Yoko Ono is an odd woman to say the least, one who has held her own in the face of criticism and blatant disapprobation; an artist and a singer whose work has disturbed and amused three generations, including those who know her only by reputation; a person whose choices and tragedies have often given her the appearance of a pillar of strength in the midst of chaos and pain; a totemic figure whose legendary spirit has often been overshadowed by spirited legend.
Yoko is submerged in the consciousnesses of many as 'the woman who broke up The Beatles'. At this great remove it is hard to imagine just how important it was that someone be blamed for this really bad thing.
Most of the women who were involved with the Beatles, with the exception of various Mrs Starrs1, were levied with a burden of envy, jealousy and unremitting scrutiny from the fans, even after the band was no more or their association with a member was over.
Yoko stands above the rest.
She had a cross-cultural education and level of experience that was hard to match in the art and music worlds of the late-1960s. She was not conventionally pretty by most standards and, despite her obvious oddness, eventually seemed to be a practical person who knew where the hype should end and the home life should begin.
There is a highly debatable aspect to the drug usage in the Ono/Lennon relationship. It is a fact that neither was a stranger to the drug culture before they met and they certainly weren't abstainers afterward. Rumours as to the frequency and danger-seeking aspects of their drug use continue to fly.
John's mother, Julia, gave him up to her elder sister Mary when he was 5 years old. Mary - 'Aunt Mimi' to John - was not alone in her care of her nephew. He was to endure the ministrations of the three other sisters, Anne, Harriet, and Mary Elizabeth, as well. Although all were married, it was a matriarchal dynasty.
Five women were my family. Five strong, intelligent, beautiful women. One happened to be my mother... The men were just invisible in our family
- John Lennon, in an interview for Playboy
John didn't see his father at all from that time until the later Apple3 years. Julia lived just blocks from John for years. He was 16 when she was run over and killed.
Yoko became both lover and mother. She possessed as much of him as was physically and mentally possible. This is not to say she controlled him. John was a strong-willed person who had a violent history with women, including his first wife, Cynthia, and a habit of just taking off and doing whatever he pleased, including walking into the Apple Corps boardroom at a specially called meeting and declaring that he was the reincarnation of the spirit of Jesus Christ. Yoko was equally strong willed. She never led him anywhere that he hadn't decided he wanted to go. There were even times when he went off on a tangent and Yoko just went along for the ride.
She was also a playmate. A dyslexic child brought up by an experienced psychiatric nurse - his Aunt Mimi - John had been raised with the expectations that refinement and discipline would overcome his working class genetics. His artistic sensibilities had been latent for much of his life and his musical experience had been shaped by industry and peer concerns. Yoko wasn't in the habit of holding back or doing what was expected of her. It is certainly a possibility that she was glad to find someone who was rich enough and uninhibited enough to play with her at her own speed.
She had had her own life, career and notoriety long before she met him.
Born in 1933, Yoko was the oldest child of Japanese parents who had aristocratic connections. Her father, once a concert pianist, was a banker in an international firm that sent him to San Francisco, Honolulu, Hanoi and New York. Her mother was the daughter of a banker. During most of her young life, Yoko was raised and instructed with strictness and severity. Her mother had little to do with her when she was not at school and, according to Yoko's own account, she often ordered tea from the maid so that she would have momentary contact with someone. The maid was not allowed to converse with her or enter her room, but remained just outside the door so that she could collect the tea service.
Trained for some years as a concert pianist - Yoko performed publicly at four years old - her father eventually determined that her progress was negligible and stopped her lessons, deeming them a waste of her time.
She told him she wanted to be a composer. He told her that he knew of no female composers worth mentioning. He asserted that while women could not create music, they certainly were dependable in interpreting it and signed her up for opera and Lieder lessons. She had a problem with that. There were many things in nature and human experience that she believed could not be conveyed reliably in normal musical notation. She began to learn about and engage in musical and performance experiments.
After some nasty experiences during the fire-bombing of Tokyo in 1945 and the subsequent evacuation to the countryside, Yoko found herself in the USA at the age of nineteen, attending Sarah Lawrence College. She had lived in San Francisco for a short time before she was five, when her mother went to join her father after he was assigned to a bank there.
Her first marriage was to Japanese musician Toshi Ichiyanagi. She dropped out of school to elope with him. They were divorced in 1964, after which she married Anthony Cox. He was the father of her first child, a daughter, Kyoko, who was born in 1963.
By 1962 she was world famous and infamous for her poetry, art and performance pieces. She even irritated the art world. Most of what she did was not concretely unique, not imminently saleable and often inaccessible to the cognoscenti. Yoko was the art. Whatever she did became noteworthy whether she really meant it to or not. Thus, long before she met the 'pride of the Beatles', she was a star in her own right, subject to ups and downs in approval and criticism, judged by what she had done lately, and ultimately left to rely on her own sense of self-worth in the face of blatant sexism, reverse snobbery, elitism, commercialism and racism.
It is impossible at this late date to delineate how much of a pioneer Yoko was as an Asian, a 'non-white', a woman, a musician and a denizen of the international art world. It is also difficult to convey just how much of a spoiled brat she might have been. It is not known if she ever held a job. Money was always there for whatever she might choose to do. Thus, approval and accomplishment were never measured by commercial success.
Yoko experienced racism and snobbery in Japan, England and America. The Japanese critics in the early 1960s had claimed that she was ripping off John Cage in her sound performances. Later, the Beatle-fans and media savants had a problem with a non-white woman stealing Cynthia's4 rich and famous husband away with her foreign wiles and odd appearance.
She met John in 1966 - 9 November to be exact - in London. As the story is told, John wandered into the Indica gallery space5 while Yoko's exhibit was still being installed. He did not know who she was, nor that she was the artist. She knew who he was. There was a ladder leading up to a magnifying glass hanging from the ceiling. There was a tiny word printed on the ceiling. Peering through the glass, one saw that the word was 'yes'. Yoko imparts much significance to this event.
Although they soon got to know each other and he put money into one of her showings in 1967, it wasn't until 1968 that they became a couple.
Their first real time together is part of the recordings that make up Two Virgins, the album that scandalized the world as much with its odd noises and experimental tape-work as it did with the stark black and white photo of their shared nakedness on the cover. Those vendors who chose to stock the album had the record company ship it in brown paper wrapping.
Yoko was known for nudity in her work. She had earlier created a film called Bottoms that was nothing but still shots of 365 bare human rears. To the surprise of few, it was initially denied a film certificate. She had also performed live a piece called Cut, in which members of the audience were invited to come up and use a pair of scissors to remove her clothing.
When they met, they were both still married and both had a child. Anthony Cox eventually divorced Yoko and, when Kyoko was awarded to her mother, he kidnapped her and it is unknown whether Yoko has ever seen her since. John divorced Cynthia, who retained custody of Julian. Nonetheless, Julian was never completely out of contact with his father.
John and Yoko moved into the Dakota in April, 1973. They occupied a series of apartments on the sixth floor. Yoko purchased offices on the first floor for their company, Lenono. The architect Henry Hardenbergh, who also designed the Plaza Hotel and the Western Union Building, designed the Dakota. It was built in 1881-1884. It was the first luxury apartment building built in New York City. A historical joke says that it was called the Dakota because at the time it was built the part of New York it was in was rather remote. Old photos show skaters dwarfed by its gabled bulk, with no other buildings near.
The building was not lacking in notoriety before the Lennons' arrival. Judy Garland, Leonard Bernstein and Boris Karloff had once had apartments there in the past, while the film Rosemary's Baby had been shot on location in several suites. Yoko and John's apartment overlooked Central Park.
There was a point, in 19736, when they 'broke up'. They had been in constant contact for almost seven years and for whatever reason, John spent over a year away (although Yoko frequently phoned him). It was during this time that John famously became involved with one of Yoko's female employees and in an incident or two with Harry Nilsson. Yoko countered the silliness and the debauchery with a few peccadilloes of her own and when it was over, on 4 February, 19757, all was forgiven.
After several miscarriages8, Yoko gave birth to Sean on 9 October, 1975 - John's birthday. It was an induced and ultimately a Caesarean birth, probably a month premature - Yoko announced the pregnancy in March. According to legend, John dropped everything and became the primary caregiver, while Yoko went downstairs to her office and remade herself as a business person. For several years John was pestered by reporters and friends who wanted to know what he was doing with his music. He said he was baking bread and raising a child and anyone who knew anything about those pursuits would understand that they left room for very little else.
Don't Worry, Kyoko, Mommy's Looking for a Hand in the Snow
Yoko's music is an experience in itself. Few are ambivalent about it. It was a part of her art and not really meant for casual listening. She once performed with Ornette Coleman, an eminent male jazz saxophonist. She is known today, mostly by hearsay, for creating some of the most amusical primal screeches ever recorded. She was interested in 'world beat' before the term was invented. Some of her work influenced the B-52s, Talking Heads, the TomTom Club and Kate Bush. She did not scream all the time. Many tracks feature actual songs and singing of a conventional type. She has evinced a wide range of interests in polyrhythms, harmony and recording experiments. While there is a sameness to many of her recordings, they cannot easily be confused with anyone else's.
1980 rolls around. John and Yoko have one album out and another one in the can. The gun laws in at least three states - Hawaii, New York, and Georgia - proved to be ineffective as a deluded young man who'd earlier asked for and received an autograph9 walked up and shot John. Yoko suddenly was thrust in the limelight again, this time as 'the widow'. People who had even forgotten that John was alive were suddenly buying albums, wearing t-shirts and crowding the Dakota building (where Yoko and John had spent most of the last eight years) with candlelight vigils and blaring boom boxes playing the Imagine album over and over.
Twenty-one years later, Yoko was wheeled out at a 9/11 tribute concert. She had been a widow longer than she had been a wife.
What happened during those 21 years? She became closer to Julian and Cynthia, Linda and Paul, and George, and she raised Sean as far away from the public eye as possible.
She established scholarship programmes in John's name and she dedicated the Liverpool John Lennon airport10 in 2001 and later observed the unveiling of an explanatory plaque on the airport concourse in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II.
Why would New Yorkers associate her tragedy with the later one? It seems unlikely that it was a conscious connection. Yoko with John, and Yoko on her own, had championed some sort of peace initiative or another since Vietnam. She still buys billboard space on a regular basis for Christmas and other auspicious occasions. She has also immersed herself so thoroughly in New York that there are probably people who don't know that she ever lived anywhere else.
Of course, every time someone mentions Yohn or Joko, someone else cranks up the Victrola and 'Imagine' comes pouring out. The choice could have been worse, it could have come from the catalogue of John's less hummable works, such as 'Revolution #9'.
What is she doing now?
Pretty much what she pleases.