I imagine there are some pretty bizarre conspiracy theories out there about the fact that John Lennon premiered his film for the song “Imagine” on September 11th, 1971. You won’t find any of them here, but it is an odd coincidence. Lennon and his oft-maligned wife Yoko Ono made their first appearance on The Dick Cavett show on that day (above) to debut their new work. They banter about their haircuts (they donated their long hair to be auctioned at Sotheby’s—it wasn’t). They discuss Lennon’s changing music career. There’s some strange fun with people in head-to-toe burqua-like bags. Mostly they plug: screening some of their films and debuting a song from Yoko’s weird (I’d argue weirdly-brilliant) double album Fly.
Cavett looks nervous, but mostly holds his own against Lennon’s quick-witted music hall chatter, always unpredictably disarming. Lennon is the star here, of course; he had just turned thirty and only days earlier released the Imagine album in the U.S., which would go to number one worldwide. Nevertheless, he does his level best to make this a joint interview and to promote his wife’s work as much, if not more, than his own. I imagine there’s no shortage of people who hated this, and still do, but I think it’s gallant and sincere. But maybe I’m easy on them. Because I can fast forward. Viewers of the original broadcast had to wait till nearly the end to see the “Imagine” film. With the magic of digital, all you have to do is skip ahead to 58:05. It’s worth the effort.
John and Yoko returned to Cavett’s show in 1972. Lennon seems a bit jumpy here—nervous perhaps since both he and Yoko perform live in this appearance; John does his less-than-stellar anthem “Woman is the Nigger of the World” and eloquently defends the inflammatory title line; Yoko sings her, well, weird “We are Water,” both with the backing band Elephant’s Memory.
There’s a humorous reference to George Harrison’s appearance on the show the previous year, but things take a slightly more serious turn here than their previous interview. The show aired in May, just a few months before the historic 1972 election in which incumbent Nixon roundly trounced the recently departed George McGovern. Lennon and Ono discuss their possible deportation that year due to Nixon’s displeasure at their anti-war activities. This never came to pass, but it was a tense time for Lennon since he had made New York his base of operations for the past year. I imagine someone’s written an alternate history in which Lennon was deported, said the hell with it, and never returned to New York. No telling what he’d be up to now, but as these interviews make clear, he wouldn’t be selling nostalgia or mounting Beatles reunion tours.
Josh Jones is a doctoral candidate in English at Fordham University and a co-founder and former managing editor of Guernica / A Magazine of Arts and Politics.