For the Love of Yoko: A Reexamination and Appreciation of Yoko Ono

“Yoko is the world’s most famous unknown artist: everybody knows her name, but nobody knows what she does.” – John Lennon

Far too often in our pop culture journey there are individuals along the way which seem, for some reason, to become victims of ridicule and vilification.  Often these individuals deserve every bit of it; while others are damned to pop culture hell, although the public that sends them to this fate usually doesn’t have the slightest idea who they are or the bigger picture behind their lives or careers.  The public only believes the myths or uneducated public opinion on these figures.  This hasn’t hit anybody harder in the pop culture community than avante garde artist, and John Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono.

Yoko is usually just passed off as the crazy Asian chick that John Lennon married and then broke up the Beatles.  What is not recognized is the intense life that Yoko lived, the brilliance of her art, and the message of love and peace that she has spent her whole life trying to spread throughout the world.  There was a reason that a brilliant and talented man like John Lennon fell madly in love with Yoko Ono, and I’ll even argue that it was Yoko’s influence over John that lead him down the path to the messages of peace that he is admired for, and to write songs like Imagine, Merry X-man (War is Over) and Give Peace a Chance.  When it comes to John and Yoko the old phrase stands true:  Behind ever great man is an even greater woman.  Yup.  I said it!  An even GREATER woman.  And, for the record, Yoko had nothing to do with breaking up the Beatles.  Yet, while Yoko preaches love and peace, she is crucified by the public.  While she has fought a brave fight through a world of war and hate she is called a witch and burnt at the stake.  That is why, in my opinion, Yoko is an unsung hero on our pop culture journey.  So why don’t you join me while we take a realistic look at the life and philosophy of the most misunderstood woman in pop culture history as…

CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE ADDICT PRESENTS:

FOR THE LOVE OF YOKO:

A REEXAMINATION AND APPRECIATION FOR YOKO ONO

Now, as you have probably already figured out, I am a fan of Yoko Ono’s.  However, before we go any further let me assure you that, just like the public at large, I am not an admirer of her music.  Oh dear god no.  Anybody who has heard the ear bleeding sound of Yoko’s screeching on John Lennon’s final album Double Fantasy knows that Yoko Ono’s music is either an acquired taste, or the worst music ever performed.  However, what many people do is just write off Yoko’s career and philosophy the moment they hear the music.  I must admit, even I was guilty of that.  But things changed in 2002 when I really began to understand Yoko Ono, and then she totally blew my mind.

Yoko Ono's 1966 "sculpture" "Yes", which was the piece of "art" John and Yoko first met in front of.

That was the year that a number of friends and I went to her “Yes:” exhibit in Toronto, featuring nearly all of Yoko’s major art pieces from her forty year career.  Walking in, I was ready to be amused, but I was unprepared to be completely blown away by the pure brilliance and “out of the box” thinking that Yoko presented in her work.  Often using simple found objects, Yoko’s work often parodied consumerism with peace, love and positivity as the product.  I really began to understand this when, walking through the gallery, I came upon a little old-fashioned vending machine.  I put in a nickel, pushed down the latch, and out came a little card.  When I flipped the card over a single word was on it.  Peace.  The explanation next to the vending machine explained that if these boxes were put on every major street corner all over the world, perhaps that the public may begin to live a peaceful existence if they are buying the product.  Yoko attempted to do this on a larger scale in 1969 when she created the “War is Over (If You Want It)” billboards, which coincided with John’s song of the same title.  My mind was also blown with Yoko Ono’s hand carved “board games” titled “Play it in Trust.”  Shaped like a simple chess game, the pieces vary in size but have no definitive characters and are all colored white.  An accompanying video showed images of John and Yoko playing the game, by simply moving random pieces to random spaces without taking any prisoners or defeating the other player.  Yoko’s often clever and thought provoking messages of peace made me fall in love with her, just as her art had captured John Lennon’s heart in 1966.  As the story goes, John attended a sneak peek of a New York exhibit of Yoko’s, which featured a ladder that visitors could climb and then look into a magnifying glass and be able to read a little card that simply said “YES:” on the ceiling.  John Lennon was impressed by the pure postivity of the message in a world that seemed to be falling apart around him.  He obviously recognized the brilliant, clever and whimsical woman that Yoko was.  Brilliant, clever and whimsical.  Exactly the type of woman that would capture the heart of a man like John Lennon.  Thus started the legendary love affair of John and Yoko.

Now it’s obvious that in the 1960s, when Yoko Ono’s art first began to find popularity, the message of peace was very en vogue – especially in the United States.  With the Viet Nam war waging on, and the peace movement growing in America, Yoko Ono’s art touched a real chord with American intellects and bohemian types.  But unlike the majority of the Americans that cried for peace, the philosophy behind peace and harmony was very real to Yoko Ono.  Yoko Ono wasn’t just one of the phonies that was cashing in on a popular concept.  She had a unique perspective on the madness of war that most people never experience.

Born in Japan to a wealthy banking family in 1933, Yoko Ono spent years of her life living between the United States and Japan until the age of eight while her father was transferred between the two countries.  As a result of living in both countries, Yoko developed close ties and love for both Japan and the United States during her childhood.  When war broke out between the two countries Yoko was attending a private school in Tokyo.  For a girl like Yoko, who had ties with both America and Japan, the war between the two countries probably seemed very abstract.  The idea of villains would have been very complex; however, as Yoko watched Tokyo crumble, she could see the stupidity and pain that war created.  As Yoko’s family was forced to flee from Tokyo, the once wealthy family was reduced to carrying their belongings in a wheelbarrow, and begging and bartering for food.  Yoko’s father, who opted to stay in Tokyo, was eventually incarcerated in a Chinese prisoner-of-war camp, where he eventually died.  Yoko has said that this time of her life not only gave her the philosophy for the need for peace in our world, but is also where she developed her aggressive personality and her acceptance of what it was like to be an outsider.  By 1946 Yoko was able to enroll in school again, and in 1951 was the first woman ever to be accepted into the philosophy department at Peer’s University.  However, after two semesters, Yoko left the school in order to join her family who had once again moved to New York City.  This was where Yoko, now attending Sarah Lawrence College, discovered the New York art scene.  Yoko was quickly swallowed up by the bohemians and beatniks of New York City and began her brilliant art career.

Yoko performing Cut Piece in the mid-1960s.

Yoko "performing" "Cut Piece" in the mid-1960s.

Now, to be honest, Yoko had as many hits as misses.  Her performance art, such as “Cut Piece”, where the audience would cut off pieces of Yoko’s clothing until she was naked, was a bit off the wall and exploitative.  Her experimental films, such as “Bottoms,” were even worse.  And we’ve already discussed her music.  Don’t even get me started on the music  Yet, while the New York art scene was full of phonies, in many ways Yoko Ono was the real deal.  Her intense experience of living in a war-torn country in her youth became a direct result of the message of positivity that she incorporated into her art.  It was also this philosophy which would inspire John Lennon into becoming the man that he would be.

Now what I am about to say may not sit well with a lot of John Lennon fans.  I truly believe that the “give peace a chance” philosophy of John Lennon was the direct influence of Yoko Ono.  Before all of you Beatles fans drive by my house and throw a brick through my front window, I’m not saying that John was a puppet and Yoko pulled the strings.  No.  John was a brilliant and outspoken man with his own mind.  However, sometime it takes the ideas of the woman you love to bring new ideas to light and develop a new understanding.  Before John met Yoko he didn’t speak much about peace or give any anti-war messages in his music.  John Lennon was too busy being a Beatle.  Yet once John met Yoko he suddenly became very political and an advocate for peace… just as Yoko had been for years.  Thus, it is in my opinion that Yoko Ono had a very positive and profound affect on Lennon.  Through him she was able to find a more charismatic and popular voice for her message, which was quickly becoming their message.  John and Yoko made a dynamic team and through their combined efforts created a message of peace that inspired thousands.  But John Lennon is the one who nearly always gets the credit for doing it.  The reason is that John is far more likeable, charismatic and popular then Yoko could ever be.  He was the whimsical and clever Beatle, while Yoko was seen by the public as the weirdo that broke up his marriage to Cynthia.  Yoko Ono is, in many ways, a very uncomfortable person  You know those people who are so brilliant that normal people can’t even begin to relate to them?  That is what Yoko Ono’s overall problem is.  That is also where the origin of Yoko’s vilification begins.

Yoko with The Beatles. Did she break them up or is she just the scapegoat?

Yoko with The Beatles. Did she break them up or is she just the scapegoat?

Yoko Ono will forever be known as the woman that broke up the Beatles.   For the most part that is purely a myth, with the unpopular Yoko Ono as the scapegoat.  The tension that broke the Beatles up began as early as 1967 with the death of their manager Brian Epstein.  A number of bad business decisions, as well as conflicts over management, created stress between John and Paul.  However, it was very evident that all four of the Beatles, who had for the most part been playing together since they were teenagers, were beginning to drift into different creative directions.  This is most noticeable between John and Paul, whose music was beginning to sound so different that listeners could distinctly decipher who was writing what.  Ringo was the first Beatle to storm out of a recording session during the White Album sessions.  George later stormed out of a Let It Be session, which prompted John to comment that they were going to replace George with Eric Clapton if he didn’t stop being difficult.  Creative tension also began to tear the band apart.  Paul was pissed off that John and George gave Phil Spector “Let it Be.”  John was pissed off that Paul was being a tyrant in the studio.  George was pissed off that he wasn’t being respected as a songwriter.  Ringo was pissed off that they weren’t recording his songs at all.  As a result, all four began solo projects in which they all found far more satisfaction.  For John, that satisfaction meant recording and creating music with Yoko, who it has been said that Paul felt both threatened by and was jealous of.  This is the beginning of Yoko as the scapegoat of the Beatles breakup.

John and Yoko during the recording of Let it Be.

John and Yoko during the recording of "Let it Be."

However, the truth was that Paul, George and Ringo did find Yoko’s constant presence to be both uncomfortable and distracting.  Yet this could have been solved by the four lads getting together over a drink and Paul, George and Ringo just saying to John, “Look mate, your girlfriend is really getting in the way.”  Thousands of bands have had to do that and John was intelligent enough to get the message.   Thus it should be clear to see that by the time Yoko was even on the scene the Beatles were already having problems.  With or without her the Beatles were bound to have broken up.  Yet, when it finally came to be in 1970, the public had to find someone to blame.  Nobody wanted to point the finger at the fab four.  They weren’t prepared to blame Paul who had announced his departure from the band.  So that’s when the public decided to blame the crazy out-to-lunch Asian chick.  Poor Yoko got the short end of the stick.

John and Yoko in thier famous Montreal based bed in in 1969.

John and Yoko in thier famous Montreal based "bed in" in 1969.

But God bless her, she tries and she tries.  Despite a public that laughs and curses her, Yoko, now at age 74, continues to put on a smile, keep a positive outlook and continues to create brilliant art that both shocks and baffles the public.  Despite jeers from Beatle fans around the world, even after she had the horror of watching the man that she loved gunned down outside of their home and die in her arms, she still tries to keep their combined vision and philosophy of love and peace alive.  But then when it comes to music fans, it always comes back to Yoko’s recordings.  As I said before, as much as I admire Yoko, even I hate her music.  Well there has to be an explanation for that.  I like to think it might have gone a bit like this:

 

John:  Our life…together…is so groovy..together…no.  That’s not it….

John and Yoko in New York, 1980.

John and Yoko in New York, 1980.

Scene:  John Lennon is sitting at a white grand piano plunking away on his next hit song for his upcoming album “Double Fantasy.”

Yoko walks in the room.

Yoko:  John.  John.  Listen to the new song I just wrote.

John:  Uh…. sure Yoko.  Go for it.  (Moves over on the piano bench to give Yoko room to play)

Yoko (banging away on the keys and shrieking like a banshee):  Kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss me, love,

Just one kiss, kiss will do.

Kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss me, love,

Just one kiss, kiss will do.

Why death?

Why life?

Warm hearts?

Cold darts?

Kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss me, love,

I’m bleeding inside.

So what do you think John?

John:  Uh… that’s really… uh…. great honey.  Uh…yeah….

Kiss Kiss Kiss Kiss me once.  Love may be blind, but in the case of John and Yoko it might have been deaf too.

"Kiss Kiss Kiss Kiss me once." Love may be blind, but in the case of John and Yoko it might have been deaf too.

Yoko:  So we’ll put it on the new album?

John:  Sure Yoko.  Uh… sure….

In other words, either love is not only blind but deaf as well, or perhaps John just knew who truly wore the pants in the family.  However, whatever the case, what we do know is that John loved Yoko.  He saw the brilliant, wonderful and peace loving woman she was.  Perhaps it’s time that the rest of the world try to understand the Yoko Ono that John Lennon saw.  Perhaps it’s time for all of us to also turn a deaf ear, and begin to love Yoko too.

  1. Lubna Qureshi’s avatar

    I think you are right about Yoko Ono. Had she been merely a talentless groupie, she would not have sustained John Lennon’s interest for so many years.

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