Judge Dennis Prince isn't practicing "bagism"—he just has trouble sometimes getting his head through the neckline of his judge's robe.
"Ya don't get the Lennons on your show and, um, probably out-rate the other shows that night, then cut their damn song!"—Dick Cavett
Surely, it wasn't easy being John. Arguably, there never was a public figure so supremely celebrated yet so ardently pursued and personally attacked as John Lennon. Following the breakup of The Beatles in 1970, the four former bandmates struck out on their own (although Paul McCartney had previously released his own self-titled LP, often cited as the catalyst for the "official" dissolution of the band). Each free to explore life and music in their own way, unhampered by the trappings of erstwhile Beatlemania and the unreasonable public expectations that accompanied it, the former Fab Four were now four individual creative forces who struck out to find themselves and discover their true passions in life.
Elsewhere, Dick Cavett had found his own niche in the late-night living rooms of America, his talk show airing weeknights at 11:30 PM. While some may like to compare him to the celebrity-agog mouthpieces of the day like Mike Douglas or Merv Griffin, Cavett seemed genuinely unassuming and sometimes even unimpressed with the "star quality" of those seated alongside him. While he was quick-witted and sometimes even a bit smarmy, he never seemed inclined to ambush or otherwise attack his guests. Instead, he maintained a low-key demeanor and, subsequently, was able to relax his guests into speaking freely and openly, resulting in some truly excellent talk show moments. During the three-year run of his show (1969—1972), Cavett hosted the likes of World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer, actor John Wayne, omnipresent Orson Welles, and former swift boat shipmates, John O'Neill and John Kerry. Cavett was accustomed to chatting with folks of all professions and of all accomplishments but found it practically unbelievable that he would soon be hosting John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
The initial show was taped on September 8, 1971. The show actually "over-taped" in that, as the Lennons and Cavett became increasingly comfortable with one another and the audience enjoyed the candidness up on stage, all decided to keep chatting while the cameras rolled on. The usual 60-minute taping ran well over time and the bulk of the content was broadcast on September 11, 1971, comprising 90 minutes of the encounter. Additional material was broadcast two weeks later on September 24.
On Disc One of this set, you'll find the 9/11/71 broadcast. Lennon, who had frequently described himself as a shy person, does appear initially nervous and utilizes his trademark "cheekiness" to mask his anxiety in this, his first televised appearance since the breakup of The Beatles. Cavett, too, seems a bit overwhelmed by the situation and, rather than avoid the on-stage awkwardness, brings it into the open and ultimately smoothes out the rest of what becomes a candid, quirky, and compelling conversation. Lennon explains that the military jacket he wears was a gift, comments on Yoko's chain smoking habits (the two light up cigarettes perpetually throughout the interview), and speaks of his desire to not have gone on "…singing 'She Loves You' when I'm 50." Also included is the segment later seen in 1988's Imagine John Lennon biopic where the songwriter confirms the origin of the song title, "Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds," assuring no surreptitious intent to smuggle in the acronym "L.S.D." (So what's not to believe?) The audience is offered a view of clips from Yoko's avant-garde films, "Fly" and "Erection" (not what you might expect, of course). Also, there are film clips of the in-progress film, Imagine. In all, the program captures a fascinating interview and additional content that's difficult to resist.
The September 24, 1971 show features a rather obnoxious Stan Freberg, longtime voice actor and ad man, who spends his time complaining (comically?) about how he had previously been "bumped" from an appearance because of the Lennons. He also insists upon frequently interrupting the other in-studio guest, Robert Citron, Director of the Smithsonian Institute of Short-Lived Phenomena. The segments with Lennon and Yoko, culled from the 9/8/71 taping, include Yoko's explanation of "bagism," the infamous "Week in Bed," and a Q&A with the audience. Of particular note and curiosity, during the Q&A segment a fellow seated in the upper deck, longhaired and bearded and asking a question pertaining to peaceful vs. violent revolution, shockingly resembles the vagrant who wandered Lennon's London estate believing John was speaking directly to him through his songs. (The confrontation between the two is captured in Imagine John Lennon). It has not yet been confirmed whether this is actually the same fellow.
Disc Two of this set contains the third appearance of the Lennons on Cavett's show (it was their second actual visit to the show but, given the extra material aired on 9/24/71, ended up being a third televised appearance). On March 11, 1972, the Lennons made good on their previous promise that they'd love to return and perform live. The show's bill is, however, shared with Shirley MacLaine who, at the moment, bears a striking resemblance to Susan Dey as The Partridge Family's Laurie Partridge. (Was it reincarnation already in the works or a chance doppelganger?) As the initial guest on the show, her brief flirtatiousness with Cavett soon gives way to a discussion of Spiritismo and the situations surrounding her work in The Possession of Joel Delany. Soon, however, this all degenerates into a political stump for Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern (she mocks ABC-TV's admonition to not state her support explicitly yet she appears garnished with numerous campaign buttons). Her most poignant statements take on an eerie sense of hypocrisy—especially when viewed in three-decade hindsight—when she states the everyday people of America are smarter than the media gives them credit for and that their most important matter is that of wanting to be told the truth ("…they want our President to tell them the truth, they want our movies to tell them the truth…"). Interesting.
The MacLaine segment seems tedious overall, both the actress and Cavett knowing the real draw of the show is the Lennons, waiting patiently backstage. In retrospect, the exchange between Cavett and MacLaine becomes interesting as it captures the political mood of the country leading up to the 1972 Presidential election of Nixon vs. McGovern. Finally, twenty-seven full minutes into the program, John and Yoko are introduced to the welcoming studio audience. The initial banter is classic Lennon (his love for malted-milks and adoration of American television) soon gives way to a more somber tone as Lennon all but pleads to remain stateside pending his potential deportation. Yoko in turn utilizes the time to rally for the return of her daughter, Kyoko, who had been illegally spirited away by the avant-garde artist's ex-husband and may be forever lost to her should the couple be forced to leave the country. The highlight of the appearance is the live performance of the purportedly controversial song, "Woman is the Nigger of the World," as had appeared on the recent album, Sometime in New York City. ABC deemed it as "not the most desirable selection," even for Cavett's late-night viewers. (In today's world, it would be a powder keg leading to riots.) Fearing backlash, the network agreed to air the performance provided Cavett tape an insert message warning of the potential for offense. That done, the performance was aired in which Lennon, accompanied by the Elephant's Memory band, belts out an anthem decrying the unjust treatment of women in modern society. To wit:
We make her paint her face and dance.
Woman is the nigger of the world.
We make her bear and raise our children,
We insult her every day on TV,
While the song's unmistakable message was lauded by many—including then-chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Ron Dellums (D-CA)—it was still misrepresented by some as an affront to a culture. Pity. It's an absolute treasure to have this live performance on DVD as Lennon and his band perform the number with precision and commitment. Cavett later indicated that the only backlash experienced from the airing of the song was a number of complaints "about the mealy-mouthed message [the network] made [me] say before the song and none about the song itself." Later in the broadcast, Yoko takes the microphone to perform another album cut, "We're All Water." Despite the overlong wait for the Lennons' appearance, it winds up a rousing and memorable television event.
Overall, the content here is as compelling today as it likely was in 1971 and 1972 and is certainly historically significant. Thankfully, the folks at Shout! Factory have delivered another excellent release, recognizing the appeal and importance of these three shows. Each is presented here in its original full-frame broadcast format and complete from start to finish, minus the commercial breaks. The image quality is understandably soft given the original large-format videotape source yet is nonetheless quite detailed and brimming with color. The audio is presented in a very clean Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono mix. Each episode is preceded by a current introduction by the aged-yet-no-less-adroit Cavett, his clever wit and soothing style none the worse for wear. A bonus on this two-disc set is an extended 2005 interview with Cavett, "Cavett and the Lennons," in which the host further reminisces and ruminates over the experience of hosting John and Yoko. The most unique feature of this set is the option to view the taped interview from 9/8/71 complete and as originally taped rather than watch it in the two show formats. Very cool.
As December 2005 marks the 25th anniversary of Lennon's senseless murder, it's good to see a title like this reach the DVD market. Whether you're a Lennon fan, a Beatlemaniac, or you appreciate vintage 70s material, complete with the earmarks and attitudes of the day, this disc deserves a place in your home library.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
• Episode Introductions
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