We Don’t Talk About Yoko-Ono-No-No
It’s been six months since I watched Peter Jackson’s Beatles documentary, Get Back, and I can’t stop thinking about Yoko Ono.
Yoko Ono and John Lennon collided in 1966. The Beatle met the Japanese conceptual artist at the Indica Gallery in London where she was exhibiting work. She had already established herself as part of the New York avant-garde art scene alongside artists such as Philip Glass and Jasper Johns. Her work was always provocative, challenging, asking the kinds of big questions about identity and culture that artists in every medium have always posed. Both were married (oops!), but that didn’t seem to stop their emotionally, psychologically, and sexually tumultuous relationship from blossoming. It was a partnering that, according to some, changed the course of music history by, like, RUINING, the GREATEST BAND EVER! According to others, Yoko and Lennon were no more fucked up than any other couple.
I’ve never been on board with Yoko hatorade. The way fans and critics continue to demonize her five decades and counting since she became a more pronounced public figure alongside Lennon is impressive in its scope and depth. Band wrecker! Home wrecker! Man wrecker! She’s a horrible artist; a talentless hack. She’s a crazy-ass bitch! She’s evil — a witch! Clearly Yoko must have tricked or cast an enchantment on Lennon to “make” him fall in love with her. How else could you explain it? Never mind the fact that if Yoko were a man she’d be Jackson Pollack or Sid Vicious or Picasso or Jim Morrison: complicated, dark, moody, an artist exorcising his demons, a genius. Maybe the public couldn’t wrap its collective head around there being room enough for two accomplished, thoughtful artists in a relationship. Enshrine Lennon, trash Yoko. From a protect-the-patriarchy-or-die standpoint, it makes perfect sense. Which is not the same as it being fair or even warranted.
Get Back takes viewers behind the scenes into Twickenham Studio where, in January of 1969, the Beatles spent 21 days working on 14 new songs for a live album. They intended to film the entire process for a TV show. The “live” aspect would take place at an undisclosed location, which had nothing to do with Beatlemania and everything to do with “we have no idea where to hold it yet.” Maybe it’s a good thing they were making music and not sending people into outer space.
A good part of the allure of Get Back is getting a real up-close-and-personal look at how this iconic supergroup made their proverbial musical sausage, which is to say: tediously, slowly, and at times ruthlessly dull. This is the art/creative gig: 99% unsexy work, 1% becoming a meme or the subject of a sketch on Saturday Night Live. Ringo dozes. Paul futzes around playing old blues and rock melodies. At different points in the film, director Michael Lindsay-Hogg tries to sell the band on schlepping over to Libya to play in some kind of ancient, historic amphitheater. Watching everyone listen to his suggestions as they shift from foot to foot, sipping tea, taking drags off their cigarettes, and glancing around blankly really hammers home that the music business is far less Prince arriving at the studio with a unicorn and way more The Office but with guitars and weed. And then there’s Yoko.
She and John arrive at the studio together. They shed their coats and bags. He plunks down his guitar case somewhere. They accept plates of toast and cups of tea. Yoko pulls a chair up next to his and there she stays. When he moves to the piano bench, she follows and perches, her head resting on his shoulder. Everyone else seems to maneuver around the Yoko in the room — accepting her presence without comment, treating her like she’s another piece of studio gear.
As I said, the sessions are long and laboring for the musicians as much as for everyone else in the room. When she’s not at Lennon’s side, Yoko pages through a magazine. She does a crossword puzzle or some needlecraft. She reads a newspaper, thumbs through a Beatles fanzine. Often, she just sits, expressionless; she simply is. It’s almost a master class in a kind of Buddhist mindfulness. One morning Paul arrives with his wife, Linda Eastman, a noted photographer. Linda takes a chair in the back of the room. She chats with the director and crew and Yoko. At some point she takes out her camera and begins moving quietly around the musicians, observing and shooting in a way that is completely unobtrusive.
The difference between the two women is palpable. Both women are artists, and at first it seems like only one is practicing her craft. Linda’s photography has an apparent utilitarian purpose to it: document, record, express. Linda is being the good partner, too. She keeps her distance to let the boys work. It’s as if she’s signaling that she knows her place and it not here. What is Yoko doing? She’s also signaling, but instead she’s saying, “I know my place, too, and it’s anywhere I damn well want it to be.” Yoko is the shadow that shows up in an image that you can’t easily remove if at all. The more I watched her throughout each episode, grafting herself to Lennon, insinuating herself into the rehearsal space, the more uncomfortable I became. And then I realized that’s her point. Yoko had been disrupting and claiming real estate in spaces where a woman, a Japanese woman, had no privileged right her entire life. Why stop now?
Yoko joined forces with Lennon in ways that did not mirror the accepted cultural narrative of where or how women belong in certain spheres. She didn’t fall in line with being a sidekick or cheerful helpmate, or someone there existing to prop up his vision and work. They made “weird” art together — films, music, performance activism in the form of their Bed-Ins for Peace — that brought their political and social sensibilities to the fore. Sorry if neither Yoko nor Lennon were interested in sticking around to sing “Love Me Do” while the Vietnam War raged. It was Yoko’s active participation in their collaboration, that her contributions couldn’t be dubbed over or marginalized, that made people anxious. When women unapologetically own their power, the vitriol flows like vodka through an ice luge. And the nastiness is a mask for one thing: fear.
Several of the articles I read dissecting Get Back revealed a preoccupation with putting to rest the cultural bogeyman mythos that Yoko was singularly responsible for breaking up the Beatles. Sigh. Yawn. Can we not with this misogynist and sexist garbage? Maybe it felt like a way to put the genie back in the bottle. If we continued to blame Yoko we wouldn’t have reckon with the messy reality that, by 1969, the Beatles were tired. Even in these sessions the burnout is palpable. George wistfully muses how he has all of these songs he’d just like to “get out” on his own. They were outgrowing each other, the music, the industry that had catered to their kind of band. Look, these articles pointed out, Yoko wasn’t whispering in Lennon’s ear like Lady Macbeth. See how unobtrusive and unassuming she is over the course of those long days in the studio? they seem to say with a note of pride. Good Yoko! Nothing to be scared of here!
Sure, if it makes you feel better. But I think Yoko always knew the impact her presence in the room would have, especially on film. After all, she was a seasoned performance artist, at home encouraging real life and art to bleed into one another. It was almost as if with every passing day she was daring anyone in the room to speak up, to demand her removal, to confront her directly and ask her to leave. As Get Back rolls on, viewers watch the Beatles conjure the songs that would become part of rock history, but for me, it’s Yoko who remains unforgettable.