When I knew John Lennon as a young man, in working on my Beatles biography in the mid-1960s, I would not have described him as political. He may have boasted that "I was born working class and was thrown out of every school I ever went to" - but this was pure fantasy. He lived in what I thought was a posh semi and was never expelled from any school.
Lennon saw himself as a radical, as being anti-authority, and he loved to stir things up. It's true he gave his name, and some funds, to various causes, but few of them were political. He also gave money to lots of individuals, often for little reason. I was with him at his house when some dodgy lads knocked at the front door, collecting for a friend who was in trouble - or so they said. I didn't believe a word of their story, but Lennon shoved £100 into their hands, closed the door, and just laughed. It amused him, even if he had been conned.
So I was somewhat surprised to learn about a film that premièred last month at the London Film Festival, The US versus John Lennon, which presents him as just about the most important and influential political figure in American history in our lifetime. I came away from watching it feeling quite proud that I once knew a political giant. I learned that it was thanks to Lennon that the United States withdrew from Vietnam, and that he helped to bring down Richard Nixon.
The film is a documentary, featuring up-to-date interviews with some of the people who were involved, and a soundtrack of mainly post-Beatles material. It follows John Lennon from 1966, the year he had his first brush with American sensibilities when he asserted that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus Christ (which I always maintained was technically true - more people globally in 1966 knew about JL than about JC) until 1976, the year he finally got his green card, granting him permanent resident status.
The first significant political event in the film comes in 1969 when someone called John Sinclair, who styled himself as a White Panther, got trapped into selling two joints to people who turned out to be undercover police officers. He was sent to jail. This incident was new to me, but in the US the case received national attention when John Lennon appeared at a benefit concert for Sinclair. He sang a little song, which he had composed specially, with pretty banal lyrics - "It ain't fair . . . John Sinclair". It did the trick, though: Sinclair was released next day.
It was then that the US authorities got scared. FBI agents attended pop concerts in order to write down the words of Lennon's songs and check them for possible subversion. Laughable, really, but then it got serious when they started following him everywhere and tapping his telephone. J Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI - a pig of a man - started ranting against Lennon. At the time, I didn't believe it when John announced in various interviews that the FBI was after him. I thought he was getting carried away, but now we know that the Nixon administration had become paranoid, fearing that Lennon might become a potent political leader, and was determined to get rid of him.
It was the Vietnam war that transformed him into a political threat. With his song "Give Peace a Chance", his presence at demonstrations against the war, and his support for so many radical groups, Lennon became a focus for the anti-war movement. Gore Vidal wisely points out how frightened convention-bound Americans were on hearing the strains of "Give Peace a Chance" when they had been brought up sing ing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic". Looking back, he says in the film: "John Lennon equals life. Nixon and Bush equal death."
The war was also the issue over which Lennon got serious about politics. He may not have been concerned with party-political debates, but he became seriously committed to the pacifist cause. Some footage in the film still makes me smile: John and Yoko in bed for peace or inside white bags. They were taking the piss but meaning it; sending themselves up, seriously.
The FBI finally found an excuse for expelling Lennon - his minor criminal offence in England for allegedly possessing cannabis. He hired a lawyer who fought his case, spinning it out for four years until he finally got his green card.
The present-day political context gives The US versus John Lennon additional power. The film-makers had been trying to get the project off the ground for ten years, without success. But now we have another hated president and a pointless war, and it certainly makes one wonder: which living pop stars with radical leanings or strong spiritual values will lead us out of Iraq? Billy Bragg? Sting? Cliff Richard?
For Beatles fans, the film will be fun - if totally one-sided. No one makes the argument that Lennon's political power was a nonsense, his influence was all froth, that the FBI and Nixon were potty to be scared of him. Neither does it mention the turbulent nature of his relationship with Yoko Ono, which culminated in a temporary split in 1973. Predictably, some have blamed this on the influence of Ono herself; she co- operated with the documentary-makers, allowing them access to her archive footage.
The most extraordinary thing about this film, for me, is the evidence of how Lennon's influence has grown over time. In 1970, when the Beatles started splitting up, we thought that was it - on to the next big thing. And for about the next decade, interest in them waned. At the end of the 1970s, I remember noticing how Lennon's image had changed: if people in the UK thought about him, which mostly they didn't, they thought: "I wonder what's happened to John. What's he doing these days? Is he a recluse? Is he still with that funny woman?"
The further we get from the Beatles, the bigger they become. Every week somewhere in the world, from Japan to the US, there is a Beatles conference. In universities everywhere you can take a degree that includes Beatles studies. The National Trust cares for Lennon's house and for Paul McCartney's house in Liverpool, opening them up to a worshipping public. There's a John Len non museum near Tokyo and a statue of him in Havana. Prices of Beatles memorabilia rise every year. All of these things we just could not have imagined, back in the 1960s.
One of the many things to have stood the test of time is Lennon's best one-liners, of which several feature in the film. "Our society is run by insane people for insane objectives" - as true then as it is now. And asked if he resented the years spent getting his green card and whether he hated the FBI for what it had done to him, he replied: "Time wounds all heels."
"The US versus John Lennon" goes on general release next month
Hunter Davies's authorised biography "The Beatles" is published by Cassell (£15.99)
Lennon in his own words
"Part of me suspects I'm a loser, and the other part of me thinks I'm God Almighty."
"Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me."
"Reality leaves a lot to the imagination."
"As usual, there is a great woman behind every idiot."
"You either get tired fighting for peace, or you die."
"You have to be a bastard to make it, and that’s a fact. And the Beatles are the biggest bastards on earth."