Yoko Ono is 82 on Feb. 18. John Lennon said once that Yoko was one the most famous artists in the world, but few people have actually seen her work. But that has changed over these past several years and she has emerged as her own respected artist. Her art had been shown and received critical acclaim in many major art exhibits all over the world*. And several musicians from succeeding generations from The B-52’s to The Flaming Lips to Lady Ga Ga credit her with inspiring them. Many people may also not know that she has had 12 #1 Billboard Dance Chart hits of her own songs since 2003.
She is recognized as one of the founders of concept and performance art going back to her involvement in the early New York movement, Fluxus, who were influenced by recognized pioneers John Cage and Marcel Duchamp. She published her book, “Grapefruit”, in 1964 (which contained a poem “Imagine the clouds dripping”) that helped inspire Lennon’s signature post-Beatles’ song and made her own avant-garde films. This was all before she even met Lennon in 1966. There’s no doubt that she helped expose him to concept art and how it could be used to make social statements and reach the public, such as in their Bed Peace events and the War Is Over (if you want it) campaign, etc.
But besides seeing her husband, John Lennon, being murdered right in front of her by a crazed Beatles’ fan in 1980, she has had to endure years of some fans vilifying her. There are some that still accuse her of breaking up the Beatles, now 45 years ago. Even though, Paul McCartney said in 2012 that he did not blame Ono for the breakup of the Beatles and credited Ono with inspiring much of Lennon's post-Beatles work.
When she married Lennon in ’69, she was called the racist name “dragon lady” and was seen as cold and manipulative and later for her treatment of John’s son, Julian, from John’s first wife Cynthia. But Paul McCartney, with whom she at one time had some copyright and other differences, has said since then: "I thought she was a cold woman. I think that's wrong..... she's just the opposite..... I think she's just more determined than most people to be herself." Julian and Cynthia posed with her at Julian’s photo exhibit in New York in 2010. And Sean and Julian remain close half-brothers. Some may also not know that Yoko in return thanked Paul for actually helping John get back together with her (while visiting with Ono in March 1974, McCartney, on leaving, asked "[W]hat will make you come back to John?" McCartney subsequently passed her response to Lennon while visiting him in Los Angeles. "John often said he didn't understand why Paul did this for us, but he did."
Most of these disparaging myths that have built up around her have become mainly water-under-the-bridge for the parties involved. And it’s the public who sometimes carry on these misunderstandings. It’s like any family that doesn’t always agree on everything, only it’s been magnified because they’re immensely famous. But most Beatles fans, I think, have come to respect Yoko for carrying on John’s legacy and their commitment to peace and change.
A far as her music, she has been accused of not having talent and that her singing is just “screaming”. But a lot of people who have said that, again, have probably never even heard many of her albums. It’s really only on her first album, which was made at the same time as John’s own first real solo album, Plastic Ono Band, in 1970, right after they had both gone through primal “scream” theory with Arthur Janov. They continued to release solo albumsfor both of them for the next few years and these contained very few such songs. In fact, there are some very well-constructed songs by Yoko on her next album, Fly in 1971 (“Midsummer New York”, a rocker, and the haunting “Mrs. Lennon”). Yoko’s next record is a double album, Approximately Infinite Universe with backing by the Elephant’s Memory band. It is my favorite of hers, and like my favorite Beatles’ album, The White Album, it’s full of great songs by her and in a wide variety of styles. With songs like “Death of Samantha”, “Looking Out from My Hotel Window”; the rocker, “ Move On Fast”, and the political plea, “Now or Never.” For anyone who would actually listen to the words and performance on this album, I believe, for example, it would soon dispel the myth that she can’t sing and write good music. In 1973, she released the jazzy, Feeling the Space.
When John and Yoko released his last album, Double Fantasy, both of them shared the duties and compositions, often counterpointing the other’s songs (such as his “I’m Losing You” with her’s “I’m Moving On”). The night John was shot they were working on her song, “Walking on Thin Ice”, which later became a dance hit. Yoko, like with her art, has continued to put out several albums over the years and as I said, has had many dance hits. Several others have recorded her songs from Elvis Costello and Rosanne Cash, to more recent urban and alternative artists. Yoko is in her 80’s now, but doesn’t seem to be slowing down one bit in her art, music or pursuit of peace and social change. And more and more the world and fans are finally catching up with her.
I was privileged to see Yoko and Sean perform in a small Toronto club in 1996 for her album, Rising. And it was interesting to see how she won over even the few Yoko detractors by the end of the show. I had actually seen one of her early art films in a small movie theatre in my university town, before I knew she was with John Lennon, and also around that same time, witnessed a music performance by John Cage, legendary art concrete founder.
BOSTON HEARLD: Feb. 16, 2015: Monday's great women: Yoko Ono, Helen Mirren, Uma Thurman
I LIKE criticism. It makes you strong," says LeBron James.
THIS IS perhaps true. And in that mind-set, Yoko Ono must be one of the strongest of humans. What Yoko endured during her marriage to John Lennon -- and even for years after she was widowed -- was enough to bring down another person. But Yoko stayed true to every single ideal of her life and her art. In doing so, she has survived triumphantly. In her 80s she has seen the cultural world turn around and embrace her -- not just her own generation or people in their 50s or 60s who still carry a lot of nostalgia for the Beatles and John. Nope, Yoko became a big deal on the dance charts with her unusual and uncompromising music. Kids know Yoko!
Now she is being celebrated in a soon-to-be published limited edition book, "See Hear Yoko" by Bob Gruen and Jody Denberg. Gruen, who was Yoko and John's personal photographer, and Denberg, who interviewed Yoko many times over a 25-year span, have packed their tome with more than 200 photos and observations about this impressive, talented and courageous woman. (And might I add, for all her strength, a much more vulnerable person than the insulting and racist "dragon lady" publicity of her early, fraught years with John.)
"See Hear Yoko" is out next week, from Harper Collins
* From May 17 to September 7, 2015, The Museum of Modern Art presents its first exhibition dedicated exclusively to the work of Yoko Ono, taking as its point of departure the artist’s unofficial MoMA debut in late 1971.
Below Yoko singing her haunting,” Mrs. Lennon”, 1971:
Yoko Ono's 1972 album, Approximately Infinite Universe, has many songs in a wide variety of styles and is one of her best: