Yoko Turning 90: Still a Doyenne of New York City

Once falsely seen as the driving reason for John Lennon to leave the Beatles and force the band to break up, the public perception of Yoko Ono in recent decades has softened immeasurably. Today, Yoko is seen as an artist, musician and pop culture icon in her own right with ties to a period that was both wonderful and turbulent in America and New York City. And later this month, she celebrates her 90th birthday.

| 08 Feb 2023 | 07:33

On Feb. 18, Yoko Ono will be turning 90 years old. It’s time for New York to thank her for her service. Yoko has given New York a lot as an artist, musician, philanthropist and virtual spokesperson. And, oh yeah, she married John Lennon. Sure, Yoko is not for everybody’s taste. Her shrill, shrieking vocals have turned off many listeners. Her experimental art works and movies were mocked as much as admired. And lots of Beatles fanatics, to this day, are still (foolishly) furious that she supposedly single-handedly broke up the world’s greatest rock and roll band.

I think Yoko has gotten a bad rap since she burst on to the pop culture stage in 1968, when she and John first fell in love. Since then, she has been a conspicuous presence in our city. Not many people have been as durable as Yoko through these fifty-plus years. Yoko has exemplified one of our city’s most cherished qualities: chutzpah. Who can forget that she and John shockingly posed nude on their experimental Two Virgins album in the late 1960s, and then there was that stunning Annie Leibovitz cover for Rolling Stone--shot only hours before Lenon was killed by a deranged fan-- when a naked Lennon had wrapped himself around a clothed Yoko.

Leibovitz originally wanted to photograph Lennon alone for the cover, but Lennon insisted Yoko had to be in the picture or no deal. Leibovitz–who had already photographed them both nude for the Two Virgins album back in ‘68–asked Lennon to remove his clothes, and he had no problem doing so. Yoko reportedly offered to remove her top only, so the photographer opted instead of have her fully clothed. Shrewd choice. It appeared on the front cover of Rolling Stone Jan. 22, 1981, a few weeks after Lennon’s murder and the American Society of Magazine Editors in 2005 called it the single most iconic magazine cover in the past 40 years.

Appreciating Yoko

It may be a tad strong for me to suggest that Yoko is universally loved as she celebrates turning 90. But we can settle on the concept of “appreciation.” Few others have stood for as much that New York takes pride in–individuality, outrageousness, provocation. New York is a complicated place, filled with publicity hounds, media creations and all sorts of shooting stars. It’s very tough to stay in our consciousness and outlive the fads and moments. But Yoko has managed to remain near the center for all of these years. We still know her by only her first name, the sign of a true icon. Yoko first made her name downtown, in the early 1960s, as what was once fashionably called a struggling artist. This was the era before the Sixties became THE SIXTIES and there was not a real strong counterculture vibe in main stream media yet. It could be said that she was ahead of her time, especially as what came to be known as a performance artist. Even though John Lennon understandably cast a very long shadow, Yoko, a diminutive artist from Japan, stood tall in the downtown art scene at the time. If she had emerged a decade-and-a-half later–as Patti Smith and Debbie Harry and so many others in the punk era were redefining what New York’s cultural scene stood for–Lennon often made a case that Yoko came along too soon for her own commercial good. In 1980, when he and Yoko worked together on their well-received comeback album, Double Fantasy, he fondly noted that such bands as the B-52s reflected Yoko’s early influence. He was referring to her iconic singing/wailing style, but he might also have been speaking about her defiant trailblazing style.

The Ballad of John and Yoko

Yoko moved to London and met John Lennon there on the evening of Nov. 9, 1966. It was the night before she would have an exhibit. Lennon, just back in London from his six-week turn as an actor in a little antiwar film How I Won the War, was looking for kicks and excitement. He was at loose ends. The Beatles had finished a U.S. tour on Aug. 29 of that year in San Francisco, and it would prove to be their last live tour. They hadn’t yet begun recording their next album, to be titled Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Famously, John and Yoko forged an immediate connection as artists of very different kinds. Lennon was a rock n roll superstar in the most famous band in the world. Yoko was well known in the underground art world. It took another eighteen months for John and Yoko to get together as a couple. Even when John was deep in meditation with the Beatles in India in February and March 1968, he was apparently thinking of her constantly and missing her terribly. He wrote “I’m So Tired,” in which he sang in an anguished voice: “I’m going insane, you know/I’d give you everything I’ve got/For a little peace of mind.” They married on March 20, 1969. Although John moved to Los Angeles on his own and stayed apart from Yoko for some 16 months, they were inseparable in the public’s mind.

They remained together until John was assassinated in New York on Dec. 8, 1980 outside their apartment building The Dakota on the Upper West Side. John and Yoko moved to New York City on Aug. 31, 1971. Originally, they had come to find Yoko’s eight-year-old daughter Kyoko, from a previous marriage. Soon, they were caught up in John’s immigration woes. If John and Yoko had left the country, they probably would not have been allowed to return.

Their affection for the city is unmistakable. In fact, the first studio album that John and Yoko collaborated on, after arriving in town, was called Sometime in New York City, featuring Lennon’s unforgettable lyric, Que pasa New York, Que pasa, New York? It came out on June 12,1972. It’s impossible to honor Yoko in only 800 words (okay, so maybe that’s why I’m over 1,000 words). No doubt, cultural historians will write about her in great detail and give her her due. She will of course be synonymous with John Lennon, the Beatles, the art community, the 1960s–but also New York City. As John might have put it, Que pasa, Yoko? Que pasa, Yoko.

The affection John Lennon and Yoko had for the city of New York is unmistakable.