John, Yoko, and the Nutty Beatle
This was once the time of year Harry Shearer called Telethon Season. Back-to-school sales coincided with the annual broadcast of the Jerry Lewis Telethon, whose host would come totally unglued over the show’s 21-plus hours, sobbing, geshreying and fulminating against his critics in the press.
But the golden age of telethons is over, and the show people who gave of themselves until we begged them to stop are mostly dead. The Chabad telethon still happens, but even if I could find it on the cable box (LA has a channel 18?), it wouldn’t be the same without Harry Dean Stanton and Bob Dylan playing “Hava Nagila” together, or my own sainted grandfather cutting up beneath the tote board.
So I was delighted to come across this clip of John and Yoko’s performance on the 1972 Jerry Lewis Telethon, even though Lennon biographer (and emeritus history professor and Nation contributor) Jon Wiener identifies this moment as the nadir of Lennon’s life in showbiz. The Nixon administration was then aggressively trying to have Lennon deported, and he and Yoko hoped the appearance would help them remain in the country, Wiener writes:
Before and after John and Yoko appeared, Jerry Lewis went through his telethon shtick, making maudlin appeals for cash, alternately mugging and weeping, parading victims of muscular dystrophy across the Las Vegas stage, and generally claiming to be the friend to the sick. Most offensive of all was his cuddling up to corporate America. Public-relations men from United Airlines, McDonald’s, Anheuser-Busch, and others appeared to hand Jerry checks. He responded by pontificating about what wonderful friends we all have in the corporations.
John and Yoko permitted themselves to be exploited in this way because they were trying to clean up their act, to impress the immigration authorities that they were good citizens. And, to be fair, many big stars went on the telethon; Paul and Ringo did in subsequent years. However, there were other points where John and Yoko could have stopped on their way from Jerry Rubin to Jerry Lewis.
Below, backed by Elephant’s Memory, John and Yoko play “Imagine,” “Now or Never,” and a reggae arrangement of “Give Peace a Chance.” Jerry Lewis blows his trumpet on the last number.