The words were spoken in London, casually, almost flippantly, and were directed at an audience that was sure to treat them in the spirit they were intended. It was not until the words traveled to the United States, and were heard by an audience of narrow-minded hypocrites for whom they were decidedly not intended, that they created a ruckus that led to censorship, destruction and even death threats.
No, silly, Iâ€™m not saying that Natalie Maines is bigger than John Lennon (or Jesus, for that matter). What I am saying is that both of them â€“ all three of them, actually â€“ learned one very important lesson the hard way: Speaking your mind can be a very dangerous business. It can even get you killed.
Here at Popdose and throughout the Western world, this weekâ€™s (admittedly consumerist) Beatlemania revival has offered plenty of opportunities to reflect on their music, their influence â€¦ the astounding greed of their record label over a 45-year period … (Did EMI really have to sell the stereo and mono mixes separately, particularly considering that every album from Please Please Me to Revolver was short enough that they could have easily crammed both versions onto a single CD?) But as long as weâ€™re sitting around dissecting the effects of the remastering process on â€œHappiness is a Warm Gun,â€ or tapping colored buttons in time to the scrolling visuals on the Rock Band version of â€œRevolution,â€ we may as well pause to marvel at the historical import of the Beatlesâ€™ efforts â€“ and Johnâ€™s in particular â€“ to use their stardom to advance causes and engage in social commentary. In this, as in their music, they created a template that has been imitated and amended by generations of celebrities in their wake, for better and for worse.
John may not have been the first popular artist to offer opinions on politics and other matters outside his creative purview, but he certainly recognized the size of the megaphone he was carrying around, and he had the balls to speak into it more loudly than most. He and Yoko did it with style, too â€“ with dramatic billboards and rousing singalongs, by â€œeating chocolate cake in a bagâ€ and â€œtalking in our beds for a week.â€ He wasnâ€™t afraid to offer his opinions straight, either, when the opportunity arose: Itâ€™s rarely remembered anymore that on one of the worst days of his life â€“ the day he was forced to apologize publicly for his 1966 remark that â€œthe Beatles are more popular than Jesusâ€ â€“ he used that very same press conference to criticize Americaâ€™s escalation of the Vietnam War.
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His mouth got him into trouble more than once â€“ in addition to the radio bans and record burnings that followed that Jesus business, his late-â€™60s peace activism and his dalliance with radical politics in 1971-72 nearly got him deported by the Nixon administration. And itâ€™s commonly argued that his activism eventually got the better of his artistry â€“ conventional wisdom now holds that somewhere between â€œImagineâ€ and Some Time in New York City, John misplaced his instinct for shaping opinion and instead took to parroting other peopleâ€™s opinions. The failure of that effort â€“ both artistically and in the court of public opinion (not to mention the United States federal courts, where John found himself much too frequently between â€™72 and â€™76) â€“ seemed to dampen his enthusiasm for both music and politics. He changed the original lyric of â€œMind Gamesâ€ â€“ good thing, too, since it initially bore the already-clichÃ© title â€œMake Love Not Warâ€ â€“ and itâ€™s more than just coincidence that his last recorded political statement, the grandiosely titled â€œNutopian International Anthemâ€ on the Mind Games LP, consisted of a momentâ€™s silence.
But letâ€™s get back to the â€œbigger than Jesusâ€ brouhaha, and its startling similarity to the shitstorm Maines and her fellow Dixie Chicks faced in 2003 after she told a London audience they were ashamed George Bush was from Texas. Both protests were organized in what we today call â€œAstroturfâ€ fashion â€“ the Beatle burnings by preachers and radio-station execs, the Chicks-CD smashings by right-wing politicians and radio conglomerates. The two controversies played out as mirror images â€“ in each case, a springtime comment in the U.K. unexpectedly created a big summertime mess in the U.S., and particularly in the South. Each conflagration led to forced apologies, concert tours poisoned by acrimony, and significant adaptations by the artists afterward. The Beatles never toured again; the Chicks, abandoned by country radio, abandoned the genre right back. (Of course, both those outcomes were distinct possibilities even without the flaps that preceded them â€¦ but that fact doesnâ€™t really serve my argument, so letâ€™s move on, OK?)
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John may have backed away from his â€œChristianity will go â€“ it will vanish and shrinkâ€ comments during that press conference in Chicago, but he spent the rest of his career exploring his own (lack of) faith, in song (â€œGod is a concept by which we measure our pain,â€ â€œImagine thereâ€™s no heavenâ€) and in the press. Meanwhile, he poked at U.S. administrations for years over Vietnam, John Sinclair, Attica and other issues, and he frequently indulged a taste for â€¦ how to put it â€¦ less-than-mainstream economic theories. When he wasnâ€™t encouraging working class heroes to rise up against their oppressors, he was imagining no possessions. When the Beatles founded Apple in 1968, he and Paul gave interviews in which they joyfully mused about creating a socialist enterprise on Savile Row. Nevertheless, by the time of his death John was almost universally regarded as a visionary; while researching this article, I was floored by this tribute from Frank Sinatra, of all people: â€œLennon was a most talented man and, above all, a gentle soul.â€ (Was there ever a less gentle soul than John Lennon?)
Iâ€™ll quickly note that the Dixie Chicks achieved similar redemption (or vindication, depending on your perspective) a few years back, even after declaring that they were â€œNot Ready to Make Nice.â€ But then Iâ€™d like to bring this discussion around â€“ as you knew I would â€“ to our current political moment. Wednesday night President Obama, at long last, fully grabbed the reins of leadership on health-care reform with an immensely powerful speech. He called Augustâ€™s town-hall rabble and their enablers onto the carpet for their lies and distortions, even as he practically begged GOP legislators to rise to the occasion, engage in constructive dialogue and help create a bipartisan bill. He carefully and thoroughly described the depravity of the nationâ€™s current system of caring for its sick, and he meticulously laid out his entirely reasonable proposals for repairing that system. Those proposals may now be watered down a bit â€“ a bit too much for my taste, in fact â€“ but theyâ€™ve always been reasonable, and they represent the direction a substantial majority of the American people voted for last November.
Yet the nationâ€™s Republicans â€“ particularly those in the South during a long, hot summer, just as it was in 1966 and 2003 â€“ have responded to Obamaâ€™s reasonableness with a paranoia and mass-delusion that grows more dangerous by the week. Fed a continuous line of bullshit by their pundit masters and their increasingly impolitic politicians, they have cried â€œSocialist!â€ and “Water the tree of liberty!” at every turn; made it impossible for some congressmen to communicate with their constituents; hung other congressmen in effigy; accused the president of attempting to “indoctrinate” their children; even carried assault weapons to auditoriums where Obama was speaking. And last night, a Republican back-bencher had the temerity to heckle the President of the United States during a major policy address in the Capitol â€“ an act of disrespect (to the man, the office and the American people) so outrageous, so despicable, that even the offending congressman quickly realized he needed to apologize to Obama personally as well as publicly, just to save his own career.
Nevertheless, the incivility and violent behavior of the town-hall terminators â€“ and of way too many Republican politicians like Rep. Wilson â€“ are merely the latest iteration of that lesson I mentioned at the top of this column. Itâ€™s a lesson thatâ€™s now been learned by John Lennon, Natalie Maines, Jesus and Barack Obama (uh-oh, â€œmessiahâ€ bait!): The truth can be a very dangerous thing, particularly when it reaches the ears of those who most need to hear it. The Beatles were bigger than Jesus; the Iraq invasion was an out-and-out snow job, perpetrated by the Bush administration to Americaâ€™s (and Natalieâ€™s) lasting shame; Jesus wasnâ€™t kidding when he said â€œit is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Godâ€; and 15 years of the Republicansâ€™ recalcitrance on health care, not to mention their laissez-faire attitude toward the rest of the economy, has lined the pockets of a few rich men while screwing the rest of us to the wall.
In each of these instances, a simple message touched such a nerve of insecurity, within a populace so unprepared to deal with that message rationally, that the inevitable result was a spasm of screaming, destruction and threats of violence. This month, as Congress gets back to work (or at least the Democrats do) finding some politically viable solution to the health-care crisis, itâ€™s finally time for Fox News, Sarah Palin, Jim Greer, Chuck Grassley and the tea-party malcontents to throttle back their destructive rhetoric â€“ to stop warning of death panels and indoctrination and socialism and government takeovers. (I know they wonâ€™t do it — I know they’re too far gone — but donâ€™t knock me off my soapbox just yet.) It’s time for the American right to realize that they look increasingly like those Alabama record-burners of 1966. And those folks, long since illuminated by a historical spotlight as brilliant as the new Beatles remasters, look utterly ridiculous.