Bob Dylan's Defense of John Lennon

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The Nation

Bob Dylan's Defense of John Lennon

How do you explain the value of a rock musician to the Immigration service?

On what would have been John Lennon's seventieth birthday—October 9—it's worth noting the letter about Lennon that Bob Dylan sent to the US immigration service in 1972: "John and Yoko," Dylan wrote, "inspire and transcend and stimulate," and thereby "help put an end to this mild dull taste of petty commercialism which is being passed off as artist art by the overpowering mass media." Then he added, "Let John and Yoko stay!"

As that concluding line suggests, Dylan's letter was not a spontaneous expression of enthusiasm. It was part of an organized campaign to stop the Nixon administration from deporting the ex-Beatle.

Explaining what made Lennon important, Dylan wrote that Lennon added "a great voice and drive to this country's so called ART INSTITUTION." Lennon's music, Dylan said, "help[ed] others to see pure light."

Lennon's problem: he and Yoko had been living in New York for a year, which happened to be the year Nixon was running for re-election. The Vietnam war had reached a peak, and Lennon and Ono were singing "Give Peace a Chance" at antiwar rallies—and, they suggested, the best way to give peace a chance was to vote against Nixon.

The Nixon White House responded by ordering Lennon deported.

Decades later, Dylan's letter surfaced as part of the INS response to my Freedom of Information request for their files on the Lennon deportation hearings.

Dylan in 1972 had recently released the single "George Jackson," a protest song about the killing of a young Black Panther in San Quentin prison. He had also released the album New Morning, which included the hit single "If Not For You."

Among the hundreds of letters about Lennon there was one from Dylan's former partner and fellow folkie Joan Baez. Her handwritten note informed the INS that "Keeping people confined to certain areas of the world" was "one of the reasons we've had six thousand years of war instead of six thousand years of peace."

The "Let them stay in the USA" campaign included not only celebrities but thousands of young people. The Lennon-Ono 1972 album Some Time in New York City included a petition for fans to send to the INS, and lots of them did.

The letters from Dylan and others didn't change Nixon's mind. The Lennon deportation proceedings continued even after Nixon's re-election in 1972, and then through the Watergate crisis. In the end, of course, Nixon left the White House, and Lennon—and Ono—stayed in the USA.

Bob Dylan's letter to the INS about Lennon is posted online at LennonFBIfiles.com.

Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener teaches US history at UC Irvine. His latest book, How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey Across America (University of California Press), has just been published. He sued the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act for its files on John Lennon. With the help of the ACLU of Southern California, Wiener v. FBI went all the way to the Supreme Court before the FBI settled in 1997. That story is told in Wiener's book, Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files.

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