The romantic songs Lennon composed in the Beatles’ early days still resonate with millions of fans, but for the most part there has not been a woman put forward as the inspiration for those classics. By the time of Beatlemania, his first wife Cynthia and he shared a warm bond of security, but not passion. Lennon was rumored to have liaisons with strong women like folk singer Joan Baez, journalist Maureen Cleave, Help! actress Eleanor Bron, and model Sonny Drake — but perhaps in the early years his real love affair was the one between him and his audience, whose adoration he certainly craved “Eight Days a Week.”
By 1967, the euphoria of success had long worn off. “A Day in the Life” found him sunk in a near-catatonic depression (likely accelerated by rampant substance abuse). Though he sang mournfully, “I’d love to turn you on” (à la Timothy Leary’s “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out”), Lennon needed someone to turn him on. He imagined a dream woman coming to save him in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and gradually he began to realize she had arrived in the form of an avant-garde artist he first met at a London gallery in November 1966.
Lennon had envisioned himself the ultimate “Bad Boy,” but Yoko Ono was a bad girl more extreme than he had ever dared to be. She was an exhibitionist artist from New York who’d done time in a mental hospital and who might have been the prime instigator in their joint plunge into heroin. Yet she also strove to be a “people teacher” who wanted to change the world for good. She was the ultimate glass onion.
His earlier songs were not just “made to order” odes to puppy love; they expressed an ideal he’d been waiting to live out. In Ono, Lennon was electrified to discover that he had at last found his Juliet, and he sang it from the rooftops in the Let It Be film with “Don’t Let Me Down.”
The final song of the Imagine album, “Oh Yoko!” is another song that captured the intensity of his love, though from a more childlike and joyful angle. The proclamation that his love will turn her on echoes “A Day in the Life” and underscores his salvation since that tune. If he felt 100 years old then, he sounds like a little boy here, even bringing his harmonica back out from the cobwebs to express a joy he hadn’t felt since the triumphant early days in songs like “I Should Have Known Better.”
Still, there is a just a hint of bittersweet loneliness to Nicky Hopkin’s sparkling piano. Perhaps it is only producer Phil Spector’s famous echo. But perhaps it also reflects the mood of two needy children who had pushed the rest of the world away from their 72-acre estate Tittenhurst Park in 1971. After living in the spotlit fishbowl for two years, they now had to face each other truly alone for the first time, and the deal Ono had made for herself was becoming clearer. In return for the fame she had craved, she had to live with a guy who could be exceptionally moody, to say the least.
Lennon sensed her growing reservation and tried to tap back into the little girl in her who wanted to be innocently and passionately in love. But soon Ono would convince him to move to New York City with its myriad distractions, and eventually kick him out of the house for a year.
Still, despite the rollercoaster of the next few years in their marriage, by 1975 they would settle down together for good.
EMI wanted Lennon to release “Oh Yoko!” as a single but he declined, calling it too “pop.” This seems odd from a guy who stated his intention with the Imagine album was to get a “sugarcoated” hit. Maybe the song was just too vulnerable.
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