Day 251: Yoko, Pre-John

originally published September 7, 2012

Yoko Ono has been called many things: an artist, a philanthropist, the anti-Beatle, and several terms I don’t care to use in mixed company, unless I’m dealing with traffic. I never bought into the Dragon-Lady angle. It’s a cop-out to say that she broke up the Beatles, when clearly the reasons behind their demise were far more layered and complex.

I will say this. Yoko is a terrible singer. I know, I know… “art”. But forget it, her singing voice is simply not aesthetically pleasing to my ears. We used to flip John Lennon 45’s over and play the Yoko songs on 33 1/3 RPM so that she sounded more demonic and less… shrieky.

Rather than pen a thousand-word diatribe about why John should not have insisted on including her in his musical exploits, I’m going to take a more positive approach and try to learn about the lady. She is notoriously generous, caretaker of my favorite corner of Central Park, and hosts one of the most fantastical Twitter feeds you’ll ever read.

And she had a life before she met John Lennon.

This is Yasuda Zenjiro, Yoko’s great-grandfather. He founded the Yasuda zaibatsu, which was one of the four major banks of Imperial-era Japan. Actually, it was the largest. It might still be a powerhouse today, but World War II happened, and the bank was dissolved when that turned sour. When John Lennon saw a picture of Yasuda Zenjiro, he allegedly said, “That’s me in a former life.” Yoko replied, “Don’t say that, he was assassinated.” Well, that’s foreshadowing.

While John was born in the midst of the German campaign to bomb England into oblivion, Yoko’s life began in 1933, so she was very much cognizant of the war. She was in Tokyo during the single most destructive bombing raid in history, when the US firebombed the city with a vengeance. She was twelve years old and hiding out with her family in a bunker in the Azabu district, fortunately not in anyone’s crosshairs.

Yoko’s dad, while working in Saigon, was captured and placed in a prisoner-of-war camp. Her family went from snooty hobnobbery to pulling their belongings around in a wheelbarrow while begging for food. After the war, things returned to normal, and the Ono family worked their way back into society.

She then attended the Gakushuin, a school whose purpose was to educate children of the aristocracy. Other notable alumni include Emperor Hirohito, Emperor Ahikito, Yuko Mishima (a poet), and a long list of people I’ve never heard of.

Her first husband was Toshi Ichiyangi, a respected Japanese composer of avant-garde music. One of his pieces, something called “Distance”, required the performers to play from a distance of three meters away from their instruments. Hopefully they were given stuff they could throw at their instruments, otherwise Toshi just invented air guitar.

Also, a station named after Toshi stocks some great power converters. Anyone? A little Tatooine humor? No? Okay, forget it.

Yoko enrolled in Sarah Lawrence College. Other famous alumni include Barbara Walters, J.J. Abrams, Tea Leoni, Brian De Palma, Leslie Gore, Win Butler, and Carrie Fisher, who dropped out to film Star Wars. That’s two Star Wars references in consecutive paragraphs. I’m either getting lazy or lucky.

Next, Yoko married this man:

Okay, not really. But her second husband’s name was Tony Cox, and that’s also the name of the actor pictured above. What a couple they would have made, though.

Tony and Yoko had a baby girl, Kyoko. The marriage was in a constant state of collapse, but they had a business partnership, and kept at it for the sake of their careers. Tony was a filmmaker, and he handled publicity for Yoko’s unique brand of weirdness, which – though I’ll probably never ‘get it’ – helped to establish her as an important cog in the avant-garde arts machine of the 1960s.

It should be noted that, while Yoko was awarded full custody of Kyoko, Cox disappeared with the girl in 1971. I’m not talking about a weekend trip to Disneyland – Cox went deep into hiding. He wound up joining the Church of the Living Word and living on a commune near Chicago. So yeah, we’re talking crazy-ass cult hiding. Yoko wouldn’t see her daughter again until 1994.

One of Yoko’s works was called “Painting To Be Stepped On”, which was a painting to be stepped on (I believe this piece of art symbolizes paintings to be stepped on, but I’m not certain). She laid a scrap of canvas on the floor, and the artwork was completed by the footprints that accrued upon it. Art doesn’t need to be placed in a frame on a wall, Yoko was saying. It can be stepped on.

Of course “Cut Piece” is one of her best-known works. For this piece of performance art, Yoko would sit at the front of the room while viewers were invited to walk up and cut a piece of her clothing off until she was naked. Are you moved yet?

I feel I have to repeat this caveat whenever I write about performance, abstract, or esoteric art. I wear my philistine badge proudly; if art is not entertaining or aesthetically interesting on some level, then it comes across (to me) as art for art’s sake. Stepping on a canvas may make a statement, but I hope even Yoko has enough of a sense of humor to realize the inherent goofiness in this stuff.

This is Yoko’s book, published in 1964. It contains numerous instructions which, if you’re a fan of her current work on Twitter, will sound very characteristically Yoko-ish. Here are a couple examples:

“Imagine the clouds dropping.

Dig a hole in your garden to

put them in.”


“Hide until everybody goes home.

Hide until everybody forgets you.

Hide until everybody dies.”

This wasn’t a best-seller in 1964, but the 1971 reprint moved like crazy. The drugs back then were really… okay, I’m getting judge-y again. Sorry.

She also made experimental films like this one. Entitled No. 4 but commonly called “Bottoms”, the film consists of extreme close-ups of ass-cheeks, while their owner walks upon a treadmill. The soundtrack features interviews with those being filmed. Again, there is no doubt a deeper meaning here, but I’m too obtuse to determine exactly what it is. Asses are bitchin’, maybe? Nope, too gauche. I give up.

Some may argue I wasn’t entirely fair with my subject today. In truth, I was just hoping to be honest. Yoko has been a political activist, a proponent of peace, and she inspired some damn fine work from her third husband, the late great Johnny Lennon. I wish her no ill-will, and hope she lives out a long, fruitful life. Heck, I even named one of my bulldogs after her.

Just please, no more singing.

Categories: art

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