In the late 1980s Yoko Ono mounted the first gallery exhibition of John Lennon’s art on Maui. She would come back to Maui for more exhibits. and each time we would meet and talk. As a huge Beatle and John fan this was a great treat. Our paths had first crossed, unbeknownst to us, back in the late 1960s during anti-censorship demonstration in London. While I was marching along John and Yoko popped out of a building and led it. We also discovered we shared a love for ancient Egypt and particularly the temple of Abydos. Anyway, here’s a little remembrance of John coming up to his 75th birthday, taken from interviews I conducted with Yoko.
In a biography about John, it was reported that the famous musician was somewhat unsure about his vocal ability. Yoko confirms he didn’t like his voice. During recording sessions he would request his voice be mixed down.
“While he was going to the washroom,” said Yoko, “I’d push it up a bit. I had to finally confront him. I said John, all you’ve got is your voice, that’s the only commercial thing we’ve got for our album. John has a clear powerful voice that really cut through everything.
Rock ‘n roll is often associated with simple arrangements and lyrics, and John sometimes felt frustrated by its restrictive boundaries. “There was a point in his life where he started to feel that he could no longer express himself in the limits of rhyming,” she explained. “I said, express yourself as a stream of consciousness and he said, ‘it won’t go with the music.’ So I said, may be the music should follow that and it becomes extremely avant-garde, and that would be going into a new dimension. He said, ‘maybe, that would be interesting’.”
“When he said maybe, it wasn’t because he was a rocker who didn’t know the value of that dimension. When we were going to go on a tour after ‘Double Fantasy,’ he said, let’s do your freak stuff, let’s not do any pop stuff. It would’ve been a very unsuccessful tour,” she added laughing.
Constantly seeking to expand the boundaries of their art, John and Yoko were sometimes viewed as controversial artists who would clash with prevailing social mores.
After sponsoring Yoko’s “Half-Wind Show” in London, John mounted his first art exhibit titled “You Are Here.” The 1968 show included a collection of charity collecting boxes he had designed, a round white canvas and a helium machine that blew up white balloons.
“He was a good artist and I felt it was very important that he have a show,” said Yoko. “He said that it is a dream of all artists to have a one-man show. I said why don’t you have one? He said, ‘Well, I’m a Beatle, I can’t do it.’ In a way he was right. He did his first art show in the Robert Fraser Gallery. There was a strange atmosphere. The people enjoyed it but the critics ignored it.”
Two years later John mounted a “Bag One” art show of lithographs as a wedding gift to his wife. After 7000 people poured through the London art gallery, Scotland Yard marched in and seized eight lithographs of John and Yoko making love, declaring them obscene.
“We were shocked by the charge, very shocked because it was the swinging ‘60s, this was the middle of the ‘60s, revolution and all that.”
Then there was the famous Two Virgins record cover, where John and Yoko posed naked. It marked the ultimate exposure for an artist, a brave symbolic gesture. They had no idea it would create such a reaction.
“It was just a natural process,” Yoko explained. “Here we are, were going to be naked to the world. In the artistic community a nude model is nothing, so to consider that obscene was obscene to us. It was very strange that people took it so differently. We didn’t want just the right light and angle and make it like a Playboy bunny. We wanted to say here we are – I’m sorry everything is hanging.”
Before the Beatles formed and indelibly change the course of popular music, John studied art at Liverpool Art College. He had excelled at caricatures and enjoyed making quick sketches.
“When I met him he was an artsy kind of person,” said Yoko. “All his books had beautiful drawings by him. Most people just thought it was a doodle by a pop star. Even after his passing when I was trying to put his work in a gallery show it was very difficult because most people had this preconception that he was just a pop star.”
Yoko loves the spare, simple style that John employed. “His touch, the drawings of different objects and people are done with minimum lines and they come out quite beautifully. It looks like a very simple thing to do but it’s not, it’s a very interesting technique.”
The peace campaign bed-ins, the “War is Over” billboards, the naked album cover, experimental recordings like “Two Virgins” and the “Wedding Album,” all rose from the new creative vortex of Lennon/Ono.
“We were doing something that we just felt like doing,” said Yoko explaining their early musical experiments. “We didn’t know we were going to get so much flack at the time, and we were surprised.”
“Both John and I had a very severe background,” she continued. “John was separated from his mother and father, and both of us were war children – that maybe had a lot to do with our daringness.”
When the “Beatles Anthology I” collection was released a highlight was a new recording featuring Paul, George and Ringo performing with John on Lennon’s song “Free As A Bird.”
“‘Free As A Bird’ is an incredibly beautiful message to go around the world,” she said at the time. “The world is getting a bit more violent and there’s an economic crisis, and people are getting depressed and a little frightened. Hopefully this song can give people some inspiration and encouragement, and awaken some love.”