The last Lennon divorce
In 1980, Yoko Ono was busy making other plans. She had finally had enough of her needy, neurotic husband. It was time to divorce for good.
On the face of it, Yoko was in a particularly good place in 1980. She had a prestigious set of apartments in one of the best buildings in New York. Money from Lennon’s musical career continued to pour in. She’d made a series of investments, some of them fortuitous, that had greatly expanded her cottage empire.
Lennon had granted her power of attorney, putting her fully in control of his name and his affairs. She made sure he drew up a will. Its contents were never in doubt.
But the couple were all but estranged. Lennon had descended into various drug addictions, notably to heroin and cocaine, and to suicidal thoughts. He was frightened, cowed, paranoid, and had lost all self-confidence.
After his return to her in 1975, the pair had become bored of each other within months. They soon stopped having sex, and Lennon took to visiting whores instead. They bickered constantly, snapped at each other when he was home, and had fights when she was in one of her frequent moods – or he was in one of his. Some of these fights turned vicious and physical.
As soon as he won his green card, Yoko sent him on lengthy foreign trips just to be rid of him.
The last five years of Lennon’s life were a time of almost complete misery. In 1977, in one of his least known episodes, he became a born again Christian. He began composing again, but only religious songs like ‘Talking With Jesus.’ He eventually replaced Christ with a similar infatuation with Islam.
In September 1978, in another scarcely remembered episode, he attempted a second “lost weekend,” this time in Hawaii.
Later he tried desperately to begin a relationship with the illustrator Alexa Grace, with whom he began exactly the same fluttery affair of letters, postcards and phone calls that had characterized his relationship with Yoko in 1967.
Balance all this with Yoko’s version of events. “I guess the most heightened moment was after we came back together again,” she claims. “We were both ecstatic from then on.”
A man as volatile and insecure as Lennon needed a softly supportive woman to mother him, as Cynthia Powell and May Pang did. (I’ll talk about May in my next post.) From the start of their relationship, Yoko did the opposite: she fed on his insecurities, used them to dominate him, wrapped him in psychological knots, and tried everything short of brainwashing to manipulate him. She played cruel games with Lennon, and he was weak enough to let her.
In 1975, she rebuilt all the walls May had bridged. Lennon stopped seeing Paul McCartney or any other musical friends. Any talk of a Beatles reunion was stomped on. He turned his back on music altogether, writing very few songs over the last five years of his life.
She also prevented him from connecting any further with Julian, Cynthia, and his own family back in England.
While Lennon had a host of psychological problems, including an immense sexual appetite that his wife would not satisfy, Yoko had issues of her own. She had fallen for the then fashionable nonsense of occultism.
By itself, that might not have mattered. But Yoko was convinced that if she gave birth on Lennon’s birthday, the child would inherit his artistic soul. Sean was due in November 1975, so it was a surprise to everyone, including Lennon himself, when she went into labor on his birthday on 9 October.
It was a tumultuous birth, achieved by caesarian. The month-premature Sean was sickly and needed a dangerous operation, and the hospital allegedly found traces of a drug in Yoko’s body.
If you believe the story I’ll mention in my next post, Yoko was not above the use of potions to achieve her aims. Would she really have used a drug of some kind to induce an early birth? And if so, what else was she capable of?
Did Yoko love John? That’s an unfathomable question. She certainly gazed at him as if she did. But there are so many other reasons for Yoko to latch onto Lennon in 1967. He was a route to money, fame, and artistic reach. All the things she lacked as a struggling, unknown, lonely artist in London with a failing marriage. Fairly or not, those reasons make her a person of suspicion.
With Lennon it’s easy to tell his inner psychology, since he usually blurted it out. Lennon saw Yoko as a mother figure, as a creative equal, as an intellectual, as a radical, as a confidant, as a crutch to support a psyche paralyzed by indecision and fear, and as something alien and captivating.
What Yoko wasn’t was a muse. He wrote very few songs of any worth about her. But let’s not overstate this: he wrote very few songs of any worth about Cynthia or May either. The artist’s inspiration manifested itself in other ways, for example in a new openness to experiment.
But, coincidentally or not, Lennon’s relationship with Yoko coincided with the swift collapse of his creativity. He was burned out in 1971.
And nor was she an answer. He was still in a bad shape in 1970, when he turned to Dr. Arthur Janov for help. Love, it transpired, wasn’t enough to live on, whatever a naive writer might have told us in 1967.
The main reason for believing that Lennon loved Yoko is that the relationship offered him so little. From an external point of view, it brought him nothing but grief. It sundered his band, it broke up his marriage, it further distanced him from his young son, the public and the press hated Yoko, and she flung him at once into all kinds of wildernesses. By the end of 1971, when she’d hauled him away from his beloved Tittenhurst to her beloved New York, she was all he had left.
Some blame Yoko for introducing him to heroin. It’s a circular argument. Lennon had a horrible 1968. He turned to heroin because he had a horrible 1968. He had a horrible 1968 because of his decision to be with Yoko.
The relationship was in trouble practically from the start. There were many times, in the first few years of their marriage, that they almost separated for good. The surprising thing in hindsight is not that John-And-Yoko-True-Love-Forever dissolved in 1973, but that it didn’t dissolve in 1971 or 1972.
But Yoko reads it differently: “We were like those classic doomed lovers that even made gods and goddesses jealous and angry,” she claims.
By 1980 the pair were again at a breaking point. Yoko had decided to divorce him the moment he finished the comeback record she was pushing him to create. Her occult ruminations had decided that 1980 was the best year for the disk, and she packed him off to Bermuda to write it.
Lennon wrote a good many songs in Bermuda. More than enough for the LP. But then he received a phone call. Yoko had one stipulation for the disk: she would have half of it, just like Some Time In New York City. And like that album, it wouldn’t be one side him and one side her. Their songs would be interwoven.
Lennon was appalled. From any artistic and commercial viewpoint, this was crazy. Yoko was a businesswoman. Didn’t she realize this, too?
The divorce is the important thing here. Yoko’s career was a mess. As an artist, she had little left of her credibility, and hadn’t held an exhibition in years. As a musician, her last solo albums Approximately Infinite Universe and Feeling The Space had been failures.
If she were to divorce Lennon, she would need a platform to launch herself, and the new record would be perfect for that. With his name and picture on the cover, it was bound to be a good seller. It would make her name as a new wave pop artist.
And here’s irony number one. The album that was supposed to celebrate the myth of their happy loving lives together was actually the means by which Yoko would effect her divorce.
In the event, Double Fantasy (A Heart Play) doesn’t even sound like a happy loving couple. It sounds like a near-constant argument between two fractious and damaged people. It’s ironic that ‘Woman’ was accompanied by a video of the pair pretending to have sex, when they hadn’t actually had much sex in years. The recording sessions themselves were fraught with arguments.
The marriage was a double fantasy: a fantasy to the outside world, and a fantasy to themselves.
“He was an incredibly passionate romantic,” Yoko gushed later. “We were both romantics. Wuthering Heights was our story. We thought he was Heathcliff, and I, Cathy. We were so sweet to each other.”
For Lennon, Double Fantasy may well also have been his bid for freedom. We can well imagine how this particularly story would pan out. He would divorce Yoko and return to May. He would reconnect with everyone, including the other Beatles. He would be happy and productive for the rest of his life.
One of Lennon’s last acts in his life was to send May a box of copies of the album, kissing cover and all. It was the last she heard from him, and I wonder what she made of the disk. On the surface, sending her this Yoko-fixated album was crassly insensitive. Unless they too were making other plans.
But then irony number two stepped in. The album was received poorly by critics. Its sales were mediocre. Village Voice perceptively described it as: “vampire woman sucks life out of man who enjoys every minute of his extended destruction.” Though some praised Yoko’s songs, it was hardly the platform she’d needed to launch her new life without him.
Would John and Yoko have divorced in 1980? He could still have done it, but Yoko would never have allowed him to. Double Fantasy ruined her chances. Lennon would burn out again, and the couple’s misery would continue, perhaps forever.
But then he was killed, and the album finally began to sell in huge numbers. At once Yoko was a star that the whole world clutched to its grieving bosom in sympathy.
Robert Maas’s book of outstanding psychedelic music, Trippersonics by Scott Meze, is available to buy in paperback on Amazon. It includes a piece by Yoko Ono, whom he loves with a passion. The links are here.