Rock stars are so self-regulating and image-conscious nowadays it's hard to imagine even dreaming about one without being forced to pay for use of their overexposed likenesses. You'd probably have to sign waivers indemnifying them for any make-believe anguish they might cause you.
Back in the days when rock stars were public domain, it wasn't out of the ordinary for one to turn up in your nocturnal imaginings, probably with a guitar slung over his back, ready to entertain at your barbecue and maybe exchange existential tidbits over chicken salad recipes.
And that's what it's like watching John Lennon and Yoko Ono making like normal/abnormal folk over five days of co-hosting The Mike Douglas Show in 1972. Today, the Lennons seem less like dangerous radical rock stars and more like the kooky hippie couple in the next apartment who'll try any new fad once. In addition to demystifying their personae, John and Yoko wanted to introduce Middle American audiences to the nonviolent agendas of revolutionary friends like Yippie Jerry Rubin and Black Panther Bobby Seale. The Douglas show gave them a platform, and Rubin actually helped the pair draw up a desired guest list while Douglas' staff chose the remainder, which explains why people such as comedian Louie Nye are on the program.
Whatever political discussions ensue, it's Lennon's star power that keeps you watching this 450-minute, five-video set from Rhino, The Mike Douglas Show With John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Because you've seen Lennon's legendary likeness from every conceivable angle as a Beatle, the mundane sight of him turning around in a chair inadvertently reminds you of some chair-turning scene in A Hard Day's Night. This strange star-gazing dynamic carries you through some intermittently dull interview segments with ecologists or Peace Corps appointees. You stay tuned, if only to satisfy your curiosity of what a truly bored ex-Beatle looks like.
The Rhino set is trumpeted as "Five days that changed the course of television." That's overstating the case a bit, but it's fascinating to see how much television has changed in 26 years, particularly talk shows. Watching Mike Douglas, the most popular national daytime talk show from 1965 to 1982, one is taken aback by how cheap everything looks. The opening graphics look as if they were culled from the world's ugliest shopping bag; the onscreen letters are rub-ons that appear cracked in places and wiggle on and off camera like the cheesiest Wayne's World effects. Worse, whenever Mike asks a guest where the audience can write for more information, no graphic ever comes up on the screen and viewers scarcely have time to run for some pad and paper. And stagehands are seen throwing up notepads to Mike or pushing tables onto the set.
Forget about imagining there's no countries; imagine an afternoon talk show where guests come on and actually talk to one another instead of beating each other up, where a host comes out and opens with a song. Douglas, who actually had a Top 10 hit during The Beatles' heyday in 1966 with the saccharine, mostly spoken-word "The Men in My Little Girl's Life," does the honors every day, massacring a Beatle tune for the first two shows. As a host, he is as calm and reassuring as a pastor. Once you put a microphone in his hand and you strike up the band, he's suddenly a ham and cheese en wry, rolling his eyes and mugging before switching to his "sincere" delivery.
"How about my band?" he shouts, wringing the audience of any residue applause. That band, led by Joe Harnell, is indeed amazing. How it can take any tune from The Beatles to Jerome Kern to Disney and make them all sound like the theme from The Bob Newhart Show is beyond comprehension.
While many viewers were ready for a counterculture battle of "us vs. them," the resulting shows have John and Yoko more than going out of their way to be nice and Mike stretching his open mind 'til it snaps under his strange, toupeelike hair. Here's a run-down of the shoulder-shrugging highlights:
Day One: On this show, Douglas molests "Michelle" to a bolero beat and finds it necessary to tell the audience that John wrote it. John, on his best behavior, tells Douglas "You sang it well" (!!!) and commends him for not singing "Yesterday," the Beatles standard for which he had no hand in writing. "At least I wrote the middle eight [to 'Michelle']," John nods, to which sycophant Mike replies, "That's usually the toughest part!" How does the establishment expect to win this round if Mike's rope-a-dopin' like Larry Tate from Bewitched?
The audience's boisterous bewilderment to Yoko's performance-art pieces makes her seem like the wacky substitute teacher you always wished for. First there's the Unfinished Painting, a blank canvas that everyone on the show and in the audience signs and is supposed to be auctioned off by the end of the week. It's encrusted with obscenities by Day Five, so that idea's scrapped. Lennon is diligent about getting everyone to sign, to the point of holding up musical guests the Chambers Brothers from starting their next number. Mike tells John and Yoko, "We'll finish it later, guys," sounding very much like a parent.
"Louie Nye's a Funny Guy" reads the graphic touting this snore-filled segment. Billed as a comedian/actor, all I can remember about this forgotten luminary is that he did a few guest shots on The Munsters. John and Yoko look extremely bored during much of this segment, with John slouching in his chair and both lighting up cigarettes.
Not content with just having the studio audience reach out and touch someone, for the next performance-art piece, the panel picks random numbers out of the phone book and tells these strangers they are loved.
While this segment may have given Stevie Wonder the inspiration for "I Just Called to Say I Love You," it could've just as easily given Johnny Lee the impetus to write "Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places."
According to the set's accompanying text, taping had to be stopped numerous times during this segment because these random people were telling Yoko to fuck off. Nye wins John and Yoko over by calling Philly Mayor Frank Rizzo's office to spread the love. Mike goes one better, love-calling David Frost's office and asking if his assistant will call up Merv, Johnny and Cavett to do the same. Later, on a set that looks like the fumes a genie coming out of a bottle would make, John rips through "It's So Hard." Amazingly, as uptight as network censors were in those days, a line like "it's so hard, it's really hard, sometimes I feel like going down" escapes undetected. Also undetected in the ranks of the eminently forgettable Elephant's Memory band is the Lennons' "political adviser" Jerry Rubin, banging a mean African drum. Rubin will really make a big noise on Day Two.
Score: The suits win this one.
Day Two: Today finds the Lennons playing hardball, making Day One's concessions seem like a distant memory, which makes Mike's opening song "With a Little Help From My Friends" seem like a commercial for a couple of Valium. Even the newest performance-art piece, getting the audience to shout the first thing that pops into their head, makes Mike long for yesterday, when everyone just touched one another. Now he needs a place to hide away.
"When my co-hosts perform, it makes my life very easy," the harried host admits. That's what he thinks! It's the first day Yoko gets to sing in her rock-lobster manta-ray style. Then you have every open-mike's nightmare, Yellow Pearl, a third-generation Asian-American couple singing about the plight of their people. "We are the offspring of the concentration camps," they sing with all the glee of turtlenecked types singing about the letter "C" on Sesame Street. When they describe themselves as "movement singers" who do their thing at churches, on street corners and beaches, you're tempted to say it's because no one would pay to see this slop.
About the only compromise made to the Douglas camp is having Nixon appointee surgeon general Jesse Steinfeld, for whom John and Yoko momentarily stop their chain-smoking jamboree. Steinfeld's main reason for being on is to talk about the effects of TV violence on youth and his hopes that TV shows will soon carry a rating. Gee, that didn't take forever. The closest we get to a Jerry Springer moment is when a clearly rankled Steinfeld tells an ungrateful Rubin about how good this country's been to immigrants, to which Rubin replies, "Tell that to the Indians. Or the blacks that came over as slaves."
Although Rubin is dead right about a lot of the injustices of the Nixon administration, his whole antagonistic demeanor makes the Archie Bunker in us all want to call him "Meathead."
Score: The kids win this one. However, Lennon's association with Rubin was all the Nixon administration needed to have the Immigration and Naturalization Services order him to get out of the country on March 6, a mere three weeks after this show aired.
Day Three: Douglas stops his daily barrage of massacring Beatle tunes to sing "I Whistle a Happy Tune." Mike's incessant mugging and eye rolling suggest he must've watched today's guest, Chuck Berry, rehearsing. But forget Mike. It's this show that reminds you of just why you hated Yoko so much in the first place.
Although she emerges as likable during her art pieces, whenever John starts waxing enthusiastic about Beatles or rock 'n' roll, Yoko steamrollers in to change the subject. It seems to irk her that rock music is still a passion of John's, even though he's reduced to playing on her amateurish folk songs like "Sisters O Sisters." While John's role as supportive husband is admirable, it's a conflict of interest that muddies up his own musical identity and makes you embarrassed for both of them.
Berry and Lennon had never met before, and John is clearly in awe of performing with him. What a wonderful moment, you think, pupil and mentor getting it on like a mutual admiration society, until "Memphis, Tennessee" gets an unexpected visitor. Watch closely as Yoko, beating an inconsequential African drum, rips the mike away from the drum's head and lifts it to her caterwauling yapper. See how Berry's eyes pop out, as if somebody just poured an ice-cold beverage down his pants. What evil lurks in her heart that she needs to upstage Berry, as if to remind John that she's his first love, not this duck-walking has-been. To someone's credit, her mike is switched off on the next number, thus preventing "Yoko Too Bad" from ruining "Johnny B. Goode." You can see where she'd chosen to step all over Berry's lead vocals, mouthing incongruous syllables that have nothing to do with playing guitar just like ringing a bell. Whew!
One thing that you don't see on talk shows anymore is that guests stay for the full 90 minutes, talking and participating in later segments. How else would you get to witness John and Chuck sharing an apron as they watch a macrobiotic meal being made? The kooky cook, Hillary Redleaf, at one point actually chides Joe Harnell's band for playing chaotic background music that will ruin the mellow vibes of the food. Then Chuck, John, Yoko and Mike sit down on a mat and have their alpha brain waves hooked up to a synthesizer to make biofeedback music. Judging how high Mike's pulse is, he's gotta be relieved that there are only two more days to go.
Score: Mike's posse wins this one for shutting down Radio Free Yoko!
Day Four: By this time, the broken tea cup piece from the first show is nearly reassembled. Mike, once again the heir of parent, tells the young viewers not to break Mama's china. John tells how his mama got run over by an off-duty cop, but assures viewers, "I don't have a hate-pigs or hate-cops attitude."
Better still, we learn that Black Panther Chairman Bobby Seale used to be a standup comedian. Even years out of condition, Seale surely would have been funnier than the Ace Trucking Company, the alleged comedy troupe that foisted the unfunny "you can call me Ray, or you can call me Jay, but you doesn't have to call me Johnson" routine on the world. You figure the Amos and Andy delivery of these lines had to offend the Black Panthers in tow, as must have the rubber-soul stylings of Broadway singer Vivian Reed. She meets Mike's Soul Seal of Approval, turning out "Everybody's Talkin'" like it's "I Can't Turn You Loose." I'll bet it was at this moment that Lennon first thought of becoming Nilsson's drinking partner.
Score: Nobody wins. Even with a Black Panther, this is the dullest show of the lot.
Day Five: On Day One, Mike was gushing about Lennon's legendary status. By Day Two, he downplayed it by introducing John like a Dating Game contestant ("He's an accomplished singer-songwriter and also a filmmaker"). By Day Five, Mike's totally hip to the scene, baby. "My co-hosts are all tuned in to the vibrations of the world." During the interview segment, John and Yoko seem more like a married couple than ever before.
We learn that John makes better tea than Yoko and that they have great fights. "I can't win them, either," John admits. All during the week, we've seen an excerpt a day from the Lennons' film Imagine, which mostly consists of long clips of them looking at each other. Now, with the clip for "How," henpecked John rows a boat with great difficulty while Yoko just sits there like a Sphinx.
The Lennons' answers to audience questions are on the mystifying side of positive. When asked what he thought of Wings' atrocious Wild Life album, John replies, "I quite enjoyed it." When asked what they thought of primal therapy, John says they enjoyed that, too! Yoko shows where her sympathies lie by insisting that "How Do You Sleep," John's vitriolic attack against Paul McCartney, is "a beautiful song."
If that doesn't remind you that the dream is most definitely over, how about hearing John and Yoko duet on the pedestrian protest song "The Luck of the Irish." Lennon's empty-headed political sloganeering makes the improvisational "Give Peace a Chance" seem like a finely chiseled piece of songcraft by comparison. How could viewers of the time believe this peace-lovin' couple was a national threat, what with Yoko bleating "let's walk over rainbows like leprechauns and the world will be one Blarney Stone"? For that matter, what other revolutionary goes on TV and admits that his liberated wife "allows me to be weak. It's a great relief"?
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Also relieved is Douglas. At the end of the show, he comes out looking like he's ready to duet with a Beatle. Fat chance! Yoko shuts him down by singing a Japanese folk song, after which Mike warbles a specially commissioned song over still photographs from the week's shows. It's kinda incongruous, Mike crooning "I'd like to thank my friends for being so helpful" while you're looking at slides of Jerry Rubin arguing with Mike and the surgeon general.
Score: Mike Douglas wins big. His ratings soared after this record-breaking week of appearances that aired February 14 through 18, 1972. As for Operation "Give John and Yoko a Chance," these shows failed to net either Middle American sympathies or a summer-replacement show for Sonny and Cher.
Lennon was coming off his most melodic and consistent solo album, Imagine, and ready to embark on his worst, Some Time in New York, the disastrous double LP he recorded with Yoko and Elephant's Memory, which officially ended his free ride as an ex-Beatle.
Some Time's failure proved that audiences were still violently opposed to the twosome in any joint musical setting. This put a strain on their marriage, as did the deportation proceedings, all net results of these five appearances. While John and Yoko would eventually record a platinum album together, it took five years of John not recording anything but phone messages to allow that to happen. But Jerry Rubin learned to love the system that allegedly killed his working-class parents by becoming a yuppie. Ain't that America?