To understand the most misunderstood woman of the last half-century, you have to go back to the beginning
November 19, 2022
Reading Time: 9 minutes
The black town car would come once a week to pick me up from my St. Mark’s Place apartment in Manhattan and drive me to PepsiCo headquarters, in Purchase, New York. It was 1997, and I had been hired to write a book for the company, Pop Culture: Stories from Pepsi-Cola’s First 100 Years, because Brian Swette, the chief marketing officer of PepsiCo, was a fan of my book Please Kill Me. Even if the pay was measly, my status in the world had gone up a few notches.
Brian was very proud of the fact that he’d hired the Rolling Stones to play at Pepsi’s 100th-anniversary party in Hawaii. One day, during our weekly check-in, he asked me if I wanted to go see the Stones with him at Giants Stadium, in New Jersey. I gladly said yes.
Brian and I were seated in the 14th row, right in front of Yoko Ono and Jann Wenner, the owner of Rolling Stone, who were smoking the most potent marijuana I’ve ever whiffed. During “Brown Sugar,” Yoko started dancing her ass off. She was singing along to all the songs, really rocking out. Then it hit me. Could it be that Yoko Ono, of all people, was a Stones girl, instead of a Beatles one?
I’d seen her at parties, and she always scared me. I mean, how do you break the ice? I never believed she broke up the Beatles. (For a band that was such a phenomenon, 10 years is way too long.) But I couldn’t read her. I think that’s why so many people hated her when she popped up in pop culture, in 1968: no one could figure her out. She was a cipher.
To unravel the riddle that is Yoko, I called Jeffrey Perkins, an air-force serviceman and artist who’d befriended her in the early 1960s. “I was in a jazz coffee shop in Shinjuku, Tokyo,” Perkins said. “I met a journalist from New York named Jackie, and I asked her if she knew anybody who had any LSD. So Jackie gave me the phone number of an American New Yorker.” The number belonged to Yoko’s second husband, Tony Cox. “I called him and he gave me an address. I took two trains to this very high-quality gated street, and I rang the bell and Tony let me in.”
“Pretty soon,” he continued, “a woman came down the staircase wearing a muumuu. And as soon as I saw her, I knew she was a star right away. Yoko was pregnant, and you can imagine how beautiful she was. She had very long hair that she wore down, which was considered outrageous because Japanese women would not go out in public with hair like that.
“Yoko had done a street piece in Tokyo. Dressed in her usual muumuu and long hair down, she went out into the Ginza—the Main Street of Tokyo, like Times Square—holding a bouquet of flowers which she was attempting to give to strangers on the street. People were terrified of her. They were like, ‘Who is this witch?’”
Perkins and I both laughed. “After I bought acid from Tony that night, they liked me,” he said. “They didn’t know any other New Yorkers in Tokyo, so I was an easy friend for them to make.”
I asked Perkins how Tony and Yoko first met. He said that Tony learned about Yoko from the avant-garde composer La Monte Young, who told him that she was in a mental hospital. “Tony flew to Tokyo specifically to rescue Yoko,” Perkins said.
Apparently, Yoko had attempted suicide because her aristocratic parents didn’t want her to be an artist. Yoko’s father was in charge of the Bank of Tokyo’s branches in New York and San Francisco, and, according to Perkins, Yoko was descended from one of the emperors. “Tony said that, when Yoko went to high school, she went with the future emperor [Akihito], who had a crush on her as a child.”
During World War II, when the Allies were firebombing Tokyo, Yoko’s family relocated to the country. “She and her brother were like strangers to the locals,” Perkins said, “so they had to bargain with them for food and survival. It was very challenging.” After the war, Yoko’s parents moved to America, and their daughter enrolled in Sarah Lawrence, the tony girls’ college. Needless to say, she was an outsider. “A schoolmate said that she used to sit in a tree on campus and write poetry,” Perkins told me. Yoko was roommates with Charlotte Moorman, who became the well-known avant-garde topless cellist.
Clearly a woman with a mind of her own, Yoko soon discovered the art world of downtown New York City. Before long she was hanging out with La Monte Young, with whom she had a brief affair, and John Cage.
Who produced the influential experimental concerts at Yoko’s Chambers Street loft?, I asked. La Monte Young or Yoko Ono? Perkins wasn’t sure, but he said that “it was Yoko who brought the other Japanese composers,” including Toshi Ichiyanagi, a contemporary of Young’s and Cage’s. Toshi and Yoko fell in love and got married, much to the displeasure of her parents. (Toshi died last month.)
“Toshi was unacceptable to Yoko’s family,” Perkins explained. “Unacceptable because he was a composer, and more importantly, because he was a commoner.” Yoko’s parents tricked her into going back to Tokyo on a phony pretext, and Yoko, thinking her new life in New York was over, attempted suicide.
Tony rescued Yoko from the mental hospital, and they returned to her Chambers Street loft. In 1965, the couple invited Perkins, who was living in Washington, D.C., to a concert of Yoko’s at Carnegie Hall. “I didn’t know what it was going to be. Tony and I were standing in the wings, and Yoko went out and invited the audience to come and cut her dress off until she was naked.” The performance made an impression, to say the least.
“Yoko’s goal in life was to be as famous as possible,” Perkins said. “According to screenwriter Tony Houston, she wanted to be as famous as Elizabeth Taylor.”
Perkins moved in with Yoko and Tony, first at 1 West 100th Street, and later at 99 Second Avenue. “Yoko was living like a poor beatnik, working as a waitress, because Tony didn’t have any money at all,” he said. Tony was always “hustling for something,” according to Perkins. He just didn’t make enough.
Yoko continued her ascension in the art world, with Tony acting as her unofficial business manager. She was making a name for herself producing concerts and doing exhibitions, but it was her and Tony’s piece at the Judson Gallery, The Stone, that really put her over the top. “It was an installation where anybody who came into this room had to get into a black bag, and they just sat in the room,” Perkins said. “They could see out of the bag—the fabric was permeable so they could see out—but no one could see inside the bag.”
The Judson Church exhibition was done under the banner of the Fluxus art movement, which Bibbe Hansen—actor, artist, and mother of the musician Beck—explained was the brainchild of George Maciunas. But to really understand Fluxus, she said, “we have to go back to post–World War II New York City, when several things happened all around the same time.”
In 1952, the Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki joined the faculty at Columbia University. “All these people came to his lectures—Allen Ginsberg, John Cage—and were very influenced by that.” Perkins told me that “Dr. Suzuki was so popular because he wrote in English. And the attraction to Zen was that it’s mysticism without God. It was not Christian. So Zen inspired a great deal of freedom in the Beat Generation. Yoko’s work was under that influence. She was very Zen.”
Around the same time, Hansen said, two other things happened. First, the Abstract Expressionist painter Robert Motherwell published an anthology of Dada. “Dada had been lost,” she said. Then John Cage started teaching a class in experimental music at the New School for Social Research. “Just about everybody who was going to wind up being in Fluxus, including my father, Al Hansen, ends up attending,” Hansen said.
“When [German artist] Gustav Metzger did the ‘Destruction in Art’ symposium, in London in 1966, Al told Gustav that he had to invite Yoko,” Bibbe explained. “He always believed she was an amazing artist.” Perkins said that around that time, “She had a concert. I think it might have been at the Royal Albert Hall, and there were famous people in the audience, like Roman Polanski and Michelangelo Antonioni. And the Beatles, although Yoko had no interest in pop music.”
Yoko’s star was rising in the international art scene, but her bank account was on the decline. Perkins remembers receiving other letters from Yoko during this period about how she and Tony were “totally broke.” At one point, she told him that she was thinking of leaving London for San Francisco. “There was a music school there called Fields College,” Perkins said. “And a friend said that he might be able to get her a scholarship.” Instead, Yoko met John Lennon at the Indica art gallery and bookstore when Lennon climbed a ladder and looked through a magnifying glass to see the word “Yes.”
“Now, at the time,” Lennon told Playboy in 1980, “all the avant-garde was smash the piano with a hammer and break the sculpture and anti-, anti-, anti-, anti-, anti. It was all boring negative crap, you know. And just that Yes made me stay in a gallery full of apples and nails. There was a sign that said, Hammer A Nail In, so I said, ‘Can I hammer a nail in?’
“But Yoko said no, because the show wasn’t opening until the next day,” Lennon stated. “But the owner came up and whispered to her, ‘Let him hammer a nail in. You know, he’s a millionaire. He might buy it.’ And so there was this little conference, and finally she said, ‘OK, you can hammer a nail in for five shillings.’ So smartass says, ‘Well, I’ll give you an imaginary five shillings and hammer an imaginary nail in.’ And that’s when we really met. That’s when we locked eyes and she got it and I got it and, as they say in all the interviews we do, the rest is history.”
I had heard the stories of John’s “Lost Weekend”—his fling with Yoko’s friend May Pang, and his months-long drinking binge with Harry Nilsson, and the tales of him getting thrown out of the Troubadour in Los Angeles for heckling the Smothers Brothers. But my favorite story about Yoko, the one that best sums up who she was as an artist, came from Allan Steckler, the art director for Allen Klein when Klein managed both the Beatles and the Stones.
One day in 1971, Allan got a call from the director of the Museum of Modern Art, who wanted to know why there was an advertisement in the newspaper for a John and Yoko one-day show at MoMA. Allan responded that he didn’t know anything about it. The director told him to read the ad and call him back. So Allan found the ad, which not only announced the art show but also promised a free calendar to everyone who came.
“I got Yoko on the phone,” Allan explained. “And I said, ‘Yoko, what is this art show?’
“She said, ‘It’s just a conceptual art show.’
“I said, ‘What do you mean?’
“She said, ‘It’s just a concept that I had.’
“I said, ‘Oh, I see, I understand, thank you.’”
Allan called the museum’s director back and explained the situation, and they both had a good laugh about how these artists lived in their own heads. Then the museum director suddenly stopped laughing and asked, “What about the calendar?”
This time Allan didn’t call but went straight to John and Yoko’s apartment on Bank Street to tell Yoko that she had to provide a calendar. Yoko told Allan that she wanted to hire Iain Macmillan, the English photographer who took the picture used on the cover of Abbey Road, to shoot the keyholes of well-known New Yorkers.
“Iain spends the next three weeks traveling all over the city,” Allan said, “finding out where famous people lived and photographing their locks. Now Iain’s living at the Essex House, some really posh place, and every photograph he takes is done with overnight processing, and the bills just go through the roof. Finally, we put a catalogue together, a calendar of all these door locks,” Allan continued, “and we print 5,000 of them, at a cost to us of $12 each. So we spent well over $150,000 on those calendars.”
“But I was never pissed off at Yoko,” Allan said, laughing. “Yoko is Yoko.”
Legs McNeil is the co-author of Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk and The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry
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To understand the most misunderstood woman of the last half-century, you have to go back to the beginning