Popular myth tells us that Yoko Ono didn’t only break up the Beatles, which has been the focus of my other posts so far; she also fucked up John Lennon really bad. John, they’d have you believe, was the brilliant best friend of fellow-genius Paul McCartney, until she came along and broke up his marriage — a double home-wrecker! — got him addicted to drugs so that she could fill his mind with all of her crazy radical feminist and other political ideas, rip the band apart and ruthlessly control John, thereby stealing all of his money. “Muahahaha,” one can imagine this Evil Yoko laughing, rubbing her greedy palms together.
This stereotype of Yoko didn’t materialize out of thin air. There was already a prototype in the words for the vilification of Yoko Ono, and that prototype is known as the “Dragon Lady.” The dragon lady is a stereotype of East Asian women as being calculating, conniving and all around evil. We also have to remember that in 1960s U.S. and England, there was still great, open racism towards Japanese people left over from WWII, and the Vietnam War was also stirring animosity towards East Asians who white people couldn’t be bothered to tell apart. And it’s just plain foolish to discount this when looking at the way that Yoko has been characterized and caricatured.
That caricature was and is a lie. As I’ve covered, the band was already falling apart. John and Paul, for better or for worse, could no longer be called best friends. Before the White Album and Yoko’s presence rolled around, they were all but entirely done writing together. Though John and Paul only grew farther apart because of the Yoko dispute, they were hardly pals, and mostly business partners.
But in spite of or perhaps because John was much closer to Yoko than to Paul or the other Beatles, we’re supposed to believe that she is the one who somehow fucked him over. The Beatles, they wanted to help their friend. They were concerned about his drug use. They were worried about how much time they were spending together. It didn’t sit right with them that Yoko would help John relate his feelings to others — even though the Beatles were perfectly fine creating their girlfriends’ and wives’ opinions for them. It seemed dangerous that she had such a hand in his business affairs.
But in fact — and though it is sometimes very sad — Yoko is one of the few people who didn’t fuck John over.
In the Beatles history, there’s a long line of users and abusers. With the exception of George Martin, Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans, all lovely people, you’ll find few who are innocent of exploitation. Though most of Brian Epstein’s bad business deals hurt him, too, and were a result more of incompetence than of greed, and even though he did become friends with the Beatles, he did in fact take advantage of their skill and fame.
And they weren’t exactly adverse at all times to fucking each other over. The story that cannot go without telling is that of Paul betraying John. Northern Songs is the company that held all of the Lennon/McCartney copyrights, back before they lost complete control over them. It was a corporation, and the Beatles held shares — particularly, John and Paul held shares, and the agreement all along had been that as they would hold equal shares in the company.
That is until Paul decided to start buying shares behind John’s back. Considering the devastation they felt when the company was sold out from under them, John would have easily jumped at the chance for him and Paul to make a concentrated effort to get more control of Northern. Indeed, if they had done that, the songs might not belong to Sony today. But clearly, Paul wanted the power, and as John believed and I agree, he wanted the songs. History has shown that Paul was never quite satisfied with that whole Lennon/McCartney deal, and he has thrown numerous temper tantrums to reporters about John’s name being first (See the book Yesterday and Today). He didn’t buy the shares for them, as he later tried to argue, but for himself.
Though not technically, what Paul was essentially doing was stealing from his business partner, his good friend, the man who helped to make him what he was, the man without whom their musical empire would not have existed. This, my friends, is fucking someone over. (And I’ve always found it ironic that Paul is furious over his once-friend Michael Jackson buying the Beatles catalog out from under his nose, whining “but we were supposed to be friends! I trusted him!”) When John found out, he was rightfully furious, and it certainly helped in straining their relationship for many years.
My reason for telling this long story is not only to make Paul look bad, but this: why is it so often forgotten? Why is it a couple of paragraphs in Bob Spitz’s Yoko-hating book The Beatles? Why, every time has Paul has been asked about it, has no one ever really challenged his innocent act? Why do we allow ourselves to forget? And why, other than misogyny and racism, does the Yoko fucked John over meme persist instead, with no evidence of the sort?
Something that is most often mentioned in supporting this characterization is Yoko’s hand in John’s business affairs. She was, they say, using him for his money. Supporting this argument are two facts: when Yoko first met John and before she got to know him, her main interest was in getting him to finance one of her art shows; and Yoko was in charge of Lennon’s finances. But the truth ends there. Yoko didn’t wrestle financial control from John, he gave it over with relief.
As John and Yoko’s best friend Eliot Mintz affectionately recounted in his surprisingly-honest essay for Memories of John Lennon, John didn’t know jackshit about money. I think that most 10-year-olds have a better grasp of basic budgeting and economics. Unlike the other Beatles who grew up dirt poor, John grew up in a middle-class household and therefore never had to worry about such things. He then went to being dirt poor, more or less eating only whatever was given to him by the club he was playing, and spending any money he had on prostitutes and drugs. And suddenly, the man had millions of dollars on his hands. According to Spitz, he was the worst of the spenders among the Beatles and there was absolutely no accounting for whether he was making enough to pay for it all. Apple was a disaster for a reason. Mintz pointed out that even throughout his 30s, John never carried cash, seemed nervous in its presence and could only poorly fake knowing what the hell he was talking about.
Yoko, by contrast, was and is financially brilliant. In All We Are Saying, she compares investments and financial transactions with chess. The woman made millions for the two of them off of investments in cows. Cows! Dammit, I want her handling my money, too!
So when people talk about Yoko stealing John’s money, they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Many also seem completely incapable of getting past Yoko’s original business interest in John. But by contrast, all of the many men in his life who he met through professional relationships and befriended, like Brian Epstein, George Martin, Eliot Mintz, Allen Klein, and Peter Brown, to name a few, were just boys enjoying that good old boys club. They worked together, realized they liked each other, and became friends — nothing wrong with that. But a woman works with him, they realize they like each other and form a romantic relationship — what a conniving, greedy whore!
Secondly, there’s the sexist assumption that it was John’s money. In All We Are Saying, John and Yoko together recount stories of important business papers being sent to John despite the fact that Yoko was known to be handling the business, or how he would get the credit when Yoko made a successful deal that completely mystified him. But in fact, they were married and treated their assets as one. Yoko was looking out for the best interests of herself and her family. Further, though Yoko probably wasn’t going to get rich off of conceptual art, she did make her own money, and it was her skill and intelligence that made John much more financially secure than he had ever been. When Yoko accompanied John to those business meetings that everyone felt she had no right to attend, she was asserting her right to be included in decisions that would affect both of them (something the other Beatles wives were never granted), and though they would never admit it, she was the smartest one sitting on their side of the room.
But no, that’s not the story you hear. Instead, Yoko was a greedy, money-grubbing bitch. That’s because women aren’t capable of being financially savvy, they’re just golddiggers. And of course, you’ve got your stereotype of the greedy Asian who will rip you off. So instead of Yoko Ono Saves John Lennon’s Ass, it’s Dragon Lady Steals John Lennon’s Money.
Another thing you’ll hear about is how Yoko Ono manipulated John and kept him on a very short leash during his so-called “Lost Weekend” — the 18 months during which the two of them were separated and looking towards divorce. You know, everyone knew that once Yoko got what she wanted out of John, she’d throw him to the curb. And then — and then — she had the nerve to talk to him all the time and yet refuse to let him come back to live in his own home!
What a bizarre rewriting of history.
The facts aren’t pretty, but they’re also in Yoko’s favor. In all honesty, once the two of them got back together, they both seemingly conspired to cover up the true reason for the split and the existence of May Pang, who John lived with during the separation. I get how it would have been embarrassing for both of them, and how Yoko would especially want to not talk about it after John’s death. Yoko has, actually quite kindly, taken the fall on this one out of both love and personal pride — though she isn’t entirely afraid to talk about it. But the truth is that John was an ass. And though getting together with Yoko was a good start on his road to feminism, it wasn’t enough all on its own. Once the honeymoon period was over, John started cheating on Yoko. And brazenly (see the previous link). Sorry, folks who didn’t know that. It hurt me, too.
Though largely forgotten by history, these facts were widely covered at the time in the tabloid press. But still, the coverage never exactly did Yoko any favors. The problem was twofold. Firstly, there’s the idea — persistent today but even more prevalent then — that when a man is unfaithful, it’s because his partner “can’t keep a man,” isn’t doing something right at home, and just isn’t handing out the sex enough. In that light, John’s cheating was supposed to somehow reflect on Yoko. The second problem is that Beatle wives were supposed to take that shit without blinking. After all, Cynthia Lennon, Pattie Boyd and Maureen Starr all kept their mouths shut like good girls, waited at home and never said a word. Other women? What other women? Not Yoko. Instead she said, Love ya John, but fuck this shit. And actually, she was far more understanding than most wives would be today, sending John off with a girlfriend and saying (according to Elliot Mintz in Memories of John Lennon) “Go to Playboyland for all that stuff that you apparently seem to be missing.”
When John spoke of Yoko not letting him come home, he didn’t mean the Dakota. If John wanted the penthouse, he would have hired some lawyers and gotten the penthouse. He was talking about the two of them living together as a couple — and in that sense, of course, Yoko had every right to refuse. As for those phone calls, John’s telling of the story in All We Are Saying is that he was the one calling her. Elliot Mintz said they each called each other everyday, sometimes Yoko only speaking with him instead of John, knowing that he was back to drinking and drug taking and wanting to make sure that he was okay. But though he called her just as frequently, drinking, sniffing and fucking his way all over Los Angeles, the idea still persists that Yoko was somehow moving the puppet strings.
As Yoko notes on the subject in All We Are Saying, she must be the most successful con artist in the world if John only lasted two months with the Maharishi and thirteen years with her. She also asks how the hell she would have the time to control John Lennon, saying “I have my own life, you know.”
And there it is. Accidentally or not, Yoko gets to the bottom of things. Yoko wasn’t supposed to have her own life. And I think that 28 years after John’s death, many people still feel this way. In the same interview, Yoko talks about how people kept asking what John was doing between 1975 and 1980 when he dropped out of public life to raise Sean. She says “But at least they asked him; they never asked me, because, as a woman, I wasn’t supposed to be doing anything.” She was married to John Lennon. What need would she have to do anything? Yoko has talked about everyone happily telling her once she married John that she wouldn’t need to work anymore. Cynthia Lennon and Maureen Starr raised the kids (still not seen today as doing anything), and along with Pattie waited on their husbands hand and foot and occasionally put on a pretty dress for a public appearance. As I’ve previously noted, Paul couldn’t get over his girlfriend Jane Asher’s refusal to put her career to rest like Pattie had.
The common story of women manipulating their male partners comes from the perception that these women are not supposed to do anything with their time except think about their man. It simultaneously ignores and depends upon the fact that women would of course not have to manipulate their husbands if they had equal power and autonomy in the relationship. Because Yoko had, on a personal level, equal power in her relationship with John, the assumption simply was that she could have obtained an equal status in no way other than manipulation. John couldn’t have enjoyed being a househusband. He couldn’t have just respected Yoko as a person. She couldn’t just be financially smarter than him. And god, he couldn’t possibly have actually liked that dreadful music and art of hers! The only explanation was that somehow, she had to be tricking him.
I think John himself said it well in All We Are Saying:
Nobody ever said anything about Paul having a spell on me, or me having one on Paul. They never thought that was abnormal — and in those days. Two guys together or four guys together! Why didn’t they ever say, “How come those guys don’t split up? I mean, what’s going on backstage? What is this Paul and John business? How can they be together so long?” We spent more time together in the early days than John and Yoko: the four of us sleeping in the same room, practically in the same bed, in the same truck, living together night and day, eating, shitting and pissing together. All right? Doing everything together! Nobody said a damn thing about being under a spell.
Indeed, though it’s common to portray Yoko has treating the Beatles like competition for John’s attention, the Beatles’ themselves were always the ones more prone to coming off like “jealous wives.” She took away attention from them for which they’d never before had to compete. For all of their repulsive and inexcusable behavior, it’s really quite clear that at least partially behind it was a strong sense of loss over their friend — a friend they loved dearly.
What does it say about the levels of homophobia in this world where it’s easier for men to construct a story about an evil jealous woman, to make up stories about “work environments” and so on, than to openly admit that they love and want to spend time alone with their male friend? And what kind of mixed messages are these, where men can easily exist together in such a strong homosocial environment but not for a moment discuss their attachment? And what does it say about the levels of misogyny when living this way with your wife in such a homophobic world is treated as a significantly larger transgression?
As John suggests, the old boys club was acceptable so long as it went unspoken, but actually being friends with your wife was not. The vagina, as it so often does, made all the difference.