This year marks both the 65th anniversary of John Lennon’s birth and, hard as it is to believe, the 25th anniversary of his murder. Thus, it is perfect timing for the release of The Dick Cavett Show – John & Yoko Collection.
Although the release comes a few months after the release of a collection of Cavett shows featuring performances by rock music legends, this two-DVD set focuses not so much on music as interviews with Lennon and Ono during the course of two separate visits to the talk show. Both in terms of content and the way the appearances, particularly the second, were handled by ABC, they shows also provide insight into life in the early 1970s.
The first appearance was taped on September 11, 1971, and actually accounted for two Cavett shows. The first show, aired that day, was devoted entirely to an interview with the duo. Rather than a live music performance, there are excerpts from a film — precursors to music videos — featuring Lennon’s performance of the now iconic “Imagine” and Ono performing “Mrs. Lennon,” her first solo single release from an album called Fly. “Imagine” was brand new. The album of the same name hit the streets only two days before. Ono’s song was a ballad and likely much more palatable to the viewing audience then and now than the excerpt from a film made by her also called Fly. That film consisted entirely of a fly wandering over a naked woman’s body. There is also an excerpt from a Lennon film, “Erection,” that shows the construction of a London hotel.
Due in part to the editing of the interview, Lennon and Ono are seen almost blatantly plugging the records, films and a book and upcoming exhibit by Ono. Yet the film snippets and the efforts by Lennon and Ono to focus the conversation on “total freedom,” peace and “total communication” (including them and Cavett listening to parts of each other’s bodies with a stethoscope), reveal a political and cultural ethos that seems almost quaint today. Lennon comes off not as some Beatlesque icon but, rather, an artist with his own strong opinions about art and politics and a bent toward the avant garde.
The September 11 interview produced sufficient material that additional portions were aired as part of Cavett’s September 24, 1971, show. Its highlights include not only Lennon interviewing Cavett but Lennon taking questions from the audience. Several of those questions, including ones dealing with Lennon’s views of revolution and songwriting together with his comments on his defense of Ono in a letter to the Village Voice, provide more insight than many of Cavett’s questions.
The pair’s final appearance was on a show aired on May 11, 1972, that opened with actress Shirley MacLaine. This time, there were live performances by Lennon and Ono with the New York band Elephant’s Memory. Aired approximately a week later, this episode is notable in that it not only deals with government attitude toward the Lennons but also displays network television’s unease with them.
The Lennons spent a deal of time on the show discussing the federal government’s efforts to deport Lennon and how it impacted Ono’s efforts to obtain physical custody of her daughter by a prior marriage. Yet when she held up a picture of the child, who they were trying to find, someone at ABC or on the show staff, inserted a promo card so the television audience never sees the picture. In an accompanying interview on the DVD, Cavett expresses shock and indicates he was unaware this occurred.
Cavett, though, was completely aware of the network’s efforts to excise the performance of the song “Woman is the Nigger of the World” from the tape before the show aired. Cavett stood his ground, insisting that it made no sense to have John Lennon and Yoko Ono on the show and then cut half their musical performance. (The second performance is Ono singing “We’re All Water” with Lennon simply playing guitar with Elephant’s Memory.) To keep the song in the program, Cavett taped a disclaimer that was inserted before the song warning about its use of what society now calls “the N word.” Cavett notes both in a new introduction to the show and in the bonus interview that no one complained about the song. There were, however, thousands of complaints about the disclaimer. And Cavett was cognizant enough of the potential issues to ask Lennon prior to the performance to explain the background of the song and the reasoning behind its title and chorus.
The Dick Cavett Show – John & Yoko Collection won’t keep you riveted if your interest is simply to see Lennon perform. Yet as we approach the anniversary of Lennon’s murder, many people tend to see him simply as a mix of a Beatle who eventually became a house husband before reappearing shortly before his death. These DVDs give an opportunity to see Lennon just as he reached his 30s with his Beatle past behind him and a full future ahead of him. As such, it is an exceptional piece of insight into a key figure of the cultural history of the late 20th Century.