The Dick Cavett Show
John & Yoko Collection (Shout! Factory-2005)
It’s 1971 and John Lennon is now thirtysomething. His life, finally, is getting interesting. Always on the cutting edge, this time he is on the verge of getting his peacenik ass thrown out of the United States, and not just because he is inflicting Yoko Ono on a nation who never asked for her.
Facing deportation for drug possession (and other things that offend President Nixon), Lennon, along with his shadow (Ono), make one of two appearances on ABC’s The Dick Cavett Show. If anything, the rock legend gives the audience its money’s worth; Lennon is practically shot out of a cannon – funny, angry, bratty, antsy, loving, cheeky, cranky, and, as always, taking his precious time to tell us how we are supposed to think about the world. Lennon does the thinking for us because we’re too busy making a living to figure it out for ourselves.
“The censor has an oxygen tent standing by,” Cavett warns us regarding his infamous guests. The struggling talk show is watched by an intellectual elite that has not received its Nielsen ratings books in the mail. Designed as a youth-culture alternative to the more Middle American The Tonight Show, Cavett is urbane but somehow desperate when not feeling lukewarm. It’s marketed as an underdog, but the series’ flop sweat soaks through its undergarments and it shows. On the surface, it seems to have everything going for it, but with the exception of these occasionally spectacular visitors, it eventually drops the ball on its design to be a groovy alternative to the hum-drum fare geared toward The Silent Majority over on NBC.
The difficult recipe for easy-going, unselfconscious TV hipness is not yet quite baked, and Cavett seems a bit too show-bizzy for its intended audience (the house band plays a square, swingin’ version of “Come Together” when Lennon and Ono are introduced). About a decade later, Late Night with David Letterman would put a merciful end to this schism.
We see Cavett, apparently under enormous pressure from the network because of disappointing ratings, literally sweating it out under the hot lights. His jittery hep-cat vibe is a pale imitation of Johnny Carson’s, who mastered the concept more naturally, even though Carson no longer had designs on a young, hip audience. As well, Cavett’s attempts at monologues and shtick are painful and unnecessary. At one point, he auctions off his necktie to the studio audience (for no apparent reason other than to be unpredictably off the wall). And for their first appearance, Lennon and Ono request that Cavett not do a monologue (this is diva-like, but score a point for them – the studio audience and Cavett himself seem just as relieved).
The couple, with lots of time and money on their hands, has an agenda. Tirelessly promoting world peace seems like a noble cause at first, but Lennon’s condescending attitude toward everyone and everything (the network, the government, and even the audience), though justified, cancels out his urgent message. What doesn’t help is the unceasing echo of his tedious peace anthem, “Imagine,” which is a solid hit at this time and yet ironically is not more than casually mentioned during these appearances (thank goodness).
That Yoko Ono is a real drag is not just putting mildly: she smokes up a storm (along with her husband), and Lennon obediently lights her cigarettes for her like a pussy-whipped English gentleman. By 1971, the anti-smoking movement has real legs and is radical in its fervor, yet Lennon and his wife do not honor that cause, nor care to.
His hair is cut short (very un-Beatle-like, probably with great ironic cause) and he wears a U.S. Army jacket that was given to him in an airport by a vet (great ironic idea!). Ono is wearing hotpants and doing her mysterious/exotic/avant garde/Gandhi thing.
Lennon proclaims her to be “the most famous unknown artist,” as if this is a bad thing, but he is determined to change that, whether we like it or not. The appearances turn into a sneaky promotional tool for Ono, in which she unashamedly shills her “book of instructions,” called “Grapefruit” (“now available in paperback”). In it, she advises the reader to listen to another person’s body with a stethoscope (Lennon performs this exercise on Cavett). They also eat up a good five or ten minutes by showing prototype music videos (deadly dull by today’s standards), and finally performing a song or two (Ono accompanies the actual legitimate musicians on bongos). One of these tunes is the meant-to-be-misunderstood “Woman Is the Nigger of the World,” which is banned by ABC (naturally!). Ono screeches – America sits up in bed, jarred awake.
“Your voice is so unique,” Cavett tells her, apparently as a compliment.
Also appearing on one of the programs is “peculiar ad man” Stan Freberg, who is actually more effective than Lennon in his anti-war communication by unveiling a series of radio commercials, urging Americans to send telegrams to their senators to end our involvement in Vietnam by the close of 1971 (alas, the war would drone on for another two years).
In the 1972 offering, a newly hippified Shirley MacLaine makes a campaign stop for Nixon opponent George McGovern. However, the ABC censors will not allow her to promote her candidate, so she subversively wears a smattering of McGovern buttons instead. She boasts very proudly and urgently about how she is down with the people, because she has just rubbed elbows with the “real” America (waitresses, bowlers, cab drivers). Like the Lennons, she means well, yet her attempt at connecting ultimately delivers as condescending and insulting (“they” want to be told the truth, MacLaine reveals about the little people).
The typical buzzwords of the day are mentioned with ease: pollution, overpopulation, the Pentagon Papers, Richard Nixon, Jerry Rubin and the plight of the American Indian roll off everyone’s bitter tongues. As well, Lennon shrugs off the popular and unwavering opinion that Ono broke up the Beatles (he says that if this is the case, then we should actually thank her for the great music that McCartney, Lennon, Harrison and Starr have released as solo acts after the breakup! Thank you, Yoko!). Lennon also philosophizes that if all soldiers and politicians took their trousers down, there would be world peace, and that “if the establishment don’t understand it, they can’t kill it.”
You can’t help but wonder about the Lennons: are they for real, or are we being put on? When they describe how they talked to the press while draped in head-to-toe bags (to eliminate racial discrimination and encourage total communication), we try to understand but we ultimately have our patience tested and we roll our eyes. Yet, when Lennon makes a plea to Ono’s ex-husband to allow Ono to share custody for her daughter, it’s a genuine and touching moment. As well, when Lennon proclaims that he is still working class and not intellectual, and that “you feel music – you don’t intellectualize it,” or when he dreams of he and Ono as an old retired couple on the south coast of Ireland, it’s as true as it’s going to get. And it’s hard to dislike a fella who, in the age of Mott the Hoople, digs good old-fashioned-American-fifties rock-and-roll, and yet still remains relevant and influential. There is no getting around it – he is someone to watch.
Still, upon completion of the three-disk set, you’re not sure whether you’ve witnessed a piece of history or an SCTV sketch.
Copyright ©2005 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: November 1, 2005.