Tariq Ali on John Lennon and Mick Jagger

Tariq Ali

Tariq Ali, the legendary leftist writer, editor, and filmmaker, recalls his time with John Lennon and Mick Jagger at the height of the 1960s upheavals.

John Lennon (1940-1980) of English rock and pop group the Beatles plays his guitar on stage in London on July 11, 1964. (David Redfern / Redferns)

Interview by
Gerhard Dilger

When longtime leftist writer, filmmaker, and New Left Review editor Tariq Ali visited the offices of the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in São Paulo in 2017, he sat down for a conversation drawn in part on his memoir of the upheavals of the 1960s, Street Fighting Years, rereleased by Verso Books in 2018 for the fiftieth anniversary of 1968.

On the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of John Lennon’s murder earlier this month, we republish that conversation here. It has been edited for clarity.


Tell us about your relationship with John Lennon.


In the Black Dwarf, our left-wing magazine, we criticized the Beatles’ songs “Revolution 1” and “Revolution 9,” saying these were very weak songs. To our surprise, a letter to the editor from John Lennon arrived, which we published. I got our music critic to reply, Lennon replied back. And then he rang me up. “Hey Tariq, you know, are we going to carry on fighting in letters pages of your paper. Why don’t you come around and let’s have a chat?”

So we went and had a chat. It was very interesting. And my colleague Robin Blackburn did an interview with him, which we edited nicely. He read it and said, “God, you make me sound so intelligent.” And “are you sure I should be published in the magazine? Because it’s very serious, and I don’t want it to lose any prestige.” And I said, don’t be silly, it will just sell a few more copies.

I remember once he rang after the interview and said, “I was so inspired by our interview that I have written a song for the movement. Can I sing it to you?” I said, “Yes, sing it!” It was “Power to the People.” He said, “I want people to be singing it.” I said, “don’t worry, we will sing it.” So he got it as a single and we publicized it as the song for the movement.

Then after some time, he rang and said, “Will you come to my home? Because I’m just finishing a new LP, and I want you to hear the songs.” So we went over to his house, and he had just written “Imagine.” I had gone with Robin Blackburn, and Régis Debray had been sitting in our office, just released from a Bolivian prison. So we said, “Régis, this is a big opportunity.” I asked John, “can I bring Régis Debray along?” He said, “Who is he?” I said, “He is a French intellectual who has just been released from prison.”

So when we said to Debray, “do you want to meet John Lennon? He said, “Who is he?” We explained, and Robin said, “You have been in prison, Régis, but I thought that it would have penetrated down there that there is a group called the Beatles who are now more popular than Jesus.”

So we took Régis along and John said, “Ok, I’m going to sing it to you.” So he sang “Imagine,” and then he looked at me. So I said, “Let me think.” I made some fake consultations with Robin and Régis, and I said, “Yes John, the politburo agrees. It can go out.”

But later, when we were alone, I said to him that I like “Imagine” and that it might touch people, but it is a bit too sugary. I prefer “Working Class Hero,” which is an absolutely wonderful song. He said, “So do I. I prefer that, too.” But of course, “Imagine” went everywhere.


But then he went to New York.


I told him, “don’t move to the States.” He said, “Why? Yoko hates it here, the British press is racist, the attacks on her had been disgusting.” I said, “we are used to them.” And he said, “why shouldn’t I go to the States?” I said, “there are too many kooky people there.” He said, “even in Manhattan?” So I said, “no, probably in the rest of the country, but I don’t like it.” I said, “my instinct is against it.”

So he was shaken. I’ve kept in touch with Yoko for all these years, and let’s say that it was an unnecessary death. We needed him so much. During the Iraq War, for Palestine. He was very good on Ireland. Mick Jagger did some good songs on the Iraq War, too, after having gone through his Tory phase. But John would never have gone in that direction.


Talking about Jagger, you are the “street fighting man” from the Rolling Stones song of the same title. How did this come about?


Mick Jagger used to come to our demonstrations. He was quite intelligent, you know, and he was very ultra-left. The [Red Army Faction] people would have loved him, I’m sure they did. [The RAF, also known as the Baader–Meinhof Group, was a militant leftist group that carried out assassinations, kidnappings, bombings, and bank robberies, with police in West Germany from 1970 into the late 1990s.]

Once in a private talk on a demonstration, he was extremely militant. I said, “calm down, already they’re attacking us for fighting the cops outside the US embassy.” So he wrote the song and recorded it. The BBC of course refused to play it, so he sent me the tapes, the handwritten version of the song.

And he said, “Here you are, my dear. You know the BBC won’t play it. Could you put it in the next issue of the Black Dwarf?” So I said, “fine.” And that was an issue before a huge demonstration against the Vietnam War. So we put it on the cover, because we had an article from Engels as well. So we put: “Engels and Jagger on Street Fighting,” and he was really tickled by that. He liked it. So the song became part of the folklore.


What about now? Who is doing good stuff?


There are some young singers who are good and on our side. I don’t particularly care for their music so much, but what does that matter? The young people like some of them. But now it’s almost like that rock world has been so commercialized. But in the States, there are some people, rap artists, etc. who are popular and good. So it hasn’t completely died down.


Do you think Bob Dylan deserved the Nobel prize?


Who knows. I like him, obviously. And he was very important for my generation. Whether he deserved the prize is . . .[laughs]. Because quite a lot of his songs were openly taken from other sources. Woody Guthrie, for instance, Joan Baez, and they used to sing together quite a lot. I don’t begrudge him the prize. I would have been happy if he had turned it down and written a song saying why. . .

But his line, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” a whole political grouping was formed out of that — the unfortunate grouping, the Weathermen, who, like the RAF in Germany, went in for acts of terrorism. I know quite a lot of them are around now. And they say it was a huge political error.


You were also in Berlin, in 1967 and 1968.


Yes, I was in Berlin in 1968 for the big anti–Vietnam War march, which is now legend. [Protesters] were carrying portraits of Marx, Lenin, Luxemburg, Che Guevara and marched to the Berlin Wall, where the East German soldiers were saying, “What the hell is going on? These sorts of photographs are usually carried by us.” [laughs]  You could see the surprise on their faces.

But one evening after this, we were in the Republican Club in Berlin, which was a very popular meeting place. And I suddenly got into a big argument with Ulrike Meinhof, and I will never forget how she was shouting at me: “You do not know what it is like to sit at the breakfast table with someone who now pretends to be normal but was an SS officer. And many of them showed no regret at all.” And she said, “I am not talking about myself, I am talking about our generation.”

So I said, “okay, I understand that. But you can’t wipe them all out.” She said, “no, but today many of them are supporting the Vietnam War, which for us is a war crime.”

So one could see that it was a slightly twisted way of thinking, and for the first time I understood that that’s a problem which I had never confronted. That generation of Germans was born into this, it was difficult.

Another thing was a lot of German people were very strongly for Palestine, so interestingly that has become very difficult now. But after 1967 huge support for the Palestinians grew up in Germany, quite openly expressed, delegations coming to Palestine. There was no feeling of guilt, they didn’t see it as something they were responsible for or that the crimes of the German ruling class were their crimes. There was confidence.