John Lennon was famed for his caustic wit and searing intelligence when sitting down with interviewers. Equally as likely to regale you with the intricate workings of his song construction as he was to eviscerate you for mentioning The Beatles. There was one place he seemingly felt very comfortable though, sitting across from Dick Cavett.
Lennon and Yoko Ono first arrived on the show in 1971 buoyed by Lennon’s solo album Imagine and determined to make the appearance a partnership with the Beatle championing his wife’s work more than his own. All wonderful stuff. But on their return, filmed on this day in 1972, things got a little bit tenser.
Walking on to the show like any other, Lennon and Ono are poised and in a seemingly affable mood despite being under the threat of deportation. Shaking hands with Shirley McClaine and the other guest on the show as they enter, Lennon makes an Aldous Huxley about Cavett’s lack of a tie. The feeling is warm and comfortable, jokes are even shared about George Harrison’s appearance the year prior and Lennon’s love of milkshakes, he jokes: “You’ll often see me down Nathan’s sucking on a malted.”
When Lennon pulls out some “notes” the town is well and truly set. The singer seemingly has something to get off his chest and he does so. The pair defends the use of the controversial title ‘Woman is the N*gger of the World’ and even perform the track at the end of the show with Yoko Ono also performing her experimental song ‘We Are Water’.
The real reason behind the tension when Lennon and Ono joined Dick Cavett in 1972 was that it appeared the pair’s previous protestations and rebel-rousing had begun to catch up with them. Their previous episode had celebrated the duo’s demos but one year on and the reality had begun to set in.
It was the main reason, the pair felt, that the risk of deportation was so permanently hanging over them. Having angered President Richard Nixon with a series of outspoken demonstrations, criticising the Vietnam War and the American government, the pair believed they were being deliberately targeted for deportation, even after setting up their HQ in New York.
In the clip, Lennon even suggests that the FBI have them under surveillance. Cavett, ever the professional, moves on rather quickly, not dwelling on the idea—but one can tell there is a palpable sense of disbelief within the audience. After all, the FBI wasn’t interested in such things as pop music and John Lennon.
Of course, they were. Keenly interested, in fact. Brought to light by Jon Wiener, the FBI documented over 300 pieces of evidence on John Lennon around this time with virtually none of it having any substance whatsoever. But in 1972, when John Lennon and Yoko Ono appeared on The Dick Cavett Show, nobody was any the wiser.
It did, however, put some extra spotlight on Lennon’s cause. The singer and Ono were able to connect with a massive audience and despite having a slight touch of the tin-foil-hats about their appearance on the show, they came across as two fairly ordinary people trying to make their extraordinary life work for them. It helped gain Lennon and Ono working citizenship in the US.
Below you can watch the entire episode of The Dick Cavett Show when John Lennon and Yoko Ono claimed they were under FBI surveillance and were right.