by Celia Almeida
The legacies of artists in public consciousness are often defined by a tragically limited period of time. While the artists themselves don’t usually feel this way about their own art, many of us treat our favorite musicians and artists as if they peaked in their twenties (perhaps their early thirties if they’re lucky.)
Read any interview with the rock n’ roll gods of yesteryear and you’ll find that Paul McCartney will always be asked about “Yesterday,” no matter what project he’s promoting, and Robert Plant will probably be answering to Led Zeppelin reunion rumors until the day he takes his last breath. Some, like the former, accept and bear this cross graciously and patiently while others, like the latter, are rightfully irked at seeing the art they’ve made later in life – art that they often feel much more passionate about – treated as a postscript or footnote in the narrative of their careers.
Yoko Ono has never been one to let the public’s perceptions of who she is define what she does or how she presents herself to the world. She has lived multiple lives in one body: mother, wife, feminist hero,
visual artist, performance artist, fashion icon, and the iconic Rock Star’s Girlfriend.
Ono is some kind of avatar. Depending on whom you’re speaking to, her name evokes different images and reactions.
In popular culture, Ono’s become known as “the woman who broke up the Beatles.” A title that was borne out of jealousy, sexism, xenophobia, and flat out laziness has come to define, for many in the general population, who Yoko Ono is.
The mythology persists for much of the general public, but if you ask the artists of the world who Yoko Ono is, you’ll find multiple generations of visual, musical, and technological innovators who have been influenced by the art she was making before she even met John Lennon at Indica Gallery in 1966.
I sometimes wonder whether Yoko Ono worries about her legacy. From reading interviews with her it is clear that she is well aware of the general public’s negative perception of her and has been since the moment she and John Lennon were first attacked in the media for their relationship. But does she ever wonder what her epitaph will read? After all the years of work and art and inspiration, does she worry she’ll be reduced to the caricature she’s been painted as for decades?
Today is Yoko Ono’s 80th birthday, and judging from the amount of projects she’s got on her plate at the moment, she’s either working overtime to avoid that fate or she’s too busy to think about it.
Since she turned 79, Yoko Ono has put out a men’s wear line based on quirky designs she sketched for John Lennon as a wedding present in 1969, released an album with Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, and continued to work on her “Smiles Film” project, a film collection of smiles from people all over the world that she dreamed up in the Sixties but became a reality in the connected age of the Internet.
She’s also active on Instagram and Twitter, a platform that she sees as yet another artistic medium that she uses to plant seeds of thought like the following: “Imagine a dolphin dancing in the sky. Let it dance with joy. Think of yourself at the bottom of the ocean watching.”
She continues to regularly showcase her work in galleries all over the world and occasionally gets musicians together to revive the Plastic Ono Band. Recent one-night-only members include Peaches, Michael Stipe, Rufus Wainwright, Lady Gaga, and Nels Cline of Wilco.
The truth is that even if Ono lives to create art until she’s 100, the legacies of the Beatles and John Lennon make it so that she will probably be remembered most for the role she played in their stories. That’s not necessarily a tragedy in itself, but there are certainly tragic elements to those stories.
Yoko Ono is probably the world’s most famous widow. This does not only speak to the level of fame John Lennon achieved in his lifetime, but also the extent to which John and Yoko were proof of soulmates for
many of us.
Last October I was going through a Yoko obsession phase. I decided I wanted to dress up as her for Halloween but was having trouble finding the element to my costume that would make it distinctly Yoko, as opposed to any woman in a floppy hat and miniskirt. I surveyed my friends for input and they all gave me the same feedback: “You need a John.”
My inner Yoko fan (as well as my inner feminist) was slightly put off at first by the idea that such an incredibly prolific artist would always be defined by the man she married, even if that man was John
Lennon. After some thought, though, I decided it beautifully illustrated that John and Yoko were truly one; in their minds as well as ours.
Still, as I reflect on what Ono has given the world in her 80 years on it, I can’t help but feel that we haven’t shown her enough gratitude back.
Her flaws have been well documented, but the art that she’s created as well as her role in the art that she’s influenced (including Lennon’s) deserve more of our focus and respect. At the very least, those who consider themselves true fans of Lennon should see Ono as a collaborator in the songs and messages that he is so lovingly remembered for.
We owe her even more than that. We owe her recognition as a complex human being and a fearless artist in her own right, whose message, no matter the medium, has always been one of peace.
If Yoko ever does stop to think about what the world has given back to her after all these years, I hope she’ll find that we got the message. I hope we’ll finally give her back some peace.
Celia Almeida is a proud Gainesville music supporter and regular at local shows. A graduate of the University of Florida in English, she is a mainstay music writer for Miami New Times, a former contributor to The Rock Blog on Rock104.com and is the clichéd music writer in that she herself says she has no musical talent. She has decided to focus her obsessive personality productively by writing about music and those who create it. She once briefly sang with Lady Gaga. Her “Morningbell’s #1 Fan” T-Shirt is one of her most prized possessions. She is “Just a Fan.” Check out her music blog at http://radioroadmusic.tumblr.com/.
Featured photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono is used by permission of common use laws by Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Rijksfotoarchief: Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Fotopersbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989 – negatiefstroken zwart/wit, nummer toegang 2.24.01.05, bestanddeelnummer 922-2301