We Shot John Lennon

50 years ago, the Beatles ran afoul of America’s pathologies.

Susan J. Douglas

In December 1969 on the steps of the Apple building in London, John and Yoko protest the Vietnam War. (Photo by Frank Barratt/Keystone/Getty Images)

Fifty years ago this month, on Feb. 7, 1964, the Bea­t­les stepped off a Pan Am jet at Kennedy air­port to thou­sands of scream­ing fans and some 200 reporters and pho­tog­ra­phers. Two days lat­er, they per­formed on The Ed Sul­li­van Show as an esti­mat­ed 73 mil­lion view­ers — 38 per­cent of America’s pop­u­la­tion — watched and tried to hear the music over the deaf­en­ing screams of the 1,200 fans in the stu­dio audi­ence. The Bea­t­les’ con­quest” of the Unit­ed States had begun.

Yes, America loved the Beatles. But John Lennon, despite his great spirit, was no match for the subterranean recesses of hatred and paranoia here.

Sex­ist dis­missals of Beat­le­ma­nia” were instan­ta­neous. As David Dempsey, writ­ing for the New York Times Mag­a­zine, put it, The Bea­t­les … resem­ble in man­ner the witch doc­tors who put their spell on hun­dreds of shuf­fling and stamp­ing natives … the female mem­bers of this cult go berserk.” But this deri­sion of baby boom girls as crazed hys­ter­ics com­plete­ly missed what the Bea­t­les meant to us. The Bea­t­les arrived in the Unit­ed States a mere 11 weeks after Pres­i­dent Kennedy was killed, when many grief-strick­en young peo­ple felt that opti­mism itself had been gunned down in Dealey Plaza. And then here were these irrev­er­ent, charis­mat­ic young men ban­ter­ing with reporters: wit­ty, just like JFK, mak­ing fun of con­ven­tion and author­i­ty, and per­form­ing on stage with utter­ly con­ta­gious joy. They were opti­mism reborn. On top of this, in their lyrics, their clothes, their hair, their heeled boots, the Bea­t­les fused mas­cu­line and fem­i­nine styles and sen­si­bil­i­ties, sug­gest­ing that gen­der roles might not have to be quite so rigid. Because they were clean-cut (in their Edwar­dian suits and ties), yet sexy, and British to boot, they gave per­mis­sion to girls to unleash their sub­li­mat­ed sex­u­al ener­gies at a time when a sex­u­al dou­ble stan­dard and con­dem­na­to­ry atti­tudes toward female agency still held sway. This finess­ing of gen­der roles, this empow­er­ing address to young women, all, how­ev­er improb­a­bly, fed into the incip­i­ent ener­gy of the women’s move­ment. For all this, of course, we screamed in gratitude.

Yes, Amer­i­ca loved the Bea­t­les. But John Lennon, despite his great spir­it, was no match for the sub­ter­ranean recess­es of hatred and para­noia here. As we look back from the nos­tal­gic van­tage point of half a cen­tu­ry, will this truth be swept aside in medi­at­ed mem­o­ries of Beat­le­ma­nia? Will the sun­ny-side cel­e­bra­tions of the mop tops” and the ridicule of swoon­ing female fans eclipse the dark­er patholo­gies that Lennon, espe­cial­ly, trig­gered — reli­gious fanati­cism, gov­ern­ment para­noia and gun violence?

Reli­gious fanati­cism was the first Amer­i­can pathol­o­gy the Bea­t­les tripped over. In 1966, just before the band’s sum­mer tour, the teen mag­a­zine Date­book pub­lished a quote John Lennon had made in the British press: We’re more pop­u­lar than Jesus now.” The com­ment had evoked no con­tro­ver­sy in the U.K., but in the U.S. Bible Belt, the denun­ci­a­tions were vir­u­lent: The KKK spon­sored record burn­ings (and nailed one album to a cross), radio sta­tions banned Bea­t­les songs, reli­gious extrem­ists held demon­stra­tions out­side their con­certs, and the band received death threats. After this mis­er­able expe­ri­ence, the Bea­t­les stopped tour­ing altogether.

Then when John Lennon moved to New York City with Yoko Ono in 1971, he con­front­ed pathol­o­gy num­ber two: gov­ern­ment para­noia about dis­si­dents. His anti-war stance and pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics prompt­ed the FBI and the Nixon admin­is­tra­tion to spy on him and seek to silence him. Nixon was espe­cial­ly keen to have him deport­ed, as he felt Lennon’s activism might cost him the 1972 elec­tion. After a pro­tract­ed bat­tle, the depor­ta­tion order was over­turned in 1975.

And the final pathol­o­gy: gun vio­lence, with, as we all know, John Lennon mur­dered on Dec. 8, 1980, by a men­tal­ly unsta­ble per­son with a handgun.

The demons that John Lennon fell vic­tim to haunt us still. We see them in the reli­gious Right’s ongo­ing grip on pub­lic pol­i­cy, the NSA scan­dal and the dispir­it­ing fact that, since the hor­rif­ic shoot­ings at Sandy Hook, most new gun laws have loos­ened rather than tight­ened restric­tions. These demons still very much need to be exor­cised — yeah, yeah, yeah.

Susan J. Dou­glas is a pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan and a senior edi­tor at In These Times. Her forth­com­ing book is In Our Prime: How Old­er Women Are Rein­vent­ing the Road Ahead..
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