The Lennon Files: The Revolution That Wasn’t
After 25 years of litigation, in December, 2006 the FBI finally threw in the towel and disclosed the handful of still-classified pages in its John Lennon files. Those who followed the case as it unfolded already knew that there wasn’t much interesting material left undisclosed. Sure enough, the only tidbits that came out were that Lennon had been approached in the late 1960s by British socialists and communists trying to garner his support for political activities in England. Lennon did nothing to help them, and that was pretty much the end of the story.
But what historian Jon Weiner of the University of California at Irvine found through his Freedom of Information Act request to the FBI for Lennon’s files, which he submitted in 1981 shortly after Lennon’s murder, revealed Lennon as a reluctant revolutionary at best; someone who, because of his celebrity, was targeted by the Nixon administration as a potential source of political trouble for the administration.
John Lennon was a gifted musician with a quick and appealing wit, but he was also filled with personal insecurities that made it difficult for him to assume a leadership role as a youth icon. His lyric for the song “Revolution” reveals someone who is ambivalent and unwilling to commit himself to radical change. As Lennon’s personal relationship with Yoko Ono grew stronger and his ties to the Beatles weaker, he wanted to make some political contribution. Weiner reveals in his book Come Together that on Lennon took some tentative steps towards participating in the British youth movement in part because he did not want Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones to emerge as its de facto celebrity musician-leader.
By the time Lennon and Ono moved to New York, his celebrity credentials loomed so large to political activists that he was swept into the circle dominated by radical leaders like Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. He tentatively agreed to tour the U.S. to promote a kind of agenda of peace, love and understanding
Lennon played one quickly pulled-together event at the University of Michigan in December 1971, the concert organized to support the cause of local White Panther leader John Sinclair, who had been sentenced to jail after being convicted on a third drug possession, Weiner was later to find out that the FBI conducted surveillance of the concert and that some of Lennon’s song lyrics that he sung at it were originally classified in the FBI’s files. The Ann Arbor concert for Sinclair was the only such concert Lennon played, but the Nixon administration believed that Lennon was being used by people like Rubin and Hoffman as a symbol to raise money for leftist causes, particularly to organize a disruption of the 1972 Republican Convention in Miami. While the FBI files revealed that Lennon considered appearing at Miami, they also showed that he insisted on a peaceful demonstration, and ultimately backed out altogether. Regardless of the facts, the Nixon administration moved to another legal tactic and tried to deport Lennon, based in large part on his arrest for possession of marijuana by London police in the mid-1960s. Lennon prevailed against that action and he and Yoko Ono lived primarily in New York until he was murdered there in December 1980.
The fact that the FBI fought for 25 years to protect certain information in Lennon’s files says more about potential embarrassment to the agency than to Lennon’s very short history of radical politics. Information that was classified because it originated from a foreign government – the British – was protected until the very end, although it was both mundane and unreliable. The saga of John Lennon’s FBI files is a good illustration of the lengths to which governments will go to protect embarrassing information that will tarnish their own credibility.
Harry Hammitt is the editor/publisher of Access Reports, a biweekly newsletter on the Freedom of Information Act and government information issues. His musical tastes were profoundly impacted by the British invasion lead by the Beatles.