Paul McCartney’s “big mistake” with Yoko Ono

She never broke up The Beatles; how could she? She was never in any formal position to do so. But she did have a hand in ushering them towards the new testament of their cycle. Such is the way of things; it is almost impossible to mention Yoko Ono without mentioning the Fab Four. But long before they got fancy with Sgt. Peppers, Ono was an avant-garde force standing outside of the mainstream and screaming like an aural lighthouse in a wild new world, beckoning others to climb ashore.

She was born in Tokyo in 1933 to a wealthy family. Her father was a former classical pianist, but when Ono arrived, his job as a banker meant that she was often hot-footing between America and her homeland as a child. This itinerant upbringing meant that she found herself thrown into a wild world of cultures, but forever on the fringes of them rather than at the assimilated centre.

This outsider status soon came to the fore when World War II thrust her life into turmoil. Towards the end of the war, her father was working in Hanoi and soon became a prisoner of war. This meant that Ono and her family had to trade goods for food in Tokyo, where starvation was rampant. During this dystopian urban existence, Ono claimed her “aggressive” attitude and understanding of an “outsider” status began to take shape.

So, as she came of age in America in the early 1960s, she became the High Priestess of the Happening—the lead curator of an arts scene focussed on experimental live expression. As Gary Botting wrote of the movement: “Happenings abandoned the matrix of story and plot for the equally complex matrix of incident and event.”

The boldness of her artistry meant that people often adopted the same view of her. Paul McCartney believes that this, coupled with one of her key character traits, worked to fool him with a false image. “The problem in other people’s eyes, I think, is that she’s honest,” he reflected in an interview. “The honesty is what hurts a lot of people, I think.”

Thus, after The Beatles broke up, McCartney actually had minimal contact with her when he met up with John Lennon, often, it was just those two and Linda and Yoko weren’t present. “We didn’t know her too well, really,” he admitted, “until the beginning of the ’80s, when I just thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ve misunderstood, maybe it’s my mistake, not hers’. So, I telephoned her and started talking to her about just things generally.”

However, reaching out revealed both the complexity of Yoko Ono’s character and his own entwined relationship with her. “She said, ‘Why are you telephoning?’ And I said, ‘Well, I think I’ve misunderstood you, and I think I’ve made a big mistake. And as you were John’s wife, and I was very fond of John, I feel like he would’ve liked me to telephone you and kind of say hello and see what’s going on.’ And she said, ‘Well, don’t do me any favours. Don’t do it with pity or sympathy. I don’t want that, I don’t want charity’.”

Taken aback, he admits that he thought about hanging up. “But I had to say, no-no, she’s right,” he said reflectively. In doing so, he was able to reassess her true character. “I thought she was a hard woman,” McCartney continued. “I don’t think she is now. I think she’s just the opposite: I think she’s a very loving, caring woman. I think, I thought she was pushy, which I think is wrong, I don’t think she is, I think she’s just herself and she’s determined more than some other people to be herself, some people will just give in, she won’t.”

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