Why she was right for him
Rock's most vilified spouse deserves a fairer hearing, says the producer of a new film about John and Yoko
Sunday 04 January 1998
Some 17 years before the reign of Diana, queen of hearts, was ended, John Lennon taught his generation the meaning of irony, the joy of public collective grief and the incomprehensible pain of losing someone who really had only just begun to enjoy their own life.
Mark Chapman became the latest inscrutable of history. A nobody who had loved the music of the man he would ultimately murder, who had difficulty remembering his name from that of his idol, who had signed off from his meaningless porter's job in Honolulu as "John Lennon", travelled to New York and pumped five bullets into the maker of the music that gave his life meaning. Now all it would give was memory.
Yoko will never forget where she was - on the sidewalk next to her dying husband, screaming for the shocked bystanders to help her. But she was barely noticed. Comment was sought first from others who had been part of Lennon's life and times. Even Chapman's wife (also an Oriental) got more airtime than Yoko. For the first time in more than 14 years since they had embarked on their career as the country's most controversial couple, Yoko was yang without her yin, separated timelessly from the man she referred to as her "... old soldier who fought with me".
Understandably, she was locked away in the towering Dakota mansion block while crowds below chanted "Woman" until they were hoarse. "Woman" was the song Lennon had written especially for her, and which was re-released posthumously by public demand and went to No 1 on both sides of the Atlantic. It was destined to be part of the soundtrack for any Lennon mention or soundbite for evermore, whether Yoko could bear it or not.
Archive footage tells of a different Yoko to the spiky and thorough Yoko of today. The Yoko who arrives bright and brisk and ready for action, the Yoko who objects to directions when they are not for her and is appalled by our whispers - even about uninteresting camera details. She insists on hearing it all. Yoko who punctuates her anecdotes with a nervous half- giggle, half-murmur, and whose radiance shines when she talks about John, slipping spookily into the present tense several times and leaving herself uncorrected.
The Yoko of yore, however, stood out like a 3-D cut-out when we watched the archive. The sad, plaintive expression, the pyramid of unkempt hair, the unmoving calm when all around her is chaos. Throughout it there seemed to be a shroud surrounding her. But the commentary about her was always uniform. She would not be credited with strength or reserve - the media assumed that she was too stupid or not fluent enough to understand what was happening. They created the image of Yoko Ono, enfant terrible of the avant-garde. Synonymous with happenings and the Sixties situationists.
Yoko had earned her notoriety through her unusual performances with classical musicians such as John Cage; during Event (1962) lying horizontally on top of his Steinway caterwauling while he played his dissonant plink plonks. In Cut (1964) she had invited members of the audience to approach her and cut the clothes from her body until she was naked. Little did Yoko know that by associating with Lennon she was acquiescing for the world's media to do this every day for the rest of her life.
Discussing her Indica gallery show in 1966, the Tonight Programme was unimpressed with her work: "Beatle John Lennon has found himself a new cause," hissed the show's host with thinly disguised disdain, "Yoko Ono, an artist." The Indica show's reception would be typical of what was to follow Yoko wherever she went. The only person to be impressed at the time was Lennon. Yoko had never heard of him. She wasn't an "It" girl, not Sunday-supplement cover story, was not likely to model or host society parties - but she might steal your children and exhibit them in a glass case. Whatever the prevalent attitude, she was certainly not acceptable company for a Beatle. After all, she was 10 years older than him, and didn't every teenage girl in the country want a Beatle for Christmas? What was wrong with Lennon that he had to choose her above all of them?
Lennon was attracted to Yoko through their shared love of art and mischievous take on the stiff and solid world around them. Yoko, child of Hiroshima, embellished and empowered Lennon's macabre and outspoken sense of humour. She unleashed his love of art and with the notion of the happenings allowed an exposition of political purpose through a pop event. He gave her rock music, different to the avant garde where structure was abandoned. With Lennon, Yoko discovered verse and chorus, helpful sometimes when recording for mass appeal. Together they made a couple of dreadful albums and, once the Beatles were finished and they were both concentrating, some beautiful, definitive and indispensable pop music.
THEY were experimental at a confused and naive time when experimentation was encouraged but still feared as a threat to order. They would become very used to establishment opposition in their time - from regular visits from the drug squad in the UK to a five-year battle with US immigration for a green card. Such was their pulling power that the Nixon administration had them under surveillance during their anti-Vietnam protest days.
Yoko remembers the force of opinion that opposed them being together as a re-enactment of the "English fighting the Japs ... like what is this - she's going to cut your throat while you're asleep or something". But regardless of opinion, public or private, they were to become an inseparable slice of Sixties life. Together they converted the trendy love-in moment of the Sixties to their "bed-in" honeymoon peace protest and recording Lennon's first solo hit "Give Peace A Chance". The newsreel presents a picture of a noisily opinionated and belligerent Lennon bellowing at the microphones of the world's assembled media with Yoko at his side. Silent, surrounded yet solitary.
Yoko would take the blame for the Beatles break-up. Biographers and members of the Beatle coterie have written endlessly about how tensions rose in the Beatle camp not because of the intensifying dis-similarity and incompatibility of John's work with Paul's, and their growth beyond the parameters of the group, but because of the terrible two and their inseparability. Yoko says that was not her choice, that's the way John wanted it. If he wanted to go to the bathroom then she had to accompany him. People would point the finger at her. So John and Yoko wanted to be together - so what? But if Posh dumped the Spice Girls coven to crow bi-annual football-song compilations, would we lavish David Beckham with such loathing? I think not. Yoko's crimes were twofold: being an Oriental at the time of the Vietnam war and being a woman at the time of the "It" girl.
Albert Goldman's Lives of John Lennon says Yoko created the junkie in John. In fact she had never tried drugs before meeting him. Goldman and now Barry Miles's biography of Paul McCartney credit the writing of the anti-Paul track, "How Do You Sleep", to Yoko in collaboration with Allen Klein. Yoko shrugs blankly at the suggestion and says: "Great - I get the credit for writing something like that." Few people ask how the resentments got to be this bad or where Paul was at the time.
Maybe Yoko's problem was one of timing, arriving as she did at the end of the Beatles and the birth of John Lennon the rebel, contentious John Lennon, John Lennon returner of the MBE, John Lennon the angry young man. Coincidence or collaboration? Who knows but Yoko? But no one wants to hear what Yoko says. Are we too scared to move on from the hope that the Beatles as a unit allowed?
The reviling of Yoko Ono, the woman who broke up the Beatles, would continue as long as she lived with or without Lennon. Her recordings such as Fly (1971) would be greeted with revulsion and ignored by record shops and radio stations. Her posthumous endorsing of peace efforts or unreleased collections of the Lennon catalogue would be greeted with "cash-in" catcalls, regardless of the fact that money would never be an issue for the Lennons. When she talks about their split in the mid-Seventies when John flirted with another addiction - alcohol - Yoko's admission that her assistant Mae Pang's accompanying John through his legendary "lost weekend" was her suggestion, will be greeted with revulsion and shock. She cannot win.
WHAT is remarkable is that in his solo career John Lennon recorded seven albums, while Yoko chalked up 11. Their work together was unparalleled genius: some of it effortless such as "Instant Karma", recorded in a single day; some, like "Imagine", a Lennon song inspired by Yoko's book Grapefruit, an unconscious collaboration that provided their most memorable moment. But solo, even when she progressed from screaming over feedback to identifiable songs, her work would be critically unrewarded. What is clear in the late Nineties is that Yoko Ono was way ahead of her time.
The recording that John and Yoko were completing on the night of his murder, "Walking On Thin Ice", was the one that John was sure would assert Yoko to the world as a solo artist in her own right. Having since been claimed as a classic of its kind by disco deconstructionists everywhere, the song paved the way for rock-disco crossover. A single listen to Public Image Ltd or to Polly Harvey or to Bjork at her most offbeat is to hear what Yoko was attempting with albums such as Approximately Infinite Universe (1973). If not in behaviour then in state of mind, Yoko has provided a role model for many to follow. Both B52 girls, Cindy and Kate, cite her as their reason for singing, and her stature as the grande dame of the rock widows collective was enhanced by rule-breaking riot girl Courtney Love's paean to her plight, "Twenty Years In The Dakota".
I've made my programme The Ballad of Yoko and John through the eyes of the woman we learnt to loathe for bedding and wedding a Beatle. That is the only reason we know of Yoko Ono and we have never learnt to look beyond for anything else. Filming her in New York I was stunned by her quiet appreciation that people will say bad things about her and that those listening will believe the worst. At her recent exhibition in Oxford I was shocked at how mainstream her kind of avant-garde has become, now more acceptable because men like Damien Hirst have put their names to irony and are consorting with pop stars.
It is a fitting moment for her to make some noise. Loudly and without regret or redress.
`O Zone Special: The Ballad of Yoko and John' is on BBC2, Tuesday at 7.10pm
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