Once, in the early days of her relationship with John Lennon, someone told Yoko Ono how to be happy. She should stick to the background, and not talk too much. Maybe give up her work — the art career she had, by that point, spent almost a decade building. In the background she might have been a more perfect muse. “The artist absorbs an element from their muse that has nothing to do with words,” Pattie Boyd, who was married to George Harrison when Ono met Lennon, told Taylor Swift in 2018, “just the purity of their essence.” Boyd would know — ranker.com puts her first in its list of “The All Time Greatest Muses in the Music World.” Ono only manages eleventh.
Ono tells the story of how she was supposed to be happy in a spoken intro to a live version of “Coffin Car,” a song on her 1973 album “Feeling the Space.” She describes the feeling of those first years with Lennon, when a whole society called her ugly (she’d always thought of herself as an attractive woman), hurled racist insults at her and told her that they wanted her to die. She developed a stutter. “She likes to ride a coffin car,” Ono sings on the track. “People throwing kisses for the first time / Showering flowers, ringing bells / Telling each other, how nice she is.” Under her voice, the piano bounces along. Maybe this is what they meant by background. Everyone loves you after you’re dead.
“Who is Yoko Ono?” the critic and journalist Donald Brackett asks. For a long time, the answer seemed clear: She was the girlfriend who broke up the Beatles, the celebrity-by-marriage who dabbled in art and music. Brackett’s biography of the conceptual artist, songwriter and activist, “Yoko Ono: An Artful Life,” tries to weave together a more comprehensive answer from narrative threads that form a dense knot of life. Is she a neglected society child, shuttled between Japan and San Francisco, seeing her father only by appointment? A rebellious art student teaching calligraphy to pay the rent and setting fire to her paintings in a downtown loft? An avant-garde outsider, a mother, a lover, earnest or ironic, one half of the most famous couple in the world? “Why is it such a perennial youthful rite of passage to misunderstand, to underestimate, even to hate her?” Lindsay Zoladz wanted to know in a 2015 essay for Vulture.
Brackett’s book is part of a rehabilitation of Yoko Ono’s public image that has been taking place in recent years. There is Zoladz’s piece, which came out the same year Ono was the subject of an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art of 125 works from her early career. There is the MoMA catalogue and many more like it, from smaller galleries (her first North American retrospective toured to the AGO in 2002). There are interviews and profiles from the same magazines that had at one time viciously mocked her and accused her, over and over, of ruining John Lennon and breaking up the Beatles (Yoko Ono did neither of these things). There is a book, “Reaching Out with No Hands: Reconsidering Yoko Ono” by the post-punk musical and performance artist Lisa Crystal Carver, and writings by Ono herself, including numerous reprints and translations of her 1964 book of instructions, “Grapefruit.”
The American artist David Horvitz recently produced a T-shirt edition that proclaims, in finely lined caps, JOHN LENNON BROKE UP FLUXUS. Ono and Lennon show up regularly on fashion and bridal blog posts with headings such as “Great Outfits in Fashion History.” A 2014 Huffington post piece about Ono having a well-documented good time listening to Daft Punk perform “Get Lucky” ran with the headline “Sorry Taylor, Yoko Ono’s the Grammys Real Dancing Queen.” Ono had already written the perfect song to go with it — 2013’s “Bad Dancer.” “Place your bet, watch your step,” she tells us. “I’m a bad dancer with no regrets.”
We live in a cultural moment that is interested in wives and muses, in the women not heard from, the people cropped out of the picture. We marvel at the enigma and ingenuity of Véra Nabokov and admire Lee Miller for her experiments with Man Ray and her own groundbreaking photography. Yet Ono challenges us. Even when we adore her we struggle to see her.
Yoko Ono is, Brackett argues in his prologue, as much a brand as a person — “an esthetic phenomenon — admired, vilified, and profoundly misunderstood in each role.” She emerges and retreats behind a public persona not fully within her control. Is she a witch, as her album title proclaims? Her early life has elements of a fairy tale. Child Yoko was a princess in a gilded cage, surrounded by servants and starved for attention. She watched the city in which she was born bombed to near oblivion. She bartered for food on a country road, conjuring ice cream dinners from summer clouds. She is, Brackett says, “a global apostle of wonderment.” When she met Lennon, lost and disillusioned in his life as a Beatle, she became not simply his lover or even his collaborator but the agent of his re-enchantment.
The central argument of Brackett’s book is that Ono is not a malevolent force, or a muse with an art career on the side. Instead she is a profound source of influence: for Lennon as a songwriter and human being, for a generation of shrieking, wailing, punk singers, and for the Fluxus scene that grew around her early loft parties.
To see her influence, we need to understand what she’s influencing, the raw material she finds. We need to witness the warring egos of the Beatles’ last days, Lennon’s destructive streak, and the alchemical potential of his need meeting hers. To those who still insist on seeing in Yoko the death of the Beatles and all that was good, Brackett offers a portrait of Ono as “mentor and inspiration,” Lennon’s “actual reason for living, or at least surviving.”
The narrative oscillates between foreground and background, Yoko and everyone around her. The longest of its three sections is the one in the middle, which charts Ono’s relationship with Lennon from their first encounter in a London gallery to his murder in 1981. But the consequence of this focus on Lennon, necessary as it may be to make Brackett’s point, is that Ono’s story recedes into the background as she becomes the reflection of her husband’s world.
It’s hard at times not to think of one of Ono’s instructions from her 1964 book “Grapefruit”: Don’t watch Rock Hudson. Only watch Doris Day. When the two briefly separate in 1971, just before their move to New York, Brackett quotes a moment of ambivalence from Ono about the relationship that defined her life. “Suddenly my brain, which had always tried to make myself so small in this relationship, opened up.”
Why is it so hard to see the full force of Ono’s influence? It was there from the beginning, in her relationship with Lennon most of all. Even when she was making herself small, even when she was stuttering. “Imagine,” Lennon’s biggest solo hit, is all her. In the music video it says “This is not here” over the door to the couple’s house. That’s Ono. The all-white living room is Ono, too, and the cover art, and the quote on the back of the album (“Cloud Piece,” from “Grapefruit”). “Imagine was inspired by Yoko’s ‘Grapefruit,’” Lennon later recounted. “But I was selfish and unaware enough to take her contribution without acknowledging it.”
As her notoriety grows, Brackett gives us Ono as an artist exerting her influence, stretching the limits of her voice on the albums she records, with John and without him. “I was dying to scream,” Ono tells us. “I wanted to throw blood.” Brackett connects her vocal experiments and signature scream to the techniques she learned studying kabuki and opera as a high school student in Tokyo after the war. He argues — successfully, and with no shortage of examples — for her importance as a precursor to punk and as an enduring favourite of DJs, remixes of her songs hitting No. 1 on the dance charts in the 21st century. He reminds us that the New York Times said in 2016 that she sounded like the future and that Lennon told an interviewer, unequivocally and with an expletive to make it clear, “She’s taught me everything I f–ing know.”
Did we come around to Yoko only after John died? Was his the coffin car that set her free? She hasn’t escaped criticism as a widow, even from those who love her. “How could she sell John Lennon socks and ties with Kmart,” Carver wants to know. How can she be both profoundly open-hearted (to the world at large) and plain mean to people in it (Lennon’s ex, Cynthia, and his son Julian after John died?) She surely has her reasons, but she hasn’t given them to us. She is, she told the Guardian in 2016, still careful about what she says. “Oh Yoko Ono,” writes Carver, “you trouble me so.”
“Is Ono’s art any less subversive when we’re living in a world that loves her?” Zoladz wants to know. Is the prospect of a dozen celebrities earnestly singing “Imagine” more cringy or less when it’s a Yoko Ono song (she received an official writing credit in 2017)? On YouTube, the video for her performance of “Voice Piece for Soprano” at her MoMA show has 1.7 million views and 4.3K likes, but the comments are turned off. What might people have said that was so awful?
Ono, for her part, has always followed a different impulse. Visitors coming to the piece at MoMA encountered only the microphone and speakers that Ono uses in her video clip, and three simple instructions: “Scream 1. against the wind 2. against the wall 3. against the sky.” Ono, in her version, screams like the virtuoso she is. You can try your version anywhere you’d like. Go ahead, take a breath. Scream into the wind, the wall, the sky. Yoko Ono would love to hear you.
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