Monday, May 7, 2012

Set Him Free!

John and Yoko's radical activism phase went public in a big way in December, 1971. Sometime during the first week of the month, their Bank Street apartment was visited by a film crew from France's ORTF, shooting an interview for the TV series Pop 2.

Jean François Vallée interviewed the couple in their bed, alongside Jerry Rubin, and John was clearly caught up in the "Rock Liberation Front" movement, railing against capitalism, "British Imperialist pigs" in Northern Ireland, and espousing the immediate release of prisoners across the USA. Luckily, he also had his dobro in hand and treated viewers to some off-the-cuff renditions of new songs "Free The People" (later fleshed out as "Bring On The Lucie") and "Attica State", as well as Bob Dylan's latest single, "George Jackson".

The interview was aired in two parts, on January 8th and January 22nd on ORTF (they can be viewed here and here). While the French broadcast is generally marred by translation, some of the interview was used without voice-over in a British TV show, Aquarius, transmitted on LWT March 11th, 1972.

One cause John mentions in the interview is an upcoming rally to benefit poet/activist John Sinclair, then serving a ridiculous 10-year sentence in Michigan prison for selling two marijuana joints to an undercover officer. John and Yoko, along with Jerry Rubin and David Peel, flew to Ann Arbor on December 9th to participate in the concert. Sometime during their stay (perhaps that night), John was recorded in a hotel room with folk singer Phil Ochs, also on the bill. At Rubin's request, Ochs ran through his song "Chords Of Fame", accompanied by John on the ever-present dobro.

The concert took place the night of December 10th at Crisler Arena. John and Yoko topped the bill, finishing off the concert (accompanied by Peel and his band) with four then-unreleased politically-based songs, including "John Sinclair", penned specially for the occasion:

While the concert may not have been an artistic triumph, it did the trick, as three days later, Sinclair was freed from prison when the Michigan Supreme Court ruled the state's marijuana law unconstitutional. This victory only further convinced John Lennon of the righteousness of the path he was heading down, and shaped his actions for the next few months (which would cause him untold problems with the Nixon government).


  1. Here's one you missed a little while back:

    It's the "Argument Interview" conducted on 9 October 1971, by Takahiro Imura, the same day as the footage he shot at the Everson Museum and as John's 31st birthday party. So it was probably recorded at the museum or at the Hotel Syracuse.

    I find this to be one of John and Yoko's most enlightening interviews, with both defending their artistic backgrounds. I'm not as hard on Yoko as a lot of Beatle fans are, but she doesn't help herself here. Listen in at around 6'45" of this recording as she makes one of her most outlandish claims; John's reaction is priceless.

    Note this comes from Lost Lennon Tapes episode #88. Mine is sourced from mp3--I don't have it lossless. I edited it together from throughout the episode. The completist in me kept in one short piece of Elliot Mintz narration where Yoko talks beneath him in Japanese.

    If anybody has this interview lossless and/or from a non-LLT source without background music, I'd love to hear it!


    1. Thanks for the contribution! There are several interviews from the LLT series I'm missing. Another one from around October 9th is Elliot Mintz's first phone interview with John - this was chopped up and used in a few different episodes. Then there's the phone call from John Sinclair on the night he was released from prison. If anyone has these or anything else I've missed, please let me know!

  2. Wow, I'm nervous, but here I go, I am going to dissent with the Professor!

    But first....your daily thanks! Thanks! And thanks again, really!!

    I personally think the concert WAS an artistic success, I think that the definitive versions of "Luck of the Irish" and "John Sinclair" are from these performances (to my ears,most of the Sometime in NYC songs were better in their "natural habitat", ie: political rallys and causes). "Sometime In NYC" wasn't John's best album, granted....but it was way more compelling than "Mind Games"! And "Sisters O Sisters" is one of Yoko's best!

    Just my two cents, I hate to see this particular performance maligned! If I had written John Sinclair, I certainly would have seen it as an artistic success, especially after he got freed! Woody Guthrie used to do songs like this all the time, suited to a particular event or occasion and I feel that John's efforts in this kind of songwriting are head-and-shoulders above most others, working in the same idiom, and good for him, he didn't talk about it, he went and did it! With hooks-a-plenty!

    I couldn't even imagine John Lennon's career without this "political newspaper" phase! I was probably about 12 or 13 when I got "Sometime in NYC" (circa 1983), that's how I learned about what had gone down in Ireland and Attica State, who Angela Davis was, etc etc.... It served its purpose!

  3. In the photo of John & Yoko with Jerry Rubin, you can see what looks like John's Oscar statue in the background. The one for Let It Be, I presume.

    I knew a guy who held that statue once. He was friends with Yoko somehow, and he went to visit her for breakfast (circa 1975). The Oscar was in the kitchen (where else would you keep your Oscar statue?) and he asked Yoko to take a picture of him holding it. He told me that John appeared as he was handling the Oscar which made my friend nervous. But John was cool about it and posed for a picture with my friend (still holding the Academy Award).

    I've personally never held an Oscar. Certainly not John Lennon's.

  4. The amusing thing about that "Argument Interview" is that in fact, Yoko is completely correct in her assertions about the effect of avant-garde auto-destructive technique upon Townshend and The Who, since he had studied Gustav Metzger in art school and in fact had been exposed to Yoko's art as well during that time. John is being an aggressive loudmouth there and if that was the way he behaved at home, I can understand why their separation was imminent.

    1. Oh man, I couldn't agree more! Johnny (lennon, not winn!), this is painful to listen to! And coming right before the big birthday singalong! Poor Yoko! Interesting to hear them go at it though. "She was a square! A middle class square!" I'm always up for a good Hamburg story...even one I've heard before...but going onstage in underwear and a toilet seat in a rock club ain't quite the same thing as Stockhausen and John Cage (or Yoko Ono for that matter!)

      Thanks for stitching this together, Anonyomous the First!

    2. Not a problem in stitching this together.

      I agree with both of you, to a point. Yes, Yoko's right, but I think the underlying disagreement they're having with each other stems from the fact that neither really understands the artistic background of the other. John is trying to convince Yoko that there is common ground between rock-n-roll and avant-garde music, and there is: Both are rebellious and can be used to make a powerful artistic statement. But for John to claim that the Beatles' Hamburg antics or the Who's stage antics had any sort of artistic meaning other than to be entertaining (unlike avant-garde performance art) is absurd.

      Just as absurd is Yoko's claim that the "only reason" she didn't become as famous as the Beatles is because she didn't compromise. Sorry, but performance artists don't generally gain the same level of fame as pop stars do. I think both John and Yoko are a little screwy in the head here!

      And @Anyonymous 11:09PM: I totally agree with John being an aggressive loudmouth. These late 1971/early 1972 interviews really are enlightening. The David Frost interview is particularly so. Yoko complains to David Frost that he's paying more attention to John than to her (and he does ignore her at one point, when he calls the audience members down from the balcony while she's trying to say something), but, really, David is directing his questions at *both* of them, but John keeps talking over her! A lot of times during this era, it seems, John explains "for her" when she's perfectly capable of explaining herself.


  5. I love the conversation between Lennon and Ochs. Does anyone know the background or what Ochs is talking about when he talks of the limo and drinking wine?

    Thanks, Jack

  6. The kiss John gives Yoko after she sings "Sisters o Sisters" is really cute, he looks proud and it hit me that, barring "Don't Worry Kyoko" (which is hardly a "song"), this must be Yoko's first public performance of one of her own compositions, as rock singer, and the song is even in the rock'n'roll idiom, which must have made John proud! It is a catchy song. So cute. All is forgiven from the Argument Interview!