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“Someone To Perform With:” An Image of John and Yoko [Part I]

5 September 2006

People talking or writing about icons is fine—it’s the people who talk about icons at the expense of themselves and their loved ones that bug me. So, if I bring up the subject of JOHN LENNON and YOKO ONO here in this music magazine that was founded around the time that Lennon was murdered, it’s partially a way of talking about myself and others who feel a void that has not been filled by the more timid contemporary acts that are allowed to be more successful in most aspects of today’s music business. It’s not that this void can no longer be filled, or at least inhabited, by us; it’s that we still don’t have access to the means of cultural production that Lennon, through a lot of labor and some luck, was able to achieve. Sure, I try to honor the need for self-mythologizing, rather than the blander forms of self-promotion seen from most ‘good’ bands today, but I’m also aware that until I find a promoter who is more left-brained and better at getting people to actually hear the music, what I say about my music in The Big Takeover is likely to be met with yawns of criticism. With these thoughts in mind (and heart), I turn to the icon.

The myth of John and Yoko may not seem as romantic to people as, say, the myth of JOHNNY CASH and JUNE CARTER these days (or even JESSI COLTER and WAYLON JENNINGS), but what other great rock and roll love stories come close? SID VICIOUS and NANCY SPONGEN? KURT COBAIN and COURTNEY LOVE?? LOU REED and LAURIE ANDERSON , for better or worse, shy away from the spotlight. There seems to be a little more of this thing, again, for better or worse, in contemporary country music FAITH HILL and TIM MCGRAW or SHANIA TWAIN and ROBERT JOHN ”MUTT” LANGE, but the myths of June and Johnny or John and Yoko still seem to loom much larger than any of these.

It would take at least a book-length piece to do justice to every aspect of way the myth of John and Yoko circulates publicly and privately. Lennon once remarked that THE BEATLES were bigger than Jesus, and the people who subsequently burnt Beatles albums did so because somehow, somewhere, they knew he was right; he dramatically reminded them, and so they tried to purge their idol with fire—a fire they associated with Jesus, even though The Bible and DANTE usually associated fire with hell—perhaps they were fighting fire with fire, and some say this is necessary.

It wasn’t too long after this that ‘Satan’ rock rose from these ashes, and Lennon started looking more like most European portrayals of Jesus and identifying with him in “The Ballad of John and Yoko” (though he did not go as far as to sing “I’m just a jealous God”). But regardless of whether Lennon is still “bigger than Jesus” for those who understand the specialized separation between religion and entertainment, between worshipping and being a fan, would be alien in other cultures—say the ‘punk underground’ of the 1980s or Ancient Greece for that matter, I still think that if I were to go around with a microphone and ask adults from age 18-75 what they thought and felt about John Lennon, I would get at least as many different answers and almost as many responses, as if I had asked people to talk to me frankly about their ideas of God. It would be an interesting experiment and fascinating sociological bestseller; if someone wants to pay me for it, I could imagine worse jobs—but, in the meantime, it would take too much time away from working on my own songs, recordings, and such.

The icon can be a specific image, a picture that can hatch at least a thousand words, and the one I chose to focus on is as central a part to the myth of John and Yoko as any other one that might first come to your mind. If memory serves, the photo was taken by ANNIE LEIBOVITZ, in 1980 [Leibovitz actually took the photo on December 8, 1980, mere hours before Lennon would be gunned down in front of The Dakota, on 72nd Street and Central Park West in Manhattan. -ed.] around the time of their attempted ‘comeback’—after five years largely devoted to domestic duties including raising SEAN ONO LENNON, in part to not repeat the mistake of neglect they heaped upon John’s firstborn JULIAN LENNON (although the theory that Lennon and Ono also went into hiding in order to avoid further persecution by the U.S. Government may very well have a good deal of truth to it; it still doesn’t invalidate the other theory). In the photo a naked John is basically ‘treed’ in fetal position over a completely clothed Yoko. It’s not particularly shocking, or even daring, especially if one remembers the cover to Two Virgins in 1968 or the Toronto Bed-In, etc.

But shock-value isn’t the point as much as the idea of Double Fantasy (however antiseptic the accompanying album may be). A man who first got famous in America largely for his messages of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (and “Twist and Shout” even though it was a cover) and in England for the deeper, if not necessarily more authentic, cry of “Please, Please Me”) is now not expressing a desire so much as fantasy. Is John’s nakedness sheltering Yoko? Is John just being more of an exhibitionist than Yoko? It’s possible the fantasy is Yoko’s more than John’s, but more probable in 1980 that this fantasy is, in fact, double, coming from a place that is both of and not of John’s or Yoko’s.

In this sense the fantasy is embodied, the private is public, and there is peace in the universe, or at least an image of peace, and, ay, there’s the rub! For an image of peace, like any idol or icon, threatens the very peace it may be said to represent. Very shortly after this image appeared, Lennon was shot dead. Soon after, Apple Computers and Apple Records were sparring in court (Yoko and Sir PAUL MCCARTNEY are even able to put their axe down to unite against ‘the man!’). Yet, despite such cynicism and desperation one may have about the marketing of THE BEATLES, the fact remains that Lennon would be the first to admit he was a product of such marketing. And, in this he still represents the hope and dream of any would-be commodifier of self to be able to use the market as much as the market surely uses you, to work ‘within the system’ if not necessarily to subvert it from within (still not nearly as bad as the role Paul, like old possum T.S. ELIOT, sometimes plays: the smug cold apologist for the fairness of the system).

[Part II to follow]