Yoko Ono Turns 90

When I was a kid and just learning about the Beatles, I thought Yoko Ono (b. 1933) was strictly cool, for I was just discovering art at the same time. I didn’t understand why she was hated. I wasn’t old enough to resent any perceived wedge she drove into the band because I was not old enough to have experienced them without her as part of their narrative.

Ono had been associated with the neo-Dadaist avant-garde art group Fluxus since the beginning of the 1960s. She had shown work at Carnegie Hall as early as 1961, and collaborated with John Cage. She was the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. She didn’t need the Beatles for either fame or fortune, and if anything her relationship with John Lennon ended up casting doubt on her legitimacy for a time rather than enhancing it. And as for her involvement with the Beatles, it seems to me that she brought something interesting to the band, as opposed to harming it. Objectively, she added something more in the spirit of the Velvet Underground or the Fugs. Her free spirited shrieking and yowling are not worlds away from Janis Joplin and Tina Turner’s more focused blues shouting, or what Hendrix or The Who did with their instruments. A smart PR flack should have sold her participation in that fashion, as a “new sound”, but instead she was treated as a sort of quiet embarrassment, apart from those major stunts the pair pulled together, which no one could ignore. In my view, she should have just joined the Beatles. No one asked for her? I’m pretty sure no one asked for sitar music or string quartets on their records either, but they got ’em. If anything, Lennon was LATE in joining his bandmates’ bids to expand what the Beatles were about musically.

People seem to forget that Lennon had started out in art school. His association with art was almost as old as his one with music. He wasn’t doing something “new” by being enthralled with Yoko, as people seemed to assume, but returning to a lifelong preoccupation. By the time he met her, he surely looked with envy on the sophisticated romantic partners of his bandmates Paul McCartney and George Harrison; the former was paired with stage and screen actress Jane Asher, and the latter with Patti Boyd, a fabulous London fashion model. His own wife Cynthia was more akin to Ringo’s, a Liverpool hairdresser named Mo. It’s hard to be a figure of international importance when you’re constantly being reminded of your provincial hometown.

Lennon’s best solo albums are the ones in which Yoko plays a role: Live Peace in Toronto, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, and Imagine. Granted, Some Time in New York City is dreadful and I’m not real fond of Double Fantasy or Milk and Honey, but the middle period where Yoko was not either his collaborator nor his muse (Mind Games, Rock and Roll and Walls and Bridges) is so mind-numbingly boring I never listen to those records. The timeline of the couple’s separation suggests to me that the trouble in their marriage and their artistic partnership was fed at least in part by the disaster of Some Time in New York City. I imagine Lennon lashed out at her and felt a fool for having gone down that path. The trouble is, once he purges her from his process he appears to be left with little but his memories for inspiration. There’s no influx (ha, I said flux) of ideas. He seems to have stopped growing in about 1973 and was to some degree wise to retire until he had some new ideas in his head.

Last June (2022), Louis Menand contributed an insightful piece in the New Yorker marking Yoko’s long overdue co-writing credit for the song “Imagine”, with context about her privations as a child in wartime Japan and her groundbreaking (and too little celebrated) contributions as a conceptual artist in the 50s and early ’60s, as well as the sexism and racism she faced in the Western art world as an Asian woman. At this point in her life, having created a mountainous body of her own work as an artist, film-maker, and musician, 40 years after the death of a husband she was married to for only about a decade, it’s possible to get a true accounting of her as a person many orders of magnitude more significant than “some chick who butted her way into recording sessions”, which is how many people seem to regard her. I also highly recommend Lisa Carver’s 2012 book Reaching Out With No Hands: Reconsidering Yoko Ono, written in a minimalist, fragmentary style that mirrors its subject. In 2023, it’s not just possible but necessary to entertain a perspective from which Yoko Ono is not a footnote in the career of the Beatles, but rather, they are one in hers.