By LAWRENCE DOWNES
Published: October 23, 2010
John Lennon could have lived anywhere. He chose New York, and clung
to his adopted city with a ferocious love. Yoko Ono, too: "There's
such an incredible romanticism about being refugees," she said. "We
just felt like we returned to our motherland, which is New York, you know."
Ms. Ono says these kinds things in a new documentary, "LENNONYC," to
be shown next month on PBS. It examines Lennon's decade after the
Beatles, much of it spent in Manhattan. The story carries him through
a marital separation, an ugly bender in Los Angeles, and a joyous
return to Yoko, sobriety and making records. Woven throughout is
Lennon's love for New York at its low point, the early '70s, when it
lay in financial ruin, its greatness obscured by graffiti and garbage.
Why were they refugees? Partly to flee a British press that had taken
a fierce dislike to Yoko. Partly the longing to melt into the
vastness of crowds. "One of me biggest kicks is going out to eat or
going to the movies," John said of his new home. "I'm just known
enough to keep me ego floating, but unknown enough to get around,
which is nice."
The first thing they did after moving to New York was to build a
circle of musicians, avant-garde artists and activists, including
Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Pretty soon John was playing benefit
concerts, including for the White Panther John Sinclair and for
mentally disabled children at the infamous Willowbrook State School
on Staten Island.
His new life was in peril, though: Lennon waged a five-year battle
with the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Federal
Bureau of Investigation, which wanted him expelled because of an old
drug conviction and his antiwar views. At one point in the film, he
jokes that maybe he could stay in New York, and be ordered to stay
out of Ohio? The underlying anxiety is clear.
Lennon didn't live to see the '80s, when immigrant hope and energy
rebuilt New York, often literally, block by block. He never saw this
city reborn. He wouldn't have been surprised.