Yoko Ono. She is nearly 90. She might not be with us for much longer. I don’t think we’ve really appreciated her as an artist in her own right, for her amazing talents – and in her role too as the love of John Lennon’s life. That’s important – when The Beatles broke up both John and Paul formed bands with their wives in on-stage roles. Paul had Linda. John had Yoko. The women in their lives, both strong, talented women, were mocked for having no musical ability, were blamed for the dissolution of the world’s greatest band, were never shown the right amount of respect…and they each understood that their fragile, temperamental-artist husbands needed a foil. They knew they were playing a proxy.
Yoko Ono was a published author, photographer, illustrator, conceptual artist, filmmaker and member of the influential Fluxus art community – all before she’d even met Paul McCartney. He would of course go on to introduce her to John Lennon and they were mesmerised by each other. The final nail in the coffin of John’s unhappy marriage to his first wife. Yoko took him as her third husband. They were together for over a decade – their lives together cut short just after they began Starting Over.
Yoko recorded with John, she in fact is the only non-Beatle to sing on a Beatles song. And she made solo albums. But she has long been a walking punchline by people proud of their own ignorance. People that have never listened to improvisatory music mock Yoko’s voice – seemingly unaware of how she is using it as an instrument; she is a saxophone, she is a throat-singer, she is the percussion, the dada poetry, the dancer that taps deep inside the song.
When I was a kid we played the Double Fantasy album a lot. Recorded in 1980 and released just two weeks before Lennon was killed, the album was his “comeback” after five years of exile as a house-husband (some say he even legitimised that term – his decision to be there for his second son, the way he was not for his first had a huge impact on the world). His final record features some of his very best songs (Just Like Starting Over, I’m Losing You, Beautiful Boy, Watching The Wheels, Woman) and the other half of the album (a 50/50 split) features songs by Yoko. My parents would lift the needle and skip her tracks. Later, I remember a schoolteacher telling me the same (“It’s a great album if you just skip the Yoko songs”). But I liked the Yoko songs. They were funny and weird. They were wonderful. And different. They didn’t sound like anything else I’d heard.
So I dug deeper. And I can’t lie. I am not here to defend everything she’s ever recorded. I don’t even like everything John Lennon recorded. But I want to go in to bat for Yoko Ono the recording artist. For Yoko Ono: The Artist.
Her book Grapefruit was there long before Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies. Her films were there at the same time and in a stronger way than the Andy Warhol movies. At least to me.
And her best solo songs – things like Death of Samantha from when John was still here, things like Walking on Thin Ice from when he was no longer with us (actually Lennon recorded the guitar solo for this song on the night he died) – are brilliant pieces of music. They’re relatively mainstream too. They’re accessible.
I reckon it’s mostly racism – and sexism – that has vilified Yoko Ono. Everyday racism. Is that why it’s called casual? Because it happens so often it doesn’t feel the need to wear a suit? And sexism too. Blatant. Horrific.
Everything about the way Yoko carried herself in a nearly impossible situation – immigrant, older woman, married previously (twice) and with a child already (in the 1960s), and then to go into one of the most public relationships with one of the biggest names in pop music – is remarkable. That she is still here, that she was always there for John, is amazing. Yes, they broke up – and that was her idea. She did that to save the relationship; to afford them both some space. She stage-managed their relationship, even authorising an affair and time out. When John’s “Lost Weekend” of drinking anything with the lid off alongside Harry Nilsson, Alice Cooper, Keith Moon, Old Mate Ringo and whoever else was unlucky enough to find themselves in the fold lasted 18 months or so, Yoko – in another city – was still John’s friend, his support network. She could see him unravelling, she knew he was lost. She would take his calls and he’d cry down the line, a mess. She was the strengths.
When they got back together and their son Sean was born she worked with him on his character, on his music, on the creation of his new role as a house-husband. She found the way for him to be something more than a Beatle/ex-Beatle.
I’ve been reading All We Are Saying: The Last Major Interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono by David Sheff. Perhaps by the time you read this I’ll be finished it. It is brilliant. The interview, famously, was recorded over several sessions in John’s final year and was completed just two days before he died. It had to run as a tribute. I’ve read the interview before but this newly published edition with a 40th Anniversary reflection from Sheff is driving home Yoko’s role. She is afforded nearly equal time in the interview. She is grounding. She is magnificent. She is poised. And thoughtful. John is philosophical and (mostly) calm. He is changed. When Yoko speaks you feel that her presence, her assistance, her guidance was the biggest reason for any of this. When John speaks you hear a happy man. A man no longer lonely. It hadn’t always been that way.
In 2014 a viral video clip of Yoko Ono performing at Glastonbury carried headlines of this sort: “Is This The Worst Live Performance of All Time?” More than one allegedly credible news organisation dropped a line about how John would be rolling in his grave.
These same wags – forever desperate for your money and clicks – identified the group as Plastic Ono Band when in fact it was actually Yo La Tengo. (Indie legends). These ‘experts’ talked about Yoko not being able to sing when she was improvising, she was vocalising rather than following a lyric sheet. They had no idea that she was performing a pretty faithful version of a song she’d first recorded in the early 1970s. And that, at age 80, she was basically nailing it. Hip as. And sharp as she’d ever been. But it wasn’t recognisable like a big Oasis shoutalong chorus eh. FFS.
This wasn’t the first time I felt anger and frustration that people with a microphone or a platform got to shout down an artist all without bothering to do their own research; without bothering to even try to connect with what she was doing.
When Denis Leary was at his peak with the song I’m An Asshole and the accompanying book, album and comedy special (all called No Cure For Cancer) he did this tasteless bit about how it was a shame Yoko was standing next to John when he was shot, how had every bullet missed her. Now, Leary shrieked, we had to put up with more years of her scream-singing. Here was a comedian (white and male, well dur) questioning the validity of an artist – and doing so in an act that he stole, line for fucking line, from his ‘friend’ (and better comic) Bill Hicks.
(I always thought it was a cruel irony that Hicks died from cancer. But that’s maybe another yarn for another newsletter, before I get too side-tracked, I’ll cop to being a fan of Leary’s material at the time – I was into it. And then I wasn’t. I doubt I’d even care much about a lot of Hicks’ material now by the way. Oh – and he’s not a great name to bring up, but apparently the “Asshole” song was also a rip, basically a routine by a then barely known comic called Louis CK, stolen and developed into a tune by Leary. Anyway, as into Leary as I was – I bought the book, watched the show, owned the CD – I always bristled at the Yoko line).
I remember, mid 90s, student hostel, trying to point this out to someone. Their take was that Yoko pretty much did sound exactly like Denis Leary’s impression. And when I asked them to name a song by Yoko they thought that the fact they couldn’t reflected badly on Ono not them.
We don’t have to like Yoko Ono’s music – but wouldn’t you want to try to know about something before dismissing it? We’re not talking about a token few duets with her famous boyfriend. We’re talking about an artist – published, exhibited, noted – that also had several albums; that not only continued just living after seeing her husband murdered in the street. She continued creating new music. She found a strength to carry on.
This is no one-hit-wonder. This is no novelty-song fraud. This is no Football Wife giving it a go.