While my research into the depiction of females in Beatles historiography progresses at a relatively glacial pace, some of the basic analysis has been done. In lieu of a new book review, here are some thoughts on one of the subject’s key figures:
There are six major elements to keep in mind when analyzing Yoko Ono’s depiction in Beatles historiography.
First, any analysis has to include the acknowledgement that she is, among sources, fans and authors, the single most polarizing figure in that historiography. While other figures, and particularly Allen Klein, are now more universally disliked, Ono’s depictions, and interpretations of her, more commonly swing between two extremes: one which tends to be overwhelmingly complimentary and unquestioning; another which tends to vilify and condemn. This polarization can be found in primary and secondary sources across the decades, although the amount and quality of more objective depictions have increased over time.
Second, Ono is the most prominent female in a history that is almost entirely about men. She is also the most prominent female in a historiography that has, throughout its half-century existence, been shaped, written, and controlled, at almost every single level and in almost every single major book, article, interview, documentary, review, podcast, or video, by men. The gender difference between subject and writer needs to be acknowledged.
Third, Ono’s depiction in and relationship with the press requires a balanced assessment. Certain authors, such as Ray Coleman, or Jann Wenner, provide only one aspect of her portrayal by emphasizing her vilification and caricaturization by the mainstream press. More, they correctly note how this vilification was/is often accompanied by thinly veiled – or not so thinly veiled – misogynistic and racist language. However, these authors fail to acknowledge Ono’s own press savvy, both before and following John’s death. By only mentioning her negative portrayals, these male authors turn Ono into an unremitting victim, (and, not coincidentally, turn themselves into her champions and defenders); failing to note her close relationships with various journalists and authors, her skill in extracting editing rights over interviews, and her decades-long promotion of her own version of events.
Fourth: Ono’s depiction must be analyzed in the context of the fan and press reaction to/depiction of the other females in Beatles historiography. Ono certainly serves as the most extreme example, but the negative fan response to her, and harsh condemnation of her in the press, is not a singularity. Rather, it is part of a larger pattern regarding the treatment and depiction of numerous females surrounding the band. Examples include the treatment/depiction of females from Maureen Starkey to Cynthia Lennon to Linda Eastman, (the only other person who comes close to contesting Ono’s dubious crown as the most disliked female in Beatles history). Indeed, the accusations made by the press and fans against Ono and Eastman, particularly in the breakup period, are striking in their similarity.
Fifth: some historians argue that the depiction of females in greater historiography demonstrates a pattern: females who are regarded as demonstrating more traditionally feminine characteristics – maternity, domesticity, compassion, empathy, charity, etc. – are portrayed more favorably. Women who are regarded as displaying more masculine associated traits: ambition, aggressiveness, ruthless self-interest, and interest in traditional masculine pursuits, such as business, etc. – are portrayed more negatively. For some authors, their criticisms of Ono center around ascribing to her more masculine-associated attributes, such as fierce ambition.
Sixth, and Final: While it cannot be quantified, Ono’s depiction has undoubtedly been impacted by whatever value or worth the press and society grants her based on what they regard as her level of attractiveness. (I want to stress I am not condoning this practice, but acknowledging its reality). We live in a culture that assigns a certain amount of value or worth to women based, to an extent, on their attractiveness. In addition, this element is particularly relevant, given that, while Ono is of Asian descent, sources indicate her appearance was/is judged and evaluated according to predominantly Western-based beauty standards.
All these elements need to be taken into account when looking at Yoko’s depiction over the decades. Each has had an impact on how and why Ono has been portrayed the way she has, and has influenced her position as Beatles historiography’s single most polarizing figure.
Again, this is a relatively rough sketch of issues I consider to be important in evaluating Yoko’s depiction; further research may very well reveal other elements. Comments and questions are welcome.
50 thoughts on “Females in Beatles Historiography: Yoko Ono”
I remember going to Beatlefests in Chicago in the 80s when I was in High School and watching videos being played and when either Yoko or Linda appeared the crowd would boo. I didn’t know enough yet at 14 to understand why it was going on. It seemed weird.
If you are working your way to a book about the Women of The Beatles from Mimi and Mary to Astrid, from Cynthia, Patti, Maureen and Jane to Yoko and Linda and how The Beatles depicted women in song in comparison to their lives.
I am in… all in. Sign me up for a copy and take my money. I would love to read it!
“when either Yoko or Linda appeared the crowd would boo.”
I think you’ve mentioned that before, and some other posters have as well. It’s an interesting and revealing real-life piece of evidence regarding how many hard core fans regarded those women in the 80s.
“It seemed weird.”
I’m not actually all that familiar with celebrity culture, but it does seem as if there’s a pattern with celebrity couples for fans to prefer one and criticize the other. Perhaps someone who’s more up on celebrity culture can comment on that. Anyone want to jump in there?
That’s what fascinates me: why did so many people — men and women — dislike these women so viscerally? With Yoko, the most fascinating thing about her, to me, isn’t her art or her relationship with John or what contributions she may/may not have made to the band’s breakup. It’s how incredibly polarizing she is. Not just with authors, but with fans as well. Its softened, but it certainly is still in play. We’ve talked about generational issues/differing interpretations with Beatles issues before, and the generational issue regarding Yoko is another aspect of her depiction that fascinates me.
“If you are working your way to a book about the Women of The Beatles from Mimi and Mary to Astrid, from Cynthia, Patti, Maureen and Jane to Yoko and Linda and how The Beatles depicted women in song in comparison to their lives.
I am in… all in. Sign me up for a copy and take my money. I would love to read it!”
Thanks so much! Working on it is a generous description: like I said, the idea is germinating, some very rudimentary research has been done, but its progressing at a less than glacial pace. But yes, that would be the basic idea: let’s look at how the various females in their historiography have been depicted (again, almost entirely by men). Let’s talk about journalists/authors pitting these women against one another, which is a standard trope in pop culture and Beatles historiography; lets talk about Mary’s influence on Paul’s work ethic and emotional reserve and Julia’s on John’s artistry: let’s talk about male authors making catty comments about Linda and Maureen’s looks; and lets talk about some male authors who implicitly or explicitly belittle the intelligence of those adolescent female fans who bought the band’s first records in droves. That’s the rough roadmap at the moment.
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I don’t see that booing at Yoko or Linda as being misogynistic. They are women, but that isn’t triggering people (males and females) who act up. I see it as an instinctive, unthinking reaction by people with a certain, highly intense level of attachment to their version of the Beatles myth.
I was at a McCartney 1989 concert in New Jersey, and remember the booing during a pre-show montage of Paul moments when an image of him performing “Say Say Say” with Michael Jackson appeared. I thought, “I don’t like that song either, but really?” Then I realized: Jackson had just bought the rights to those Beatles songs. He was considered the villain of the moment by people affected not one jot by the affair who suddenly were outraged a sneaker company was using “Revolution” in TV spots.
Yoko labors under a unique legacy, some of it of her own making, and some of it race-based in origin. I think resentment of Linda was more misogynistic, frankly, in the lines of attack used, and the degree of irrationality involved.
“I was at a McCartney 1989 concert in New Jersey, and remember the booing during a pre-show montage of Paul moments when an image of him performing “Say Say Say” with Michael Jackson appeared. I thought, “I don’t like that song either, but really?””
That is hilarious. That will have me chuckling all day.
That’s an interesting comparison: your evaluation that you see more misogynistic-motivated criticism of Linda rather than of Yoko. I’d like to do some more research on that before coming to any firm conclusions, but along that vein I can tell you that, while I included the last point regarding criticism of Yoko’s appearance and how its influenced her depiction, I’ve honestly seen more criticism of Linda’s appearance and people using that to devalue her, than of people doing that to Yoko. I think there are a variety of reasons for that (the foremost being that Linda’s looks were being judged against the standard of Jane Asher’s, which is, frankly, an unfair standard that very few women could measure up to).
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Another reason for the resentment of both Yoko and Linda was how they were put forward as musical partners by John and Paul, despite what was and is seen by many as their lack of merit.[*]
Never mind that Yoko reinvigorated John’s sinking interest in music as an art form, or that Linda proved unique and refreshing as part of Wings’ dynamic vocal sound. Many crave a connection with performers, not see them interact with their domestic partners.
But yeah, the misogyny thing felt stronger with Linda to me. So much of the attack on her was, like you say, based around her looks. Yoko broke up a marriage and a band. She happened to be a woman, though, so I guess misogyny figures to some degree too.
[*As “Wingspan” reveals, Linda was pushed into being Paul’s musical partner on and offstage, but I think a lot of Paul fans (like me) didn’t know that and just thought she fancied being a rock star and Paul said okay.]
I think that’s certainly a big part of it, Bill — its certainly a huge part of the criticism of both women — but its also important to note that the dislike of Linda, at least, pre-dates her position as Paul’s musical partner. (Since, according to legend, John and Yoko’s romantic and artistic partnership began on the same night, its more difficult to separate the issue with them). When you have Life magazine declaring that “From the onset, everyone hated Linda,” that’s a pretty powerful indication that dislike of her was pretty prevalent before her seemingly self-serving positioning as Paul’s musical partner. There were enough other things that people already disliked Linda for: her looks, her single-mother status, her American-status (which was an issue with the British press); her seeming coldness/arrogance; and that’s just the surface stuff, without getting into the whole Eastman/Klein issue and subsequent blame for the band’s split.
“*As “Wingspan” reveals, Linda was pushed into being Paul’s musical partner on and offstage, but I think a lot of Paul fans (like me) didn’t know that and just thought she fancied being a rock star and Paul said okay.]”
The interpretation of that has completely reversed itself, from what I have seen, from the original version of events. As you say, fans in the earlier days, when events were unfolding, were under the impression that Linda was pushing for this position on stage as Paul’s musical partner, despite her lack of experience, and they had a hard time swallowing it, fueling their dislike of her. Now virtually everyone, in large part because of Wingspan but also other interviews Paul has done, view Linda’s participation as more reluctant: something she entered into in support of her marriage, rather than the interest of her own self-promotion. And with that shift in Linda’s motivation has been a lessening of the dislike for her. It doesn’t change her lack of experience or abilites/lack thereof as a vocalist, but its an interesting look at how motivation matters to people and a revealing element regarding expected gender roles and behavior. Linda joining Wings to serve her own ambition = criticism of her; Linda joining Wings because her husband needs her to = sympathy for her.
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“If you are working your way to a book about the Women of The Beatles
I am in… all in. Sign me up for a copy and take my money. I would love to read it!”
Yes, Yes, Yes!!!! What an interesting, fascinating topic! I would absolutely love to read a book about this. If there is anyone lurking here who is a writer, please consider writing it. Erin I know you are busy so you probably couldn’t find the time but I hope someone can.
I fully intend to work on it and eventually get it done: but it will take long than I originally anticipated. But I’d rather someone else doesn’t pick up this ball and run with it (can you tell I’m a football fan) for a number of reasons. First, it’s my idea. (She said modestly). Second, I think it requires a good knowledge of historiography, and historical methods, which are relatively obscure and also the depiction of females in historiography, which is even more so. Finally, I think this is a book that should be written by a female, and the reality is there just aren’t that many female authors. As baby number three ages, research and writing will become more doable. Having small children doesn’t prohibit working on a manuscript: I started research on TBATH when my then-youngest was one and my oldest was almost four. They would be sitting watching Sesame Street while I was typing away on the laptop in the same room. So it will happen.
“I fully intend to work on it and eventually get it done: but it will take long than I originally anticipated.”
Oh wow I think I might have gotten confused somewhere in all these different discussions. I either had no idea, or I forgot you were already planning to write this book. I somehow thought that it was an idea that another commenter was just throwing out there, hoping someone would do it. I am so glad you are actually planning to write it. I agree you’re the best person to do it. I cannot wait for this book. This is the kind of Beatles topic I enjoy, along with all of the topics we discuss. These are such unique topics and no one is writing about them. I just saw on Amazon there’s another biography on John Lennon. Why? We need more books that explore a different perspective.
Great post, Erin. You’ve given us much to chew on.
I think the greatest challenge in discussing Ono’s depiction in Beatle historiography is that the utterly sexist excoriation she received at the time of her liaison with Lennon has somewhat disallowed a critical and objective analysis of her behaviour and influence.
One only has to review the tapes and transcipt of the Get Back sessions, review her behaviour with the Lennon family pre- and post-Lennon’s death, and re-read her comments about McCartney vis a vis Lennon (Salieri to Lennon’s Mozart? please) to realize that criticisms are warranted. At the same time, to blame her for the Beatles break-up without seeing and addressing Lennon’s complicity is (as we know) total nonsense.
Like Lennon, she became kind of a martyr herself. I wonder if, in future years, biography will present her with more compassion but also with total honesty.
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“I think the greatest challenge in discussing Ono’s depiction in Beatle historiography is that the utterly sexist excoriation she received at the time of her liaison with Lennon has somewhat disallowed a critical and objective analysis of her behaviour and influence.”
I have noticed a reluctance on the part of some authors to levy valid criticisms, or at least to do so in depth. Doggett makes some brief comments — such as debunking Yoko’s claim that she didn’t know who the Beatles were when she met John — but then doesn’t explore the ramifications of those actions that he criticizes Yoko for. Or the comment you referenced from Yoko regarding the Mozart/Salieri quote: he notes how Yoko herself must have known better in providing such an errant version of the Lennon/McCartney partnership, but doesn’t explore why she felt compelled to make that comment in the first place.
However, in other parts of the book, when dealing with various Beatles, he does offer those authorial interpretations regarding how and why certain comments were made, making his refusal to do so with Yoko that much more jarring. I do think Yoko is a topic that certain authors prefer to tiptoe around, and avoid interpretation, because of that polarization and because of the outsized, absurd (and, as you noted, at times misogynistic and racist motivated criticism of her) made them reluctant to get lumped in with her more vile critics. But you’re right: tiptoeing prevents readers from getting a more complete view of her and her role, and I think that’s a shame, because her role is important.
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And to piggyback further, McCartney himself, particularly in the past decade or so, has been loathe to levy responsibility where it belongs. Ono is his business partner and it probably makes more sense to him to just let bygones be bygones rather than engage in a lifelong and ultimately fruitless battle in re-litigating past greivances– especially since Ono herself has not stepped up to acknowledge her past behaviour.
I’ve written about this before over at Hey Dullblog, but I feel like it’s notable to put the Salieri comments into context. According to Paul, he requested that the credits on “Yesterday” only Anthology 2 be changed to McCartney/Lennon. Anthology 2 was delayed, eventually being released in March 1996, so this happened sometime before then.
Now Paul said that Linda ALSO called Yoko (whether with or without Paul’s knowledge, he didn’t specify) and requested that the credits be switched as a favor. And Yoko said no. Paul said it was when he and Linda were going through their “horror times” and so that is when it bugged him so much. He told Rolling Stone, “But this is why we don’t have a great relationship. That, and the fact that Linda rang her personally during the height of her chemo shit and asked her, and Yoko said, ‘That’s never going to happen.'”
Now I don’t recall where I got the information (possibly from the memorial essay about Linda that Yoko wrote for Rolling Stone) but I looked the timing of the stated last phone call between Yoko and Linda, and it would’ve been right after Yoko made her Salieri comments. So I have a feeling that Linda probably called Yoko about those comments (at a time when she was dying) and they argued about it.
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…which I believe makes Yoko’s comment all the more egregious. What I interpret from the backstory (and thanks for providing it, Rose) is that the Salieri comment was made in a fit of pique after Paul requested the change of name order–a request which was perfectly reasonable, I think, given that the name order was a voluntary arrangement between he and John anyway. Yoko didn’t just say “no” and leave it at that; she had to take a swipe at Paul in the press. Not Yoko’s shining moment, for sure.
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The text written above sets a scientific tone using impressive terminology and makes the reader believe that an extensive and educated study has been done. Good. But here is another truth. We have footage. We heard and saw what Yoko did. She helped in sabotaging a marriage which included a child. She took John’s place as at least his equal in The Beatles business. (She sat on Paul’s amp!) She pushed her way hard to lay her grip on a Beatle (she caught the one who was vulnerable, not the strong one (whom she tried first)) then she pushed her way hard to contaminate the music (Bungalow Bill, Revolution 9) then the record sleeves (Ballad of J & Y) then she -at the very least- agreed to let John Lennon show his genitals to the world (pictures forever to exist!). She encouraged John to do hard drugs. She put down Paul’s work and efforts in John’s ear. She still did it years later after John’s death. As for her talent as an artist, no. She is not an artist. She does have a talent for marketting: she does things that shock people. She gets an audience by doing that. That is her way. That is marketting. Then also she pays to post pictures of her on visible platforms, at a regular frequency, so people will remember her, talk about her. — Lately she has done two more things that hurt deeply: she has changed the signature credits on Give Peace A Chance: John had chosen to sign it Lennon-McCartney when he wrote it. It was his song, his heart, his choice to do so. But she went ahead after John’s death and erased Paul’s credit on it. She very lately also changed the credit on Imagine from the signature “John Lennon” to “John Lennon – Yoko Ono”. She did that on the basis that the song had been inspired by a book that she had written. (But that’s what John ever did! He took ideas everywhere from other people!) . —- I have to go now, cheers.
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Josee, Karen and I are interested in certain points you raised in your post. However, we want to emphasize that at this blog we stress conversation and respectful discussion, and we urge all our posters to adhere to a high standard when adding their own discussion points. Parts of your post come across as less willing to enter into an open-minded discussion, and Karen and I request that we see more willingness from you in the future, should you continue to want to post and participate in the discussion.
Second, while your post focuses primarily on Yoko’s actions, the primary area of discussion — and the main point of my post — was not regarding Yoko’s behavior, which has been and will be endlessly debated. It was to discuss the nuances and elements that have influenced her depiction; some of which are areas out of her control, and are very widely acknowledged aspects regarding Beatles historiography, the depiction of women in historiography, and historical methods.
Hi Josee and thanks for posting.
A few points of clarification: Erin’s post did not suggest that an extensive and educated study had been undertaken regarding Yoko Ono’s influence on the Beatles; in fact, she was claiming the opposite: that a true and impartial analysis of Ono’s influence has yet to be undertaken, and those bios which examine her influence have generally landed on polarizing extremes.
Second, the post is not documenting grievances regarding Ono’s behaviour per se, but rather discusses how Beatle biographers have regarded her actions in the context of Beatle historiography.
Third, to acknowledge the manner in which Ono’s race and gender gave rise to excoriating attacks in the press is not an attempt to diminish or excuse her behaviour in general. If you read earlier posts on this blog, you’ll readily see that Ono’s behaviour regarding many of the issues you’ve raised have been discussed (Get Back sessions post, for example.). Yoko Ono has behaved, in some instances, deplorably; she’s also been unnecessarily victimized soley because of her gender and race.
To echo Erin’s sentiments, we welcome your participation on the blog, but ask that you consider your tone and approach in future posts as you convey your opinions.
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I wonder what will happen when Lewisohn reaches the Yoko years in his Tune In series.
He’s someone who examines all evidence to get at the truth. How will Yoko react to this?
Good question, Sam. I’ve had problems with Lewisohn’s conclusions in the past, and it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that I’ll disagree with him about his conclusions regarding Yoko.
He certainly leaves no stone left unturned though, which I really appreciate about his research.
I guess we’ll see.
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“I’ve had problems with Lewisohn’s conclusions in the past, and it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that I’ll disagree with him about his conclusions regarding Yoko.”
Hi Karen, this comment made me curious! Maybe we’ve already discussed it but can you remember what some of Lewisohn’s points were that you disagreed with?
Hi Linda; the ones that come to mind are Lewisohn’s interpretation of Paul’s “It’s a drag” comment and the other is his take on the John/Blackpool incident. There’s one more, but darn if I can think of it.
Regarding the two I remember: Lewisohn interpreted the drag comment as Paul’s reaction to John’s lionization, which I dispute because a) the lionization hadn’t occurred yet, and b) it seemed more plausible that Paul’s comments were a reaction to the intrusive press stuffing their mics in his face during a time in which he was emotionally fragile.
In terms of the Blackpool incident (John being asked to choose between parents), Lewisohn concluded that Freddie Lennon’s account of the meeting between he, Julia and little John never occurred because Freddie’s pal, Billy Hall–who wasn’t in the room and didn’t hear an altercation–concluded it didn’t. To disregard Freddie Lennon’s account on that basis is nonsense to me, especially when Freddie’s version hardly paints him in a good light and is something I think he would therefore not be inclined to lie about. I think Lewisohn, in his earnest attempt to claim errors in Beatle historiography, got ahead of his skiis on that one.
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Oh thanks Karen for refreshing my memory. Very interesting. Yes Lewisohn’s interpretation regarding Paul’s reaction to the press intrusion on December 9th 1980 is absolutely ridiculous. It actually makes me cringe. How can someone who claims to be a McCartney watcher (and I believe him) be so far off the mark that it’s jaw dropping? Indeed the lionization hadn’t happened yet. Of course his reaction was caused by grief, shock, and anger that people were shoving mics in his face. I certainly hope that Erin was right when she said, people make mistakes during pod casts. I should hope he wouldn’t make a mistake like that in his books. As for the Freddy Lennon incident, it took me a long time to agree with the majority of people who say Lewisohn is wrong, but I now see their point. I wonder if there are any other incidents in the book that people disagree with?
The Blackpool interpretation is a stand-out, but there was one more that I can’t remember for the life of me. It would be interesting to hear from others who agree/disagree with Lewisohn’s interpretations.
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Love your work! Looking forward to what new insights you develop.
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Thanks, Brad! We hope you comment again.
Hello! Long time lurker! I hope it isn’t too late to lend my perspective!
It seems to me, at least among my generation (I was born in 1991), that the re-evaluation of her as a feminist elder stateswoman is a recent one. Though keep in mind that is only my impression from discussion of her on social media among people my own age. That’s not to say people didn’t recognize her a feminist in the 70s as she has always been ready to speak out against misogyny and seeing her in a positive feminist light is kind of the popular take among online social justice circles. She had a tweet fairly recently that went viral regarding Donald Trump that I found really funny and clever. You can just google “Donald Trump Yoko Ono” to find it. She has had some very positive press recently and she has spoken a lot of the Me Too movement and female empowerment. We are really having a moment right now where discussion about misogyny is front and center and it’s great and she should be praised for getting involved.
I am interested to see if the Me Too movement will have any effect on popular perceptions of Yoko. Interestingly, it’s like the perception of Ono and Lennon have switched among Millennials, Yoko goes from derision to praise, Lennon from sainthood to every conversation about him ending with someone reminding everyone that he hit women. This is a generalization but also a frustration I have with online social justice culture and online fandom where shades of grey are rarely allowed to exist.
As for my own opinion on Yoko, I try and treat her with the same level of fairness and balance that I do for all the members of the Beatles but the difference being that I am love with music the Beatles made and I am not in love with Yoko The Artist so I honestly don’t know if I CAN be objective. I try though.
Holly, please comment whenever possible: I loved so many elements to your post. Your stress on struggling for objectivity, especially, was a line that really stuck out for me. Objectivity and balance are so lacking in interpretations and discussions regarding Yoko — both among fans and among authors — that fairness is something we absolutely need in order to get the most accurate picture possible.
“This is a generalization but also a frustration I have with online social justice culture and online fandom where shades of grey are rarely allowed to exist.”
Absolutely. We talked about this on an earlier thread — as a lurker, you’ve probably seen it — regarding the shift in the view of John from St. John of Peace to hypocritical wife-beater. And reassessment has occurred with Yoko: the same way the sanctification of John was too imbalanced to be sustainable, the vilified “joke or hate figure” perception of Yoko was also too imbalanced to continue completely unchallenged. New generations love revisionism, and we’re seeing that, coupled with the lack of nuance, as you so aptly put it, providing new generations with very black and white, simplistic versions of individuals.
I have to be brief, because the baby is waking up, but my issue with Yoko and feminism and her vocal support for women is conflicted. I applaud her determination to confront the issue, both then and now; to put out songs calling attention to the marginalization of women, and her determination to make her mark in a male-dominated world. Having said that, I find her behavior falling short of her own rhetoric at times. Part of this might be entangled with different generations perceiving the role of feminist activists differently, and I’m trying not to impose an anachronistic evaluation on behavior from 50 years ago. Having said that, for me, it is very difficult to entirely reconcile John and Yoko’s impassioned expressions of equality for the sexes with certain actions, particularly their treatment of May Pang.
Yeah the balance is so hard! When I talk about the Beatles there are a lot of “buts” where I try to counterweight my criticism with 12 different points of view of the situation to make sure I am not just lying to myself in support the point of view that I am most comfortable with. Talking about Yoko is the hardest. “She wasn’t treated very nicely by the other Beatles BUT she was a disruptive presence BUT John wanted her there BUT she should have realized the counterproductive effect she causes BUT she says John wouldn’t show up if she wasn’t there BUT she didn’t seem to actually care how the other Beatles felt” on and on in circles until my roommates tell me to shut up!
I am in agreement about Yoko and John being hypocrites in their activism but ultimately I think that is almost a point of view that will be lost to history. Despite the reversal in certain circles, it is still very much Saint Lennon in the general popular opinion. BUT, as you said, maybe the re-branding of Yoko as feminist elder stateswoman is only the latest revisionism. People need to present the absolute extreme and opposite point of view of the previous one so that hopefully one day, when all extremes are exhausted, we can find land somewhere in the middle. It’s crazy that 50 years on we haven’t quite reached that yet.
For the record (all objectivity going to the wayside), my most primal and biased response to Yoko basically boils down to: “She was mean to Paul so I don’t like her!” because I love Paul. I accept his faults and can move past them but deep down I haven’t moved passed her’s even though she shares the same basic faults of ego, arrogance and selfishness with Paul just with (in my opinion) much less reserve and maybe even compassion. Her comments “John said no one ever hurt him like Paul hurt him” comment and her one about Mozart and Salieri come to mind. It just feels like she knew it would hurt and damage Paul and said those things deliberately to diminish him. And that first comment was so soon after John’s death and I think quite close to the publishing of Shout! (could be wrong about this), she had to have known that would wound him.
Okay, back to pretending I possess objectivity!
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“And that first comment was so soon after John’s death and I think quite close to the publishing of Shout! (could be wrong about this), she had to have known that would wound him.”
The timeline for that is pretty interesting. Accd. to Paul, he was blindsided when he read that comment because, following the aftermath of John’s death, his communication with Yoko had evidently been cordial. Then he read Yoko’s version of John’s comment (in an interview with Philip Norman) and was so upset he called Norman for clarification, but only left a message because Norman wasn’t in, and Norman never responded. Whether he ever asked Yoko for clarification is more up in the air, although evidently she told him decades later that the “Family Way” soundtrack was one of those terrible hurts Paul inflicted on John, so that may very well tie into this.
One of my main takeaways from this comment is first, I think this is a good example of how and why we need to take into account who the interviewer is when we are reading this sources. Norman explains in the 2nd edition of Shout! that his personal interaction with Yoko began after she saw him give his infamous “John was 75% of the Beatles” quote in an interview on tv when he was promoting Shout! She then reached out to him, and they conducted the interview in which Yoko offered the “no one ever hurt John as much Paul” comment. The reality is that Yoko presumably knew in that interview she had a sympathetic interviewer; one who was inclined to side with her interpretation and accept her version of events unquestioningly.
Holly, I’m so glad you posted and hope you will join in on the future. Your comment was terrific.
I’m your elder by about ten years, and I’ve found myself struggling recently with the modern feminism movement myself, and a huge part of that is the online social justice movement. I’ve become really disillusioned, personally, with how everything just seems to be an excuse for an echo chamber of anger rather than meaningful advancement. (Part of that is my resentment of the #MeToo movement, which was started by women of color to spotlight serious crimes committed against marginalized women. I admit that a big part of me resents how the movement was basically co-opted by wealthy, famous white women and away from the labor movement.) Funnily enough, a big eye opener for me was the revival of Queen’s popularity with the Bohemian Rhapsody film. I watched in real time as many people on social media who fancied themselves “woke” joyfully threw their convictions out the window when it came to indulging their fandom. Even worse was them wanting to have it both ways: applauding themselves for celebrating a bisexual man of color in Freddie Mercury, while simultaneously promoting and embracing a movie problematic about Freddie’s queerness, directed by a man (Bryan Singer) who has been plagued for 20 years about rumors of his behavior with underage boys. “Cancel culture” is easy when it’s about old dudes like Bill Cosby or Woody Allen – there’s no sacrifice involved in “canceling” someone whose art you weren’t consuming anyway.
Anyway, back to Yoko. I don’t feel the anger or urge to demonize her that so many fans have felt. I wouldn’t call myself a fan of hers, but I do think there is plenty to admire. She’s had a tough life, she’s incredibly smart, and she has an underrated sense of humor. Whatever her faults as a parent, her kids seem to adore her. I don’t like her music but I enjoy quite a bit of her conceptual art and find it thoughtful and witty. I’m a Paul fan first and foremost, and they’ve had their ups and downs, but I don’t think it’s fake when Paul expresses genuine affection for her. They have certainly pissed each other off, but there seems to have be genuine warmth there as well. They are family and at the end of the day, we are talking about human beings who are imperfect bundles of contradictions….as we all are.
Writing about Yoko is, I think, a balancing act. I’m a big advocate of – when it comes to historical analysis – remembering to place people into context. With Yoko, you not only have to consider how things were different for her as a woman who grew up when she did, but also the different culture of Japan and how those societal norms impacted her behavior, even though she later made her life in the U.K. and America.
“I’m a big advocate of – when it comes to historical analysis – remembering to place people into context. With Yoko, you not only have to consider how things were different for her as a woman who grew up when she did, but also the different culture of Japan and how those societal norms impacted her behavior, even though she later made her life in the U.K. and America.”
(Likes this 1000x).
This is so very crucial, and so criminally overlooked. The cultural and societal expectations and norms she grew up with as a Japanese girl are so unexplored, and the way they impacted her behavior — and how she was perceived — once she moved to the U.S. and the U.K. are absolutely crucial in contextualizing her behavior and her depiction. What’s one of the first things everyone says that you have to understand about John, Paul, George and Ringo, and why they did what they did? They were war babies, and they were from Liverpool. That formed them in fundamental ways. Yoko’s background impacted her just as fundamentally, but receives far less attention, because, at least in part, of that authorial Anglo-American stranglehold on Beatles historiography.
Second, when we’re talking about context, I think a lot of people forget just how traumatic of a childhood Yoko experienced. If we are going to contextualize John’s psychological and emotional problems within the framework of his unstable parenting situation and traumatic early childhood, than all other figures in Beatles historiography deserve the same courtesy, including Yoko.
Growing up in Japan in WWII had to have been an absolutely traumatizing experience. In 44 and 45, American bombers were basically carpet bombing Japanese cities in anticipation of the expected invasion that never came, and those who were sent to the countryside for protection (such as Yoko) found life very difficult, full of hard labor, deprivation and instability. Then the U.S. occupies Japan from 1945 until 1953, and historians are still exploring the psychological and cultural consequences that occur when a country is occupied by a foreign power. I think you can also see some echoes of WWII era propaganda in Albert Goldman’s depiction of Yoko; he was someone who would have grown up being influenced by England’s wartime propaganda. His description of her as “simian” is an exact echo of the favored depiction of the Japanese in allied propaganda: their most common images portrayed the Japanese as monkeys. (The Japanese, in turn, most commonly depicted the Americans and the British as demons).
Happy New Year Beatle people. Erin, Karen, love you, and I have to chime in on this Yoko thread before you move on. And, my only point is, it has always struck me the level of respect other musicians & artists showed Yoko, which I suspect was out of deference to John, but which, in a sense, doesn’t hold up.
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That’s a great point, Tom: do you have any examples to offer? I recall reading a declaration (I think it was from an artist, not a musician) that was made in the 1980s, that 50 years later, people would still think the Beatles were great but recognize that the real genius was Yoko Ono. That’s the one that sticks in my mind, although I think the commenter was primarily discussing her conceptual art, rather than her music, however.
Yes. I have never had a problem with Yoko personally. And, I have never had a problem with John & Yoko, as a couple. I love them. (I watched them co-host the Mike Douglas Show all week after Imagine was released, and I was 5 years-old! Glued to the living room TV! I remember it vividly.) And, I have never had a problem with Yoko as a performance/conceptual artist. Crawling through Youtube once not long ago for Beatles content, I came across her performance piece from the mid-1960’s entitled “Cut,” and I had never seen it before, and never even knew about it, and I was very impressed with it, for a number of reasons.
Having said that, I always have had a problem with her musically. Not so much when I was a kid because back then it was like: this is John & Yoko, man – that sort of thing. But, as I got older, no. Specifically, whenever some of those tracks from ‘Sometime In New York City’ come up on my iPod, where Yoko is doing all those vocalizations and screaming, I can’t listen to it anymore. It’s god-awful. I just advance to the next track. Songs such as “Don’t Worry, Kyoko,” or “Jamrag,” etc. I do love “Sisters O Sisters,” I think it’s one of her best. But, “Luck Of The Irish” would have been such a great song had John handled all the vocals himself. (Does anyone know if there’s a demo floating around out there with just John singing it?)
Because of his mother issues, and because as he says on p. 7 of the Anthology coffee table book that there were 5 strong, intelligent, beautiful women in his life and the men were invisible, etc., I think John willingly allowed himself to be manipulated by Yoko (to an extent), under the guise of love. And, I think Yoko was all in on that.
In the film Imagine when John is being interviewed by a reporter for the New York Times, there’s a moment where she (the reporter) says, in effect, that she once admired him very much, but that John had made himself look ridiculous. And, John’s response was that she was a snob, and I’ve grown up and you haven’t. I used to side with John there. But, as I’ve gotten older, I think the reporter from the NY Times was actually right.
Another observation: during the “bed-in” there’s a scene where John is being interviewed by a Canadian cartoonist/illustrator named “Cap”, and at one point Yoko is trying to explain something to him and Cap, out of the side of his mouth, says, “Geez, you gotta live with that.” And, John looks away, scratches his beard, and muses, “Nice guy.”
I need to stop here, because I’m spooling out, like a busted cassette tape. My only point is that I think a lot of musicians, in their deference to John, and in their desire to stay in his good graces, and perhaps make music with him, tolerated Yoko’s musical flaws, primarily out of respect for John, but also out of respect for the both of them as friends, couples, people, etc.
Exciting news for fans of Yoko. She’ll be in this new version of LET IT BE
You know, when I was researching, there were only two things I could not get ahold of via Inter Library Loan. One was Derek Taylor’s “Fifty Years Adrift.” Basically, only two or three libraries had it, and the book was so valuable they refused to lend it out. The other was the complete footage of the Let it Be film. It was at a college in California – I can’t recall which one — and, unsurprisingly, they wouldn’t lend it out.
I’m not sure how to feel about this. I haven’t seen Jackson’s newest work on WWI, although I’d like to. I have seen the interpretation that Lindsey-Hogg deliberately cut the film in order to highlight the drama and disagreements, and that, given when it was released, it was inevitable that it be viewed as a portrait of a band in disintegration. Your comment reminds me about how Doggett claims that Paul, George and Ringo all requested, after seeing the first cut, that there be less JohnandYoko time in the film.
All 55 hours of footage? I didn’t know it was archived in California. (Unless I’m misunderstanding your reply)
I didn’t know that. I wonder if their request was granted, and if John knew about it.
If he did, perhaps that explains some of the vitriol in his “Lennon Remembers” interviews.
What an odd thing for him to do. Wasn’t he working as a director-for-hire, rather than an independent documentarian? I know they wanted a “warts and all” treatment, but this seems rather excessive.
Getting back to Yoko, I remember sitting in our local cinema and watching EIGHT DAYS A WEEK and at the end of the film, the rooftop performance (which I’d never seen on a big screen before) shows her smoking a cigarette. She seemed so bored and unimpressed by the whole thing.
Maybe this was a sign of John’s insecurity, that his perfect soulmate was someone with no interest in his band. After Aunt Mimi scolding him that he had no friends, just opportunists interested in his money, maybe his worst fear was ending up with a (gulp!) fan as a wife. Yoko’s indifference (whether feigned or not) was catnip to him. This is me playing Freud here, anyway.
“All 55 hours of footage?”
It’s been years since I was looking at the information on OCLC/Worldcat, so I can’t recall whether they were the raw, unedited tapes or not, but I believe it was. It was the only copy in a library in the United States, at USC (I think, I’m going entirely off of memory, here). There may be other copies in other countries, but Inter Library Loan doesn’t allow for international loans, so I didn’t pull up any of those. I didn’t really think I was going to get it when I requested it — it was much more of a “what the hell, let’s give it a try” shot in the dark than an actual expectation that they were going to lend it to me.
Erin, I’d like to chime in here for only a moment, if I may. First, I was shocked yesterday when I read my email from thebeatles.com regarding this latest news. Once, in a very deep Beatles rabbit hole, I came across some very plausible stuff saying, in essence, that the word was that it wouldn’t be until Paul died that Let It Be would be re-released … meaning that Paul himself made that clear. Perhaps, that was never true. Perhaps it was, and Paul has had a change of heart. Either way, I’m very curious to see how this pans out. (What do you think they’ll call it? The Lord of the Ringos?)
On a more serious note: I also just wanted to make a correction and an additional comment regarding my previous post. My reference to the cartoonist “Cap” was wrong: his name was Al Capp, and he actually was from the United States, not Canada. Oops. I also wanted to add that, in my haste, I forgot to complete my thought about his disrespectful comment to John about Yoko. I never knew much about him before seeing him in that film, and I never liked him much after that anyway. Even though I do give him some credit for trying to sincerely understand where John & Yoko (mostly John) were coming from. But, regardless of what I think of her singing, Yoko didn’t deserve a hurtful comment like that. No one does.
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I was surprised to see the news as well, Tom. I’m very interested to see how this will be packaged, edited, etc.
Your comment about Paul being the veto forbidding LIB’s release is an interesting one. I’m certainly not privy to the machinations of the Apple board, but I do find it interesting that the view of the LIB tapes, particularly Paul’s contributions to the band’s tensions in that time period, is another of those issues where the narrative has seriously changed over time. My understanding is that, at least until the mid-90s, many books and fans perceived Paul’s role in the film as more or less the villain of the piece. If Paul was aware of that perception, it would make sense that he would be reluctant, then, to allow for the film’s release. But since the publication of Sulpy and Schweghardt, or the increased access to bootlegs, that interpretation has dwindled: I think the consensus now is that, while Paul certainly contributed to the tensions, so did the others, and he wasn’t the bad guy. If Paul’s aware of that interpretive shift that’s taken place, perhaps that’s why he’s now willing to change his mind. (But that’s all pure speculation. Although the issue of just how much attention Paul has paid to Beatles historiography is, to my mind, an absolutely fascinating question).
I honestly don’t think he was there to do that.
He was there to troll Lennon and his wife. He despised “hippies and long hairs” and was a crank on the subject of the anti-war movement.
I agree. You are right. I was going off memory. I went back & watched the Imagine clip again. I also watched more lengthly clips off Youtube that appear to be unedited. Overall, yes, he was a crank clearly just looking to troll & stoke the fire. As soon as he enters the room he says, “So far you’ve been confronted with admirers and I may end up to be one.” I did not catch that first time around. In retrospect, he had no intention of being an admirer. (The word admire. Same word used by the New York Times reporter, Gloria Emerson: I’m someone who admired you very much.) But, specifically, I still do believe Capp’s Christ & crucify me questions were sincere, even if only from an establishment perspective. Is he being blasphemous? Disrespectful? Cripes, it was only a few years after John saying we’re more popular than Jesus.
Getting back to Yoko, the exact quote was “Dear God, you gotta live with that?” And, referring to Yoko Ono as Madame Nhu? Say what?
Hello, Erin. I loved your book. As for your question, don’t you think that Yoko’s figure in relation to the Beatles has been a bit overestimated. Apart from the fact that she apparently did not like the Beatles’ music, she appeared in the last year of the group. Yes, I think she was essential to develop the narrative of the 70s and 80s. Both for those who blamed her for the separation of the Beatles and because she was at Lennon’s side almost all the time until the end of his days. If it’s for women, and only looking after John, I think that the role played by Cynthia Powell was more fundamental. The pregnancy produced by both, for example, right at the beginning of the band’s recording career, determined a lot the way forward for Lennon, who was then the leader. If he had not lived a home and family life that seemed to have him locked up, what would his relationship with Epstein have been like, with Swinging London or with the rest of the group? Had the Beatles lasted until the late ’60s? Forgive my English, I’m better with Spanish.
First off, don’t worry about your English: I thought your post was well-written, and made a lot of good points.
That Yoko’s influence on the band is overestimated is an interesting way to look at it, and, in a way, I agree. As you say, she doesn’t really enter the band’s inner story until Summer 1968, (depending on whether you believe Tony Bramwell, among others) which means she was not present for the vast majority of the band’s existence. I agree that Cynthia’s presence and influence on John and John’s life has been significantly underplayed. (If you watched the documentary The Compleat Beatles, they never once mention that John was married or even mention Cynthia’s name. Not. Once.) Julian has even accused Yoko of attempting to erase him and Cynthia from the band’s story, although I can’t recall if he gave any concrete examples.
And that’ just how history has written Cynthia, or ignored her. Her impact on John is something that deserves attention. All you have to do is read the first volume of Tune In to know that John genuinely loved her; yet, you look at The Authorized biography, and both of them are publicly acknowledging that, if not for Julian, they probably wouldn’t have married. John’s marriage to Cynthia changed his life and the expectations of him in fundamental ways. It also impacted his relationships with the other Beatles, including Paul: John is on record discussing how his being trapped in the suburbs increased his resentment of the bachelor Paul. I would hazard a guess that the amount of stability Cynthia provided for the rather volatile John has been downplayed. And your questions are great ones: how would it have impacted his relationship with Brian? Would London based, bachelor John have embraced the avant-garde before London based, bachelor Paul? Would he have fallen apart without the stability she brought to his life?
There’s another issue your post introduces, and that’s how Yoko’s comments are regarded within Beatles historiography. A significant problem I have with secondary authors is that some of them relate her comments on the pre-Yoko Beatles period, their working methods, their interactions and personal relations, etc. without evaluation or analysis. That’s a stunning methodological error for one very simple reason: She wasn’t there, as you say, until Summer 1968. When Yoko offers her version of how the pre-Yoko Beatles functioned, we can only assume that she’s referencing comments by John. But they’re not her perceptions, they are John’s perceptions, filtered through time and agenda and her own understanding of his comments. Yoko is not an eyewitness to the pre-Yoko Beatles, and her comments should not be relayed as such.
On the subject of Cynthia’s influence vs Yoko’s–it’s interesting that each woman had approximately 10 years with John, and that the 10 years John spent with Cynthia was arguably more professionally productive and emotionally stabilizing than the 10 years he spent with Yoko (although John himself would disagree with that assessment, I’m sure.)
Not that I would lay responsibility for John’s professional success and emotional welfare on either woman, but given his dependency needs it’s an interesting correlation.
Hello! Long time reader, big time fan. 🙂 I have a Beatles podcast with several friends and our most recent episode about Yoko addresses many of the subjects discussed in the comments here. For readers who might be interested in female perspectives on Beatle topics, it’s called Another Kind of Mind, available wherever you get your podcasts.
Thanks, MARTÍN! 🙂
Agree with Martin, it’s great!