Say What? John Lennon Rockin’ Jimmy Carter’s White House?

In his presidential campaign of 1976, Jimmy Carter said, “I’ll never lie to you.”

There’s truth. There’s lying. And when offering the benefit of the doubt, there are errors in editing.

In Jimmy Carter’s White House Diary, published in 2010, he writes proudly of the performances given in the East Room and the South Lawn when he was president. Along with the actual diary entry regarding a concert given by pianist Vladimir Horowitz, he provides retrospective comments on the performance series arranged by First Lady Rosalynn Carter.

Rosalynn arranged an unprecedented series of performances by great artists in the White House and on the South Lawn. They included dozens of superb performers, ranging from Willie Nelson, John Lennon and Dolly Parton to Mikhail Baryshnikov, Vladimir Horowitz, Leonard Bernstein, and Beverly Sills. She was able to induce PBS to broadcast many of the performances live throughout the nation, and they were recorded for later enjoyment.

Rosalynn Carter served as an astute and innovative first lady, but arranging for a John Lennon concert at the White House in the mid to late ’70s might have earned her a spot on Mount Rushmore. During the one term of Carter’s presidency, Lennon avoided the limelight, devoting himself to his and wife Yoko Ono’s son, Sean. For the first five years of Sean’s life, Lennon determined the only performance that mattered was that of an ever-present father. When he re-emerged in the  fall of 1980 to promote his and Ono’s Double Fantasy album, he was more inclined to speak of parental concerns than his legendary career. Although his life ended just three weeks after the new album’s release, much ink was devoted in that time to Lennon’s thoughts as well as to his new music. Naturally, whenever in the public eye, people paid close attention to John Lennon.

No doubt, a White House performance by John Lennon would have been big, big news. After all, Richard Nixon, occupying the Oval Office less than 3 years before Carter’s election, wanted Lennon deported. For Carter, a John Lennon White House appearance would have been a shining non-partisan moment to share with all Americans. Just as Lennon’s nurturing of his son revealed a personal journey, the president’s embrace of the former Beatle would have shown how a great country progresses.

It’s best to assume, even with the close study given memoirs of former presidents by major publishers (in this case, Farrar, Straus and Giroux), that the inclusion of Lennon’s name with the other performers is simply an editing error. Perhaps the allusion to a Lennon performance was confused with the Carter inaugural concert and inaugural ball he and Ono attended in January ’77. Various publications ran photos of Lennon chatting it up at the events with other guests such as Carly Simon, James Taylor and Muhammad Ali. He looked hale and hearty, causing many fans to wonder when he would go back into the studio. It had been nearly two and a half years since his last album of original material, Walls and Bridges, was released, and it was followed only six months later by his album of oldies, Rock and Roll. In those days, a  two-year break in the action by a major artist was unnerving to devoted fans. Would John Lennon become the J. D. Salinger of rock music?

Among those eager for new music by John Lennon was journalist Dave Marsh. In the November 3, 1977 issue of Rolling Stone, he conveyed his feelings by way of an “open letter” to Lennon, suggesting he find a studio, whether it be London, New York, Los Angeles, or wherever, and lead a band “with a steady lineup and a long-term commitment that lets everyone take chances with one another.” Marsh said it was “a dream worth hanging on to.”

The Lennon letter was widely endorsed by readers. Agreeing with Marsh’s sentiments, an employee at a major record store in Atlanta posted a large photo of Lennon on the wall with the message, “Where are you when we need you?” scrawled at the top. The opinions of rock critics and fans over his break from recording meant little to Lennon. He was justifiably enjoying the family life and bluntly stated he “didn’t owe anybody anything.” To his lasting credit, Marsh, in a Lennon tribute column for the January 22, 1981 Rolling Stone, acknowledged Lennon’s feelings and admitted he was wrong in requesting Lennon come out of “retirement.”

The desire for new Lennon music was partly driven by the tedium of the mid-’70s rock scene. Albums in those years by Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Allman Brothers Band, Paul McCartney and others were disappointing to many of their fans. Also dispiriting were the legal issues that kept Bruce Springsteen out of the studio for nearly three years. But worst of all was the watered-down rock of Peter Frampton, Eagles, and Fleetwood Mac dominating the airwaves and record charts. A reporter visiting a WQXI-FM (94Q) disc jockey noted Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon” as it was being played — for likely the 42nd time that week. “Hey,” the DJ proclaimed,”that’s what the people want to hear.” That’s what the people were having shoved down their throats was more like it.

Rock music’s mid-’70s afflictions were in full focus on August 16, 1977; the day Elvis Presley died. True, Presley’s recorded output throughout the ’70s was spotty, but he was still an important figure. He had provided enough thrilling musical moments for a lifetime. John Lennon, purveyor of thrilling moments himself, had the opportunity with the other Beatles to meet Presley in ’65. A few days later Lennon told a Presley friend how much it meant for him to meet his longtime hero, asking that he tell Presley, “if it hadn’t been for him I would have been nothing.”

A New Start and Then . . . “(Just Like) Starting Over,” released on October 24, 1980, was the first single from Double Fantasy. Lennon referred to it as his “Elvis/Orbison” track. It’s a lively number with an old-time rock and roll feel, and aptly enough, Lennon’s vocals on the track reveal the styles of both Presley and Orbison. On the day Lennon was killed, the single was number three on the Billboard Hot 100.

Lennon’s death was a blow, one totally unexpected. The pain of losing such a vibrant and captivating figure still resonates deeply, almost forty years later. In a statement, President Jimmy Carter captured the essence of Lennon and the bewilderment felt around the world. Carter praised Lennon’s spirit, “the spirit of the Beatles, brash and earnest, iconic and idealistic all at once,” going on to note, “It is especially poignant that John Lennon has died by violence, though he had long campaigned for peace.”

Giving  Peace A Chance . . . Even at 95, with a cancer scare behind him, Jimmy Carter remains sharp and perceptive.  His mind is like a steel trap. And the boy who worked on his family’s farm is still handy with a hammer and a nail. He and Mrs. Carter participate annually in building homes for Habitat for Humanity, this year in Nashville, Tennessee.

Defeated in his bid for reelection, Carter left the White House in January ’81, determined to fashion a new approach to the post-presidency.  He has done so admirably, impressing many, even those not in agreement with him politically. Through the Carter Center, in partnership with Emory University, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter have worked to wage peace, fight disease and build hope, laboring to make the world a better place. Their approach is in keeping with the Beatles’ “Revolution,” in which John Lennon, disgusted with wars and poverty, sang, “we all wanna change the world.” Lennon would certainly acknowledge the Carters have done their part.

Author’s note: Thanks very much to Kenneth Lockerbie for use of the great photos of John Lennon and others.