The Love Story of John and Yoko, 50 Years Later
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
It was a love story for the ages, except one of its participants somehow became a global super villain.
By Sean Braswell
The morning of Dec. 8, 1980 — the last morning of John Lennon’s life, Annie Leibovitz, the renowned photographer, arrived at Lennon’s Upper West Side residence in Manhattan to photograph the former Beatle for the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. Lennon, 40, had a new album coming out, one he hoped would mark his triumphant return to the pinnacle of rock music. But, despite Leibovitz’s repeated pleas, Lennon refused to be photographed . . . alone. “I want to be with her,” he informed Leibovitz, who had no choice but to agree to her subject’s demand.
The “her” was Lennon’s wife, Yoko Ono, a talented artist, singer, songwriter and activist. Ono was everything to him. She had opened his eyes to new ways of understanding the world and enabled him to become his best self. She had helped him transform from a self-absorbed musician and drug addict into an enlightened activist and a devoted feminist, evolve from a deadbeat dad and abusive husband in his first marriage to a life partner, father and — for the first five years of their son Sean’s life — devoted househusband. Oh, and Ono was also the co-creator of Lennon’s latest work, Double Fantasy, which would later win a posthumous Grammy Award for Album of the Year.
I want to be with her.
So perhaps it was not all that surprising that Lennon insisted on marking his return by being photographed with the person who had made it possible. And in typical Lennon fashion, he wanted to make a statement in doing so. “He wanted to pose naked next to his fully-dressed wife,” says Tim Riley, author of Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music. “He wanted to make a feminist statement. He wanted to reverse that typical cliché about how we look at and objectify women’s bodies.”
Leibovitz’s photograph of a naked Lennon curled up next to the clothed Ono proved to be iconic — and also the last photograph ever taken of the couple. Twelve hours later, Ono was entering their building with Lennon when he was shot four times at close range by a deranged fan. She watched in terror as her husband struggled to utter his last words after a bullet pierced his throat, and later as he was pronounced dead on arrival at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center.
It was a tragedy felt by the whole world, and a devastating one for Ono. Despite the collective outpouring of grief and emotion in the days and weeks after Lennon’s death, the aggrieved widow was not really embraced by her husband’s mourning fans. She never had been. Many of them still blamed her for another murder: the death of perhaps the greatest rock band of all time, the Beatles. Even years later, Ono, who declined to comment, was still confronting this jarring reality. “It feels like I was accused of something that I didn’t do,” she reflected in a 2013 profile in Interview magazine. “It’s like you’re accused of murder and you’re in prison and you can’t get out.”
But is it too late to exonerate the wrongly convicted? To rehabilitate the reputation of one of the most reviled celebrity figures on the planet? Maybe, maybe all you need is love . . . and to revisit one of the most remarkable, and hard-won, love stories in recent memory. A story for any age, and especially our own.
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Born in Tokyo in 1933, Yoko Ono enjoyed a comfortable childhood in a wealthy banking family, at least until her life, and so many others, were thrown into disarray by World War II. Her father became a prisoner of war, and when her hometown was firebombed by American aircraft in 1945, Yoko, her mom and her siblings fled for a bunker and later subsisted in the countryside by trading their possessions for food.
After the war, Ono enrolled in college, first at Gakushuin University in Japan and later at Sarah Lawrence College in the U.S., where she explored music, poetry and art. She found a home in New York’s avant-garde scene in late 1950s and early 1960s as a relatively unknown conceptual artist, one interested in blurring the line between life and art. Then, in 1966, the 33-year-old met an irreverent 26-year-old musician at one of her shows in London — one who had the audacity to take a bite out of one of the apples she had staged in her exhibit.
The two connected on multiple levels — spiritual, physical, artistic, political — and fell madly in love. Ono and Lennon dreamed of a perfectly equal relationship, one that they symbolized by both wearing white to their 1969 wedding. Almost overnight, Ono became, as Lennon himself put it, “the world’s most famous unknown artist.” But her newfound celebrity proved more than a double-edged sword for Ono: It was a blunt instrument that pounded at her day and night. John Lennon already had a devoted lover, millions of them, in fact, and they did not take kindly to the new object of his affections.
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The end of any successful rock band can be a complicated affair. Books have been devoted to dissecting the demise of the Beatles. The band members started to have more significant artistic and business differences around the time of the White Album in 1968. Both George Harrison and Ringo Starr quit the band briefly during this period. Ono’s presence during some recording sessions at EMI Studios didn’t help. Band members also started to embark on their own side projects, including Lennon’s global “Give Peace a Chance” campaign with Ono in 1969.
For those trying to make sense of the Beatles’ final split in 1970, Ono was an easy scapegoat. First off, she was not a Beatle — no die-hard fan wanted to finger one of the beloved Fab Four. Ono was also older than her husband and from a different ethnic background. She also, like her husband, held impassioned political beliefs and was rather, well, weird. Whereas Lennon’s irreverent wit and zaniness, and his outspoken views on politics and religion, were often found endearing by fans, Ono’s did not find such a hospitable interpretation. Those looking to blame Ono for the breakup were perhaps given the best ammunition by Lennon himself, who famously told Rolling Stone: “I had to either be married to them or Yoko, and I chose Yoko, and I was right.”
Lennon later made clear on The Dick Cavett Show that Ono had nothing to do with the breakup, saying, “She didn’t split the Beatles because how could one girl or one woman split the Beatles; they were drifting apart on their own.” But for many traumatized Beatles fans, it was just easier to blame Ono.
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The real-life ballad of John and Yoko didn’t really begin until after the Beatles had been left in the rearview mirror. In the early years of their marriage, and with the outbreak of war in Vietnam, the couple’s efforts to influence culture — and government policy — took on a whole new tenor. Lennon and Ono excelled at using their fame and celebrity to draw attention to the issues that mattered most to them, from the weeklong “Bed-In for Peace” they staged from their honeymoon bed to their declaration of NUTOPIA — short for new Utopia — a conceptual country with “no land, no boundaries, no passports, only people” on April Fool’s Day in 1973.
Behind the scenes, the couple struggled to have a child and to stay together. Even while he was writing some of the world’s most beloved songs during the 1960s, Lennon had troubles with depression, drug addiction and the perils of celebrity. He was revered as a music god by many but he was no saint. Rather, he was a bundle of contradictions — a rich man imagining a world with no possessions, a peace-propounding man who had been abusive to his first wife, Cynthia, and neglectful of his first son, Julian. Four years into his marriage with Ono, Lennon started an affair with the couple’s assistant May Pang. He moved out and the couple separated for 18 months — a period Lennon referred to as his “lost weekend.”
Ono eventually forgave her erstwhile lover and gave birth to their son, Sean, in 1975. Lennon then made a bold decision: to retire from music and stay at home to be a househusband and full-time father, roles he came to embrace. “He felt like this was a really necessary thing for him to experience, and he credits Yoko with pushing him to help him figure this out,” says Riley. “The tragedy of course is that he gets killed so he can’t see that through.”
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With a half-century of perspective — and a safer distance from the breakup of the Beatles — it’s easier to appreciate the love story of John and Yoko, not to mention Yoko’s own incredible journey. Ono, now 88, has gone on to have her own decade-spanning career as a groundbreaking artist across a variety of mediums, from performance art to music to film to sculpture and painting. At 78, she made history as the oldest artist ever to have a number one dance single (“Move on Fast”). And she overcame both incredible personal tragedy and widespread vilification to carve out such a prolific career. Perhaps someday soon, we will be able to better appreciate it.