going to go back and make trouble," Wiener said. "What's the point? The FBI said a criminal mind might seek revenge. I'm not the criminal mind. I'm a mild-mannered college professor."

By the way, here's what the FBI said in court about the mild-mannered college professor's decades-long quest to pry open the bureau's Lennon files:

"A strident and impermissible effort to second-guess the wisdom of the FBI . . . A potpourri of conjecture, supposition, innuendo and surmise."

Wiener considers that quote such a ringing endorsement that it's printed on the back cover of Gimme Some Truth.

Wiener and the ACLU pressed on, and 14 years after first taking the FBI to court, in 1997, they were finally able to get nearly all of the pages—this time without redactions—the FBI kept on Lennon.

The documents show the Nixon administration found out about the proposed 1972 concert tour from an unlikely source: Strom Thurmond.

"You may know him as the 97-year-old Republican senator from South Carolina," Wiener said. "We don't usually think of Strom Thurmond as a promoter of rock-concert tours, but in 1972, he was a much younger man. He was only about 70."

Thurmond, who was chairman of the Senate internal-security subcommittee, sent the White House a memo that stated his sources had found out about the pro-peace rallies and that the termination of Lennon's immigration visa would be a "strategic countermeasure" to the tour.

The FBI for 20 years maintained it investigated Lennon because he intended to participate in violent and disruptive demonstrations in violation of the Civil Obedience Act of 1968. But Wiener learned from the bureau's own documents that their source within the anti-war movement told the FBI that Lennon only agreed to appear at the rallies if they were peaceful.

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