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John Lennon was the Beatlesí most committed rock & roller, their social conscience, and their slyest verbal wit. After the groupís breakup, he and his second wife, Yoko Ono, carried on intertwined solo careers. Onoís early albums presaged the elastic, screechy vocal style of late-Seventies new wavers like the B-52ís and Lene Lovich. L7 and Babes in Toyland have also been influenced by and benefitted from Onoís attitudinal, emotionally trailblazing work. Lennon strove to break taboos and to be ruthlessly, publicly honest. When he was murdered on December 8,1980, be and Ono seemed on the verge of a new, more optimistic phase. In the years since Lennonís death, many critics and music historians have revised their view of Ono to recognize her contributions as a pioneering woman rock musician and avant-garde artist.

Like the other three Beatles, Lennon was born to a working-class family in Liverpool. His parents, Julia and Fred, separated before be was two (Lennon saw his father only twice in the next 20 years), and Lennon went to live with his motherís sister, Mimi Smith; when Lennon was 17 his mother was killed by a bus. He attended Liverpoolís Dovedale Primary School and later the Quarry Bank High School, which supplied the name for his first band, a skiffle group called the Quarrymen, which he started in 1955. In the summer of 1956 he met Paul McCartney, and they began writing songs together and forming groups, the last of which was the Beatles [see entry]. In 1994 a tape of John and the Quarrymen performing two songs, made July 6,1957, the day he met McCartney, came to light. Recorded by Bob Molyneux, then a member of the churchís youth club, it was auctioned at Sothebyís that September, fetching $122,900 from EMI. On the tape Lennon sings "Puttiní on the Style," then a #1 hit for skiffle king Lonnie Donegan, and "Baby Letís Play House," the Arthur "Hard Rock" Gunter song that had been recorded by Elvis Presley and a line of which ("Iíd rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man") Lennon later used in the Beatlesí "Run for Your Life."

Just before the Beatlesí official breakup in 1970 (Lennon had wanted to quit the band earlier), Lennon began his solo career, more than ball of which consisted of collaborations with Ono.

Ono was raised in Tokyo by her wealthy Japanese banking family. She was an excellent student (in 1952 she became the first woman admitted to study philosophy at Japanís Gakushuin University) and moved to the U.S. in 1953 to study at Sarah Lawrence College. After dropping out, she became involved in the Fluxus movement, led by NeW York avant-garde conceptual artists including George Maciunas, La Monte Young, Diane Wakoski, and Walter De Maria. During the early Sixties Onoís works (many of which were conceptual pieces, some involving audience participation) were exhibited and/or performed at the Village Gate, Carnegie Recital Hall, and numerous New York galleries. In the mid-Sixties she lectured at Wesleyan College and had exhibitions in Japan and London, where she met Lennon in 1966 at the Indica Gallery.

The two began corresponding, and in September 1967 Lennon sponsored Onoís "Half Wind Show" at Londonís Lisson Gallery. In May 1968 Ono visited Lennon at his home in Weybridge, and that night they recorded the tapes that would later be released as Two Virgins. (The nude cover shots, taken by Lennon with an automatic camera, were photographed then as well.) Lennon soon separated from his wife, Cynthia (with whom he had one child, Julian, in 1964); they were divorced that November. Lennon and Ono became constant companions.

Frustrated by his role with the Beatles, Lennon, with Ono, got a chance to explore avant-garde art, music, and film. While he regarded his relationship with Ono as the most important thing in his life, the coupleís inseparability and Onoís influence over Lennon would be a source of great tension among the Beatles, then in their last days.

Three days after Lennonís divorce, he and Ono released Two Virgins, which, because of the full frontal nude photos of the couple on the jacket, was the subject of much controversy; the LP was shipped in a plain brown wrapper. On March 20, 1969, Lennon and Ono were married in Gibraltar; for their honeymoon, they held their first "Bed-in for Peace," in the presidential suite of the Amsterdam Hilton. The peace movement was the first of several political causes the couple would take up over the years, but it was the one that generated the most publicity. On April 22, Lennon changed his middle name from Winston to Ono. In May they attempted to continue their bed-in in the United States, but when U.S. authorities forbade them to enter the country because of their arrest on drug charges in October 1968, the bed-in resumed in Montreal. That May, in their suite at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, they recorded "Give Peace a Chance"; background chanters included Timothy Leary, Tommy Smothers, and numerous Hare Krishnas. Soon afterward "The Ballad of John and Yoko" (#8, 1969) was released under the Beatles name, though only Lennon and McCartney appear on the record.

In September Lennon, Ono, and the Plastic Ono Band (which included Eric Clapton, Alan White, and Klaus Voormann) performed live in Toronto at a Rock Ďní Roll Revival show. The appearance, which was later released as Live Peace in Toronto, 1969, was Lennonís first performance before a live concert audience in three years. Less than a month later be announced to the Beatles that be was quitting the group, but it was agreed among them that no public announcement would be made until after pending lawsuits involving Apple and manager Allen Klein were resolved. In October the Plastic Ono Band released "Cold Turkey" (#30, 1969), which the Beatles had declined to record, and the next month Lennon returned his M.B.E. medal to the Queen. In a letter to the Queen, Lennon cited Britainís involvement in Biafra and support of the U.S. in Vietnam and -- jokingly -- Cold Turkey" Ďs poor chart showing as reasons for the return.

The Lennons continued their peace campaign with speeches to the press; "War Is Over! If You Want It" billboards erected on December 15 in 12 cities around the world, including New York, Hollywood, London, and Toronto; and plans for a peace festival in Toronto. While the festival plans deteriorated, Lennon turned his attention to recording "Instant Karma! ," which was produced by Phil Spector, who was then also editing hours of tapes into the album that would be the Beatlesí last official release, Let It Be In late February 1970 Lennon disavowed any connection with the Peace Festival and the event was abandoned. In April McCartney -- in a move that Lennon felt was an act of betrayal -- announced his departure from the Beatles and released his solo LP. From this point on (if not earlier), Ono replaced McCartney as Lennonís main collaborator. The Beatles were no more.

At the time, much attention was focused on Onoís alleged role in the bandís end. An Esquire magazine piece racistly entitled "John Rennonís Excrusive Gloupie" was an extreme example of the decidedly anti-woman, anti-Asian backlash against Ono that she and Lennon would endure for years to come. As Ono told Lennon biographer Jon Wiener in a late 1983 interview for his book Come Together: John Lennon in His Time, "When John I were first together he got lots of threatening letters: ĎThat Oriental will slit your throat while youíre sleeping.í The Western hero had been seized by an Eastern demon."

In late 1970 Lennon and Ono released their Plastic Ono Band solo LPs. Generally, Onoís Seventies LPs were regarded as highly adventurous avant-garde works, and were thus never as popular as Lennonís. His contained "Mother," which, along with other songs, was his most personal and, some felt, disturbing work -- the direct result of his and Onoís primal scream therapy with Dr. Arthur Janov. In March 1971 "Power to the People" hit #11, and that September Lennonís solo LP Imagine was released; it went to #1 a month later. By late 1971 Lennon and Ono had resumed their political activities, drawn to leftist political figures like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Their involvement was reflected on Some Time in New York City (recorded with Elephantís Memory [see entry]), which included Lennonís most overtly political releases (his and Onoís "Woman Is the Nigger of the World" and Onoís "Sisters, 0 Sisters"). The album sold poorly, reaching only #48.

Over the next two years Lennon released Mind Games (#9) and Walls and Bridges (#1), which yielded his only solo #1 bit, "Whatever Gets You thru the Night," recorded with Elton John. On November 28, 1974, Lennon made his last public appearance, at Johnís Madison Square Garden concert. The two performed three songs: "Whatever Gets You thru the Night," "I Saw Her Standing There," and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," released on an EP after Lennonís death. Next came Rock Ďní Roll, a collection of Lennonís versions of Fifties and early-Sixties rock classics like "Be-Bop-a-Lula." The release was preceded by a bootleg copy, produced by Morris Levy, over which Lennon successfully sued Levy. Rock Ďn ĎRoll (#6,1975) would be Lennonís last solo release during his lifetime except for Shaved Fish, a greatest-hits compilation.

Meanwhile, Lennonís energies were increasingly directed toward his legal battle with the U.S. Immigration Department, which sought his deportation on the grounds of his previous drug arrest and involvement with the American radical left. On October 7,1975, the U.S. court of appeals overturned the deportation order; in 1976 Lennon received permanent resident status. On October 9,1975, Lennonís 35th birthday, Ono gave birth to Sean Ono Lennon. Beginning in 1975, Lennon devoted his full attention to his new son and his marriage, which had survived an 18-month separation from October 1973 to March 1975. For the next five years, be lived at home in nearly total seclusion, taking care of Sean while Ono ran the coupleís financial affairs. Not until the publication of a full-page newspaper ad in May 1979 explaining his and Onoís activities did Lennon even hint at a possible return to recording.

In September 1980 he and Ono signed a contract with the newly formed Geffen Records, and on November 15 they released Double Fantasy (#1, 1980). A series of revealing interviews were published, "(Just Like) Starting Over" hit #1, and there was talk of a possible world tour.

But on December 8,1980, Lennon, returning with Ono to their Dakota apartment on New York Cityís Upper West Side, was shot seven times by Mark David Chapman, a 25-year-old drifter and Beatles fan to whom Lennon had given an autograph a few hours earlier. Lennon was pronounced dead on arrival at Roosevelt Hospital. At Onoís request, on December 14 a ten-minute silent vigil was held at 2:00 p.m. EST in which millions around the world participated. Lennonís remains were cremated in Hartsdale, New York. At the time of his death, Lennon was holding in band a tape of Onoís "Walking on Thin Ice."

Two other singles from Double Fantasy were hits: "Woman" (#2, 1981) and "Watching the Wheels" (#10, 1981). Double Fantasy won a Grammy for Album of the Year (1981). Three months after the murder, Ono released Season of Glass (#49), an LP that deals with Lennonís death (his cracked and bloodstained eyeglasses are shown on the front jacket), although many of the songs were written before his shooting. Season of Glass is the best known of Onoís solo LPs; it was the first to receive attention outside avant-garde and critical circles.

In 1982 Ono left Geffen for Polydor, where she released Itís Alright, Milk and Honey (which featured six songs by Ono and six by Lennon) (#11, 1984), and Starpeace. During the Starpeace Tour Ono performed behind the Iron Curtain, in Budapest, Hungary, but the tour was not as warmly received elsewhere. None of these albums was particularly successful commercially, but in the wake of renewed appreciation for Onoís work, Rykodisc issued the six-CD box set Onobox in 1992 (Walking on Thin Ice is a compilation from that). In 1984 a number of artists, including Rosanne Cash, Harry Nilsson, Elvis Costello, Roberta Flack, and Sean Lennon (in his recording debut) participated in Every Man Has a Woman Who Loves Him, a collection of Ono songs. Following a 1989 retrospective at New Yorkís Whitney Museum, Onoís work found a new audience and has since been shown continuously throughout the world. In 1994 she wrote a rock opera entitled New York Rock, which ran Off-Broadway for two weeks to largely positive reviews. Clearly autobiographical, the play was a love story that ends in a murder, and featured songs from every phase of her recording career.

In addition to pursuing her own projects, Ono has maintained careful watch over the Lennon legacy. In the mid-Eighties she opened the Lennon archives to Andrew Solt and David Wolper for their 1988 film biography Imagine (which was accompanied by a coffee-table photo book of the same title). Coming as it did just a few months after the publication of Albert Goldmanís scurrilous The Lives of John Lennon, some observers saw Imagine as a piece of spin control. In fact, however, it had been in the works for over five years by then. Onoís decision not to sue Goldman (she stated that her lawyers warned that legal action would only bring more attention to the discredited tome) was in itself controversial. Paul McCartney urged a public boycott of the Goldman book, which was almost universally reviled. Shortly after its publication, Sean asked to study abroad, and Ono accompanied him to Geneva, where they took up residence for a few years. On September 30, 1988, a week before Imagineís release, John Lennon received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It is located near the Capitol Records building.

On March 21, 1984, Ono, Sean Lennon, and Julian Lennon were present as New York City mayor Ed Koch officially opened Strawberry Fields, a triangular section of Central Park dedicated to his memory and filled with plants, rocks, and other objects that Ono had solicited from heads of state around the world. The day before, March 20, marked the coupleís 15th wedding anniversary.


 

 

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