For more than 40 years Beatles member John Lennon towered above all others as the Left’s most powerful artistic icon. His anthem “Imagine” dreamed of a unified world that transcended the divides of nation-states and religious strife. It was an inspiration to generations of utopians. Now a new documentary reveals a startling fact: in his final years before his murder, the songwriter abandoned his famous progressive faith, enjoyed arguing with radicals, and supported Ronald Reagan.
The Toronto Sun reported Tuesday night on one of the interviews from a new documentary called “Beatles Stories.” Director Seth Swirsky spent five years collecting anecdotes from those who knew members of the band. One of the people Swirsky talked with was Fred Seaman who worked as Lennon’s personal assistant in 1979 and 1980.
According to Seaman,
John, basically, made it very clear that if he were an American he would vote for Reagan because he was really sour on (Democrat) Jimmy Carter.
“He’d met Reagan back, I think, in the 70s at some sporting event… Reagan was the guy who had ordered the National Guard, I believe, to go after the young (peace) demonstrators in Berkeley, so I think that John maybe forgot about that… He did express support for Reagan, which shocked me.
“I also saw John embark in some really brutal arguments with my uncle, who’s an old-time communist… He enjoyed really provoking my uncle… Maybe he was being provocative… but it was pretty obvious to me he had moved away from his earlier radicalism.
“He was a very different person back in 1979 and 80 than he’d been when he wrote Imagine. By 1979 he looked back on that guy and was embarrassed by that guy’s naivete.”
How will the Left respond to these revelations? If the first reaction at The Los Angeles Times is any indication, the attempt might be to damage the credibility of the witness. Tony Pierce does not even bother commenting on the claims and instead noted that Seaman plead guilty in 1983 to stealing photos, journals, and letters from Lennon.
Jon Wiener at The Nation also jumped on this strategy to defend the icon he wrote a whole book promoting. Wiener went further though, trying to pass off a bland written statement in support of a group of striking workers and an ambiguous comment that the 1960s “gave us a glimpse of the possibility” of a better world as evidence that Lennon died a progressive. (At Salon Justin Elliott regurgitates this weak tea response.) Wiener ends with another ad hominem against Seaman, noting the former personal assistant also tried to “cash in” on his Lennon connection before with a book. Wiener fails to explain what financial stake Seaman could possibly have today in telling lies about Lennon’s politics.
It’s worth remembering that The Nation was the publication with the longest track record of defending the innocence of the Rosenbergs — regardless of every new piece of evidence to emerge over the last 30 years.
The problem with this kill-the-messenger strategy is that it labors under the mistaken impression that Seaman’s anecdotes are the only proof of Lennon’s Second Thoughts. As soon as one starts looking at Lennon circa 1980 as a Reagan conservative, more and more long-available evidence comes into focus. Old, familiar statements suddenly make sense in a new way. Some writers had even already theorized of Lennon’s political shift.
Big Hollywood Editor-in-Chief John Nolte noted a compelling piece at The American Conservative by Jordan Michael Smith published more than a year ago which fisked Lennon’s final interview with Playboy. Smith quotes Lennon from the interview, rejecting the idea that a Beatles reunion concert for charity would make any substantive effect toward improving the world:
“You know, America has poured billions into places like that. It doesn’t mean a damn thing. After they’ve eaten that meal, then what? It lasts for only a day. After the $200,000,000 is gone, then what? It goes round and round in circles.”
Other statements in the interview are more explicit, with Lennon confessing that his famous anti-war political activism was largely driven by his own guilt from his financial success with the Beatles. Thomas Sowell argued in his book Compassion Versus Guilt that such feelings in response to good fortune and wealth can often motivate good-intentioned but ultimately destructive public policies.
That this was the case with Lennon is further enforced by his earlier political transformation while he was still in the Beatles. Recall the song “Revolution” in which Lennon dismissed the revolutionary dream and rebuked the neo-communist Left: “But if you go carrying pictures of chairman Mao/You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow.” The seeds of Lennon’s escape from the Left were planted. Lennon was not a very serious leftist. He was just an artist too heavily influenced by some of the other dominant personalities of his age – the ones most skilled at manipulating talented people into becoming their political pawns, their useful idiots.
One need not speculate what kind of music Lennon might have recorded someday with a more grounded political understanding. Home recordings from 1980 exist and have been widely available for years.
Consider the 1980 song “Serve Yourself,” available in the John Lennon anthology and the Wonsaponatime album. The song features a cynical, somewhat combative Lennon urging his listeners to take responsibility for their own lives instead of submitting to a religious or political dogma. This is not the upbeat tone and message of “Give Peace a Chance.”
It’s impossible to know the number of people over the last 40 years who jumped into lives of progressive activism because of Lennon’s music. What’s much easier to anticipate is that like the Rosenbergs, Lennon and “Imagine” are not symbols the Left will give up without a fight.