Rocking the Youth Vote: 1972 to 2004


The same week a federal judge in Los Angeles ordered the FBI to release the last ten pages of its file on John Lennon, a group of rock musicians, headed by Bruce Springsteen, began an election year concert tour of battleground states. The two recent events had a strange but distinct resonance.

Lennon came under FBI surveillance because he planned a U.S. concert tour for 1972 – when Nixon was running for re-election and the war in Vietnam was going strong. 1972 was also the first year 18-year-olds had been given the right to vote. Lennon's plan: Use the concert tour to encourage young people to register to vote, and vote against Nixon. On Oct. 1 Springsteen, along with R.E.M., the Dixie Chicks, Pearl Jam and a dozen other musicians, launched his concert tour in swing states, based on the same plan Lennon had 32 years earlier: Encourage voter registration among young people, and then a vote against the Republican in the White House on election day.

There is, however, one crucial difference: Lennon canceled his tour after one performance because the White House ordered him deported. He spent the next year and a half in and out of immigration court. Of course, Nixon was re-elected, but then Watergate changed everything: Nixon left the White House, and Lennon stayed in the USA.

Nobody stopped this month's "Vote for Change" tour. Organized through MoveOn PAC, it seeks not only to register those in the audience but also to raise money for the voter registration project America Coming Together, a sophisticated $30 million effort to mobilize millions of new voters in swing states.

If the plans for 1972 and 2004 had the same strategy, the concert programs reflect different times and tastes. Lennon did do one concert before the White House got to him: a trial run at the University of Michigan's Crisler Arena in December 1971. That concert had a stellar and much more eclectic lineup than this month's efforts, where Springsteen teamed up onstage with R.E.M. Lennon shared the bill with Stevie Wonder, who sang "For Once in My Life," and then gave a brief speech attacking Nixon; Allen Ginsberg, who chanted a half-hour-long mantra; jazz avant-gardist Archie Shepp, country rocker Commander Cody and protest singer Phil Ochs.

And of course the Ann Arbor lineup also included John and Yoko: The Lennon FBI file contains a long report from an undercover agent who was in the audience of 15,000, and he transcribed the lyrics Lennon sang to a new song he had written for the occasion, "John Sinclair," about the Michigan antiwar activist who had been sentenced to ten years in prison for possession of two joints of marijuana. "John Sinclair/It ain't fair/In the stir for breathing air" – these lines were sent to J. Edgar Hoover, and then classified "confidential" by the FBI and kept secret for the next decade – even though Lennon printed them on the back of his next LP.

That Ann Arbor concert had one feature missing from this year's Vote for Change events: a lot of political talk. In Philadelphia on opening night, Springsteen limited himself to a brief political statement: "We're here to fight for a government that is open, rational, forward-looking and humane," he said. Back in 1972 Bobby Seale of the Black Panther Party gave a speech about Angela Davis; Dave Dellinger, the antiwar activist who had been to Hanoi, talked about Vietnam; Jerry Rubin – the Yippie leader and, with Seale and Dellinger, one of the Chicago Eight defendants – said, "What we are doing here is uniting music and revolutionary politics to build a revolution around the country!" He promised that "a lot of events like this one will take place" before the election. Finally, John Sinclair's mother gave a speech: "You can teach more to your parents than your parents taught you," she said. "I'm speaking of course from personal experience."

As Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel noted in her "Editor's Cut" blog, this month's Vote for Change tour reveals "a fervor" in the rock world that hasn't been seen since the protests against Nixon and Vietnam. This year's effort is also much bigger and better organized than what Lennon had in mind, and includes 33 concerts on a coordinated schedule that moves from battleground state to state. For instance, opening night – Friday, Oct. 1 – the focus was Pennsylvania. Springsteen played in Philadelphia, the Dixie Chicks played Pittsburgh, Dave Matthews was in State College, Pearl Jam in Reading, John Mellencamp in Wilkes-Barre and Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt in Erie. The next night they all moved to Ohio, then Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Florida, and then a giant finale on Oct. 11, bringing everyone together in Washington, D.C.

As for those last ten pages of the Lennon FBI file, the government has argued for twenty years that they can't be released because they contain information provided by a foreign government under an explicit promise of confidentiality. The ACLU of Southern California told judge Robert Takasugi that argument lacked specificity, and he agreed. We aren't even allowed to know the name of the foreign government that provided the information in question, but Britain seems more likely than, say, Afghanistan. Those pages probably contain information gathered by Britain's MI5 about Lennon's involvement with the New Left in London in 1970-71.

The Bush Justice Department has 60 days to appeal. Perhaps it will conclude that the FBI has more important tasks these days than protecting 30-year-old documents about the antiwar activities of a dead rock star. But if John Ashcroft's department decides to appeal, maybe the Kerry administration – elected with the help of youth voters mobilized by Bruce Springsteen et al. – will reverse that decision in 2005.

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