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.

"Jon Wiener is my favorite alternative journalist—always incisive and hugely funny," Davis said. "He is also a superb historian, one of the young turks who in the 1970s transformed our understanding of the New South and the rise of debt peonage. And, of course, he is a hero for having rescued John Lennon from the banality of mere celebrity."

The West Los Angeles resident even covered the 1993 walkout by "six distinguished writers" at our sister paper LA Weekly over the firing of the editor, who alleged he was let go because the paper had become "too intellectual and too serious."

In the interests of full disclosure, Wiener has also written for us. After he reviewed a book on Nixon for the OC Weeklyin October 1997, he found himself engulfed in a Weekly letters page tit-for-tat with Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace director John Taylor for four straight issues. Taylor dismissed the good professor as a "Nixon hater." Wiener observed that Taylor described himself as a "Nixon lover" and noted, "They say love is blind."

When he isn't teaching, writing or sleeping, you can catch Wiener weekly on LA-based KPFK-FM 90.7. Wiener's Tuesday-evening stint on Beneath the Surface has covered everything in recent weeks from Miles Davis to LA's Rampart scandal. He also pitches in as a substitute on Radio Nation, the KPFK-produced magazine show that's syndicated to 120 stations through the same nonprofit foundation that helps fund The Nation.

"He's pretty good at it, actually," said Mark Schubb, KPFK general manager, of Wiener's radio work. "He's not only very politically astute and very smart, but he also has a very dry sense of humor. He brings a state of delight to things. That's very good radio."

Peppered between Wiener's serious takes on the issues of the day are skewerings of the routine traffic and weather reports. He also regularly presents a lampoonish "Minnesota Moment."

"He's a pretty unassuming guy," Schubb said. "When he was new, I thought he might not be able to raise money for our first fund drive. But he was terrific."

Wiener's books, magazine articles, radio rantings and appearances on television interview shows such as Geraldo Riveramay nudge him into near-celebritydom in the real world, but he has already been a superstar for years in the academic world.

"He is on the news a lot, but oddly enough, he first came to prominence in the academic world for his work on Southern history," said Columbia University history professor Eric Foner, who is president of the American Historical Association.

That's Southern history of the 1860s, not the 1960s. Wiener is author of Social Origins of the New South: Alabama, 1865-1885 (1978), which "is still considered a very important study of the transition from slavery to freedom," said Foner, who is one of the nation's leading Civil War scholars.

"Among professional historians, his reputation hinges more on his early work on Southern history as opposed to his later work on John Lennon," Foner said. "Most historians are fairly straight-laced types. John Lennon is not that important to them. There's nothing wrong with Wiener's work on Lennon, but it does not make the tremendous impact that his work on Southern history did to make him regarded as an important scholar. His celebrity status from John Lennon doesn't mean that much to historians."

It is perfectly acceptable in academia for respected historians to switch their areas of emphasis, as Wiener has done in recent years with his focus on the 1950s and 1960s, said Foner, noting, "People do change." What he finds of paramount importance is that the new work stands up. "Many appreciate the fact that the work on John Lennon presented important facts, not just about rock & roll and the '60s, but how the government functions, how the FBI operates and whether the Freedom of Information Act really works," Foner said.

He also defended Wiener for not hiding his Leftist leanings, though he acknowledged it does raise questions in some circles. "This is a debate that goes back to Euripides: How does the point of view of the historian affect the point of view of the history being written? The greatest myth is to say the historian is totally objective. Those who are forthright bring their point of view out upfront, as Wiener has done. What I like to say to my classes about this is you should go into the study of history shaped by your own concerns about the present. You can't go in with a blank slate," Foner said.

"I'm sure Wiener's interest in the liberal point of view has affected his interest in Lennon and everything," he continued. "But his work has to be judged on its own scholarly merits like any other work. The bottom line is Wiener is a very well-regarded historian. He's a little unusual in that not that many historians are focusing on John Lennon, but the 1960s is an area of tremendous interest now. Here at Columbia, a course on the '60s has the biggest enrollment of all history classes."

Based on his experiences and research, Wiener looks back at a "good '60s and a bad '60s." In the bad, drug-induced '60s, young people trashed themselves and private property, but—contrary to the Right's attempts to rewrite history—that lasted a relatively short period of time. The good '60s was exemplified when hundreds of thousands of kids locked arms and peacefully took to the streets to end the Vietnam War, demand civil rights for African-Americans, change the world. Wiener cautions it is a mistake for people his age to cast their generation as some sort of blessed anomaly, however.

"The '60s had no monopoly on either activism or virtue," he said. "In the '80s, there was a huge no-nukes movement. The environmental movement did not significantly develop until after the '60s, and its implications are broader for everyone on the planet. The women's movement is a product of the '70s. All came after the '60s, and each one is more far-reaching and deals with many more people."

His current students' views of the '60s fascinate him.

"There are many different subcultures here at UCI. There are groups that identify with the '60s and others that have critiques, like they didn't treat women right or they didn't pay enough attention to the environment. Many students have a vague sense of the '60s' optimism and experimentalism, and they realize how closed-in everything is today. It's a harder period to live in."

Every year, Wiener takes his Cold War Culture class to the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda. Despite the battle of wits with Taylor, Wiener loves venturing into enemy territory, considering the Land of Dick tour a "highlight for me. We get a big UCI van with an anteater on the side and visit there for an afternoon."

He and other scholars would never rely on the Nixon Library—or, to be fair, any presidential library—for serious research because of the one-sided view presented. "It is the way Nixon defined his presidency, his ideology," Wiener says of the library. "It's a fascinating example of how to construct a story." He considers the Watergate section "sad," not because it reopens the gaping hole the Nixon White House drove through the nation's heart, but because it's horribly, horribly incomplete.

"When they opened the Nixon Library, they said it would have all three Watergate smoking-gun tapes," Wiener said. "They have one, and it's not the right part of it. Frankly, it's dishonest."

Worse, the display is in a dark, uninviting corridor.

"Library directors know what they're doing. They have made sure this is a place where you wouldn't want to dwell."

The part of the compound where Wiener likes to dwell is the Nixon family's tiny, simple wood-frame house. Pointing to the shamed president's autobiography, which occupies an honored spot in Wiener's campus office, he remarked, "The first line says, 'I was born in the house my father built.' The birthplace is an incredibly vivid and intense evocation of small town, rural Southern California of those times. His father was a failure. From this unlikely spot came . . ."

He leaves it to his guest to complete the sentence.

The unwanted attention Lennon received from the Nixon White House is nothing new when you consider the fate of other radicals in this country, Wiener explained in his UCI lecture. "There was McCarthyism and the World War I Red scare," he said. "The only thing unusual about this is it happened to John Lennon."

When Lennon married Yoko Ono in March 1969, they immediately became pop culture's power couple. They celebrated their union by staying in bed in Amsterdam for a week as an avant-garde expression of pain and suffering in a war-torn world. Daylong news conferences were held for whoever showed up. News agencies from around the planet couldn't resist.

"They thought the protest marches had become boring and outmoded," Wiener said. "They were looking for new forms of protest to engage people who had never been part of a protest before. They rejected the view—widely held in the protest movement—of television's corporate domination. Their idea was to subvert the media while working in the media, to undermine them if only briefly and sporadically. This was obviously a dangerous but bold and creative strategy based on a laudable commitment to reach a new audience for the anti-war message."

The Amsterdam bed-in got so much attention that the couple decided to bring it to the United States in the summer of 1969 since, as Wiener noted, "the U.S. was killing hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese that year." But Lennon and Ono were not allowed in the country, so they went to Montreal and held a bed-in at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel. On the last night there, they recorded a new song Lennon had written, "Give Peace a Chance." Instead of having Paul, George and Ringo on backup vocals, Lennon featured the likes of Dick Gregory, Tommy Smothers and the Canadian chapter of the Hare Krishnas. In July 1969, this first non-Beatles single released by a Beatle shot up to No. 14 on the American charts and received Top 40 airplay for nine weeks.

In November of that year, an anti-war demonstration—the biggest in U.S. history—was held in Washington, D.C. Folk singer Pete Seeger invited demonstrators to sing Lennon's new song "while Richard Nixon sat in the White House with his friend Bebe Rebozo watching football," Wiener noted.

Not everybody on the Left was pleased. "Radicals considered the song weak," Wiener said. "I had friends who'd sing, 'All we are saying is give the dictatorship of the proletariat a chance.' The criticism here was Lennon lacked politics."

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.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service hearings to deport Lennon eventually bogged down. Documents from the CIA—which investigated Lennon on U.S. soil in violation of its own charter—included a suggestion from then-acting FBI director L. Patrick Gray, who had by then replaced the dead Hoover, that the ex-Beatle would be easier to deport if he could be arrested in America for drug possession.

"I read this as a drug-bust setup," Wiener said. "The FBI is not involved in drug-possession enforcement; that's a state matter. Clearly, here they were worried the immigration hearings were not succeeding. This is an abuse of power by the FBI."

In the end, it's possible to conclude the government beat Lennon. Tied up in deportation hearings for the rest of 1972, Lennon canceled his peace tour. "His attorneys urged him not to do anything more to provoke the Nixon administration," Wiener said, "because he had a very weak case for staying in the United States."

The last 10 pages on Lennon must be kept secret because of a pact made with a foreign government that supplied the information. Wiener says he already knows what's there: a report from British intelligence that Lennon helped fund communists and the IRA. David Shayler, a former British MI5 agent, says he's seen agency documents that claim Lennon made large contributions to the IRA and the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP), whose best-known member was actress Vanessa Redgrave.

Wiener points to evidence that shows Lennon supported nonviolent Irish civil-rights groups and the New Left Marxists, whose political orientation was completely different from the WRP. Ono has denied her late husband was involved with the IRA, and an ex-WRP executive-committee member maintains, "There was absolutely no link between Lennon and us."

But that didn't stop ultra-right-winger Rupert Murdoch's Sunday Times of London from splashing this banner headline across the top of the Feb. 20, 2000, issue: "Lennon Funded Terrorists and Trotskyists." The story asserted that secret documents proving the allegation were about to be released. They weren't.

The Sunday Times story was based on a development in Wiener's ongoing case, which is ultimately after those last 10 FBI pages. But federal Judge Brian Robbins had just ordered the government to release two pages of 1997 FBI correspondence with the unnamed "foreign government" that provided the information about Lennon, not the FBI's 1972 Lennon documents.

Of course, there's one way to clear all this up: just release the freakin' documents already.

"It's kind of silly to say these are secrets and that national security will be threatened," Wiener said. "These are reports on 30-year-old activities of a dead rock star."

It's more than silly. Wiener learned long ago that the secrets America's top law-enforcement agency kept on a long-dead rock star were far less intriguing—and ultimately less important—than the actual battle to get the documents released.

Secrecy is considered power to some misguided souls in our supposedly democratic society. But we can't keep our society democratic unless we "find out what the government is up to," Wiener said. "We need the freedom of information for journalists and scholars and citizens to use as a weapon in the battle of democracy against secrecy."

For Wiener, happiness would have been a "smoking gun"—a letter from Hoover to Nixon. The files don't include that, but they do show Hoover and Gray did update H.R. Haldeman, Nixon's chief of staff and the closest person to the president in the White House. "There is no reason to tell Haldeman if Nixon didn't want to know," Wiener said. "That's why they communicated with Haldeman, to get to Nixon."

Yet the files also reveal "there are no real secrets here about John Lennon," Wiener added. "John Lennon lived a pretty public life. What you see in these 400 pages is the effort the government put into what they called 'neutralizing' John Lennon. They succeeded."

Rather than rejoice in a mission accomplished, the FBI has fought to keep the matter secret. Why? Because there are no secrets about Lennon and, thus, no reason to mobilize vast resources to spy on him. All the documents now reveal is a highest-levels-of-government conspiracy to neutralize one guy who strummed a guitar. That's embarrassing, especially in light of later federal-enforcement blunders such as Waco.

As the Christian Science Monitor wrote recently, Gimme Some Truth "is a primer in legal maneuvering, persistence and recognition of the public's right and need to know. In short, Gimme Some Truth is one of the most important books ever published about the FOIA."

One thing Wiener is proudest of about his book is its format: after the first 104 pages of text—mostly chronological in nature—readers get to see 200 pages of reproductions of the most-important FBI documents. The blackened-out pages he initially received run right alongside the exact same pages in unobscured form.

To demonstrate how dishonest the government has been about its stand to keep the documents secret because of "national security," look at the report on Lennon's appearance at the "John Sinclair Freedom Rally" in 1972. Sinclair, who was head of the White Panthers, was serving a 10-year prison sentence for selling two marijuana joints to an undercover officer. The report shows that among the 15,000 people at the concert was an FBI agent, who'd inform his bosses that Lennon was there and that he sang a song called "Free John Sinclair." Included in the report were the lyrics.

When Wiener first asked for this FBI document in the early 1980s, all the song lyrics were blacked out with a notation classifying it as confidential due to national security. It wasn't until the 1997 court ruling that the full document was released to Wiener. "The FBI kept this secret for 15 years even though Lennon included the lyrics on the cover of his next album after the concert," the professor noted.

The Clinton administration in 1997 paid the ACLU $204,000 to cover attorney's fees and court costs for the author's case against the FBI. "That worked out to about $2,000 per page for the documents in this book," Wiener said. "That makes this an extremely valuable book—at least by that measure."

Guess who else the FBI has a file on? Wiener discovered that his own FBI file reports that the bureau sent agents to Central High to ask his old teachers if he was a "loyal American."

To their credit, his teachers covered for him.

Near the end of his UCI lecture, Wiener mentioned that Rage Against the Machine is the best example of a band that's currently bringing a radical message to the masses as Lennon did before the government crushed him.

"More power to them and long life," Wiener said of Rage. "I can't say that I'm a big fan of theirs, but I appreciate what they are doing and the way they are engaged in politics."

So, Wiener was asked, should the FOIA request for the FBI files on Rage be filed now so we can eventually see them in 15 years?

"I'm sure the FBI is interested in Rage because if you look at the things the band is interested in, they're interested in the Zapatistas, they put sweatshops in their video. These things make the FBI nervous. I'm sure they have a file.

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