Let’s face it: we are never going to understand Yoko Ono. When she first appeared with the Beatles, sitting behind them in a film clip from “Let It Be” that was shown on The Ed Sullivan Show, she looked like the specter of death itself.
Over the years, she never did warm up. I’ve written a lot lately in this space about her efforts to erase the Beatles from John Lennon’s history. She was clearly never nice to his eldest son. Did she break up the Beatles? Not really, but it feels good to say she did.
Last night, Ono was one of four honorees at the annual dinner given by the New York chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. She came alone, without her son, Sean. She asked him to present her with the heroes award and he declined, a member of the Academy confirmed.
Ono was not accompanied by any friends, just a phalanx of lawyers. She didn’t speak to them much during dinner. Almost no one approached her. She was an island.
Ono wore a jaunty little white hat that was cocked over her forehead, and a black suit. During presentations to composer Howard Shore, Mariah Carey and Jay-Z, her face was a grim reminder of the fact that 25 years ago tonight, her husband was shot to death just as they approached the entrance to their home.
I guess you could forgive her for not smiling much. When Karen Clark, the famed gospel star, performed Mariah’s "One Sweet Day" with R&B singer Joe and a robed choir, Ono’s face was a mask. Clark was so exciting that she brought the crowd to its feet. Ono looked distracted.
A film preceded her introduction to the stage, followed by a really atonal performance of "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" by a Los Angeles group called the Street Drums Corps.
They featured two guys on snare drums, one who sported a mohawk and rattled a pair of long metal chains, and a singer who veered from Beach Boys-type harmony to being completely off-key.
In other words: they were the group version of Ono if she herself had sung. They record on the virtually unknown Warcon label.
By the time the banging was over and EMI Music Publishing chief Martin Bandier was introducing Ono, Jay-Z and Sean 'Diddy' Combs — who wore rich looking three-piece gray striped suits with silk pocket squares perfectly perched and matched to their ties — were out the door, along with all of their guests, entourage and hangers-on.
The Roots had gallantly tried to reproduce one of Jay-Z’s rap numbers before he got his award, but it was a painful cacophony. Staying for any talk of John and Yoko, well, that would have been too much for this crew.
Yoko looked frail when he took the microphone, and spoke softly. Some of her words were hard to make out, and we were standing only a few feet away.
“This week has been hard,” she said, “depressing. Now I’m smiling. I’m here. I see all your faces. John would have been so happy that you acknowledged his achievements. This means so much to us. It would have made him happy that you acknowledged our partnership.”
She didn’t thank anyone or mention their son, or talk about him in any kind of profound way. It seemed as cold inside the room as it did outside, but that’s Yoko. She’s not going to give us anything, particularly. She’s not interested in making anyone feel better.
I guess I don’t blame her. I thought what she said was so precisely worded that it gave a small glimpse into her psyche: after a quarter century, she’s still trying to get someone to take her seriously as Lennon’s equal partner.
Back in 1968, when she first emerged on the scene, she was reviled. Things only got worse when the Beatles broke up. Once John died, and Yoko lived with a man named Sam Havadtoy for many years, her stock dropped even further.
All the historical revisionism, the fighting with Paul McCartney, the losing of the Beatles catalog to Michael Jackson, the disregarding of Lennon’s life in and with the Beatles, all of it has just added fuel to the fire. The last straw was her short-lived Broadway musical in which she became the central event in Lennon’s life.
Movie critic Rex Reed told me something interesting the other night. He’s lived in the Dakota since before John and Yoko moved in. Other famous tenants in 1980 included Lauren Bacall and Roberta Flack.
Nowadays, there are plenty of wealthy and famous people in there, including Connie Chung and Maury Povich. Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter moved in right after he got his job (he’s long gone now).
Reed got a call from one of his neighbors on Dec. 8, 1980, right after Lennon was shot. He raced downstairs, he said, and helped the cops load Lennon into a private car since the ambulance never came.
Ono has always known this, but because the building is big and time has passed, he hasn’t seen that much of her lately.
The other day he was busy talking to the security guard at the front entrance when Ono passed by. She didn’t acknowledge him, and he was a little startled.
Of course, that’s the Yoko story we all want to hear. She’s awful, right?
The next day, a note was hand delivered to his door. “It was from Yoko,” he said. “She said I saw you sitting there, and you looked like a little schoolboy. I’m sorry I didn’t say hello.”
Reed looked a little teary as he told this to me. Even I, the great cynic, got a lump in my throat. There’s more to this woman than we see. John saw it. I just wish he were here to explain it to us.
Lennon meant a lot to all of us, especially if you were 23 years old on that night in December and had grown up with his music and that of the Beatles.
A lot of my youth was spent dissecting John vs. Paul, who broke up the group, what John’s nasty songs about Paul on his solo albums meant, how Paul could put out “Silly Love Songs" knowing all of this and so on and so forth.
It’s funny to think now that John was only 30 when he left the Beatles, and 40 when he died. Would any of us want to be frozen in time at those ages? I think not. Would the Beatles have gotten back together? Probably not. Would John and Paul have worked together again? Undoubtedly. Would we ever have figured Yoko out? Maybe.
But we have the music, and it lasts and lasts. That’s all that matters now. As for Yoko, this is our handwritten note sent the next day: Peace.
The last time Paul McCartney got a Grammy nomination for Best Album, Richard Nixon had just resigned as president. People were wearing bell bottoms. Hip-hop was something bunnies did. That was in 1974 for "Band on the Run."
But today, on the 25th anniversary of the murder of John Lennon, McCartney has Grammy nominations for Album of the Year, Pop Album of the Year and Best Male Vocal, all for his work on "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard."
Did Lennon send him a message? "Chaos" is considered by some (not all) to be his best album in 31 years. There have been plenty of high spots in between and lots of success, but "Chaos" was dark enough to attract the attention of the Grammy committee.
Stevie Wonder’s 10 years in the making "A Time 2 Love" was not so lucky. And that’s the irony, since back in 1974, Stevie won Best Album for "Fulfullingness’ First Finale" over "Band on the Run."
Stevie was the Grammy king then. He’d won the year before for "Innervisions" and won again, two years later, for "Songs in the Key of Life."
In 1975, Paul Simon was so happy when he won for "Still Crazy After All These Years," he said, “I’m glad Stevie Wonder didn’t make an album this year.”
McCartney is not much of a Grammy holder. Wings got nothing over the years except for that award and one in ’79 for instrumental arrangement. The only time McCartney ever got a Grammy for singing seems to be a weird Grammy trivia note: they gave him an award for singing “Eleanor Rigby” in 1966 as a soloist from a group. Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr must have gone crazy.
Lennon’s only wins came with the Beatles for Best Song, “Michelle,” also in ’66, and Album of the Year, "Sgt. Pepper," in ’67. After he died, he and Yoko Ono picked up Album of the Year for "Double Fantasy."
But what an irony: McCartney in there with Mariah Carey, Kanye West, Gwen Stefani and U2. Even he must be shocked this morning. A quarter of a century ago, on Dec. 9, 1980, when he was told Lennon had been killed, he muttered one line: “What a drag.” He was probably in shock, but the line has reverberated through the years.
Since then, McCartney, like Ono, has gone about revising history where he could. He wrote a song for Lennon in ’82 and has struggled under his partner’s shadow all along.
It didn’t help that right after Lennon was killed, Robert Christgau wrote in the Village Voice: “They killed the wrong Beatle.” That was the worst.
Today, McCartney is vindicated. He probably has Lennon to thank. If he wins, for some reason, he’d better remember to thank Lennon in all his Grammy speeches.
As for Wonder: several nominations including Best R&B Album, but not the big one, for "A Time 2 Love." He wrote all the songs and played most of the instruments. Kanye got nominated for Album of the Year. He wrote none of the songs, played none of the instruments, but knew where to sample from.
He’d better bring Shirley Bassey, Mrs. Curtis [Altheda] Mayfield and a host of other people he ripped off. If all those people aren’t special invited guests at every Grammy event, it’s going to be noted, again and again.