Pull up a chair, Beatles fans, I have a story for you, a story about politics, pot, and rock and roll, starring John Lennon and Timothy Leary. IT'S A GOOD ONE.
The story starts—as so many good ones do—in the 1960s. Specifically, it starts the day after Christmas in 1968, when Timothy Leary was arrested in Laguna Beach, California for the possession of two marijuana roaches. Having been arrested before for violating the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, a law that Leary himself would help overturn the following year. People convicted under the Marijuana Tax Act weren't exactly busted for drugs but rather tax evasion. The whole story of how Leary's case ended up before the Supreme Court is wildly interesting, but that's a story for another day.
Today's story is about the Beatles, you see. On August 8, 1969, the band released a record with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Star crossing Abbey Road. It was called "Abbey Road." While the album was in production, of course, Lennon was very publicly and very wonderfully protesting the war in Vietnam. You've probably heard about his so-called "Bed-In for Peace" events with Yoko Ono. One of them happened on June 1, 1969, and Timothy Leary was there to help.
John and Yoko at a "bed-in for peace" in Amsterdam circa 1969
It's unclear exactly when and how, but around this time, Lennon agreed to write a campaign song for Leary's ill-fated run for governor of California against Ronald Reagan. Leary's slogan was "Come together, join the party," an obvious nod to his countercultural tendencies and even an allusion to his enthusiasm for psychedelic drugs. Lennon had evidently written a version of the campaign song but took things in a different direction, when the band was in the studio recording "Abbey Road."
Lennon told the whole story to writer David Sheff, when the two spent three weeks together as part of a Playboy interview. (The interview would later gain a level of infamy as it hit newsstands two days before Lennon's assassination. Again, another story for another day.) Lennon said:
The thing was created in the studio. It's gobbledygook; "Come Together" was an expression that Leary had come up with for his attempt at being president or whatever he wanted to be, and he asked me to write a campaign song. I tried and tried, but I couldn't come up with one. But I came up with this, "Come Together," which would've been no good to him—you couldn't have a campaign song like that, right?
Nevertheless, Leary's campaign was doomed, due to that pesky pot conviction. Congress wrote a new law against pot the day after the Supreme Court overturned the Marijuana Tax Act, and Leary got sentenced to 20 total years in prison. He would later escape with help from the Weather Underground and members of the Black Panther Party, eventually ending in Afghanistan before he was extradited back to the United States. (So that's three stories for other days we have now.)
Timothy Leary and his family at the State University of New York circa 1969 during one of his lecture tours
"Come Together" fared much better than Leary throughout all this, though. The song topped the charts in the United States and became an anthem of sorts for the anti-war movement. It's also served as an excellent addition to many movie soundtracks, including the blockbuster Michael Bay film Armageddon. How different the album version was from the campaign song remains a mystery, but Leary would later speak about the first time he heard it. He said:
Although the new version was certainly a musical and lyrical improvement on my campaign song, I was a bit miffed that Lennon had passed me over this way… When I sent a mild protest to John, he replied with typical Lennon charm and wit that he was a tailor and I was a customer who had ordered a suit and never returned. So he sold it to someone else.
To be specific, he sold more than one to someone else. In 1980, "Abbey Road" became the first Beatles record to sell more than 10 million copies. "Come Together" is the first—and, some might say, best—song on it. It's also a great way to start your weekend.
So happy birthday "Abbey Road!" I never knew you were so interesting.