Lennon and Nixon: Imagine That
Living For Today . . . In Philip Norman’s John Lennon – The Life, the subject of buying, collecting, and sustaining worldly treasure comes up. Lennon complained to chief business confidant Neil Aspinall about the expense of managing his vast empire. “Imagine no possessions, John,” Neil told him. “It’s only a bloody song,” Lennon replied.
Elvis Costello, whose flair for melody and wit often brings Lennon to mind, acerbically noted the “bloody song” in his ’91 recording, “The Other Side of Summer.” Troubled by a world of serious contradictions, he sings, “Was it a millionaire who said imagine no possessions?”
Elton John, one of Lennon’s best friends, and quite the Olympian shopper himself, was taken aback by all Lennon and wife Yoko Ono had accumulated, particularly in their Manhattan home. Being such a good friend, Elton could get away with a mocking ditty that probably amused Lennon.
Imagine six apartments
It isn’t hard to do.
One is full of fur coats
The other’s full of shoes.
Philip Norman reports that Elton John was astonished by Ono’s spending on clothes. “She makes me look ridiculous, “John said, “I buy things in twos and threes, but she buys them in fifties.”
Nothing To Kill Or Die For . . . But seriously, few people who embraced Lennon’s “Imagine” as an anthem of sorts, particularly upon its release in 1971, thought Lennon and Ono to be ascetics. That wasn’t a concern, but the overriding theme of the song was. Total agreement with all Lennon suggested we imagine wasn’t necessary to believe a world with less hunger, greed and bloodshed would be a better place. Still, the good-natured but resolute Lennon managed to rile the most defensive conservatives. The line declaring there be nothing to kill or die for was a case in point. To Americans on the Right, it stirred a vision of the country becoming like China during the Cultural Revolution. For younger and more open-minded Americans, tired of the draft and a war tearing at the nation’s soul, the vision may have been similar to life in Switzerland. Certainly, nothing to kill or die for seemed an appealing vision to the many thousands headed to fight it out in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
In one of many efforts indicating the paranoid overreach of Richard Nixon’s presidential administration, in 1972 agents of the Federal government made concerted efforts to force John Lennon out of the United States. What kind of Republicans were these? An economic engine and job producer like John Lennon? Never mind that, surprisingly enough, Lennon, the anti-war crowd and the Nixon administration could have established common ground on an idea that appealed to Nixon. Or at least an idea Nixon endorsed when speaking to young Americans protesting America’s prosecution of the Vietnam War.
“The Baby Boomers were on a rampage,” or so wrote Nixon biographer Stephen Ambrose. In the first two weeks of May 1970, the war over the war intensified. Students were shot and killed at Kent State University. Protests turned violent. Throughout the country, college campuses were shut down, but to no calming effect. Over 100,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C. to protest the Kent State shootings and the war itself. In the early morning hours of May 9, smaller groups of students gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for a vigil. Also up and about in the wee hours was Richard Nixon.
After listening to a recording of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, Nixon told his valet, Manolo Sanchez, that the Lincoln Memorial at night was the most beautiful sight in Washington. Sanchez said he had never seen it. That’s all it took. At 4:35 A.M. Nixon and Sanchez were on the White House lawn, asking for a car. Secret Service agents and White House aide Bud Krough, in the parlance of the day, freaked. But it was too late; the president and his valet were off to the Lincoln Memorial.
Upon arrival, Nixon walked up the steps and began talking with less than a dozen young people already assembled. According to Richard Reeves in his book, President Nixon – Alone In The White House, the demonstrators were respectful, if not at first bewildered.
Some of the students, who had driven through the night to protest the war and this man, seemed to be in awe when the man himself showed up.
It wasn’t quite Lincoln emerging from the big chair above to speak with the students, but at that moment, it must have seemed just as startling. Nixon made some small talk but the prevailing issue was also covered.
The best account of this unusual presidential appearance is from Reeves’s book.
He said he had tried to make the point that his goals were the same as theirs, to end the war and stop the killing. “I know that probably most of you think I’m an S.O.B., but I want you to know that I understand just how you feel….” Then he talked about being poor when he was young, about being a Quaker and not wanting to go to war or into the military, thinking that Neville Chamberlain was a hero for seeking peace with Hitler. “I thought Winston Churchill was a madman…. But I was wrong.”
…. One (of the young men), wearing an Army surplus jacket, the ironic uniform of the day, said, “I hope you realize we are willing to die for what we believe in.”
“Certainly I realize that,” said Nixon. “Do you realize that many of us, when we were your age, were also willing to die for what we believed in, and are willing to do so today? The point is that we are trying to build a world in which you will not have to die for what you believe in.”
This was not the testy Richard Nixon Americans had become so used to for nearly 25 years. He didn’t say “nothing to kill or die for,” but the remarks were intriguing, coming from a proven cold warrior. And though he continued with the war in Vietnam until he could claim “peace with honor” three years later, it’s difficult not to be moved by the usually introverted and socially awkward Nixon discussing matters with those angered by his policies. He didn’t get the words across as gracefully as John Lennon would in his song the next year, but embracing a pursuit of goals without putting lives on the line was far more than we could’ve ever imagined hearing from Nixon. It’s too bad he chose to say it when most of the country was asleep.
Pat Nixon: American Woman . . . July 4, 1970. Tricia Nixon’s favorite band, The Guess Who, is scheduled to play the White House. It was, of course, a birthday party for the United States. Representing the mother country were honored guests Prince Charles and Princess Anne. Hailing from Winnipeg, Canada, The Guess Who represented the Commonwealthers. The diversity thing was just starting to kick in.
Tricia must have favored The Guess Who’s smart and radio-friendly hits from the year before, “These Eyes,” “Undun,” and “Laughing.” In ’70 The Guess Who continued to turn out the hits, but their songs, while still popular on AM radio, were louder and displayed a sharper edge, appealing to the so-called Underground Rock crowd. “No Time,” a rocker with Buffalo Springfield stylings, made it to number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 early in the year. Following right up was a two-sided hit single which went all the way to number one. The B-side, “No Sugar Tonight,” was a melodic and infectious song, while the A-side, “American Woman,” rocked with abandon. Here The Guess Who sounded like a different band. The lead guitar work of Randy Bachman was direct but adventurous; the words sung by Burton Cummings were assertive, with lots of attitude. It wasn’t the type of song Tricia Nixon would play for the folks.
As it was, many things American were taking hits in the summer of 1970. Much of the blame could be attributed to the war in Vietnam, and the division it caused, internal and otherwise. For many, America was quite the target, and here was this song, heard throughout the day on radio stations across America. Freedom of expression is a wonderful thing.
Although hardly a fierce diatribe against the United States, the raspy vocals of Burton Cummings were put to work railing against an American woman and all she could be associated with, tightly or ever so loosely. Cummings went on the attack.
Don’t come hangin’ around my door
Don’t wanna see your face no more
I don’t need your war machines
I don’t need your ghetto scenes
Coloured lights can hypnotize
Sparkle someone else’s eyes
Now woman get away from me
American woman, mama let me be
Despite its less than flattering views of the national scene, “American Woman” was one of those ubiquitous hit records. Even First Lady Pat Nixon knew about it. Mrs. Nixon didn’t go bonkers and rescind The Guess Who’s invitation to play The White House, but she did request they not play “American Woman.” The request was honored.
In John Einarson’s American Woman – The Story Of The Guess Who, Burton Cummings claims to have had mixed emotions about playing The White House.
“It was strange. All the guests were white, all the military aides were white in full military dress, and all the people serving food were black. And the way the White House was landscaped it kind of looked like Alabama …before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It left a bad taste in my mouth. It was terribly racist and this was 1970. I remember sitting with Edward Lear, heir to the Lear Jet fortune, and Billy Graham’s daughter was there. It was really the so-called upper crust aristocracy of America, very stuffy, boring people. …….. We were told not to play “American Woman” but we did “Hand Me Down World.” We thought we were just as cool for doing it. But we did get a great tour of The White House, though, and (band mate) Leskiw and I spent an hour going through all these rooms and corridors seeing stuff most people don’t get to see.”
Greg Leskiw was a new member of The Guess Who. He and Kurt Winter were brought in as new guitarists and songwriters after the other three members of the band decided to fire Randy Bachman. Musical and lifestyle differences (Bachman had recently converted to the Mormon faith) had become big issues, even as the band was at the peak of its popularity. How quickly life had changed for Leskiw. So soon after being no more than a sideman for a band playing the Winnipeg clubs, he’s wining, dining and rocking at Nixon’s White House. But he too, according to Einarson’s book, had reservations about the gig.
“Here was one of the most hated politicians of the hippie generation, ” recalls Greg, “and your subculture tells you this guy is bad. Then someone says, ‘Do you want to play The White House?’ But we all wanted to do it because it was something very few people get to do.”
Burton Cummings said “American Woman” was never meant to be a “political tune.” As Einarson reported, Cummings, a native of Manitoba, offered what for him, was a simple and patriotic explanation.
“People read their own meanings into that song. They thought the American woman I alluded to was the Statue of Liberty and RCA contributed to that image with the ad campaigns. It came from looking out over a Canadian audience after touring through the southern U.S.A. and just thinking how the Canadian girls looked so much fresher and more alive. As opposed to an anti-American statement, it was more of a positive Canadian statement. ”
The Ray Conniff Conniption . . . On January 29, 1972, less than one year from what would surely be Richard Nixon’s second presidential inaugural, the president was hosting a Medal of Freedom dinner for Dewitt and Lila Wallace of Readers Digest. The Wallaces were favorably inclined toward Nixon and were joined by other friends and supporters of the Nixon administration. Billy Graham was there, as were Bob Hope, Charles Lindbergh, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Lionel Hampton was there too, but not as the evening’s entertainment. That was left to the Ray Conniff Singers, a group the president said would “remind us of some of the great days of the past.”
Not so quick, Dick. One of the Conniff singers, Carole Feraci, brought in as a substitute vocalist for the White House gig, had plans to remind the assembled of the present-day misery. A native of Canada, but then living in Van Nuys, California, Feraci at first didn’t want to “sing for a man who’s killing people and perpetuating this war.” But then the 30 year-old singer, known for her fearlessness, realized she could make a bold political statement before a stellar crowd and the the world at large.
As she walked with the 15 other Conniff singers to the stage, Feraci carried a concealed banner. Right before the singers and the half-dozen members of the U.S. Marine Corps Band began the first number, Feraci”> unfurled the banner that declared “Stop The Killing.” She then addressed the Commander in Chief. Holding the banner before the crowd, she says, “President Nixon, stop bombing human beings, animals and vegetation. You go to church on Sundays and pray to Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ were here tonight, you would not dare to drop another bomb. Bless the Berrigans and bless Daniel Ellsberg.” Then Feraci folds her banner and joins the ensemble as they break into “Ma, He’s Making Eyes At Me.” That was the only song Feraci took part in as Conniff had her escorted from the stage and away from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
In a telephone conversation the next morning, Nixon regaled his Treasury Secretary, John Connally, with his take on the event, seeming more amused than anything else. Nixon referred to the singers as “kind of square types,” but he was attracted to the ladies in Conniff’s group. After the evening’s performance, he told Connally he went up to the stage and told the young women, “It’s awfully nice to hear our music look so pretty.” This from a guy who listened to Rachmaninoff.