Cover by Abrams Brooks
The Ballad of John and Yoko
By Jann S. Wenner
October 1, 2000
On November 9, 1966, John Lennon climbed to the top of a ladder in the Indica Gallery in London and looked up at a framed paper attached to the ceiling. He peered at it, using a magnifying glass affixed to one side, and saw a single word inscribed in tiny letters: YES.
"I felt relieved," John said, recalling that moment during our December 1970 interviews, the historic first post-Beatles confessional memoirs published early the following year in Rolling Stone."It's a great relief when you get up the ladder and you look through the spyglass and it doesn't say no or fuck you; it says YES."
The ladder, the spyglass, the paper, that word: these constituted John's first encounter with the art, and the heart, of his future companion and collaborator, Yoko Ono.The occasion was a preview of Yoko'sone-person Indica show, Unfinished Paintings and Objects; the piece was called Ceiling Painting (YES Painting).That evening, John and Yoko were introduced to each other for the first time by Indica co-owner John Dunbar.Lennon was a Beatle, and would be for another three and a half years.But he was already shedding layers of skin.He was anxious to take his words and music to new places, to seek fresh wisdom through his rock 'n' roll. YES was a door swinging open to the rest of his life, a perfect metaphor—everything is possible; nothing, and no one, is out of reach—for his personal and working relationship with Yoko, soon to go into high gear.
YES also defines, with Zen poise and sly humor, the essential character of Yoko's continuing body of work: the films, sculptures, and conceptual installations; her singing, songwriting, and record making; the Bed-Ins, War Is Over!billboards, and other public "peace" projects that she created, first with John, then in his memory.
They are expressions of art as community, as a sharing of pain, hope, and redemption. Yoko was born in a world (imperial Japan) and time (1933) far from the physical and sociocultural ground zero of rock 'n' roll; long before she entered the Beatles' orbit, she was a provocateur, a star in the catacombs of the New York avant-garde. But her art has always been a rock 'n' roll unto itself—an audience-participation experience in which she asks questions about life and love and celebrates individual freedom and common bonds.You don't merely look or listen to her work; you're in it, from the moment of conception.
"We are social beings.There is no such thing as a monologue," she says today." I've only wanted to accentuate what is obvious: that life is a dialogue."So it was with John and Yoko, and ultimately between them and the rest of us.He showed her the wonders, liberties, and leverage of popular superstardom; she showed him—and through his faith and support, the world—the power of YES.
Yoko first appeared in the pages of Rolling Stone in 1968—not as John's new girlfriend, but as an artist in her own right.A series of news reports and reviews published in the magazine between August and December of that year covered the breadth and depth of her most recent projects, many of them initiated in a rush of combined energy with John.There was, most famously, the audio-collage album Two Virgins, recorded in a single night of passion and tape experiments and packaged between two self-portrait photos, front and back views of John and Yoko in the nude.In "John" by Yoko Ono, "Yoko" by John Lennon, a piece created at Coventry Cathedral in England, a pair of acorns was planted in a garden where people could sit on a white wrought-iron seat and literally watch the trees grow.
And two new films directed by Yoko and starring John created a split sensation—pro and con—at the Chicago International Film Festival.One movie, also titled Two Virgins, was a nineteen-minute short of John and Yoko's faces superimposed on each other, an ingenious visual rendering of their union.Film No.5 was a healing reel: three-minute footage of John's enigmatic grin, slowed down and manipulated by Yoko into fifty-one minutes of therapeutic impressionism, which also came to be known as just Smile.
"My ultimate goal was a long long film with everybody in the world smiling," she claimed at the time."I needed the cooperation of world governments."But Yoko also drew rich meaning from her close-up portrait of the bemused John."There wasn't any point in just making love, secretly and everything.We had to make a film which had the same vibrations as making love…. A smile for everyone."That included both academic and underground pundits, already pouncing on her for commercially exploiting her access to a Beatle, of using "world peace" as a thematic crutch for vacuous art.
"Some critic commented on us, John and I, as being lollipop artists, who are preoccupied with blowing soap bubbles forever," Yoko said in December of '68." I thought that was beautiful.There's a lot you can do blowing soap bubbles."
You could see the proof, issue by issue, in Rolling Stone.In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, the magazine was, in a way, an extended print companion of the Beatles' 1969 single "The Ballad of John and Yoko," a tongue-in-cheek diary of the pair's love-and-peace escapades.John and Yoko's art, individually and together—the records and gallery shows; the cryptic Bagism events; the legendary concert debut of the Plastic Ono Band at the '69 Toronto Rock 'n' Roll Revival; even the 1970 "haircuts for charity"—was news, and we covered it with the same day-to-day immediacy with which they commanded the world's attention.(In 1970 I participated in the artist's work when I took my clothes off in New York for her film Up Your Legs Forever.)
In November 1968, Rolling Stonecelebrated its first anniversary by publishing, uncensored, the nude photos of John and Yoko from Two Virgins.The LP had already caused a furor.Public opinion was against them.Copies were confiscated by police and record stores banned the album; where it was for sale, it was wrapped in brown paper.I wired John and Yoko in London from our San Francisco offices and offered to publish the photos.The Two Virgins issue, accompanied by an exclusive interview with John, was the first John and Yoko and Rolling Stone collaboration.It brought national recognition to the magazine and full attention to the poignancy, the honesty, and the politics of those photographs.
By today's standards, this might not seem remarkable, but in 1968, it was utterly astonishing.People did not pose naked, let alone famous people; and John was at the peak of his Beatles fame, a revered household icon around the world.Thus, these pictures were a revolutionary statement.Not only did John and Yoko strip themselves and say, "we are not different from any other man or woman, we are all naked underneath and we are all one," but they also said, "whoever you are, however ordinary your body, nothing to be ashamed of, be free."And when we published these pictures it was with a quote from Genesis 2, verse 25: "And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed."
It was one of their greatest and most important collaborations in art and politics.John and Yoko's compelling 1969 film Rape was a brutal examination of their own lives.Seventy-seven minutes of a young woman being followed incessantly by the camera, a nonstop intrusion that appears to drive her to the precipice of psychosis, Rape captured the black side effects of John and Yoko's very public marriage and unity crusades: paranoia, rage, and theft of privacy.In its title and central distressed character, Rape also prefigured the bold, defiant feminism—"Woman Power," as Yoko called it in a song on her 1973 album Feeling the Space—that became a core theme of her own recordings.
"The mud of rock 'n' roll," as she puts it, was an ideal medium, and camouflage, for the playful sabotage and maternal fighting spirit running through every facet of Yoko's creative labor."I did not think of rock 'n' roll as ‘art' for the longest time," she admits now.When she first heard the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever" (Mario Amaya, the editor of Art and Artists, played it for her in London right after its release), she was unimpressed with the group's dalliance with dissonance.Yoko's own experiments with the limits of tonality dated back to the early 1960s.Her astounding singing, a tremulous wordless wail, was an electrifying feature of her concerts at the Village Gate and Carnegie Recital Hall in 1961, and she had been hailed as a genuinely original voice by John Cage and Ornette Coleman.
When, early in their relationship, John showed Yoko some new Beatles lyrics, including "Yellow Submarine," she thought they were "a bit silly"—until she reconsidered them in terms of surrealist verse."Yellow was the color of light," she explains, "and the yellow submarine—the unconscious mind—was moving under water, which was emotion.And we all live in that submarine.What a beautiful concept.This surrealist poetry was being played on radio and phonographs around the world to millions of people of all ages.Musically, the beat and chords of pop and rock felt too simplistic.I finally got it when I was sitting in on the Beatles' recording sessions.That simple beat was the heartbeat of the Universe."
It is strange to reread the polarized opinions in original Rolling Stone reviews of Yoko's first solo recordings: Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band (her visceral 1970 sister album to John's classic "primal scream" solo debut) and the double albums Fly (1971) and Approximately Infinite Universe (1973).There is stunned positive surprise, unpleasant disbelief, begrudging praise, and utter boredom, in equal measure, sometimes all in the same review.The advent of punk rock and the coming of age in the 1990s of a new outspoken breed of women in rock, many of them ardent students of those LPs, have since proven Yoko's rock 'n' roll—its open-heart honesty and abrasive fury; the way her voice soared in shivering arcs against John's whorls of guitar distortion and feedback—to be a powerful weapon of change and inspiration.She has worked on stage and in the studio with members of the New York avant-rock community, including Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys.On her 1995 album Rising, Yoko bound together the principal ideals of her life and art—peace, family, the euphoric properties of unfettered electric guitar—in songs about holocaust and salvation, performed with the power trio IMA, led by her son, Sean.
"Being an incorrigible rebel, I literally fed on adversity," she told me recently."Of course, it hurt.I won't say I liked it. In fact, it had gotten downright tiresome at one point.But in hindsight, it was better than having been totally adored.That's the worst killer, I think.Having been so severely attacked and laughed at by the whole world, I feel I became wiser, stronger, and more creative for it."
This exhibition is a long-overdue validation of Yoko's pioneering vision and multi-discipline gifts.It is sad and ironic that John is not here to revel in it with her.He was Yoko's most devoted fan; his very last recording session, the night of his death in 1980, was for what would prove to be her biggest and most memorable single, "Walking on Thin Ice."But his absence is, in a sense, further proof of the enduring force of her work.Just as her earliest achievements in the avant-garde predated her introduction to John that fateful night in the Indica Gallery, her art has outlived his loving patronage.I was particularly transfixed by Ex It, a 1998 installation in a SoHo garage consisting of 100 unpainted wooden coffins—adult- and child-size—punctuated by young, budding fruit trees and tape loops of chirping birds.It was a gripping meditation on the indivisibility of death and life and the natural order of coming and going; on man's unchecked capacity for cruelty to his own kind, the continued blessing of rebirth, and each generation's potential—and responsibility—for change.
Yet the word art is not big enough to describe the dimensions and lessons of two of Yoko's greatest works, both direct products of personal loss.At noon on December 14, 1980, six days after John's death, citizens of New York gathered in Central Park for ten minutes, at Yoko's request, in silent prayer.Similar ten-minute periods of silence were observed simultaneously in cities throughout the world.It was a truly universal memorial for John, simple in its ideals, breathtaking in its size and effect.In North America alone, 500 radio stations stopped broadcasting.I will never forget the quiet in Central Park that afternoon where I stood with more than 100,000 others in solemn contemplation, an exorcism of grief in which the entire city, and the globe, stood in suspended animation.There was, for those ten minutes, world peace.
Five years later, on October 9, 1985, what would have been John's forty-fifth birthday—Yoko officially opened Strawberry Fields, an "international garden of peace" honoring John, located in Central Park in an area that had been one of his, Sean and Yoko's favorite walking spots.At the entrance, in a circle of benches and surrounded by trees contributed by more than 100 nations, is a black-and-white mosaic with a single word from one's of John's most famous songs: Imagine.It is like a permanent outdoor version of the original YES piece in the Indica Gallery.When John came down that ladder, he was forever changed.When I walk through Strawberry Fields today, I can't help but sense the difference in the air: in the warmth of people's smiles, in the subtle electricity of introspection.
Strawberry Fields and the silent memorial are the most elaborate yet simple, quintessential, and expansive expressions of Yoko's work and ideas—art that calls for the participation of an individual, of several individuals, of all individuals, and asks viewers to think, to listen, to see the world that is in and around all of us.They are really living sculptures, global expressions of harmony and the call for peace.
All quotes are from The Ballad of John and Yoko (1982) and recent interviews by the author