When John Lennon was killed in 1980, Jon Wiener ’66 watched and read the memorial tributes with great interest, as both a fan of Lennon and a historian. Wiener, who teaches American history at the University of California, Irvine, noticed that little attention had been paid to Lennon’s involvement in the anti-war movement of the late 1960s, so he decided to do his own reporting.
In two decades of research – including one lengthy lawsuit to uncover Lennon’s FBI files – Wiener became the leading expert on the former Beatle’s political activities. He’s written two books, Come Together: John Lennon in His Time (1984) and Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files (1999), and has contributed to two recent Lennon documentaries. This week, he spoke with PAW’s Brett Tomlinson in advance of the anniversary of Lennon’s death.
It’s now almost 30 years since you embarked on your research. Did you ever imagine you’d still be doing interviews as an expert on John Lennon?
Imagine no more interviews – it’s hard to do. No, my idea was that this would be a radio program, and then it was going to be a magazine article, and then it was going to be a book. It did do all of those things, and that would have been plenty. But I guess you could say I was lucky enough to get the ACLU of Southern California to represent me in this Freedom of Information lawsuit challenging the withholding of [Lennon’s FBI files], and the ACLU doesn’t give up. I would have given up many times. Eventually, we got virtually every document we were seeking. So while this wasn’t my original idea, it turned out to be a very interesting 20 years.
As a historian, had you been involved in Freedom of Information Act requests that were as contentious as this one turned out to be?
No. I had been inspired by the Martin Luther King FBI files, which had been released and published [by historian David Garrow] right around 1980. It turned out that the FBI had much more detailed records about Martin Luther King’s daily activities than King himself had. They had wiretap logs and lots of first-hand, eyewitness undercover reporting. So I wondered whether there was anything like that on John Lennon, since I knew the Nixon administration had tried to deport him in 1972. It turns out there wasn’t – there was less than 300 pages, as opposed to tens of thousands of pages on King. It was a different kind of story, but still a pretty interesting story.
What does Lennon’s experience tell us about him and what made him unique among popular musicians at the time?
Popular musicians, then and now, often have public-service projects – helping fight cancer, or hunger, or homelessness. Now that’s almost a requirement for big celebrities. But what Lennon was doing, becoming an advocate of the anti-war movement, was much more controversial and much more risky, as he discovered. I mean, you don’t get deported for raising money for breast cancer or to fight hunger in Africa. Lennon did face deportation for trying to organize young people to vote against Nixon’s re-election in 1972. And that makes him, I think, unique among celebrities. Who else faced penalties this big? … Charlie Chaplin was sort of run out of the country by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the ’50s. He actually wasn’t deported. He left and didn’t come back. Paul Robeson had his passport taken away and then left and didn’t come back. It’s a short list. … Lennon never expected this. He didn’t set out to get into trouble with the Nixon White House. I think it never occurred to him that this could happen to him.
You host a weekly radio show on KPFK in Los Angeles. Do you have plans to mark the anniversary of Lennon’s death?
On Dec. 8, the 30th anniversary of Lennon’s murder, I’ll be doing a one-hour special where I’ll play some of the interviews I’ve done in the past. I’ve interviewed Abbie Hoffman about his relationship with Lennon. I’ve interviewed Pete Seeger about what it was like to lead a quarter of a million people singing “Give Peace a Chance” at the Vietnam moratorium demonstration at the Washington Monument in ’69. And we’ll be playing some old and some new music.
Interview has been condensed.
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