She Gets Down on Her Knees

Nobody knows a woman’s place in this world better than Yoko Ono. For decades she has occupied the intersection of virulent racism and misogyny that still underpin most of Western popular culture. Everything she has done as artist and in her personal life has been in defiance of where society likes to place its women, and that defiance has fueled her art. Even before she became famous as the world’s most hated homewrecker, the bitch who broke up the sacred union of Lennon and McCartney, she had staked out her position, willing to lose anything and prepared to be looked at with hateful eyes. Before she became famous, she had already burned the bridges of an entire life; her parents disowned her for not following the expectations of a good, privileged Japanese girl; she lost custody of her firstborn child in a bitter divorce. Then she came to the West and found out just how very, very much the world hates women who want to create ambitious art on the same footing as men, who have things to say about the female condition, who don’t let their husbands speak for them, who don’t present themselves as pretty and likable, who expect to be taken seriously, who refuse to disappear from public life even when public life doesn’t want them, and have the sheer nerve of doing all these things while being Asian. The world can barely accept a white woman who does even a few of those things, and world hates women who aren’t white extra, extra hard. What Yoko Ono does isn’t just going against the grain of what’s expected of a woman in the public eye, it’s racially uppity in a way that makes members of the white male cultural establishment go absolutely blind with rage. Yoko Ono is a woman who emigrated from Japan to England (and then to America) where she met and married a white dude with whom she made a bunch of music and art, and that offends people on a deeply primal level, especially white dudes who think that women are only as valuable as their legs are long, that wives are furniture for the decoration of a man’s home, and that Asian women should be silently pouring tea in Geisha-themed brothels. Well, Yoko Ono may be having the last laugh. At the age of 85, she not only outlived most of her haters, she’s come to be recognized as one of the most important conceptual artists of her time, she’s lived to see a massive cultural shift that has us examining the prejudices she used to be a target of, she’s been recognized for her activism and humanitarian work, and guess what else? When you put on those records she made with John Lennon, his songs sound like generic 70’s rock music and hers sound like the cool new record you just heard on indie radio.

Nobody Told Me

Listening to Walls and Bridges the other day made me want to listen to more John Lennon, and I started digging around a little and I found Milk and Honey. I haven’t listened to this record in what has to have been a decade. I forgot this record existed. I forgot these songs existed. And, oh wow, these are some of John Lennon’s best songs, and I forgot how great they were. The record was recorded around the same time as the acclaimed Double Fantasy,  but put together and released by Yoko Ono several years after Lennon was killed. I guess there’s this expectation that posthumous releases don’t count as ‘real albums,’ and yeah, a lot of dead artists have suffered the indignity of having their crappiest demos thrust out into the world by unscrupulous record companies and/or greedy relatives. In this case though, the record was nearly complete at the time of Lennon’s death, and the only reason its release was held back by several years was because it was too painful for Yoko to deal with. When she finally did, though, she not only finished the older demos, she also recorded new material, making sure the final result didn’t sound half-baked or hastily thrown together. Contrary to popular belief, Yoko’s songs are good, though the contrast between her weirdness and John’s more meat-and-potatoes rock and roll can be jarring. I find some of her songs reminiscent of Bjork, whose music did not exist at the time. Yoko pulled it together really well, all in all, and I’d say it deserves to be remembered as one of the team’s stronger collaborations.

(Just Like) Starting Over

One of the best of John Lennon’s solo singles, and by far his most popular. Unfortunately, its goodness was not the primary reason for its popularity. It was Lennon’s first single after five years of living quietly out of the spotlight, and the title was representative of his state of mind. He was excited to jump back into music, feeling inspired by the freshness of post punk and new wave music, reinvigorated by his extended stint as happy house-husband. As Yoko described it, “John is saying in his song Starting Over, OK, we had the energy in the Sixties, in the Seventies we separated, but let’s start over in the Eighties. He’s reaching out to me, the woman. Reaching out after all that’s happened, over the battlefield of dead families, is more difficult this time around. On the other side of the record is my song, “Kiss Kiss Kiss,” which is the other side of the same question. There is the sound of a woman coming to a climax on it, and she is crying out to be held, to be touched. It will be controversial, because people still feel it’s less natural to hear the sounds of a woman’s lovemaking than, say, the sound of a Concorde, killing the atmosphere and polluting nature. Altogether, both sides are a prayer to change the Eighties.” He really felt like he was making a fresh start. It was a stroke of cruel irony that quite the opposite turned out to be true. Lennon was murdered mere weeks after the release of Double Fantasy, and what was meant to be a new beginning became a eulogy. Despite the tragic context, it’s hard not to enjoy the positive energy of the album. It’s pretty clear from the music that he and Yoko were having a great time working together, and Lennon’s habitual angst is not in evidence. If there’s any comfort to be found, it’s in knowing that Lennon died having found the happiness he’d been seeking all his life, and his final album a testament to that.

Happy Birthday Yoko

On this occasion of Yoko Ono’s 80th birthday, I’d like to take a moment to wish her many happy returns and explain a little bit about why I admire her. It’s not because of her art. It’s not because of her music. Neither of those things are all that great. It’s because I feel she did more for feminism than any number of political activists or angry writers. She redefined, in the popular imagination, what it meant to be a wife. (And here I will also give part of the credit to Linda McCartney.)

Why did Yoko, and to a lesser extent Linda, attract so much rage and criticism from every corner or society? It’s not because she broke up The Beatles. That’s bullshit. The Beatles were going to break up anyhow. It’s not just because Yoko is a damn dirty non-Caucasian foreigner, although racism certainly played a part. Yoko’s crime was that she had the sheer nerve to be her husband’s equal. The problem had two parts; one, she just wasn’t pretty enough for a big famous rock star; and two, she had things to say and goddamn it, John listened to those things and took them seriously and wanted everyone else to, too.

The first problem – not pretty enough. Now, by regular human standards, Yoko Ono has always been an attractive enough looking woman. But she’s no fashion model, no movie star, no unattainable superhuman ideal. She’s just a regular woman of average appearance. That goes for Linda McCartney as well, but she at least had the decency to have blonde hair. Nobody had any problems with the first round of Beatles wives, because they were all safely, conventionally, nonthreateningly attractive. They were decorative, just as wives should be. Patti Boyd was a  fashion model, Jane Asher a minor movie actress, Cynthia Lennon and Maureen Starr were housewives. Three of them were blondes. I am no way disparaging Patti Boyd or any of the others, they were all, in their own way, strong women who made the best of a very weird situation. But they didn’t threaten the status quo. Then Yoko and Linda came along. Plain looking, smart women with creative careers of their own and ideas in their heads. With the others, you could understand why those guys chose them. They were pretty, and famous rock stars are entitled to have pretty things. But why, oh god why, would Beatle John and Beatle Paul choose such non-hot women for wives? What could they possibly see in them? In a culture where a woman’s worth is measured in beauty, Yoko and Linda were practically subhuman. They obviously had no worth as decorative objects. And in that way, they both forced the public to grapple with the possibility that they had worth as human beings; intellectual worth, spiritual worth, creative worth. Those were marriages based on  something more than disposable physical attributes. That was a radical, radical notion in 1969.

Secondly, Yoko Ono had ideas. Which she said. Out loud. In public. She was an artist, and not just a maker of pleasant objects. Her art was meant to challenge, to confuse, to inspire thought. She not only made her own art, she influenced her husband’s art. John listened to her. They shared an intellectual affinity. She changed him, opened his eyes to new ideas, and I would argue, made him a better, more enlightened person. Together they experimented with music, film, art projects, political activism. As equals. Where one went, the other followed. Always as equals. The fact that many of those collaborations weren’t very good is beside the point. The point is they did those things, because they loved to do things together and didn’t care about what flak they would be getting for it. Which, meanwhile, is exactly what Paul and Linda were also doing. Playing music, making art, raising a family, doing everything together in a partnership. Those were radical, radical things to be doing.

The press raged. Who did those two bitches think they were? How dare they try to influence their husbands? How dare they make themselves heard? Did that crazy Japanese bitch Yoko somehow bewitch our John? Yoko was too weird. She was making John turn weird too. She was a bad influence. She wasn’t worthy of being his wife. She wasn’t good enough, she wasn’t talented enough, she wasn’t pretty enough, she wasn’t white enough. What nobody could grasp was, John thought she was good enough. They loved and respected each other and they didn’t care if the world didn’t approve. Nobody has been put through so much public abuse for no good reason than Yoko Ono has. She has been called every insulting word, she has been vilified and scapegoated. And she has handled it with remarkable grace and dignity. She simply went on doing her thing, speaking her mind, being herself. Eventually, over the years, the hate abated. She earned respect for her courage after John’s death. She earned respect for continuing to make music and create art, and as the keeper of John’s legacy. Most of all, she’s earned respect for being unquestionably her own woman, despite everything that has been thrown her way. She married arguably the most famous man in the world, but refused to be overshadowed by his fame, refused to let his identity obliviate hers. She put her foot down and demanded to be his equal in the eyes of the world. The world responded with anger and hatred at first, but eventually the world came around. Now we take it for granted that two people, even if one of them is the most famous man in the world, can have a bond that’s not just based on the man’s desire to possess an attractive thing. That’s something a lot of very, very smart women have written a lot of books about. But I believe that written manifestos only go so far. The common person doesn’t care about some activist writing angry letters. But the common person cares very much about The Beatles, and it took The Beatles leading by example to make the common person pay attention. It’s because people were paying attention to the personal life habits of a couple of rock stars that we now accept that a wife is more than a piece of furniture, that marriage should be a partnership of equals, that the woman deserves to be heard, that being an outspoken brave person is more important than being pretty and love is all you need.

Going Down On Love

Walls & Bridges is the only John Lennon album I really love and listen to all the way through. What’s wrong with all the other ones? Too many songs about Yoko and his mum. Neither of which subjects I necessarily object to. John’s mother and Yoko were the two most important figures in his life, so of course he wrote a lot of songs about them. I guess my problem with most Lennon albums is that he was often so focused on his expressing his feelings that he forgot to make his songs enjoyable. He could write some of the best pop songs in the world, and express his feelings at the same time, when he wanted to, and working with Paul McCartney helped him do that. (McCartney has had the opposite problem, writing too many pretty melodies while completely forgetting to include any emotions besides wooogly-eyed love.) For Lennon, having Yoko Ono as a collaborator wasn’t the best. Though I have nothing against her, and I think she did him a lot of good in many, many ways, she just isn’t much of a musician. She encouraged him to be serious and artsy, and experiment and be weird and have big ideas and try making a difference in the world, all of which is great, but she didn’t know anything about what makes music go POP. Again, I’m certainly not siding with the whole ‘blame Yoko’ camp. John had a mind of his own, after all, and it’s not like she came and brainwashed him into artistic decline or anything sinister like that. I’m just saying she was never very good at pop music and therefore not a great collaborator. It’s therefore probably not coincidental that Walls & Bridges, Lennon’s most consistently pop solo album, was recorded during a period of separation during which he spent a lot of time with guys like Harry Nilsson, who knew his pop as well as he knew his alcohol. The whole separation episode was a tough time for Lennon, during which he drank way too heavily and was documented frequently behaving like a jackass. But the resulting album isn’t especially reflective of that. Lyrically it’s a dark album, but musically it’s his catchiest, one of his biggest sellers and filled with some of his most popular singles. There is also none of the dreary political haranguing that plagued previous albums. Obviously, Yoko was the politically aware one. Some people still fantasize what greatness could have occurred had John Lennon decided to marry someone less iconoclastic but more musically gifted than Yoko Ono. That’s empty daydreaming, but this is a sign of what he could do just as a man at loose ends.

Beautiful Boy

This song is one of John Lennon’s greatest solo achievents. It’s from Double Fantasy, his final album, released only weeks before his death. As we all know, it is a tribute to John’s son Sean. It’s one of John’s most moving songs, even if you don’t know the back story.

 John and Yoko tried for years to have a baby, suffering through several miscarriages. This song is about the joy that Sean’s birth brought them. It’s well known that John felt badly about being a neglectful father to his first son Julian, and he was determined to do better. What is less known is Yoko’s heartbreaking story. Yoko had previously been married to a film producer, Anthony Cox. They had a daughter, Kyoko. After their divorce there was bitter custody battle, which Cox resolved by kidnapping the child. Cox joined an evangelical Christian sect, lived in Houston for a while, and then disappeared, taking Kyoko with him. Yoko tried hiring private investigators to track down her daughter, to no avail. Yoko did not see, hear from, or know the whereabouts of her fistborn child for decades, until the grown Kyoko contacted her in the 90s. Happily, since then they continue to have a good relationship. So, clearly, both of Sean’s parents were reeling from the rui”:ns of past relationships and longed to be a happy family. Beautiful Boy isn’s just a song about John, or  Sean. It’s about two people finding happiness and peace after a lifetime of pain. The song also includes a small tribute Paul McCartney, in the lines “every day, in every way it’s getting better and better”. When Paul wrote Getting Better (“it’s getting better all the time – better, better, better!”) the cynical John contributed his own lines “can’t get no worse”.  After the Beatles’ breakup, the two went at it like an old divorced couple. John bitterly criticized Paul’s sentimentality and optimistm. Paul made fun of John’s self-righteousness and activism. By 1980, they  were back on speaking terms, and John was beginning to realize that Paul had been right all along – life is good and love is a magical thing, even if it sounds silly to say it. John’s death was beyond tragic, but to me it’s somehow comforting to know that he’d died at a time when he was happiest.