Greg Marquis is a professor in the Department of History and Politics at the University of New Brunswick Saint John where he teaches courses in Canadian history and criminal justice history. His previous books are Policing Canada’s Century: A History of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (Toronto: Osgoode Society/University of Toronto Press, 1993); In Armageddon’s Shadow: The Civil War and Canada’s Maritime Provinces (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998); Truth & Honour: The Death of Richard Oland and the Trial of Dennis Oland (Halifax: Nimbus, 2016) and Truth & Honour: The Oland Family Murder Case That Shocked Canada (Nimbus: Halifax, 2019). At present he is researching Mr. Big police undercover operations in Canada.
What was your publication timeline for John Lennon, Yoko Ono and the Year Canada Was Cool?
I published a book back in 2016, a trade book, a non-academic book, and sort of whetted my appetite for more. Around fall of 2016 I realized that 2019 was going to be the 50th anniversary of John Lennon and Yoko Ono coming to Canada 3 times. Of course many people remember the famous bed-in, so I started collecting some information on that. I was working on other projects at the time and then I put together a few draft chapters I think roughly 2018. I was really trying to get the 2019 publication date because it was the 50th anniversary, I figured it’d be some media coverage and it would be a nice tie in. Didn’t manage to get anyone to bite for that date. So I did, in the fall of 2019, when I had a completed manuscript at the time, contact the eventual publisher Lorimer. Of course by that time we were missing the whole 50th anniversary thing but I got it in with them and I think I signed a contract late ’19. I did some re-writes, at first I wasn’t really happy about what they asked me to do but once I got through it I saw that it was a logical request that they made of me, and the book came out in the fall of 2020. So it was about a 4 year project but it wasn’t the only thing I was working on as an academic and as a writer.
What were the things that they [the editor] asked that you weren’t happy about?
The editor suggested that I take my original manuscript and sort of add context on more on the history of Canada, social movements, drugs, hippies, things that have a connection, I guess to a lot of the classic themes of late 1960’s Canada. Y’know the Vietnam War, draft dodgers… So a lot of that sort of contextual information, that background information on Canadian politics, a little bit more on Pierre Trudeau who was a celebrity prime minister at the time. So they wanted me to sort of add that context, and at first I thought well I just really wanna talk about John Lennon. And the music. But once I added the context I could see the wisdom, and I think so far I mean I’ve only heard from a few readers, they seem to have enjoyed the approach. Particularly if they’re not overly familiar with that time in Canadian history.
You do talk about the intersection of politics and entertainment. Where do you see that moving in the next two years for society in general?
I think if anything we’re living in more of a celebrity age now, and of course John Lennon was a huge celebrity in late 60’s and there are other celebrities as well, movie stars and activists y’know you’d think of Jane Fonda and that type of thing back in the early 70’s, but certainly we have a lot more celebrity activists now and I think it’s probably gonna continue. Obviously I haven’t followed all of them. There’s so many to keep track of now, whether it’s getting the vote out in the United States, Black Lives Matter, that type of thing. Of course Hollywood has been accused from time to time by conservatives in the United States for getting involved in politics and things like that. So I think, I couldn’t name who the top musical celebrity activists are now, I haven’t really followed that scene. But I think in many ways John Lennon blazed a trail for that, and of course he was a bit erratic, he didn’t often get behind formal causes right – say compared to George Harrison or Sting or Bob Geldof- Y’know all my examples are older I realize [laughter] but a lot of those celebrity activists from the entertainment field that we’re a bit more familiar with got behind formal causes and events and that wasn’t John Lennon’s thing. But I think there’s a lot more of that now, people have foundations, they’re encouraging all sorts of social causes. And yeah I think it’s only gonna continue.
You mentioned Jane Fonda, could you elaborate a little bit more on that example?
Well Jane Fonda at the time y’know got involved-she was an actress, and like a lot of younger actors in Hollywood in the late 60’s and early 70’s they were drawn to The New Left and the anti-war movement and even supporting the Black Panthers and things like that. So Jane Fonda became an outspoken anti war activist and one of her-still remembered by Vietnam vets-if you’ve watched the recent excellent documentary on the Vietnam War, it came out a couple years ago, veterans still remember that y’know she went to north Vietnam right, and earned the title “Hanoi Jane”. But again the anti war movement in the United States was multi faceted and part of that anti war movement was not simply against war, that would have been sort of John Lennon’s thing, but it was actually seeming to be on the side of the north Vietnamese, and the Viet Cong and their struggle against American imperialism and a corrupt regime of south Vietnam. So y’know Jane Fonda like a number of Hollywood actors did gravitate into that activism, so did Canada’s Donald Sutherland for a while right, in the early 70’s.
You talk about the role of the audience, and target demographics, and who’s watching. You spoke about that with reference to Pierre Trudeau and John Lennon, but within today’s context.
Right, well I mean going back to the first part of the question, a lot of the academic literature on Trudeau has stressed that he was very media savvy and the whole phenomenon know as “Trudeaumania” which was the buzz created by Pierre Trudeau possibly being candidate for leadership of the Liberal Party in 1968 and then throwing his hat in the ring. This sort of popular buzz created excitement, y’know crowds showing up and that type of thing was compared to “Beatlemania”, hence Trudeaumania. And then when he ran the 1968 elections the same sort of thing, but scholars have stressed how important the media was for shaping that image and how Trudeau made use of the media. He wasn’t the only politician at the time, of course John Lennon, the whole Beatles thing was media driven. Y’know Beatlemania and his peace crusade. So again, politicians now and interest groups – I think you know this is getting a little more out of my expertise into Political Science and maybe Communication Studies, but it’s pretty evident that having media strategies and media campaigns and communications directors is just part of the game now for better or for worse. So politicians both on the left and the right are very media savvy and you might say in some cases cynical, through the power of an image. So I think the 60’s was an important period for the development of that whole reality in politics. It’s not so much the… maybe the details of your platform or your policies, but y’know what image do you project, right? And I think that works for people both on the left and the right. But again, I preface, I just sort of add the proviso that I’m a historian, so it’s a little out of my expertise to talk about the current situation.
In the years 1960 and 1969 you would’ve been, perhaps, quite young at that time. How has your perspective of those events changed as you’ve aged?
Part of it is the feeling I get from some of my students sometimes, that kinda 60’s nostalgia, like if any decade you wish you’d been alive, y’know and seeing what’s going on, wouldn’t the 60’s be the decade right? I was a bit too young, I missed the whole Beatles thing, of course later you realize how big the Beatles are. I was more of a, y’know because I was born in the late 50’s, I was more of like a Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin sort of guy. But certainly going back, doing this research, and of course I had been teaching Canadian history for 30 years, I teach a course on 1960’s Canada so I know the academic literature pretty well but I’m still impressed with how vivid and vibrant a time it was. And again there’s maybe a risk of romanticizing it there a bit, but it just seems that there’s so many interesting things happening, and so many interesting people. It’s not that we didn’t have interesting events and issues and people before or after but it is, it’s it’s own time. And when I finished the writing I realized that I had gone on a bit of a time machine trip. Y’know a little bit of a self indulgent trip into the past and maybe someone else would have a different experience if they looked at 1969, and I think it’s an interesting approach for writers to try, historians, to try to take a year and maybe go back and cover that year. And that’s been done with some success by a number of other authors, whether you’re looking at the year in music, or Mark Kurlansky’s great book on the global 1968 which I think is a real role model for any writer. And then it makes us think about how will historians of the future and writers of the future cover our times? I mean we’ve just gone through a crazy year, and I think it’s going to continue to be crazy with things going on in politics and COVID and climate change and Black Lives Matter and all that, how are historians in the future going to be able to document that? And how will they address it?
When you say that it was a vivid time, can you elaborate?
Canada was a very conservative society, and the baby boomers were there but things were just opening up. It’s not as dramatic as what happened in the United States, but we had our student protest movements, we had occupations of universities, we had anti war protests, we had American draft dodgers and deserters moving north into cities like Montréal and Toronto and Vancouver. We had a very vibrant music scene, I was really impressed with these young hip entrepreneurs, whether they were promoting bands, or promoting rock festivals, or opening up recording studios and running underground newspapers… It’s, it’s just, a very vibrant period and you have all sorts of groups on the left wing of society. A lot of it is also responding to things in the United States which I think is a pattern you see in Canadian history. Certainly now, Black Lives Matter erupted as a movement again in the United States last year, that had a ripple effect in Canada. Though we didn’t need the United States to show us that we have our own racial issues, it’s another example of how Canadians are influenced by many social movements and ideas in the United States. For example I was intrigued by the fact that when the four students were shot by the national guard at Kent State University in May of 1970 I think it was, that creates huge protest in Canada. It didn’t even happen in Canada right. It’s almost like Canadian students and young people identified so closely with that struggle that the borders didn’t matter. And as a historian I find that really, really fascinating.
Some people say that these days the protest space has moved from the physical to the digital?
It was simpler back in the 60’s – Although they didn’t have the internet and Facebook and Twitter and things like that, we know these platforms are hugely powerful now, for better or for worse. And they can create subcultures, online subcultures that can do both good and bad. We’re seeing an example of the bad in my view, in the rise of White Nationalism and Alt Right groups in the United States, but also in Canada sadly to say. But they can also do good I think, they can create some positive social movements. Back in the 60’s y’know we also had television, and that had a huge impact. Of course it was network television for the most part, but y’know it’s probably true that without the scenes on the nightly news of the Vietnam War that were being played out as early as 1965, that the anti war movement in the United States probably would not have been as strong. Technology existed in the past as well as mass communications, and in the book I do talk about Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian media guru who John Lennon meets in one of his trips to Canada as well. Of course Marshall McLuhan’s theories are a little hard to understand and digest but overall he pointed to the importance of mass communications in modern society, and if anything that has just continued, and it’s led I think to a lot of splintering of society into different subgroups.
What do you mean by splintering?
Well you can find your online community basically right, and there’s a lot of opinions out there, some of them are kinda scary but in a way it’s an opening up, it’s a democratization of knowledge for better or for worse. It’s certainly something that when I started my academic career didn’t really exist, again it’s a good example how technology can have both positive and negative outcomes. It depends how it’s used and who uses it.
As somebody who has a background in criminal justice, do you believe in karma?
I joke sometimes with my wife because my background is half Irish and half French, so we have a lot of superstitions we don’t want to jinx things and things like that, but I’m not sure that I believe in karma. But John Lennon, it was just his expression for fate and chance of course, but it tied into – he issued a single as he was in the process of leaving the Beatles called “Instant Karma” which he recorded a few months after his last trip to Canada, and it became one of his first singles as he was exiting the Beatles. But a lot of people picked that up y’know, “it’s karma”. But in the late 60’s amongst the hippie movement and the counterculture and youth there was this huge interest, somewhat superficial if you will, in eastern religions. Hinduism, Buddhism, y’know transcendental meditation, it was often quite superficial but again it was part of the hippie movement and it was another aspect of the hippie movement that troubled the status quo and the older generation. So I think one of the reasons why karma got picked up as kind of a buzz word in that period was because of this flowering of interest by western youth, somewhat superficial, into eastern spiritual traditions.
What has been your favourite project to work on overall?
I would say the one I enjoyed the most was the John Lennon one. To me it brought together a number of strands. It was partly, again I just talked about being a Baby Boomer, but maybe born in the other half of the Baby Boom where I was a bit too young to experience the full Beatles thing… But it reminded me of being a kid in the late 60’s and early 70’s as a teenager buying my first records and things like that. The other thing, I’ve always been a music fan, I do a bit of research in popular culture and this is a way to delve into that a bit, and I’ve been working on the history of music, television and film in Canada. Also as an amateur musician y’know we started off back in the day in garage bands, invariably you’re going to be playing a few Beatles songs [laughter]. And they’re still good to have a few Beatles songs up you’re sleeve at a party or something like that. So the other thing that I found very useful when I was writing and rewriting the John Lennon Yoko Ono book, I had a lot of Beatles music on in the background I had a lot of John Lennon’s solo music goin’ and a lot of music from the late 60’s early 70’s, it just – it was kind of a guilty pleasure y’know to sit and write this book. Ultimately we know there’s a sad ending for John Lennon but I do not cover that, my book sort of ends in 1970. My previous book was a bit different because I’d written on a true crime case which can be a bit depressing, it was a grisly murder and very contentious trial, and I ended up writing the original edition of that book and then I wrote two updates, and it’s a similar thing with some of the courses I teach in criminal justice history. Like for example right now I’m teaching one on the history of homicide and capital punishment. That can be a bit heavy at times, it can be violent, it can be explicit and quite depressing. So I found taking my time machine trip back to the late 60’s where I could talk about Timothy Leary, Pierre Trudeau, John Lennon, Tommy Smothers, different rock musicians… It was a nice break. Again not to say that it’s not a serious subject, but it was a nice break from the more serious themes that I seem to work on as an historian of criminal justice.
Do you have a favorite John Lennon or Beatles song?
Well boy that’s like, that’s a tough one. I would say a John Lennon solo song, I have to say “Imagine”. It’s such a simple song but so beautiful, and of course it comes after the period I’m talking about but I think the “Give Peace a Chance” song that was written and recorded in the Montréal hotel room during the Canadian bed-in is like the prequel to that song ’cause it expresses his view in a kind of utopian future, and that’s his broader view of peace. And I know it’s corny, and some would say unrealistic but… what’s wrong with a little bit of peace right? So it’s hard not to support his general concept. In terms of Beatles songs there’s so many great Beatles songs it’s kind of like asking what’s your favourite food or you’re favourite wine y’know, but I’ve always liked “Ticket to Ride”. I just like the guitar or whatever in the song “Ticket to Ride” but there’s many, y’know “Come Together”, some of the ballads, there’s so many interesting Beatles songs and the other thing about working on Lennon we tend to forget when we’re looking at his solo career, he’d already been half of the most successful song writing team in history that I know of. With Paul McCartney right, so his legacy will live on for a long time.
That idea of a utopia of peace as a theory, can you comment on your opinions of that within a criminal justice background?
I’m a kinda general Canadian historian who happens to have focused more on legal issue criminal justice, of course in Canada as I point out in the book it does tie in to our belief of Canada as a non-aggressive, non-imperialist, peacekeeper. Y’know the United Nations peacekeeping phase that we started getting into in the late 50’s, and this generation really believed in that, a lot of them. Although we had a military we were part of NATO and NORAD, we had limited nuclear weapons and we negotiated with the United States to get rid of those weapons eventually. So Canada has had this sort of national self identity as a peaceful society, so I think that’s another reason why John Lennon’s visit had such a-y’know why it was so important for Canadians at the time. When John Lennon was talking about peaceful society he wasn’t just talking about a society where one country doesn’t invade and bomb another. He was talking about a more harmonious society at home as well, and so what’s interesting – that eventually he for example embraced aspects of feminism, I think largely through his wife: the artist Yoko Ono. He did go through a little bit of a radical phase in the early 70’s before and after he moved to New York, but generally he-y’know this kind of non-competitive, the war on drugs is a way of oppressing people, so he was in favour of decriminalizing marijuana and possibly LSD. He did not want to decriminalize hard drugs. So he had a lot of kind of fuzzy thinking but he was the most intellectual of the four Beatles, and not all of his ideas were original, but a lot of them were sort of showing the way of the future and he was in many ways just ahead of his time.
Is there a reason you write at the kitchen table?
Well I’m down in my basement office now and I actually have two really nice computers in my basement, lots of books and things like that we’re teaching from home and things like that but the kitchen is a nice sunny room and I have a nice table, I can overlook my back yard which is in suburbia, I have trees, I have bird feeders and things like that. And it’s just, I don’t know it just seems to be the nerve center of the house. My wife is often down the hallway or around the corner doing something, I can call out to her and it just seems to be my space. But like any writer I’ve written on airplanes, I’ve written in bus stations, I’ve written in hallways [laughter]. Public libraries can be a great spot too I find, y’know take your laptop. But I just find… I keep going back to my kitchen. And with my beat up, old, out of date laptop with an old version of Word on it. And it just seems to be my most productive space.
I guess one of the reasons I thought that including that stuff on Canadian politics and society was useful – because it might then draw some non-Canadians who may be attracted by the Lennon name to pick up the book and find out “hey, it’s about not just John Lennon, it’s about Canada at the time and I didn’t really know about Canada, I didn’t know all these things were going on in Canada”. The second thing is that for younger people who were not around to remember this era, who don’t remember Woodstock or what have you… It’s another-maybe a way for them to learn about what Canada was like in 1969 or early 1970’s.
Written by Zoë Swinimer
Interviewed by Hope Latta
The Canadian Writers’ Exhibition
Showcasing Canadian writers from coast to coast