Half a century ago Yoko Ono was probably the most vilified woman in the world. Believed by many to have been responsible for the break-up of the Beatles, she had, it was thought, ruined everything.
Who does she think she is, was a widespread attitude, and not only among Beatles fans. This strange, zany, Japanese, arty woman in black, coming over here and bewitching John Lennon away from his wife and friends. Life without the Beatles will never be the same.
The world moved on. Yoko Ono survived and in February she will celebrate her ninetieth birthday, no longer despised, worth, some say, half a billion dollars, and now, in fact, rather admired.
So, who is Yoko Ono?
Well, when she and John Lennon met, due in no small part to her manipulations, she was a little-known Japanese avant-garde artist whose events in New York had rarely attracted more than a couple of dozen admirers.
What she wanted at that time, and would always want, was to be appreciated on the world stage. John Lennon provided that stage and more, by becoming her husband and greatest advocate.
I’m not qualified to judge Yoko Ono’s art. I’ll leave that to the art critics. But, for several years, I knew Yoko very well, and never met anyone so convinced of her own creative talent, so single-minded in her quest for recognition.
To achieve this recognition, she approached John Lennon, and he became her enthusiastic chief enabler.
What their love affair did for his talent is still being appraised. What it did for his working relationship with his songwriting partner, Paul McCartney, was quickly evident. It broke it up. McCartney found he was unable to write with Lennon in the presence of Yoko. From then on, both songwriters would pursue separate careers.
But, while many fans blamed Yoko for her part in destroying the Beatles, Lennon never did. He may not have been physically faithful to her during the next, and last, decade of his life – nor, it is believed, was she to him.
But from the moment he left the Beatles in 1969 to the night in New York 1980 when he was shot dead by a mad fan, he never publicly criticised her.
In fact, quite the reverse occurred. A few weeks before his death he would claim that his most famous song, Imagine, should have been credited to both himself and Yoko, because he got the idea for it from an ‘instruction’ she’d composed as an avant-garde artist in 1963, years before they’d met.
‘Imagine letting a goldfish swim across the sky,’ she’d written, which eight years later Lennon turned into ‘Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try…’ To Yoko, and to some of her supporters, that gave her the right to claim co-authorship of Lennon’s anthem.
Others have pointed out that if that were the case, Ringo Starr could equally claim a half credit for writing A Hard Day’s Night, since Lennon and McCartney had turned the drummer’s muddled phrase into a very famous hit song and film title. Ringo didn’t claim anything, of course; nor were the publishers of Imagine convinced by Yoko’s claim.
I first met and interviewed her at Abbey Road Studios in 1968 during the recording of the Beatles’ White Album. John Lennon was then 27, Yoko was 35 and had been living with him for some months, having moved into his Surrey home while his wife, Cynthia, was away on holiday.
At that meeting, and subsequently over many years, I found her to be enigmatic, in that she never displayed her inner feelings. When things weren’t going right for her, she just went blank…in public anyway.
On one occasion when I was staying with the Lennons in a New York hotel, I watched, embarrassed, as John shouted ferociously at her, telling her she ‘looked like a whore’, because he thought what she was wearing was inappropriate. Silently she kept her composure and changed into something more demure. If he was to get a roasting from her, it would be in private.
She always thought that whatever she did was equal to anything he did, although he sold millions of records and she hardly any – although that didn’t deter her from recording them.
And when she insisted on equal space on what would become his last album, he just gave in, although it wasn’t what he wanted and he knew it would badly damage the record’s sales. She was a tough and unbending negotiator.
Born in Tokyo in 1933 into a wealthy banking Japanese family, she was the eldest of three children, where, she told me, she was fed information ‘like a domesticated animal’.
The weight of Japanese conformity was all around her, but evidently that conformity didn’t extend to sex. As she grew up, she would realise that her parents had an open marriage and both took lovers whom she would get to know. It wasn’t unusual to her, and she would later display a guilt free attitude towards extra-marital sex, too.
Early childhood for Yoko was spent mainly in the culture of the Japanese rich, but in 1953, when she was 20, her banker father was posted to the US, and took his family with him.
There Yoko enrolled at the private liberal arts Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Very soon, though, she discovered the avant-garde, and dropped out of college when she met a young Japanese composer, Toshi Ichiyanagi, whom she married in 1956.
Renting a loft on New York’s Lower West Side the young couple held ‘events’ in their loft apartment. Yoko’s art was highly influenced by the Fluxus group, the leader of which would later become her lover. There were, she told me at our first meeting, other affairs. There were abortions, too.
Artistically, she saw herself as a conceptualist, dreaming up instructions for her pieces, which others might perform. Which is to say, she was a thinker rather than a do-er. If she received any reviews in those days they were usually critical, but rejection never stopped her.
In 1961 she and her husband, whose career was progressing more swiftly than hers, separated. So, she returned to Japan and was institutionalised by her family after taking an overdose of sleeping pills.
An American film maker, called Tony Cox, however, got her out of the asylum, and, after a quick divorce from Toshi, Yoko married him and gave birth to a daughter, Kyoko.
Motherhood didn’t come naturally to Yoko, so when Kyoko was a baby, Cox found himself doing most of the caring as Yoko pursued her career. Back in New York she appeared alone on stage in a little black dress holding a large pair of scissors, which she gave to members of the audience, inviting them to cut off one piece of her clothing at a time. Soon she was down to her pants.
There were, however, no reviews in the newspapers. And a film she made of the bottoms of famous people received some notoriety, but no serious reviews.
At which point, she received an invitation to appear at a symposium in London entitled ‘Destruction in Art’. It was 1966 and London was then the centre of the swinging Sixties. It was, she decided, the place for her to finally be noticed and taken seriously.
And who better to be associated with than the Beatles? She tried Paul McCartney first. He didn’t want to know. So, she approached Ringo Starr. He didn’t understand what she was talking about. John Lennon, however, was interested.
They met several times. She phoned him at his home in Surrey and wrote him tantalising messages when he and the other Beatles went to India to study meditation. Then, while his wife Cynthia was away, Lennon invited her down to his house. When Cynthia came home from holiday the next day, she found that Yoko had replaced her, having left her little daughter with her husband.
From that moment John and Yoko became inseparable. No longer interested in being a Beatle, Lennon basically became one half of a new entity called ‘John and Yoko’.
Now describing himself as an artist, too, he and Yoko launched themselves into a series of avant-garde events such as the Two Virgins, which showed them naked, back and front, on the cover of an album of ‘sounds’. Then there was Bagism, in which they got into a bag together, and Bed Piece when they spent their honeymoon in bed in an Amsterdam hotel in the name of peace.
‘Exhibitionists’, was the word most often used to describe the two.
But, undeterred, they then repeated the honeymoon event in a hotel in Canada where Lennon recorded the song Give Peace A Chance.
As the Beatles went their separate ways, John Lennon made two excellent solo albums, and bought a grand estate in Berkshire. He also dabbled in heroin, to which Yoko had introduced him, and underwent some Primal Therapy in San Francisco.
Then in 1971 Yoko prevailed upon her husband to go and live in what he described as ‘her old stomping ground’ of New York. He never came back to Britain.
Setting up home at first in Greenwich Village, and energised by his wife’s commitments, Lennon at first threw himself into publicising Yoko’s art. Her self-published book of instructions, Grapefruit, which contained such instruction as ‘Smoke everything you can. Including your pubic hair’ and ‘Step in all the puddles in the city’ was republished by a big New York publisher, with the words ‘With an introduction by John Lennon’ on the cover.
Simultaneously the couple became noisy peace activist, and then loud proponents for feminism. It wasn’t, however, always easy for them to practise what they preached.
In 1974, Yoko told me that John had sex with a girl at a party. ‘It was embarrassing for me’, she said, in that the incident had taken place in a bedroom where the other guests had left their coats and therefore couldn’t go home.
‘John,’ she explained, ‘is not always easy to live with.’ Something his first wife, Cynthia, had also found.
Yoko’s solution to her difficult, straying husband, though, was quite different from the approach most wives might have taken, when she suggested to a pretty, young assistant called May Pang that she should take John home with her one night.
An 18 month affair ensued, in which May found herself in the role of a concubine, being expected to look after John, keep him warm in bed and report daily to Yoko.
When May wanted to stop being a mistress, Yoko insisted she continue. And when John decided to return to Yoko, she suggested May should live with them as his mistress. Even John thought that was too much.
But that was Yoko, always pulling the strings. She ran the Lennons’ home, which was several apartments in the Dakota building on New York’s Central Park West, and she organised the staff. Phone calls to John, in those days before mobiles, were put through to her first, so that she could vet who was calling.
She even took her husband’s place on the board of Apple, the Beatles’ company that acted as a collecting house for the group’s shared income from their records that continued to sell in their millions.
John Lennon had never been interested in money or business but Yoko was. And she made the pair of them, John and Yoko and then their son Sean, very rich indeed.
Then one night in December 1980, when the two of them were returning from the recording studio where John had been mixing one of Yoko’s recordings, he was murdered outside their home.
I had spoken to Yoko that afternoon and was due to fly to New York to see her and John the following day. With John dead, and a multitude of fans gathered outside the Dakota, I didn’t go.
A few weeks later Yoko rang me with a reprimand for not having gone. ‘So, you didn’t care about the widow then, did you?’ She had a right to be aggrieved.
To make amends, the next time I was in New York, a few months later, I rang her and was immediately invited up to the apartment. Her son Sean, who was then six, was in the kitchen with us as we talked, as was a young man in his late twenties called Sam, whom I presumed to be one of the staff.
I was wrong. After a while Yoko suggested that Sam take Sean to watch TV in another room while she and I talked about old times. Then she explained. Sam was her new lover. After John had been murdered she had obviously been very upset, but: ‘I need sex. I’m not a nun, not a virgin. So? There was Sam. John liked him and Sean likes him. So, why not Sam?’
Sam, full name Sam Havadtoy, was an interior designer and artist who had done some work at the Lennons’ home, and he and Yoko would be privately together for the next twenty years, which is eight years longer than she was with John Lennon.
As they are both artists, he might even have been a better match for her than John, but they never appeared together in public. It has been suggested that their affair began a year before Lennon was murdered, but I don’t know. That wasn’t what Yoko told me that night.
The two broke up in 2001 when Sam went to live in Hungary where he has an art gallery. He has never spoken about his relationship with Yoko.
That she should so quickly have had another man in her life astonished me at the time. But, on reflection, it was totally consistent with the way she had lived, going from one husband to the next with hardly a backward glance, and having left her daughter Kyoko, to be looked after by her second husband when she met John Lennon.
That had worked out badly for everyone when Cox had disappeared into a fundamentalist doomsday cult with the six year old child in 1971. It wasn’t until 1997 that Yoko and Kyoko, then aged 34, were reunited.
Some Beatles fans now blame Yoko for the way John Lennon’s image has been beatified by his widow since his death. On the other hand, she has never stopped promoting the memory of John Lennon, albeit as one half of ‘John and Yoko’
She’s never had much to say about his years with the Beatles. But what she has had a lot to talk about and exhibit has been her own avant-garde exhibitions, through which her reputation for free thinking and individualism against all odds has increasingly been applauded and awarded. While her son with Lennon, Sean, now 47, is a respected, experimental instrumentalist and record producer.
Most Lennon fans never thought Yoko could sing, and it’s said that her microphone was switched off by sound engineers when she and Lennon sang with Chuck Berry on a TV show.
But, then again, a good singer or not, she may once more have simply been years ahead of her time, several of her records having topped the American dance charts since John Lennon’s death.
In 1969 she was reviled. But she never lost faith in her art or herself. John Lennon always told me that she was an extraordinary woman. ‘Why should I work with Paul McCartney, when I can work with Yoko Ono?’ he would say many times to me.
To which, I had no answer that he would have wanted to hear.
But now, as Yoko approaches her ninetieth birthday, a highly respected avant-garde artist, it would seem that he was right about her artistic talent.
Ray Connolly’s latest novel, The Last Interview, is now available on Amazon