Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Double Fantasy: Portrait of a Relationship

In late 1966 John Lennon attended a preview by New York avant-gardist Yoko Ono at a chic new London gallery run by Marianne Faithfull's ex-husband. Lennon, who spent a lot of time back then guessing which of the red lights in his "nothing box" would flash next, was intrigued by what he saw, especially the A3200 apple (watch it decompose) and the ladder-and-telescope (pointed at the one word message yes). When he was introduced to the artist, who had never heard of him, she handed him a card that said Breath. They next ran into each other at a Claes Oldenburg exhibit. Soon John had received a copy of Grapefruit, Yoko's book of conceptual-art koans, and agreed to contribute work to a John Cage project. The following June he backed the artist's new show, a roomful of furniture cut precisely in half, which she entitled "Yoko Plus Me." John was too shy (paranoid? ambivalent? skeptical? smitten?) to attend.

At this point I should acknowledge my dependence on secondary sources that aren't entirely reliable, even (or especially) when the primary source is the principals. It's bad enough that the only people who can be sure of what goes on in a marriage are the wife and husband; what's worse is that all too often the spouses don't really know either and, if they do, they may prefer to keep it to themselves. So it's quite possible that Ringo was the only Beatle name Yoko knew--that's how it was for many basically indifferent Americans in late 1966. But since couples do tend to mythologize their own beginnings, the tale would be tempting even if it stretched the facts a little. There is in any case a different version of the First Meeting--Yoko's, in which John refuses to pay five shillings to hammer a nail into a board, electing instead to pay nothing and work with an imaginary one. As Yoko told an interviewer: "It's so symbolic you see; the virginal board, for a man to hammer a nail in." So symbolic. It was eighteen months before John hammered a real symbolic nail in, at the dawning of a day that followed a night of tape-collaging in John's Weybridge mansion The tape was eventually released as an album whose jacket, nude self-photographs of the couple front and back, caused quite a stir The title, as you may recall, was Two Virgins. So symbolic.

Thus began a marriage in which two compulsive artists took all the therapeutic bromides about creative relationships further than any therapist ever intended them to go. Other couples have been as deeply involved, though, after they'd been together only a year, Derek Taylor estimated (somewhat hyperbolically) that they'd already spent as much time together in one year as most husbands and wives do in fifty. But John and Yoko did more than expend unimaginable amounts of psychic energy on each other--they also took it upon themselves to present their mutual effort to the world. The marriage was Yoko's overarching concept, the masterwork of John's maturity as surely as the group was of his youth.

In a way, this revived an old role for John, who in 1963 and 1964 was known as "the married Beatle." His wife Cynthia was one of those reassuringly out-of-synch details that made the Beatles such a powerful idea--a pretty blond art student, she may have put one Beatle off limits (yeah, sure), but she also gave the girls something to strive for. who knew that John had only tied the knot because he'd knocked up this very model of the hip young modern mom? And who knew that she was only a transitional symbol, soon to be outflanked by the liberated chick and the hippie earth mother? Needless to say, she also proved transitional for John, who always went with the zeitgeist or vice versa. Nor did this surprise anyone familiar with the facts. John was married to the Beatles, on his wife he fucked around. Not flagrantly, to be sure; he even kept "Norwegian Wood" inconclusive so Cyn wouldn't figure it out. Yet though she never caught on until the verse of their bitter breakup, she knew her dreams had not come true: "I didn't blame John or Yoko. I understood their love. I knew I couldn't fight the unity of mind and body that they had with each other. I had after all subconsciously prepared myself for what happened. But the implementation of their love for each other was without feeling for anyone else at the time. Their all-consuming love had no time for pain or unhappiness."

John's fans, even those who thought of themselves as far out, were astonished and dismayed when the most famous group member in the world merged with the obscure avant-gardist. But such single-minded involvement was just as surprising in Yoko. She'd been married twice--first to a Japanese pianist, then to an American filmmaker, both of whom had it at least as hard as Cynthia Lennon--and she identified with various New York art cliques. But the Fluxus Group, say, obviously didn't swallow up personal identity the way the Beatles did. Like so many of those drawn to the artistic life, Yoko had always felt "alone," and with her enigmatic manner, "John Rennon's Excrusive Gloupie" (to cite a charming Esquire title of the period) came across inscrutable at best and aloofly manipulative at worst. Her cool self-sufficiency, her apparent confidence that she was as worthy of the spotlight as the hero she'd bewitched, made all her other shortcomings--her age, her race, her gender, the wide-eyed stranger-than-fiction impassivity of her work, and her failure to resemble Jean Shrimpton--doubly distressing.

Yoko resented the pop world's suspicions keenly, but she didn't let them faze her "inordant flair for self-publicity"--to quote Philip Norman, one of the many suspicious middlebrows who've been over impressed with it--didn't equal that of Warhol, or Charlotte Moorman, or her Japanese-born contemporary Kusama, also adherents of the Duchampian avant-garde creed in which provocation becomes the sine qua non of the artistic act; for the most part, Yoko's stunts never reached outside the modest ambit of New York's loft bohemia. But in London she'd been a hit, and when she found the Beatles' more expansive palette at her disposal she didn't hesitate to put it to work. John was trying to harness his inchoate fame well before he got involved with Yoko--hence the "All You Need is Love" telecast, hence Apple itself--but it was only after their hookup that he began to exploit himself as an art star. Because the pair were inseparable, Yoko became a professional celebrity along with him, and inevitably their devotion became the subtext of everything they did. Beneath the acorn plantings, the bag events, the erection movies, the three "unfinished" album collaborations and the naive rhetoric of the bed-ins--not to mention John's erotic lithographs and such putative Beatle songs as "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" and "The Ballad of John and Yoko"--was the image of a couple in love replacing that of a group in magical cooperative union.

Even at best, however, the public image is an elusive aesthetic mode, and its vagueness was compounded in the case of John-and-Yoko by the stylistic habits of the principals, who--despite surface appearances--resembled each other as artists. without doubt, certain polarities--East vs. West, Duchamp vs. Berry--did enrich their synthesis. But the magnetism of opposites-attract wasn't the only force that pulled the Japanese avant-dilettante and the Liverpool super-bloke into the first passionate monogamous attachment of their lives. They shared a rather naive, self-absorbed fecundity, undercut with sly humor, artless play elements and a tendency to erupt in anger and pain. Like so many Sixties heroes, they were attracted to direct expression and enjoyed outrage for its own sake. They were unsophisticated ideologically. And neither had much interest in the concrete--compare Yoko's gnomic Grapefruit to John Cage's paradoxically eloquent Silence, or John's allusive "Strawberry Fields Forever" to the nostalgic detail of Paul McCartney's "Penny Lane." All of which means that they weren't especially inclined to let us know exactly what the relationship they'd created was like day to day. At around the time Grapefruit was republished in 1970--with a new "Introduction": "Hi! My name is John Lennon / I'd like you to meet Yoko Ono"--John Lennon's Diary also appeared. Most of its entries read like this: "Got up. Fucked wife. Watched telly. Went to bed."

Yet the image of John-and-Yoko proved prophetic and long-lasting. When they went public in mid-1968, the only visible pop music couple was Billy Vera & Judy Clay, who'd scored a doomed interracial one-shot early that year. By the time of Imagine and Fly, barely three years later, Delaney & Bonnie were already on the brink of d-i-v-o-r-c-e, Ike & Tina Turner's sexy hassled-pimp and triumphant-whore routine had peaked pop, Sonny & Cher were readying their terrifying parody of suburban bliss for the TV-rock market, and Paul McCartney, of all people, had formed a new group around the amateur keyboard player who wore his ring. In short, John Lennon had once again gone with the zeitgeist or vice versa, only this time he didn't end up staring at a nothing box. There was something there. John-and-Yoko may have been short on texture and filigree--Delaney & Bonnie offered a fuller sense of what married life is actually like, while Ike & Tina and Sonny & Cher drew very educational cartoons, and let us not forget George Jones & Tammy Wynette. But, as was so often true of Lennon, the work made up in feeling, and with luck durability, what it lacked in technical finesse, and after three years it had recognizable-contours.

First of all, John and Yoko were absolutes in each other's lives--their love subsumed even art, even peace. Happily-ever-after mythology notwithstanding, this sort of mutual obsession is very uncommon. Most people don't want it or can't do it--a rare synthesis of childlike neediness and the strength of character we mislabel autonomy is required. Only a couple who share work are likely to bring it off and, while wealth isn't a prerequisite, money certainly can help dispel the drudgery and distraction that wither so many great romances. So there was no way for John-and-Yoko to aim for the verisimilitude of Delaney & Bonnie--they didn't know what married life was actually like. And it really was Yoko who broke up the Beatles--or rather, the unwillingness of the other three to welcome her aboard as the fifth. When it was over, John summed up his new world view quite succinctly: "I just believe in me / Yoko and me / And that's reality."

As co-absolutes--especially given Yoko's will to independence and our old friend the zeitgeist--John and Yoko were theoretical equals. But up against the theory went eons of male chauvinism and tons of fame, all concentrated in one very bright no-longer-a-lad from Liverpool who towered over his diminutive wife at five-foot-eleven and couldn't stop himself from interrupting her in interviews. John meant it when he claimed Yoko as an equal--as much as anything, he fell in love with her because she was like a bloke, and out of reach of cameras and microphones it's likely that he deferred to his wife a lot more than most husbands do. But he didn't defer enough, in public or in private. Nothing in John's cultural conditioning or star privilege had prepared him to put an equal marriage into practice, and as millions of men learned in the Seventies, there's a big difference between meaning it and living it, between disavowing power and actually doing without. Anyway, even if living it had come easy, the world was going to take a lot of convincing. He and Yoko could have collaborated until they were sixty-four, released albums on simultaneous schedule in perpetuity, and she still would have been perceived as his appendage.

Yet the marriage changed him more drastically than her. Granted, it may only seem so because Yoko's previous identity remains cloudy; certainly no one noticed at the time, so accustomed were we to the mutations of rock stars and so much faith did we place in this one But where in 1967 John had been the avant-garde Beatle by default--the others just didn't have the stuff--by the end of 1968 he'd earned the title. This wasn't just a matter of a lot of confusing "experimental" work, either--Yoko had opened him up, so that he began to move away from the sidelong punning and aggressive wit that had become his trademark toward the naked rock & roll emotionality that was the other half of his gift. And unlike so many other prophets of pretentiousness, he never retreated into simple-minded hippie positivism. Next to George Harrison's doltish gurumania, for instance, John's Yoko derived post-Maharishi orientalism, complete with a vegetarian-to-macrobiotic regime that included lots of caviar once the rigors of Diet No. 7 were past, seemed quite intellectual. Veteran of a thousand acid trips, John could come on like a psychedelic asshole, but once he'd rejected the Maharishi he was never ashamed to act the working-class hero as well-principled and combative at best, with a serious mean streak when he got riled.

Most important, John's politics, always half a function of his big mouth, took a turn to the left when he and Yoko (hardly a rad herself) dedicated their celebrity, which is to say their lives, to "peace." Never mind that their ideas were in a real sense reactionary, impossibly idealistic philosophically and tactically; never mind that by giving peace a chance they also gave legions of fuzzy wuzzies a permanent copout simply by politicizing their fame, they changed the way their audience and colleagues thought about conscience. And if it seems arbitrary to credit Yoko with a propaganda campaign waged entirely in the first-person plural, remember that information dispersal was her specialty. There was, after all, a difference between her art and John's even more fundamental than Berry-vs.-Duchamp--she had to get it out there herself. John was hardly naive about marketing, but Yoko--who in 1959 had conceived some of Manhattan's first loft concerts--was an organizer by inclination, habit, and necessity on every front, it was her vision and energy that transformed John's restless dabbling into the febrile work-as-play-as-work that filled their idyll at its most inspired.

So, what did Yoko get out of all this--beyond the money, fame and power that some begrudge her to this day? Although she's given contradictory signals on this issue, the answer seems to be that she found somebody she could trust and that thus she learned to nurture. Although his enthusiasms were often short-lived, John never had trouble trusting--if anything, he was an easy mark. But Yoko, as a woman who wanted to be herself, maintained a safe distance. Both of her previous marriages had been to men who liked to take care of her. By her own testimony, the first was riddled with destructive infidelities that acted out her envy of her husband's success, the second began when (on the advice of spouse number one, who thought abortions were driving her crazy) she agreed to bear the child of filmmaker Tony Cox, a decision she apparently regretted for years. But when she conceived with John (almost immediately), she elected to go ahead and, after the pregnancy ended in a traumatic miscarriage, sought to gain custody of her daughter, Kyoko, from Cox. This is certainly not to suggest that the desire for motherhood equals health--the story would be depressing if Yoko hadn't remained productive in so many other ways The point is her emotional transformation, her sudden embrace of capacities she'd always found threatening before.

This was a great romance because it opened up two great romantics. And if equality, deeply felt no matter how frustrating to put into practice, was the key, then sex was the door. This is hardly to suggest that together the couple completely transcended their sexual hangups--that's a rare and perhaps not entirely desirable achievement. But it seems quite possible that these two non-virgins found the meaning of their lives in bed. As it happens, this sexual consciousness seems to have been Yoko's doing as well where the Beatles' sexiness had been automatic and hence almost subliminal, John-and-Yoko had the mock-one-dimensional, Épater-les-bourgeois, do-it-in-the-road aura of a woman who turned the sound of orgasm into a vocal style and flaunted hot pants in an era of pastoral nostalgia. Think of the nude photos and movies, or the pseudo-titillating bed-ins or John Lennon's Diary. Nor was this quasi-porn an advertisement for free love--John, fanatically jealous himself, refused to describe Beatle orgies in Lennon Remembers for fear of hurting Yoko. Among his erotic lithographs, there's one paradigmatic image of monogamous lust: Two John Lennons do Yoko simultaneously, one at her pussy and one at her right nipple, while Yoko tongues the left nipple herself. A decade later they were still at it: Yoko's "Kiss Kiss Kiss" was a more convincing come song than Donna Summer's, and the "Walking on Thin Ice" video moved from the torsos of the two lovers to Yoko's face, rippling in sexual transport.

They were in love for the first time, and they knew it was going to last--their passion constituted an eternal present. But in the less blissful moments that afflict any passionate relationship and were numerous with these two, who could never go cold turkey on their manic (hence depressive) tendencies, they wondered how their love was going to persist through real time, after a while John began to worry about "mad couples" like Scott-and-Zelda.from Arthur Janov they learned that their future hinged on the traumatic separations in their respective pasts, including John's from his mother, Julia, who turned him over to her sister as a three-year-old and died when he was seventeen, and Yoko 's from her parents during World War II. And from the future they learned that Arthur Janov hadn't taught them enough.

Part of the push for John's Imagine and Yoko's Fly was a ninety-minute feature called Imagine (heavier title than Fly, right?) that never got theatrical distribution. A leisurely succession of silent scenes accompanied by songs from the albums, Imagine can be pretty dumb. Yet if a chess game played entirely with white pieces makes for a tolerable shot and a tedious sequence, John and Yoko's eye and body contact throughout the film generate an almost euphoric intimacy that's heightened by the relaxed pace--the most seductive connubial image they ever created. But beginning with "The Ballad of John and Yoko" (the second time John compared himself publicly to Christ, though by 1969 no one cared) it was apparent that they also felt embattled, and on Imagine the domestic epiphany of "Oh Yoko!" was balanced off and then some by the doubt and struggle of "How?" and "It's So Hard" and "Jealous Guy." Nor did "Mrs. Lennon," "Oh Yoko!"'s sardonic companion piece on Fly, radiate contentment. Soon the fight for Kyoko, the strain of childlessness, John's battle with U.S. Immigration, and the failure of Some Time in New York City to move up the charts were all taking a discernible toll. Ignored as an artist in John's world, Yoko felt her identity slipping away, and John's moody support didn't compensate. His "Aisumasen (I'm Sorry)," on 1973's Mind Gaines, was written entirely in the eternal present: "And when I hurt you and cause you pain / Darlin' I promise I won't do it again." In late 1973 they separated, apparently at Yoko's insistence--though it's equally apparent that John had been asking for it.

"I don't know what marriage is. I have no idea. Marriage has nothing to do with a man/woman relationship," John told Loraine Alterman in late 1974. "Yoko and I are sort of separated but equal and together. I don't know what else to say except that Yoko is probably the first and only woman I've ever been with who'll remain a real friend, no matter what goes down with our marriage." This was a typical statement for John--direct, insightful and commonplace, the sort of thing spouses often say before they admit to themselves that the bond has somehow been broken. Yet for these two it was different: Their separation turned their great romance into a great marriage.

Initially, of course, it just looked like another dream-is-over. John and Yoko had exposed themselves as two more creative egomaniacs who couldn't make room for each other, characters as familiar in bohemia as they are in show biz. Yoko remained in New York while John drank himself stupid in L.A., where he was once spotted with a Kotex on his head. Yoko tended to her work and John tended to his, neither with as much success as had been hoped, though John did get the Number One "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night" out of his misery. But Walls and Bridges, his 1974 album, also included a benediction to Yoko in someone else's arms and the crazed "What You Got," which brought to life the ancient line "Oh baby, baby, baby gimme one more chance." And eventually, baby--usually known as mother-did. They'd never stopped talking on the phone, and after John returned to New York they started "dating" again. Soon the marriage was back on.

This time, however, it was going to be different, and it was, though since one big change was that they no longer conceived their union as any kind of public art event, few facts are clear. On October 9, 1975, Yoko bore John a son in an arduous delivery. When his contract with EMI expired in 1976, John signed with nobody, freeing himself to care for Sean as neither of his parents had ever cared for him. Yoko, meanwhile, devoted her time to the family fortune, diversifying into real estate and dairy cattle. In May 1979, full-page ads in major dailies and music trades announced the Lennons' continuing tranquility and advised those awaiting John-and-Yoko's return to music and/or political action to free their minds instead. Nevertheless, by August of 1980 they were recording a, yes, concept album about their, yes, relationship. And that relationship, as it emerged, from Double Fantasy and the surrounding interviews, seemed quite remarkable--and also quite credible.

Since John is sometimes cited as a pioneering househusband, I'll mention that a househusband with full-time servants (nanny included) is not the same thing as a househusband who vacuums while making sure that the cake and the baby don't burn--in short, works like a mother. And it's worth pointing out not only that John sacrificed art to marriage at least partly because he didn't want to turn into a hack (cf. Paul, George, Ringo), but also that Yoko made a not dissimilar sacrifice. Of course, Yoko's foray into finance had an arty aura--to conduct business "just as a chess game" is almost an homage to Duchamp, who quit art to play chess himself. But those who believe that Yoko pussy-whipped John into handing over the money forget that after Brian Epstein (who as it happens was in love with him) John never met a businessperson worthy of his trust, including his inefficient self. It may seem odd for Yoko to have left the rearing of their child to her spouse, but fathers impose the opposite division of labor all the time. And to assume that wheeling and dealing does more for the soul than playing patty cake is to be deceived by conventional notions of status, not a common failing among superstars, all of whom know the secret terrors of the obeisance jones and some of whom even manage to kick.

None of which is to rationalize away the striking peculiarities of this relationship. My feminist assumption that John oppressed Yoko is based on the evidence--their own testimony, John's history of male chauvinism and head-strong bullshit, and our knowledge of how marriage works. But Yoko is obviously hell on wheels as a matter of habit-driven, demanding, temperamental, impossibly egocentric. Her feminist credentials are compromised by her general unsisterliness--like most blokes, Yoko has always preferred the company of men. Her stated disinclination to mother her infant son is connected to a notion of status only marginally more forgivable in a woman than in a man. Also, as both of them were happy to make clear to Annie Leibovitz's camera, Yoko encouraged in her husband an infantile or even fetal dependency. She needed him, but one reason they split up--and reorganized their marriage the way they did--was that she also needed her independence. He needed her, period.

But even if we conjecture (falsely, I believe) that Yoko re-entered the marriage coolly, calculating the power balances in her own favor because she knew John would be unable to resist after a year and a half of acute separation anxiety, how does that change things? If Yoko consciously chose an intimacy that was sheer compulsion for John, does that make her commitment any less impressive? Marriage doesn't match models of sanity; it accommodates two human beings with the usual quota of quirks and worse. This may have been an unusually neurotic relationship. But why do we always assume that neurosis must be defeated, transcended, escaped? John Lennon learned not merely to make do with his compulsions but to make something fairly miraculous out of them. After a traumatic breach, he managed to collaborate in a marriage that confounded traditional sex roles, and thus to achieve some of the loving wisdom he'd always hoped to find on the other side of his mean streak. And this is in keeping with everything we love about him, for as an artist his indelible value was the way he transmuted abrasive anger into joy and hope--something that only happened when first his group, then his wife shielded him from the aloneness he dreaded before anything else on earth.

For John Lennon to replace a cooperative with a couple was to give up on the best hopes of the Sixties, but I blame that on the zeitgeist; the best hopes of the Sixties were hopes only, and their failure left each of us free only to scramble. After enormous anguish, he and Yoko figured out a structure in which their passion could persist through real time. Personally, I find this structure short on dialectics and long on yin-and-yang. But since it's up to each of us who sees marriage as a potentially exalting compromise to discover what the terms of our own particular compromise--and exaltation--might be, my only real regret is that for a long time there was no way for John and Yoko to make their own particulars public, as art. That changed with Double Fantasy, which offered a sharp sense not just of the obvious stuff, the tenderness and struggle and rage and delight, but of a few emotional specifics, not all of them universally appealing: game-playing, occult quietism and mystagogy, hints of subordination and condescension. I like to fantasize that in future albums we would have gotten an idea of what day-to-day proportions of intimacy and solitude, work and goofing off, ecstasy and boredom went into the mix--not so we could copy the formula but so that our belief in their union could become more vivid. For by the time the best hopes of the sixties had made a martyr out of John Lennon, he did know--his wife had taught him--what marriage was, or might be. Equality without stasis, tranquility without stagnation, and let your face be the last I see.

The Ballad of John and Yoko, 1982