In 1966, John Lennon climbed up a ladder. Above it, he found a magnifying glass. When he turned it up to the ceiling, one tiny word filled the frame: ‘Yes.’ The ladder was in the Indica gallery in London, and it belonged to the Japanese conceptual artist Yoko Ono. By the time John Lennon came down the ladder, he was in love.
If you know one thing about Yoko Ono, it’s probably not this. Ono is not known for her artistic legacy and certainly not for her musical prowess. Instead, she is known simply as the harpy that broke up the Beatles, the woman that screeched and screamed her way into John Lennon’s music while the world plugged its ears. For 50 years, she has remained one of pop culture’s most hated women and one of music’s most reviled voices. And in 2017, that voice is back.
So far this year, Ono has been featured on two tracks by contemporary rock bands: the Black Lips enlisted Ono to provide backing vocals – or “wordless, distorted moans,” as Rolling Stone put it – for their new song, “Occidental Front,” and The Moonlandingz featured a trippy vocal line by Ono on their song “This Cities Undone.” Additionally, over the next few years the label Secretly Canadian will reissue Ono’s entire musical output from 1968 to 1985. Three of those reissues – Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With Lions and Plastic Ono Band – were collaborations with John Lennon and were released last year.
Clearly, the music world is listening. While the famous 1970’s rock critic Lester Bangs once referred to Ono and Lennon’s collaborations as “the ego-trips of two rich waifs adrift in the musical revolutions of the Sixties” and “dilettante garbage,” Ono’s music has known critical success. More than that, her contributions to the course of experimental music and avant-garde art are vastly more important than the dominating narrative of her life reveals. Ono is the kind of wild pioneering heroine we all say we want to celebrate. So why have we hated her so vehemently?
It’s true that the majority of the music Ono and Lennon created together lacked a certain listenability. The “wordless, distorted moans” Ono brings to the Black Lips’ new song are derivative of the sound she brought to the Plastic Ono Band. The most famous – and most derided – of her musical performances takes place in 1972 when she and Lennon performed with Chuck Berry on The Mike Douglas Show. While Berry and Lennon vibed off each other, Ono smacked on a drum and yowled tunelessly into the microphone. Or so the common story went and still goes.
Other Plastic Ono Band performances have a similar offbeat quality. During a 1969 performance in Toronto, Lennon and the band play a heavy version of the Beatles blues-rock song “Yer Blues,” during which Ono partakes in her signature screeching repertoire, and on most of their studio albums, the same can be said.
It’s this sound that sparked the hate. A YouTube clip of the The Mike Douglas Show performance has 148 comments, virtually all of which scorn Ono, sometimes violently, and of the same performance, comedian Bill Burr once commented that Ono’s just “playing some stupid fucking drum, and even though she has no fucking talent whatsoever, he’s putting her in the fucking band just so she’ll shut the fuck up and stop nagging him.” He later refers to her as a “psycho cunt.”
The biggest problem with these collaborations, however, is not a lack of talent on the part of Ono, but a lack of congruity between lucid Lennon and experimental Ono. Adding some extravagant yowling to a typical Beatles song like “Yer Blues” clearly isn’t going to mesh. But that’s the way we always look at it – she didn’t fit with him – which discredits the pre-Lennon Ono, who was already an accomplished conceptual artist by the time Lennon climbed up the ladder.
In the early 1960’s, Ono hung around and collaborated with the likes of such avant-garde figures as John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, Peggy Guggenheim, Charlotte Moorman and George Brecht. Her loft in downtown Manhattan became a gallery and performance space for the avant-garde community. Here, she created some of her first pieces, including Painting to Be Stepped On, which was a scrap of canvas on the floor that became a completed work upon the accumulation of footprints, shaking up the idea that paintings need to be on walls and aiming to democratize the process of art-making.
A lot of her early work takes this communal, endowing approach. Her most famous performance, 1964’s Cut Piece, consisted of Ono kneeling on a stage with a pair of scissors in front of her. Audience members were told to come to the stage and snip off pieces of her clothing one by one. Her celebrated book Grapefruit, also from 1964, reads a set of lyrical and imaginative instructions for conceptual acts of engaging with the world and the self. For example: “Imagine the clouds dripping. Dig a hole in your garden to put them in,” or, “Get a telephone that only echoes back your voice. Call every day and talk about many things.”
It was this kind of work that drew Lennon to Ono in the first place. His relationship with the Beatles was already fraught when they finally got together in 1969 (the same year the Beatles broke up) and the two of them felt they had found a confidante in each other. Their relationship and creative collaborations were egalitarian in nature, despite the common misconception that she attached herself to him like a succubus. They inspired each other; he drew her into the mainstream and she drew him into the avant-garde.
This didn’t always work, but it wasn’t always a disaster either. As Rolling Stone’s Christopher Weingarten recently said: “They were occasionally brilliant, occasionally idiotic and always honest – just like the best rock music.” And just like the best conceptual art, too. Ono was never meant to be a Joni Mitchell or a Stevie Nicks; she was after something deeper, freakier and more confrontational. Like John Cage or Marcel Duchamp, she wanted to push the boundaries.
Though it is not seen this way now, Ono’s work – before and during the Lennon years – was extremely influential. As Weingarten put it: “Ono’s output would provide a crucial link between the bleeding edge of 20th Century Composition… and the primitive forms of expression that would one day be called ‘punk rock.’” The new wave movement is also credited in part to Ono, and musicians as mainstream as Elvis Costello and Sonic Youth have paid homage her.
On top of all that, it’s been nearly 40 years since John Lennon’s death, and Ono never stopped creating. In the face of so much adversity, she has recorded celebrated dance albums, created famous installations like Wish Tree and Sky Landing, and the Whitney Museum, the MoMa and the Guggenheim have all held retrospectives of her work. She’s done it all with a calm and progressive joy. (Follow her on Twitter and she’ll brighten your day everyday). And yet this lifetime of success is still eclipsed by the towering figure of John Lennon, and a deluge of misguided hate.
When I first encountered Grapefruit, it spun my view of the world of its head. Ono’s lyricism and imagination cracked me open, made me see possibility in places I never saw it before. But more importantly, it forced me to come to grips with the idea that everything I’ve ever been told could be a lie. While I hadn’t bought into the “Yoko broke up the band” narrative, my lack of knowledge about her led me to buy into everything else that goes along with that story: she was a fame-chaser, she had no artistic talent or career of her own, she pushed her way to the stage. Discovering her true mind forced me to confront the reality of my internalized misogyny, a tough pill we all need to swallow. A (non-white) woman being weird, being raw, being unpleasant and guttural and progressive, is not something we’ve historically celebrated. It’s something we’ve feared and suppressed. Ono is just one of the casualties of this sexist and racist mindset. But she’s one we need to resurrect – for her sake as much as ours.