Yoko Ono, avant-garde artist, peace activist and wife of the Beatles’ John Lennon, remains one of the most misunderstood figures in rock.
So much so that the supposed news that she hadn’t, in fact, broken up the Fab Four some four decades ago — “confirmed” in recent days by Lennon’s former bandmate Paul McCartney — somehow still made headlines.
Certainly, Lennon’s solo career began in earnest only after Ono appeared on the scene — with a 1968 appearance as part of the Rolling Stones’ “Rock and Roll Circus,” a 1969 concert in Toronto, and the recording of stand-alone singles like “Give Peace a Chance,” “Cold Turkey” and “Instant Karma” all taking place before the Beatles’ final release Let It Be appeared. But the group, by all accounts, had been drifting apart for some time.
If Beatles fans, hurt by the disintegration of their favorite band, needed a figure to vilify in all of this, it seemed Ono had arrived at just the right moment.
But who was she, really? And what did she mean to John Lennon — both as a partner in life, and in his art?
In the fascinating two-chapter excerpt below, Lisa Carver explores the way that the pair fed off of one another, as Ono helped embolden a creative desire that Lennon perhaps didn’t even know he had as a member of the Beatles. Already a master of popcraft, Lennon learned how to construct music out of things he’d never considered before — just as Ono had made art appear in the form of found objects.
And it all started with an apple — a $3,000 apple.
From Reaching Out with No Hands: Reconsidering Yoko Ono © 2012 by Lisa Carver. Published by Backbeat Books, a division of Hal Leonard Corporation. This excerpt has been reprinted with permission …
In the Indica Gallery in London in 1966, Yoko had an apple for sale for £200. That’s US $3,000 in today’s dollars. This is the apple John Lennon walked in and bit, when he didn’t know Yoko Ono, and apparently he didn’t see the price tag or didn’t respect that this apple was an art piece.
John Lennon could buy anything — a pet monkey, a plane, a posse. When money is limitless, all things lose meaning –when they can’t be dreamt of and saved for, and maybe not gotten. How refreshing it must have been to see value inverted. If what is free (to be plucked easily off trees seeming to line every path) can be made beyond the common man’s ability to acquire, than what is beyond the common man’s ability to acquire must be free. How amazing, this apple!
How nice for Yoko that someone would mistake her art piece for the real thing, and bite it. All of her art was turning the real thing into art pieces so people would put on their special important expensive viewing eyes and just maybe they would see it, what had been there all along. They could have seen the real thing all the time, everywhere, but forgot to.
All Yoko Ono ever wanted was for people to bite what they thought could not be bitten, see what they thought could not be seen, know what they thought could not be known.
She was, it seems, Satan.
But there was a mistake in telling the story. Satan was the good guy. God didn’t want us to bite the apple of knowledge because then we’d know we were Him, and the patriarchy, the whole order of things, would turn to dust.
Anyway, John bit that apple, and she yelled at him. I think it was very exciting for him to be chastised, because nobody else was chastising him. They didn’t dare. Can you imagine how lonely it must be to be at the top of your craft, at the top of the world, with everybody agreeing with anything you say and nobody having anything to offer about how to live, how to create, how to move on? How lost must one be up there. Women were cloying. Men let him do his thing. Who could teach John Lennon about how to write a great song? Nobody. Yoko taught him how to unwrite. How to do something else entirely, and make that a song. She expanded what a song is, what a song means, for John Lennon. A song is silence. A song is moans. A song is feedback. A song is a wail. Of course he knew a lot of that from old blues tracks, but he’d forgotten. And she taught him what life is like for nonwhite nonmales. This, too, you get from the blues. But Yoko may have been more … insistent.
And she was eager to absorb him, to learn from him, to trade essences. She’d gone so far out for so long, and she wanted to come down, come in. He could take her in. She said, “When John and I got together, I was interested in [rock] — that strong, heavy beat, which I equated with the heartbeat. I thought avant-garde music is mainly for the head.” She was interested now in regions below.
He was tired of being a pop superstar and she was disillusioned with the ivory tower of the avant-garde … the elitism … the inability of mere mortals to understand such an elevated movement. And the avant-garde were becoming disillusioned with her. Her films and art were becoming too possible to see, too written about. The avant-garde did not consider themselves of the people, but rather above the people, needing to lead the silly and the blind. All Yoko wanted was what was real, what was people. A true artist is about what is true, not about what is art. A true artist is looking in on the people, trying forever to get in, to get to them, to be with them, of them. Yoko’s living in her head too much and hanging around exclusively “special” people had distanced her. John was a down-to-earth, humorous guy, but the fame and the blinding awe with which he was received had distanced him. In each other, the pair found gravity.
And so John and Yoko slowly traded mantles. She took on rhymes and melody and he descended into a pretalent, unquantified state. Talent can be a disguise, pleasantness a cover-upper. John’s vocals after Yoko—some of it was barking, grunting, screaming. Something inside, a longing, a fury, a need, that had been buried all those years under an avalanche of sounds that made sense, a voice that made people happy, a guitar that went along, that made heads nod and the sun come out … Yoko saw that buried thing in John and said, “Come out, I see you,” and out that buried thing came, blinking. This stunted, ugly creature who had been there all along, the one who got left, who got hidden, came out howling, and said, “I am here. You fuckers. I’m alive. You didn’t kill me, or erase me, and I didn’t kill me either, when I was trying so hard to be someone else to make you happy.”
John Lennon’s “Mother” (1970) is so much more raw and inwardly exploratory and daring than songs by the Beatles ever were. It was time for a change. Cannibalism is necessary in music, but please, not of your own band.
To an abused and abandoned child all grown up, “Mother” provides a soundtrack to what your mouth and hands were sealed off from expressing during those silenced formative years. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is a very nice song, but to some people, very nice doesn’t mean much.
And for Yoko, suddenly the new-to-her “nice” did mean something to the formerly austere, grim, formal foreigner. John made her laugh and feel safe. The security and faith and jokes John gave to Yoko freed her from having to express ugliness and pain and aloneness so nonstop; she didn’t have to always be trying to exorcise it … because sometimes it wasn’t there anymore. She was able to experiment with, to brush up against, what is pretty, what pleases.