Thursday, 3 June 2010

Heroes & Villains No. 1: Yoko Ono

In You Never Give Me Your Money, I offer the names of three outsiders who had a dramatic impact on the Beatles in the late 60s, and who have all been blamed - to greater or lesser extent - for the split. All three were Americans, by birth or adoption. As I argue in the book, it isn't fair to blame any of the three for what four strong-minded, increasingly independent British men decided to do (or not to do) in 1969/70. But there's no doubt that if the Beatles hadn't met Yoko Ono, Linda Eastman and Allen Klein, their history would have been very different.

I stood next to Linda Eastman once, was briefly acquainted with one of her daughters, and once spent a very pleasant morning with Allen Klein's son, Jody. But the only one of those three 'intruders' who I actually met - on several occasions - was Yoko Ono.

This isn't the place to argue the pros and cons of her influence over John Lennon and the Beatles, as you really need to read the book. At the very least, she transformed Lennon's life. But I can offer you some personal reminiscences of being in her company. What can I say? She's tiny, almost unfeasibly so, but you already know that. Her speaking voice is very quiet, even when she's disagreeing with you. I've seen her being grumpy and cold, and I've had a long conversation with her when she was charm itself, and both times she barely did more than whisper.

What else? Well, I interviewed her at length when her Onobox retrospective was released (early 90s, I guess), and she smoked more cigarettes, more quickly, than anyone I've ever met. They were filters - don't ask me what brand - and she had a ritual. She lit up, inhaled once, then stubbed it out and immediately lit another. And so on and on. I presume she reckoned that the cancer risk was minimal that way, and she was hardly strapped for cash, but the average nicotine junkie could have lived quite happily off her discards.

There was a poignant moment in that interview when, without mentioning John's name, she talked about her loneliness and her isolation. We were sitting in her luxurious, £1000-per-night suite at the Hyde Park Hotel in London. ("Nice view", I said semi-sarcastically as I arrived and looked out at the park beyond her windows. "Umm", she said vaguely, with the air of a woman who was so used to luxury that she hadn't really noticed.) At the exact second when she talked about being forced to live alone since John's death, there was a loud cough from behind the closed door of her bathroom - a loud, distinctly male, cough. She looked at me, I looked at her, she glanced briefly towards the bathroom - and changed the subject.

Something that's rarely mentioned when people talk about Yoko is that English is her second language. Regardless what you think of her art (and I have a sneaking regard for it, especially her more confrontational music and performances), she is clearly an intelligent woman. But when she speaks, she often sounds very naive - sometimes even simple-minded. Partly that's because she believes that simple ideas are usually the best. But it's also because she's not actually that articulate in English, and she sometimes seems to have trouble finding the words to express what she means. It's obvious that she has a wide English vocabulary (she ought to, because she's been living in the States for nearly 50 years). But I bet she still thinks in Japanese.

One last thing, which shouldn't need saying, but probably does. Most people still regard Yoko Ono as John Lennon's widow and the controller of his artistic estate. (Many also see her as The Woman Who Broke Up The Beatles, as if any outsider could actually have wielded that much power.) But Yoko is now 77 years old, and she only spent fourteen of those years as Lennon's wife, collaborator, partner and friend. By contrast, she has been a working artist since she left college when she was . . . I can't remember the exact date, but she was 21, maybe?

You can argue back and forth about how much her involvement with Lennon helped or hindered her art career. It's inescapable, though, that she has always been an artist, first and foremost, and a character in the Beatles' saga second. Regardless what you think of her work, I think you have to admire the single-minded way in which she has insisted on following her own artistic vision, rather than living quietly and comfortably off her Lennon inheritance as she could easily have done. More on this subject another time, though . . .

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