Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Grounded Walrus: For Crisler's Sake

Come 1970, John Lennon and Yoko Ono faced a number of stresses from their increasing political activism, the acrimonious break-up of the Beatles, and a prolonged battle against drug addiction, chronicled in the song "Cold Turkey," recorded September of 1969. Seeking relief, they received temporary visas to visit the US for treatment by the noted, and somewhat controversial, psychoanalyst, Dr. Arthur Janov. The Lennons arrived in LA on April 23, 1970, accompanied by George Harrison and his wife Patricia Boyd.

The FBI sat in wait of their arrival, intending to monitor the movements of all four the moment they stepped off the airplane:

While Lennon and the Harrisons have shown no propensity to become involved in violent antiwar demonstrations, each recipient remain alert for any information of such activity on their part or for information indicating they are using narcotics. Submit any pertinent information attained in form suitable for dissemination.
The trip itself proved uneventful, and the Lennons returned to London to record that fall. But problems came when the two attempted to re-enter the US from 1970-1971. Whereas the previous visa had a medical reason for travel to America, the new one did not. Moreover, Lennon's guilty plea on marijuana possession had given some officials reason enough to declare him an undesirable alien.

Had this stayed the case, then the series of events ending in Lennon's early death would have most likely never taken place. But some high-ranking official (or officials) within US government issued a special waiver in Lennon's favor, over the objections of the FBI, which blamed Lennon's re-entrance on "...unexplained intervention by the State Department with the Immigration and Naturalization Service."

Lennon arrived in New York in August 1971, and immediately received requests from Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin to participate in a rally to pressure the state of Michigan to release the prominent countercultural figure John Sinclair from prison, where he had just begun a ten-year sentence for giving an undercover police officer two joints. Held at Ann Arbor's Crisler Arena that December, the protest featured speeches by Rubin, Hoffman, Bobby Seale, anti-war activist Rennie Davis, and poet Allen Ginsberg interspersed with the music of Phil Ochs, Bob Seger, Stevie Wonder, and, of course, John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

Figure 1. Lennon's 1971 performance at the Crisler Arena

The FBI arrived in force that night, with numerous undercover agents reporting on what they heard and saw. The attention to the musical portions of the show led Lennon biographer Jon Wiener to quip that their (now declassified) reports read more like music criticism than the intelligence collection they actually were. Some of the reports, however seem over-the-top, with cartoonish (and stereotypical) characterizations of the persons involved that in hindsight seem more rooted in paranoid fantasy than reality:

Informant advised that he attended the rally held in Ann Arbor on 12/10/71 to raise funds for the release of John Sinclair from prison....The individuals whom they met seemed to know a lot of people and took informant behind the podium to meet BOBBY SEALE, as he was finishing his speech.

SEALE greeted them as 'brothers in the movement.' Informant advised that SEALE was wearing an expensive diamond ring and a watch he estimated as costing at least $1,000.00. When SEALE gave his public speech or met the public, he turned the diamond ring around so that the stones could not be seen. SEALE told the informant and others in the group with him that the RPP [The Rainbow People's Party--an organization Ono supported] is opening three food clinics and that 'if the pigs interfere with him in any way, he will open free gun clinics and distribute free guns.' SEALE elaborated on this point and said 'We have access to all the guns we want, and we'll kill any 'pig' that gives us trouble....'

While behind the podium, the informant also personally met JOHN LENNON (former member of the Beatles Band). LENNON spoke in definite anti-law enforcement tones and is a strong believer in the movement and the overthrow of the present society in American [sic] today.
Informants then, as informants now, are in the habit of saying what they think the person paying them for information wants to hear. After all, that's what gives them their true value, and makes them money. The concern for these reports, therefore, aren't really their accuracy, but rather the picture they paint for the FBI of what Lennon stood for, and the lengths he might go to to cause civil unrest, or perhaps even rebellion.

Worse, as the national elections loomed in the upcoming year (1972), the RPP and various committees and organizations the Lennons either supported or joined (e.g., The White Panthers) threatened to become more vocal and visible, planning tours (dubbed the Revolutionary Road Show) across the United States, and staging demonstrations at either the Democratic or Republican National Conventions (or both).

Perhaps the anxiety of the election year serves as the reason for the intense surveillance against John Lennon and Yoko Ono during 1972. We now know that the FBI tapped their phones and bugged their home. The tail became obvious to Lennon during this time. As he said in a 1975 interview with Capital Radio, "I'd open the door, there'd be guys on the other side of the street....I'd get in the car, and they'd be following me in a car. Not hiding. They wanted me to see I was being followed."* He told Hit Parader magazine in December 1975, "We knew we were being wire-tapped on Bank Street [NYC], there was a helluva lot of guys coming in to fix the phones."

The harassment and surveillance might not have been the worst of it, though.

*Friends of mine in intelligence say that they have used this tactic (alerting a target of their surveillance) as a means to pressure them into making a misstep, and thus exposing sensitive information or corroborative evidence more readily.

To read later posts in this series, click here.

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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Grounded Walrus: Naked Fears

Sometime during the first week of October 1968, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were staying at Ringo Starr's London apartment when a friend inside the Metropolitan Police Service (Metropol) tipped them off about an impending raid on the flat. The couple immediately dumped their small marijuana stash down the toilet thinking the police would find no evidence against them.

They were wrong. On October 18, police found a small amount of cannabis hidden inside some knickknack in the bedroom. One of the arresting officers, Detective Sergeant Norman Pilcher, would one day serve a two-year sentence for planting evidence in another case. It's quite possible he planted it in this one too. But at the time, Lennon assumed that the cops must have found some stash of Ringo's that they didn't know anything about. Loath to get his friend in trouble, Lennon declined to implicate Starr. But John faced tremendous pressure when police focused their investigation on Ono, trumping up charges that might have put her in danger of deportation.

The court offered Lennon a deal. If John took full responsibility for the marijuana, and plead guilty to a misdemenor, the police would drop the case against Yoko. Lennon took the deal, paid the £150 fine, and police left Ono alone.

The ordeal would ultimately cost the Lennons far more than 150 quid. The stress of the arrest and threatened legal proceedings might have contributed to Ono's miscarriage shortly afterwards. Worse yet, the charge threatened to keep Lennon out of the US, where he had numerous professional and personal ties.

In 1969, Lennon became overtly political, staging, with Ono, two anti-war "bed-ins" in Brussels and Montreal, and recording "Give Peace a Chance" that summer. He told reporters covering his more whimsical protests that he and Yoko intentionally wanted to come off as baffoonish. Specifically, they asked that the media consider them the "Laurel and Hardy" of the counterculture. As John explained to one interviewer, "...we stand a better chance under that guise because all the serious people like Martin Luther King and Kennedy and Gandhi got shot."

The FBI has declassified and released documents pertaining to the Bureau's interest in one of Lennon and Ono's collaborations, specifically their album Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, recorded in 1968. Neither the music nor the lyrics caused much concern, but the album art did. In a complaint forwarded to J. Edgar Hoover by US Representative (and FBI liaison) Archer Nelson dated January 31, 1969, a constituent (name redacted) groused:

Figure 1: Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins as sold in stores, covered in a brown paper bag. (for uncensored NSFW version, click here)

The act of posing nude didn't seem that political at the time they did it. But public reaction to it seems to have actually scared the FBI. A few weeks before Rep. Nelson forwarded the letter, University of Hartford's student newspaper, the UH News, Liberated Press, ran the photo on its cover page. The university reacted by shutting down the paper, prompting a First Amendment controversy that led to a (very tame, actually) student demonstration against the administration.

The real problem wasn't the photo's content. FBI went over the picture with counsel in March 1969, and concluded that it "does not meet the criteria of obscenity from a legal standpoint." The real problem here was the reaction of the University of Hartford students, and the Bureau's perception of Lennon's role in causing campus dissent. The FBI decided to assist others using the photo to discredit Lennon, even if it had to manufacture proof that it endangered the public. In an FBI memo dated March 20, 1969 to a Special Agent Bishop, A.J. Jones wrote:
By letter dated March 17th, Congressman [Charles] Bennett sent a copy of H.R. 5171, which is legislation he has introduced to prohibit the dissemination of obscene material to minors....In his letter [to the FBI], Congressman Bennett requested 'any information you can provide me to back up this bill.' By letter of March 18th, Congressman Bennett followed his previous letter with a request for 'evidence.' which would show that the rise in crime or the rise in sex crimes is attributable to pornography.... [punctuation original]
At the bottom of the memo, Jones adds, "We have had cordial relations with Congressman Bennett over the past several years." Another curious thing: Jones cc'ed a copy of the memo to Cartha Deloach, a senior FBI agent involved with the surveillance on Martin Luther King up until a little over a year earlier.
At first blush, this doesn't seem to address the Two Virgins album at all. Yet, because of its placement in Lennon's FBI file, we have to conclude that the agency's eagerness to help Rep. Bennett, and perhaps even Bennett's motivation for drafting the bill, stemmed from their mutual animosity toward the former Beatle. More important, in both the University Hartford case and H.R. 5171, the real concern lies in the artifact's potential effect, whether that be campus unrest, or "sex crimes" (although the Bureau, most likely, did not actually see the latter as a probable consequence of the album).

If the FBI took Two Virgins seriously as an example of Lennon's deliberate attempt at subversion, then they had good reason for doing so. Lennon had become politically conscious in the aftermath of the more-popular-than-Christ scandal. Mentored by Ono, who was not only seven years his senior, but also well educated and cultured, John underwent enormous personal growth during the latter part of the 1960s. Previous impulsive, and sometimes unconscious gestures evolved into calculation, which, over time, Lennon articulated more clearly. In a January 1971 interview with Robin Blackburn and Tariq Ali of the underground socialist zine Red Mole, for example, he stated:
It's pretty basic when you're brought up, like I was, to hate and fear the police as a natural enemy and despise the army as something that takes everybody away and leaves them dead somewhere....I'd like to incite people to break the framework, to be disobedient in school, to insult authority....
Breaking frameworks? School disobedience? Insult to authority? The Two Virgins album cover managed to do all three things, at least at University of Harford. So one might understand if the FBI feared (1) Lennon had the charisma and vision to foment serious dissent, and (2) that the former Beatle had declared war against everything the Bureau stood for.

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Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Grounded Walrus: Off the Deep End

You say you got a real solution?
Well, you know
We’d all love to see the plan.

--John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “Revolution”
The US Federal Bureau of Investigation began its Beatles file in 1964, the year of their first US tour. These early items deal mostly with security issues: the fear of rioting teenybopper fans, almost inexplicable concerns about rumored racial violence, and so forth.

The second Beatles tour of the US had more intense security issues arising from an abreaction to a remark John Lennon made in March 1966. Interviewed by Maureen Cleave of the Evening Standard (London), Lennon stated:

Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about it; I'm right and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first--rock 'n' roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me.
In July 1966, Datebook published an excerpt of the Standard interview in the United States. Most Americans interpreted the remark in the same way as the British did: as a rebuke not of Jesus Christ, but as a criticism of blind fundamentalist religion. Nevertheless, a segment of US society, particularly within the Bible Belt, vehemently objected to the Beatles because they interpreted Lennon's remarks to mean that the Fab Four had replaced Christianity as a faith, or that Lennon was somehow declaring himself to be God (see a YouTube clip about that here). It's doubtful if all of these people were Beatles fans to begin with. Yet the comment afforded many of the anti-rock crowd the opportunity to demonstrate, mostly by torching the band's records in front of television and newsreel cameras, and organizing media-savvy boycotts.

Many cite the abreaction to Lennon's remark as a turning point in their thinking about music and its relationship to politics. The band still played to packed houses of adoring fans during this last tour, but they had to put up with press conferences geared for damage control, a ban on their records by over thirty stations in the US, and hate mail delivered daily to either them or their spouses. The fear that something could happen any moment came to a head when, at one concert, a loud bang erupted onstage, somewhere close to the stacks (front amplifiers). Both Lennon and McCartney initially feared that someone had shot George Harrison. But after looking over, and seeing their friend still upright and playing his guitar, they simply continued the number and finished the concert.

As Beatles publicist Tony Barrow noted, "The arrival in Chicago was auspicious from John's personal point of view because, that night in the hotel [at the initial press conference], for the first time perhaps, he personally faced the press." This would become rather important, for Lennon would go on to face the press quite frequently from that point on.

Trying to cope with the political firestorm, their manager, Brian Epstein, spent a good deal of time, during the tour, trying to douse the flames Lennon had so unwittingly ignited. During the last week in New York, when going up in front of the cameras for yet another press conference, Epstein reminded his charges to "Cool it, lads. We've got enough problems already."

The managerial admonition to avoid controversy at all cost fell quickly to the wayside when directly asked what they thought of the war in Vietnam, all four immediately condemned it. Lennon finally summed up their feelings saying, "We think of it every day. We don't like it. We don't agree with it. We think it's wrong."

It's reasonable to assume Harrison, Starr, McCartney and Lennon's unanimous public antipathy toward the Vietnam War would have put all four of them on the FBI's radar. If that didn't another incident certainly would have.

By 1968, a number of activists had already made overtures to the Beatles to support radical change in the US and around the world. Lennon sympathized with the need for change, but felt that the left's general strategy was haphazard, incoherent, and often counterproductive. For years he pressed such individuals as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin to form some kind of methodology that would ultimately lead to some good. Lennon's frustration, which he expressed in the song "Revolution" (released August 1968) led him eventually to distance himself from Hoffman and Rubin.

As Lennon and McCartney said in "Revolution," they wanted to see "the plan," whatever that might be. But no such plan ever materialized. So they took it upon themselves to draft one. Sailing around in a junk for a few days, they came up with an idea, which they announced on the May 15, 1968 episode of The Tonight Show. Guest host Joe Garagiola inquired about the plan, which John and Paul enthusiastically described as "a new form of communism."

Naive? Yes. A practical solution? Most likely not. Ill-advised? You could make the argument. But for those of you who don't remember the Cold War, many would construe support of anything that sounded like communism (for example, "a new form of communism") as treasonous, a threat to national security. Despite their attempts to distance their vision from the totalitarianism of the Soviet Bloc, which to them represented an impure, or dysfunctional form of communism, they nevertheless gushed about their plan, prompting the conservative Garagiola to defuse the situation by interrupting them for permission to ask the question, "Which one of you is Ringo?"

Lennon and McCartney sat in stunned silence before a commercial break took over.

It's unlikely that such a declaration escaped the ears of Intel. It's also unlikely that the Beatles could have escaped the Security Index when many of their rock and roll colleagues could not.

What's definite is that from that point on, Lennon's life took a turn toward the weird.

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Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Grounded Walrus: The Culture War

Q: What’s the title of the smallest book in the library?
A: American Culture
--old German joke, told to me by an old German
Motives for murder need not be rational. They don’t have to make sense to most of us. Courts and juries have accepted irrational motives before (most famously the Helter Skelter scenario spun by Vincent Bugliosi in the Tate-LaBianca trials). They only have to make sense to the accused.

If we ponder the possibility that the CIA orchestrated the death of John Lennon, we have to also wonder why they would do such a thing. After all, he’s only a musician.

In Lennon’s case, we don’t have to speculate about the immense intelligence interest in the former Beatle by both the US and UK governments. It is now a matter of public record. Moreover, Lennon and Ono were both aware of government surveillance at the time, for the agents involved either got careless, or deliberately acted in front of the couple in order to harass them.

Jon Wiener collected sufficient documentary evidence, from Freedom of Information Act requests, to prove that the US government not only spied on Lennon, but that the US and UK both felt that the guitarist posed some unspecified threat to national security. Wiener began his story of government espionage in 1971, the beginnings of his documentation. But we have every reason to suspect that surveillance on both Lennon and his partner, Paul McCartney, began years earlier. And we would have to look back even further to understand the context in which CIA and FBI interest in popular music began.

In her book The Cultural Cold War, Frances Stonor Saunders wrote about the importance of the fine arts to the CIA, beginning almost with the inception of the Agency in 1947. She explained that after World War II, the United States and Soviet Union emerged as the dominant superpowers, each with a diametrically opposed political and economic system—what we now know as the Cold War. Although the Iron Curtain had descended over Europe, locking most of the eastern nations of the continent into the Soviet sphere of influence, with the NATO bloc in the West, there were a number of countries around the world up for grabs. The Soviet and Western blocs would therefore have to compete for the influence of such “developing” nations as Cuba and The Congo.

Winning the affection of so-called third world countries would depend on what the superpowers could offer. There are the obvious things—e.g., agricultural and industrial support, defense advisors, infrastructure aid and so forth. But, as Stonor noted, the US felt it lacked a certain cachet. Because of years of isolationist policies, supported by a majority of Americans for years before the war, the CIA and State Department worried that the rest of the world saw the US as culturally backwards, and intellectually unsophisticated. In other words, promoting the “American Way” would be a hard sell to someone who perceived the nation as its worst stereotype.

The CIA responded by launching a white (i.e., legal) operation called the Congress of Cultural Freedom (CCF), which disbursed Company funds through such fronts as the Fairfax Foundation, and through such cooperating parties as the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations. The CIA intended to use the CCF as a huge propaganda organ, promoting the best of American intellectualism and arts. For the latter, this generally meant “high” or “serious,” art. CCF monies flowed through such musical organizations as Tanglewood, at one time headed by famed conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein. Since one of the most internationally damaging stereotypes of the US involved its violent race relationships (characterized by Jim Crow and lynching), the CIA especially prized such artists as Leontyne Price and Louis Armstrong, and sponsored tours for each of them.

Of course, in retrospect this seems kind of humorous, especially when you take into account that by 1955 another American artistic export would exert a much wider and profound cultural influence: namely rock and roll. In the minds of some, especially conservative, Americans, rock characterized more troubling aspects of American society—the rebellion against authority, parochially mediocre quality, non-sophistication, physicality over reason, and worst of all race-mixing and racial strife (as exemplified in the Boston Rock Riot of 1958). Put simply, it portrayed the US in a light that undermined the efforts of the CCF.

I have found, over the years, nothing to demonstrate a CIA interest in rock per se. Yet, copious documentation illustrates the tremendous political, social and economic pressures against the music. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigated rock for alleged Soviet sponsorship in the late-1950s. Later, we would find that the FBI included the names of hundreds of musicians on its illegal Security Index, a list of people meriting surveillance, and, in the case of a national emergency, detention.

Because of 1960s’ concerns over what they called “The New Left,” the CIA, FBI, the White House and other government institutions initiated policies to neutralize the effect of increasing political dissidence among the mainstream, particularly in response to the war effort in Vietnam. The FBI launched the blandly named Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which infiltrated (with the help of Army Intelligence and local police forces) a number of leftist groups. The CIA’s Operation CHAOS and Operation MERRIMAC instituted a number of domestic covert ops in violation of its known charter. Meanwhile, the Nixon administration adopted The Huston Plan, a policy stating the intent of suspending restrictions on illegal espionage activities within the United States “on a selected basis.”

Later the Church and Rockefeller commissions would officially find that the US spy networks (1) routinely and knowingly broke the law with respect to domestic operations; and (2) that their primary focus was on the New Left, even though some far right organizations (e.g., the KKK) were targeted as well. The CIA’s documented interest in the fine arts underscores the immense potential that the Company saw in art, drama and music of changing public perception—either away from their aims, or against them. They were keenly aware of the propaganda value of artistic and cultural expression. Just as they were happy to use art and music as a means to advance an international agenda, they were probably just as dismayed by cultural values that ran counter to what they promoted.

Rock, especially after the success of the Monterrey Pops Festival of 1967, took an increasingly political tone, echoing and supporting the tenets of the anti-war movement, and the New Left. The CIA had become deeply entrenched in Vietnam, in large part because of Operation PHOENIX. And after Monterrey, rock was becoming more and more mainstream, as the major labels finally committed themselves to youth-oriented music.

By 1968, no one had become more prominent on the rock stage than the Beatles. John Lennon and Paul McCartney were also becoming more politically active and aware. Like many young idealists of the era, they believe that the time for social and economic revolution might be close at hand.

So they prepared for it.

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