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)
It was 1969, and the Vietnam War was raging. Protests, riots and
societal turmoil were ripping at the seams of the western world. Into
this political furnace stepped the unlikely characters of John Lennon
and Yoko Ono.
John and Yoko married in March, 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.
Holland was permissive, but even the chief of Amsterdam's vice squad
issued a warning to anyone planning to attend. Despite this, 50 news
people crowded outside John and Yoko's hotel room, Suite 902. "These
guys were sweating to fight to get in first because they thought we
were going to make love in bed. That's where their minds were at,"
Lennon later recalled.
This week marks the 42nd anniversary of John and Yoko'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.
The concept of the bed-ins and their "origins lie in Yoko's days as a
performance artist, and the notion that spectacular public action can
be an art form in itself," writes Paul DuNoyer 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. And they announced that they would stay in bed for a
week as "our protest against all the suffering and violence in the
world." The idea was to use the amazing image that Lennon the Beatle
possessed in order to promote peace.
For seven days, starting on March 26, John and Yoko conducted
interviews ten hours a day, starting at ten in the morning. In
response to their efforts, a media frenzy ensued. "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."
One interviewer, however, noted that some were not taking John and
Yoko and the bed-ins seriously, saying they were humorous. Lennon
replied, "We stand a better chance under that guise, because all the
serious people like Martin Luther King and Kennedy and Gandhi got shot."
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. As
Lennon later lamented in "The Ballad of John and Yoko":
Christ you know it ain't easy,
You know how hard it can be.
The way things are going
They're gonna crucify me.
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."
As a media event, the Amsterdam bed-in and subsequent ones held by
John and Yoko certainly made headlines, but were they effective in
helping the anti-war movement? It was a question that frustrated
Lennon to no end. For example, when asked about the success of the
bed-ins, an irritated Lennon responded, "Some guy wrote, 'Now,
because of your event in Amsterdam, I'm not joining the RAF, I'm
growing my hair.'" And when a skeptical reporter asked whether
staying in bed meant anything, Lennon replied, "Imagine if the
American army stayed in bed for a week."
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
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.
Years later, Lennon said, "In my heart, I wanted to write something
that would take over 'We Shall Overcome.'" With "Give Peace a
Chance," he succeeded. In fact, within several months of recording
the song it was being played on radio stations around the world.
By October of 1969, "Give Peace a Chance" was a universal chant at
anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. On November 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."
Later, Lennon was asked what he thought about that day. "I saw
pictures of that Washington demonstration on British TV, with all
those people singing it, forever and not stopping," he said. "It was
one of the biggest moments of my life."
At year's end, Lennon told interviewer Barry Miles: "There's a mass
of propaganda gone out from those two bed-ins... Every garden party
this summer in Britain, every small village everywhere, the winning
couple was the kids doing John and Yoko in bed with the posters
around... Instead of everybody singing 'Yeah Yeah Yeah' they're just
singing 'Peace' instead. And I believe in the power of the mantra."
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":
There's nothing you can do that can't be done.
Nothing you can sing that can't be sung.
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game