Mike tells Sarah how the myth of meddling wives serves to exonerate terrible husbands. Digressions include "50 Shades of Grey," Marie Antoinette and the end of the 1960s. This episode, we’re sorry to say, contains descriptions of domestic abuse.
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Sarah: They just kept getting weirder until they stopped existing and so probably what you regard as their masterpieces, like, what level of weirdness do you most cherish your Beatles?
Sarah: Welcome to You’re Wrong About, the show where we make you feel real sad about 50 years’ worth of sitcom jokes.
Sarah: Well, I just grew up watching sitcoms unlike some uncultured people.
Mike: You had cable. We've talked about this.
Sarah: Yes. I was really educated by Nick at Nite.
Mike: I am Michael Hobbes. I'm a reporter for the Huffington Post.
Sarah: I am Sarah Marshall, and I'm working on a book about the Satanic Panic.
Mike: We are on Patreon at patreon.com/yourewrongabout
Sarah: And we are in your hearts forever.
Mike: And today we're talking about Yoko Ono.
Sarah: Yeah. I'm very excited about this one. I know I say that every time, but it doesn't make it less true.
Mike: I am too, actually, because it draws together actually a surprising number of themes that we've talked about in other episodes, that a lot of this episode ends up being about the thing that we mentioned in the victim's rights episode about, like, the end of the sixties.
Sarah: Oh, they blame her for ending the sixties. It's like, was she President secretly? I mean, that would have been great. We would have been a much more – well, we’re a pretty absurdist country.
Mike: What's interesting about Yoko is that she perfectly personifies exactly what non-hippies hated about the hippies. Right? She was this perfect symbol of how the hippie, free-love thing that had begun as exciting and interesting and refreshing sort of morphed over time into this thing that was decadent and repellant and naive.
Sarah: That's interesting
Mike: So, Yoko Ono, who is a woman, who is an Asian woman, who has all of this other baggage that people are assigning to her, all of a sudden, she's this ditzy person who's saying, “Give peace a chance.” She’s saying if people were happier, they wouldn't kill each other. All this sort of stuff that gets coded as hippie-dippy.
Sarah: I say that all the time.
Mike: And it's not clear Yoko was wrong, particularly, but she represents the shift back from the counterculture sixties, back to the majoritarian seventies.
Sarah: Oh no. Poor Yoko.
Mike: And so, do you want to summarize for me, like, the case against Yoko Ono?
Sarah: Will the prosecution present the state's case against Yoko Ono? The people versus Yoko Ono.
Mike: Okay. You know, I don't want to go down too many rabbit holes, which is basically what I've been doing for the last month.
Sarah: Our show could be called, “I Don't Want to Go Down Too Many Rabbit Holes”
Mike: Yeah. Because the myth that I'm kind of trying to debunk and the sort of “You’re Wrong About” here, I think, is really this narrative that Yoko broke up the Beatles.
Sarah: Right. Which is the thing that she is known for.
Mike: Yes. And is, I think, sort of subtly or on some level believed by a remarkably large number of people.
Sarah: I think even I, in a way, believe it.
Sarah: So the narrative I grew up on is she broke up the Beatles, like, maybe vindictively or something and then there's the joke where if you're in a band and one of your band mates starts dating someone and the relationship interferes with the band in any way, then you call them – and usually it's a woman – a “Yoko.”
Mike: Totally. Yes.
Sarah: That's like a sitcom joke for you to put in when you're tired and also a nice, probably trope to believe in your real life and my sense of her at this point is that John Lennon had started a relationship with her during the time that the Beatles were getting all like, sitar, meditation, going to India with Mia Pharaoh’s sister, and like, you know, cause they started out as a boy band and then they went really psychedelic and they were kind of attempting to alienate their previous audience and I guess the idea is that she was, like, an art witch who drew him toward this fancy-pants abstract art and away from rock and roll. That's what I know, and I don't really know much about their relationship, and I don't really know much about why The Beatles broke up. I mean, I grew up listening to The Beatles, but I don't know the details of The Beatles story.
Mike: The use of the word “witch” is really interesting, because that's a term that comes up a lot at the time too.
Mike: “Witch” and “Dragon Lady” tend to be the terms that people apply to her.
Sarah: Dragon Lady?
Mike: It's sort of that she's mean and kind of conniving. As we typically find in these stories, there are sort of two reasons to hate Yoko Ono, and they're exactly the opposite. So, one is that she's sort of a ditzy hippie.
Sarah: Kind of like we made fun of her in the same way we would later make fun of Bjork.
Mike: Yeah, exactly. You know, one of the infamous headlines about her at this time is an Esquire headline that calls her “John Rennon’s Excrusive Gloupie.”
Sarah: That's so horrible.
Mike: It’s awful.
Sarah: That's so fucking gross.
Mike: What's so interesting about that headline, beyond the obvious racism, is that it's calling Yoko Ono a groupie, right? And so this is sort of one half of the case against her is that she's, you know, she's often labeled an actress. The A.P. refers to her as his mistress when they get married in the wedding announcement.
Sarah: That’s gross.
Mike: They refer to her as someone who sort of takes off her clothes on stage, which she's done as part of like, we will get into it, but she has done this as part of an avant-garde art project. Like, she's not dancing in clubs at night.
Sarah: Yeah. It's interesting how American mainstream press is actually really hostile to performance art. Like, we periodically get very upset about, “there's these women and they do weird stuff on stage. I don't like it!” You know?
Mike: That's sort of one half of the myth, is that she's this ditzy hippie. She's into astrology.
Sarah: Oh no, not astrology!
Mike: I mean, all of these things are kind of coded as fundamentally unserious.
Sarah: Yeah. She's an art witch.
Mike: And then at the same time, you have the witch myth where she's controlling. She's manipulative. She's conniving. She's done this premeditated taking over of John's life that she pretends she doesn't know who he is when they first meet when she obviously does. This is part of the myth. She then stalks him. She shows up at his house. She gets into his marriage because he's married at the time that they meet. She worms her way into that marriage and destroys it and then she sort of brings herself into The Beatles. She starts inviting herself to the studio where they're recording Abbey Road and Let It Be and kind of manipulating him into putting her onto the tracks. She's manipulating him into not liking The Beatles. She sort of forms a wedge between him and the other Beatles.
Sarah: It's interesting that in the “Yoko as art witch” theory, John Lennon has no volition at any time and makes no choices for himself, has no emotions.
Sarah: He has no agency in that story. He's like what's her face in Fifty Shades of Grey.
Mike: Exactly. And you know, one of the things I kind of love about this is the idea that she’s stalking him, she tricks him into marrying her, it's like, people get obsessed with rockstars all the time and show up at their houses and rockstars don't marry all the people that do that.
Sarah: Right. Good point! John Lennon has had thousands of people obsessed with him by this point! What would it matter if it was the 4,003?
Mike: Right. I mean, it turns out to be not true for a million other reasons, too.
Sarah: But it's fascinating that this story is one where we're also like, he's not attracted to her at all. Like, she has to force him to marry her and it’s like, are we saying that we can't make sense of someone being attracted to Yoko Ono, who's beautiful in even a Kate Bush kind of way. I mean, she is witchy, and she is compelling, and I think if you met her in the sixties, you would be like, “Who is this person? Maybe I want to get a little obsessed with her.”
Mike: Oh, totally. She's wildly enigmatic. She also, to be fair, has an album called “Yes, I Am a Witch.” So, I actually looked really hard for the origin of the “Yoko broke up the Beatles” myth, and I couldn't find it. I think partly because a lot of the journalism from that era sort of hasn't ended up online. So it's really difficult to trace these myths back, but also people hated Yoko from day one. There was never a time, like a honeymoon period, when they liked Yoko and then they turned against her after The Beatles broke up. No. From literally his first appearance in public with Yoko, they absolutely loathed her.
Sarah: How much do you think that was based on racism?
Mike: I think it's an interesting mix between racism and sexism. So, on the racism side, I read two biographies of John Lennon and one biography of The Beatles. And in one of the biographies, it says, you know, we really can't overstate how rare it was to see Asian people in 1960s London.
Sarah: Unless you were seeing the movie South Pacific.
Mike: Basically the only depictions of Japanese people, Chinese people, Cambodians, Thai, everywhere in east Asia really was movies like Breakfast at Tiffany's.
Sarah: Where they were played by Mickey Rooney.
Mike: Exactly. Where they're played by a white dude. And all of these World War II myths about sort of the conniving, sneaking, Japanese person and so the fact that Yoko is seen as sort of clever like a fox is not a coincidence.
Sarah: That's so fucking weird.
Mike: And then – you're going to love this – on the female side of things, one thing that sort of didn't click into place for me until I started listening to this completely unrelated podcast about activism in the 1960s and 1970s, which I will put in show notes and is great, was that all of the gatekeepers of rock and roll at the time, all of the journalists, all of the DJs, all of the record company executives, I mean, you cannot overstate how fucking male they were.
Sarah: I mean, wasn't there a belief also that women biologically couldn't rock?
Mike: Yes, as evidenced by the rock and roll charts. If you look at any week from the 1960s and look at who is charting, it's The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan. Like, women were invisible.
Sarah: I mean, there's Janice Joplin. Janice Joplin rocked, and everyone knew it. I mean, I'm sure there are people that we're forgetting, but yeah, if you were a woman on the charts, then you were singing soft rock, adult contemporary, or something.
Mike: You were allowed to be like Janis Ian or something.
Sarah: Right. Or Joni Mitchell.
Mike: Yeah. Like, you imagine a song like, “[I Can't Get No] Satisfaction.” The idea of a woman's singing something swaggery with the rock and roll attitude behind it… completely invisible.
Sarah: This is why Suzi Quatro changed a generation.
Mike: Yes. I mean, this is a bit of a tangent, but one of the best details from this podcast was about Helen Reddy, the woman who recorded the song, “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar.” She was basically a housewife. She recorded the song. She started playing it to radio DJs, which, again, were 100% male. Trying to get it onto the radio and the response from DJs, the response from sort of the institutional tastemakers, wasn't just “Sorry, it's not for us.” It was like, “This disgusts me. You should be ashamed of yourself.” People would ask her to leave their offices after listening to it like, “This is revolting.”
Sarah: That's horrible. Like, the amount of just raw anger that you can feel directed at women in this time. I mean, it's no different than today, but it's really…. it's still astounding when you uncover it.
Mike: But so, the only way she actually gets it on the radio is she starts playing it live on afternoon talk shows, TV talk shows.
Sarah: Because women watch them.
Mike: Yeah. And so she would perform the song and then at the end of the song, she would say, “Hey ladies. Call your local radio station and get them to play it”. And eventually, under all this public pressure, the radio stations relented and started playing it and it became a number one hit.
Sarah: That’s amazing.
Mike: And so, you know, that's a bit of a tangent, but I think it's instructive for just understanding the extent to which men dominated this industry. And, you know, the way that Yoko talks about it now is she says John was their treasure and I took it away.
Sarah: Interesting. Why does he belong to them less if he's in a relationship with her?
Mike: I mean, this is what's so interesting to me is this palpable sense of ownership over this musical artist, who, of course, nobody's ever met, who's an independent human being, who they end up exonerating of all of his human complexity and foibles and huge faults to create this narrative in which she sort of swoops in some like sort of raptor and pulls him away completely without his consent. That is the vision of her as “thief” and taking something that fundamentally belongs to them.
Sarah: Because he doesn't belong to his girlfriend or his wife. He belongs to the men who listened to his records.
Mike: Yeah, and he has to put out songs and like, how dare he leave the Beatles? How dare he not put the Beatles back together in the 1970s? How dare he leave and go do this weird avant-garde stuff and anti-war stuff that makes me pretty uncomfortable? Like, how dare he? He should be putting out three and a half minute long songs.
Sarah: So basically, it's a story where she has to be whatever she needs to be to deprive him of any agency, personally or politically.
Mike: Yes, exactly.
Sarah: Okay. So how do they meet? Can we tell the John and Yoko story?
Mike: Yes. So I want to tell the Yoko story and then I want to tell the John story and then I want to tell the how-The-Beatles-broke-up story.
Sarah: That sounds great.
Mike: So Yoko is born in 1933, obviously in Japan. She is born to one of the richest families in the country. Her parents are kind of like aristocrats. Her dad is some sort of banker, and her mom is essentially a housewife, socialite, something. What she talks about in her childhood is that she was extremely wealthy, but the wealth acted as this weird bubble where other kids were not allowed to play with her. The way she puts it later and I think this is great: “I was never able to get ahold of my mother without touching her manicure and fur. My father had a huge desk in front of him that separated us permanently.” So, when she's a teenager they ended up moving to New York. Her father gets some job in New York. They end up moving to upstate New York. She goes to Sarah Lawrence University.
Mike: And so while she's there she ends up meeting a guy named Toshi Ichiyanagi who ends up becoming a really famous Japanese film composer but, at the time, is just a chilled out art dude who she meets and immediately drops out of college to sort of hang out with him and move to New York.
Sarah: That's what happens when you meet an art dude. I think I went to college hoping to meet an art dude who'd be like, “Come to my art dude loft” and then I would drop out. But then I never did and so I just finished college like some kind of jerk.
Mike: So she and Toshi get married. They move to Japan and he's doing all of these shows in Japan and getting really noticed. She feels like she's kind of living in his shadow. She shows some things in Japan, but they're not all that well received, and at that period, she feels terrible. She tries to kill herself. She ends up institutionalized and, this is a wild story, there's an American jazz musician named Tony Cox, who knows her work from when she had been in New York. He starts writing her letters in the institution where she's staying in Japan. She starts writing back and they start to form a relationship and then he flies to Japan, convinces her to leave the institution, then they get married and move back to New York.
Mike: So John Lennon is actually her third husband after these first two dudes.
Sarah: And her life has already been extremely eventful.
Mike: So it's really once she leaves Toshi, marries Tony Cox, and comes back to New York that she really starts to get noticed in the New York art world. So, in 1964, she publishes a book called Grapefruit. Her whole art thing, then and now, is these things called ‘instructional paintings’ or ‘instructional art’ where it's just a piece of paper with instructions written on it. You know, the purpose is kind of to break down this idea that it has to be a statue. It has to be a painting. It has to be a work of music. She's like, “No, no. The entire thing is an experience, and it only exists in your head.”
So, some of the ones that she publishes in grapefruit, one of them says “Light a match and watch it until it goes out.” Another one says, “Make a key. Find a lock that fits. If you find it, burn the house that is attached to it.” Another one says, “Listen to the sound of the earth turning.” I think my favorite one is Tuna Fish. It says “Imagine 1000 suns in the sky at the same time. Let them shine for one hour. Then, let them gradually melt into the sky. Make one tuna fish sandwich and eat.”
Sarah: Have you done that?
Mike: I don't like tuna. I think what's really interesting here is, so much of what she's doing is really earnest.
Mike: They're almost like self-helpy.
Sarah: Well, they’re sort of like motivational surrealism. You know? It's like little instructions to have a surrealist day.
Mike: I love how playful they are too. One of my favorite ones is it's a chess board with all the normal chess pieces on it, but all the pieces are white. And so she invites people at the museum to play chess with each other, but they're not allowed to mark any of the pieces as their own. So they just have to remember, like, “Oh, this is my pawn. This is your pawn.” And so, of course, it completely breaks down after ten or fifteen minutes once the pieces are mixed up and it just becomes completely arbitrary and useless. And so a lot of her work is like this, where it is sort of like you can see it as political if you want to, but you can also just see it as whimsical and fun.
Sarah: Jumping ahead, I think you can see that ethos in some of the best of John Lennon's later work, where he had this kind of playful profundity. Which certainly was there for him from the beginning, but you can also see how joining forces with her artistically could have brought that out in him. So it's interesting that it doesn't even occur to us to think that we should give her credit for what he was able to do as an artist.
Mike: Absolutely. One of her most well-known pieces is called “Cut Piece.” The piece is her sitting, she's wearing an evening dress, like a really nice dress. And the piece is every member of the audience is invited to cut off a piece of her dress. It's not choreographed. Sometimes there's like a minute between people cutting stuff off. Sometimes people take a little tiny piece off, sometimes they take a huge chunk of fabric. You know, the experience of the audience is really the artwork because it gets much more uncomfortable as you go on.
Sarah: I mean, there's also the discomfort of having a female artist sitting there becoming increasingly naked as people with sharp objects take scissors to her clothes. I mean, it's really riveting just to think about.
Mike: Yeah. So eventually her and Tony end up moving to London. She gets famous enough that the show where she meets John – it's something called the Indica Gallery – it's advertised as just “Yoko at Indica.” This kind of shows the extent to which she's already a one-word name and already a famous person, at least in the art world. And so that is where she meets John, at this Indica Gallery show in 1966.
Sarah: Okay. So she's an up and coming conceptual artist basically, and she's doing stuff that, looking back now, it seems clear has been highly influential on a lot that has followed since that moment.
Sarah: Okay. So what's going on with John Lennon and at this time?
Mike: Okay. So rewinding to John. There's a lot of Beatles stuff that I'm going to skip over.
Sarah: You're not telling the story of The Beatles?
Mike: Just because then this would be like 200 hours long.
Sarah: All right. Your loss, man.
Mike: But I do think it's worth talking about sort of psychologically, John's deal. Because there's a lot to talk about with John.
Mike: So he's born in 1940. He's seven years younger than Yoko. His mom, whose name is Julia, is what we would consider now to be a sort of normal person in her early twenties living her life. But at the time was seen as kind of unconscionably promiscuous. Because John's dad is kind of a deadbeat dad. He works on boats, and he's oftentimes gone for months at a time. He gets arrested by immigration authorities in America at one point. He's in jail, so he's not a big presence in John's super early life and his mom is sort of having affairs and dating other guys.
Sarah: While married to this guy who's in jail or whatever.
Mike: He doesn't seem super invested in John when he's a young child. So I think she's just like, “Well, I'm just going to keep living my life. Who knows if this guy's ever going to get his shit together?” So basically his dad leaves around the time when he's five. John's aunt, Mimi, who is his mother's sister, ends up taking it over custody of John. And the narrative about this was always that John's mom kind of wanted to live her Bohemian lifestyle. She was an independent spirit, she wanted to leave. What seems to be the case is that John's Aunt Mimi called social services on her own sister, because she always had the sense that John should have been her child.
Sarah: Oh God.
Mike: She couldn't have kids for whatever reason, and her sister had a child but was still kind of living this carefree existence that she disapproved of.
Sarah: You know, you can be a good mom if you're like dating and having sex with people.
Mike: Oh yeah!
Sarah: I don't know why we've been so confused about this for all of time.
Mike: What’s so interesting is Mimi sort of has this sense of ownership over John, and so she apparently calls social services and says, “There's this woman, she doesn't have a husband. Her apartment is small. She's not making very much money and so John is not sleeping in a bed. He doesn't even have a crib to sleep in. He's sleeping on the couch.” And so social services comes. Mimi apparently orchestrates this to be like, “Well, you know, she's not fit to be a mother, but, you know, I'm right here and so I can take John.”
Sarah: That's a terrible betrayal.
Mike: It's unbelievable. Then what's really interesting is throughout the rest of his life, John is basically raised by his Aunt Mimi, and his mother he only sees once or twice a year. And what he says much later is that he thought she was miles away, that she lived in Amsterdam or something. But it turns out she lives like a ten minute drive away. I don't know if that was partly that she sort of didn't fight to get him back or that Mimi kind of blocked her. But what's really interesting is John's mother re-enters his life when he's about fifteen. She kind of shows up and says, “I want to be part of your life again”. And then when he's seventeen, she gets hit by a car and killed.
Sarah: Oh God.
Mike: So the way that John describes it later is, “I lost my mother twice.” For the rest of his life he has this huge chip on his shoulder about his mother, this sort of feeling like he's been abandoned by both his father and his mother at the same time. And then finally when a relationship is starting to form, she's ripped away from him again. And so that is like a deep psychological pain.
There's also the deep, psychological pain of Aunt Mimi who, by all accounts, was intensely critical of him. Never approved of his musical talent or sort of said that she was proud of him.
Sarah: Who could imagine that someone who connived their way into stealing their sister's child would be wanting as a parent?
Mike: And what's really interesting about Mimi, is she has this sort of thing that she should be the number one person in John's life. And so when John finally gets his first girlfriend, Mimi moves to sort of sabotage the relationship because she wants to be the number one person in John's life. And so Cynthia, who eventually becomes John's first wife, sees Mimi throw a sort of plastic figurine at John in front of her.
Sarah: Oh my God.
Mike: And so he's got this sort of longing for his parents, this feeling of being ripped away from his parents, and also this extremely cold, extremely emotionally needy, and yet not emotionally giving, presence in his life. What's really interesting about this, and I think extremely human, is that this is exactly the pattern that John repeats in his own life. That John has a long pattern of sort of finding people and getting really attached to them, sort of like they are his new shiny object, and he gets super obsessed. And then they will do something to offend him, something to hurt his feelings, something to demonstrate that he is not the number one person in their life anymore. And then he will turn on them immediately and become extremely abusive, physically abusive, unbelievably emotionally abusive. This happens with Cynthia after his child is born. He ends up marrying Cynthia after dating her for three years. She gets pregnant, they get married afterwards. And according to two of the Lennon biographies I read, when it becomes clear that she is going to put Julian Lennon first, that she's really going to step into the role of motherhood, John feels like, well I'm not number one anymore, and how dare you. And he starts to withdraw from her and he starts to get much more emotionally abusive to her.
Sarah: In what ways is he emotionally abusive to Cynthia?
Mike: The Cynthia thing is heartbreaking. She wrote two memoirs. I read the second of them. She died in 2015. Her and John met in art school when they were both super young. Like I said, she gets pregnant. They get married. He's twenty-one, she's twenty-two. He is only physically abusive to her once.
This guy Stuart Sutcliffe, who ends up being the first drummer for The Beatles because he's John's friend, there's some party-college-whatever and she ends up dancing with Stuart. They're friends. They've known each other for ages. So she dances with Stuart. Somebody reports to John that they have danced together. He confronts Cynthia. She's like, “It's not a big deal.” He doesn't say a word. The next day she is, I believe, on campus. She's coming out of the bathroom. He walks up to her and slaps her so hard that he sort of knocks her head back into a pipe behind her. Like, he hits her really hard and then just walks away without a word.
So three months goes by, eventually they reconcile, and she basically said, “You can never do that again. That crosses the line. How dare you?” And according to her memoir, that's the only time that he hits her, but the emotional abuse is just off the charts. You know, as The Beatles form and get more famous, obviously she has to be out of the public eye because like you said, they're kind of a boy band and so you have to maintain this myth that they're all single. And so she is always in the background. She's never mentioned. The press never asks about her. She's like this invisible presence and so he's cheating on her extremely regularly. He's also self-medicating. I mean, one of the only consistent patterns of behavior in his life is self-medicating. He drinks constantly. They start using speed. When The Beatles are touring in Hamburg, they do these long weeks where they're playing five or six nights a week, and the only way to really maintain that is to take like a shitload of amphetamines and also alcohol, too. It's just kind of like this party-ish atmosphere. Later in his life he starts doing LSD basically every day.
Mike: In the late sixties, he starts using heroin.
Sarah: So he really just could not stand to be in his own head.
Mike: Completely. I mean, he, you know, there's no defending the behavior, but he's a deeply, deeply hurt guy. And one of the things that's really interesting about the dynamic of The Beatles is that he basically considers the Beatles his band. So, like, he doesn't think of it as him and Paul and George and Ringo sort of coming together and creating this thing that's more than the sum of their parts. He sees it as “Oh, I put together this band of a bunch of people and sort of I'm the one that's in charge.”
Sarah: Is that true? Did he, like, take out an ad like Jimmy Rabbitt and put them together or what happened?
Mike: It is kind of true that he was the first person that puts together The Beatles. Paul's a friend of his. George is a friend of Paul's. So he kind of gathers up the group. But, you know, everyone else sort of starts to see them as a group.
Sarah: Well, it's not as if they were Jim Morrison and The Doors. I mean, Ringo gets a lot of crap, but at least, you know, Lennon and McCartney were always, I think, equal in celebrity.
Mike: Yeah. Also, you know, what's really interesting about their dynamic and I don't think John would necessarily have admitted this at the time, but they're both really trying to impress each other. They're really different songwriters. Paul is a workaholic. He's great at being like, “No, we need to keep doing, you know, 65 takes of this one track to make it perfect”. And John is much more intuitive. He just kind of comes up with these sort of chanting lines that sound good, but they're not necessarily structured as songs. And so Paul has all these just melodies flowing out of him but they're kind of, they can be kind of trite or a little bit sort of maudlin. And John is basically the one that's like “Well, that fucking sucks. Well, nah. Don't do that.”
So they're both sort of trying to appeal to the other one and sort of subtly trying to one up each other as well and so this is one of the reasons why they're so productive is that John, without someone sort of cracking the whip and making him work, will just sort of fall into doing whatever, tone poems. Whereas Paul, left to his own devices, will produce 10 million songs, but they're all going to be really mediocre.
Sarah: So they're like Holmes and Watson. They're like the weirdo and the normal guy.
Mike: Yeah. And they both extremely need each other and so the way that one of the biographers describes the breakup of the Beatles is that there are cracks and then those become fissures and those become chasms and eventually they break up. Right? And so the cracks in the band are already starting to appear super early. So they do all of their kind of pop, boy band style, early career stuff.
Sarah: Which are still very good, by the way. Like, they're very good pop songs. And I stand by the belief that pop can be great. You were just in my car, and I had Disney soundtracks playing the whole time.
Mike: Oh yeah. So it's all good stuff. And then eventually it starts getting more experimental. There's a song on Revolver that is considered to be like the first EDM song ever. Like, it's very weird.
And then, of course, they do Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which is sort of this concept album. At the time, it's super groundbreaking. It's like the tracks all kind of bleed into each other, so it's one unbroken work, which is blowing people's minds.
What's interesting about that is that Sergeant Pepper is Paul’s idea. Like, it's Paul's baby. And because John struggles to acknowledge the creative talents of other people, there's sessions from after Sergeant Pepper’s, where he's like, “Guys, we really got to get out of this creative rut that we're in. We've really got to reach our previous glories”. And everyone else in the band is like, “We just recorded one of the top selling albums of all time and it's already considered a masterpiece. What rut are we in? What are you talking about?”
Sarah: So John is just, he's a little baby, and he's like, “Everyone has to love me most and I have to be the most talented person in the world. And if I can't be the most loved and the most special then what's it all for?” Which is just like the way you see people behaving a lot when they grew up without a steady source of love.
Mike: Totally. And you know, he also needs constant validation. The way that Cynthia puts it is, you're so attached to that band. You love the band more than me. But it sort of feels like you need them more than they need you.”
And so that is a structure that he really needs in his life and gives him a lot of meaning, but he also prefers the band to be separate. So what's interesting is the album after Sergeant Pepper's is what's known as The White Album. All of the songs on that album are made by separate Beatles. So basically John will write something and then he'll be like, “Hey, Paul, you know, do you mind playing piano on this?” And he'll be like, “Oh, play it a little bit faster.” It's a John song and he's almost using the other musicians as sort of hired talent. And then the other ones will be like, Paul will say like, “Hey John, you know, I need you to play guitar on this. Not like that, make it a little bit more like this.” A lot of their managers and engineers and people that know them in the background say that, you know, The White Album is really sad to listen to because every single song is like “Oh, it's a Ringo song. It's a Paul song. It's a John song.” Like, it's not that they're more than the sum of their parts. And so this dynamic becomes more and more distinct as they go on. He even suggests, John wants Abbey Road to be a two-sided record, and one side is the John songs and one side is the Paul songs.
Sarah: Wow. That's a bummer.
Mike: It's a fucking huge bummer.
Sarah: It's like they're already divorced, but they're like holding things together for the children.
Mike: Oh, totally. And by the way, this is all before Yoko shows up.
Sarah: So yeah, it's interesting that they're already kind of going to different parts of the house musically. Like, they're keeping their creative finances separate.
Mike: So this is also the time when he meets Yoko. So John and Yoko meet in 1966 as the cracks are starting to appear in the Beatles. So they meet at this Indica Gallery show. The artwork that makes him fall in love with her is this thing where there's a ladder in the middle of the room with a magnifying glass hanging from the ceiling. And so he climbs up the ladder, grabbed the magnifying glass, looks at this tiny little piece of paper on the ceiling, puts the magnifying glass to it, and it just says, “Yes.”
So what attracts him to her is this sense of positivity and earnestness that, he's an art school kid, he went to art school, so he takes art really seriously. And he hates the cynicism of art and art that sort of satirizes the art world, or is really self-referential, or is kind of like, “I'm cooler than this”, like aloof type of art. He loves that it's just being itself and so he chats to her at the gallery. There is a lot of debate about this first meeting, because what they have both always said is that Yoko has no idea who he is. She's like “Oh yeah. I don't really know who you are. Tell me more about what you do.” And then there's a lot of, sort of after the fact, like “Come the fuck on.” Like, she must have known.
Sarah: Do you think though that she must have known? Because if you're a conceptual art type person and an adult, which she was a grown woman at this time.
Mike: Yeah. She was thirty-six when they met.
Sarah: Yeah. I mean, I can see her, like, not even listening to pop music on the radio, you know? Who knows how connected she is to popular culture?
Mike: I mean, this has always been a huge part of the case against Yoko. That she's lying and that of course she knew who he was. She had her targets set on Lennon.
Sarah: And her plan was to pretend she didn't know who she was because men love it when you're oblivious to their fame.
Mike: It sees how manipulative she is, right? That she's like “Oh, I have no idea who you are. I'm but a tiny waif and I love you for who you are,” whatever and then really she's, you know, cold and calculated. What Tim Riley does in his book that I think is really useful is he points out that there's a huge spectrum between, “she knows who he is” and, “she has no idea who he is.” So it's pretty likely that, like, she knew who The Beatles were, right? In the same way that my parents probably know who Taylor Swift is.
Sarah: Or that I know who Ariana Grande is. I know that she's a person and she sings songs. I couldn't recognize one of them or name one of them or recognize a picture of her, but I know that she exists.
Mike: Yes. Also, the Beatles are four people and they all kind of look the same, so you wouldn't necessarily have picked out any one of those individuals. He also points out that John has really long hair and he's just started wearing these wire rimmed glasses that he wears for the rest of his life and are kind of his trademark of late John Lennon. But he's just started wearing them, so even if she sort of maybe vaguely knows who he is, he looks quite different. So it wouldn't pop out immediately like “Oh, you're John Lennon who I've always seen with short hair and no glasses.”
Sarah: Also people meet celebrities all the time and don't quite place them. Especially when you're in your mid-thirties. You're like, “I know that I know you from somewhere.” But you probably looked at John Lennon and we're like, “Were you… did I meet you in Tribeca?”
Mike: Right. Yeah. Another thing I think is really important to note too, is that even if she did know exactly who he was and lied and said that she didn't, it's not that big of a deal.
Sarah: Right. Like, who cares? Does that destroy all her future credibility? Who's adjudicating the case of the fans versus Yoko Ono.
Mike: I think this is like a theme in Yoko stuff, that what she's being accused of, if you actually think about it, isn't that bad, right? That if at the time she pretended not to know who he was or if she sort of knew who he was at the time, but later on when people ask, “How did you two meet?”, this is the story that she concocts. Like, lots of people make their “how we met” story slightly better than it actually was when they, you know, after they've been together for years.
Sarah: Right. It is like a better “How we met” story and I guess if you have a preexisting hypothesis that she's a terrible, manipulative person, then that doesn't contradict it, but it also doesn't support it all that well.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah. So after this, I mean, it seems like they like each other immediately. She says she's always had a thing for working class guys and there's actually some debate about how “working class” John really was, but he sort of has that affectation. Right? He has a Liverpool accent. He shows up at the gallery wearing, like, a sweatshirt and jeans. Right? He comes off as a normal guy and so they kind of click. So it's 1966. Both of them are married. So, she's still married to Tony Cox. She has a five-year-old daughter. John is still married to Cynthia and has a five-year-old son.
The period after they meet is really interesting. Because they meet in ’66, they don't get married until ‘68. So there's this long period in between where there’s sort of this courtship going on while both of them are married to other people. So she sends him a copy of her book. He puts it next to his bed. He gets really into it. He starts reading it before bed every night.
Sarah: Nothing like romantic work sharing. It's how little artist bees like to do their dance.
Mike: Yeah. And they’re both intrigued by each other's work. She starts listening to the Beatles more. You know, he, at one point, invites her over for dinner, like, with Cynthia, with a couple of other people. He's like, “She's an interesting artist who's living in London. Why don't we have her over to discuss art and ideas?”
Sarah: And no one will have any affairs. Just art.
Mike: And at this point, they aren't, there's no romantic…
Sarah: Yeah. Because they're telling themselves that.
Mike: Yeah. There's also this really cute story where they're sort of hanging out, I think it's at this dinner, where he's like, “Weren't you thinking of building a lighthouse? Like, I heard you talking to some other artists about you wanting to build a lighthouse and, you know, me and my wife are thinking of building a lighthouse in our backyard of our manor.”
Sarah: John. Get it together.
Mike: Which is so, like, teenager. “Oh, I left my gloves at your house. Can I come over again?” He's obviously just coming up with reasons to hang out with her.
Sarah: “Oh, I might build a lighthouse if that would mean you would come over.”
Mike: And then she has to sort of gently break it to him that like, “John, the lighthouse is imaginary. We're building an imaginary lighthouse. It's part of an art project.” And he's like, “Oh, I'm sorry.”
Sarah: That's really adorable. And as we can see, she's stalking him.
Mike: This is clearly like a stalking behavior to say “No, I don't want to hang out with you and do this art thing together.” But anyway, he’s sort of stalking her, too. He finds excuses to invite her to the studio to come hang out like, “Hey, we're recording a song tomorrow. Do you want to come and meet the Beatles and say hi and just hang out in the studio all day?”
Sarah: So all the Beatles fans are like, “Yoko had a plan to systematically destroy the greatest band in the world.” And it's like, no. Apparently John Lennon was like, “Hey Yoko. Maybe do you want to see my band practice? We're pretty good.”
Mike: Clearly there is developing a connection between the two of them. You know, I want to sort of shift perspectives here and tell this story from Cynthia's perspective. Because in her memoir, this period in Cynthia’s life is fucking terrible. He's basically completely abandoned her to take care of Julian. There's a time when they're all sort of trying to get a train. They're all running for the train and the train pulls away while she's still lagging behind. She can't make it to the train before it pulls away and she finally gets a train. She finally gets to where they're going. She shows up to the hotel later on and John is immediately just like, “Well, why didn't you run faster?” Like, not seeing it from her perspective at all.
Sarah: Not a great husband.
Mike: He's an awful husband. He, on their wedding night, plays a show. He wasn't there for the birth of Julian. He wasn't there until three days later because he was touring. When he is home, he invites other people over. He'll go out to clubs because he's using all these drugs at this time and then he'll bring five or ten people into their house to party at four in the morning when she's trying to take care of a toddler.
Sarah: So he just doesn't want to be a father, and he doesn't want to be married, especially. Like, this happened when he was very young and he's like, “I'm just not going to do the stuff that I have to do.”
Mike: Exactly. And so he just doesn't, he doesn't appear to have ever taken any interest in Julian. I mean, Julian Lennon talks about how his dad was just this empty, hollow presence in his life. That even when he was around, he'd be on the phone or recording music. Like, he just didn't really engage with Julian at all.
And during this period, Cynthia knows that there have been women that John has slept with. She knows that there's been other flings. She's not stupid. Right? And so she sees that there is a connection growing between John and Yoko. At one point, she says, “I don't know if I'm the person for you. This Yoko person actually seems better suited to you.” And John is like, “Oh no, sweetie, no. I only love you.”
Sarah: It’s like, John, just listen to your very perceptive wife, who's… Every indication suggests that you would prefer to go off and write things on ceilings right now and not pretend to want to be a husband and father, despite being completely useless in those areas. Like, no, no, no! Everything's fine.
Mike: And so, I mean, as this courtship is taking place between him and Yoko, there's this really heartbreaking moment where, you know, all of the Beatles go to India. They're all in these attempts to sort of do group therapy with the band and get the band back together and liking each other again.
Sarah: Is that why they went to India? I didn't know that.
Mike: I mean, it's part of it. There's, you know, there's lots of other stuff going on. But it sort of sucks cause Ringo gets food poisoning immediately, and then George gets really mad at Paul and John for writing songs. He's like, “We're here to meditate. We're here to not work, and you guys are fucking working.”
Mike: But then in India, there's these really sad moments where John has these moments of sort of lucidity where – I mean, this is so typical of abusers generally – where he’ll have these moments where he'll just sort of look at Cynthia and be like, “You know what? There's no one I've ever loved as much as you.” And there's this moment in India where he sort of having one of these euphoric moments and he says, “Let's have more kids. I want to come back to you. I want to be the husband that you've always wanted.” And she just burst into tears.
Mike: She understands that he doesn't mean it. Right? Like she sees right through it.
Sarah: Or that the part of him does or wants to mean it, but that it's never going to happen. It's never going to work. You can want to be able to be the person that someone needs you to be but that doesn't mean that you can be that person.
Mike: And also it turns out later that as they're in India, he's sending postcards to Yoko every morning. He's sneaking out every morning to send a postcard to Yoko and receive one. So as he's telling her, “Let's have more kids,” he's also forming this bond with this other person that he's lying to her about.
Mike: And so he's, you know, of course telling her this absurd lie that like, oh, we're just friends. We just hang out. Which, like, come on. And then, you know, they get back to London, she goes off on a vacation to Greece. He's like “You know, this will be good. Like, you'll be able to relax. Let's talk about it more when you come back.” She comes back into the house to find John and Yoko sitting on the floor in bathrobes.
Sarah: Oh, John. Get it together.
Mike: It’s this heartbreaking moment. Right? Because everything clicks into place. He doesn't even really seem ashamed. He's like, “Oh, hey.”
Sarah: Yeah. That's like a Nora Ephron novel.
Mike: And all she can think of to say is, she's like, “Oh. Hello, Yoko. We're having brunch at a restaurant next weekend. Do you maybe want to join?” Like, she doesn't know what to say.
Sarah: I love how she's like, when in doubt do something courteous.
Mike: And peacemaker-y, right? Like, “Oh, this is all fine.” And then she leaves that night. She's of course completely humiliated, completely hurt, and then she takes him back. This is very recognizable to me as the behavior of someone who has been in an abusive relationship for a really long time. So he's admitting they're sleeping together, but now he says, “Oh, she's just a fling. I’ll get over it. You know how I am. I get excited about other people. It's probably not going to last.” And then she finds out from his business manager that he's filing for divorce. So he doesn't even tell her himself.
Sarah: Oh God. That's really, that's rough. She has to bear the consequences of all of his inability to face himself and all of his childishness.
Mike: Exactly, and this chicken shit thing of not just coming clean and just telling her everything. And also – this is the worst part – he files for divorce on grounds of adultery. He's accusing her of adultery.
Sarah: Come one! Oh, that's really…
Mike: I mean, which is actually true. There's a guy. This is sort of, as the relationship is breaking up, there is this Italian guy that, she doesn't say in her memoir whether they really slept together, but she's like, “I turned to him for comfort.” But it's also like, the fucking balls on John Lennon, who has slept with probably 500 other people during their marriage, to be like, “I'm really offended that you had sex with one other person.”
Sarah: But when a woman cheats on you once, it's worse than you cheating on her a thousand times.
Mike: Exactly. Again, this is just so completely wild to me, the one time they actually talk about the terms of the divorce, he brings Yoko with him. So he shows up at her house to have a sit down, “How are we going to divide everything up?” with Yoko on his arm.
Sarah: So, yeah. He's just not being functional in any way.
Mike: It’s awful. And I think to the extent that there is blame for Yoko in this courtship period, it is like, she knew all this. You know, it's not clear exactly what she knew about his relationship with Cynthia. He may have been lying to her about like, “Cynthia's terrible and we are already separated.” Like, who knows? But it is like, I do think there's some culpability for Yoko.
Sarah: Yeah. You have culpability if you are aware that, you know, he's the one who's choosing to treat his wife that way and she's the one who's allowing him to do that as a consequence of his relationship with her. Like, to some degree she knows what she's facilitating.
Sarah: I mean, the other thing is that I think you can acknowledge culpability here and say, like, this sucked. Like, he cheated on his wife and did so in a way that was hurtful and that still can have no bearing on whether the sort of mythological version of her is real. You know, like we can use the shared culpability to find nuance rather than support a villain.
Mike: And also, all of the hatred of Yoko erases John's terrible behavior. I mean, this is indefensible shit.
Sarah: It's actually very similar to what happened with Marie Antoinette as a French person. It was much harder to hate the King than to hate his wife, because the King was ordained by God to lead the French people. That's a hard belief to surrender all of a sudden, even if you're having a revolution. But the Queen was just some Austrian woman he married who everyone had already kind of hated for twenty years anyway. And I think that this is, you know, it's hard to hate John Lennon. It's easy to hate women apparently, always.
Mike: Also the terrible behavior of men is always seen as sort of intrinsic to their character. Well, like, “John's going to be John.”
Sarah: And maybe part of being an artistic genius is being a terrible husband, because we also kind of believe that, too, in America for some reason.
Mike: Yeah. Whereas her behavior is always sort of something she chose to do. Right? It's somehow extrinsic to her.
Sarah: I think there’s an idea that he was artistically valuable enough to be able to do whatever he wanted to his romantic partners. I mean, this is connected to the idea of the male genius, that whatever he did was in service to his greatness or was part of his greatness and we can't question it. But with her, we can be like, “Well, she wasn't even really an artist. She wasn't even really talented” So, you're essentially saying this person's work is so valuable to me that I don't have to hold them to any kind of a moral standard.
Mike: Right. And also – I mean, this is a total tangent – but this is one year later. Yoko also ends up in a divorce and custody dispute because of Tony. And so it appears that her and Tony Cox have actually broken up functionally many years before, but they stayed married for business, visa, whatever reasons. So their marriage was kind of already basically platonic at this point, but they're sharing custody of her daughter Kyoko. Later on, after she marries John, after the marriage officially dissolves, there's a custody battle in which she wins custody of Kyoko. And then Tony Cox kidnaps Kyoko, moves overseas, and joins a fucking cult.
Sarah: Oh my God.
Mike: So he joins something called the Church of the Living Word, and changes Kyoko's name to Ruth Holman. Which is why Yoko can't find Kyoko for three decades. They're not reunited until 1994.
Sarah: What?! Oh my God.
Mike: Isn’t that wild?
Sarah: Yes. This is like when someone's life is just too eventful, you know? That alone would be a very eventful life if that were the one thing that happened to her.
Mike: I know. And I can only mention it in this episode for one sentence, but I'm like, I want to do a whole episode on this. What actually happened here?
Sarah: We should. Let's put a pin in that.
Mike: Yes! So basically, at this point, Cynthia leaves John's life. Cynthia sees John and Yoko sort of appear in public as a couple the first time on TV. Like, she's completely cut out at this point, and she only gets the equivalent of $240,000 in the divorce, which is unbelievable.
Sarah: Really? From a Beatle? That's incredible.
Mike: And she takes it because she also wants custody of Julian. She doesn't want to have a big fight over Julian. And so one thing that's really fascinating is Julian talks about how he grew up as kind of like a lower middle-class kid. And so psychologically what's really interesting is John, until the last six months/year of his life, completely rejects Julian. That with all of the anger that he has at his father for leaving him when he was five, he left Julian when he was five. Right? So in the same way he repeats the mistakes of Mimi, he also repeats the mistakes of his own father. So what Julian says is that, you know, Julian is the living embodiment of his regret and how bad he feels for being a shitty father. You know, later on, he appears to have been a very good father to Sean, his child with Yoko later. That becomes his way of atoning for his failure with Julian. So he wants to be a good dad to Sean, but Julian is kind of the victim of that, right? That he's like, “Well, I can't go back and fix what I've done to Julian, but I can make it up with Sean.”
Sarah: Yeah. And as a consequence you ignore your first child who's a reminder to you of your own shame that you passed on the trauma that you experienced. I think there are probably a lot of men who have difficult relationships with children they have when they're relatively young or who are abusive or who are absent and who then are able to get their acts together later in life.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah. It sucks but it's just recognizable to me as human behavior. Like, you don't want to be reminded of your fuck-ups. Right? You want to be reminded of what you're doing that you're proud of and so to look at a child that you haven't seen in a year or two and totally fucked over his mother and he grew up kind of poor because of your selfishness. I get why you wouldn't want to hang out with that kid. Right?
Sarah: And we don't want to acknowledge our failures and we don't want to deal with the consequences of those failures, especially when you have this shiny new baby at home that's years away from being able to communicate with you about its resentments or even, you know, from forming those resentments.
Mike: So the last little story about Cynthia is, you know, when she and John break up, the rest of the Beatles kind of break up with her too, right? The wives stopped talking to her. Ringo is one of her neighbors and it gets strained between them. But what's really interesting is one day Paul comes over with one red rose to sort of apologize for everything, because they've known each other since they were 17, right? Like, they all went to the same schools. She's been around forever. And on the way over he composes this song, “Hey Jules” to Julian, and he sings her the song that will eventually become, “Hey Jude.”
Sarah: Oh my God.
Mike: But all of the lyrics about, like, “Don't make it bad, take a sad song and make it better.”
Sarah: So who is that song being sung to?
Mike: It's like the one sort of act of decency in the middle of all of the shittiness that is swirling around a lot of these people in the late sixties.
Sarah: That's an incredible song, right? Like, it enters your heart and then expands. The context of that is so interesting and so emotional to think about. You're writing the song for the son of your bandmate who is estranged from this child and this family. So you're not going to be a part of their life anymore, but you're writing this song for them that kind of feels like it acknowledges the depth of that feeling and I'm continuing on with this guy who treated you horribly, but I care about you and my allegiance is with you in some way. Yeah. The Beatles are pretty great.
Mike: We've circled back around.
Sarah: Everyone knows that song and that it was ever once about anyone is a strange thing to realize.
Mike: And sung to the person that it's about, which totally gets me. So John and Yoko get married in March of 1969. They have been sort of publicly a couple since late the last year and this is where, I mean, as far as the breakup of the Beatles goes, a huge thing at this time is that John just totally becomes codependent with Yoko.
Sarah: That makes sense.
Mike: After essentially this night that they spend together in his house when Cynthia comes in the next morning, that's the first time they make love.
Mike: Yeah, I know. It makes me feel weird. They're basically literally inseparable. There isn't a day that they spend apart after that. This is where the tensions start to build with the rest of the Beatles when he brings Yoko into the studio.
Sarah: Well, that makes sense because I wouldn't like it if we had to record the show with your boyfriend sitting there the entire time.
Mike: And this is the thing is that a lot of these tensions are really understandable in that George, Paul, and Ringo did not sign up for this. They're like, “We're in a band of four people. Yoko is not a member of the band and so it's a little bit weird that she's sitting next to you while you're playing guitar. What is she doing here?” And so the accusation against Yoko is that she horned in on this deliberately, but it's quite clear that John couldn't be without her. Like, this was John pulling her into the studio with him.
Sarah: Right. It's not ambition. It's his codependency.
Mike: Totally. And also jealousy too. There's a story that only appears in one book and I haven't seen it anywhere else that he makes her write down a list of all the men she has slept with and sort of go through each one of them which is like fucking textbook abuser shit, but I haven't seen that in other, like, that doesn't actually sound like the kind of story that Yoko herself would tell. Because she is really protective of John's legacy and she's always maintained that he was never abusive or had a bad temper or anything with her, which other people actually dispute. Other people have seen him shouting at her. Sean, their son, says that he once yelled at him so loud that he had to go to the doctor for his eardrum.
Mike: But Yoko doesn't talk about that. It's very interesting and so I don't know the source for the claim that he made her write down this list. It does sound like something he would do, but it doesn't sound like something Yoko would say he did. So I don't really know what to think about that, but also knowing what we know about John, the idea that he would be going – you know, they do these marathon recording sessions, 18 hours, all hours of the night – the idea that he would leave Yoko at home where she could do anything she wanted… that would threaten him. So, I don't know how true that is, but I think that there's some level of that in there.
Sarah: I think that they can all be true at once. I think you can imagine there being a level of jealousy there and also a lot of dependency and all sorts of other motives, you know? I mean, our attachments are complicated, but it does seem that, you know, whatever the mix is, that she was there because of his desires and not because of her own.
Mike: Yes. And also what's really interesting is he loved the shit out of her. There's no question about this. Like, basically the thing that starts to break up the Beatles at this time is that John becomes much more interested in her work and her way of doing art than he is in the Beatles. Right? Like, she has done this thing where she'll put a member of the public in a bag and you can talk to that person and it's kind of like we're getting rid of race, we're getting rid of class and at some point, him and Yoko do this thing where they both get into a plastic bag and have the press there talk to them and he loves her ideas.
Sarah: Yeah, of course he does. He's like, “Oh, we can just play a bunch of fae games with the media. Yes. My career doesn't have to be about teenagers screaming at me.”
Mike: Yeah. And a really important shift at this time is that instead of trying to impress Paul with everything that he's doing, he wants to impress Yoko. He just becomes less interested in pop songs. He becomes less interested in Paul making him do 65 takes of some Ringo song that he's not even that interested in. He's just like, “I just want to hang out with my wife and engage in the form of creativity that she inspires out of me rather than the form of creativity that you guys inspire out of me.”
Sarah: And so it's like people assigning moral value to the fact that he is changing as a person.
Mike: Another thing they started doing, which I think is really interesting, is they start doing all this political stuff. So, do you know about this thing called the Bed-In?
Sarah: I was just going to ask. I was like, I know there was a bed related protest somewhere in there. It was like, did that have to do with Vietnam?
Mike: Yeah. It's basically like instead of doing a honeymoon, they did essentially this art project. And it's basically like from 10:00 AM to 10:00 PM, they just stay in bed and then they invite the press to come and talk to them. And so the logic is, “We're famous people. We’re getting married. Our names are going to be on the cover of newspapers anyway, so we want the word ‘peace’ to be next to our names. That's a way of promoting peace.” This is 1969, right?
This Is after the Tet Offensive. Like, Vietnam is starting to become much more obvious as not a great idea and so there's much more student protesting. What's really interesting is there's actually footage of 100% of the time that they were doing the Bed-In and people fucking hated it. People hated John. People hated her.
Mike: The footage is really interesting because it's so palpable that nobody who's there to criticize them is there to defend the Vietnam War. It's not like “You guys are wrong. The Vietnam War is necessary for the North Vietnamese to be defeated and for capitalism to spread around the world because it's better than communism.” That's never the argument.
Mike: All of the arguments against John and Yoko are basically tactical, right? It's like, “You're only doing this to get attention. You're only doing this to sell records.”
Sarah: Why do you think there is such a hostile response?
Mike: I mean, this, to me, is completely this end of the sixties thing. That there is the sense of ownership over John as kind of like the front man of a boy band. Right? There's that sense of ownership happening. There's also, you know, it's really palpable in the footage of people that go there to basically argue with them of like, “You're dumb hippies.” There's people arguing with them in their Bed In about, well, if the war is so serious why are you making these sort of funny, wacky statements. And the song Give Peace A Chance is so sort of childlike. Like, why aren't you being more serious? And Yoko says, “Well, look. If somebody is smiling, they're not going to go overseas and kill somebody.” It's, like, perfectly designed to piss off “serious people.” At one point she says, “Well, you know, if I was alive when Hitler was around, I would have slept with him and then there wouldn't have been World War II.”
Sarah: I mean you also have to wonder how much of this is his actual naivety and isn't just sort of like fey commentary or trolling kind of.
Mike: Yeah. And I also think what's really interesting is, you know, thinking about this, it's not clear to me that she's wrong. What's interesting is no one ever really makes a “You're incorrect” argument. It's just “You're silly and you're stupid.”
Sarah: How could your work possibly be helpful in this big, serious world? How could whimsy and play be useful? And of course people still make that argument, but yeah. It's an unprovable argument and it's based maybe more on your own sensibilities than on a demonstrable fact.
Mike: Completely. And it's based on your sensibilities, but it's pretending to not be based on your sensibilities. Right? It's based on common sense. This is how things work. Like, you're not supposed to say that people should be happier because that's not a serious argument. Like, “Maybe if everybody was happier, there wouldn't be so much war,” to me, is not all that untrue of a statement.
Sarah: The thing is that people who are radically in touch with the truth often are saying things that are so far away from the accepted way of thinking that they just sound like in comprehensible non sequiturs, you know? Because they're so outside of this logic of “No, no, no. We are all adults. We are all serious. Like, war is a necessary and essential part of, you know, society and masculinity,” I guess. Like, “How dare she suggest that things could ever be radically different?” I think that's part of it too is that anyone who's like, “You know, we don't have to do this.” People get mad at that argument. They're like, “No. It has to be this way. There has to be war. There has to be this much violence. How dare you try and take out of our hands this belief we're clinging to that the reason there's this much pain in the world is because there must be?”
Mike: I mean, you know, the disproportionality of the hatred of John and Yoko at the time is really interesting to me because what they were advocating for, like, fine. You think it's stupid. Fine. You think it's naive. They're not saying, like, “Go burn down everybody's house. Go and assassinate all of the people architecting the war.”
Sarah: They're not putting out the anarchist cookbook. They're just like, “We're lying in our bed and there doesn't have to be war.” Yeah. Who are they hurting?
Mike: Being naive and Pollyanna-ish on issues of politics is, like, there are much worse ways to be.
Sarah: I mean, you're preaching to the choir, my child.
Mike: I knew he would be a receptive audience for this argument. You know, this is why to me it seems so wrapped up in this idea of the hippie movement being over. The corruption of John is a huge part of this, right? That instead of making music he's getting sidetracked with these silly, childlike, political projects.
Sarah: Oh no! John Lennon is making too much art. That's what ended the– you know, it's because no one should have done anything in 1970 because no matter what you did, you'd be blamed for ending the sixties.
Mike: Right. And so this is basically where we get to the last gasp of the Beatles. This is where the band really starts to break up. I mean if you really want to say who broke up the Beatles…
Sarah: Is it The Beatles?
Mike: Paul says John broke up The Beatles, that John was the one that sort of announced that he was quitting, and he just wasn't interested in the Beatles anymore. He was much more interested in doing Yoko stuff, and doing political stuff, and the fact that they were both on heroin a lot didn't help.
Sarah: He and Yoko were?
Mike: Yeah, they were both rough heroin addicts at the time. One thing that Yoko says now is that luckily neither one of them ever shot up because they were really afraid of needles. Also, they had a super shitty drug dealer who used to cut their heroin with a bunch of baby powder. So they were getting really shitty heroin. And so apparently there was so much in it that at one point they told their dealer, they're like, “Uh, this smells like baby powder” and he's like, “Oh, it's supposed to smell like baby powder. No big deal.”
Sarah: “That's okay. Heroin always smells.”
Mike: And so I don't want to sound too square, but the fact that they're both just doing a ton of drugs at this time. To me it explains why John starts acting so impulsively at the end of the sixties. There's a lot of things that he starts doing that he just doesn't think through. Like, The Beatles are supposed to start recording one of their new albums and they're like, “Okay, show up at the studio on July 1st.” You know, July 1st comes around and then they're like, “Where's John?” and he’s like, “Oh, I'm in Scotland on vacation.” He's just kind of running on whatever his impulses tell him to do. And so there's this point where George leaves the band in a huff, like, “I'm sick of Yoko being here. I'm sick of this. Everyone has checked out and phoning it in. I'm sick of this. Fuck this.” And then at the meeting – they sort of call like a house meeting to talk about the future of The Beatles and what's going to happen – and John brings Yoko to the meeting and is, “Anything you say to me, you can say to Yoko,” which is, like, it's not listening to the needs of people that you're in a band with. It's like, Yoko is fine, but you can also have a job.
Sarah: It's like his identity can only be based around one thing at one time and so for a while he was Mr. Beatle. And now he's Mr. Yoko.
Mike: Yes. That's a good way of putting it. So the last thing that I want to mention that breaks up The Beatles is there's this whole narrative of, “Yoko broke up the Beatles,” but you could just as easily make the argument that their financial manager broke up The Beatles.
Sarah: Really? Talk about that.
Mike: Before all of this is happening, their long time financial manager who found them at the very beginning, named Brian Epstein, he dies of a drug overdose. And so they need to get a new manager, and so this guy, his name is Alan Klein, will later go to prison for tax fraud. He's someone who managed Sam Cooke. He managed Herman's Hermits. He managed The Rolling Stones. He's always wanted to be the manager of The Beatles. He reads a biography of John Lennon and then somehow gets a meeting with John and Yoko at dinner, and he spends the entire dinner flattering John and saying “Oh, I love this song. Oh, did you write that song? Oh, how interesting.” And he even knows the parts that John played. So, he'll be like, “Well, I'm not that wild about this song, but, you know, I love the piano in it.” And then John will be like, “I played the piano in it.” He does exactly what Yoko is accused of. He also sort of pretends to be more working class than he is to try to sort of appeal to John's “I want to pull up people from the working class like me” sort of vibe. So, on the spot, John signs up with him. John, without consulting any of the other Beatles, is just like, “Yep. We're in. We'll sign with you. You'll be our new manager.” And so he sort of shows up the next day and just tells the other Beatles, “We have a new manager.”
Mike: So this guy, this random business manager who they've literally only known for a week, basically just takes over the band. He starts firing everybody at their record label, because they have a record label called Apple Corps. He gets everybody to sign a contract with him, but Paul refuses to sign, which is really interesting. And then there's all these later court cases of Paul trying to disentangle himself and blah, blah, blah. Like, the court cases of The Beatles will be going on when the sun swallows the earth. But what's really interesting is, I think, first of all to give some credit to the “Yoko broke up the Beatles” argument, like, none of this was really known by the public at the time. I think the financial arrangements of famous people are extremely important, and their relationships with people like their agents and their managers are central relationships in their lives, but those aren't really visible to the public.
Sarah: Right. Because the agents and managers don't publicize themselves.
Mike: Exactly. And so all of this behind-the-scenes wrangling and the fight about, “Who should own our rights?” and like, “How should we be running this record company that none of us really know how to run?” All of this stuff was totally behind the scenes, and nobody had any idea about this until years later and so one of the reasons why Yoko got caught in the crossfire is because she's visible, right? Like, she's on the cover of newspapers.
Sarah: Yeah. And because we’re so used to blaming women. It's the easiest thing to do.
Mike: Yes. And also to not give men the credit of like, “Well, maybe they're just fighting over money stuff. Like, maybe it's not that interesting. Maybe they're just bitching at each other about royalty rates and stuff.”
Sarah: Right. We always want the reason for a big dramatic split to be big and dramatic and for there to be one reason. John had a new girlfriend and she ruined everything. And also that the villain isn't a member of the band and that there is a clear villain and that someone came from outside and split them up. It's a version of the story that lets you maintain a lot of your illusions about who the people in the band are. It makes total sense that we fell back on it.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah. And so they sort of, you know, they record an album and then they sort of record another album as a kind of farewell. The Beatles released their last album in 1969 or maybe it's early 1970 but by the end of 1970, all four of the Beatles have released solo albums. So it's basically like it's over. What sort of starts the dominoes is John saying, “I'm out guys,” but all of these cracks had been there. This is, you know, five years of increasing distance and so is Yoko a part of that? Like, sure, but it's not clear that she's a big part of that and it's not clear that there was any intention on her part particularly.
Sarah: Yeah, no, it makes sense. I mean, I think it's, again, a story where we chose to blame a woman for something that she was only tangentially involved in and it's like, why is it bad that a band broke up at all? Did we want The Beatles to stay together forever? Did that seem like a reasonable expectation?
Mike: Yeah. I mean, this is my favorite myth about Yoko Ono that I spent a lot of time on Beatles message boards this week, which nobody should ever do and so one of the theories is that John wanted to get the Beatles back together in the 1970s and Yoko stopped him because she hated Paul and Linda for some reason. I mean, none of this is true. Even that is this weird sense of ownership of “If only the Beatles would get back together, you know, eight years after they broke up then they'd produce music just as good,” and it's like, I mean, first of all, have you seen the fourth season of Arrested Development? Secondly, it's this weird, desperate attempt to get back something that's fundamentally gone.
Sarah: I think there's also… yeah and the fact that as fans, this is a, I think, very well-represented phenomenon. Fans feel betrayed when artists change fundamentally, or when their work evolves in a way. Because The Beatles are doing completely different work at the end of their careers than they were the beginning.
Sarah: It's interesting how, as people who consume albums or movies or songs or vlogs, we get openly hostile to the creators who we love because they connect with some part of us through their work. And when their work changes and grows away from that, it's almost like we respond the way we do in relationships. If you're in a relationship with someone and you start growing apart and you're like, “No, stop it. Like, you're supposed to stay the same for as long as I need you to be the same and I don't like this” and you don't want to blame the person that you love for changing and so it just feels better if you can blame, like, if they got really into fly fishing, you're like, “This is fault of fly fishing, really.”
Mike: I mean, one of the things that I find totally fascinating is, there's this footage of John and Yoko will fly into a city and get to their hotel and of course there's a throng of fans outside their hotel and people will shout, like, “chink” at Yoko, which isn't even accurate as well. Or they'll just shout “yellow,” which is like, give me a fucking break.
There's footage in the documentary Imagine of this woman standing outside of a hotel and greeting John and saying “She's worse than Cynthia. She's horrible.” Which is just, as well as being indefensible, it's also just weird human behavior where it's like, okay, you like The Beatles enough to wait outside of some random hotel for hours in the rain to catch a glimpse of John Lennon, right? For ten seconds.
Sarah: And then you're going to tell him that you hate his wife.
Mike: Exactly and then it’s like, “Your wife sucks.” Like, it's so weird.
Sarah: And also that suggests that you have a feeling of ownership about them, right? Because it's like, “Your first wife was bad enough, but this one is even worse.” And it's like is it just bad that he's marrying anyone? What is this about, really? We should blame him for the stuff that he actually did do wrong. It's funny because you don't see a lot of popular, you know, media about, like, “John Lennon,” you know, “Interesting later career. Great second marriage. Lousy first marriage. Let's make fun of him for that if we're going to make fun of him for something.”
Mike: And like, terrible father and good father at the same time.
Sarah: Great artist and codependent schoolboy.
Mike: I mean, to me, it mirrors the way that John was in the relationship, right? Where it's like, “You belong to me, but if you do something I don't like then fuck you.”
Sarah: Yeah. So I guess a really nice thing for us to know as fans is that the people whose art we love are going to be capable of abusive behavior inevitably and we can at least not contribute to that by engaging in abusive dynamics with them.
Sarah: Eh? That's a tip. We have a tip finally.
Mike: Yeah. If you're going to stand outside of somebody's hotel room, just sing Hey Jude to them.