John Lennon and I

The political activist side of John Lennon seems to have been largely dismissed or forgotten by the general public, and corporate media reports on the anniversary of his murder are not likely to mention anything more controversial than Beatlemania. Obviously Lennon had an enormous impact upon my generation, setting us free with the primal rhythms and energy of rebellious rock ‘n roll - but to me he was always more than just a member of the Beatles. Millions of words have been written about John Lennon, and the world doesn’t really need to read what I have to say about the ex-Beatle; but since he influenced me as an artist and you are reading my web log - you might be interested in my take on his life and times.

While it’s true that many Beatles fans in the West resented and disliked Yoko Ono, blaming her for the breakup of the Fab Four, I was always intrigued by her; after all, she was and remains a fellow artist. Perhaps my heart was open to her because I live in a city with a large Japanese population and I was already studying Japanese culture and aesthetics, but I always thought of John and Yoko as a perfect couple. I recall being a teenager in 1971 and seeing a black and white photograph in the “underground” press of John and Yoko wearing the crash helmets of the Zengakuren (All-Japan Federation of Student Autonomies,) the left-wing Japanese students who rose in rebellion in 1968. The antiwar movement in Japan bitterly resented U.S. bases in Japan being used to prosecute the Vietnam war, and the Zengakuren blossomed in that context. Originally a small grouping, their influence became so widespread that any massive antiwar demonstration in Japan came to be referred to as “Zengakuren.”

"Power To The People" - Lennon on the record jacket for the 1971 Apple Records single, Japanese release.

"Power To The People" - Lennon on the record jacket for the 1971 Apple Records single, Japanese release.

Mass demonstrations by Zengakuren were highly disciplined affairs where thousands of participants dressed in crash helmets and bearing colorful banners on bamboo poles, would advance down a street in perfect choreographed fashion while chanting revolutionary slogans.

Those infectious protest marches had the look and feel of ancient Japanese peasant uprisings, and it was John and Yoko who brought that slice of dissident Japanese life to my attention.

I can’t recall where I saw the published photo of John and Yoko posing in their Zengakuren gear, but it left a lasting impression upon me, if only for the fact that the image has been completely eradicated from public memory in the United States. Ever since the late sixties I’ve been searching for a copy of that photograph, but only recently did I discover a close approximation. It’s the sleeve for the Apple Records 45 single release of Lennon’s song Power To The People, a record jacket apparently seen only in the U.K. and Japan.

Songs like Power To The People (”A million workers working for nothing, you better give ‘em what they really own. We got to put you down, when we come into town, singing power to the people!”) not only captured the spirit of the day, they landed Lennon on President Nixon’s “enemies list.” The director of the FBI at the time, J. Edgar Hoover, considered Lennon to be a dangerous extremist, and the Nixon administration did everything within its power to have the rocker deported.

The FBI kept Lennon under surveillance in the U.S. for a number of years, tapping his phone, watching his apartment, and following him wherever he went. His FBI file was nearly three hundred pages long. It is amazing to me that with all of the media attention given to the anniversary of Lennon’s death, the press has failed to mention that the FBI still refuses to release 10 pages of secret files it keeps on the rocker, claiming those files are a matter of “national security.”

John Lennon RIP - Mark Vallen's 1980 cover design for the LA WEEKLY

John Lennon RIP - Mark Vallen's 1980 cover design for the LA WEEKLY

While I could write a book on how the life and works of John Lennon influenced me, I’ll offer just one more anecdote. I was working at the offices of the L.A. WEEKLY newspaper as a production artist and designer when the paper got the news of Lennon’s murder on December 8th, 1980. Most of the staff went into shock, especially those old enough to have been raised on Beatles music.

Panic set in when everyone realized the paper was all ready to go to press, but the edition didn’t contain a single word on the shooting. The presses were literally stopped and the paper’s editor flew into a panic when he realized that, even if he managed to write an editorial on the tragedy there would still not be enough time to produce an appropriate artwork for the paper’s cover. That’s when I stepped in; with an hour to spare I designed a graphic tribute to the fallen rocker, that illustration is shown at right.

The day before Lennon’s slaying there was another death in the rock ‘n roll family, Darby Crash committed suicide. Crash was the outrageous front man for the Germs, one of L.A.’s first and most notorious punk bands, and his death also hit me like a ton of bricks. I had been deeply involved in L.A.’s punk scene since it raised its ugly head in 1977, and Crash’s demise was evidence that punk was indeed imploding. It was certainly true that Lennon’s death represented the “death of an era,” but Crash’s death represented a stillborn era.

Suffice it to say, that week in December was pretty rough, but I managed to create a cover for the WEEKLY despite having no time and even fewer resources. The cover was a simple photo manipulation of Lennon, a somber “basic black” graphic reliant upon a large dot pattern. It was a personal farewell to a man who had helped shape the world view of my generation.

UPDATED 10/9/2016: The complete secret FBI files on John Lennon were finally released on December 20, 2006.

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