by Madeline Bocaro
© Madeline Bocaro, 2020. No part of this site may be reproduced or re-blogged in whole or in part in any manner without permission of the copyright owner.
He died 40 years ago – on December 8, 1980.
He would have celebrated his 80th birthday this year.
“John was an old soldier who fought with me.”
Over the past forty years, much longer than the thirteen years they were together, Yoko Ono remains “the keeper of the wishing well”. She protects John Lennon’s legacy by constantly sharing his work and continuing all the projects they started together. As many of us do, Yoko sees John as someone truly special.
“He had three small but distinct moles straight down the center of his broad forehead, ending where the third eye was. Buddha was supposed to have had one mole in the center of his forehead, and that was considered in the Oriental physiognomy as a sign of a very wise man. I always that John’s oval and well- chiseled classic face looked very much like a Kabuki mask or a face you’d expect to see in a Shakespearean play.
And he carried his body with a certain lightness that gave grace to his movements. He was in his twenties when I met him. I was eight years older. But I never thought of him as somebody younger than me. When you were near him, the strong mental vibe he sent out was too heavy for a young person. Some people are born old. That was John. His slumming, clowning and acting the entertainer was just a kind of play-acting he enjoyed. But it was obvious to anybody around him that he was actually a very heavy dude; not a prince but a king.”
– Yoko, 2018
John felt the same way about his wife…
“Yoko is as important to me as Paul and Dylan rolled into one. I don’t think she will get recognition until she’s dead. There’s me, and maybe I could count the people on one hand that have any conception of what she is or what her mind is like, or what her work means to this f*ckin’ idiotic generation. She has the hope that she might be recognized.”
– John Lennon 1971
The final years of John Lennon’s life were fulfilling, exciting and wonderful. He was living with his beloved wife after a failed separation, raising young child in New York City and baking bread. He enjoyed visits from his first son, Julian.
John had won his long, grueling deportation battle. John and Yoko’s association with hippies, yippies and radicals when they first moved to New York City in 1971 led to major legal problems, which started in 1968 when John and Yoko were arrested for cannabis possession in London. (John took responsibility to clear Yoko’s name). John was awarded his green card and finally granted the right to stay in America. This victory was announced on March 11, 1975, the same day as Yoko’s pregnancy with Sean, who was to be born on John’s birthday, October 9th. The couple renewed their wedding vows on their anniversary, March 20th. On July 27, 1976, John proudly displayed his green card to the press, announcing all of his good news!
The Lennons described “a typical day in the life of John and Yoko” in their September 29, 1980 Newsweek interview with Barbara Graustark – their first major interview in five years:
John “Yoko became the breadwinner, taking care of the bankers and deals. And I became the housewife. It was like one of those reversal comedies! I’d say (mincingly), ‘Well, how was it at the office today, dear? Do you want a cocktail? I didn’t get your slippers and your shirts aren’t back from the laundry.’ To all housewives, I say I now understand what you’re screaming about. My life was built around Sean’s meals. ‘Am I limiting his diet too much?’ (The Lennons maintain a macrobiotic lifestyle, eschewing dairy products, liquor and meat.) ‘Is SHE gonna talk business when she comes home from work?’ I’m a rich housewife – but it still involves caring.”
Yoko: “There’s a song by John on the album called ‘Clean-up Time’ – and it really was that for us… we weren’t financially independent – we didn’t even know how much money we had. We still don’t! People advised us to invest in stocks and oil but we didn’t believe in it. You have to invest in things you love. Like cows, which are sacred animals in India. Buying houses was a practical decision – John was starting to feel stuck in the Dakota and we get bothered in hotels. Each house that we’ve bought was chosen because it was a landmark that needed restoring.”
They had also cleaned up their bodies. Yoko told The Tampa Bay Times in 1990…
“After the lost weekend, we both went on a juice fast for 40 days in 1975, just drinking fruit juice, and we cleaned ourselves. John had incredible will and once he decided to do something, he did it. Those 40 days were very hard, but we were totally clean… When we were on it, we were both on it, so it wasn’t like we alienated each other. But it was self-destructive and unhealthy.”
They followed Dick Gregory’s recipes and began reading cook books for their future health. Yoko told The Times in 2005:
“That really helped to clean us up, although it was terrible being on it; you can’t sleep because you are wide awake. But I think that the worst thing you can do is to limit yourself to a certain way of eating all your life.”
The couple became macrobiotic, cheating only by having chocolate now and then.
Now free to travel, John, Yoko and Sean began spending glorious summers in Japan. There were also trips to Singapore, Hong Kong, the Cayman Islands, South Africa, Egypt and Bermuda. John planned to visit England again for the first time since he left there in 1971. Since Sean’s grandmother Julia was fatally hit by a car when John was seventeen, John planned to introduce Sean to Julia’s sister – dear Aunt Mimi – the woman who had raised him.
On May 27, 1979, they published A Love Letter from John & Yoko – To People Who Ask Us What, When, And Why in The New York Times. They stated that all their wishes had come true, that they were happy and grateful, and were quietly raising their child. The letter expressed their ongoing concern for Earth and assured us that they received our vibes through letters, flowers or taps on the gate. They encouraged us to keep wishing, praying, to believe in magic and to recognize miracles. They wanted to be sure that we understood, “Our silence is a silence of love.”
John and Yoko suddenly emerged and began making new music in the studio again after five years, releasing a new album, a dialogue between a man and a woman – Double Fantasy. John hung a photo of his young son Sean over the mixing desk.
“I was guilty all through the making of ‘Double Fantasy.’ We had his picture pinned in the studio ’cause I didn’t want to lose contact with what I’d got. We had the picture up there all the time in between the speakers so whenever you’re checking the stereo, he was looking at me all the time.”
On October 9, 1980, Yoko hired a plane to write “Happy Birthday John and Sean, Love Yoko” across the sky nine times at 9:00 am. Sean turned five years old. John’s 40th birthday would be his last.
On November 26, 1980 John had Yoko’s artworks brought up from the Dakota basement for a photo shoot with Allan Tannenbaum. John posed with Yoko’s Apple, one of her pieces that he saw on the day they met at Indica gallery in 1966 when he had taken a bite, and sealed their fate. They dressed in kimono, and lay on a bed for more photos, looking serene, happy and completely in love.
The first single from their new album Double Fantasy, ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’/ ‘Kiss, Kiss, Kiss’ was released in October, and the album on November 17th. They were gearing up for a tour. Yoko has mentioned that the tour was to begin on Valentine’s Day 1981 in Tokyo. They would play in out of the way places – where they had never been before. Another show would have been in Reykjavik Iceland in spring 1981. Now it is the home of Yoko’s Imagine Peace Tower, for John.
“Well, John was saying, “Let’s do ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand,'” and saying “I’m gonna just kneel and hold your hand, and everybody’s gonna get really upset” – he didn’t mind upsetting people. Then he was saying: “The rest of it, let’s do the freak stuff. Let’s go back to Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band.” I’m thinking, “This tour is not going to be very popular.” ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ – nobody’s going to like the fact that we’re doing it, and then on top of it the freak stuff [laughs]. So I thought, “Hmm, let’s think about it.”
–Yoko, March 2011
The couple were interviewed by Rolling Stone and Playboy magazines, reflecting on the past and also excitedly anticipating the future. A photo shoot for Rolling Stone with Annie Liebovitz exemplifies their intense relationship; John naked, kissing Yoko’s cheek – entwined and in love. Hours later, John would be murdered. The beautifully intimate photo was not meant to be on the cover, but it was – in the January 22nd issue published after John’s death. Yoko was now a widow.
“Things were going smoothly for us, though with a little deep rumbling noise inside our souls. Something was scaring us that we could not put our fingers on… For John, it was always important that he reached out his hands to help the people in need and shared the information he got with the world: the truth. There was not one human issue he was not caring about. He spoke freely of what the Blue Meanies were doing to us and the world. That had its price. He was attacked at every turn. But he still went on being amazingly and dangerously truthful. If there was such a thing as fate, this was his. He was obsessed about saying what he wanted to say. His delivery was succinct and powerful. I feel that he literally risked his life to tell the truth on behalf of the world. His heart was as big as the universe.”
– Yoko, 2004
Yoko made an announcement – instead of a funeral, there would be a worldwide vigil for John at 2pm on December 14th. The instruction was, ‘pray for John’s soul for ten minutes.’ During ten minutes of silence, hundreds of thousands of people gathered at their home at the Dakota and in Central Park. It started snowing lightly. You could not hear a sound. Soon, the singing started beneath her window. It would never stop.
On December 15th came another statement:
“Bless you for your tears and prayers. I saw John smiling in the sky. I saw sorrow changing into clarity. I saw all of us becoming one mind. Thank you.”
Yoko became a fierce protector of her family, and of John’s legacy. She had given up her art career in the 60s – her life-force, to be with John.
“Probably it would have been easier for me, career-wise, if I didn’t get together with John. In a way, I lost respectability or dignity as an artist. But then, what is dignity and what is respectability? It’s a kind of thing that was a good lesson for me to lose it. What am I supposed to be doing, carrying respectability and dignity like a Grand Dame of the avant-garde for twenty years? That would have been… boring. [Laughs]. That was a kind of option that was open to me, you know, and [softly] I didn’t take it. It was quite more fun to go forward into a new world.”
She prosperously ran the family business and had his child. When John died, Yoko continued to nurture his legacy for 40 years, giving us endless gifts of unreleased songs, remastered albums, and making his artwork available.
“The death of John is something you can clearly understand is not finished yet. And I don’t know whether it’s ever going to be finished. We had a very strong and powerful relationship.
That will always be there.”
– Yoko, 2013
In her fragile state, Yoko received thousands of letters from John’s distraught fans, asking for her advice in coping with the tragedy of losing him and in some cases, losing loved ones of their own. Despite her own unimaginable pain and despair, she read them all. More than a husband, John was Yoko’s comrade in the crusade for world peace.
“I never even thought of the word widow. I thought I was a soldier. We were both fighting for freedom and justice and self-expression and he just fell in the battlefield. That is how I thought of it. That I had to keep going I saw that right away … [I’m not concerned about old age], no. I feel good. Maybe it’s because I don’t think about the past so much. The past is so heavy. Part of me, of course, is still carrying it, but part of me is free from it…[He gave me] an energy that said, ‘It’s all right to be me’. And that’s what I gave him also…”
– Yoko, 2013
In many ways, they are still together.
“John was present from the beginning when I made the decision to curate (Meltdown Festival 2013) and was thinking, I have to get this, I have to get that. Then it came to me that it was John’s power. He was helping me, because, you know, he has big power now. I realized suddenly that he decided he wanted to be in a more powerful position to help us.. I do think there are certain things that I got help from him with. Certain things that are so fantastic I almost don’t want to take any credit for them.”
– Yoko, 2013
It’s eerie that in retrospect, Yoko’s own prescient lyrics once again unwittingly warned of John’s fate…
“Reading the lyrics after so many years made me choke up. ‘Now or Never’ It works now. The lines “Are we gonna keep shooting the ones that try to change, “Are we gonna keep thinking it won’t happen to us?” were hard to read. When I wrote those lines, John and I were a proud and happy couple, believing that it would make a difference to speak out. And I think it did. I didn’t know that John was the one who would be shot to death for trying to change… But they couldn’t kill him. His spirit is still alive and growing inside all of us.”
– Yoko, 2011
The 8th of December 1980:
The studio work went until late at night. In a room next to the control room, just before we left the studio, john looked at me. I looked at him. His eyes had an intensity of a guy about to tell me something important. “Yes?” I asked. And I will never forget how with a deep, soft voice, as if to carve his words in my mind, he said the most beautiful things to me. “Oh” I said after a while, and looked away, feeling a bit embarrassed.
In my mind, hearing something like that from your man when you were way over 40… well… I was a very lucky woman. I thought. Even now, I see his piercing eyes in my mind. I don’t know why he decided, at that very moment, to say all that as if he wanted me to remember it forever. Did it matter that the whole world hated you if your guy loved you that much? Who cares if you had to live in hell with him? Some couples might be lucky to live in heaven. John and my heaven was in hell. And we loved it. We would not have wanted it any other way.”
Despite the protection of bodyguards and her own sharp intuition, Yoko was the subject of death threats, rampant theft and betrayal by many of her trusted employees. She thought that John’s death was the worst thing that could ever happen, but the worst was yet to come.
“When John passed away so suddenly, I was feeling very bad. Not only that, but I discovered that there were people who specialized in taking advantage of widows. Nobody thinks they will be a widow, and when you are, you are so shell-shocked you don’t feel like speaking out about something like that. So these are things that are not spoken of so much in our world.
I was getting hit left and right. It was getting so heavy, I was worried that it would effect my health. So to release myself from the weight of it, I kept blessing the names that came to my mind, every night before I went to sleep… Sometimes I would get a shock, and say to myself “I’m not going to bless that one, am I?!” But I kept going. I realized something very interesting. The name that came up more often than not were the names of people who were particularly not nice to me. The names of the worst enemies, so to speak. So I ended up blessing those people. Strange things started to happen. The enemies were still attacking me. But some of them were getting more interested in something else. Some of them started to have some difficulty in their own lives that made them focus their energies on those things more than on me. One group of people started to fight amongst themselves. One of them, in fact, came to me complaining about his gang of friends how unfair they were to him about his take and confessed to me what they were up to! I may have been just lucky, and the change of the situation may not have had to do with my nightly blessings. But, at least, it released me from the resentment and fear I held within me. I started to feel lighter. It helped me to move on and be active in health.
We must believe in the magic of our beings and what our minds can do. Our world is a reflection of our magical beings and our minds. Together, we are creating what we all want – heaven on earth – which is, actually, here already.”
– Yoko, 2005
“When I was in elementary school in Japan, they had a textbook with a picture of a Japanese warrior who asked to be given seven sufferings and eight disasters, because he wanted to take over everybody’s suffering and disasters. It’s a courageous thing to do, and I was only a little girl and I thought that sounds good and I wanted to be like him. Do good for the world in the sense of taking everyone’s pain away. I asked for the seven sufferings and my life became terribly difficult. All sorts of misery. And when it got to around 1979 I thought, ‘what did I do wrong?’ So I said I’m going to change it. Give me seven lots of luck and eight treasures. My disaster became my treasure. I reversed it.” Does she mean she did this in 1980, when John died? “No. My karma didn’t affect him. John’s death was the worst of everything. I had to work hard to un-curse myself.”
– Yoko, 2018
Strawberry Fields in Central Park is a place created by Yoko, where John’s spirit resides. It is named after the children’s home in Liverpool after which John named the Beatles song ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. It is across the street from their Dakota apartment in the park where John and Yoko frequently walked. They gazed upon this lovely view from their window on West 72nd Street. Yoko invited dignitaries from countries around the world to donate plants and trees. The dedication ceremony for this garden for John was held on his birthday, October 9, 1985. It has become a gathering place for fans and celebrations for decades.
“According to the mayor of New York City, Ono has visited a dozen times or so during his 15-year time in office, most recently three weeks ago when the two exchanged silent peace signs. “She comes down no matter what the weather is and sometimes hangs out,” he says. “She comes over and hugs the tree that’s to the right of me. She just hugs it. I don’t ask. She has her reasons, and I respect her reasons.”
Yoko spoke about first hearing John’s song ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ in 1967, and of John’s childhood connection to the song.
“That was the first John Lennon song that I encountered. And there was a party at the editor of the Art Magazine’s house in London… and the editor said, “Oh, listen to this, Yoko. When a pop song comes to this point, what do you think?” And he played ‘Strawberry Fields’. And I thought, “Hmmmmm…” Because there were some dissonant sounds and I thought it was pretty good. For a pop song. [Laugh] I thought it was cute. I thought it was some cute stuff. Because I was making songs with all dissonant sounds. It impressed me. I was surprised a pop song could be that way…
And there’s a lot of connections about it… I remember all his pain as a child, sort of looking at Strawberry Fields, which was an orphanage, you know. He always told me about his Aunt Mimi saying, whenever he was out of hand, Mimi would say, “You can go there. You’re lucky you’re not there, John.” So, Strawberry Fields to him was connected with this strange kind of fear and love, love for the kind of children that were very close to his condition. John was in a better position. So there’s that love and that strange fear for it.
It’s very strong thing for him. That sort of painful memory that he had of Strawberry Fields, he transferred that into a song. And made it positive. And that song was transferred into a park. [Laughs] It’s a very strong thing that I witnessed. So it means a lot to me…”
Yoko never remarried and never left the place that they called home, because John was still there.
“Sometimes I feel that John is telling me what to do. I don’t necessarily do what he tells me, but it’s nice to know that he’s concerned… I have so much stuff to do for John… You see, John was the love of my life.
And we’re still working together, you know.”
– Yoko 2003
“Her husband was taken from her so I had to take care of her.”
– Sean Ono Lennon, Nero magazine, 2016
“Around the time that I met John, I went to a palmist – John would probably laugh at this – and he said: ‘You’re like a very very fast wind that goes speeding around the world.’ And I had a line that signified astral projection. The only thing I didn’t have was a root. But, the palmist said, you’ve met a person who’s fixed like a mountain, and if you get connected with that mountain you might get materialized.
And John is like a frail wind, too, so he understands all of these aspects.”
– Yoko, 1971
On the 40th anniversary of his death, December 8, 2000 John will be gone for more years than he had lived. Those of us who remember that dreadful night are now older than he will ever be.
I can still hear the echo of his voice – singing these words,
“And what have you done?…”
1980 photos by Allan Tannenbaum:
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