The undercover agent was wearing a rumpled blazer and a false mustache. Posing as a reporter for an alternative newspaper, he was trying to blend in with the 15,000 hippies and students who’d turned out at Detroit’s Chrysler Arena on Dec. 10, 1971 for the “Free John Sinclair” concert, headlined by John Lennon. The agent scribbled down every word Lennon said and sang that night. This became page one in the former Beatle’s FBI file.
John and his wife Yoko Ono had moved to New York City three months earlier. The day they arrived, they were met by Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, radical leaders of the Youth International Party, aka the Yippies. “They almost grabbed me off the plane,” Lennon recalled, “and the next minute, I’m involved.”
Involved he was. He and Yoko marched in support of Native American rights. They met with the Black Panthers. They wrote columns for leftist magazines. They attended an anti-Vietnam event in Central Park (where Lennon was photographed with a soldier-turned-activist named John Kerry).
But the Sinclair rally was what tipped the scales for director Hoover.
Sinclair, a poet and former manager of the MC5, had been sentenced to 10 years in Michigan State Prison for marijuana possession. The week before the concert—which was aimed at reforming state drug laws and freeing Sinclair—Lennon joined the bill. Ticket sales, which had been sluggish, went through the roof. If that was to be expected, the state’s decision to reclassify marijuana as a controlled substance was astonishing.
That’s not all. Within days after the concert, Sinclair was set free.
Lennon could not only move concert tickets. He could move state legislatures. He was also a threat, and the Feds were determined to “neutralize”—their word—“the former member of the Beatle Singing Group.”
In March 1972, Lennon’s visa was revoked and deportation proceedings were filed. The reason? His marijuana conviction in England in 1968. That was the official reason, at least. A memo written to Attorney General John Mitchell by Republican Senator Strom Thurmond suggests that “if Lennon’s visa was terminated, it would be a strategic counter-measure.”
Hoover was convinced that Lennon planned to disrupt the 1972 Republican Convention by staging a number of get-out-the-vote concerts around it. Lennon had discussed that idea with Rubin and Hoffman but balked at getting back into the touring routine. Hoover recommended that “the New York [FBI] office be responsible for closely following Lennon’s activities until time of actual deportation.” A May 11, 1972 appearance on ABC’s The Dick Cavett Show—recently released on DVD—showcased Lennon offering a passionate plea against the deportation case. Cavett would later testify on John’s behalf at a New York immigration hearing.
Even Elvis Presley had his eye on Lennon. In his strange tête-à-tête with President Nixon on Dec. 21, 1970, the King offered to work as a special agent for the Feds and described some of the Beatle’s activities as being “very anti-American.”
Maybe they could’ve used Elvis’ help. When it came to compiling evidence on Lennon, the Bureau wasn’t too swift. One info sheet listed his birth date wrong. Another, headed with the phrase “The Pope Smokes Dope,” showed a photo of a guy with long hair and granny glasses, thought to be Lennon. It was David Peel, one of Lennon’s New York radical friends. When a bunch of protesters were arrested at the Republican Convention, the FBI requested photos in hopes that one of the faces would be Lennon. Didn’t they realize that if John was arrested it would be headline news?
In November 1972, Richard Nixon beat democrat candidate George McGovern. On election night, John and Yoko attended a wake hosted by Rubin. Rather than partake in the mourning, an obviously drunk Lennon befriended one of the female guests, took her to an empty room, and to Yoko’s horror, had sex with her. There began Lennon’s infamous two-year lost weekend.
Within six months he was separated from his wife. Lennon’s behavior from 1973-74 was caused at least in part by his continued paranoia that he was being bugged by the Feds. “I can’t prove it,” John said, “I just know there’s a lot of repairs going on in the cellar.” As a reaction, he distanced himself from the peace movement and threw himself into hard work and harder partying.
By late 1974, the Vietnam War was over. Watergate had broken, and Nixon was history. In January 1975, John quietly moved back in with Yoko at the Dakota, an expensive uptown NYC brownstone. Though the FBI continued to monitor his activities for a year, an internal memo concluded, “Lennon appears to be radically oriented, however he does not give the impression he is a true revolutionist, since he is constantly under the influence of narcotics.”
On Oct. 7, 1975, the New York Supreme Court overturned John’s deportation order. Two days later, John’s 35th birthday, the couple had a son, Sean. In July 1976, John was granted U.S. resident’s status (with citizenship by 1981). For the remainder of the decade, he lived in a creative retirement, baking bread and playing with his son.
Before his death, Lennon admitted that the political involvement almost “ruined” his career, saying, “My role in society is to try and express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all.”
—By Bill DeMain