But if New York welcomed him with bright eyes and open arms, Washington didn't want him around. Richard Nixon was seeking re-election and had a long list of enemies drawn up; Lennon rose rapidly up that list as he began to make himself at home. His first achievement, according to James A Mitchell, was to get the White Panthers leader John Sinclair out of jail.
The Detroit activist was two years into a 10-year stretch for giving two joints to an undercover cop, but days after Lennon headlined a John Sinclair Freedom Rally he was released. It wasn't all down to the Fab One, of course – Mitchell doesn't mention the ruling by Michigan's Supreme Court that the state's marijuana statutes were unconstitutional – but he was certainly the right man to act as a figurehead for those seeking to end the Vietnam war and see off Tricky Dicky.
The Yippie leaders Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin hoped Lennon would lead a movement that would gather momentum round the country. But the partnership never really went beyond the planning stage, derailed by Lennon's hopes of getting a green card. The couple did, however, throw themselves into a variety of local causes, and Lennon's songs developed a newfound political directness. This meant that the authorities remained on their case, and while Lennon enjoyed the relative anonymity that New York afforded him – the natives were too busy or too cool to bother him overly much – he did so in the teeth of constant official surveillance and intimidation.
But for all their stake-outs and phone taps, FBI's spectacular incompetence was hilarious. Lennon was, in fact, smoking so much weed they could have picked him up any time they wanted and got him a second drugs conviction that would have meant the end of his green-card ambitions. A favourite story in the book is the one about the poster distributed to local law-enforcement agencies in the hope that somebody would bust Lennon and strengthen the case for deportation. It contained all his personal details – but the picture was of David Peel, a New York musician best known for his The Pope Smokes Dope album.
This isn't a new story, and to an extent Mitchell is covering old ground; but he does so in fascinating detail. Hundreds of books have been written about The Beatles, but there is a place for the niche approach, taking a sliver of the life and homing in on it.
Mitchell has done the legwork, and there is enough new material to make it worthwhile, with insightful contributions from a clutch of fellow travellers. He spoke at length to the members of Elephant's Memory – the "elephants" of the book's title – the politically conscious bar-band with whom Lennon hooked up to make Sometime in New York City, and a nice portrait of Lennon emerges – one of the boys, asking what they thought of his songs.
Nixon's landslide re-election dealt a near-fatal blow to the protest movement, and though parallels are drawn with contemporary uprisings like Arab Spring and Occupy, that might be over-egging it. But they had a decent stab at making a difference, and as Ron Dellums, the black Congressman who was also on Nixon's list, says of Lennon, he was right in there: "He showed up for the fight."
FATTENING BLOGS FOR SNAKES 2014