John Lennon and Yoko Ono – Double Fantasy (1980)

John Lennon once called his wife Yoko Ono “The world’s most famous unknown artist.” One of the most misunderstood women in pop culture, Yoko Ono’s music may be questionable, but her message of peace is very clear.

During a 1975 interview on “The Tomorrow Show” with Tom Snyder, John Lennon described his wife Yoko Ono as being “The world’s most famous unknown artist.” I can’t think of a better way to describe the public’s ongoing attitude towards her. What does the average music fan think they know about Yoko Ono? That she’s a bit of a nut? That she broke up the Beatles? That her music is awful? Let’s face it, The public seems to have a toxic relationship with Yoko Ono, but rarely does the people at the other end of their one sided criticism actually know much about the woman herself.

Do you know what I hate more than listening to one of her songs? Listening to people talk smack about Yoko Ono. Perhaps if they only took a few moments to scratch the surface of her life and her world perspective then they would give this beautiful, strong and intelligent advocate for peace the respect that she rightfully deserves.

In 1966 musician John Lennon met Avant Garde artist Yoko Ono, and the two were married in 1969. Seemingly inseperable, the pair would collaborate together throughout the rest of John’s life, much to the chagrin of Beatles fans looking for a reunion.

Now let me be honest. I’m not a fan of her music. Not many people are. I’m aware that she has had a resurgence of popularity amongst electronic music fans, but its not my bag. When listening to the songs that she recorded for the 1980 album “Double Fantasy,” released three weeks prior to John Lennon’s murder, I believe that love might not only be blind, but it might be deaf too. But let me tell you this. My spouse Griz is no Karen Carpenter, but I love the sound of their singing too. I can get behind John putting Yoko’s music on “Double Fantasy.”

But that’s beside this point. It’s not the music that makes Yoko important as an artist or creator. I think she’s has a brilliant mind and a beautiful soul and has had a unique perspective on war and peace, love and hate and loss and compassion which few people have ever been able to have. I also question if John Lennon would have ever written a masterpiece like “Imagine” without the influence of Yoko Ono. I highly doubt he could.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1968 collaboration “Two Virgins” is unlistenable, but highly collectable. It’s best we just leave that paper wrapper on it though.

Now I’ll admit I didn’t always feel this way. Like most people, I took Yoko Ono at face value and bought into the popular school of thought, thinking that she was some sort of Avant Garde weirdo and thought little about her further than the usual things that Beatle fans say of her. So, when a massive Yoko Ono art exhibit came to Toronto in 2001, me and some friends went to see it. I expected to look at some whackado art and have a couple of chuckles at how weird Yoko Ono was. Well, I was wrong. It was an eye opening and inspirational afternoon at the art gallery. I’d come across some sort of strangely displayed object on and not really know what I was looking at. But when I read the description of what it represented I was often struck how clever Yoko’s explanation of the meaning of the art was. Her work was original and often brilliant. But most of all her themes were beautiful – peace, love, tranquility, positivity. My mind was changed about Yoko Ono that day. I discovered she was possibly one of the greatest intellectuals in pop culture history.

But then I began to do a deep dive into Yoko Ono’s life, and I am still shocked how few people know anything about her interesting and often dramatic childhood, and how it shaped her art and her world view.

Yoko Ono spent her early childhood in New York and San Francisco before her family was called back to Japan in 1941 where she became a first hand witness to the tragedy and humanity of war.

Born in Tokyo in 1933, Yoko was born into a wealthy family. Her father was an international baker, and early in her childhood the family relocated to San Francisco. With most of her earliest memories being formed in America, the family returned to Tokyo, and once again moved to New York City while Yoko was a child. So Yoko had a unique experience in her early childhood of living in both Japan and the United States. She would experience both cultures, and create relationships with people in both countries. This would play an important role in what would come next.

In 1941, when Yoko was eight years old, her family was living in New York City when her father was suddenly summonsed back to Hanoi. Someone in the company must have known something was brewing because later that year Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and America and Japan were now part of the Second World War. The Ono family bunkered down in Tokyo as American bombs rained down on the city, and death and destruction was all around them. The once rich and privileged family did not fare well. Yoko’s father disappeared, and he was believed to have met his death in a Chinese POW camp. Eventually left starving and homeless, Yoko and her family carried their belongs through the countryside in a wheel barrow, begging for food and struggling for survival. Everywhere around her, young Yoko could see the horrors and the devastation of war.

But, while Japan’s propaganda machine was blaming the evil American’s for the destruction of Japan, Yoko still held on to the memories of her experiences in America from her childhood. She had a positive experience with people she left behind in America. She knew that Americans were no more evil as the people around her were. It wasn’t normal citizens who were evil. It was war, intolerance, greed and hate that created the death and desolation around her. A victim of war, Yoko Ono recognized the value and importance of peace.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s famous Montreal “bed in” in 1969. Its worth noting that until John met Yoko he hadn’t adopted any politics of peace. John was influenced by Yoko, and had the personality to spread the message in a way the public could better understand.

So when her family returned to New York in 1946, Yoko began to start her career as an Avant Garde artist, and brought her unique world view to her art, putting these messages of peace and brotherhood into her work. Meanwhile, she entered Sarah Lawrence College where she studied philosophy, literature and, yes, musical composition. Ironically, Yoko Ono had more musical education than any of the Beatles.

Often I hear people question “What did John Lennon see in Yoko Ono?” Do you know what I think he saw in her? He saw her brain. Like John Lennon, Yoko Ono is an intellectual and I believe that they challenged each other on a cerebral level. I can attest that a smart woman can be extremely sexy, and in Yoko John found an intellectual match.

But also remember that John Lennon wasn’t always the easiest guy to deal with. He was a terrible husband and father, a violent drunk, and could be snobbish, dismissive and cynical. I think there was something in Yoko’s messages of love and brotherhood that calmed that rage in John, at least somewhat. History showed he slipped at times (ie “the long weekend), but Lennon at least seemed to try to step up as a partner and a man.

Yoko Ono and John Lennon with son Sean. Although loved by music fans, John Lennon was a problematic person. However, he met his intellectual match in Yoko Ono who, seemingly, settled him through most of the 70’s.

But what can’t be ignored is the fact that John’s interest in peace and brotherhood started when he met Yoko Ono. When you look through his Beatles work, John didn’t seem to be at all focused on any of these concepts, and this more political side of him came through once Yoko Ono was in his life. I’m not saying that Yoko was the architect of these ideas, but she was obviously an influence. Look – we learn and we gain knowledge via the people we love. Through knowing Yoko on an intimate level, John Lennon adopted his own political message of peace, and together they were able to convey these ideas in an interesting manner that caught the attention of the world.

Yoko Ono performs with John Lennon and Chuck Berry on “The Mike Douglas Show” in 1972. Some mistakes were made.

But why is Yoko so weird? Well is she weird, or is she just awkward? Yoko Ono often reminds me of some of the professors I had in University who were so brilliant that they often had difficulty expressing themselves in a normal or conventional way, often making them seem socially inept despite their intellect. After looking at her art, I came to the conclusion that Yoko’s way of seeing the world is so unconventional that it often doesn’t make sense to a more conventional public. It often doesn’t translate well. But if you open your mind and your heart to it, you will be inspired and amazed by the message within. I wonder if Yoko Ono was so unconventional that the public refused to open their heart and mind to her.

I also think Yoko is an extreme introvert who was thrown into the limelight by becoming both life and creative partners with the ultimate extrovert. By creating with John Lennon, she was thrust onto the world stage, and I don’t think she often knew how to do anything else but be herself. But, when the public didn’t understand her, Yoko suffered a backlash. Society fears and hates what they don’t understand.

Now I’m not saying everything Yoko did was brilliant, but not everything anybody does is. She said some pretty stupid things during the famous “bed-ins” where she predicted she’d have been able to prevent the holocaust if she had had sex with Hitler, the public criticized her for losing her daughter in the 70’s, whom she was united with in the 1990’s, and I’m not sure what the hell she was doing when she started screaming like a dying chicken, thus wrecking a historic jam session between John Lennon and Chuck Berry, on “The Mike Douglas Show.” Mistakes were often made. But it’s not like John didn’t make a few mistakes along the way. Remember that whole “The Beatles are bigger than Jesus” remark?

Despite being the scapegoat for “Breaking up the Beatles” for decades, Yoko Ono only has one message for the public who misunderstands her – Peace!

But I think that John and Yoko played off one another very well in the 1970’s, influencing each other and creating some culturally important art and ideas together. Yoko had lived the horrors of war, and brought a message to peace to the table, and John was able to structure it in words and music and be the face and the mouth piece that could bring it to the world. Without one another the message of “Give Peace a Chance” would have been lost. It would have never happened.

And as for “breaking up the Beatles,” anyone who has been through a divorce knows it’s a lot more complicated than one thing. Bottom line – John Lennon outgrew Paul McCartney, and Paul McCartney had a different brand of pop music to write without John Lennon. They were no longer boys. They grew up. They evolved. They moved on to new ideas. Yoko Ono was just strange enough to hang that blame on.

But want to know the most beautiful truth about Yoko Ono? In 1980 Yoko Ono watched her husband take four bullets to the back, and then held him as he died in her arms. Now a grieving widow, she has spent the rest of her life listening to a barrage of jeers, laughter and intolerance by a fan base who blames her for breaking up the Beatles. Do you know how she’s dealt with it? With love. With kindness. With tolerance. She has never once bit back. She has never reacted in anger. She has never returned the intolerance or hatred to the public that she receives. She has never allowed the cynicism thrust towards her consumer her and eat her from the inside out. She has only one wish for the world and for the people who loved John Lennon and his music. Peace.

This week Yoko turns 90 years old. Lets send her the gift of love and a prayer for peace. Bless you Yoko Ono. You are not only the world’s most famous unknown artist, but you are one of the world’s most underappreciated souls.

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