For 42 years, Yoko Ono has been viewed as the woman who made the music die. So it was somewhat shocking this week when Paul McCartney let her off the hook for destroying the Beatles. In an upcoming interview with David Frost, to run on Al Jazeera, McCartney says: “She certainly didn’t break the group up, the group was breaking up.”
Her role as the anti-muse has become a pop-culture truism. The Urban Dictionary’s definition of “Pulling a Yoko”: “The instance in which a woman successfully breaks up your crew.” Ono’s demonization bristles with sexism – doesn’t the Entourage-posturing in the above sentence imply that the word “woman” should be replaced by a certain b-word? – and throws the obsessive nature of fandom into sharp relief. Finally – maybe – Ono is redeemed.
Her artistic output, however, is a tougher sell. Some revisionist rock critics argue that Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band was one of the greatest albums ever made; Gillian Gaar called it the “bridge between Patti Smith and the Velvet Underground.” But what about the screecherific voice? And as a conceptual artist, some of her projects suffer from art-school lightness: In Cut Piece, the audience members snipped off her clothing, piece by piece.
But John Lennon saw her differently. They met in 1966, at one of her exhibitions in London. She asked him to pay five shillings for the pleasure of pounding a nail into a piece of wood. He offered imaginary money, and an imaginary nail. He described the first encounter: “That’s when we locked eyes and she got it and I got it, and … the rest is history.”
It’s key that Lennon’s connection with Ono, intense and immediate, was sparked first by her art. He said later that he’d never really treated women well; violent and selfish, he was a lousy husband. But he and this performance artist became something like equals – Lennon even changed his middle name to Ono when they were married. From the White Album on, they were collaborators. In the studio, Ono famously lay on a mattress, weighing in. This sounds presumptuous, intrusive and annoying, but Lennon invited her. She was no siren luring him away; he wanted her in his musical life.
Fandom requires a personal connection. The superfans – for the Beatles, that included nearly the whole world in 1966 – don’t want anything to get between the star and their adoration. Ono was that thing. Fans are emotionally invested, and how could their emotional outpouring be reciprocated by Lennon if his passion was elsewhere, directed entirely at this outsider? To fans, Ono signalled Lennon’s absence, a lack of commitment; she wasn’t just breaking up the Beatles, she was breaking up his audience. In a 2009 interview with the Stanford News Service, Ono described that time: “There were people who really wanted me dead.”
In the same interview, she was asked if she thought sexism and racism played a part in her vilification when they met. “Definitely. It was very upfront,” she said. The Second World War was a recent memory, and Ono, born and raised in Japan, could be tidily tagged “Dragon Lady.” The alternative condemnation was the subservient “Oriental.” In 1969, Esquire ran the unbelievable headline: John Rennon’s Excrusive Gloupie.
The only rock wife as reviled and complicated is Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain’s widow. She’s been blamed for her husband’s drug problems (Ono got that, too), and even accused of orchestrating his death. Both Ono and Love are tending their deceased partners’ huge estates, which means constant scrutiny for their choices around licensing. These are private financial decisions, but the judgment is public. A woman controlling the purse strings may be even more threatening than a woman controlling the song.
Is it better for the rock wife to be invisible, like Gwyneth Paltrow, who seems to have no presence at all in the musical existence of her husband, Coldplay front man Chris Martin? That’s simpler, perhaps, and doesn’t interfere with the fan/star dynamic. But Ono and Love were artists in their own rights before their husbands came along; of course creativity flowed into their relationships.
Paul McCartney, in the Frost interview, gives Ono credit for exactly that, saying: “I don't think he would have done [Imagine] without Yoko.” Imagine is sentimental silliness, and maybe the music Lennon made with Ono never reached the sublime heights of the music he made with McCartney, but so what? Lennon’s artistic path, like that of the other Beatles, was his own to forge. But until now, McCartney didn’t exactly shout his own desire for freedom from the rooftops, content to let Ono, so loathed, be the fall guy. No one wanted to bear the burden of splitting up the Beatles, not even the Beatles.
Fandom demands the fixing of the artist at a moment in time – a pinning in place. But the best relationships do the opposite, pushing two people out of their comfort zones, helping each other transition to the next phase, creative and personal. For the public, where Lennon was concerned, this shift was unbearable – and for over 40 years, Yoko Ono paid the price.