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Tom Maxwell | Longreads | January 2021 | 9 minutes (2,485 words)
Much is known about John Lennon’s self-described “Lost Weekend” — an 18-month separation from his wife Yoko Ono from the summer of 1973 to early 1975 — in which the former Beatle made records, produced records, drank, and took drugs to excess, and got kicked out of The Troubadour and various Los Angeles studios. Much less is known about how Ono spent her time back in New York.
In 1974, Ono recorded A Story at The Record Plant in New York. More than just another solo album, A Story was to be Ono’s first musical effort independent of her husband. Lennon produced or otherwise participated in all four of her previous recordings. Because of this, and the circumstances surrounding its creation, A Story is a statement of independence, a kind of personal manifesto. As a direct result of the couple’s reconciliation the following year, A Story was shelved at Ono’s direction. Most of its songs would resurface in later releases, sometimes in an entirely different emotional, as well as musical, context.
Yoko Ono was born in Tokyo, Japan on February 18, 1933. Her father was a wealthy banker and classically-trained pianist, her mother a socialite. Ono attended exclusive private schools until the Allied bombings of Tokyo in 1945 made her family relocate to the countryside, where she and her brother had to resort to begging for food. Relocating to the United States after the war, Ono studied music at Sarah Lawrence College. By the early 1960s, she and her first husband were hosting salons at their New York City loft, featuring music, poetry, and performance. It was here that Ono began presenting conceptual art pieces. One, “Painting to Be Stepped On,” involved participants walking on a blank canvas, which was then displayed in a gallery. In “Cut Piece,” Ono invited audience members to come on stage and cut off pieces of her clothes.
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In 1966, Ono traveled to London, where she became a hit with the underground art scene. John Dunbar, the owner of the famed Indica Gallery, invited a member of the Beatles to drop by her exhibition. “She was having a show at this gallery…and I had a bit of a hang up about art, having been to art school,” John Lennon remembered. “There was this ladder, and a thing on the ceiling. So I climbed the ladder, and on the ceiling it said, ‘yes.’ So I thought, ‘I agree, then!’… If it had said, ‘no,’ then I would have carried on with my preconceived ideas about art and artists.”
Ono, who didn’t recognize Lennon, asked if he’d like to hammer in a nail for five shillings. Lennon offered to hammer an imaginary nail in exchange for giving her imaginary money. Something clicked. The two kept in touch.
Two years later, in May 1968, Lennon’s wife Cynthia went on vacation. “When [the Beatles] got back from India, [Yoko and I] were talking to each other on the phone,” Lennon recalled. “I called her over.”
It was the middle of the night and Cyn was away, and I thought, “Well now’s the time if I’m gonna get to know her anymore.” She came to the house and I didn’t know what to do. So we went upstairs to my studio and I played her all the tapes that I’d made, all this far out stuff, some comedy stuff, and some electronic music. She was suitably impressed and then she said, “Well, let’s make one ourselves,” so we made Two Virgins. It was midnight when we started Two Virgins, and it was dawn when we finished, and then we made love at dawn. It was beautiful.
The experimental result of that night’s recording, Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, was released that November. It featured Lennon and Ono on the cover, naked. The two married on March 20, 1969.
Since their relationship developed during the final part of the Beatles’ career, and during Lennon’s first marriage, it caused enormous controversy, which has been chronicled exhaustively. The vitriol follows Ono to this day. “In a way both John and I ruined our careers by getting together,” she told The Telegraph in 2012. “Although we weren’t aware of it at the time.” Suffice to say Ono was unfairly maligned for breaking the band up; a process which her presence may have hastened but could have never caused.
Lennon went on to great success in his early solo career, first with the pared down, brutal honesty of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, followed by the massively popular Imagine. In time, however, things began to sour. Having moved to New York at the end of 1971, Lennon’s agitprop album Some Time In New York City, released the following year, was critically reviled. He was especially upset about Nixon’s reelection on November 7, 1972. The couple attended a party that night, where at one point Lennon led a woman into another room.
“Then suddenly they started to make love, and we can all hear it,” Ono remembered. “And I was just frozen, stuck there, sitting. And all that time this [other] woman was saying to me, ‘You don’t understand how we feel about John, do you? He’s the most lovely, beautiful person, and we all love him.’ And I was saying, ‘Yes. Thank you.’ I didn’t know what to say.”
In the coming months, Ono began to feel burned out, both by Beatles’ fans continuing hatred of her and the suffocating nature of her marriage.
“I needed a rest,” she once said. “I needed space. Can you imagine every day of getting this vibration from people of hate? You want to get out of that. Also, we were so close John didn’t even want me to go to the bathroom by myself. ‘I will come with you,’ he would say. And this would be in public places like the EMI recording studios.”
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To the angry public, Yoko broke up the Beatles, and she was also the reason they wouldn’t reunite. It was all too much. “My art work suffered, too,” Ono said. “I thought I wanted to be free from being Mrs. Lennon, so I thought it would be a good idea for him to go to L.A. and leave me alone for a while. I had put up with it for many years.”
In 1973, Ono approached the couple’s young assistant, May Pang. “Yoko came to me at 9:30 in the morning and said, ‘May, I’ve got to talk to you. John and I are not getting along,’ which I knew because the tension was thick,” Pang remembered. “She said, ‘He’s going to start going out with other people. I know you don’t have a boyfriend and you would be good for him.’ I said I didn’t think so, but she said, ‘You don’t want him to go out with somebody who is going to be nasty to him, do you?’ I said, ‘Of course not,’ and she said, ‘You will be perfect,’ and walked out.”
Lennon and Pang left for the West Coast. “Well, at first I thought, ‘Whoopee, whoopee!’ You know?,” Lennon recalled.
‘Bachelor life! Whoopee!’ And then I woke up one day and I thought, ‘What is this? I want to go home!’ But she wouldn’t let me come home. That’s why it was eighteen months apart instead of six months. We were talking all the time on the phone and I would say, ‘I don’t like this, I’m getting in trouble and I’d like to come home, please.’ And she would say, ‘You’re not ready to come home.“ So, what do you say? ‘Okay, back to the bottle.’
If Lennon seemed emotionally lost, Ono appeared to know exactly which way to go. In 1974, she made a solo tour of Japan. Back in the studio, A Story was constructed as a fully orchestrated album, featuring brass, woodwinds, and strings as well as traditional rock instruments. Musically, it’s a departure from Ono’s early avant garde efforts, and more in line with the mainstream sounds, if not themes, of her previous two albums Approximately Infinite Universe and Feeling the Space. Indeed, the latter was supposed to be a double album but was not issued as such due to budgetary considerations. Some of the tracks appeared on A Story instead.
Lyrically, the album may well have been called My Story. Ono sets things straight with characteristic forthrightness. “There was a girl who couldn’t speak,” she sings on the title track.
Who couldn’t speak her mind
Only thing she was good at
Was telling stories of faraway lands
There was a guy who couldn’t say
Who couldn’t say what he wanted
Only thing he was good at
Was cracking jokes to make people laugh
The funky “Yes, I’m a Witch” is as much a contemporary rebuke as it is ahead of its time.
Yes, I’m a witch
I’m a bitch
I don’t care what you say
My voice is real
My voice speaks truth
I don’t fit in your ways
I’m not gonna die for you
You might as well face the truth
I’m gonna stick around for quite awhile
“I was living as an artist and had relative freedom as a woman and was considered a bitch in this society,” Ono told the Feminist Planning Conference in 1973. “Since I met John, I was upgraded into a witch and I think that that’s very flattering.”
Ono was now declaring her independence. “Room to room, flushing away her memory,” she sings on “She Gets Down On Her Knees.” “Bay to bay, washing out her history.”
“Heartburn Stew” is made of similar stuff. “I toasted my pride and covered it with apple jam,” Ono sings, “and waited for my love to come. But not a single sign of a stir or a breeze. So I soaked my bread in my milk and gave it to the birds.”
I should note that I’m referring to Ono’s lyrics as autobiographical with some diffidence. Normally, assigning such motivations cheapens the art and limits the artist. However, it’s fairly clear to me — although perfectly debatable — that Ono intended some of these lyrics to be interpreted that way, both in the context of this album and subsequently when songs from A Story appeared on her later works, as well as her own public statements.
One of the session players on A Story also co-produced it. Guitarist David Spinozza had already worked with ex-Beatle Paul McCartney on his second solo album Ram as well as with Lennon on his 1973 record Mind Games. “Bless You,” a song specifically about Ono from 1974’s Walls and Bridges, seems to reference whomever his wife was with, if not Spinozza specifically. “Bless you, whoever you are holding her now,” Lennon sings. “Be warm and kind-hearted.”
It’s not clear if Lennon was aware that Spinozza was having an affair with Ono at the time, but apparently the couple had talked about him as Ono’s potential sexual partner before Lennon left for Los Angeles. “David’s so beautiful,” Lennon is credited with having told Ono. “I wouldn’t mind having sex with him.”
Spinozza was considerably more reticent to discuss the matter in a Guitar World interview. After he described recording with McCartney, Lennon, and Paul Simon, the interviewer asks, “You also worked with Yoko Ono. Anything you’d like to say about it?”
“I certainly did,” Spinozza replied, “and no.”
Now completed, A Story was set for release, but Lennon and Ono’s reconciliation in 1975 prevented that. “It was all done and mastered and it was there and then John and I came back together again,” Ono said. “And I felt that I didn’t want to go through the flack of people, reporters, asking me: ‘Well, you made this album and what is this song about?’ I thought, ‘I’m not doing that to John or to me; to us.’ And it was great that I didn’t. It was fine.”
Songs from A Story were parted out for subsequent Ono albums. (This is not unusual. Songwriter Lou Reed used many songs from the “lost” Velvet Underground album for his solo career.) “Will You Touch Me,” “Dogtown,” and “She Gets Down On Her Knees” were re-recorded for 1981’s Season of Glass. “Loneliness” and “Tomorrow May Never Come” appeared on 1982s It’s Alright (I See Rainbows). “Yes, I’m a Witch” was remixed for a 2007 album of the same name. But two of the songs were repurposed in ways that were ultimately jarring, if not heartbreaking.
The first was “Hard Times Are Over.” Appearing on A Story, it seems to be much more about a new love interest than an estranged husband.
It’s been very rough
But it’s getting easier now
Hard times are over, over for a while
The streams are twinkling in the sun
And I’m smiling inside
You and I walking together around the street corner
Hard times are over, over for a while
But “Hard Times Are Over” ultimately saw release on Double Fantasy, the 1980 album which served as the couple’s reunion effort, as well as Lennon’s swan song: he was shot to death on December 8 of that year. By its inclusion on this album, the song seems to speak more to the joys of reconciliation than the promise of new love.
A Story contributed one more song to Ono’s career. “It Happened” was released as the B-side to “Walking On Thin Ice,” an Ono composition that Lennon played on during his last recording session, which took place on the night of his murder.
“‘It Happened’ was a song John loved,” Ono wrote in the liner notes.
“It’s a hit.” “No Way.” “You wanna bet? I’ll make it a hit,” he said. I remember thinking, “Why this one?” John had found the song amongst my old tapes two weeks before the night. Getting this together after what happened was hard. But I knew John would not rest his mind if I hadn’t. I hope you like it, John. I did my best.
It happened at a time of my life
When I least expected
It happened at a time of my life
When I least expected
I don’t even remember how it happened
I don’t even remember the day it happened
But it happened
Yes, it happened
Oh, it happened
And I know there’s no return, no way
Rykodisc released A Story in its entirety, along with three bonus tracks, in 1997. The cover is a colorized picture of Ono as a child, sitting in a life preserver on the deck of a ship.
Shelved albums always tell an interesting story. Musically, some are inexorably of their time and are released later to an uninterested public. Others are culturally predictive and sound contemporary even 20 years after being recorded. A Story is unique, I think, in describing an alternate universe — one in which Ono got to step out of her husband’s shadow. Listening to it sheds a lot of light.
Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.