"I'll Take 'Things Related to "Beatles" for $500,' Please, Alex!"
Part 1: The Beatles Broke Up Yoko Ono
For those of you who don't know, The Beatles were a
pop/rock band that released records from 1962 to 1970, with a few hit singles
and some decent solo material from its former members. There have been far too
many books, essays, and articles written about them, so I figured I would do
what I felt was the most appropriate thing in the world — write another one. But
in this case I will be writing about the aspects of their music that I
think are important, rather than the usual, boring conclusions that everyone
has. That said, I'd like begin with one of my favorite Beatles-related topics:
Oh, how this woman has been lamented over the past 40 years or so. So many
people have written so many tyrannical musings about their disgust for her
"wailing" or her avant-garde artwork, which has been dismissed by Beatlemaniacs
as "not true art." What I wish to present here is the notion that not only did
Yoko not break up The Beatles, she actually made them better.
"I do think that it was very unfair to blame any one person... no one person
could have broken up a band, especially one the size of The Beatles. And it was
not just John; some of the other guys were having some thoughts about the band,
so it happened."
—Yoko Ono, speaking in an interview with Ask Men.
Ono, who celebrated her 73rd birthday this year, was born to a wealthy family in
Tokyo, Japan. She lived a lonely childhood, largely ignored by her wealthy,
socialite mother, who frequently spent her time throwing exclusive parties for
the elite. Her father, once a locally acclaimed classical pianist, was
transferred to San Francisco for his position as the head of a bank shortly
after Yoko was born. He didn't meet her until she was over two years old. As a
result of her parents' busy, wealthy lifestyle, she spent a great deal of time
either alone, or with tutors, learning piano, or engaging in operatic voice
The family moved back to Tokyo after Yoko turned five years old as anti-Japanese
sentiment began to rise in the United States, largely due to the fact that
Japanese troops had invaded China in 1937. After Tokyo suffered a massive,
all-night air raid in 1945, her family moved to a small farming village where
the Ono family found themselves living in sharp contrast to their former
affluent lifestyle. Upon their arrival in the small village, all their valuables
were taken, and the Onos came to exist on the same level as the villagers
themselves – often begging for food door-to-door. The younger siblings of the
Ono family found the constant teasing from the farm kids difficult; Yoko, on the
other hand, was never afraid to stand up for herself.
Years later, Yoko's family moved to New York when she was in her early twenties.
With a degree in philosophy from Tokyo's Gakushuin University under her belt,
she enrolled in the music program at Sarah Lawrence College (which Linda
McCartney also attended) and became fascinated by the artistry of avant-garde
composers such as John Cage. It was in New York where she met her first husband,
Toshi Ichiyanagi, who would also later become an acclaimed avant-garde composer.
In those days, the couple held scene parties in their downtown loft known as
"happenings," allowed Cage to host experimental music composition classes in
their home, and frequented various galleries and performances. Yoko's parents,
though they agreed with her choice of education, strongly disapproved of her
choice of peers, as they felt they were beneath her.
As the years progressed, Toshi began to spend a lot of time with other artists
he had met, leading Yoko to feels depressed and despondent. On one particularly
low occasion, she overdosed on pills and found herself committed to the
psychiatric ward, where they would heavily sedate her regularly. This period of
despair and desolation had a profound effect on her later material, such as
Life With The Lions and her genre-defining Plastic Ono Band LP.
being released from the institution, she moved on to jazz musician and film
producer Tony Cox in 1962. Cox had heard stories about Yoko from mutual friend
LaMonte Young and flew from New York to meet her. Upon arriving, he found her
incarcerated and excessively drugged. He was extremely upset with the abnormally
high levels of sedation that Yoko was subjected to while in the facility, and
upon Toshi's request, helped to free her from the confinement. Afterwards, the
trio lived together in Tokyo, but when Yoko became pregnant with her first
child, Kyoko, Toshi filed for divorce.
Kyoko was born in 1963 and, for a brief time, lived with her mother and father,
Tony Cox. Unfortunately, the couple was a less-than-ideal match and years later,
after the debut of the now-infamous performance of Cut Piece and the
publication of Grapefruit, Yoko's book of avant-garde "instructions," the
couple finally separated.
Ono went on to become a member of the original Fluxus collective in New York, a
group devoted to "intermedia," including (but not limited to) performance and
object-based art, literature, and music. Fellow members included such
influential artists as Dick Higgins and Nam June Paik (who passed away in
January). It was during this period of fruitful artistry in which Ono first met
John Lennon at an art show in London.
As this has been such a widely documented event, I won't bore you by reiterating
the story again. The essential part of the story is that John and Yoko were
immediately smitten with each other. The two felt as though this was a new
beginning, as though they were two virgins in love. So, they did what any decent
artist would do today; they made an avant-garde record with naked photographs of
themselves on the front and back covers.
The release of the Two Virgins album sent people spinning. From its
concept (it was a recording of a moment, rather than a song, or even a texture)
to its packaging (there was some rather insulting commentary about their body
types), the album was hated in its time. The irony of a pop singer creating
anything this obtuse seemed virtually inconceivable, as well as the fact that it
seemed that this "ocean child" was leading Lennon to board the crazy train with
her. The general consensus was that this was Yoko's album and that John was just
blindly following her, a fact that is entirely untrue. Sure, Yoko was the more
dominant voice on the disc, but that is her style. This album was appropriately
a "rip off the Band-Aid" experience, one that was to shape the face of noise
music today, setting an undeniable legacy up for such artists as Nurse with
Wound and The Boredoms. Take the sounds of guitar drones and feedback played by
Lennon and laid over Yoko's primal screams, and you've got yourself the makings
of an early Wolf Eyes record. While it's true that it's not most people's cup of
tea, neither is No Fun fest.
The pair, who later became known as "Lennono" for their work as a
mini-collective, would later release the musique-concrete masterpiece
"Revolution 9" on The Beatles' infamous self-titled 1968 album, as well as two
more avant-garde records: Unfinished Music #2: Life With The Lions and
Wedding Album (an "audio souvenir" of Lennono's famous Bed-In). These pieces
were dismissed as whimsical side projects for Lennon, but their importance to
his context is immeasurable.
Essentially, Yoko's taste for the avant-garde style of music (concept comes
before function or form) was one of the major factors in John's change in
musical direction. After getting involved with her and gaining inspiration from
her conceptual expressions, Lennon went on to write his best music: "Julia,"
"Happiness is a Warm Gun," "I Want You (She's So Heavy);" even the vitriolic
attack of the stellar "Cold Turkey" bears her tremendous influence. And that's
just in the '60s.
Now, how about her music in the '70s? We'll just have to save that one story for
later, I guess.
For further (very) interesting reading on Yoko Ono, see these Cut Pieces:
Yoko meets her granddaughter:
Yoko Ono biography:
World Peace Forum:
Ask Men interview:
Japan invades China:
Absolut Ad of John and Yoko:
Yoko Ono Wikipedia Entry: