John Lennon is all over the media again this week, along with his former bandmates Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison, as America marks 50 years since The Beatles invaded America, blasting the country into the era of change that was the 1960s and reshaping the American cultural and musical landscape for all time.
The country celebrated the four lovable mop-tops with their charming Liverpool accents and quick-witted banter. At the time, John Lennon was only 23 years old.
But what is often forgotten today is that just six years after the uplifting national adrenaline rush that was The Beatles invasion, John Lennon would split from The Beatles and, with his new wife, the avant-garde performance artist Yoko Ono, set out on what would be a short-lived but incendiary career as the world’s most famous political revolutionary.
In 1971, determined to leave his Beatles years in the past, John Lennon moved to New York City, intent on opening a new phase of his life. That’s where journalist and former newspaper editor James A. Mitchell picks up the Lennon story in his new book, The Walrus and the Elephants: John Lennon’s Years of Revolution.
Lennon and Ono moved in to a modest apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village, still a gritty hotbed of underground activity at the time, and a far cry from the lush English country estate he left behind. This was several years before they relocated uptown to the Dakota building where Lennon was murdered in 1980.
Eager to make an impact politically as well as musically, John Lennon in New York immediately took up anti-Establishment causes, such as opposition to the Vietnam War, support for prisoners in the 1971 Attica prison riot, feminism and opposition to British occupation of Northern Ireland — among others.
But his most fruitful collaboration of that period, and the focus of the book, came with a local New York bar band known as Elephant’s Memory — the “Elephants” of the book’s title. With Elephant’s Memory as his backup band, John Lennon recorded his first U.S. album, Some Time in New York City, released in 1972.
Elephant’s Memory also backed John Lennon in the only full-length live concert he played after The Beatles ceased their live performances in 1966. Known at the time as the One To One Concert, the August 30, 1972, Madison Square Garden performance to benefit a school for mentally handicapped children was filmed and later released on video and as the album, Live in New York City.
Lennon’s collaboration with Elephant’s Memory lasted until 1973 when he and Ono separated for what turned out to be an 18-month period, with John Lennon living in Los Angeles for most of that time. The separation from Ono also marked the end of his career as a political activist.
Mitchell’s book interviews members of Elephant’s Memory, as well as noted political activists of the early 1970s who knew John Lennon. Ms. Magazine founder Gloria Steinem is in the book.
So is radical poet John Sinclair — whose cause John Lennon immortalized in a song after Sinclair was sentenced to 10 years in prison for possessing two marijuana cigarettes.
Mitchell also interviewed former congressman and Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, who said of John Lennon, “He showed up for the fight.”