Yoko Ono has gone down in Beatles history as a home-wrecker — the woman who stole John from his wife, Cynthia — and the power-seeking witch who turned John against his bandmates. That’s how the public has perceived her, anyway. But the reasons why George, Paul and Ringo were afraid of her puts Yoko One — and them — in a much truer light.
1. Yoko was completely different than any of the “birds” the Beatles had dated and married.
All four Beatles, when it came to romance, turned to girls — “birds” they called them, of the sort they’d grown up with — the kind who would have identified with the lyrics to the American pop hit, “I Want to Be Bobby’s Girl.”
I want to be Bobby’s girl
I want to be Bobby’s girl
That’s the most important thing to me…
And if I was Bobby’s girl
If I was Bobby’s girl
What a faithful, thankful girl I’d be.
And then along comes Yoko. She’s no one’s girl. She’s a divorced woman with children. She’s not grateful to be with John. She’s considers him another artist she’s fallen in love with — an equal, a partner. And most threateningly, she’s not impressed with the Beatles.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, indeed.
2. She was better educated than they were.
One thing about having a modest education is that your worldview tends to be, well, a little underwhelming. It was John who said at the Beatles’ first American press conference that their education had been “lousy” (much to Paul’s obvious embarrassment).
The four lads each had gone about as far as high school. Yoko, as I point out in Imagine: The Story of a Song, attended the Keimei Gakuen, an exclusive Christian primary school in Tokyo; she was the first woman to be admitted into the philosophy program at Tokyo’s Peers School; and she studied art at Sarah Lawrence. With her first husband, composer Toschi Ichiyanagi, she counted among her friends many of the avant gard artists of the abstract expressionist movement in New York. Her mentor was the legendary John Cage.
George Harrison, who thought the purpose of the mind was to be blown, not cultivated, resented her. Ringo, whose first ambition was to be a hairdresser, didn’t know what to make of her; and Paul thought she needed to stay in her place.
John was dazzled.
3. She was a classically trained musician — the Beatles were self-taught.
As a child, Yoko had attended the prestigious Jiyu-gakuen Music School in Japan, the training school for many Japanese composers. She preformed her first public concert at age four. Typical of her training was an assignment to turn all the sounds she heard in one day into notes. Her musical training included voice in both opera and German Lied singing. Later, at Sarah Lawrence, she heard birdsong and scored it as her first serious composition, Secret Piece (1955).
Paul, who couldn’t read music and didn’t know any better, strung his guitar upside down because he’s left-handed. All four Beatles learned to play by listening to American records and picking out the notes and chords.
When Yoko attended studio sessions with John, his mates were very uncomfortable about her sitting there and just listening. George made a point of telling her once not to take any cookies without asking.
4. The Beatles thought sex was power. Yoko thought it was just sex.
Typical of young males, the Beatles equated success with unlimited access to groupies and high-priced prostitutes. John even wrote about a one-night stand in “Norwegian Wood,” while their poor manager, Brian Epstein, was trying to keep the mop-tops’ sexual adventures out of the newspapers.
Yoko, on the other hand , was comfortable with her body — perhaps because she was a visual artist — and once flabbergasted Geraldo Rivera by taking off her blouse in front of him to change into something else in the apartment she shared with John. She wouldn’t have seen the need for John, Paul, and Ringo to be present, looking on, when George lost his virginity in Hamburg. Why? A little immature, yes?
Except for John, the other Beatles were threatened by a female who didn’t see sex as a kind of currency you give or take as a measure of personal power.
5. The Beatles knew they needed to break up. Yoko was the only one with the cojones to make it happen.
An excerpt from Imagine: the Story of a Song:
During the recording of Abbey Road in 1969, the tension among the band members was high. After all, John, Paul, George and Ringo had met when they were teenagers. They had rehearsed together, chased girls together in their Liverpool days, run gauntlets of hysterical fans who grabbed their clothing and pulled their hair. ‘The fame thing,’ as Ringo put it, and all the pressures associated with it were getting tiresome to the ‘four boys’ who were married men now approaching 30 with children.
Things got ugly when, during an Abbey Road studio session, Paul quarreled with John and stormed out. Lennon followed him, pushed his way into Paul’s house and smashed a gift he’d given him. In the film Let It Be, which was shot about that time, George complains at length to John about Paul treating him as a side man. Ringo just tries stay cool and uninvolved.
Obviously, they were sick of each other and needed to get on with their separate careers as musicians. But like people trapped in a marriage they can’t end, none of the four wanted to be the first to say, “I quit.”
The only person bad enough to do what had to be done was a Japanese-American woman, a professional artist, a survivor of World War II, who had no problem telling John Lennon, in effect, “You’re done with that part of your life — now let’s get on with ours.”