THE SPILL MAGAZINE ARTIST PORTRAIT:
Yoko Ono was raised in Tokyo in a wealthy Japanese banking family. She was an excellent student (in 1952 she became the first woman admitted to study philosophy at Japan’s Gakushuin University) and moved to the U.S. in 1953 to study at Sarah Lawrence College. After dropping out, she became involved in the Fluxus movement, led by New York conceptual artists including George Maciunas, La Monte Young, Diane Wakoski, and Walter De Maria. During the early ’60s Ono’s works (many of which were conceptual pieces, some involving audience participation) were exhibited and/or performed at the Village Gate, Carnegie Recital Hall, and numerous New York galleries. In the mid-’60s she lectured at Wesleyan College and had exhibitions in Japan and London, where she met Lennon in 1966 at the Indica Gallery.
The two began corresponding, and in September 1967 Lennon sponsored Ono’s “Half Wind Show” at London’s Lisson Gallery. In May 1968 Ono visited Lennon at his home in Weybridge, and that night they recorded the tapes that would later be released as Two Virgins. (The nude cover shots, taken by Lennon with an automatic camera, were photographed then as well.) Lennon soon separated from his wife, Cynthia (with whom he had one child, Julian, in 1964); they were divorced that November. Lennon and Ono became constant companions.
Frustrated by his role with the Beatles, Lennon, with Ono, explored avant-garde art, music, and film. While he regarded his relationship with Ono as the most important thing in his life, the couple’s inseparability and Ono’s influence over Lennon would be a source of great tension among the Beatles, then in their last days.
Three days after Lennon’s divorce, he and Ono released Two Virgins, which, because of the full-frontal nude photos of the couple on the jacket, was the subject of much controversy; the LP was shipped in a plain brown wrapper. On March 20, 1969, Lennon and Ono were married in Gibraltar; for their honeymoon, they held their first “Bed-in for Peace,” in the presidential suite of the Amsterdam Hilton. The peace movement was the first of several political causes the couple would take up over the years, but it was the one that generated the most publicity. On April 22, Lennon changed his middle name from Winston to Ono. In May they attempted to continue their bed-in in the United States, but when U.S. authorities forbade them to enter the country because of their arrest on drug charges in October 1968, the bed-in resumed in Montreal. That May, in their suite at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, they recorded “Give Peace a Chance”; background chanters included Timothy Leary, Tommy Smothers, and numerous Hare Krishnas. Soon afterward, “The Ballad of John and Yoko” (Number Eight, 1969) was released under the Beatles’ name, though only Lennon and McCartney appear on the record.
In September 1969, Lennon, Ono, Eric Clapton, Alan White, and Klaus Voormann performed live as the Plastic Ono Band in Toronto at a Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival show. The appearance, released as Live Peace in Toronto, 1969, was Lennon’s first performance before a live concert audience in three years. Less than a month later he announced to the Beatles that he was quitting the group, but it was agreed among them that no public announcement would be made until after the pending lawsuits involving Apple and manager Allen Klein were resolved. In October the Plastic Ono Band released “Cold Turkey” (Number 30, 1969), which the Beatles had declined to record, and the next month Lennon returned his M.B.E. medal to the Queen. In a letter to the Queen, Lennon cited Britain’s involvement in Biafra and support of the U.S. in Vietnam and–jokingly–the poor chart showing of “Cold Turkey” as reasons for the return.
The Lennons continued their peace campaign with speeches to the press; “War Is Over! If You Want It” billboards erected on December 15 in 12 cities around the world, including Hollywood, New York, London, and Toronto; and plans for a peace festival in Toronto. When the festival plans deteriorated, Lennon turned his attention to recording “Instant Karma!” which was produced by Phil Spector, then also editing hours of tapes into the album that would be the Beatles’ last official release, Let It Be. In late February 1970 Lennon disavowed any connection with the peace festival, and the event was abandoned. In April, McCartney–in a move that Lennon saw as an act of betrayal–announced his departure from the Beatles and released a solo LP. From that point on (if not earlier), Ono replaced McCartney as Lennon’s main collaborator. The Beatles were no more.
At the time, much attention was focused on Ono’s alleged role in the band’s end. An Esquire magazine piece with the racist title “John Rennon’s Excrusive Gloupie” was an extreme example of the decidedly antiwoman, anti-Asian backlash against Ono that she and Lennon endured for years to come. As Ono told Lennon biographer Jon Wiener in a late 1983 interview for his book Come Together: John Lennon in His Time, “When John and I were first together he got lots of threatening letters: ‘That Oriental will slit your throat while you’re sleeping.’ The Western hero had been seized by an Eastern demon.”
In late 1970 Lennon and Ono released their twin Plastic Ono Band solo LPs. Generally, Ono’s ’70s LPs were regarded as highly adventurous works and were thus never as popular as Lennon’s. Lennon’s contained some of his most personal and, some felt, disturbing work–the direct result of his and Ono’s primal scream therapy with Dr. Arthur Janov. In March 1971 the non-album “Power to the People” hit Number 11, and that September, Lennon’s solo LP Imagine was released; it went to Number One a month later. In late 1971 Lennon and Ono had resumed their political activities, drawn to leftist political figures like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Their involvement was reflected on Some Time in New York City (recorded with New York band Elephant’s Memory), which included Lennon’s most overtly political releases (his and Ono’s “Woman Is the Nigger of the World,” Ono’s “Sisters, O Sisters”). The album sold poorly, only reaching Number 48.
Over the next two years Lennon released Mind Games (Number Nine) and Walls and Bridges (Number One), which yielded his only solo Number One hit, “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night,” recorded with Elton John. On November 28, 1974, Lennon made his last public appearance, at John’s Madison Square Garden concert. The two performed three songs, “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” released on an EP after Lennon’s death. Next came Rock ‘n’ Roll, a collection of Lennon’s versions of ’50s and early-’60s rock classics like “Be-Bop-a-Lula.” The release was preceded by a bootleg copy, produced by Morris Levy, over which Lennon successfully sued Levy. Rock ‘n’ Roll (Number Six, 1975) would be Lennon’s last solo release except for Shaved Fish, a greatest-hits compilation.
Meanwhile, Lennon’s energies were increasingly directed toward his legal battle with the U.S. Immigration Department, which sought his deportation on the grounds of his previous drug arrest and involvement with the American radical left. On October 7, 1975, the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the deportation order; in 1976 Lennon received permanent resident status. On October 9, 1975, Lennon’s 35th birthday, Ono gave birth to Sean Ono Lennon. Beginning in 1975, Lennon devoted his full attention to his new son and his marriage, which had survived an 18-month separation from October 1973 to March 1975. For the next five years, he lived at home in nearly total seclusion, taking care of Sean while Ono ran the couple’s financial affairs. Not until the publication of a full-page newspaper ad in May 1979 explaining his and Ono’s activities did Lennon even hint at a possible return to recording.
In September 1980 Lennon and Ono signed a contract with the newly formed Geffen Records, and on November 15 they released Double Fantasy (Number One, 1980). A series of revealing interviews were published, “(Just Like) Starting Over” hit Number One, and there was talk of a possible world tour.
But on December 8, 1980, Lennon, returning with Ono to their Dakota apartment on New York City’s Upper West Side, was shot seven times by Mark David Chapman, a 25-year-old drifter and Beatles fan to whom Lennon had given an autograph a few hours earlier. Lennon was pronounced dead on arrival at Roosevelt Hospital. At Ono’s request, on December 14 a 10-minute silent vigil was held at 2 p.m. EST in which millions around the world participated. Lennon’s remains were cremated in Hartsdale, New York. At the time of his death, Lennon was holding in his hand a tape of Ono’s “Walking on Thin Ice.”
Two other singles from Double Fantasy were hits: “Woman” (Number Two, 1981) and “Watching the Wheels” (Number 10, 1981). Double Fantasy won the Grammy for Album of the Year (1981). Three months after Lennon’s murder, Ono released Season of Glass, an LP that deals with Lennon’s death (his cracked and bloodstained glasses are shown on the front jacket), although many of the songs were written before his shooting. Season of Glass is the best known of Ono’s solo LPs; it was the first to receive attention outside avant-garde and critical circles.
In 1982 Ono left Geffen for Polydor, where she released It’s Alright, Milk and Honey (featuring six songs apiece by Lennon and Ono), and Starpeace. During the Starpeace Tour, Ono performed behind the Iron Curtain, in Budapest, Hungary, but the tour was not as warmly received elsewhere. None of these albums was particularly successful commercially, but in the wake of renewed appreciation for Ono’s work, Rykodisc issued the six-CD box set Onobox in 1992 and five years later reissued on CD the entire Ono catalogue. In 1984 a number of artists, including Rosanne Cash, Harry Nilsson, Elvis Costello, Roberta Flack, and the nine-year-old Sean Lennon participated in Every Man Has a Woman Who Loves Him, a collection of Ono songs. Following a 1989 retrospective at New York’s Whitney Museum, Ono’s artwork found a new audience and has since been shown continuously throughout the world. In 1994 she wrote a rock opera entitled New York Rock, which ran off-Broadway for two weeks to largely positive reviews. Clearly autobiographical, the play was a love story featuring songs from every phase of her recording career.
In addition to pursuing her own projects, Ono has maintained careful watch over the Lennon legacy. In the mid-’80s she opened the Lennon archives to Andrew Solt and David Wolper for their 1988 film biography Imagine (Ono and Solt’s documentary on the making of Imagine, Gimme Some Truth, was released in 2000). Coming as it did just a few months after the publication of Albert Goldman’s scurrilous The Lives of John Lennon, some observers saw Imagine as a piece of spin control. In fact, however, it had been in the works for more than five years by then. Ono’s decision not to sue Goldman (she stated that her lawyers warned that legal action would only bring more attention to the discredited tome) was itself controversial. Paul McCartney urged a public boycott of Goldman’s book, which was almost universally reviled. Shortly after its publication, Sean asked to study abroad, and Ono accompanied him to Geneva, where they took up residence for a few years. On September 30, 1988, a week before Imagine‘s release, John Lennon received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It is located near the Capitol Records building.
On March 21, 1994, Ono, Sean Lennon, an Julian Lennon were present as New York City Mayor Ed Koch officially opened Strawberry Fields, a triangular section of Central Park dedicated to John’s memory and filled with plants, rocks, and other objects that Ono had solicited from heads of state around the world. In 2000 there were a number of events commemorating Lennon’s 60th birthday and the 20th anniversary of his death, including a major exhibition on Lennon and his work at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum. In 2002, Lennon’s hometown renamed its airport Liverpool John Lennon Airport.
Ono sporadically released new music in the ’90s and ’00s, most notably 1995’s Rising, a critically successful rock album on which Ono was backed by Ima, a trio led by Sean Lennon. 2001’s Blueprint for a Sunrise was less acclaimed. In the early ’00s, Ono’s earlier work received a number of dance-oriented remixes by club DJs like Felix da Housecat, Basement Jaxx, Peter Rauhofer, Pet Shop Boys, and Danny Tenaglia, among others; these were collected on 2007’s Open Your Box. The same year, Ono issued Yes, I’m a Witch, another, less dance-oriented remix/covers disc featuring reworkings by Peaches, Le Tigre, Cat Power, the Apples in Stereo, and Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce, to name a few.