Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Review: 'The Walrus & The Elephants: John Lennon’s Years of Revolution'

While the most popular image of John Lennon remains the peace-sign waving peacenik who sang “Imagine all the people living life in peace,” it has recently become more fashionable to call him out as a bully, misogynist, and rich hypocrite who sang “Imagine no possessions” and refused to take a firm stance on positive revolution.  What a lot of us commentators sometimes forget (and I’m as guilty of this as anyone else) is that John Lennon wasn’t an image, he was a man, and a very complex one at that. Yes, at times he was a bully, a misogynist who sang “I’d rather see you dead little girl than to be with another man,” and a soft-on-revolution splash of cold water who tried to assure us “it’s gonna be alright” (it wasn’t), but as writer James A. Mitchell reminds us, John Lennon wasn’t always all those things. In the early seventies he worked hard on making amends for the rough man he’d been. After walking the middle of the road through much of The Beatles’ career, he decided to use his booming voice for more ideologically positive purposes, championing feminist principals as early as 1970’s “Well, Well, Well”; taking up with such high-profile activists as Jerry Rubin, Tariq Ali, and Bobby Seale; and moving from his plush Tittenhurst Park estate to a grubby apartment in Greenwich Village.

These are the years Lennon worked with revolutionary rockers Elephant’s Memory and appeared on “The Mike Douglas Show” with special guests Rubin (whose no-punches-pulled rhetoric irked Douglas) and Black Panther Seale (whose non-violent community spirit surprised and delighted him) and “The Dick Cavett Show” where he discussed how the White House was trying to run him out of the country and why it was so important that he be allowed to stay. These are the years Lennon railed against the unfair imprisonment of John Sinclair (“they gave him ten [years] for two [joints])” and recorded the highly controversial Sometime in New York City on which he laid out his various causes and gave Yoko Ono equal time in the musical spotlight. 

Were Lennon’s politics and music sometimes muddled during this period? That’s up to the reader, because James A. Mitchell is not really interested in analyzing the former Beatle or swaying us one way or the other in The Walrus & The Elephants: John Lennon’s Years of Revolution. He merely lays out this period biographically with ample support from a variety of interviewees who knew and worked with Lennon during it. Going this route allows us to draw our own conclusions. As far as I’m concerned, I came away from this inspiring book truly happy to be a John Lennon fan. While it’s easy to run the guy down for his bad attitude in the sixties and the materialism that seemed at odds with his no-possessions message of the seventies, you have to give the man credit for trying really hard to overcome such things, making impressive progress, and using his fame and influence to speak out about important issues in a way some called naïve and simplistic but actually made them accessible to everyone. And while some have criticized the guy for his refusal to give in to the more militant aspects of revolution, I say, “fuck that.” There should be more champions of non-violent change. For those who feel that Lennon turned his back on causes as quickly as he picked them up, Mitchell explains his familial reasons for doing so. Hell, he even made me appreciate how daring and powerful the oft-reviled “Woman Is the Nigger of the World” single is. For anyone whose faith in that image of peace and love is getting shaky, Mitchell’s book will restore it, reintroducing you to the man behind the slogans and peace signs. I loved The Walrus & The Elephants for that reason.

Get The Walrus & The Elephants: John Lennon’s Years of Revolution at Amazon.com here:
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