‘We’re only trying to get us some peace’

JOHN W. WHITEHEAD

By JOHN W. WHITEHEAD
Drove from Paris to the Amsterdam Hilton,
Talking in our beds for a week.
The newspaper said, “Say what you doing in bed?”
I said, “We’re only trying to get us some peace.”

— John Lennon,
“The Ballad of John
and Yoko” (1969)

Last week marked the 42nd anniversary of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s first infamous bed-in for peace in Amsterdam. Immortalized in the Beatles’ song “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” the bed-ins were much more than sensational media events staged by celebrities for whom the “cause” is politically expedient and risk-free, which we see so much of today. Rather, the bed-ins for peace (and against war) were John and Yoko’s way of taking a moral stand on what they considered to be the issue of their day, and they paid the price for it.

It was 1969, and the Vietnam War was raging. Protests, riots and societal turmoil were ripping at the seams of the western world. John and Yoko, newly married, had checked into the Amsterdam Hilton in Holland for their honeymoon and, to the surprise of many, immediately announced that a “happening” was about to take place in their bed.

For seven days, starting on March 26, John and Yoko conducted interviews 10 hours a day, starting at ten in the morning. In response to their efforts, a media frenzy ensued. As Paul DuNoyer notes in “We All Shine On” (1997). “John, too, was shrewdly aware of how the ‘bed-in’ concept might titillate the press and TV crews with its implicit (though ultimately unfulfilled) promise of sexual exhibitionism.” However, when newsmen entered the room, John and Yoko were sitting in bed, wearing pajamas.

“We did the bed-in in Amsterdam just to give people the idea that there are many ways of protest,” Lennon said. “Protest by peace in any way, but peacefully. We think peace is only got by peaceful methods. To fight the establishment with their own weapons is no good, because they always win, and they’ve been winning for thousands of years. They know how to play the game of violence.”

Strangely enough, Lennon’s antics raised the ire of both the Left and the Right. Indeed, Lennon’s pacifism seemed misplaced to the Left. As one columnist for the Village Voice wrote, “Lennon would never have achieved enlightenment if thousands of his forbears hadn’t suffered drudgery far worse than protest marches and cared enough about certain ideals — and realities — to risk death for them.”

If the Left was hostile, the establishment press was outraged by the bed-ins. “This must rank as the most self-indulgent demonstration of all time,” one columnist wrote. To John and Yoko, for whom the bed-ins were deeply personal, the stark criticism cut deeply.

Yet despite the criticism levied against the bed-ins, they represented an astute exercise in media politics. “John and Yoko rejected the view held by many in the antiwar movement,” writes professor Jan Wiener in “Come Together: John Lennon in His Time” (1991), “that the newspapers and TV were necessarily and exclusively the instruments of corporate domination of popular consciousness. The two of them sought to work within the mass media, to undermine their basis, to use them, briefly and sporadically, against the system in which they functioned.”

While the first bed-in in Amsterdam was historically significant , the second one in Montreal was musically significant, resulting in one of the great peace anthems of the 20th century when Lennon composed and recorded “Give Peace a Chance” in his hotel room. As DuNoyer writes:

“By 1 June John felt he had a powerful peace anthem on his hands, and ordered up a tape machine. Still in bed with Yoko, with a placard behind them proclaiming ‘Hair Peace,’ he invited all his varied guests (including the LSD guru Timothy Leary, comedian Tommy Smothers on guitar, singer Petula Clark, a local rabbi and several members of the Montreal Radha Krishna Temple) to sing along to his new composition. “Give Peace a Chance” was a chugging, repetitive mantra, interspersed with John’s impromptu rapping, a babbled litany of random name-checks (ranging from the novelist Norman Mailer to the English comedian Tommy Cooper) and impatient dismissals of ‘this-ism, that-ism.’ The rapping was a decade ahead of its time. But it was not of primary importance, for this was another of John’s ‘headline’ songs (in the tradition of ‘All You Need Is Love’ and ‘Power to the People’) whose deliberately simplistic chorus mattered far more.”

By October of 1969, “Give Peace a Chance” was a universal chant at anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. On Nov. 15, during a peace rally in Washington, DC, the legendary folk singer Pete Seeger led nearly half a million demonstrators in singing “Give Peace a Chance” at the Washington Monument. “The people started swaying their bodies and banners and flags in time,” Seeger later recalled, “several hundred thousand people, parents with their small children on their shoulders. It was a tremendously moving thing.”

Just before leaving Great Britain in 1971 to live in America, Lennon told biographer Ray Coleman, “I’d like everyone to remember us with a smile. But, if possible, just as John and Yoko who created world peace forever. The whole of life is a preparation for death. I’m not worried about dying. When we go, we’d like to leave behind a better place.”

“Give Peace a Chance,” the one lasting remnant of the bed-ins, was to enter the world’s consciousness more completely than any other song Lennon wrote. Eleven years after the infamous bed-ins, as tearful mourners gathered outside the Dakota Building on the night of Lennon’s murder, this was the song that they instinctively chose to express their grief and commemorate his life.

When the management at the Amsterdam Hilton Hotel heard the news of John Lennon’s death, they turned out all the lights in the building as a mark of respect — that is, with the exception of Suite 902, which shone like a beacon over the city. That room is now a museum of sorts, with a collection of books, videos and paraphernalia on both Lennon and the Beatles. And fittingly, on the ceiling are the opening words to “All You Need Is Love.”

(Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His new book “The Freedom Wars” (TRI Press) is available online at www.amazon.com. He can be contacted at johnw@rutherford.org. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.)

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