Activist Jerry Rubin’s 1970s Protest Boogie With Bob Dylan, John and Yoko Chronicled in New Biography (Excerpt)

Did It Jerry Rubin Book
Courtesy of Mitch Myers

For the uninitiated, the late Jerry Rubin was a Yippie — a politically active hippie — best known for theatrical anti-war activism during the 1960s and usually associated with his more famous counterculture collaborator, Abbie Hoffman. While there have been several books written about Hoffman and numerous tomes devoted to the Yippies and ’60s protest, there has never been a biographical effort focusing on Jerry Rubin, until now. “Did it! Jerry Rubin: An American Revolutionary” (Fantagraphics Books), written by Pat Thomas, helps fill this void in U.S. history, chronicling Rubin’s life as he evolved from antiwar radical to green-energy/health-food advocate and social-networking yuppie hanging out at Studio 54 and wearing a suit and tie.

An extensive oral history loaded with graphics, Thomas’ book incorporates coverage of the infamous Chicago 8 trial, interviews with men and women of the protest movement including Paul Krassner, Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary and John and Leni Sinclair, as well as correspondence with people like Hoffman, Norman Mailer and Eldridge Cleaver. Another point of interest is the confluence of rock music and counterculture activism, resulting in Rubin’s interactions with the likes of Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Phil Ochs, Mick Jagger and others. Here, in an exclusive excerpt from “Did it!,” which is set for release on Sept. 5, one can follow Rubin’s muddled efforts to draft Dylan, Lennon and Ono into his scattershot anti-Nixon agenda of 1972.

Chapter Nine:
Christ, You Know It Ain’t Easy: The Ballad of John & Yoko, Rubin & Sinclair & Peel & Weberman & Dylan

Yoko Ono told me and Abbie that they considered us to be great artists. Abbie replied, “That’s funny. We always thought of you as great politicians.”—Jerry Rubin

By autumn 1971, Bob Dylan had come under heat from the radical left because he hadn’t recorded any political songs in years. They wanted something along the lines of “The Death of Emmett Till” rather than “Like a Rolling Stone” or “If Not For You.” Dylan had returned to the Village after sitting out the last part of the ’60s in Woodstock. He was now wandering the streets of Manhattan and trying to avoid A. J. Weberman, who stalked Dylan, pawed through his garbage, and accused him of nefarious deeds in the underground press. To this day, Weberman continues to hound Dylan on YouTube.

Dylan ultimately decided to collaborate with Allen Ginsberg on some political recordings. On November 17, 1971, with lyricist Ginsberg as the primary vocalist and Dylan on guitar (along with musicians like David Amram, Happy Traum and poet/vocalist Anne Waldman), they recorded the topical song “Going to San Diego.” (It had just been announced that the 1972 Republican Convention would be held in Southern California.) On November 4, Dylan recorded the protest song “George Jackson,” which paid tribute to the black political prisoner who’d been murdered by prison guards in early August. It became a classic.

John and Yoko were now living in Manhattan and hanging with Jerry Rubin, who was energized to knock Nixon out of the White House during his ’72 bid for reelection. Lennon liked the politics that Jerry was feeding him and was impressed by where Dylan was headed musically, as it echoed his own “Power to the People,” as well as anticipated the yet-to-be-recorded Some Time in New York City album. Lennon hoped Dylan would join him in a cross-country jamboree that would blend music and protest to help sway the presidential race. Lennon and Ono had moved to America around the time of the Attica Prison Riot in September, and were more interested in political action than musical recordings. As Jerry told Lennon biographer, Jon Weiner, in the early ’80s:

We had all been talking to Dylan because Dylan had been hanging around a little bit those days. Dylan was being hounded by A. J. Weberman and he was really upset. This was also a time when a lot of class conflicts among the counterculture were real disturbing to a lot of folks.

I forced A. J. to apologize publicly to Dylan in the Village Voice, in order to get Dylan to really go with us on the tour. That was my purpose. I thought if I could get A. J. to apologize to Dylan, destroy A. J’.s credibility, therefore Dylan would be free of A. J. and Dylan would be so appreciative that he would then say “yes” to me and John and Yoko—and then we would all tour the country raising money for prison causes, poor people causes, to feed poor people, whatever was necessary.

All of this was under the auspices of Rock Liberation Front — led by A. J. Weberman — and endorsed by Lennon and Rubin, even though John and Yoko had yet to meet the notorious A. J., while Weberman and Rubin considered each other frenemies.

Lennon enjoyed how Weberman was hassling Dylan to get political — A. J. gave out badges that touted “Free Bob Dylan”—and with the release of “George Jackson,” they all embraced Dylan’s return to activism. The problem was, Lennon needed to throw A. J. under the bus so that Dylan might consider getting on the bus. [NYC musician] David Peel was also part of the Rock Liberation Front.

As the Rock Liberation Front, Peel, Rubin, Ono, and Lennon signed an open letter. They wanted “Weberman to publicly apologize to Bob Dylan for leading a public campaign of lies and malicious slander against Dylan in the past year.” Weberman capitulated. He wrote an open apology, which he signed as Minister of Defence [sic], Rock Liberation Front. A decade later, Jon Wiener asked Jerry how far discussions went with Dylan, and if he indicated interest. Jerry replied,

No, he gave no indication. It was a dream that Dylan would do it; there was no hard evidence that he ever would . . .. I was actually hoping that John and Dylan would form a new band. I thought we could make musical history as well as political history. I thought it was going to revive the ’60s, that was my plan. This was at a time when the ’60s were ending but no one really wanted to admit they were ending and it was a time when the leaders were blaming themselves, like I was blaming myself. I was thinking, “If only I was a better leader, if only I was came up with more courageous or imaginative ideas.”