Once, in the early days of her relationship with John Lennon, someone told Yoko Ono how to be happy. She should stay in the background and not talk too much. Maybe she should give up her job – the art career she had at the time, she had built for almost ten years. In the background she might have been a more perfect muse. “The artist absorbs an element of 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 comes in only eleventh.
Ono tells the story of how she had 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 early years with Lennon, then a very society called her ugly (she had always considered herself an attractive woman), hurled racist insults at her and told her they wanted her to die. She developed a stutter. “She likes to ride in a coffin,” Ono sings on the track. “People kissing for the first time / Showering flowers, ringing bells / Telling each other how nice she is.” The piano bounces under her voice. Maybe this is what they mean by background. Everyone loves you after you’re dead.
“Who is Yoko Ono?” asks the critic and journalist Donald Brackett. For a long time, the answer seemed obvious: 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,” attempts to weave a more elaborate response from narrative threads that form a tight knot of life. Is she a neglected community kid, commuting back and forth between Japan and San Francisco, seeing her father only by appointment? A rebellious art student who teaches calligraphy to pay the rent and sets her paintings on fire in a downtown loft? An avant-garde outsider, a mother, a lover, serious or ironic, half of the most famous couple in the world? “Why is it such a perpetual youthful rite of passage to misunderstand, underestimate, or even 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 taken place in recent years. There’s 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’s the MoMA catalog and much more, from smaller galleries (her first North American retrospective toured to the AGO in 2002). There are interviews and profiles from the same magazines that once mocked her, accusing her over and over for ruining John Lennon and breaking up the Beatles (Yoko Ono did neither). There is a book, “Reaching Out with No Hands: Reconsidering Yoko Ono” by post-punk musical and performance artist Lisa Crystal Carver, and writings by Ono herself, including numerous reprints and translations of her 1964 book of instruction, “Grapefruit .”
American artist David Horvitz recently produced a T-shirt edition that features JOHN LENNON BROKE UP FLUXUS, in finely padded caps. Ono and Lennon regularly appear on fashion and bridal blog posts with headlines like “Great Outfits in Fashion History.” A 2014 Huffington post about Ono having a well-documented good time listening to Daft Punk perform “Get Lucky” headlined “Sorry Taylor, Yoko Ono’s the Grammy’s Real Dancing Queen.” Ono had already written the perfect song to go with it: “Bad Dancer” from 2013. “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 that nobody has heard of, the people who have been cut 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. Still, Ono challenges us. Even when we adore her, we struggle to see her.
Yoko Ono, Brackett argues in his prologue, is both a brand and a person — “an aesthetic phenomenon — admired, vilified, and deeply misunderstood in every role.” She emerges and retreats behind a public character who is not completely under 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 hungry for attention. She watched as the city she was born in was bombed into oblivion. She traded food on a country road and conjured ice cream meals out of summer clouds. She is, says Brackett, “a worldwide apostle of wonder.” When she met Lennon, lost and disillusioned with his life as a Beatle, she became not only his lover or even his associate, but the agent of his newfound enchantment.
The central argument of Brackett’s book is that Ono is not a malevolent force, or a muse with an art career alongside. Instead, she’s a profound source of influence: to Lennon as a songwriter and person, to a generation of shrieking, wailing punk singers, and to the Fluxus scene that grew around her early loft parties.
To see its influence, we have to understand what it affects, the resource it finds. We must witness the warring egos of the Beatles’ last days, Lennon’s destructive streak and the alchemical potential of his need to meet 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 to survive’.
The story fluctuates between foreground and background, Yoko and everyone around her. The longest of the three sections is the one in the middle, which charts Ono’s relationship with Lennon from their first meeting in a London gallery to his murder in 1981. But the consequence of this focus on Lennon, however necessary it may be to Brackett’s point is that Ono’s story fades into the background as she becomes the reflection of her husband’s world.
It’s sometimes hard not to think about one of Ono’s instructions from her 1964 book Grapefruit: Don’t Watch Rock Hudson. Just watch Doris Day. When the two briefly split up in 1971, just before their move to New York, Brackett cites a moment of ambivalence from Ono about the relationship that defined her life. “All of a sudden my brain, which had always tried to make me so small in this relationship, opened up.”
Why is it so hard to see the full power of Ono’s influence? It was there from the start, especially in her relationship with Lennon. Even when she made herself small, even when she stuttered. ‘Imagine’, Lennon’s biggest solo hit, is all hers. In the music video, “This is not here” is written above the door of the couple’s house. That’s Ono. The all-white living room is also by Ono, and the album cover and quote on the back of the album (“Cloud Piece”, from “Grapefruit”). “Imagine was inspired by Yoko’s ‘Grapefruit,'” Lennon later recalled. “But I was selfish and unconscious enough to accept her contribution without acknowledging it.”
As her fame grows, Brackett gives us Ono as an artist who exerts her influence and pushes the boundaries of her voice on the albums she records, with John and without him. “I was eager to scream,” Ono tells us. “I wanted to throw blood.” Brackett connects her vocal experimentation and signature scream with the techniques she learned in post-war Tokyo high school while studying kabuki and opera. He advocates – successfully and without a lack of examples – for her importance as a precursor to punk and an enduring favorite of DJs, remixing her songs that reach No. 1 on the dance charts in the 21st century. He reminds us that in 2016 the New York Times said she sounded like the future and Lennon said to an interviewer, unequivocally and with an expletive to make it clear, “She taught me everything I know.”
Didn’t we come to Yoko until John died? Was he the coffin wagon that set her free? As a widow, she has not escaped criticism, even from those who love her. “How could she sell John Lennon socks and ties to Kmart,” Carver asks. How can she be both deeply candid (to the world in general) and just plain mean to the people in it (Lennon’s ex, Cynthia, and his son Julian after John’s death?) She certainly has her reasons, but she hasn’t given it. them to us. She is still careful about what she says, she told the Guardian in 2016. “Oh Yoko Ono,” writes Carver, “you’re bothering me so much.”
“Is Ono’s art any less subversive if we live in a world that loves her?” Zoladz wants to know. Is the prospect of a dozen celebrities seriously singing “Imagine” more crien or less if 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” on her MoMA show has 1.7 million views and 4.3K likes, but the comments are disabled. What could people have said that was so terrible?
Ono, for its part, has always followed a different impulse. Visitors who came to the piece at MoMA came across only the microphone and speakers Ono uses in her music video, and three simple instructions: “Shout 1. against the wind 2. against the wall 3. against the sky.” Ono screams in her version like the virtuoso she is. You can try your version anywhere you want. Go ahead, take a breath. Shout into the wind, the wall, the sky. Yoko Ono would like to hear from you.