Gimme Some Truth
The government's investigation of John Lennon
By John W. Whitehead

From Gadfly Jan./Feb. 2000


The sixties, for all intents and purposes, began in February 1964 when the Beatles landed in New York City. By 1965, Beatlemania had taken the world by storm. The Beatles went on to become the biggest entertainment act in history and elevated rock music to a true art form.

Unlike their predecessors, the Beatles soon revealed themselves to be more than just entertainers. As cultural icons and modernists, they were willing to critique and even debunk the past. The defining moment came in 1966 with a remark made by John Lennon at a time when public demand for the Beatles seemed insatiable. Christianity will go, Lennon proclaimed. "It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that. I'm right, and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus Christ right 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."

The critical fallout was massive. Lennon's statement was used to lambaste the iconoclastic Beatles as evil, and brought death threats. Some Americans, especially in the South, hoped to ban the group. In South Carolina, the Ku Klux Klan put a Beatles record on a wooden cross and set it on fire; in Birmingham, Alabama, radio station WAQY broadcast announcements every hour urging listeners to turn in their Beatles records and souvenirs for a great community bonfire; and the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan exhorted: "Get out there, you teenagers, and cut off your Beatle-style long hair. Join those at the bonfires and throw your locks into the fire! Burn, burn, burn everything that is Beatle!" The protests, however, did not stem the tide. Within a year, with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the world was at the Beatles' command.

But by 1968, cracks began to appear in the group's solidarity. Lennon grew disgruntled, longing for a more radical artistic freedom. With his divorce from his wife Cynthia and his union with avant-garde artist Yoko Ono, he started to strike out on his own.

By 1969, Lennon had philosophically moved a long way from "I wanna hold your hand." In a "Bed-In" with Yoko Ono in Montreal, he proclaimed: "You gotta remember, establishment, it's just a name for evil. The monster doesn't care whether it kills all the students or whether there's a revolution. It's not thinking logically, it's out of control."

The Beatles broke up in 1970. By this time, Lennon had one of the most recognizable faces in the world. And in March of 1971, when the "Power to the People" single was released, John and Yoko were posing for publicity photos, decked out in Japanese riot gear, and John was singing:

Say you want a revolution
We better get it on right away
Well you get on your feet
And into the street.

With his move to New York City that same year, Lennon was ready to participate in political activism against the United States government, the "monster" financing the genocide in Vietnam. It didn't take him long to find an American cause in John Sinclair. A left-wing writer, Sinclair had been jailed for possessing two marijuana cigarettes. John and Yoko attended a benefit rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which resulted in Sinclair being freed within three days of his sentence. Through this experience and others, Lennon learned that rock and roll could serve a political end by proclaiming a radical message and mobilizing the public.

The release of Lennon's album Sometime in New York City in 1972 set the stage for conflicts between him and the government. The album cover depicted Richard Nixon and Chairman Mao dancing together, nude. And the radical message was in every song. For example, in "John Sinclair," Lennon took on the establishment with lyrics like:

Was he jailed for what he done?
Representing everyone
Free John now, if we can
From the clutches of the man
Let him free, lift the lid
Bring him to his wife and kids.
They gave him ten for two
What more can the bastards do?

Left-wing radicals began congregating at John and Yoko's West Village apartment. They included Abbie Hoffman, "Yippie" leader Jerry Rubin, rock "activist" David Peel and Black Panther Chairman Bobby Seale, radicals who had fallen under the intruding eye of government agencies such as the FBI. These men shared an interest in bringing down the Nixon administration. Discussions would go on late into the night. Out of this came John and Yoko's involvement in protest rallies and several benefit concerts and Lennon's most radical music to date. The new songs alluded to the causes that had been brought to John and Yoko's attention: Northern Ireland, women's liberation, the imprisonment of John Sinclair and Angela Davis and the Attica State Prison shootings.

Meanwhile, government officials were keeping strict tabs on the ex-Beatle they termed "Mr. Lennon." Earlier in 1972, John and Yoko had been served with deportation orders on the grounds of Lennon's 1968 cannabis conviction while still in Great Britain. What Lennon didn't realize at the time was that President Nixon himself was making moves to have him deported.

In fact, as documented in Jon Wiener's Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon-FBI Files (University of California Press, 1999), in 1972, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was reporting to the Nixon White House about the Bureau's surveillance of Lennon. Hoover explained that Lennon was a "former member of the Beatles singing group."

Essentially, the FBI and Nixon's advisors informed Nixon that Lennon had fallen in with bad company; that is, with people who would stop at nothing to undermine the Republican Party's chances of winning the upcoming election. With a growing number of Americans backing the ex-Beatle, the anti-Nixon faction was becoming more than just a nuisance; it was starting to be perceived as a major threat.

Memos and reports flew back and forth between senators, the FBI and the U.S. Immigration Office, all revolving around the paranoid order to have Lennon deported. At first, Lennon thought he was imagining that his phone was tapped and that he was being followed. But soon he began to get the message.

With Gimme Some Truth, Jon Wiener, a history professor at the University of California, has made Lennon's FBI file public. The subject of the file is the Nixon administration's efforts to "neutralize" Lennon. The term "neutralize" was never really defined, but it carried ominous overtones. The file includes lengthy reports by confidential informants detailing the daily lives of anti-war activists, memos to the White House, transcripts of television shows on which Lennon appeared, and a proposal that he be arrested on drug charges. The book also delineates efforts by the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations to preserve government secrecy, and details Wiener's fourteen-year court battle to win the release of the Lennon files under the Freedom of Information Act. Eventually, the case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

Despite the government efforts against him, Lennon dug in and fought back. Every time he was ordered out of the country, his lawyers delayed the process by filing an appeal. Nixon's pursuit of Lennon was in large part based on the perception that Lennon and his comrades were planning to disrupt the Republican National Convention in Miami in August of 1972. The authorities' paranoia, however, was misplaced. When Rubin, Hoffman, et al. revealed that they were planning to cause a riot, Lennon balked. "We said, We ain't buying this," Lennon told Playboy in 1980. "We're not going to draw children into a situation to create violence so you can overthrow what? And replace it with what?... It was all based on this illusion, that you can create violence and overthrow what is, and get communism or get some right-wing lunatic or a left-wing lunatic. They're all lunatics."

In 1976, Lennon won his battle to get a green card and stay in the country. Afterwards, he said: "I have a love for this country. Two thousand years ago, we would all have wanted to live in Rome. Not in the hills, but in Rome and now, this is Rome. This is where the action is. I think we'll just go home, open a tea bag, and look at each other."

Look at each other they did, in the privacy of their apartment at the luxurious Dakota apartment building. But in 1980, after about five years of silence, Lennon had some new songs, and he and Yoko released what would be his final album, Double Fantasy.

"You have to give thanks to God, or whatever it is up there, the fact that we all survived," Lennon mused in his final interview on December 8, 1980, for Playboy. "We all survived Vietnam or Watergate or the tremendous upheaval of the world.... The whole map's changed and we're going into an unknown future, but we're still all here, and while there's life there's hope."

That night, when Lennon returned with Yoko around 10:50, Mark David Chapman was waiting for him in the shadows at the entrance to the archway of the Dakota. Instead of driving through the passageway, Lennon decided to stop by the sidewalk to greet the fans congregating outside. As Lennon stepped outside the car, Chapman's voice called out, "Mr. Lennon!" Lennon turned and was met by a barrage of gunfire as Chapman—squatting in combat stance—emptied his .38-caliber pistol and pumped four bullets into his back and left arm. Lennon stumbled and staggered forward, still clutching the tapes from that evening's studio session. With blood pouring from his mouth and chest, he collapsed to the ground.

John Lennon was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. He had finally been "neutralized."