This review is by Amy Hughes
Yoko Ono. No two words in the world, past or present, can conjure up such a deep emotional response. No one else in the world of art, music, and literature can rev up enough words to fill a bag as she has always done.
Author Donald Brackett has bravely put together Yoko Ono: An Artful Life (Sutherland House, 2022) by turns refreshing and frustrating (like the subject herself). That the reader will be rewarded with a better understanding of this complex woman is again refreshing and frustrating.
Approaching with an unbiased mind is not its sole purpose. There are enough people on Team Ono in today’s society that will appreciate the balance of life Before Yoko and After Yoko, with regards to the Beatles.
Refreshing: a good first half. Brackett pulls together numerous outside sources – including Ono – to paint her as a rebellious-contained-by-society-privileged-free-thinker who was most certainly ahead of the times. While her father remained distant (physically and literally) with his banking business, Ono’s mother was cold and indifferent in her relationship with her daughter.
These circumstances and her transatlantic family uprooting due to World War II led to the bohemian lifestyle that became her trademark. Brackett’s unflinching narrative, interwoven with Ono’s quotes about these early years is harrowing and dramatic, speaking volumes about her upcoming travails.
New York City became her canvas in the early ‘60s, as she oscillated between a divorce, second marriage, giving birth to her daughter Kyoko and finally involvement in the city’s downtown experimental movement known as Fluxus. Here is where Brackett shines with descriptive and informative details regarding Ono as an outlier, pushing to be accepted by a male-dominated genre.
Her minimalist approach couched with survival instincts brought on by early childhood drama, flung her into a world she felt she had a driven purpose – but denied by the misogynistic environment and with few artistic choices left, she went to London.
Frustrating: second half. As has been written in the last fifty-plus years, the events that brought Ono and John Lennon together are interwoven with well-known stories and numerous anecdotes. Based on this narrative, the point brought home by Brackett is that being with Lennon was the worst thing that happened to Ono’s projected art career and musical endeavors.
The portrait of Ono is one of a domineering witch that ripped a generation’s voice away from the biggest cultural phenomenon of all time. With hindsight (and Brackett being fortunate to include observations from Peter Jackson’s ‘Get Back’), we can now see the role reversal: he needed her more than she needed him and her last recorded work with him – ‘Walking On Thin Ice’ – showed the eerieness of that future soundscape.
However, Lennon was such an undeniable presence that the book suffers in that context. As a reader, one is left to blip in and out of the next 5 decades, save for a few moments of Ono’s artistic leaps, post-1980. Focusing on the facts, figures, and accomplishments since Lennon’s murder can leave the reader wanting more. And that may be how Ono wants it.
Her greatest achievement by far has been her son Sean. And with the re-telling here of Lennon and Ono’s ‘housebound’ years, weighs heavily on the tone of the latter half of the story. As Sean gained a sense of identity and has recently begun representing his mother in business decisions, we may be seeing a shift to only the listings of Ono’s handiwork – sold-out gallery showings, the Imagine Peace Tower, her purchase of Menlove Ave, and donating it to the National Trust, Number One dance hits – in that he will be the gatekeeper of her legacy.
A casual fan of the Beatles may gain some knowledge of the dynamic yet still elusive Ono, especially in the first chapters up until the Lennon years. For that reason, I’ll give this book…
4 out of 4 beetles.