Continuing our week-long celebrations commemorating John Lennon's 75th birthday, here Yoko Ono recalls their relationship
Lennon said of the controversial Two Virgins sleeve photograph, featuring himself and Yoko in full-frontal nudity: “We used the straightest, most unflattering picture just to show that we were human” – a recurring theme throughout their autobiographical ventures. He also explained: “We felt like two virgins because we were in love, just met, and we were trying to make something.”
The picture stunned not only the media but everyone in The Beatles’ organisation – including Ringo, who described it as “the mind-blower”. The album should have been Apple’s first release, but it was held up for months over the refusal by EMI in the UK and Capitol in America to handle it, and it was finally distributed to the shops in brown paper bags through two small companies: Track (Britain) and Tetragrammaton (US). Some 30,000 copies were confiscated in New Jersey, and many shops refused to stock it.
Yet John and Yoko would go further, filming themselves apparently making love in footage that would be released on video.
Was this an inhibiting or liberating experience?
Yoko: “We didn’t do it really porno.”
It’s more sensual, romantic.
“We thought so, too. It was a romantic version of Two Virgins. It was a little bit gritty. Saying to the world that it’s all right to look as you are; I was four months’ pregnant. With making that, making love is not confronting the world – it’s a different kind of message, I think, and that’s what we wanted to convey.”
You got married on March 20, 1969. What is your most vivid memory of that day?
“It was just very sweet. It was in Gibraltar and all that, and it was exactly the way we wanted – casual enough, but also romantic, and it expresses a clothing that’s casual. That’s something that we loved. That’s how the whole thing was – casual but loving.”
During the honeymoon, you held a week-long bed-in for peace in the Amsterdam Hilton, and there were similar events in Canada. How strongly did you feel that together you could help to change the world, even a little bit, and did you?
“We thought it’s good to do it that way, with a sense of humour. It was a laugh, in a way. Some people took us seriously and were attacking us. But, actually, it was a big clown thing. And through clowning, we communicated the idea of world peace being very important… We were inspired by what was being done at the time, which was very serious. People were distributing pamphlets about world peace, but nobody wanted to know or to read, and especially the young didn’t want to do anything about it. We wanted to express in the way that our constituents would understand or appreciate.”
The media had a field day. John and Yoko invited ridicule, and got it in bucketloads. John admired the events that Yoko had staged for peace before they became a couple – memorably wrapping one of the Trafalgar Square lions in cloth – and he remained interested in the concept of “extreme concealment”, later dubbed “bagism”.
In their first public event, in June 1968, John and Yoko planted acorns for peace at Coventry Cathedral, and soon afterwards attended the London premiere of Victor Spinetti’s The John Lennon Play: In His Own Write. They were besieged by journalists: “Where’s your wife, Mr Lennon?” Overnight, Yoko Ono became Public Enemy Number One.
Upset but undeterred, John and Yoko continued their crusades. After the Amsterdam bed-in, they held a press conference in Vienna in a white bag and, in April 1969, sent acorns to leaders around the world. The Canadian bed-ins happened over May and June in Toronto and Montreal where, during a week in bed, they wrote and recorded “Give Peace A Chance” with everyone who happened to be visiting.
This coincided with the UK release of a new Beatles single – “The Ballad Of John And Yoko”. Only John and Paul played on the track, with McCartney adding drums, bass, piano and percussion to John’s account of his wedding and honeymoon.
Ironically, this was the follow-up single to “Get Back”, which John had interpreted as an attack on Yoko by McCartney.
Their private lives had also been making headlines. John and Yoko were living in a flat owned by Ringo at 34 Montagu Square, Marylebone when, on October 18, 1968, they were busted by the drug squad. The team found a quantity of marijuana which John and Yoko later claimed was planted – although John did also wonder if it could have been an old, forgotten stash.
Only days afterwards, Yoko announced she was pregnant. But early in November, she was rushed into Queen Charlotte’s Hospital amid fears of a miscarriage. John camped at her bedside and made a series of recordings which turned into the Life With The Lions album, in line with his new philosophy that songs should be like newspapers.
On November 21, Yoko miscarried the baby – John Ono Lennon II, who was properly buried in a secret ceremony.
Attending Marylebone Magistrates Court on November 28, John pleaded guilty to possession of cannabis, keeping Yoko out of things for fear she would be deported. His solicitor suggested that the stress arising from the bust had contributed to Yoko’s miscarriage. Lennon was fined £150 and told to pay costs of 20 guineas (£21) – and the conviction would lead to serious problems. It inhibited his ability to travel, and it would be seized upon by the Nixon administration as an excuse to deport him from America.
The US authorities disliked the couple anyway. In January 1969, the FBI opened a file on John because of the “subversive” nature of Two Virgins. His newly acquired police record meant the Lennons had to stage their bed-ins in Canada rather than America, although they came to like the Dominion, which was generally supportive of their peace initiatives while affording access to the US media.
On the domestic front, John legally changed his name to John Ono Lennon in a ceremony on the roof of the Apple building at 3 Savile Row on April 22, 1969, stating: “Yoko changed her name for me. I’ve changed mine for her. One for both, both for each other.” The next month saw them move into Tittenhurst Park, a Georgian mansion with 70 acres of land at Sunningdale, near Ascot in Berkshire. By now, John and Yoko had discovered heroin.
John had enjoyed a succession of drugs, beginning with alcohol. In the early years, The Beatles had gobbled Preludin amphetamine tablets – “Prellies”. Abandoning pills and alcohol in favour of pot at the time of Help!, John soon graduated to acid, commenting that, “I must have had a thousand trips. I used to just eat it all the time.”
Talking to Jann Wenner about smack, Lennon remembered: “We sniffed a little when we were in real pain… People were giving us such a hard time. And I’ve had so much shit thrown at me and especially at Yoko… We took H because of what The Beatles and their pals were doing to us.”
In a 1997 conversation with Uncut, Yoko expanded: “We both felt it was very effective in the sense of slowing down our minds. If you get an upper, because we’re both very up people anyway, we would just go crazy with this. So we couldn’t take an upper, you know. We took a downer.”
She revealed that they experienced several periods of heroin use – and never found a decent dealer. However, it was their withdrawal from that first encounter with smack that gave rise to the chilling “Cold Turkey”, released in October 1969 by the Plastic Ono Band – a ‘conceptual’ group featuring John, Yoko, and any musicians who happened to join them.
Yet their withdrawal from the heroin substitute methadone was even more horrific.
Yoko said: “It was the wrong information that somebody gave us that there was a new drug called methadone and that gives you the same high as smack, but you don’t get hooked on it, and so, ‘Whoopee’, you know, and at that time we were totally dry. So most people take methadone because they want to withdraw from smack and we weren’t taking smack, we weren’t taking anything, so it was the silliest thing to do. So we got hooked on methadone…”
Coming off methadone was “the hardest thing that I’ve ever done,” Yoko added. “And I’m sure that’s true for John too… After that, we couldn’t get hooked on anything.”