Once, early in 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 job – the artistic career she had, at that time, had spent nearly a decade building. In the background, she could 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 “Music’s Greatest Muses of All Time”. Ono only manages the eleventh.
Ono recounts how happy she was supposed to be in a spoken introduction to a live version of “Coffin Car,” a song from her 1973 album “Feeling the Space.” She describes the feeling of those early years with Lennon, when an entire society called her ugly (she had always considered herself an attractive woman), hurled racial slurs at her, and told her they wanted she dies. She developed a stutter. “She likes to ride in a coffin car,” Ono sings on the track. “People are kissing each other for the first time / Pouring flowers, ringing bells / Telling each other how nice she is.” Under his voice, the piano bounces. Maybe that’s what they meant by background. Everyone loves you after you die.
“Who is Yoko Ono? asks critic and journalist Donald Brackett. 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,” attempts to weave a fuller answer from narrative threads that form a dense knot of life. Is she a neglected society child, commuting between Japan and San Francisco, only seeing her father by appointment? A rebellious art student teaching calligraphy to pay the rent and setting 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 an eternal rite of passage of youth to misunderstand, underestimate, even hate it?” 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 work, which came out the same year that Ono was the subject of an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art of 125 works from his early career. There’s the MoMA catalog and many more like it from smaller galleries (his first North American retrospective was at the AGO in 2002). There are interviews and profiles from the same magazines that once poked fun at her and accused her, time and time again, of ruining John Lennon and breaking up the Beatles (Yoko Ono didn’t make any of these things). 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 instruction book, “Grapefruit”. ”
American artist David Horvitz recently produced a T-shirt edition that proclaims, in finely lined caps, JOHN LENNON BROKE UP FLUXUS. Ono and Lennon regularly appear on fashion and bridal blog posts with titles such as “Great Outfits in Fashion History.” A 2014 Huffington post about Ono having a well-documented good time listening to Daft Punk perform “Get Lucky” was titled “Sorry Taylor, Yoko Ono’s the Grammys Real Dancing Queen”. Ono had already written the perfect song to accompany it — 2013’s “Bad Dancer.” “Make 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, women we haven’t heard of, people cut from the picture. We marvel at the enigma and ingenuity of Vera Nabokov and admire Lee Miller for his experiments with Man Ray and his own groundbreaking photography. However, Ono challenges us. Even when we adore her, it is difficult to see her.
Yoko Ono is, Brackett argues in his prologue, as much a brand as a person – “an aesthetic phenomenon – admired, reviled and deeply misunderstood in every role”. She emerges and retreats behind a public figure not entirely under her control. Is she a witch, as the title of her album proclaims? Her childhood has elements of a fairy tale. Child Yoko was a princess in a golden cage, surrounded by servants and hungry for attention. She saw the town she was born in bombed to near oblivion. She bartered food on a country road, conjuring up ice cream dinners from summer clouds. She is, says Brackett, “a global apostle of wonder.” When she meets Lennon, lost and disillusioned in his life as a Beatle, she becomes not only 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 some malevolent force or muse with an artistic career on the side. Instead, she is a profound source of influence: for Lennon as a songwriter and human being, for a generation of screaming, moaning, and punk singers, and for the Fluxus scene that developed around him. his first loft evenings.
To see its influence, we have to understand what it influences, the raw material it finds. We must witness the warring egos of the Beatles’ final days, Lennon’s destructive streak, and the alchemical potential of his need meeting his. 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”, the “real reason to live, or at least to survive” of Lennon.
The narrative oscillates between foreground and background, Yoko and everyone around her. The longest of its three sections is the middle one, which traces 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- her to make Brackett The thing is, Ono’s story fades as she becomes a reflection of her husband’s world.
Sometimes it’s hard not to think of one of Ono’s instructions in his 1964 book “Grapefruit”: Don’t Look at Rock Hudson. Just watch Doris Day. When the two briefly separated in 1971, just before they moved to New York, Brackett cites a moment of Ono’s ambivalence about the relationship that defined his life. “Suddenly 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 force of Ono’s influence? It was there from the start, in her relationship with Lennon especially. Even when she was very small, even when she stuttered. “Imagine,” Lennon’s biggest solo hit, is all about her. In the music video, it says “This is not here” above the door to the couple’s home. It’s Ono. The all-white living room is also Ono, as well as the cover 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 oblivious enough to take his input without acknowledging it.”
As her notoriety grows, Brackett delivers Ono as an artist wielding her influence, pushing the boundaries of her voice on the albums she records, with John and without him. “I was dying to scream,” Ono tells us. “I wanted to shed blood. Brackett relates her vocal experiences and signature scream to techniques she learned while studying kabuki and opera as a high school student in Tokyo after the war. He makes the case – successfully and with no shortage of examples – for his importance as a precursor to punk and as an enduring favorite of DJs, with remixes of his songs reaching No. 1 on the dance charts in the 21st century. He reminds us that the New York Times said in 2016 that she looked like the future and that Lennon told an interviewer, unequivocally and with an expletive to make it clear, “She taught me everything I know.”
Did we come to Yoko only after John’s death? Was it the coffin car that had freed her? She has not escaped criticism as a widow, even from those who love her. “How could she sell John Lennon socks and ties to Kmart,” Carver wants to know. How can she be both deeply open (to the whole world) and downright mean to people (Lennon’s ex Cynthia and her son Julian after John’s death?) She sure has her reasons, but she doesn’t. didn’t give them to us. She is, she told the Guardian in 2016, always cautious about what she says. “Oh Yoko Ono,” wrote Carver, “you bother me so much.”
“Is Ono’s art less subversive when you live in a world that loves it? Zoladz wants to know. Is the prospect of a dozen celebrities sincerely singing “Imagine” more gritty or less when it comes to a Yoko Ono song (she received an official songwriting credit in 2017)? On YouTube, the video of her performance of “Voice Piece for Soprano” at her MoMA show has 1.7 million views and 4.3K likes, but comments are disabled. What could people have said that was so awful?
Ono, for his part, has always followed a different impulse. Visitors coming to see the piece at MoMA have encountered only the microphone and speakers that Ono uses in his music video, 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 that she is. You can try your version wherever you want. Go ahead, breathe. Scream into the wind, the wall, the sky. Yoko Ono would like to hear from you.