by Irma Kurtz, NOVA Magazine, January 1969
John Lennon’s last statistic has been disclosed to us all by the more devil-may-care record shops on the sleeve of his Two Virgins, a curious cacophony he cooked up with Yoko Ono. There he stands, naked as a plucked chicken, the whole world’s Sunday dinner, with his arm firmly around Yoko’s bare shoulders and a what-the-hell look in his eyes. Before this final revelation, we had already known a great deal about the king-pin Beatle, enough to make him the most famous man in the world; a man familiar even in those strange climates where Nixon is an odd Yankee word and Enoch Powell might be a kind of British detergent. We have known what he eats (vegetables), what he loves (Yoko), what he used to smoke (hashish and marijuana), what he wears to bed (not much, really), what he drives to town (a white Rolls); and now we know more of what he sees in his mate; and we know hardly anything at all. The Beatle and his consort are making themselves the centre of a world as fragile, as milky and tough, as opaque as spun steel; unless we are policemen who come in by the window, we can enter only by invitation and even then only so far.
It did not exactly surprise me that John Lennon had teeth, but I was stupidly astonished that by this time his teeth had not become in some way perfect and beyond prosaic dentistry. When Yoko suggested on the telephone that we have our first meeting at the dentist’s office ‘where we are going because John has an appointment there,’ I was touched by her breeze-soft voice and by a certain caressing of the first person plural pronoun, the married pronoun, the established pronoun; it was an emphasis she gave that important little word which is noticeable only in the speech of young brides who are just getting used to a new conjugation and agreement. It was a surprising emphasis from someone who has been married twice and has had indeed hardly any chance ever to use the singular. John and Yoko carry journalists like puppies carry fleas, and his dental day was marked for brushing us all off. Having had the door to the waiting room firmly slammed in my face by a lady photographer from Look Magazine and some ardent young people from Dutch television who were interviewing Yoko, I waited in a small antechamber with two dental assistants, young girls who were being remarkably blasé about their famous patient. A small ripple passed over us when a third assistant came out of the surgery to announce that ‘John’s bridge fits perfectly,’ but it seemed to be more professional excitement than anything else. ‘What a miracle that bridge fits’ one white-coated girl said to me. ‘He’s always cancelling his appointments and teeth shift with time, you know.’
Equipped with this recherché bit of information, I was admitted at last to the waiting room where a very fragile, very tiny Yoko Ono sat, not altogether happy it seemed to me, under flood-lights, flashbulbs and questions from an intense young Dutchman who bore a striking resemblance to Dany the Red. Yoko smiled at me apologetically and her face blossomed under the dark hair; she has a smile of profound sweetness which transforms her wide, boyish features and makes them almost glamorous. Her little hands were making petal motions, dainty and somehow incomplete, as she foxed the Dutch radical with her delicate theories. ‘Money,’ she was saying, ‘is just a concept. You see, actually money is not money.’ The boy did not see at all; he moved the microphone of his tape recorder closer to Yoko’s mouth as if the mechanism could pick up something that was escaping him. ‘John can pay with a song. Materialism is just twenty per cent of existence.’ The percentage was produced triumphantly, as a hard fact, as a fact harder, say, than the price we have to pay for John’s records. With soft enthusiasm she talked about art, which belongs in the streets, about museums which should be turned inside out, and about communications which have something to do with the post offices of the world co-operating in a titanic endeavour to collect a picture of every human being alive, smiling. The microphone approached like an ice-lolly, the Look photographer, having stood in every possible corner of the room, now climbed on a table; and suddenly the door opened and all eyes, all machinery, all attention flew to John Lennon.
John Lennon is remarkable among celebrities.
Unlike George Harrison, whom I was to meet later and who looks like someone who looks like George Harrison, John Lennon is immediately, indubitably and definitely John Lennon. His eyes, clever eyes and slightly mocking, moved swiftly around the room and seemed to register secrets; he greeted us all in the Liverpool sing-song so attractive to foreigners like Yoko and me. John was natty in a black velvet suit and a rainbow shirt while Yoko was without vanity or jewellery in a big blue pullover and black trousers. Dedicated vegetarians, they both wore white tennis shoes instead of leather and when John sat next to Yoko on the sofa a distinct resemblance between them under their centre partings was obvious; they could have been two flowers on the same dark stem.
Yoko snuggled against John and kissed him several times, causing the Look photographer nearly to fall off the table and causing the rest of us that touch of chill one feels when lovers become publicly exclusive. As soon as John had entered the room, Yoko’s lacy self-confidence was replaced by a shy, maternal attitude, she seemed to defer to John who was talking rapidly, to beam upon him; and I realised, heaven help me, that this was going to be a love story.
Man to man at last, the young Provo-type asked about politics and John quoted from the Beatle’s record Revolution in which we are assured by one group who could have helped to do it, that they ‘don’t want to change the world.’ ‘The establishment doesn’t exist,’ John said. ‘All that exists are old people, and when young people get through and change it, they will be it. They will be the Establishment.’
‘Let me say about politics, John,’ Yoko said, and she could have been tugging at his sleeve, ‘because I have some opinions,’
‘Oh yeah?’ John said, drawing back to look at her and using the ineffable northern inflexion ‘You do?’
She didn’t; or at least not so I could tell, and the microphone trembled under her Oriental consonants, eager to get back to John. ‘I was going to say almost the same thing that John was saying,’ Yoko said, summing up; and the microphone left her.
There seems to be a pact between John and Yoko, probably instinctive and unspoken, that when the conversation is about art and the arts Yoko is set loose like a pretty moth; anything else, taxes, politics, police raids, is John’s province. They met, after all, about a year ago in a gallery, surrounded by her work, and that meeting has earned Yoko a measure of deference. About his topics, John is very worldly and very funny: taxes, he suggested, presented him with money problems that the rest of us could hardly even imagine; he quoted from the Beatle’s record The Taxman, and shook his head. ‘I’m not sure about taxes,’ he said, with a vagueness that is more Yoko’s characteristic than his own. He had been genuinely distressed by the police raid on his flat but he described it in terms that made the incident sound like the chase sequence from a silent film: ‘So all of a sudden like, there is this knock on the door and a woman’s voice outside and I look around and there is this policeman standing in the window wanting to be let in. We’d been in bed and our (he made a mock prudish face) lower regions were uncovered, like. Yoko ran into the bathroom to get dressed with her head poking out so they wouldn’t think she was hiding anything. And then I said: “Ring the lawyer, quick,” but she went and rang Apple, I’ll never know why. So then they got us for obstruction which was ridiculous because we only wanted to get our clothes on.’
‘We don’t want violence,’ Yoko said, and then looked worried as John began to talk again.
‘Well, I don’t know. When I was at school I might have hoped for complete destruction. You know, as a Happening. I might have gone on the loot.’ He was contrite and smiled at Yoko, ‘I just feel like disagreeing tonight,’ he said, ‘it must be the dentist.’ Ultimately and about most things philosophical John and Yoko and Yoko’s ancestors, members of some great Japanese families, are in perfect accord. ‘I believe in reincarnation,’ John said, and Yoko bowed her head a little, curling up tighter next to him. ‘I believe that I have been black, been a Jew, been a woman; but even as a woman, you can make it.’
‘Woman is the nigger of the world,’ Yoko said, and I had to wonder where that sweeping statement placed Negro women. ‘But as a woman you can make it, like John said. You can make it because you’re a woman.’
‘All we’ve got to solve is our own head’ said John, a typically staccato sequitur, peculiar to lovers in agreement. The Look photographer’s camera hissed and clicked.
‘That’s a nice sound, isn’t it, John?’ Yoko said, like a stockbroker’s young spouse learning to take a wifely interest in parities and mutual bonds.
Ask anyone in the village, absolutely anyone, where John Lennon lives and he will direct you to an expensive, exclusive housing estate just outside town. However once there among the rich and upper class, driving between their grand houses, the way becomes more complicated. ‘Certainly not,’ said the gentleman with a brace of bassets when I asked if he knew which was Lennon’s house. Predictably, it was a young milkman on his route who finally pointed out the grandest house of all as Lennon’s. Set on a hill, Lennon’s castle is protected by nothing more menacing than a sign, and it could be called significant, which says: ‘Children Playing.’ The Look photographer, back on the job two days after the dentist’s appointment, was not much happier to see me than I was to see her; it was apparently another flea-spraying day. While she put John through his paces, patient and professional as he was about it, Yoko stood in the shadowy hallway holding two wide-brimmed black hats. She smiled at me and held the headgear out.
‘I don’t know which is mine and which is his,’ she said. Then she wrapped herself in a black cape and hurried to join John in front of the lens.
The house rambles over a large plot of land; a jumble of tat, some of it expensive and most of it in whimsical taste, makes the rooms look like stalls in a fashionable bazaar. There are few rugs on the floor and little furniture, but this sparseness is probably because John wants to sell the house and find another one further from London; or perhaps it is because his ex-wife claimed her share of his worldly goods. A big, bare central room is called The Gallery and holds most of Yoko’s work. Yoko says that she is a conceptual artist, an artist of ideas, and some of her written work has a cherry-blossom charm that is enchanting; but by shoes and kettles neatly sliced in half, by magnifying glasses hanging from the ceiling, by the famous apple on its perspex plinth, it is difficult to be anything deeper than amused. Yet, because I think Yoko is sincere about her work, I tried to look at it all impartially, to recognise its wit, its naiveté, while I couldn’t help but deplore its facility.
‘I think that eighty per cent of our life is based upon our mind, not our body,’ she says with her great faith in the ability of percentages to lend weight, ‘so the imagination field is more important. By the time you are eighteen, your body is developed and your mind is left. It must be the mind because that’s all there is.’ What Yoko does and says has been done and said by some of the avant-garde since the Dadaists and is firmly moored in the spirit of New York at the end of the last decade. ‘This sphere will be a sharp point when it gets to the far corner of the room in your mind’ is written under a ball on another plinth; and if that phrase makes the beholder think a great thought it is probably only, and Yoko might agree, that his mind is square.
If Yoko has The Gallery, it is the man from Lancashire who has claimed the heart of the house: the warm kitchen and a tiny, cosy extension behind it with a wall of glass facing a splendid view. Given permission by a harassed secretary who was only too eager to see my back, I spread some sesame paste on wholemeal bread and flirted with John’s eight beautiful cats who warm themselves at the cooker between getting pregnant and, unlike the rest of their household, being carnivorous. Reluctantly, the Look photographer took leave of her subjects, for daylight had been only too eager to take leave of her; Yoko, John, and John’s little boy Julian who was visiting for the day joined me in the glassed-in sitting room. The mood was serene and homey; it was a mood that John and Yoko created easily, and obviously the one they like best in their world. ‘We’re looking forward to our retirement,’ John said, stretching his tennis shoes towards the fire. ‘Having created everything we want, we’ll just settle down on a farm maybe. I don’t know if we’ll actualiy farm,’ added the practical man from the North.
‘I’m still hung up on work; I can’t help working,’ Yoko said. ‘That’s beautiful, but,’ she added with one of those butterfly leaps so difficult to make coherent, ‘if I get over it, it will be better. All this hassle! Then we’ll just be together,’ said the romantic from the East. Then Yoko, who has a light-footed and nervous energy, began to fret over some eggs which the chauffeur was slow in bringing up from town, John skimmed the daily papers and Julian pretended to smoke a joss stick.
‘It is magic,’ Julian said, looking out at the late, navy-blue sky. ‘Is it white magic?’ he asked a little friend of his who had come along for the ride. ‘Is it black?’ Julian is a delicate child in looks and seems extraordinarily intelligent; he moves like his father with both fists jammed into his pockets and slightly pigeon-toed walk. When John got up to deliver Julian to the car that was to take him to London, Yoko gave me a nervous, uncertain look. ‘Oh no, John,’ she said, following him out, ‘I’m not going to be alone.’ It was certainly not the first time I had the impression that when John leaves the room, Yoko is only half there; distracted, her sentences become even more vague as her mind follows him to the car, to the telephone, through the labyrinth. When they sit together in their convoluted fashion, she touches John frequently as if to make sure he is there in more than simple view.
Daughter of a rich Japanese banker and the first of three children, Yoko was born in 1933 and half a world away from Liverpool. She is a cusp between Aquarius and Pisces and has an astrological temperament, she assured me, quite suitable for John’s Libra. Her education was peripatetic; it began with voice and piano in Japan which she exchanged for philosophy when she began to call herself a poet. She continued her schooling at Sarah Lawrence College in America; an expensive girl’s school where, if I remember correctly, psychoanalysis was practically a required course. She dropped out of Sarah Lawrence and joined the nascent world of Happenings in Greenwich Village with her first husband, a Japanese avant-garde composer. ‘Perhaps education is better now in America,’ she said, ‘the girls can live in the dormitory with their men.’
Back in Japan after the collapse of her marriage, she stunned her countrymen with her unclassical approach to art. ‘Japanese art is terrible. All these men were on this kick about science fiction, but I came across with the mind thing. In Japan they think of me as a Happening, but the Happening people think my things are too soft. Do you think my things are feminine, John?’ She nudged him lightly, he looked up from his newspaper. ‘No,’ he said, ‘of course not.’ She sat back. ‘It’s because my pieces are more interested in peace,’ she said. Having suffered the nervous breakdown which, in my day, was virtually a post-graduate requirement for the victims of America’s more progressive education, Yoko finally returned to New York. Her second husband, Anthony Cox, an American painter, the father of her only child, a little girl named Kyoko. ‘They are both now in the Virgin Islands. They are divorcing me.’
In the kitchen, when the eggs had arrived at last, Yoko sliced leeks with the artistry of a sea-cook and tossed them lightly in hot butter. ‘I feel that I’m getting younger. Even physically. It is partly the diet because, you see, you are what you eat,’ she said with a confidence that would astonish a biologist. ‘And it is also the fact that I have met John. This year has been hard.’ She paused, holding an egg in her right hand. ‘We were arrested,’ she said, and once again I sensed the acute distress that John had expressed when he talked about the unhappy and probably unnecessary incident; it was a distress, I believe, that arose less from the sordid nature of the incident than it did from the fact that a chink in their bubble was revealed; a little space through which the minions of society could enter. I would bet that Yoko cried on the night of their arrest. She cracked the egg and spilled it lightly around the leeks. ‘And then there was the miscarriage. But it’s like a game. Everything is like a game if there is somebody else, and now I have John.’
And John has Yoko. For the moment at least he has serenity, affectionate glances over deep bowls of scrambled eggs, and syncopated wriggling in those big, black sacks which could have been contrived by Yoko to make a resting place from a world that would love to devour her man. It is possible that John and Yoko will put us cynics to shame by retreating from a scene that he, at least, has held in the palm of his hand. It is a frenzied scene, a scene so fashionable that its leaders slide out of date the moment they inhale or pause for breath on shifting sand. Apple’s company, at the centre of that ephemeral empire, have always had their activities marked by gullibility; by an inability to distinguish the true, valuable dream from pipe smoke. Perhaps the same gullibility marks its key founder. Or perhaps not. Those gilt and cream rooms, the Apple offices, where ageing Hippy girls lose their cool at the not really impressive sight of George Harrison and hurl themselves and their bells at his feet while his wife, bored, looks on; those may be the rooms that Lennon is getting ready to leave behind. Or perhaps not. The odds are against them and we aren’t helping, but it is possible that those two figures holding hands and walking in silhouette towards a glorious sunset really are the inscrutable Liverpudlian and his child bride.