1971 and John Lennon is now thirtysomething. His life, finally, is getting
interesting. Always on the cutting edge, this time he is on the verge of
getting his peacenik ass thrown out of the United States, and not just
because he is inflicting Yoko Ono on a nation who never asked for her.
Facing deportation for drug possession (and other things that offend
President Nixon), Lennon, along with his shadow (Ono), make one of two
appearances on ABC’s The Dick Cavett Show. If anything, the rock
legend gives the audience its money’s worth; Lennon is practically shot out
of a cannon – funny, angry, bratty, antsy, loving, cheeky, cranky, and, as
always, taking his precious time to tell us how we are supposed to think
about the world. Lennon does the thinking for us because we’re too busy
making a living to figure it out for ourselves.
censor has an oxygen tent standing by,” Cavett warns us regarding his
infamous guests. The struggling talk show is watched by an intellectual
elite that has not received its Nielsen ratings books in the mail. Designed
as a youth-culture alternative to the more Middle American The Tonight
Show, Cavett is urbane but somehow desperate when not feeling
lukewarm. It’s marketed as an underdog, but the series’ flop sweat soaks
through its undergarments and it shows. On the surface, it seems to have
everything going for it, but with the exception of these occasionally
spectacular visitors, it eventually drops the ball on its design to be a
groovy alternative to the hum-drum fare geared toward The Silent Majority
over on NBC.
difficult recipe for easy-going, unselfconscious TV hipness is not yet quite
baked, and Cavett seems a bit too show-bizzy for its intended
audience (the house band plays a square, swingin’ version of “Come Together”
when Lennon and Ono are introduced). About a decade later, Late Night
with David Letterman would put a merciful end to this schism.
see Cavett, apparently under enormous pressure from the network because of
disappointing ratings, literally sweating it out under the hot lights. His
jittery hep-cat vibe is a pale imitation of Johnny Carson’s, who mastered
the concept more naturally, even though Carson no longer had designs on a
young, hip audience. As well, Cavett’s attempts at monologues and shtick
are painful and unnecessary. At one point, he auctions off his necktie to
the studio audience (for no apparent reason other than to be unpredictably
off the wall). And for their first appearance, Lennon and Ono request that
Cavett not do a monologue (this is diva-like, but score a point for
them – the studio audience and Cavett himself seem just as relieved).
couple, with lots of time and money on their hands, has an agenda.
Tirelessly promoting world peace seems like a noble cause at first, but
Lennon’s condescending attitude toward everyone and everything (the network,
the government, and even the audience), though justified, cancels out his
urgent message. What doesn’t help is the unceasing echo of his tedious peace
anthem, “Imagine,” which is a solid hit at this time and yet ironically is
not more than casually mentioned during these appearances (thank goodness).
Yoko Ono is a real drag is not just putting mildly: she smokes up a storm
(along with her husband), and Lennon obediently lights her cigarettes for
her like a pussy-whipped English gentleman. By 1971, the anti-smoking
movement has real legs and is radical in its fervor, yet Lennon and his wife
do not honor that cause, nor care to.
hair is cut short (very un-Beatle-like, probably with great ironic cause)
and he wears a U.S. Army jacket that was given to him in an airport by a vet
(great ironic idea!). Ono is wearing hotpants and doing her
mysterious/exotic/avant garde /Gandhi thing.
Lennon proclaims her to be “the most famous unknown artist,” as if this is a
bad thing, but he is determined to change that, whether we like it or not.
The appearances turn into a sneaky promotional tool for Ono, in which she
unashamedly shills her “book of instructions,” called “Grapefruit” (“now
available in paperback”). In it, she advises the reader to listen to
another person’s body with a stethoscope (Lennon performs this exercise on
Cavett). They also eat up a good five or ten minutes by showing prototype
music videos (deadly dull by today’s standards), and finally performing a
song or two (Ono accompanies the actual legitimate musicians on bongos). One
of these tunes is the meant-to-be-misunderstood “Woman Is the Nigger of the
World,” which is banned by ABC (naturally!). Ono screeches – America
sits up in bed, jarred awake.
voice is so unique,” Cavett tells her, apparently as a compliment.
appearing on one of the programs is “peculiar ad man” Stan Freberg, who is
actually more effective than Lennon in his anti-war communication by
unveiling a series of radio commercials, urging Americans to send telegrams
to their senators to end our involvement in Vietnam by the close of 1971
(alas, the war would drone on for another two years).
the 1972 offering, a newly hippified Shirley MacLaine makes a campaign stop
for Nixon opponent George McGovern. However, the ABC censors will not allow
her to promote her candidate, so she subversively wears a smattering of
McGovern buttons instead. She boasts very proudly and urgently about how she
is down with the people, because she has just rubbed elbows with the “real”
America (waitresses, bowlers, cab drivers). Like the Lennons, she means
well, yet her attempt at connecting ultimately delivers as condescending and
insulting (“they” want to be told the truth, MacLaine reveals about the
typical buzzwords of the day are mentioned with ease: pollution,
overpopulation, the Pentagon Papers, Richard Nixon, Jerry Rubin and the
plight of the American Indian roll off everyone’s bitter tongues. As well,
Lennon shrugs off the popular and unwavering opinion that Ono broke up the
Beatles (he says that if this is the case, then we should actually thank her
for the great music that McCartney, Lennon, Harrison and Starr have released
as solo acts after the breakup! Thank you, Yoko!). Lennon also philosophizes
that if all soldiers and politicians took their trousers down, there would
be world peace, and that “if the establishment don’t understand it, they
can’t kill it.”
can’t help but wonder about the Lennons: are they for real, or are we being
put on? When they describe how they talked to the press while draped in
head-to-toe bags (to eliminate racial discrimination and encourage total
communication), we try to understand but we ultimately have our patience
tested and we roll our eyes. Yet, when Lennon makes a plea to Ono’s
ex-husband to allow Ono to share custody for her daughter, it’s a genuine
and touching moment. As well, when Lennon proclaims that he is still working
class and not intellectual, and that “you feel music – you don’t
intellectualize it,” or when he dreams of he and Ono as an old retired
couple on the south coast of Ireland, it’s as true as it’s going to get. And
it’s hard to dislike a fella who, in the age of Mott the Hoople, digs good
old-fashioned-American-fifties rock-and-roll, and yet still remains relevant
and influential. There is no getting around it – he is someone to watch.
Still, upon completion of the three-disk set, you’re not sure whether you’ve
witnessed a piece of history or an SCTV sketch.
All rights reserved. Revised:
December 29, 2017.