NOTE: I wrote this take-down of John Lennon and the battle over his dubious legacy for Tokyo Journal in 2000, on the twentieth anniversary of his death, after a visit to the John Lennon Museum in Japan. It is one of the 22 pieces included in my first book Interviews and Obituaries, available on Amazon.
20 years after he was gunned down outside a New York apartment block, John Lennon is still with us. Here in Japan, he’s with us even more, following the recent opening of a museum dedicated to him in Saitama.
Why a singer-songwriter born and raised in Liverpool, who lived and worked mainly in London and New York, should be principally commemorated in a suburb of Tokyo seems baffling to most people, but this is just one more victory by Yoko Ono in the battle to control the Lennon legacy, with all its power, symbolism, and wealth.
Lennon, although a one-time LSD and heroin junkie, a multi-millionaire “working class hero” who spurned his lower-middle-class roots, a man accused of supporting the IRA, spied on by the CIA, who famously said woman is the “nigger of the world,” and aligned himself with every radical cause going, has surprisingly become the ultimate compromise figure.
His proclaimed belief in the power of “Peace and Love,” his embrace of all the counter-cultures that together make up the majority, the anodyne idealism of such songs as Imagine and Woman, and the fact that he was a white male who sometimes liked to get loaded and get his rocks off, makes him appeal to everybody from Oasis’s loutish Gallagher brothers to the editorial committees of Japanese high school textbooks who see profound truth and linguistic simplicity in his song lyrics.
If initial popularity is anything to go by, fellow Beatle Paul was by far the better songwriter with hits like Yesterday, Let It Be and Hey Jude to his credit. However, it was John who was the public persona and voice of the Beatles. After they split up, Paul wrote “silly love songs” and lost touch with the cutting edge of creativity that had defined the Beatles, while John produced ever more challenging music like Jealous Guy, Mother, and Mind Games. It almost seems as if he held his best work back until the Beatles split so that he wouldn’t have to share the royalties.
As the ’60s ended, John more than anyone became the symbol of that revolutionary decade, so that when Mark Chapman pumped 3 bullets into him on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, it wasn’t just the dollar millions of the Lennon estate that passed into Yoko Ono’s hands, but also custody of a spiritual legacy that embraced everybody who lived through or was influenced by the 60s.
From the early days of their relationship the enigmatic, unsmiling, twice divorced Yoko was reviled. Paul in particular had trouble tolerating her.
“I’ve always thought,” John later accused, “there was this underlying thing in Paul’s Get Back. When we were in the studio recording it, every time he sang the line ‘Get back to where you once belonged,’ he’d look at Yoko.”
But Yoko got her man, and later got Paul into hot water by reputedly tipping off the Japanese authorities when he visited Japan with some marijuana in his luggage. More importantly she became the catalyst for the song with which Lennon’s name is now forever linked, thus getting her first firm hold on his legend.
“With us it’s a teacher-pupil relationship,” John told an unbelieving world. “That’s what people don’t understand. She’s the teacher and I’m the pupil. I’m the famous one. I’m supposed to know everything. But she taught me everything I fucking know.”
Although this shows a marked lack of gratitude to the likes of Lonnie Donegan, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Dr Arthur Janov and a host of others who all influenced the Lennon mind-set, no one can deny Yoko’s part in Lennon’s most famous song, Imagine.
Imagine the Communist Manifesto set to music. Lennon did.
The simple list of instructions in the songs lyrics stems directly from Yoko’s instruction paintings, where the viewer is requested to imagine a conceptual function. In a recent BBC survey these lyrics were voted the most popular of all time although very few people actually believe in their message of abolishing private property, national states, and religion.
Ono has tightened her grip on the legacy to such an extent that she can now with impunity send the ghost of her husband out to work in Cup Noodle commercials or use his music to promote Nike, a company notorious for paying superstars like Michael Jordan more to endorse its footwear than the entire work force who produce the shoes. In doing this she has faced little opposition. John’s son by his first marriage, Julian signally failed to exert any moral authority over the legacy when his own mildly promising career petered out in mediocrity, and as for Sean, despite being weaned by house-husband John, he is very much his mother’s child.
In fact, the only challenge recently to Yoko’s cozy control and exploitation of the Lennon legend was from the recent parole hearing of Lennon’s assassin, Mark Chapman. His release after 20 years in jail would have given the media a new and much juicier focal point to view Lennon’s legacy. It would also have allowed an exploration of the forgiveness and redemption implicit in Lennon’s Christ-like message of love. As Lennon himself said: “It’s the most violent people who go for love and peace.”
With the threat of losing control in this way, it was no surprise that Yoko moved Heaven and Earth to have Chapman’s parole refused.
“It was so cruel. So unjust,” she wrote in a sob letter to the New York state parole board. “My husband did not deserve this. He was in no way ready to die. He was feeling good with the prospect of doing a concert tour after making the album which became his last.”
The court promptly rejected the application, partly out of fears for Chapman’s life, and instead of a media circus focused on Lennon’s killer, we had the opening soon afterwards of the John Lennon Museum in Saitama, an event that would otherwise have been overshadowed.
Located in a site inside Saitama’s impressive new Super Arena, the Museum claims to be the only one in the World dedicated to Lennon. About 50 minutes out from central Tokyo and costing 1,500 yen to enter, it features staff dressed like elevator girls and 130 items from the life of Lennon, including old guitars, handwritten lyrics, John’s Japanese JCB credit card, and several pairs of spectacles. The most interesting exhibit, however, is the slanted view it presents of Lennon.
Although married twice, only John’s second wife ever appears. The brief period of sanity that John experienced in 1973 when he broke away from his mother fixation on Yoko and started to behave like a proper rock star again, is trivialized as the “Lost Weekend” and attributed to John “cracking up.” Worse than this, almost every song lyric is construed to refer to Yoko in some way.
There are also some serious omissions from the exhibition. For example, there are no samples of Cup Noodle or Dydo Coffee, two products with which the name of John Lennon is now intimately connected thanks to the business acumen of his widow.
Near the end of the exhibition, you enter the “Quote Temple” with screens running karaoke subtitles to the songs being played, and various quotes from Lennon’s career on a giant white block and glass wall. Unfortunately instead of incisive gems of Scouse wit, these are mainly sappy, Yoko-centric ditties like, “East is east and west is west/ The twain shall meet/ East is west and west is east/ Let it be complete.”
The final stop is the museum shop where you can buy a notebook for 700 yen, a T-shirt for 3,200 yen, and a framed lithograph of his lyrics for 38,000 yen. On every piece of merchandising are the words “John Lennon is a trademark of Yoko Ono Lennon,” just so we don’t forget who the owner is.
Now there is no John Lennon without Yoko Ono. With the opening of this museum she has tightened her grip even further on his legend, but as John once said, “Possession isn’t nine-tenths of the law, it’s nine-tenths of the problem.”