Thursday, July 6, 2000
Prying John Lennon's surveillance files out of the protective clutches of the FBI lent renewed meaning to the Beatles' song "Do You Want to Know a Secret?"
So says author Jon Wiener, whose book "Gimme Some Truth" tells a tale that is both fascinating and chilling.
"I'd have been a lot happier if we'd settled in 1983," says Wiener of his odyssey in getting the documents from the FBI. A history professor and Lennon enthusiast, Wiener ultimately received the files almost two decades after he requested them.
For about a year, around 1972, the FBI aggressively collected information on the former Beatle in an attempt to "neutralize" him -- to get him deported so that he couldn't help lead what the bureau portrayed as a powerful rock-'n'-roll-fueled campaign to oppose Richard Nixon's re-election and thus hasten the end of the Vietnam war.
Beside perhaps taking the song "Revolution" a little too seriously, the FBI told Wiener that material requiring protection in the name of informant confidentiality and national security included "documents" like the lyrics to the song "John Sinclair" -- which Lennon years ago printed on an album sleeve.
The files also contain:
- A 1972 memo from a field agent about activist Jerry Rubin appearing with Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, at a press conference, with the handwritten notation, "All extremists should be considered dangerous."
- A memo from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover saying the Lennon case "must be handled on an expedite(d) basis by mature, experienced agents."
- A March 1972 memo warning that Lennon was associating with groups that "follow the Chinese communist line."
- A memo from the New York FBI office telling Hoover the NYPD "is aware of subject's recent use of narcotics and are (sic) attempting to obtain enough info to arrest both subject and his wife."
- A "wanted" flyer the FBI had printed for Lennon's arrest -- although it featured a picture not of Lennon, but of fellow singer David Peel.
Wiener requested the Lennon files under the Freedom of Information Act in 1981. The documents he finally got in the late '90s -- and he still has not received everything he requested -- confirmed his thesis: The FBI pursued Lennon primarily to get him out of the way.
To be blunt, says Wiener, this pursuit was "a crime" -- an egregious and frightening misuse of a government agency's power. At the same time, Wiener acknowledges that outrage often winds up being tempered by laughter, as memo after memo reveals the bureau's ignorance of the popular culture that left it so terrified.
"Looking back now, a lot of people would wonder how Lennon and his talk about a series of rock-'n'-roll concerts to galvanize 18-year-old voters could possibly have been viewed as a serious threat," says Wiener.
"In fact, Lennon himself felt it was ridiculous, that this couldn't be happening, that he must just be paranoid, because he wasn't important enough for all this."
But though Lennon "was just one of thousands of people who were targeted and his case was in many respects minor," Wiener notes that the case still had a profound effect on his life.
"When Lennon moved to New York in 1971, he was incredibly excited," says Wiener. "He thought this was the center of the universe. Then suddenly all this happens. He lived for two years under (successive) 60-day deportation orders.
"Artistically, he was crushed. His first album after all this, 'Sometime in New York City,' is probably his worst record. A year or two later, he separated from Yoko. I've always thought that 'house-husband' thing (when Lennon largely removed himself from public view, 1975-1980) was part of his attempt to recover from all this."