Thursday, January 13, 2022

The Ballad of Paul and Yoko: Artfully Linked

Yoko Ono; Paul McCartney.


Yoko One, "Death of Samantha," Approximately Infinite Universe, 1973.

The Firemen, Strawberries, Ships, Oceans, Forest, 1993.

To think of Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney in the same sentence, let alone in the same artfully appreciative article, might strike some people as a surprising proposition, and yet as a narrative ballad they share much more in common that you might at first imagine. Not just the fact that they shared an intimate partnership with a famous musician and pop star but also the fact that they have often been collaterally damaged victims of an ongoing mythology about who they actually were and what they actually did. To some extent, this might just be the occupational hazard of any huge cultural icon, but it could also be a revealing indication of how much we all want to believe what we want to believe, despite what the facts and evidence may show us otherwise. Luckily for us however, Peter Jackson’s masterfully edited documentary called Get Back at least contributes somewhat to their rehabilitation at celebrities anonymous.

That historic 1969-1970 period of the Beatles’ legendary, short but intense eight-year-long lifespan as a working group, is intimately examined in Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1970 documentary Let It Be about the recording of the album of the same name and now more fully in Jackson’s seven-and-a-half-hour magnum opus, carefully crafted from sixty hours of Lindsay-Hogg’s footage. Both focus on the same remarkable moments in the band’s shared struggles to maintain some semblance of creative togetherness while in the midst of personal and professional turmoil. Both films respectfully explore a kind of living pop culture monument while it was shakily undergoing seismic shifts and creative convulsions, and both are strongly elegiac, but each for different reasons and by using different methods.   

While Lindsay-Hogg’s more compact and almost claustrophobically sad auto-elegy artifact was an act of prophetic forecasting, since the band had yet to officially disband and go their separate ways, Jackson’s somewhat loftier take on his subject has the advantage of containing a truly mythical and almost operatic aspect of unintended auto-nostalgia. Jackson’s is a uniquely retrospective artifact that injects considerably more humanity, joy, brotherly love and self-awareness into the stream of seemingly endless rehearsing, some of which amounted to actual musical composition on the spot.

To this day Lindsay-Hogg, who is reportedly very pleased with what Jackson did with his original footage, is still hoping that Apple Corps makes good on a promise they made to him some forty years ago to re-release in some form what for him is his frequently misunderstood original. The band’s estate, however, seems more comfortable with simply letting it be as it was, while the two remaining group members allow themselves the pleasure of experiencing Jackson’s evocation of a seminal moment in their band’s very existence, a period almost as important historically in its own way as their first appearance performing on American television.

That 1964 Ed Sullivan Show footage said, “Let me introduce to you,” whereas Jackson’s Get Back (the intended title of the album they were trying to make) seems to say, “They’re still guaranteed to raise a smile.” Lindsay-Hogg is thrilled that someone of Jackson’s stature re-cut and fashioned a new version of landmark material that he didn’t have to heart to re-approach. As he commented to Variety Magazine last year: “When I finished filming it at the end of January 1969, the Beatles had not broken up. I now recognize that my cut is a very accurate, enjoyable cinema vérité of what it was like to work with the Beatles for a month in 1969.”

Let It Be was still, however, an incredibly mournful and painful document, some of which even utilized a reality TV-style capture of conversations they didn’t even know were being recorded. By contrast, Jackson’s is a happy go-lucky romp more in tune stylistically with Richard Lester’s still fresh and frenzied A Hard Day’s Night. Elsewhere in Variety, Roy Trakin observed, “Critics have been poking fun at Lindsay-Hogg’s supposed pomposity on camera, but it was like herding cats getting the Beatles to do stuff.” And this played out for Jackson in quite a different manner after the long and winding road had already arrived at its well-known destination, with Lindsay-Hogg, who has a legitimate claim to being the inventor of the music video, remarking, “That’s what Peter Jackson said to me. He had a pretty easy go with Paul and Ringo because they’re old guys now. I was very interested to see how Peter put Get Back together. It’s like mine was a short story and his was a full-length novel.”

This is perhaps the best characterization: the first film was like a miniature Chekhov tale while the new Jackson version is like a Tolstoy epic. In fact, Jackson has even accomplished something he may not have intended, a vital reassessment of Yoko’s active yet passive presence on the scene. It has been evened out and made less contentious in that respect, since Jackson also includes ample footage of other Beatle wives, pals, cronies, relatives and such wandering into and out of the frame. The first film was somewhat funereal while the new one is more like a home movie unfolding in a loose-limbed party atmosphere.

It just so happens that Jackson’s home movie is nearly eight hours long and excises most of the family bickering. So what remains is a rollicking party that we all want to attend, because this time we were all invited. Perhaps the best way to think about this saga is as a detective story, in the classical sense of both a who-done-it and a why-done-it. But instead of searching for a Maltese falcon, for instance, as in the conventional Dashiell Hammett story, we’re searching for the real people and deeds behind two larger-than-life living characters, more along the lines of an opaque Simenon mystery narrative.

Actual personalities, therefore, rather than merely myths about them, can quickly come to the foreground in order to re-focus our attention on what was actually done by each of these radically creative artists and also on what the impact of this new knowledge might have on the myths we all choose to cherish. So then, what if Ono was not the destructive interloper breaking up a perfect boys’ club, and what if McCartney was not the conservative commercial sell-out? What if Yoko was a high-profile conceptual artist whose serious art career came to a screeching halt upon entering her famous liaison, and what if Paul was actually a radically experimental musician comfortable in the contemporary art world who just also happened to be able to write perfect love songs? Just as in Simenon’s ethereal psychological mysteries, the reader already knows the crime that has been committed, and often even who did it, while the narrative elegantly unfolds multiple reasons or motivations behind familiar events, as well as their usually unforeseen outcomes. By the time of their supposedly controversial liaison, Lennon was an emotional casualty of excessive lysergic acid and junk, while Ono was already a pop art enigma with two ex-husbands, and Paul was just hitting his own brilliant stride.

This detective story begins with two innocent-enough-sounding questions: who or what was/is Yoko Ono, and who or what was/is Paul McCartney? Oddly enough, the words who and what apply in both cases, because in addition to being living people with families and biographical histories they are also both examples of phenomena: they are each almost a force of nature and certainly both are a force of pop culture. Now naturally there is no crime per se to be unearthed in this unique detective story featuring the odd couple of Paul and Yoko (unless, that is, you consider the dissolution of a great pop band to be a crime) but rather it’s the actual creative acts of the players involved, and especially their artfully lived lives, that need more exploring as an ongoing theme.

Along the way, we’ll also have to investigate the unique personal dynamics behind almost all great creative partnerships, that of significant otherness, which always operates at such a high level of achievement as theirs. The obviously fertile collaboration between Paul McCartney and John Lennon has already been adequately chronicled, although usually to the detriment of poor Paul and in the service of the facile Lennon legend. But further delving will reveal the often misunderstood leadership role Paul actually played as the truly radical experimenter and innovative artist in their duo: the fact that it was he, and his comfortable genius, and not the talented but insecure John who was the truly adventurous creative force behind their hugely successful band.

Less well-known is the history of Yoko Ono as a high-profile cultural figure prior to meeting John and his famous pop group. As a member of the influential international art movement known as Fluxus, she was already moving in heady circles and achieving historically momentous breakthroughs in the domain of visual art quite actively on her own. Her personal and professional biography from her birth in 1933 until her meeting with Lennon in 1966 therefore needs to be explored in enough depth to place them both more on an equal footing as cultural players on a global art stage. Meanwhile, McCartney’s much less well-known experimental music, which he often released using pseudonyms so as not to conflict with his popular persona, will also need to be explored in depth and given the attention it truly deserves. Because he was the real experimenter in John’s pop group, as counter-intuitive as that might seem.

This essay, therefore, not only examines a pair of profoundly innovative lifestyles but also unearths a vastly entertaining troika of intertwined relationships: the creative intimacy of McCartney and Lennon; the creative intimacy of Ono and Lennon; and perhaps most eye-opening, the creative intimacy of McCartney and Ono, the two artists who are often misunderstood but whose personal bond is the fact that they both shared an immensely powerful partnership with the same man. Perhaps strangely and surprisingly, it’s also almost the story of an overwhelming love triangle: two titanic figures who loved the same person, and a grandiose threesome for the ages whose social and cultural impact continues unabated to this day.

“When two great saints meet it is a humbling experience,” Paul McCartney has remarked sarcastically (in his liner notes to Lennon and Ono’s 1968 experimental album Two Virgins). A closer examination will explain what he meant by this statement, by revealing the true nature of his creative relationship with both Lennon and Ono. In her later solo song “Walking on Thin Ice,” Yoko Ono trilled, “I’m walking on thin ice, / Paying the price / For throwing the dice in the air. . .” By now we all know the price she paid as an artist for following her heart and attempting to radically merge her private life and her professional career into a mutual form of pop politics and public spectacle decades ahead of its time.

Ono and Lennon may actually have accidentally invented something even more truly remarkable, perhaps even an ironic early form of living social media, whose actions and gestures culminated in a dramatic self-critique of celebrity itself. Inadvertently they also invented reality television, at least four decades before it existed, which is why we so easily misunderstood what their infamous “Bed-In” performance art piece really meant. In their innocent brand of near-solipsism and a kind of living theatre, and as embodied in their daily lives years before the Internet age, they also unintentionally showed us all that, in the words of John Updike, celebrity is a mask that eats into the face. This essay attempts to gently remove both of their masks, if only a little bit. Few contemporary artists ever become almost household names recognized by average people around the world, perhaps because so few artists become as familiar as the brand names encountered in our supermarkets.

But what was the Yoko/John brand? What was it selling to us all? Her husband claimed their product was peace. We begin with an examination of the origins and roots of this Japanese-American multi-media artist, singer, songwriter, musician, video-performer, filmmaker and peace activist in postwar Japan. Hers was a challenging childhood, to say the least, even though she came from a well-to-do Japanese financial family empire. Her problematic family life was a chronicle of trauma, as was her early ability to assert a strong will and to develop powerful ambitions for independence, non-traditional thinking and radical lifestyles. Growing up in the difficult urban disruption of postwar Tokyo, where she studied at Gakushuin University and early on began to dream of western cultural artistic advances, she emigrated with her family to New York in 1953, where she attended the innovative cultural programs of Sarah Lawrence College and quickly became immersed in New York’s avant-garde downtown art scene.

Ono’s most crucial alliances and influences were within the unique modernist art movement known as the Fluxus Group, an experimental society of radical mixed media artists, dancers, writers and musicians originally founded by George Maciunas (having been inspired by Yoko’s conceptual approach to immaterial art) and featuring among its unusual members hugely influential figures such as John Cage, La Monte Young, Merce Cunningham, Nam June Paik, Dick Higgins and George Brecht, among others. Ono’s Chambers Street loft in Tribeca was used as a performance and exhibition space by this innovative group decades before the concept of loft culture even existed. In 1956 she had left college and eloped with the avant-garde Japanese composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, the first of her three high-profile husbands in the cultural world, to whom she was married until 1962. That year was also notable as the commencement of the world domination of Paul McCartney’s little pop group merging British skiffle, Yankee rock and roll and a new kind of pop music only they could hear.

We are still overdue for a salient exploration of the parallels between the formal art world and popular music world, including approaching the tantalizing concept of something we simply have to call avant-pop: embodied meaning. The same year Ono divorced Toshi, she married Anthony Cox, an American musician and art promoter who would champion her work and begin to make her quite a well-known presence in the counter-culture’s ongoing activities. This is the very fertile period of growth in her work, containing a burgeoning burst of creative conduct, including some of her most compelling art works, performances, music, videos, and especially her quirky 1964 book called Grapefruit. That little handmade limited-edition book was printed in only five hundred copies until Simon and Schuster released a commercial edition in 1970, once she was already famous, or infamous, and her husband’s pop group were history.

Grapefruit had been the ideal poetic embodiment of Fluxus, which was also very active throughout Europe, including and especially London, as a launching pad for its neo-Dada-inspired events, quirky exhibitions, challenging concerts and mysterious installations. In 1966, Ono visited London to meet the artist and activist Gustav Metzger and participate in his famous Destruction in Art Symposium, the only female artist chosen to perform in her own events and only one of two women invited to speak there. Her legendary meeting with John Lennon took place at the tiny but important Indica Art Gallery, an interdisciplinary contemporary art space partially funded by Beatle and modern art lover Paul McCartney, on November 9th of 1966.

Paul with Barry Miles meeting avant-garde Italian composer Luciano Berio in 1966. (Gilly Blog)

McCartney has stated that he first met Ono earlier on in 1965 when she was in London compiling musical manuscripts for a John Cage book called Notations, at which point he declined to donate one of his manuscripts but suggested that perhaps Lennon might be interested in doing so. He was, and he did (donating the song sheets for “The Word” from Rubber Soul) and he was also instantly captivated by the charismatic Yoko. They began corresponding and in 1967 he sponsored her solo show at London’s Lissom Gallery, thus beginning his unusual combination of love affair and professional collaboration with the experimental artist. One can easily compare and contrast the public reception of Ono’s aggressively unconventional art and voice with that of the sonic Beatle experiments commenced predominantly by McCartney and featured prominently on the albums Revolver, Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour.

While Paul and his pals were busy revolutionizing pop music, by this stage Ono had already been busy revolutionizing the traditional exhibition space and had long since innovated the self-curated artist managed phenomenon of exhibiting one’s art in her own studio space without the representation of any commercial gallery, a creative strategy she pretty well invented. In other words, by 1961, just as the Beatles were getting started in the Cavern Club, she had already imagined what today we call the artist-run centre, a dealerless space contrived within her own studio working arena, and an aesthetic phenomenon which has since become a commonplace terrain for experimentation outside the art market’s restricting confines.

It’s one thing, after all, to talk about erasing all artistic boundaries conceptually, as she commenced doing as early as 1961 with her Fluxus happenings and installations; it’s quite another to actually try and do it, and even to succeed in doing it, whether this was noticed or not at the time, and that is what made Ono more dangerous and radical than some even more extremist artists. After all, what can one consider placing a green apple on a pedestal as a self-curated artist and letting it slowly rot for the duration of the exhibition if not a subtle invitation to shift your definition of what both art and theatre supposedly are and do? Thus, Yoko literally invented the self-curated artist site concept in her New York loft series. No one even knew what a loft was before then. Her first self-curated event, it was attended by luminaries such as Marcel Duchamp, John Cage and Peggy Guggenheim, sitting in the front row. So what does this history mean to other independent artist-curators? Simple: she created the whole artist self-curated context for what they are currently doing now, 60 strange years later.

Ceiling Painting, Yoko Ono, 1966. (Photo: Blaine Campbell)

Mend Piece, Yoko Ono, 1966. (Photo: Blaine Campbell)

It often surprises me that contemporary artist-curators, especially the kind who engage in time-based live performance art activities, remain somewhat unaware that she was the first to actually do this, but alas, her radical creations were obviously overshadowed by her later celebrity. Ono then turned conceptual art into an even more radical form of actual activism. However, therein lies the obvious challenge and inherent danger of her decision to try and merge the high art world with that of popular culture via those media events such as her 1969 “Bed-In” during the height of the Vietnam War, which the average member of the public had absolutely no way of understanding was a radical form of performance art. Indeed, even many members of the professional art world mistook it for a news conference or publicity stunt, when in actuality it was a visionary live-action durational installation theatre with living participants.

In fact, what she called “stylization” was the very crux of her lifelong experiment with curating live-action art in a durational mode, one often mistaken for mere celebrity. Few could ever compete with Yoko for the sheer vertigo of her embodying live Zen koans in apparently innocuous and casual everyday activities presented as art. Her every gesture and expression is inherently essayistic and aphoristic at its aesthetic heart, clarifying my sense that her performative works are actually discursive essays disguised as aesthetic emblems. This salient fact has eluded not only the well-known curators and critics of her time, but even the theorists of our time, those who are currently actively engaged in the exploration of live curation as a historical project. Ono’s place in the live art domain of her time was challenging, not necessarily because it was impossible to understand, but more so because it transpired in the domain of our present time. Thus, everything changes if one looks at her from the correct perspective, not just as a unique performance artist, but as an actual time ghost: a displaced zeitgeist, a migrant from the future.

Meanwhile Paul, who had introduced the experimental aspects of the contemporary art world to his dazed songwriting partner John through McCartney’s friends Robert Fraser and Barry Miles, curators of Indica Gallery, which Paul was then sponsoring, was also accidentally changing history by literally making the pop and art twains meet. At the same time, he then moved on to invent his most extravagant sonic experiment to date. After innocently setting the wheels in motion by introducing the two volatile art and pop figures John and Yoko into each other’s domains, McCartney would, of course, quickly learn that their shared liaison might hasten the dissolution of his creative partnership with his old friend, and indeed hasten the fracture of the already shaky band itself.

This was due not necessarily to Ono’s new pivotal role in Lennon’s life (though that was a considerable one) but also due to the meltdown of his personality as a result of his conspicuous consumption of lysergic acid. This dizzying dynamic was also fatefully informed by a need to be considered the truly radical and revolutionary figure in the band and in popular culture in general, a role that was more authentically occupied by the far more confident and self-assured cultural persona, McCartney himself. Thus while her second husband Tony Cox was managing her art-world publicity and mostly raising their daughter Kyoko on his own, Ono continued her ascent in the avant-garde art community, demonstrating her flair for dramatic gestures, such as appearing at Carnegie Hall, where members of the audience clipped away portions of her dress with scissors, or lying across the piano during one concert performance by John Cage.

The Beatles each went off in different solo directions, while Yoko and John incorporated. The uniquely hybrid mixture of politics, pop, avant-garde performance demonstrated in the couple’s performance pieces, bed-ins, media pronouncements and edgy events, which combined advocacy with dematerialized art works, are now the stuff of legend. As are their challenging experimental records together, Life With The Lions, The Wedding Album and Unfinished Music #1: Two Virgins, about which no consensus has ever been reached and may never be. Ono’s influence on Lennon and her inspiring him to create more personal and autobiographical works (such as “Ballad of John and Yoko”) is a virtual testimonial to the living movie they acted in together, playing themselves.

Each of The Beatles produced and released a solo record almost instantly upon embarking on personal careers, each with varying degrees of success. Our predominant interest is in the beginning of Yoko Ono’s career as a singer-songwriter at the same time, as well as her unconventional style and the records that resulted: Plastic Ono Band (1970), Fly (1971) and Approximately Infinite Universe (1973). These three albums are largely her masterpieces and are paralleled by McCartney’s own solo releases (prior to the formation of his second band career with Wings): McCartney I, (1970), Ram (1972) and Thrillington (made concurrently with Ram but not released until 1977, under a pseudonym that was not revealed to be Paul’s until 1998). Meanwhile he returned in the mid to late 70’s to making perfectly composed and ideally crafted but conventional pop music with his second pop band, experiencing almost as much commercial success as he had with his first.

But McCartney was really only getting started, or getting his third wind perhaps. Specifically, the experimental record called Thrillington, in which he invented an alter ego called Percy and attempted to release an exotic all-lounge orchestra instrumental version of Ram, was a telling indication that he had a secret side, a side he referred to as “the other me.” His second major solo record, called McCartney II, a double album of low-tech experimental rock music on which he played all the instruments and produced in a raw analog Jack White kind of style, was released in truncated form in 1980. Only available on bootlegs for over a decade, it showed something of that flip side of his creative sensibility and demonstrated a personal fondness for anti-pop styles and techniques. He finally managed to get back, all the way.

The events surrounding Lennon’s tragic death in December 1980 were equally traumatic from the differing impact perspectives on the two most important and pivotal figures in his life, his musical partner McCartney and his life partner Ono. Following the murder, Ono went into a period of complete seclusion, emerging only to more or less manage the legacy of her late husband. She funded the construction and maintenance of the Strawberry Fields Memorial in Central Park, directly across the street from the Dakota Apartments where they had lived together. She created a worldwide broadcast of “Imagine” in fifty countries and over a thousand radio stations and worked on founding the John Lennon Museum in Saitama Japan. Eventually, however, she would return to her art-making practice and indeed later garnered even more attention for her major aesthetic contributions to alternative art in the 20th century.

Throughout the 80’s McCartney often appeared to be searching for other creative partners with whom he could collaborate in the process of making music in a variety of styles, among them Michael Jackson and Elvis Costello. While frequently noteworthy and popular, mostly as a result of his own long-lasting vitality, needless to say he was never quite able to unearth a counterpart capable of even remotely approaching the strange magic he had achieved with Lennon. But after a prolonged period of producing pop music in his signature softer style, McCartney returned to more experimental sounds featuring his “other me” in 1993, with the secret release of a record by The Fireman called Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest, an astonishingly sudden instrumental departure into the world of rave, trance, dub, club and neuro-feedback which, of course, no one realized was actually by Paul McCartney in collaboration with a talented young remix-master named Martin Grove, a.k.a. Youth.

Strawberries, Oceans, Ships, Forest, 1993. (Parlophone/Capitol)   

Rushes, 1998 (Hydra).

Meanwhile, Yoko continued moving forward on her own terms, slowly undergoing a kind of retroactive rehabilitation of her image as an artist in her own right. John Lennon once described her as “the world’s most famous unknown artist, everybody knows her name but nobody knows what she does.” What the average person is also unaware of is that her personal and professional circle includes some of the most influential artists, curators and critics in the edgy world of contemporary art, and that she was also the first artist to utilize the Sony handheld video camera.  In 1989 the Whitney Museum finally held a retrospective of her work, Yoko Ono: Objects, Films. Then in 2001 Yes: Yoko Ono, a 40-year retrospective of all of her artwork in all media, received the International Association of Art Critics Award for the best museum show originating in New York. This exhibition traveled to thirteen museums across the world, and was followed by a wide-ranging series of new solo shows which began to draw attention back to her visual art contributions after the interruption in her career provoked by her liaison with Lennon and their joint pop-music-activist-art ventures together.

My contention is that a radical re-assessment is needed of Yoko and Paul’s respective roles as forces for experimental cultural change over the course of the last 60 years. In 2016 Ono released an album called Yes I’m A Witch Too, and McCartney released an album called One On One. Having released a third sonic solo, McCartney III, Paul is currently on a world concert tour, while Yoko is making more feminist art and is engaged in her customary cultural activism. Both of these titanic figures have largely transcended their own myths and appear poised to continue doing more of the same, which is to say, something completely different. Paraphrasing Jerry Garcia, and evoking an ongoing “Ballad of Paul and Yoko” vibe behind the scenes: what a long strange trip it’s been.

(A more in-depth exploration of her importance as a contemporary visual artist and experimental musician and of Paul’s quiet role as a secretly avant-garde composer will be arriving soon in my forthcoming biography, Yoko Ono: An Artful Life, to be published in the spring of 2022 by Sutherland House Books.)

 Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the recent book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, as well as the biographies Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings2018, and Tumult!: The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner2020. His latest work in progress is a new book on the life and art of the enigmatic Yoko Ono, due out in early 2022.


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