When Paul McCartney rolls into town this weekend, the legendary statesman of rock gives old and new fans of The Beatles a chance to reflect on a member of one of the most seismic forces of pop culture of the 20th century. Yet there is another person who, over the years, and almost by default, has become the proverbial “fifth Beatle.” Vilified by most, glorified by some, Yoko Ono might forever be known as the person who “broke up The Beatles,” when in fact most Beatles bibliophilia points the guilty finger at Sir Paul. Regardless of who pulled the plug, like that crazy relative every family seems to have, the one that is unilaterally loved or loathed by the rest of kin, there is no in between with Yoko.
Why is Yoko the target of such animosity? To some degree, she was surely a victim of the place and the time. When she met John Lennon in 1966, the Western world was only two decades away from the aftershocks of WWII and knee-deep in the conflict in Viet Nam. Second-wave feminism was just beginning to rise. Would it be an overstatement to believe that there was an immediate suspicion, if not outright prejudice, towards an Asian woman (who was – gasp – a strong-minded artist in her own right) who would dare snag the Alpha Male of the Fab Four?
By the time John met Yoko (or vice versa) she had already established herself as a viable force on the NYC avant garde art scene, having collaborated with creative heavyweights like John Cage and La Monte Young and participated in a variety of visual and performance art activities. Art school dropout John was admittedly drawn to Yoko for her artistic output - he first met her at London’s Indica Gallery, which was exhibiting a show of her conceptual work. Over the next decade-plus, and up until John’s murder, the line between the pair’s romantic and creative partnership remained in a steady state of diffusion. Much to the dismay of close-minded Beatles fans, Yoko was John’s muse and equal.
There is no question that I am strongly on the Pro-Yoko camp. Two particular favorites are featured on Yoko’s 1971 solo album, Fly. The proto-No-Wave of Don't Worry Kyoko (Mummy's Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow) is a 4:52 minute assault that features Yoko wailing and chanting “Don’t worry/don’t worry” as bassist Klaus Voorman and drummer Ringo Starr hammer out a warpath groove. John chunks out a riff on rhythm guitar as Eric Clapton completely loses his shit on slide guitar. Mind Holes is all acoustic guitar and Yoko’s wordless cascading vocals drenched in reverb and echo, out-weirding even the then-current de rigueur psychedelia.
Since Yoko “stole John” in the mid-sixties, she has continued to work as a political activist, visual artist, author and musician. She’s also apparently a helluva business person. When John decided to be a stay at home dad in the seventies to raise their son, Sean, it was Yoko who singlehandedly reinforced their empire and fortune.
Maybe this is yet another reason the now-81-year-old Yoko continues to either polarize or galvanize people: she can’t be pinned down. We like our celebrities easily defined, cookie cutter personalities that rarely draw outside of the lines. Yoko has always been all over the place, but for every fifty people she has turned off, she has turned one on. And that includes me.