BACK in the summer of 1980, a muckraking small-town newspaper in Michigan was in trouble with the forces of law and order. The Flint Voice irritated the authorities by exposing local instances of racism, corruption and the like. Its newsroom was under threat of being raided. Briefly, it became a cause célèbre in the United States.
One day, the newspaper’s 20-something editor, Michael Moore — then a young journalist who had launched his first publication at the age of nine, today better known as an indefatigable film-maker and activist — answered a phone call. “This is John Lennon,” said the voice at the other end in a curious accent.
“Oh, Gary, really funny,” responded Moore, and then hung up, convinced that he had been pranked. Moore was suitably apologetic when Lennon called again a little while later, having worked out by then that he had slammed the phone down on a Beatle.
According to Moore’s delightful early-life memoir, Here Comes Trouble, Lennon was graciously understanding, saying: “I know a little bit about police surveillance making your life a bloody hell.” He went on to say he was wondering “if there was any way I could help. Maybe I could do a benefit or something for your legal fund or your paper”.
The best of John Lennon is never far off the radar.
He said he was working on a new album and probably wouldn’t have time until the following year, then added: “Well, I’ve been sorta quiet for a while, being a dad and all. But I’m ready to get at it again, and now that I’m legally a resident of your fine country, I plan to be more involved and exercise my constitutional rights.”
In Moore’s telling, the conversation concluded with Lennon saying: “Keep your spirits up, mate. I’ll be around.”
Tragically, he wasn’t. Lennon was assassinated on Dec 8 outside his Dakota apartment block next to New York’s Central Park.
It was rumoured at the time that the assassin might have been programmed by the CIA or some other segment of the deep state to commit the evil deed in view of Lennon’s radical proclivities and the risk that he might resume his subversive activism.
It seemed to be an absurd assumption, given that by then Lennon had seemingly relegated to the past the rabble-rousing instincts that guided him towards the end of the Beatles phase in the late 1960s and beyond, initially in Britain and then in the United States where he teamed up with the likes of Jerry Rubin and Stokely Carmichael, prompting the Nixon administration’s concerted (but ultimately unsuccessful) effort to deport him.
There is still no reason to assume Lennon’s assassination was part of a plot, but Moore’s anecdote certainly puts paid to the idea that the ex-Beatle ever succumbed to the temptation of aligning himself with an establishment he frequently needled, and often irritated, ever since he announced the song Twist and Shout at a royal command performance by The Beatles in 1963 by cheekily requesting: “The people in the cheaper seats, clap your hands. And the rest of you, if you’d just rattle your jewellery.”
In his recent memoir, Reporter, the legendary American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh recalls, in a footnote, encountering “a pleasant Brit and his Japanese girlfriend” at a dinner party in the early 1970s. They sought his help, as a New York Times staffer, to press the case for a green card. “It turned out the Brit was John Lennon and his friend was Yoko Ono,” Hersh deadpans. “How was I to know? Neither had anything to do with Watergate.”
He notes that years later he visited the Lennons’ New York apartment, which was “filled with dozens of framed drawings by the Beatle, all suggesting the world had yet to see the best of him”.
The best of him is, in fact, never far off the radar. Until the Democratic Party establishment predictably scuttled Bernie Sanders’ candidacy earlier this year, the “democratic socialist” candidate invariably arrived on the stage at campaign rallies to the tune of Power to the People, an anthem Lennon composed in 1971 after an extended encounter with a pair of left-wing journalists (one of whom happened to be my brother, Tariq Ali).
Five years ago, I tracked down the original, graffiti-strewn Lennon Wall in Prague. Since then, ‘Lennon walls’ have appeared all across Hong Kong as part of the territory’s quest for democracy. The latest recycled, remixed, remastered Lennon compilation is titled Gimme Some Truth, after one of the songs on his Imagine album, a timely reminder, in the age of fake news, of the artist’s relentless quest in what would have been the year he became an octogenarian.
Had he survived, John Lennon would have turned 80 on Friday, Oct 9 — twice the age he was when his life was brutally cut short. But it’s gratifying that his spirit and his ideals live on, and Give Peace a Chance is still sung.
Published in Dawn, October 7th, 2020