Family & Companions
One of the most polarizing figures in popular music, if not popular culture of the 20th century, Yoko Ono was a performance artist and musician whose marriage to Beatle John Lennon created a firestorm of divisive opinions, dismissive statements and outright blame for the group's breakup. Both her art and her music were eclectic, confrontational and often difficult to understand from a layman's perspective; Ono's keening vocals, which drew inspiration from Japanese opera and the avant-garde of the 1960s, drew considerable condemnation from Beatles fans, who accused her of fueling the band's breakup. However, Ono persevered, even after Lennon's tragic murder in 1980, and eventually found herself on the receiving end of considerable praise for her artistic vision and self-confidence in the late 1990s and early 21st century. She, more than any other person, was also responsible for preserving Lennon's memory and legacy for generations. As both a fiercely independent artist and storekeeper of her husband's work, Yoko Ono was unquestionably one of the most dedicated figures in popular culture.
Born Feb. 18, 1933 in Tokyo, Japan, Yoko Ono was the daughter of Yeisuke Ono, a banker and classical pianist, and Isoko Ono, the great-granddaughter of Zenjiro Yasuda, founder of the Yasuda banking conglomerate. Ono's father was transferred to San Francisco shortly after her birth, and she would not meet him in person until the family joined him when she was two years of age. In 1937, she returned with her family to Tokyo, where she was enrolled in the Gakushuin, or Peers School, an exclusive private institution for children of the Japanese aristocracy and the wealthy middle class. Ono also began taking lessons in classical piano and vocal training in opera during this period. However, her family's circumstances were soon greatly reduced after they fled to the countryside to avoid the firebombing of March 9 and 10, 1945; they were soon forced to beg and barter for food to survive.
In 1952, Ono's family moved to Scarsdale, NY, where she studied music at Sarah Lawrence College. She became deeply invested in the growing Beat and avant-garde movements of the period, and married composer Toshi Ichiyanagi in 1956, despite her parents' strong disapproval. Their Tribeca loft soon became one of the art scene's most vibrant hot spots, with such important figures as LaMonte Young and Ono's mentor, John Cage, giving performances and teaching classes there. Ono herself began experimenting with conceptual art pieces during this period, including "Painting to Be Stepped On," a piece of canvas that developed into an artwork as patrons marked it with their footprints. In addition to these playful early pieces, Ono's work explored darker subjects, inspired in part by the terror and uncertainty of her early years. "Cut Piece," for example, found Ono wearing a shift, which audiences were required to cut until she was naked. Another, compiled in a conceptual book of exercises called Grapefruit (1964), asked the reader to play "hide and seek" with the rest of the world until they were forgotten.
Ono and Ichinayagi separated in 1961, the same year that she made her debut at the Carnegie Recital Hall. The performance, which featured the sound of a toilet flushing over the public address system, received largely negative reviews. She traveled to Japan to set in motion her divorce from Ichinayagi, which further deepened a growing depression over her life and career. Ono subsequently overdosed on pills and was committed to an institution, where she received inordinately heavy sedation. She was set free through the efforts of Anthony Cox, a jazz musician and art promoter with whom she became romantically involved. In 1963, the couple married, and Ono gave birth to a daughter, Kyoko. However, the union was turbulent, and they briefly separated in 1964 before reuniting and returning to New York.
There, she re-launched her art career, this time with the support of Fluxus founder George Macias. In 1966, she traveled to London to prepare an exhibit at the famed Indica Gallery, which was supported in part by Beatle Paul McCartney. According to legend, his bandmate John Lennon became intrigued with her exhibit, and the two began exchanging writing. In 1968, Lennon and Ono recorded Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, a collection of experimental tape loops and Ono's ad-libbed vocalizations; after which, they reportedly consummated their new relationship, despite both being married to others. It immediately generated controversy for its cover art, which featured a full-frontal nude portrait of Lennon and Ono, but also served as a formal announcement of their professional and personal lives together. That same year, she became pregnant with their child, but miscarried shortly after his divorce from his first wife, Cynthia, was finalized.
During this period, the Beatles were in the midst of recording what would become The White Album (1968). Tensions between the band members, which were already running high, were exacerbated by Lennon's insistence on not only bringing Ono to recording sessions, but also including her vocals and lyrics on several songs, including the surreal "Revolution No. 9" and "Birthday." The following year, after Ono divorced Cox, the couple was officially married on March 20, 1969 in Gibraltar, Spain. The couple used the maelstrom of publicity surrounding their union to make playfully political statements against the Vietnam War. They spent their week-long Amsterdam honeymoon in bed, which they dubbed a "Bed-In for peace," and attempted to repeat the protest in the United States, but were denied entry. Lennon and Ono lit out for Montreal, Canada where they recorded the anthem "Give Peace a Chance" with an all-star roster of guests including Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg and Tommy Smothers. In September of that year, Lennon and Ono performed at the Toronto Rock and Roll Festival with Eric Clapton, longtime collaborator Klaus Voorman, and Alan White of Yes as the Plastic Ono Band. Fans expecting a set list of Beatles songs were treated to a smattering of oldies, and then the sight of Ono screaming in a plastic bag while the band unleashed a wall of feedback.
When the Beatles decided to split in 1970, Ono was villanized by the press and public as the major catalyst for the breakup. She was viewed as having exerted an undue influence on Lennon, whose music had grown confrontational and unsettling in the years they were together. Fans were bewildered by her caterwauling vocals, bizarre stage presence and art pieces, which frequently required viewers to imagine the work in front of them. They were further alienated by joint releases like The Wedding Album (1969), which featured 20 minutes of Ono and Lennon calling each other's names. Their first solo albums, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970) and Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band (1970), showed the impact of their primal scream therapy with Dr. Arthur Janov in their raw, unbridled vocals and declarations of mental anguish. Ono took a more conventional approach to her second album, Fly (1970), which received attention for the track "Don't Worry Kyoko (Mummy's Only Looking For Her Hand In the Snow)," which concerned her daughter, who had disappeared after her former husband had converted to evangelical Christianity and taken Kyoko to Texas.
Endless criticism of Ono, combined with negative press response to her solo albums, had a chilling effect on her marriage to Lennon, which was already under intense strain due to a battle with U.S. immigration over threatened deportation. In 1973, the couple separated, during which Ono remained in New York to continue her music and art careers while Lennon lit out for the West Coast with Ono's former assistant, May Pang, to indulge in a drug-fueled spree of neglected responsibility. He would famously coin this time - during which he was thrown out of the Troubadour club for public drunkenness - his "lost weekend." Two years later, they reconciled, and Ono gave birth to a son, Sean, on Lennon's birthday, Oct. 9, 1975. He would spend much of the next four years living as a househusband, caring for Sean while Ono maintained his business affairs. She had learned to be a formidable businesswoman from her father and grandfather before him, and kept the family financially stable while Lennon remained semi-retired from music.
In 1980, she penned numerous songs for Lennon's comeback album, Double Fantasy, while commencing work on a single called "Walking on Thin Ice." Lennon had noted that her early recorded work had seemed to influence a number of New Wave acts, including the B-52s and Lene Lovich, and the duo recorded the song with the electronic/dance sounds of the movement in mind. He was carrying the master for the song when deranged fan, Mark David Chapman, assassinated him on Dec. 8, 1980 outside the couple's home at the Dakota apartments. Now the most famous widow in the world, she was overcome with grief, saying later that the only thing that kept her going was their four-year-old son. Ono released "Thin Ice" a month later, which was followed by Seasons of Glass, a devastating sonic account of Ono's grief over the murder. It received some of the first positive reviews of her music career, and generated 1982's It's Alright (I See Rainbows), which reflected the growing serenity she had found in the years after Lennon's death. Her final album of the decade was Starpeace (1986), which featured collaborations with producer Bill Laswell and figures from the dance and R&B scene. The album generated a Top 20 hit with the single "Hell in Paradise."
For the next few years, Ono concentrated solely on her artwork, pausing in 1985 to create the Strawberry Fields garden in Lennon's memory in Central Park, to coordinate a worldwide broadcast of Lennon's song "Imagine" to commemorate what would have been his 50th birthday in 1990, and to consistently make the case against release at Chapman's parole hearings each time he was under consideration. In 1992, she was the subject of an exhaustive, six-disc retrospective box set, Onobox, which placed her previous work firmly at a junction between pop and avant-garde music. Its release spurred Ono to revive her music career, which quickly encompassed the musical "New York Rock" in 1994 and collaborations with her son, Sean, and his band Ima on Rising (1995). The period was also marked by a reunion with her daughter, Kyoko, who contacted her mother for the first time in nearly two decades in 1994.
By the new millennium, Ono was being hailed as one of the most important figures in both rock-n-roll and avant-garde art. The latter was feted in 2001 with a 40-year retrospective titled "Yes Yoko Ono," and honorary doctorates from the University of Liverpool and Bard College. For the former, she received glowing reviews for her feminist concept album, Blueprint for a Sunrise (2001). Collaborations and remixes of her work by the Pet Shop Boys and others generated her first chart-topping album, Walking on Thin Ice (Remixes) (2003), which shot to No. 1 on the Dance/Club Play charts. More remixes with the Flaming Lips and Peaches were compiled in 2007's Yes, I'm a Witch. That same year, she dedicated the Imagine Peace Tower, which paid tribute to the anniversary of Lennon's death by projecting a vertical beam of light between December 8 and 9, in Reykjavik, Iceland.
As the Beatles celebrated various anniversaries that, in turn, created renewed interest in the group's legacy, Ono was frequently required to appear with the surviving members and their families for various promotional events. Her relationship with Paul McCartney often ran hot and cold; McCartney blamed Ono for dragging her feet when it came to purchasing the Lennon-McCartney publishing catalog, resulting in losing to a higher bid by Michael Jackson; Ono prevented attempts by McCartney to reverse the order of their names in songwriting credits he felt were more his than Lennon's. They continued to snipe passively at each other in the press while maintaining a frozen cordiality at press events like the 2006 premiere of "Love," the Cirque du Soleil production based on the Beatles' songs, or the 2009 launch of the Beatles: Rock Band video game. She remained on friendly terms with Ringo Starr and Olivia Harrison, widow of George Harrison. However, when McCartney's wife Linda died of breast cancer in 1998, Ono was one of the first to offer condolences and pay tribute to her fellow controversial Beatle bride.
In 2009, she created "Lennon: The New York City Years," an exhibit at the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame annex that paid tribute to the last decade of his life. She also revived the Plastic Ono Band, this time featuring Sean and members of Cibo Matto and Cornelius in the lineup, for Between My Head and the Sky (2009). The following year, she reunited with Clapton for a Plastic Ono Band that also featured Bette Midler and Paul Simon. That same year, she was named the first Global Autism Ambassador by the Autism Speaks organization. Her political passions also remained at the forefront of her career, as evidenced by a 2011 advertisement in the U.K. newspaper Metro that invited readers to think about peace. That same year, she and Sean performed at relief concerts for the survivors of the devastating tsunami in Japan. For her efforts, she was awarded the Hiroshima Art Prize in July of that year.
By Paul Gaita