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Yoko Ono at 90: Still Misunderstood After All These Years

She's always been accused of breaking up The Beatles, but this writer makes the case for giving Yoko Ono the benefit of the doubt

By Jon Friedman

Yoko Ono, who will turn 90 years old on February 18, remains possibly the most misunderstood woman of modern times. It's time to set the record straight.

For more than 50 years, Yoko has gotten a bum rap. It's as if she was sentenced to life imprisoned by the court of public opinion for a crime she didn't commit. She has the unfortunate legacy of Breaking Up the Beatles.

A black and white photo of Yoko Ono and John Lennon. Next Avenue
Yoko Ono and John Lennon in New York  |  Credit: PBS

It is ludicrous to believe that an outsider could exert such power and influence over John, Paul, George and Ringo. It seems laughable to believe this diminutive woman could snap her fingers and cause the greatest rock and roll band of all time, whose members had been the best of friends for many years, to disband.

It is ludicrous to believe that an outsider could exert such power and influence over John, Paul, George and Ringo.

The band died a slow death and started to break up when the guys stopped touring in 1966 — two full years before Yoko emerged. They gradually grew apart.

The August 1967 death of their manager, Brian Epstein, forced the Beatles to manage their business affairs for the first time, which put a strain on their unity and friendship. Prior to that, they only had to worry about making music and creating magic. Epstein took care of the rest.

Lennon's Power in The Beatles

Subsequent disagreements about who would succeed Epstein cut deep. And the pressures of running their new company, Apple Corps, proved insurmountable for four men who were great at making music but found themselves in over their heads at playing businessmen.

These factors dwarfed whatever influence Yoko supposedly had. Lennon, who had formed the Beatles as a teenager, broke up the band. He was the leader from day one and, as McCartney claimed, Lennon had the veto power. Whether they hired Epstein as the manager, fired Pete Best as the drummer or decided to stop touring, nothing got done without Lennon's approval. He had the loudest voice.

And so, Lennon decided to break up the Beatles because he was crazy in love with Yoko and wanted to spend all his time with her.

"I'm in love for the first time," Lennon sang on "Don't Let Me Down" in 1969. He meant it, too.

Really, his decision to leave the Beatles in September 1969 was no different than when your school chum leaves the local bowling league or the softball team because he'd rather spend time with his new love. Lennon just happened to be one of the most famous and admired people on the planet.

John's Muse

Yoko, you'll remember, burst onto the pop culture scene back in 1968, when she became Lennon's lover and muse.

She was born in Tokyo, the daughter of a banking executive. Her family moved to New York when she was 20 years old, and she attended Sarah Lawrence College. She gravitated to the Manhattan arts scene and met Lennon in London in 1966, on the eve of one of her one-woman art exhibits.

They married in March 1969. The Beatles officially split up in April 1970, when McCartney broke the news to the world in a press release, and conveniently timed his bombshell to the release date of his first solo album, "McCartney."

The four ex-Beatles continued to bask in the public's adulation. Meanwhile, Yoko has worn the black hat ever since.


Yoko has been known by her many incarnations: performance artist, musician, businesswoman, tycoon, feminist, gadfly, peacenik, performer. A testament to her impact on popular culture is that she is immediately recognizable by her first name only, like such feminist icons as Cher, Madonna and Kamala.

Yoko surely did influence John's art —and his happiness.

Yoko surely did influence John's art -- and his happiness. The evidence exists in his songs. When he was meditating in India with the other Beatles — not to mention his wife, Cynthia — in early 1968, Yoko was back in London, and John was in despair at being so far apart from her.

He wrote and sang about that time in his song, "I'm So Tired:"

"You know,

It's three weeks

I'm going insane!

You know,

I'd give you everything I've got

For a little piece of mind!

Lennon incorporated Yoko in his music in other ways, too. He insisted on having her sing the line in "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill," ("Just when he looked so fierce") which McCartney previously would have handled. "Ocean Child," Yoko's name in Japanese, gets mentioned in John's moving song "Julia," about his beloved mother who was killed in a hit-and-run auto accident when he was 17 years old.

The lyrics of John's heralded song, "Imagine," were directly influenced by Yoko's book, "Grapefruit." And Lennon named his 1970 solo album, "The Plastic Ono Band," in tribute to her.

Hard to Love Yoko

Admittedly, Yoko didn't make it easy for us to love her in the beginning. She never seemed to smile in public. Her face was hidden by her cascading black hair. "A sphinx without a secret," one writer sneered.

"I only ever asked two people to work with me as a partner. One was Paul McCartney and the other was Yoko Ono."

John, Paul and George were mystified by her. The Beatles, chauvinistic Northern Englishmen at heart, had discouraged girlfriends and wives from infiltrating their recording sessions at Abbey Road. Yet, Yoko sat by John's side all the while. In a  bizarre twist, John had a bed moved in to Abbey Road so Yoko, who was recovering from an automobile accident in the summer of 1969, could attend the sessions while she was recuperating.

She was John's partner in crime during those kooky bed-ins for peace in 1969. She and John climbed inside a bag and conducted wacky interviews. Most notoriously, the two posed naked on the cover of a 1968 album called "Two Virgins," consisting of strange electronic sounds and not featuring a solitary "goo goo ga joob."

Unwilling to believe that John had changed from his lighthearted persona in the Beatles movies, "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help!," the media happily blamed Yoko for his jarring transformation.

Remaining Dignified

Admirably, Yoko has maintained her dignity all these years and never lashed out at her detractors. The treatment of Yoko in London by the awful, sensationalist British tabloids got so ugly that John and Yoko decided to move to New York in 1971. That's where they spent the rest of their years.

The couple separated in 1973 for approximately 18 months, but got back together. John Lennon was assassinated by Mark David Chapman outside their home in the Dakota apartment building on December 8, 1980. He was 40 years old.

Yoko Ono continues to stay in the public eye and been involved in worthwhile causes. Her philanthropy has focused on many peace, arts and disaster relief efforts.

It's about time we gave her the benefit of the doubt. Take what John Lennon once said to heart:

"I only ever asked two people to work with me as a partner," he said, according to the Times of London. "One was Paul McCartney and the other was Yoko Ono."

Jon Friedman 
Jon Friedman, who teaches The Beatles: Their Music, Influence and Legacy at Stony Brook University, is the author of the Miniver Press ebook "Goo Goo Ga Joob: Why I Am the Walrus Is The Beatles’ Greatest Song."
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