An exclusive chat with author Pat Thomas on the heavy history between John Lennon and Jerry Rubin
When I think of Pat Thomas, I think of the massive amount of space he takes up in my CD collection as one of the world’s most renowned A&R men for historical recordings, producing essential reissues for such labels as Water Records and Omnivore Recordings through the years.
However, Pat is also a renowned music journalist and author as well, whose latest book—2017’s biography on the controversial activist and social media pioneer Jerry Rubin, entitled Did It! From Yippie to Yuppie: Jerry Rubin, An American Revolutionary—is loaded with some amazing anecdotes about Abbie Hoffman, Eldridge Cleaver, Norman Mailer, the Weathermen, Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Phil Ochs, Charles Manson, Mick Jagger and Timothy Leary along the way. And since it’s published by the most excellent Fantagraphics Books, it’s filled with some great imagery to go along with the text.
Over the last couple of months on Facebook Messenger, Pat and I have been talking about two central figures in the Jerry Rubin story during the Vietnam era, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and how they factored into the overall story of this most important and most controversial figure in American society and how this period of John Lennon has resonated in his own life as a Beatles fan.
Did It!, which should be used as a textbook for classes on the subject of the late sixties in colleges, is a fantastic read and worthy of the rare space in your house reserved for big books. And it can be ordered here.
I’m interesting in knowing when that particular era of Lennon really captured your attention?
I was born in ’64, my brother is 9 years older, so by the early 70s, I’m digging into Abbie Hoffman’s ‘Steal This Book’ – loving the irreverent ‘tude, humor and pranks. In my early 20s, when I realize that Lennon had become friends with Jerry Rubin and recorded a whole album of political rants, I thought, “yes, this is for me” – frankly, whenever a new Lennon bio comes out that dismisses Lennon & Ono’s “Some Time in New York City” album (which most do), I urinate on it.
What is it about Sometime that people don’t get in your opinion?
I think most people can’t handle the strident lyrics, lack of pop melodies – it’s the most un-Beatles-like album Lennon made in many ways. The critics see Lennon’s political views as naïve and yet history has proven Lennon correct – Nixon was an asshole, the Vietnam War was wrong, the Black Panthers and the Yippies were amazing. As far as the newspaper artwork, Lennon said himself at the time, the album was a musical newspaper – that was the whole idea, report the news via songs!
Also was there a particular track that resonated with you at that age, and perhaps awoke your political mind about a certain topic?
As brutal as the phrase “Woman is the Nigger of the World” is – it’s also still correct, decades later and women are often at the bottom of the priority list. The MeToo movement is a reflection of that. Think what you will about Hilary Clinton, but even if even she’d been perfect in every way – many people (including other women), don’t trust a woman to be president. Speaking of which, we can’t forget that the album is a Lennon/Ono collaboration – that gets forgotten.
What did you think of Elephant’s Memory as a band?
They’re an under-rated, sort of forgotten part of the John & Yoko story. I interviewed a couple of their members for my Jerry Rubin book and they pointed out that it was Rubin who introduced them to Lennon as a potential backing band. Jerry was a huge fan of theirs, used to hang out at their gigs at Max’s Kansas City (and also attempt to play percussion with them, despite not having a good sense of rhythm). Speaking of Rubin’s percussion playing, there’s a section in my book where I explore how many gigs that Jerry actually played percussion with John Lennon and I figured out (because Lennon played so rarely live after he left the Beatles) that Rubin had played more gigs with Lennon than any real drummer ever did!
What did you think of that week John and Yoko did on The Mike Douglas Show, especially when they brought on Jerry?
In 1972, for a whole week, John & Yoko were co-hosts with Mike Douglas. They did most of the talking, and selected the guests including Jerry Rubin, Ralph Nader, Chuck Berry, George Carlin and Bobby Seale. Elephant’s Memory were on hand to play selections from the forthcoming Some Time in New York City album, plus jam with Chuck Berry on “Memphis” and “Johnny B. Goode.”
On the February 15th, Jerry alienated The Mike Douglas Show’s viewership when he called for voter registration drives (the voting age had recently been reduced from 21 to 18) to help ensure that Richard Nixon would not be re-elected. Although Jerry kept his usual sarcastic Yippie rhetoric to a minimum, he succinctly blamed Nixon for thousands of deaths in Vietnam, the tragedy at Attica State, and the four students killed at Kent State. “I think the system in essence is corrupt” Jerry said. Douglas was so upset, he didn’t notice when Rubin concluded on an upbeat note, “I think what’s beautiful about [this nation] is that the children of America want to change the country and are going to change it. That’s what’s beautiful.”
FBI agents watched the broadcast and submitted a memo calling Rubin “an extremist” and Lennon an “SMNL: Security Matter, New Left.”
Mike Douglas wrote about it in his memoir, I’ll Be Right Back: “John’s first request was Chuck Berry…Yoko’s top draft choice was Jerry Rubin. Jerry was well known as an unrepentant anarchist and antagonist and I advised against inviting him, but John – and especially Yoko – wanted him badly. They mentioned that he had recently come out strongly against drugs and I could emphasize that.”
Douglas figured, “Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad” – but the affable talk show host got more than he bargained for. After Jerry’s anti-Nixon rant, Douglas tried to divert the conversation with some “just say no to drugs” talk. Rubin clarified that he wasn’t anti-drug in general, just specifically anti-heroin, “because [it] it is a tool used by the Gestapo police of this country to subjugate the black man.” Hmmm, not exactly what Mike had in mind.
How was Jerry perceived at this time by average Americans?
Middle Class America saw Jerry as a scumbag, an anti-war zealot. A long haired freak left over from the 1960s, which they wished would go away.
I read the open letter Jerry wrote to Lennon in your book. Jerry was pretty hurt by that, it seemed.
The close friendship between Jerry Rubin and John Lennon (and Yoko) during 1971-72 can’t be underestim\ated. I have Rubin’s daily calendar book for 1972 and more often than not, he was hanging with John & Yoko. Dig deep and you’ll find interviews with Lennon discussing his plans with Jerry to launch a nationwide American tour in which John & Yoko would play, Rubin would give speeches, and they’d register kids to vote (the voting age had just dropped from 21 to 18), and the whole thing would be for free and/or donate the income to local charities and prisoners in each city.
There were many reasons this tour didn’t happen, but the primary one was – that Richard Nixon feared this youth movement tour and began deportation hearings against Lennon. John loved living in America more than he hated Nixon, so he switched his energy to fighting to stay. For the rest of his life, Lennon publicly denounced Rubin (even after John got his green card), I think partially to keep the Feds happy – because I interviewed several friends of Rubin who said that Lennon would still occasionally talk or meet with Rubin privately throughout the rest of the 1970s.