Yoko Ono at 80: her art and life with the Beatles

Yoko Ono at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt. Picture: AP
Yoko Ono at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt. Picture: AP
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TO many, she’s still the woman who broke up the Beatles, but, as Yoko Ono celebrates her 80th birthday today, Aidan Smith, a fan of the Fab Four since his childhood, looks at her life and career and asks whether she deserves a re-evaluation

FOR the purposes of this article, I’ve become Yoko Ono’s 3,403,636th follower on Twitter. That’s an impressive number, and mere seconds later a dozen more have filed in behind me. Unreasonably, I expect my first bulletin within the opening minute of our new association and when one isn’t forthcoming – probably something to do with the fact the sun hasn’t yet risen over New York’s Central Park and the Dakota Building – I scroll back through her previous despatches.

On 1 January Yoko greeted the new year thus: “Find out about a beautiful hand-signed ltd edition book of my artwork.” On Christmas Day you won’t be surprised to learn the message was “Let’s hope it’s a good one without any fear.” Then, somewhat ghoulishly, I went back to 8 December – nothing, and no tweets for almost a week either side of that date. This was the anniversary of the day her husband was gunned down outside the Dakota, when the sun never rose at all.

Maybe you won’t be surprised by any of these epistles. Yoko the artist is there, along with Yoko the businesswoman (and some would say Yoko the opportunist). And of course the Yoko who was one half of JohnandYoko. Actually, that’s how they’d be billed if they were around now (or maybe John=Yoko). Back then it would have been John & Yoko, like Laurel & Hardy, and they were the most famous couple in the world, who went to bed for peace, posed naked for it, stuck flowers down rifle barrels and two fingers up to anyone who asked: “Hey Mr Lennon, why don’t you write another Help! or Strawberry Fields Forever – or even, for goodness sake, another Revolution 9?” Yoko Ono, a little lady forever dressed in black, from her trilby down to her impossibly tiny shoes, has been the world’s most famous widow for 33 years and today is her 80th birthday.

The woman who broke up the Beatles – that’s what they used to call her. Yes, I’m a Witch – that was one of her own compositions and it went like this: “I’m not gonna die for you/You might as well face the truth/I’m gonna stick around/For quite a while.” Scan the internet and the comments under the YouTube clips and you’ll find abuse that’s breathtaking in its viciousness – two months ago they were still wishing her dead. Elsewhere, though, there’s re-appraisal, a new appreciation and an undemonising of the great anti-muse.

“The world catches up with Yoko Ono,” ran a recent New York Times headline above a report of how she’d “made friends with young fashion types who regarded her not as the woman who broke up the Beatles, but as an elder stateswoman of cool: a reminder of what New York used to be like before it was taken over by the hedge-fund guys”.

Last summer the art critic Waldemar Januszczak wrote: “While the rest of the world has been recognising her sense-stirring contribution to the story of progressive art, one important territory has been holding out. It is of course Britain and particularly London.” That changed with her first solo show in the capital. His verdict: “Beautiful.” And then, at the time of the anniversary of Lennon’s death when the trolls were sticking pins in her effigy, Paul McCartney told David Frost she had to be exonerated of all Beatle blame. “She certainly didn’t break the group up,” he said. “It was breaking up.”

I’m old enough to remember the confusion and sadness which greeted the Fab Four’s demise, even though this was the self-regarding wallow of a school playground. Older pupils said it was all Ono’s fault (as did some teachers) and we went along with this. Regarding her vilification, she blamed sexism and racism. The Second World War was a recent memory – in the playground we’d only recently outgrown the fighting game Japs and Commandos – and “orientals” were viewed in a poor light. In 1969 it was possible for Esquire magazine to run with the headline: “John Rennon’s Excrusive Gloupie.”

Because I’m the age I am, I’ve tended to view conceptual art in a poor light. At least next to Revolver. But this is unfair as almost nothing can compete (and not least Lennon, free from the shackles of the band as a solo artist singing Imagine - a pretty tune but oh those words, so trite!). She was doing this sort of thing before Lennon entered her life, and in a questing way: no artist had put words on gallery walls before or urged the inspecting public: “You finish the work.”

I love the story of how Lennon was halfway up a Yoko ladder when they met, stretching for a magnifying glass to read a tiny word on the ceiling (it was “Yes”). The words she uses are always simple, amounting to nothing more than an appeal for people to be nicer to each other. Too simple, it’s often been said, but maybe they’ve found their time, as Julia Peyton-Jones of London’s Serpentine Gallery remarked during last summer’s solo show: “In the age of Occupy, her activism is immensely relevant for today.”

All that said, as a “singer” she’s screeched her way through some shockers. Her short-lived Broadway musical Lennon seemed to airbrush the Beatles out of his story. She airbrushed herself into a DVD of his songs, and the video for a track with backing vocals sung by his girlfriend during their 18-month separation. She’s authorised his likeness on sunscreen and coffee cups; allowed a Beatles song, Revolution, to sell Nike’s trainers (later stopped); consented to his signature going on to tubs of the Ben & Jerry ice cream Imagine Whirled Peace. Most controversially, she put Lennon’s smashed glasses from the shooting into an exhibition, along with the blood-stained bag in which his clothes were returned by New York’s City Examiner. Tread softly, Yoko, because you tread on our dreams – those tied up with the greatest band there’s even been, who the rock critic David Hepworth argues are still underrated, 43 years after their final act.

She can’t be blamed for breaking up the Beatles, though, or for putting a weird spell on Lennon which drained him of his genius – his artistic path was his own to forge. Her own path has been different and difficult.

“Being a Beatles wife could have been a magic charm but she wasn’t interested,” the American writer Lisa Carver remarked in an essay last year. “To be accepted, to be thought nice, is traditionally woman’s power. That is something she doesn’t need.”

Carver wants a re-evaluation of Ono. “Go out and capture moonlight on water in a bucket, she commands. We need more impossible in our culture.” I’m sure we do, and maybe I’ll fetch that bucket one day – after I’m finished with my Beatles records. Meantime I admire the bloody-mindedness and the longevity.

Happy birthday, Yoko.