If you're old enough to recall seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan (as I do), or If you remember when it was widely accepted that marijuana would soon become a nationally decriminalized (and ultimately legalized) substance, YOU know– the world HAS changed.
But no matter what age you are, you can turn the clock back a few paradigms and get a taste of that more daring and open era by watching a few episodes of the Mike Douglas Show-- Specifically by taking a look at a week of programs from 1972 when Douglas invited John Lennon and Yoko Ono to co-host his afternoon TV show.
Mike Douglas, former big band vocalist and all around affable guy, was no hipster. And his weekday program (syndicated nationally from 1965 to 1984) was produced by future right-wing media guru and now the head of Fox News, Roger Ailes. However, the world was a much different place 33 and a third years ago, and letting a former member of the fab four and his avant-garde wife take over your popular TV show must have seemed like a pretty good idea at the time. And the fact that Rhino has released the entire week as a box set of videos pretty much proves that the entertainment value of the unlikely match up of Mr. Douglas and the arty celebrity couple has actually appreciated over the years.
Through the week of shows, Lennon and Ono chain smoked their way through conversations with Ralph Nader, Black Panther Bobby Seale, George Carlin, Yippie Jerry Rubin and many others. Although he never pursued it seriously, Lennon had a natural talent for broadcasting (listen to him on the radio in 1974 here), and he has a blast playing talk host and bringing some pretty radical politics and ideas to a nationwide audience.
And there was music. Over the course of the week Mike Douglas glides
through some clean cut versions Beatle tunes like “Michelle” and “A
Little Help From My
Friends,” and Lennon performs a few from his latest album,
“Imagine.” Although the music is more "adult contemporary" than most of
the music in the Lennon catalog, the lyrics of the song "Imagine"
are about as radical as anything that ever broke the top 10. It's
basically a short how-to course on how to vastly improve the human
condition by getting rid of religion, materialism and patriotism. You
may recall that after September 11, 2001 "Imagine" was listed on a memo
distributed to over a thousand Clear Channel owned radio stations as one of many "lyrically questionable" songs suggested not to play during the weeks after the massive terrorist attack. Watch Lennon sing his revolutionary ballad on The Mike Douglas Show by downloading a (real) video here.
On the third day, Chuck Berry (one of Lennon’s idols) is a guest. And over the course of the show the two rock legends get together to perform a couple of Berry’s biggest hits. It’s easy to imagine how great that might be. And in fact, their duet of "Memphis Tennessee" IS amazing. However what’s really incredible is how BAD it was, musically. Take a look and a listen by downloading this (mpeg) video clip with Berry and Lennon rocking out with Elephant’s Memory.
Chuck Berry is famous for not using a touring band and hooking up with different ad hoc local groups everywhere he plays. And sometimes the results are less than inspiring– like the jumped up mess that was heard that day on the set of the Mike Douglas show. Lennon and Berry seem to be singing in different keys and the band sounds like it’s playing another song. Instead of a great rock moment, it’s three and a half minutes of atonal boogie.
But what makes watching the video of this performance so wonderful, and what has led me to watch it over and over again, is Yoko. During some random boogie moments Yoko grabs a nearby microphone and lets loose with some spirited Yoko-style caterwauling. It’s SO wrong that I almost can't believe it’s going to happen again every time I watch the video. A few times Mr. Berry’s eyes almost pop out of his head as his roots rock classic is injected with kooky downtown performance art on national television. One online critic describes the look on Berry’s face “as if somebody just poured an ice-cold beverage down his pants.” It’s that good.
All in all, it was a wild week of 70's television. Try to find a mainstream TV national show these days that will feature a week of radical left wing politics, rock and roll, and occasional caterwauling. These days you’re not likely to see anything on daytime TV more wild or spontaneous than a Jerry Springer cat fight or Tom Cruise leaping around on Oprah’s couch.
But back in 72' the times were already starting to change. The sixties were over, and Roger Ailes had already met Richard Nixon on the set of the Douglas show, which would soon make him a Republican media superpower. And just maybe, Dick Nixon himself was watching that week when Lennon and his guests were smokin’ butts, singing songs, and railing against the war and the “man.” Because three weeks after John and Yoko's appearance on The Mike Douglas Show, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services ordered Lennon to leave the country. Although the ex-Beatle ultimately was allowed to stay in the states, years of being hounded the government and followed around by the F.B.I. put an end to any more public displays of his radical politics.
And then in late 1980, when Lennon was poised for a comeback after his long immigration struggle and President-Elect Ronald Reagan was waiting in the wings to take America rightward, some idiot nobody shot a fat 38 caliber bullet through Lennon's aorta. The end of his life that night is written in history as another tragic act by a whacked out lone gunman, but plausible theories abound that the horror that night in the Upper West Side might have been a successful follow-up to the failed efforts of the 70's to finally rid America of John Lennon.