Ah, the Beatles. Perhaps the most brilliant musicians to ever live. Innovators. Loved by millions. Smart, charming, lovable goofballs. Endlessly fascinating personalities. And yet, not always the nicest guys. No, they were not only all capable of being assholes (though some more than others), they also tended to fall into that group we like to refer to as “men who swear that they’re progressive, except for when it comes to women.” And John Lennon was certainly no exception. In fact, I’d say that he and Paul McCartney were nose to nose in the race for worst offender. That is, until John met Yoko Ono.
Until then, all of the Beatles were often raging misogynists. I discussed this briefly towards the end of my introduction of this series, in their treatment of their wives and girlfriends. Women were sex objects and property. Take a look at some of their catalog: No Reply, You Won’t See Me, You Like Me Too Much, and the most notorious of all, Run For Your Life. Stalkerific! And this is the stuff they felt appropriate to say publicly. All four of the guys came back from Hamburg with the same STD, and their manager Brian Epstein had to hide it so that John’s new wife wouldn’t divorce him on those grounds. Ringo openly cheated on then-girlfriend Maureen and told her that if she didn’t like it, he’d find another girlfriend who would. John and George were both serial and prolific adulterers. Paul also could not keep his pants on to save his life, and the biggest problem in his relationship with Jane Asher was his resentment towards her wanting to maintain her acting career rather than sit home and behave dutifully like a Good Beatle Wife.
Most shocking and inexcusable, and usually obscured in Lennon bios, John was abusive. When talking about the song Getting Better, he confessed in All We Are Saying, his last major interview: “I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically — any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself and I hit. I fought men and I hit women . . . I am a violent man who has learned not to be violent and regrets his violence. I will have to be a lot older before I can face in public how I treated women as a youngster.”
With the exception of his mother Julia and his Aunt Mimi who raised him, I’d be surprised to learn that John had ever really respected a woman in his life prior to meeting Yoko. And even then, he idolized his mother more than saw her as a person, and his aunt never really appreciated his work him, therefore earning some resentment. Yoko was different. According to Bob Spitz in his book The Beatles, when John met Yoko he was fascinated by her personality, her art and her wit — and was very confused by it. Yoko was perhaps the first woman outside of his family who he truly saw as a human being before seeing her as someone to potentially fuck. Having never experienced such a thing, it supposedly took him weeks to realize, to his surprise, that in addition to being intellectually captivated by Yoko, he was also sexually attracted to her. The concept of feeling both at the same time was completely novel.
Why was Yoko different from every other woman in John’s life? Was it the fact that he recognized Yoko has his soul mate, and saw her as someone remarkably similar to himself — and therefore an intellectual equal? Was it Yoko’s feminism and refusal to put up with the shit that he dumped on his wife Cynthia? Was it John’s unresolved feelings about his mother and wanting a strong, assertive woman in his life? Was he simply ready to finally grow up and be happy, and Yoko was just the right person at the right time? I don’t have the answer to that. But I do know that the Beatles were unhappy about it.
Supposedly, anyone who was not directly involved in recording was not allowed in the studio with the Beatles. But this was especially so for women. Bob Spitz quotes Paul McCartney as describing the Beatles relationship in the studio like “four miners who go down the pit . . . [y]ou don’t need women down the pit, do you?” And then, in describing Yoko’s grand entrance to this forbidden land, Spitz writes this remarkable paragraph:
Yoko’s appearance in the studio functioned as a declaration of war. John knew the bombshell he’d drop by pulling such an aggressive stunt, and he seemed perfectly willing to light the fuse. The look on his face “dared the others” to say the wrong word. He almost longed for the opportunity to stage a showdown. Of course, at that very moment, someone should have stood up to him. Someone should have taken John aside and ordered him to get his act together. Someone should have demanded that Yoko leave the studio immediately. Someone should have laid down the law. Incredibly, however, no one did a thing. The other Beatles pretended that nothing unusual had occurred. Inside, they seethed and cut one another tense glances, furious at the intrusion but reluctant to confront John.
Wow. Well look at that. I guess that if Bob Spitz had been in that studio, the Beatles would still be together! What with his psychic, amazing, telling everyone what to do abilities, I imagine that he would have somehow broken up John and Yoko, thereby preventing John’s moving to the U.S. and being eventually murdered. And he would have warned George about the unknown dangers of cigarettes, convincing him to quit and preventing his cancer! Lord hopes he would have convinced Paul McCartney to not get that mullet, and to find a plastic surgeon that wouldn’t make him look so scary. Then the Beatles would still be touring like the Rolling Stones, and John and Cynthia would have some nice little home in the South of France, while Yoko sits old, disheveled, poor and lonely with her 40 cats, regretting all of those abortions and her troublesome feminist ways.
Or maybe, just maybe, Spitz is just like the rest of us and can’t see into the future. Maybe he doesn’t have the right to tell other people what to do, and is actually a raging misogynist asshole who needs to shut his mouth. I know that it’s one of the two.
First of all, it’s outrageously irresponsible to editorialize like that, and to do so as though the opinion is universal and needs no defending. That’s right, John needed to get his act together — not because he was a junkie at the time, but because he had the audacity to bring his girlfriend into the studio!
But the problem is, of course, that the Beatles actually agreed with him. 1 It’s hard to fault Spitz for claiming that Yoko never should have been there when he watched the same Directors Cut of the Beatles Anthology that I did (only available on bootleg). The stuff that’s in there really did make my jaw fall open. Most say that Yoko asked for the cuts, though I’d like to believe that the Beatles themselves made the decision after seeing the tape and realizing they looked like grade A assholes.
George Harrison kicks things off by bitterly commenting that “she just moved in,” to the studio. Later in the segment, George says that his problem wasn’t with her simple presence, but that there was “a definite vibe” coming from her. And then, he says that Yoko “saw the Beatles as something between her and John,” complete with mimic of sticking a wedge in something. (More on this in the next post.) She didn’t like the Beatles, he whined. He also notes that “everyone was getting cheesed” — and then said Ringo left the group, directly implying that it was because of Yoko, even though it wasn’t.
But my beloved George Martin (The Beatles’ producer) — I’m so disappointed in you, George — agrees with George Harrison. He seems to corroborate the “vibe” theory, saying that the Beatles “were no longer the happy go lucky foursome, or fivesome if you include me.” Then, he heavily implies that Yoko was psychically sabotaging the Beatles recording sessions. He said that this “other person” there was affecting them with “their” thoughts — “even if they weren’t spoken” — and that these thoughts were “impinging on what we were doing.” Whoa. Yoko’s one impressive bitch.
Paul McCartney, unsurprisingly, supplies the best fodder. He starts off by briefly mocking Yoko’s accent, claiming she would say things like “I do not know Beatles!” He then says that Yoko was great for John, “but, the problem for us” was that she “encroached on out framework.” “This was our career” he notes earnestly, before saying “– and then there was this girl.” The incredulity with which he says the word is important and rather telling, especially in conjunction with the emphasis of “career.” Then, in the most outrageous quote from the entire segment, he talked about how embarrassing Yoko’s presence was, saying that it was “like she was holding court in a way.” The Beatles, he said were “like her courtiers.” Allow me to translate: he’s saying that Yoko was entitled and demanding.
Lastly, (road manager, close friend, and long-time Apple CEO) Neil Aspinall — someone else I love and am very disappointed in — noted very carefully and seriously the problem with Yoko’s presence. He talked about how it had been part of his job for years to keep outsiders out of the studio, saying with great emphasis, “because the studio is not a playground,” it’s a “work environment.” He says that the point was to make sure that no one was there — and again, this was with great emphasis — “who wasn’t part of making the music.”
Now, tell me, how many of these complaints and insults can you see being directed at men? How often to people get that unshakable “vibe” from men? How many men are accused of making everyone uncomfortable with their moods and simple presence? How many men, simply because they were there, would be accused of being overbearing and treating others like his servants? Do tell me, because all of this screams of sexist stereotypes straight out of ancient literature and modern sitcoms to me. And perhaps most importantly, how many men would be described as out of place somewhere seemingly entirely because it was a work environment? How many men — regardless of who they were — would be instantly dismissed as someone who wasn’t a part of making music, particularly in a band that would recruit virtually anyone to do hand claps and funny noises? Neil’s tone was as though he was talking about someone more like himself, who couldn’t play a musical note to save his life. We’re talking about Yoko Ono.
The problem with Neil’s comment is the same as the one with Spitz’s impressive demand for Yoko to leave the studio. It does precisely what pissed John off the most about the treatment that Yoko got — there was an immediate assumption that she had no right whatsoever to be there. John felt very differently, not because she was his girlfriend, but because she was a musician.
In fact, contrary to Spitz’s insistence that the Beatles were very particular about who the let in the studio, they had guests in and out all of the time. Mal Evans and Neil Aspinall practically lived there, but no one made a fuss when Eric Clapton showed up, or was bothered by Billy Preston’s presence, or felt encroached upon when Mick Jagger and other famous musicians would come by to just hang out. Further, interestingly enough, despite proclamations that women just weren’t allowed in the studio, clips that show throughout the same Anthology episode cited above and the one before it catch glimpses of young pretty women hanging out at various places in the studio, watching Paul perform with big wide eyes. They would occasionally hold parties or “happenings” while they were recording — see All You Need is Love, Baby You’re a Rich Man, Yellow Submarine, and A Day in the Life.
John saw Yoko as a similar musical talent who he wanted to work with and who he thought could do the Beatles some good. Of course, whether or not this was a reasonable belief is another story. Though a big fan of Yoko as a person, a thinker and an artist, I do not enjoy her music. I also don’t pretend that I am a great arbitrator in taste — and Pop Feminist has a good feminist defense of her music. But in the end, it’s really not the point. The Beatles didn’t reject Yoko because they thought she was a crap musician — the thought of Yoko as a legitimate musician never actually seemed to cross their minds — but because she was a woman, and because the role of a Beatles woman was at home waiting for you all dolled up, not sitting by your side.
John asserted more than once, and entirely correctly, that they never would have treated any other musician like that. He said that he brought Yoko in and expected that she would be treated with the same respect that their other musical buddies got, and would play with the band just like they did. Instead, the Beatles didn’t even have the decency to say that they didn’t like Yoko’s music, to argue with her when they disagreed, or to discuss the situation with John. They just ignored her. And I’d say that gave John and Yoko both the right to be pissed the fuck off.
Paul and George especially seemed to openly seethe at her presence. Paul would glare and, at least one time, scream to John about it at the top of his lungs — not confront Yoko directly when he had a problem with her, mind you. George would cast dirty looks, roll his eyes (check out some of the Let it Be footage) and make sarcastic remarks. Ringo, who always seemed closest to John after he and Paul began to drift apart and remained that way through to the end of John’s life, seemed most accepting of Yoko. John and Yoko stayed at an apartment belonging to Ringo. When they made Two Virgins, Paul and George were furious, but Ringo showed mild concern and then laughed it off. Since the band’s breakup, he has always been the most reluctant to speak ill of her — I’m not sure if he ever really has. When John was murdered, Ringo was there for Yoko; he and his wife Barbara flew immediately to New York to see and help care for her and Sean. But there’s also little evidence that he stood up for her, tried to make her feel welcome when John brought her to the studio, or even contradicted the accusations by Paul and George once the Beatles broke up and they saw fit to publicly gripe about her.
Now, I’m not saying that Yoko was never an asshole to the Beatles. I’m sure that she was. I’m saying that she was hardly the only or the worst asshole in the room. They were all acting like assholes — but as the history gets told, Yoko’s the one who bears the blame. The truly amazing thing is that in order to actually believe this, you have to totally erase the fact that John wanted her there. She wasn’t showing up in her own car, throwing hissy fits or tracking them down at secret locations. No, sadly for her detractors this misogynistic stereotype didn’t fit Yoko at all. When Yoko showed up at a meeting that everyone seemed to think that she had no right to attend — even when it was to discuss major decisions that would, as John’s wife, affect her own financial future — it was because John brought her. She didn’t infiltrate, she was invited.
Indeed, it makes little to no sense that people would blame Yoko over John. (Though personally, I blame Paul for the breakup more than the rest.) John was the one bringing her along, and he was also the king of passive aggressiveness. Though I do think his originally-stated intentions were genuine, make no mistake that as he saw how the band was treating Yoko, he knew exactly what he was doing. When Yoko had the miscarriage that nearly killed her and John had not only a bed brought into the studio for her, but a microphone positioned above the bed so that she could relay her criticisms to the band in the recording booth, it’s plain to see that he was being deliberately provocative.
It doesn’t make sense to blame Yoko instead of John, that is, if you look at this with a totally ungendered lenses. Once you factor in that Yoko was a woman — a feminist, opinionated woman who wasn’t blond or Caucasian or making herself up as eye-candy — things start to become clear. Bitches fuck shit up. It’s true that blaming someone other than your heroes, or other than your friends, is easier than going to the source. Indeed, if Yoko wasn’t there, it’s slightly possible that someone else like Allen Klein might have entered scapegoat city. But no, I think the blame would have gone — unfairly — entirely on John’s shoulders in Yoko’s hypothetical absence. The man is now a legend, so we often forget the mass public perception of him in the late 60s as an erratic, slightly unhinged hippie attention-seeker. John was the loudest, the most outlandish, and the easiest to blame. So thank god Yoko was there, eh? Otherwise, the Beatles might have had to look at themselves and look at their friend.
No one within the band wanted to do that. No one wanted to deal with John’s drug addiction. No one wanted to deal with George’s increasing unhappiness and resentfulness. No one wanted to deal with Paul’s over-inflated ego and narcissistic power trip. No one wanted to consider that maybe part of the reason why John wanted Yoko there was because he couldn’t stand to be around his band mates. No one wanted to look at how Ringo was unfairly losing his place and relevance within the group. No one wanted to look at how they were writing songs entirely separately, recording them without any or some of the others, and finding it all but impossible to maintain a cohesive sound. No one wanted to talk about the fact that Brian was dead, or the absolute catastrophe that was Magical Mystery Tour. It was probably best to not bring up George fucking Ringo’s wife. Certainly, no one wanted to talk about John and Paul’s vanity project Apple flushing money down the toilet, or how they had no real manager, and how Neil Aspinall, for all of his other virtues and the fact that he later got the hang of it, didn’t have the slightest clue what he was doing at the helm of this multimillion dollar joke of a corporation. Definitely, no one wanted to talk about how Dick James had stolen their songs. No one wanted to talk about how they were all just going in separate directions, and perhaps their time had simply come to end things.
But Yoko was something they could gripe about. Yoko was there. The public didn’t like her. She was perfect.
Women. On second thought, it seems like they may be good for more than giving the band blow jobs and making them sandwiches, after all.
Oh, you may say, I’m being too hard on them. The Beatles had a right to be upset! Yoko was a bad person! And they were just looking out for their friend! Etc. Those myths, up next.
- It bears noting that in All We Are Saying, Yoko denies the Beatles being mean to her and claims that she got along with all of them well. As you’ll see, the rest of this post belies that telling, as does video evidence, John’s statements, and statements by the other Beatles. Yoko is a smart woman, smart enough, I think, to know when to quit and not stir the pot. It’s my theory that she let them have that one because she knew she was never going to get it anyway. ↩