WHAT IF IT HAD BEEN YOKO? by Tim Briffa
I sometimes think about moments in history when things could have taken a completely different turn, but for one seemingly insignificant event or decision.
For example, before Hitler entered politics he wanted to be a painter and applied twice to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. He wasn’t actually that bad either, certainly no worse than many others who’ve been admitted over the years, but his applications were rejected.
But what if just one examiner had seen some promise? Most likely he’d have given up on his political ambitions at least temporarily and World War 2 would have been averted, sparing the lives of up to 80 million innocent people.
Or Charles Manson, the American hippie cult leader whose killing spree helped end the Peace and Love movement of the late 1960s. Prior to that he was trying to make it as a singer-songwriter and again wasn’t so terrible. A song of his had already been covered by the Beach Boys leading to an audition with Terry Melcher, a producer for Columbia Records, who would ultimately turn him down. Though he was away at the time, the most notorious of the killings was in Melcher’s own house and likely an act of revenge, so it’s very possible that had he offered Manson a deal, we’d think of him today as a gifted songwriter whose music we all know and love.
Another example I’ve been been thinking of recently is the man who killed John Lennon and what would have happened had he pointed his gun a couple of feet to the left and shot Yoko instead.
It’s not such a far-fetched notion. In the weeks before the killing, he veered between wanting to murder Lennon for turning into what he saw as this phoney sell-out rock star and simply wanting to meet him and hang out.
So it’s not inconceivable that if he’d spent just a little longer mulling things over, he’d have realised the point at which he appeared to sell out, coincided almost exactly with meeting and soon after marrying Yoko Ono and that it was really her who deserved the bullet.
It’s also worth considering the events leading up to the murder. Just three weeks before, Lennon released the Double Fantasy album after a five year creative hiatus which according to various interviews he gave to publicise the album, he’d spent as a ‘house husband’ to Yoko, baking bread and bringing up his new son Sean, while she went to work and generally took care of business.
To cooing noises of approval from his ever-present wife, he spoke of this like it was some proto-feminist revolutionary statement, but even his most supportive fans must have wondered if his talents couldn’t have been better spent than cleaning up after her and his kid, or why he couldn’t simply have hired a nanny.
To add insult to injury, he’d allotted half of the new album’s tracks to her and if that wasn’t bad enough, acted as if he was the one lucky enough to share a platform with someone so uniquely talented.
So let’s picture the scene, had she been the one who died on that fateful December night. Of course it would still have been a collossal news story accompanied by round the clock reporting from the world’s media. But while they did their best to portray her as the unheralded artistic genius John had always insisted, it was hard to provide much evidence, aside from a brief clip of her performing Cut Piece in a small New York theatre, plus various shots of her howling into a microphone either in or out of her plastic bag and accompanied by her awkwardly grinning husband, which only seemed to confirm her reputation as a charmless, artistic charlatan.
There was also no major increase in record sales, as was common following the death of a great artist apart from the Infinite Universe album – her only full collaboration with John – making a brief appearance in the Billboard Top 200.
Again this wasn’t for a lack of support from sympathetic radio programmers, but even college DJs struggled to find anything they could play that wouldn’t have their listeners immediately reaching for the dial.
Whatever one felt towards Yoko, she’d been the wife of one of the most revered artists of all time, so the real question was how her death would affect John.
So far a single press statement had been released calling it ‘a brutal, senseless act’ along with an appeal for media privacy, so that he and Sean could try to deal with the tragedy.
Their request was respected until the following Autumn, when an article appeared in Rolling Stone entitled ‘John Deals With Tragedy By Immersing Himself In His Art’ confirming rumours he’d been working on a set of new material at the Hit Factory in New York where he’d recorded Double Fantasy.
When the Tunnel Vision album was released a couple of months later, rather than the brooding tribute to Yoko most were expecting, it proved to be a collection of mostly upbeat tracks that sat comfortably with the current New Wave scene.
But the real surprise was how good it was. And I don’t just mean compared to other solo Beatle efforts of that period or his own less than inspired outings such as Mind Games and Walls and Bridges. I mean up there with Imagine and Plastic Ono Band, perhaps even, dare I say it, touching on some of his Beatle works – at least in terms of the songwriting.
The album went platinum and yielded two top ten singles Behind The Mirror and Bought and Sold – a catchy dance track with its famous pay-off chorus, ‘Your records went gold, but I might be so bold, you act like you’re free, but you’re bought and sold,’ that most critics took as a swipe against the Stones’ recent forays into disco and attempts to stay relevant.
Perhaps stung out of their complacency, their next release was a back to theoir roots R ‘n’ B album that widely regarded as their best work in years.
Interestingly Paul McCartney also enjoyed a creative renaissance around this time which he openly admitted was inspired by Tunnel Vision – their relationship having always been built on an uber-healthy creative rivalry.
John’s follow-up Out Of Darkness eschewed the previous album’s keyboard-dominated production, for a heavy, guitar-oriented sound that bordered on experimental. Though no singles were released, it would end up out-selling Tunnel Vision and was cited as an influence by several bands from the emerging ‘DirtPop’ scene that helped make the 80s such a memorable decade for guitar-based rock.
Around this time John rekindled his relationship with May Pang, the former label secretary with whom he’d an affair in the mid 70s, while partying in LA alongside Keith Moon, Harry Nilson and others. He would later refer to this period as his ‘lost weekend,’ claiming Yoko had suggested it as a way to exorcise his various teenage demons.
It had been a pretty long weekend though – over eighteen months – during which he and May had even shopped for houses together, leading to speculation that rather than waiting for Yoko to decide he was ready to take back – as he would later claim, other pressures had been brought to bear.
John married May the next year in a small ceremony in front of close friends and family. In sharp contrast to Yoko, May would remain resolutely private, refusing interviews except to publicise her work for various children’s charities. From the affectionate way John talked of her, it was clear she made him happy and over time she gained a lot of respect from Beatle fans.
John then embarked on his first live dates in almost a decade (since just after getting back together with Yoko) employing Cheap Trick as his backing band, billed as The Knickerbocker Glories. He’d worked with them before, recording three tracks for the Double Fantasy album, but these were ditched after Yoko convinced him that despite being one of the biggest bands of the day, they were ‘nobodies…clinging to his coat-tails’ – which cynical types might have called a classic case of projection.
The tour received ecstatic reactions, thanks to a career-spanning set that included previously unperformed Beatle tracks such as Happiness Is A Warm Gun, I’m So Tired and even takes on Paul’s Oh Darling and an electrifying Helter Skelter, proving he’d at last made peace with both him and his Beatle legacy.
In 1990 the unthinkable happened when he and Paul got back together for an album of rock ‘n’ roll covers ‘the Return of the Nerk Twins’ – a reference to their teen moniker when occasionally playing pub gig as a duo for extra cash. Recorded over a weekend with a ‘no overdub and maximum of three takes’ rule, it turned out to be an unpolished diamond, featuring jokey banter, false starts and fluffed solos occasionally devolving into fits of infectious giggles.
The album wasn’t a surprise to some Beatle maniacs. A bootleg dubbed ‘the Cocaine Tapes’ had recently surfaced of them jamming covers during the infamous Lost Weekend and according to a newly-released book, they’d discussed recording together, but like so many other potentially amazing projects, it had been nixxed by Yoko after they got back together.
Meanwhile other books had begun appearing, painting Yoko in a less than flattering light and questioning elements in their official story. A particularly salacious one by Albert Goldman alleged she was the one who introduced him to heroin to lure him into their relationship and that she’d later used blackmail to get him to leave May and push her version of events.
John maintained a dignified silence on these allegations – possibly in respect to Sean – though he did admit their relationship was troubled and a long way from the fairytale meeting of artistic minds he’d made out at the time.
The 80s had been such a great decade for rock, the 90s was almost bound to disappoint and like many others John’s output took a dip at this time (Crystal Magic being a notorious lowpoint,) but he bounced back with two of his strongest works The Turning Point and his soundtrack to the Oscar winning Dead Of Night.
Return of the Nerk Twins had revived speculation of a full Beatle reunion. While none of the four ruled out the possibility, it was eventually taken from them with George’s tragic passing from cancer in 2001.
John would follow him in 2004, dying peacefully in May’s arms following a short illness to a global outpouring of collective grief.
Along with his Beatle output, he’d left behind eleven solo albums and proved an artist could remain vital to the end. He’d also remained a compelling political voice and social commentator, unafraid to call out hypocrisy wherever he saw it.
Though Yoko remained a key figure in the countless obituaries that followed, she’d been relegated to a mostly negative artistic footnote, primarily still known as ‘the woman who broke up the Beatles.’ Even romantically she was now regarded as a stepping stone between Cynthia and the true love of John’s life, May Pang.
Two years later and dying himself from heart disease, Yoko’s killer was released from prison on compassionate grounds. He was tracked down by a journalist for a small Canadian music paper who talked him into what would prove to be his one and only interview.
After a quick mic and battery check the journalist got straight to the point.
‘Okay, the question everyone wants to know is… why….’
‘…did I kill Yoko?’
‘You really have to ask? Is it not obvious by now?’
‘Well no, or…’
‘Okay, so why do you think I did it?’
‘I dunno. I mean I guess because…you’re a fucking madman?’
‘Come on. Try harder. Even if I was nuts, why kill her and not some random stranger?’
‘…Okay. Because…you hated her, right? The woman who broke up the greatest band that ever lived.’
‘Sure, she played her part. But you can’t change the past and I knew I’d never get away with it. So what was in it for me?
‘…All right you tell me.’
‘I did it for you. And millions just like you.’
‘What the hell are you talking about?’
‘Would you rather I hadn’t? Knowing what it would have meant- artistically?’
‘In what way?’
‘We know where he was at with Double Fantasy. His tracks were all good. He’d got his mojo back – pretty much. But he still gave the other half to Yoko. Do you think that would have changed on his next album, if she’d lived? Unlikely. Or Out Of Darkness, do you think he’d have made that at all? We defininitely know the Nerk Twins wouldn’t have happened. And The Turning Point? Maybe with added shrieking….
‘All right, I get what you’re saying, but I still wouldn’t have shot her.’
‘I know. And what about John? Do you think he’d have pushed me away – if he could have turned back the clock? Knowing it would have meant missing out on all the happiness he found with May?’
‘Actually I do. I mean I accept he was probably happier with her, but he’d never have let you kill Yoko. He was a man of peace. That’s what he stood for. Non-violence. The Bed Ins, Give Peace a Chance, Revolution – ‘But when you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out….’
‘The second version of Revolution, where he added the ‘in.’ You know the story? Said he thought about it some more and was no longer sure and that maybe violence was sometimes necessary.’
‘All right, yeah, he did.’
‘ And having wrestled with that question myself, I came to the same conclusion. That in some cases violence was necessary. And that this was one of them.’
‘But he was talking about politics!’
‘He was. But what meant even more to him than that?’
‘I don’t know. Love?’
‘Yes. But even above that.’
‘I don’t know.’
‘How about art?’
‘And what artform did he think was the most immediate and the most powerful?’
‘And more specifically?’
‘ ‘Rock ‘n’ roll?’
‘Ri-ight. He talked about it all the time. How his life changed the moment he heard Heartbreak Hotel. Suddenly gave it meaning and a purpose. How it got him through the bad times. Even the death of his mother. He knew its power to uplift. To heal, to transform. And not just him or the thrill of playing, but for the people listening. I mean he made out he was the selfish cunt, but why else did he spend thousands of hours perfecting all of their recordings? He could have just stayed in Hamburg playing covers – taking pills and fucking strippers. But he knew he had a duty that he’d been passed on the torch by Elvis, Little Richard, Arthur Alexander. And he was ruthless too. Even before Hamburg he’d sacked Ivan Vaughan – his best friend, from the Quarrymen, because he knew he was holding him back. And then Pete Best – right on the cusp of stardom. And even after he knew it had pretty much destroyed his life, he didn’t give a shit. Because he knew it had to be done. That it was necessary. And he was right. I mean what’s one ruined life compared to the millions they transformed, healed, uplifted? So like him., I just did what was necessary, because he was too blind, controlled or whatever to walk away.’
‘That’s an eloquent defence of cold-blooded murder, you almost won me over.’
‘You think you’re more moral than me?’
‘I’m not the one who murdered her.’
‘But you already admitted you’re glad I did, so why didn’t you do it?’
‘Because I’m not some fucking monster, for one.’
‘And for two?’
‘…Because I’m not dumb.’
‘Plus you didn’t want to risk spending your life behind bars or risk karma, eternal damnation or whatever your religion or personal belief system says is your due.’
‘…Okay.’an uncannily good one as it happened.
‘Look, I’m not saying I’m better or greater, or comparing myself with Jesus Christ as a person or God as a thing or whatever it is. I just said what I said and it was wrong. Or it was taken wrong. And now it’s all this.”
.. and with a wink and wry smile he got up and left the room.