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Big Apple Beatle ~ Lennon: The New York Years (Imagine, July 12, BBC1)/ Review

July 18, 2011

Some time in New York City: John and Yoko salute the Statue of Liberty in a moment from the video to the 1971 single Power To The People, filmed shortly after the couple’s arrival in NYC

About a year ago, the BBC screened – and I viewed and reviewed – Lennon Naked, a Christopher Eccleston-starring biopic of John Lennon’s life in London at the end of the ’60s, as he became reacquainted with his estranged father, endured heroin addiction and The Beatles broke up. And just last week, the BBC also screened and I also viewed what one may describe as, if you’ll so indulge me, something of a sequel to that made-for-TV-movie in the shape of the documentary Lennon: The New York Years, shown as part of Alan Yentob‘s Imagine art show strand. And, yes, peeps, I’ve also reviewed it – right here.

Lennon Naked concluded with John and his relatively new wife Yoko Ono leaving behind Britain and, with it, controversy, vilification and trauma, as they boarded a plane bound for a new life in the Big Apple, all blue skies and marshmallow-like happy clouds around them. However, as is made clear in this affectionate but fairly warts-and-all two-hour docu from filmmaker Michael Epstein (presumably no relation to the late Beatles’ manager Brian), that’s rather a rose-tinted view of the Lennons’ lives-to-come.

The decade that followed, in which they made New York almost exclusively their home, was far more troubled, tortured and turbulent than many may have assumed. In fact, it was a period that saw the couple fight against America’s establishment as they continued the youthful idealists’ call for universal peace, fought with its authorities in order simply to stay in the country and at times even fought each other.

The trouble started almost immediately. As the couple moved into the wilfully arty and unconventional Greenwich Village, welcomed by its musical crowd with whom they began collaborating in the studio and playing at militant and anti-war concerts, the Richard Nixon-led Republican government got decidedly twitchy – or, to be exact, paranoid. Hopelessly embroiled in the Vietnam War and no doubt worried about youth discontent – vocal like never before – what with re-election looming in late ’72, Nixon’s administration employed the FBI to monitor Lennon. This, to many who have even a passing interest in the former Beatle, is not particularly news. What may be, though, is that in an era when the political establishment was disconnected from the politicised – and mainly left-wing – young like never before and thus became overly anxious, is that it’s actually sort of understandable why the US establishment took such steps against Lennon.

Gimme Some Peace: Yoko and John emerge from an immigration hearing in New York City on April 18 1972 – John’s fight to stay in the United States would continue for the next three years

For, as this documentary makes clear, the anti-war leaders in America at that time explicitly engaged Lennon to become a mouth-piece for their movement through concerts and appearances in the wider media with the long-term aim of toppling Nixon at the next election and getting the troops out of Vietnam. And, given the success of the Lennons-led John Sinclair Freedom Rally at Ann Arbor in December 1971 (which led to the release of the counter-culture poet just three days later; Sinclair had been imprisoned for a total of 10 years simply for possession of marijuana), early on it may have looked like the Lennon factor could have some genuine impact.

As we now know, however, it was Nixon’s anxiety that the Democrats themselves would beat him at the polls and the attempts to undermine them, leading to the break-in at Washington’s Watergate hotel, that did him in. In fact, as the decade progressed, John had less and less to do with the anti-war movement, mostly because it lost traction itself, no doubt. Perhaps the pivotal moment here was Nixon’s re-election in November ’72, which was indirectly responsible for a pivotal moment in the Lennon story of the ’70s. So devastated by the election result (an extraordinary landslide for Nixon) was Lennon that he turned to drink. Indeed, disconsolate and drunk as a skunk when he arrived from the recording studio at a post-election party, he apparently picked up the nearest girl and noisily got down to it with her – in the full knowledge that Yoko and all his New York friends were in the next room, very much within earshot. Apparently, for Yoko’s benefit somebody had put on a Dylan record to muffle the noise, but to little avail.

By all accounts, John was literally prostrate with apology the next day (as is revealed in the film in a location photo taken that day for publicity of his new album Mind Games, in which he playfully and semi-seriously begs at Yoko’s feet). But real damage was done. In his words, his wife ‘threw him out’ – in reality, it appeared they agreed to spend some time apart; they’d spent the last two or three years around each other 24 hours a day, after all. So, John now jetted from one of America’s most iconic cities to another – Los Angeles.

In his first few days there, he seemed to relish both his newly discovered freedom and his new surroundings (sun, sea and the coital company of assistant May Pang – whose accompaniment had actually, rather bizarrely, been engineered by Yoko – agreed with him). He met up with former Beatles and – despite whatever anyone says – forever friends Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, as well as with Fabs favourite Harry Nilsson (singer of both Everybody’s Talkin’ and Without You) and enjoyed many a drunken evening.

Yet, after so many years of marriage – with both his first and second wives – it soon became clear that the bachelor life didn’t suit Lennon; in fact, it suited him as well as alcoholic stupors. And it was exactly one of the latter, one that lasted throughout the ill-begotten recording of his misguided rock ‘n’ roll covers album, er, Rock ‘n’ Roll (which took place at Hollywood’s A&M Studios in autumn ’73) that things came to a head. As recording footage included in the documentary makes clear, Lennon was drunk out of his skull during these sessions; surrounded by masses of musicians and verbally abusing legendary producer Phil Spector on the other side of the glass. The chaos and carnage (aided and abetted by the free-wheeling Nilsson) had to come to an end. Quite simply, Lennon had to return to New York.

This he did then, at the end of the year, and seemingly found himself immediately thrown  into the recording of yet another album – the self-produced and more-than-decent Walls And Bridges. Actually, as he was still in the mood to make music, he pretty much had to do this, given Spector had oddly disappeared with Rock ‘n’ Roll‘s master tapes. Still, he got on with it, alcohol-free along with the rest of the performers as they recorded the album. A lovely moment in Epstein’s film regarding this period comes in New York-based DJ Dennis Elsas’s recollection of a September 1974 interview with Lennon in promotion of Walls And Bridges. Part of it can be heard here and, from it, one can can only agree with Elsas that the Lennon he met on this occasion was an amusing, laconic, lucid, relaxed and very amiable chap.

Indeed, although he would later recall the ’73-’75 period of his life as his ‘Lost Weekend’ (owing to him being separated from Yoko throughout these years), for much of ’74 it appears he was getting on with getting his music back on top. Proof of this can be seen in his grudging agreement with Elton John that he’d appear at the latter’s 1974 Thanksgiving concert at Madison Square Gardens and perform with him the Walls And Bridges single Whatever Gets You Thru The Night, so long as that single reached #1 in the charts. Of course, it did and, of course, Lennon kept his promise.

As Elton John recollects, a near petrified Lennon, who hadn’t performed on-stage for years, threw up in the toilet before going on, but went down a storm (see video above). Plus, lest we forget, it was at the end of this concert that he met up with and eventually reconciled with Yoko. Does Elton feel responsible for this reconciliation then? A rather humble Elton in the film – despite wearing glasses with ‘EJ’ emblazoned in a corner of one lens – says he certainly doesn’t, but touchingly seems pleased to have (in)directly played a part in it. Bless him.

Silver dream pacer: John and Yoko taking a stroll in Central Park in a publicity shot for the Double Fantasy album, taken on November 26 1980 – less than a fortnight before his death

As Lennon’s ’70s story slides into mid-decade, it becomes less congested. Mostly owing to the birth of his and Yoko’s son, Sean, on October 9 1975. However, that very date proved a momentous one in this story, given that not only was it John’s 35th birthday and the day of his second son’s birth, but also coincided with the dropping of the case to boot him out of the country. Hounded by American immigration ever since he first landed in the USA (owing to Nixon and co.’s original vendetta against him and continued after the latter’s fall due to the authorities’ thoroughness), Lennon had amazingly been living on a visa that only lasted for 60 days at a time. Indeed, on one  occasion in the early ’70s he heard he supposedly had to leave the country on the radio while sitting in a taxi cab – allegedly wisecracking to the driver: ‘Take me to the airport, Sam’.

In the end, then, he won his case and, according to his former lawyer, did so partly because the judge dealing with the issue was a fan of his – and believed that the singer’s struggle to stay in the USA was reflective of America’s own founding principle of freedom. Lofty philosophy perhaps, but as the lawyer reflects, rather heart-warming in its way.

Moving towards middle-age and with less hunger to make music and top the charts (he’d been at it for nearly 20 years, after all), Lennon now withdrew from professional and public life and effectively became a house-husband. Of the two parents it was he who spent the majority of the time with his new son rather than his wife, it was he who did the majority of the cooking and it was certainly he during this period who wanted to spend quality time with his second son given he hadn’t with his first. As one may guess – and as the documentary suggests (with help from archival footage of Lennon speaking) – there’s little doubt an older, perhaps wiser Lennon found more balance and happiness in his life during this slowed-down, toned-down period. Actually, check out the wonderful Watching The Wheels from 1980’s Double Fantasy album; it pretty much spells this out.

Sadly, the film naturally has to finish on the sour, moving note of its subject’s death at the end of this self-imposed retirement, just as the artist had returned to making music and was on the verge of releasing it to the public again in the shape of Double Fantasy. Yet, in reality, it feels like more of a bittersweet note, for by this stage in his life, Lennon was surely a man at peace (both with Yoko and without); delighted at merely being able to walk into a shop and buy a nice (er, silver) jacket like a non-celebrity and happy that his music had become ‘MOR’ instead of trend-setting (he was now middle-aged just like his likely audience: ‘how’re you doing? how did your relationships turn out?’ he proffered as a question his new album may pose them).

So, yes, it’s tragic he was taken from the world at a point when he was – perhaps for the very first time – genuinely happy, but at least when he went he was content after all the difficult and dramatic, troubled and trauma-filled years with both the Beatles and those that followed in New York. Just listen to (Just Like) Starting Over (below), go on, and say that ain’t so. 

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John Lennon: The New York Years isn’t available to watch again on BBC iPlayer, but check the programme’s official page to see if and when it is, as well as when it’s next screened in the UK and Northern Ireland.

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