An Interview with Author James A. Mitchell

December 8 is the anniversary of the death of John Lennon. Many around the world will take time on that day to remember the life of the rock star, peace activist, and cultural icon.

We’re pleased to host a talk with James A. Mitchell, author of the critically acclaimed The Walrus & the Elephants: John Lennon's Years of Revolution, on Thursday, December 4 at 4:30 p.m. at the Central Library. In his book, Mitchell tells the story of Lennon’s time in New York City, his opposition to the Vietnam War, and subsequent surveillance and harassment by the federal government, through interviews with those who lived it with him. Mitchell was also kind enough to talk about his book with us.

Why another John Lennon biography in 2014?
I asked myself the same question. The Walrus & the Elephants makes no attempt to chronicle Lennon’s life in all its fascinating detail. By focusing on a specific period and singular story, I found some often-overlooked aspects of what has become the Lennon legacy. In a nutshell: Lennon stood his ground against the Nixon administration alongside a Who’s Who of what was known as The Movement. Now that’s rock-and-roll!

Can you describe some of your research methods and sources?
My introduction to the story was through guitarist Wayne “Tex” Gabriel, who in 1971 had joined the Village-based Elephant’s Memory band just before they signed on to back Lennon. Together they shared a year’s worth of recordings, TV appearances, and what turned out to be Lennon’s only full-length, solo concert. Tex — who sadly passed away soon after we began — put me in touch with the other musicians, whose shared memories framed a real nice picture of Lennon. For the primary, political story I reached out to the many notable folks who met Lennon during this period, and was fortunate enough to assemble a pretty interesting roundtable of perspectives.

Do you think John Lennon's words and deeds seeking political, economic, social, racial, and sexual equality amongst peoples were naïve and simplistic?
I think he recognized that there was a limit to what could be achieved by chanting peace-and-love mantras. On the other hand, movements need messengers and Lennon’s simple, honest lyrics and statements have stood the test of time. He was neither naïve nor simple-minded in his mastery of media manipulation, and his reasoning behind things like the bed-ins or “War is Over” billboards demonstrate that he knew better than anyone how to get a message across.

Can you describe Lennon's attitude towards the Feminist Movement?
It was one of his true awakenings — inspired by Yoko — that stand as testament to the legacy of a true individual. By declaring his realization that women had been treated as second-class citizens — even by supposedly enlightened souls — he rejected a background of cultural misogyny and ran contrary to what was very much a boys' club of rock-and-roll. Sounds simple now, but not so much in 1971.

What is your favorite Lennon album?
Hard to choose: Plastic Ono Band remains a brilliant, light-years-ahead-of-its-time classic, but while engrossing myself in solo Lennon I rediscovered (or freshly so in some cases) some great work on Rock ‘n’ Roll, Walls and Bridges, and — yes — the under-appreciated Some Time in New York City.

How do you see Lennon's legacy to people of the 21st century?
Multi-faceted, as it should be. First is the legacy of the Beatles with Lennon as co-songwriter of a body of work that ranks among the best music ever composed — not to mention the lads’ influence on so many other things. As a solo artist — and “artist” encompasses more than just music — it’s ironic that Lennon has this sort of “indie-rocker” image, considering the unprecedented (and yet unequaled) commercial success of the Beatles. When people think of Lennon the words “peace” and “love” come to mind, which as legacies go is pretty cool.

What was the most recent book you read and who are some of your favorite writers?
I’ve been re-reading Capote’s In Cold Blood, still in awe over the writing talent therein, and Truman joins a long list of favorites ranging from Steinbeck to Heller to Vonnegut. Love the smart mystery writers — Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly and Michigan’s own (the late, great) Elmore Leonard. Too many to narrow down, really — there’s a reason I’ve kept reading books for pretty much my whole life.

Can you tell us a little about the nonprofit organization you work with that supports the Grace Care Center children's home in Sri Lanka?
Grace was and is the living embodiment of “imagine all the people living life in peace.” The foundation of Grace’s sponsoring charity is simply a connection made between people who happen to be on opposite sides of the planet. With relatively little invested in terms of money, the result gives orphan kids and destitute seniors the priceless sense of home and family that wasn’t easy to come by in the tiny, troubled nation after years of poverty, ethnic hostilities, and a quarter-century civil war. (Things are better these days in Sri Lanka, which usually happens when people stop shooting at each other. Imagine that.)

What advice would you give a young person thinking about researching and writing a biography?
Don’t be intimidated by the subject. In early Walrus drafts I kept a sort of journalist-objective distance from the principal character. (Like, who the hell was I to write a book about John friggin’ Lennon?) But the wonderful stories told by the surviving Elephants, along with ample interviews and television appearances to consider, presented a portrait that was easy to tell and, from what I’m told, offers a fresh look at someone we all know so well. Lennon always was full of surprises.