Sunday, January 2, 2011

John Lennon, 1940-1980

I said I'd be blogging about music and politics, and no one figure occupies the intersection of those topics more than the late John Lennon. Last month marked the 20th anniversary of his death. Ten years ago I wrote a piece exploring some theories about the circumstances of his demise:

Sean Lennon stirred up a great deal of controversy and ridicule a few years back when he asserted that his father’s assassination was the result of a US government conspiracy. “He was dangerous to the government..,” Sean told the New Yorker magazine in 1998. “These pacifist revolutionaries are historically killed by the government. Anybody who thinks that Mark Chapman was just some crazy guy who killed my dad for his personal interests is insane. Or very naive. Or hasn’t thought about it clearly.”

Sceptics would doubtless counter that Sean seems to have inherited his famous father’s paranoia. But if we take his invitation to think about the case clearly, there is considerable substance behind his comments. Lennon’s murder was one of nine major political shootings in the US from 1963 through 1981. All, save the 1965 killing of Malcolm X, were claimed by authorities to have been the work of “some crazy guy” (or gal). In virtually every case, a closer look at the biography of the so-called “lone nut” shows a number of anomalies: unexplained sources of income, mysterious travel patterns, and an apparent relationship with one or more US intelligence agencies. Just as ubiquitous is the tendency of the investigating agencies to overlook, underplay or just plain cover up some of these pertinent details.

The case of John Lennon’s assassin is no exception (the definitive work on this case is Who Killed John Lennon, by Fenton Bresler, originally published in the UK by Sidgwick & Jackson). Though Mark David Chapman had worked as a lowly security guard prior to the shooting, he somehow had enough money to purchase expensive artworks by Norman Rockwell and Salvador Dali. In 1975 he had helped to process high-level South Vietnamese refugees at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. He had also traveled to war-torn Beirut under the auspices of the YMCA, frequently used as a cover and recruiting organ by the CIA.

Chapman had purchased a gun and arrived in New York City to stalk Lennon two months before the actual murder, but made a curious detour down to Atlanta, Georgia. There he visited with a mysterious character whom Bresler calls Gene Scott (not his real name), a colleague from Fort Chaffee. By all accounts Scott had been a commanding influence on young Chapman. When they shared an apartment together in 1976, witnesses say that Mark’s personality changed dramatically, becoming angrier, more volatile. He also became fascinated with guns, though he had previously been disgusted by them. It was at Scott’s suggestion that Chapman found work as an armed guard. And in October 1980, “Gene Scott” provided the assassin with the special hollow-point bullets used to kill John Lennon.

Back in New York, Chapman found that the Lennons were out of town, so he returned to his home in Hawaii. When he returned in December, according to Bresler, three days are missing from the official account of his travels. Bresler’s research shows that Chapman spent three days in Chicago before finally returning to Manhattan to kill Lennon, but there is no explanation for where he stayed or with whom he may have met. Nevertheless, the book shows that somebody went to considerable lengths to doctor Chapman’s travel records (found dramatically layed out in his plush New York hotel room) in order to conceal the layover in Chicago. Officials have been adamant that Chapman left Honolulu on December 5, and not, as Bresler proves, on December 2.

At this point our sceptics will note that however unusual these details, the murder of John Lennon was an open-and-shut case. Witnesses say the assassin acted alone, and crouching in a military posture, pumped four bullets into his target. Afterwards he calmly sat down and began reading a copy of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (also, coincidentally, a book carried by Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin in 1981). Chapman confessed the crime to anyone who asked, and as he entered a guilty plea, no trial was ever held. End of story?

Perhaps not. Fenton Bresler and others have speculated that Chapman was operating under mind control orders from other parties unknown. This is not nearly as far-fetched as it may seem at first mention. The CIA has admittedly spent dozens of years and millions of dollars in mind control research. It’s worth noting that there are documented cases of persons committing murder under the influence of hypnosis–while psychologists will tell you that hypnotized persons will not act contrary to their character, suggestions can be planted to make people believe they are acting in self-defense or killing for a greater good. This was precisely the aim of the CIA research, often using powerful psychoactive drugs, and some of the doctors involved have turned up in association with other major assassination cases.

Chapman’s memories of the deed are clouded; he claims to have no have no grudge against his victim, and he says he was impelled to take Lennon’s life by voices in his head, against which he struggled in vain. This may be dismissed as the rationalizations of a clever killer seeking to avoid responsibility. But Mark Chapman has something else in common with the other lone-nut gunslingers: a lack of any plausible motive. As it turns out, there were plenty of people with reason to want John Lennon dead, but Chapman was not one of them. Those people, as Sean Lennon points out, belonged to the US government. It’s important to consider Lennon’s murder as a political assassination. As Sean reminds us, “He was dangerous to the government. If he had said ‘Bomb the White House tomorrow,’ there would have been 10,000 people who would have done it.”

While the noted pacifist would never have advocated bombing, the measure of his influence is not understated. After five years out of the spotlight (devoted mainly to raising Sean), John Lennon was not only restarting his musical career in late 1980–he was also resuming his career as a political activist. At the time of his death, John was scheduled to fly to San Francisco to take part in a labor demonstration on behalf of striking Asian-American workers. He was also planning to begin a world tour, which would include not only his powerful musical voice but his powerful political voice. Instead that voice was stilled.

That voice was taken very seriously, not only by his millions of fans, but by the governments of the US and the UK The latter harassed him due to his opposition to policies in Northern Ireland. Eventually they resorted to planting marijuana on him during a raid on his flat. Lennon took the rap himself so that Yoko would not be deported, but ironically that conviction was used to begin deportation proceedings against him after the couple moved to New York. There the Nixon Administration began harassing the Lennons over their opposition to policies in Vietnam, and their financial support of anti-Nixon demonstrations.

This harassment is detailed in two books by UC Irvine professor Jon Wiener, Come Together and Gimme Some Truth (Lennon’s FBI files are posted at an accompanying website, Wiener began researching the first book shortly after Lennon’s murder, placing a Freedom of Information Act request for all pertinent FBI files. It took nearly twenty years before all of those files became available. The latter book covers such matters as Lennon’s ambitious plans for a counterculture news service called “Operation Yes.” It also describes some of the absurdities of the matters the government labored to conceal–details about a parrot who shouts “Right on!” during political meetings, or the question of whether or not an informant was living in his mother’s car. But the harassment of the Lennons was anything but trivial, and included wiretaps, informants, infiltration and stalkings. At the behest of virulent reactionaries like J. Edgar Hoover, the government sought in vain to deport Lennon, who ultimately prevailed in court. Early in 1981, he was scheduled to become a naturalized US citizen.

The paranoia with which the US government regarded John Lennon was revealed in a posting to the website, which had established a message board for reactions to Sean’s accusation of conspiracy. One respondent said that he had worked in military intelligence since 1969, and had had occasion to examine files on John Lennon and other charismatic social leaders. Memos in Lennon’s files complained that he had bought the good will of New York City police by purchasing bulletproof vests for the department, and had contributed money to key judges, resulting in his legal victory. The government then managed to get CIA contract agents hired as maid and gardener at one of Lennon’s houses (many of his diaries and other key papers disappeared during this period). If all else failed, documents in Lennon’s files, according to this anonymous whistleblower, called for Lennon’s assassination, and so he was saddened but not surprised to hear of his untimely demise.

Ultimately, unless the government decides it would be a splendid idea to release such files to the general public, the true nature of Lennon assassination will remain subject to speculations and theories. The US government had the means, motive and opportunity, as his son has told us. At the dawn of the Reagan Era, as US elites strove to undo the legacy of the massive wave of democratic dissent spearheaded by people like John Lennon, there were few other charismatic social leaders with his influence and following - or his sizeable wealth. Covert operators would have considered themselves well rid of him, and had they chosen to take him out, it could easily have been done without a trace.

But let Sean have the last word. “You know,” he added in his interview, “that worked against them. Because once he died, his powers grew... They didn’t get what they wanted.”

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