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The Question for John Lennon's 71st Birthday: Did Yoko Ono Really Break Up the Beatles?

Posted: 09/14/11 08:17 PM ET

In the annals of American pop music, no human being is more passionately hated by critics and fans alike than Yoko Ono, wife of the late Beatles John Lennon. More than 40 years after the band's break-up, she continues to draw the kind of venomous and hateful reactions usually reserved for child molesters and baby killers. She is reviled as the slithering, calculating harpy who insinuated herself into the life of John Lennon, driving a wedge that finally severed one of music's most productive and brilliant songwriting teams -- Paul McCartney and John Lennon -- and precipitated the break-up of the world's most beloved rock band, The Beatles.

Approaching what would have been John Lennon's 71st birthday on October 9th, it is finally time to look back through more sober eyes, and to finally acknowledge that Yoko Ono did not single-handedly destroy the Beatles -- in fact, she wasn't even the spark. On the contrary, her impact on The Beatles' legacy was actually a positive one.

One After 909
The truth is that, by the time Yoko Ono met John Lennon in 1966, she was just one of the many business, artistic and personal conflicts already brewing within the band that would eventually fling them apart -- but unluckily she was the most visible one, and therefore the lightning rod for many of their problems that followed.

By the time of her arrival, George Harrison was already beginning to feel frustrated as a songwriter, limited to just several songs per album; Ringo Starr was drifting into his own career in movies. Meanwhile, McCartney and Lennon were rapidly maturing as individual artists, diverging in musical tastes and aspirations after years of living in the unnaturally close quarters that was life as a Beatle.

Critics point to Ono's presence in the recording studio as proof of her role in their breakup, but that is an illogical conclusion. She obviously didn't muscle her way in! John brought her there. Even if she had badgered and badgered him until he finally gave in; ultimately he did agree to it. If any blame is to be portioned out, therefore, it should be to John, who knew the tension her presence created among his fellow band mates and continued the practice. His decision to bring her into the studio reflected his own conflicted state of mind at that time -- she was just the messenger.

Fixing a Hole
By the time Yoko Ono came on the scene, the Beatles were at their peak of popularity, but there were already signs of discord. Their final, brilliant achievement as an official band three years later, the album Abbey Road, was more a compilation of songs by four talented songwriters than a collaboration of musical talents. They could barely stand to be in the same room together. More importantly, by then, John Lennon was clearly stagnating as a songwriter: The most memorable songs on the album were McCartney and Harrison compositions.

After the Beatles broke up, however, John's first solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, gave us such classics as "Mother," "Working Class Hero," "God" and "Isolation." All these cathartic songs plumbed the dark side of his life that he could only hint at during his Beatles days. His subsequent album gave us "Jealous Guy" and the legendary "Imagine" -- songs that were infinitely better than anything he had written in the last two Beatles outings. Even more, the song "Imagine," over the year, has proven to be a remarkably persuasive counter-argument to Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind." Both songs have become the musical soundtracks of civil rights and anti-war movements. Yet, while Dylan offers a cynical denunciation of man's inhumanity to man, Lennon offers a fierce affirmation of the power of man to love each other and create a better world.

Clearly, after the Beatles broke up, Lennon found his muse again -- and time and time again, in his music, in his words, in his actions, he credited Yoko Ono. He repeatedly insisted that it was through her that he exorcised his demons and fixed what was emotionally wrong with him. Yet critics and fans continue to deny him his dignity as a man, treating these assertions as if coming from a hopelessly delusional husband who was blind to his wife's scheming and machinations.

Hi, Hi, Hi
After the breakup of the Beatles, McCartney also truly came into his own, becoming one of the most prolific and successful solo musical artists in history. He may have lost hardcore Beatles fans and critics with his "silly love songs," but he remains today unrivaled in achievements, commercially and artistically -- something he could never have done as part of the songwriting "team" of Lennon-McCartney. It was an open secret that the two composers generally wrote their songs independently, than slapped on the Lennon-McCartney label. Now, like Lennon, he was no longer confined to the "Beatles' sound," and could explore every facet of his creative curiosity.

Lighting the World
After the breakup of the Beatles, George Harrison also came into his own as a songwriter with his first solo effort in 1970, All Things Must Pass. He then went on to produce what is arguably one of the most revolutionary events in music -- the concert for Bangladesh in 1971. The event, the first benefit concert of global reach, proved a defining moment in popular culture and became the prototype for benefit concerts to follow. It raised awareness in Western countries of their obligation to help alleviate suffering from hunger, natural disasters and political prosecution in Third World Nations. It inspired generations of performers who went on to make a genuine impact in the lives of people in need through concerts such as We Are the World, Band Aid, and Farm Aid.

Even Ringo Starr came into his own, post-Beatles, releasing a series of highly successful solo albums that helped him to achieve what he could never have achieved in the substantial shadow of three talented songwriters -- respect as a musician.

I Me Mine
To call the break-up of the Beatles a disaster is to deny the importance of the individual accomplishments that followed each member of the group -- and the fact that the members themselves needed to move on with their lives and find personal peace and contentment. It is to deny the need for every human being to grow as a person -- for the selfish reason that you wanted them to continue to entertain you in the manner to which you had become accustomed.

Moreover, the significant musical, cultural and social impacts achieved by the individual members helped to further shape and bring into focus their combined achievements as part of the group. For decades following the breakup, it kept alive the band's enormous musical legacy long after other 60s bands had faded into the murky depths of nostalgia. Society is notorious for dismissing the relevancy of even the best musical talents once their commercial success has diminished.

And too, after Lennon's death, Yoko Ono continued to nurture the Beatles legacy through the various memorials she has helped set up for her husband. These include the Strawberry Fields memorial in New York City's Central Park; honoring Lennon's 50th birthday with a worldwide broadcast of "Imagine"; founding the John Lennon Museum in Japan; dedicating the Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland; and dedicating the "Peace Tree" in Washington, D.C. She also created the exhibit "John Lennon: The New York City Years" for the NYC Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Annex.

Let it Be
As we approach John Lennon's birthday, it is therefore time that the music world grew up and stopped treating Yoko Ono as the insidious force behind the breakup of the Beatles. Regardless of one's opinion of Yoko as a person, her impact on John -- as a human being, as an artist, as a global force for world peace -- was an overwhelmingly positive one. She helped him to discover, confront and conquer whatever demons had possessed him throughout his days with the Beatles. In her, he finally found his soul mate, and through her, he came to terms with himself.

To deny John the right to choose who to love and how to love her, who to be inspired by and how to dedicate his life to her - because you liked his music and didn't want him to stop entertaining you - is exceptionally selfish and immature. He was a member of the world's most successful band - but at the end of the day, even the greatest rock band in the world is still a day job. If the job was no longer meaningful, productive or emotionally healthy for Lennon, he was entitled to quit that job. He had already given a great deal of himself to the world and the world had no right to demand more. And Yoko Ono, regarding her personal relationship with Lennon, did not owe the world an explanation - or an apology.

 
 
 

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