Yoko Ono was always a disruptor, a transgressor, an interloper. And we should all be thankful for that.
Looking back now, I never thought that John Lennon would grow to be old. But I always knew that Yoko Ono would make it.
The Beatles had been manufactured to give off a care-free air, a boyishness that embodied the 1960s and the new day they that lay ahead. Not much had come before them in that way, not much that anyone could remember.
All of the other rock and roll stars looked old and knowing and threatening. The Beatles did not. They were obviously adults, but then they weren’t. That was their charm. If you were a child they were like big toys come to life. If you were a teenage girl, they were dream boyfriends. As time went on, it was clear somehow that this was all a show. It was maybe their biggest act of all.
Their music burst into my life literally as I walked to school, listening to my transistor radio. My favourite DJ was a man known as Herb Kent, ‘the Kool Gent’, and his music was strictly soul and r ‘n’ b. Nothing else was played on that station.
It was 100% African American and the hue and cry if anything other than that sound went out over the airwaves would have reverberated up and down the land. So to hear the opening guitar twang to what turned out to be Paperback Writer literally stopped me in my tracks. I knew then, in the way that you know things as a teenager, that not only had my radio station changed. My life had, too. Something else was going on.
If you hadn’t been born yet, or were on some other planet at the time, it is difficult to explain the Beatles. If you were an African American teen, on the surface they weren’t part of you. They were these cute happy boys and you could not enter their world. Their world was the Swinging London of candy pink; and frills; and long hair and girls who looked like Twiggy.
It was bright and full-on colour, and the songs could be sung in front of your parents and teachers and no one would be upset. It was perfect and happy and nothing could go wrong, nothing could ever be bad. Even though the president had been assassinated on lunch time telly and a war was raging in Vietnam and there was still the Russians, the Bomb, the Ku Klux Klan – the Beatles nullified all of this for a minute. For a long minute.
John, Paul, Ringo and George. The Four Musketeers of rock. But I really entered the picture on November 9, 1966, when John Lennon walked into an art gallery, and the whole Beatles thing, that candy-gloss, came to a crashing end. Through a woman of colour.
Yoko Ono – the artist who had the exhibition in London on that day – turned 88 last week and tweeted out her greetings. She told the story again of how she was born on an exceptionally snowy day in Tokyo, and knowing Ono you have to believe that the snow means something to her.
No one knew, at first, what to make of her. She was 33 years old when she met Lennon, after all. Ancient. She was not pretty, either. At least not to us. And what was she? Japanese? The father of one of my friends called her a “Jap” because he had been in the war. My dad, also a vet, told me never to associate with that friend again because her father was clearly a bigot. I had decided before he said so that this was true. I was old enough to know. Ono broke Swinging London.
I was old enough, too, to understood the hatred that was beginning to be hurled at her. Who was she to smash up this group, people asked? To take them away from each other? Away from us?
Ono had brought something dark and dangerous to the field of pop and no one liked it. One of my Twitter followers tweeted to me that when she was a little girl, she had been taught to hate her. Because that is how strong the feelings were.
I think now of Meghan Markle, another woman of colour who came out of the blue to take a beloved British public figure away, as many see it. After all, there has to be something innately evil in this foreign, coloured woman. The same thing the world, this country, felt about Ono. No one wants to say this out loud. They didn’t in 1966. But it was there, implied, hanging in the wind. Racism and xenophobia. It chased Ono. Like it chases Meghan now.
Lennon left it all. Like Prince Harry, nobody thought that maybe he was looking for a way out, a release from the circus. But a foreign-born woman of colour as deliverer? Not quite cricket.
Lennon went off with Ono; he put her name in his; put her in charge of his fortune; went off with another woman for awhile; she stayed home and took care of their infant son for the first few years of his life. And Ono made her art. Great and misunderstood. She was and is a legend and her work was way ahead of her time. I can believe it when she says that she had never heard of the Beatles before she met Lennon. Why should she have? She lived on another plane.
I encountered her twice. Once at a dinner I was invited to after her opening. Her tiny, contained presence radiated a kind of strange, fragile power while hers and John’s son Sean stood guard, a more muscled guy than he looked in his photos. He made sure that things were paced. She would have been in her late 70s then. Her art was better than it had ever been. But above all, there she was, an indefatigable woman and ‘another’. Still a threat to the established order.
A few years after my first meeting, a fellow exile from Chicago’s South Side, now living in Brussels, came to London to see me. As we were about to enter a lift in a posh building in Mayfair, Ono stepped out. Our eyes locked, three women of colour. A man emerged from the lift after Ono and glanced at us. His look said that we did not belong in his building, in his world, that Mayfair and what it stood for belonged to him and that we were interlopers, transgressors. Disruptors.
He stared at Ono, who perhaps in his youth had changed his world by “breaking up” the Beatles. Then he stomped out, hailing a cab, looking back at us. And we three burst out laughing. We laughed and laughed until the snow fell outside and my friend and I went on our way after taking a picture with her. Ono was a rule-breaker; a transgressor and I hope that she still is at 88.
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