“And what is the purpose of writing music? One is, of course, not dealing with purposes but dealing with sounds. Or the answer must take the form of a paradox: a purposeful purposelessness or a purposeless play. This play, however, is an affirmation of life—not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.”—John Cage, “Silence” (1961)
“Good and bad, I define these terms / Quite clear, no doubt, somehow / Ah, but I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.”—Bob Dylan, “My Back Pages” (1964)
“I hope that [in Yoko’s and my senior years] we’re a nice old couple living off the coast of Ireland or something like that—looking at our scrapbook of madness.”—John Lennon, Rolling Stone interview (1970)
I didn’t cry at age 41 when my father died, but I cried copiously at age 15 when John Lennon died. The difference amounted partly to the personal changes that 26 years can bring. If you’re not a different person emotionally and existentially after three decades, something has gone very wrong. Circumstances change, and they change people, and the events of my father’s death from lung cancer and Lennon’s murder by gunshots could hardly have differed more. So, different circumstances affected another me, with different emotional results: Lennon’s death became a dry run, so to speak, for my father’s.
What do these observations have to do with John Lennon and Yoko Ono‘s Two Virgins? The album turns 55 this year. While the dust might seem to have settled on that work after five and a half decades, nothing related to the Beatles or Lennon and Ono ever fully settles, and Two Virgins inspired so much ire and distaste back in the day that we can take this opportunity to see what all the fuss was about. How might we feel now about this once “avant-garde” provocation?
In biographical and autobiographical terms, Two Virgins lives on as a piece of the Lennon-Ono jigsaw puzzle.
In discographical terms, it exists within the Yoko Ono catalog. In 1997, the eclectic record label Rykodisc reissued Two Virgins in a series with two other early Lennon-Ono collaborations and some of Ono’s later solo releases. In 2016‒2019, with Rykodisc out of business, indie-rock label Secretly Canadian reissued remastered versions of the early Lennon-Ono albums and a few of the later Ono ones.
In Beatles terms, Two Virgins serves as a precursor to “Revolution 9”. That sound collage appeared on the 1968 double album The Beatles (aka the White Album) but was really a Lennon-Ono construction. In addition, the ethereal sounds of Two Virgins inspired “What’s the New Mary Jane”, a Beatles rarity created by Lennon, Ono, and George Harrison. These connections give the album historical and perhaps musicological importance.
But the greatest significance of Two Virgins may lie in Lennon’s lifelong project of showing himself to the world, even before he teamed up with Ono. Hence, this quick comparison, which I promise won’t recur throughout the article:
My father was notoriously inexpressive, a quality I brought up even in his eulogy. No matter how much time you spent with him, you never really knew all of him. I doubt anyone—including his father, his mother, my mother, and himself—thought they really knew my father. In this way, he protected himself but from what remains one of many mysteries about him.
Lennon, by contrast, didn’t have much use for mystery. He devoted most of his 40 years to telling himself and the world who he was and what he thought and felt. Or at least he revealed versions of these truths that seemed right and relevant at the time, giving each one enough weight to seem like gospel truth. These revelations became the stuff of his art—its raw material, inspiration, and instigation, but also its explicit content.
Lennon’s 1971 song “Gimme Some Truth” stands as a statement of purpose. At the same time, by hitting its nail a little too squarely on the head, this anthem seems, somewhat characteristically for its creator, as self-righteous as righteous. In telling the truth as he saw it, Lennon could be his biggest billboard and one of his own worst enemies.
Thus, he gave us music and information but also complications and contradictions. His life story, which was his life’s work, became puzzle pieces.
People’s stories change, though, and people change stories. Consciously or not, they reshape their puzzle pieces to suit different purposes. Whenever we contemplate one of Lennon’s—or, really, anyone’s—statements of purpose or Gospel truths, we should bear in mind his lines from 1975’s “Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down and Out)”: “All I can tell you is / It’s all show-biz”.
He might never have written truer lyrics. So to understand Lennon, Ono, and Lennon-Ono, let’s think about show business a bit.
“I’m an artist,” Lennon said in his monumental 1970 Rolling Stone interview, “and if you give me a tuba, I’ll bring you something out of it”.
No one ever gave Lennon a tuba, though. During his teens, his mother, Julia, bought him his first guitar. She’d taught him banjo and ukulele chords, and his friend and bandmate Paul McCartney subsequently taught him guitar chords. From those elements and a few others, including rock ‘n’ roll records imported into England from the United States, Lennon forged an art devoted to getting his name out there, potentially everywhere. He wanted to be known, to be somebody, to be not just a contender but the heavyweight champ of rock ‘n’ roll. He wanted to be seen, heard, and loved, mainly because, as a child, he’d felt abandoned by his parents, having been raised by his maternal aunt.
As Lennon put it in his 1970 song “I Found Out”: “They didn’t want me / So they made me a star.” He pulls a little rhetorical trick because “they” didn’t make him anything. Music became his artistic vehicle—as his published books made clear, he could have been a humorist, a writer, or an illustrator. He drove his vehicle, his music, all the way to what he and his fellow Beatles called “the toppermost of the poppermost”. Even if in the mid-1960s, the Beatles weren’t, as Lennon infamously claimed in a 1966 interview, “bigger than Jesus”, they were treated like secular gods. Others, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones were too, but no one beat the Beatles.
No one ever gave Lennon a tuba, but they recognized his talent, charisma, and drive. Unable to ignore, sometimes dodging, his thorniness and ferocity, they left him to his own devices. Thus his art turned inward. Perhaps as early as 1964’s “I’m a Loser”, but certainly by 1965’s “Help!” Lennon’s preeminent subject became Lennon: his states, his hates, his loves, his ideas, or ones that intrigued him. At his best, Lennon universalized himself so his audience could enter into the experience.
Contrast that approach with a handy alternative, that of his one-time songwriting partner McCartney. So many of McCartney’s most winning pop-rock concoctions reveal nothing about their composer unless we really want to stretch the lyrics’ significance or lack of significance to the breaking point. Consider one prominent example, “And Jet / I thought the only lonely place was on the moon.” That sounds great. It tells us, at most, that McCartney is aware of loneliness and the power of togetherness.
We don’t need to do such reading with Lennon, however. Even when his lyrics aren’t in first person, it’s easy to find the person issuing them. The exceptions, the throwaways, and the seeming nonsense prove the rule. “Half of what I say is meaningless,” he sang in 1968, “but I say it just to reach you, Julia”. His mother had been hit fatally by a car ten years before, but Lennon felt her loss keenly enough to share it with the world. We now know that the same song, “Julia”, contained coded messages to his new love, Yoko Ono.
In 2023, Lennon’s paeans to his lost mother and those to Ono seem likely to last as long as people still understand what the popular music of the twentieth century had to say. Meanwhile, stuck here in the 21st century, still mourning Lennon’s death and wondering what he’d have made of our current political, cultural, and environmental messes, we can trace an autobiographical line through his work. He told us so much about himself, chronicling his perceptions and transitions, that even those of us who never caught sight of the man thought we really knew him. He became a hero, a substitute father, a brother, a friend, a role model, and so on, for what we thought he represented, and often we thought so because he said it.
If the stirrings of Lennonism as self-revelation began in the mid-1960s, they ended abruptly in 1980, with the autobiographical looks at love and anxiety that fill his half of his final proper album, Double Fantasy.
The other name on the cover of that record is the conceptual artist and recording artist Yoko Ono. By 1980, Ono had become Lennon’s second wife, his great love, his muse, and his replacement mother (after the birth of their son, Sean, in 1975, he even called her “Mother”). She had become his focal point when they first met. That was in 1966, when he, a world-famous Beatle, previewed a London art show of hers. They hit it off. The consummation of their relationship dovetails with the creation of their first album together, 1968’s Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins.
The significant details of this album’s creation multiply atop one another. Ono and Lennon had kept in touch since that first meeting, and one day, when his first wife, Cynthia (mother of his first son, Julian), was away, he invited Ono to the house. It was a “Come up and see my etchings” invitation. He played her some of his experimental home recordings—tape loops of sounds, not songs—and they used some of these recordings to assemble a sound collage. At dawn, he reported in his 1970 Rolling Stone interview, they “made love…. It was very beautiful.”
Cynthia returned to find them still in the house, the sexual relationship unmistakable. The marriage ended. Lennon and Ono became, literally for a time, inseparable. Two Virgins was released. A year later, Lennon and Ono became husband and wife.
People now comfortably refer to the Beatles as members of that four-piece pop-rock band and as solo artists. John, Paul, George, and Ringo’s solo careers now comfortably extend the lore and recordings of a group that existed in the general public’s eye only from 1962 until 1970. In 1968, the idea that the Beatles would live and make music outside the group was pretty much unthinkable to their legions of fans.
However, inside the Beatles’ bubble, all was not well, and the individuals were already chafing at their collective identity. They’d worked hard to become successful and famous, but they couldn’t have predicted the pressures, insanity, and unreality they’d encounter thanks to this multivarious thing that developed around them: Beatlemania.
That phenomenon became a machine churning out not just entertainment but sociocultural significance. No one in Liverpool, where the band formed, or Hamburg, where they tightened into professionals with an edge—pop-rockers wanting whatever they could grab—anticipated the Beatles’ having to deal with such hysteria and minutely focused attention. No one had asked Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley to explain the world or save it, but because the Beatles were such charmers and the 1960s were so fluidly full of problems and potential for change, people asked the Beatles to be gurus. Meanwhile, the so-called Fab Four were smart lads from Liverpool who had struck gold but felt increasingly trapped inside a bubble.
Just as Lennon felt frustrated in his first marriage and eagerly sought an escape, he welcomed his union with Ono as a safe space within the constricting Beatles bubble. To do things without the other Beatles was to feel free. Before his solo career began in earnest, he and Ono released three full-length audio collaborations: Two Virgins, Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions (1969), and The Wedding Album (1969). The first and third were issued by Apple Records, the label owned and operated by the Beatles; the second was on Apple’s “experimental” offshoot, Zapple (whose only other release was Harrison’s synthesizer noodling, 1969’s Electronic Sound).
As the word “unfinished” signposts, the “music” on Ono and Lennon’s initial releases may be best understood conceptually. These albums are artworks, documents, and assemblages that happen to be released in some audio format. They have less to do with recorded compositions than with multiples by provocateurs such as Marcel Duchamp. Their sounds owe debts to avant-garde ventures by the Dadaists and Surrealists, John Cage and David Tudor, Spike Jones, and England’s The Goon Show—all of them tweakers of the status quo.
If we accept the idea that Two Virgins marked a step in Lennon’s lifelong self-presentation, then we might credit Ono with conceptualizing the project—the project being this album but also, by extension, Lennon’s autobiographical art. Lennon knew what he was doing in personalizing his songs, but now he had an articulated framework for that approach.
Likewise, Ono’s art took on explicitly autobiographical aspects through her union with Lennon. Previously, her work had been far more about abstract ideas and universal observations, conveyed through concrete actions—actions performed by the artist herself or by the audience following instructions from the artist.
The standard, longstanding rap against Ono is that she cast a spell over Lennon and forced him to do weird things. Instead of unpacking all the sexism, racism, and condescension contained within that view, let’s take a different view: that Lennon already had his tuba. Ono simply said, Imagine if you let that tuba play unfinished music.
Had he never met Ono, Lennon might have made a Two Virginsby himself—by 1967‒68, he might already have made a One Version in his home studio. But would he have released such a solo work? His relationship with Ono, the power of their duality, enabled him to find that release, the first in a years-long series. For better or for worse? As the word “unfinished” also signposts, the judgment of quality and significance depends on you.
If you’re hoping to provoke, getting naked, especially in front of strangers, pretty much guarantees results. So Lennon and Ono surely were looking for trouble when they posed nude for the black-and-white cover photos for Two Virgins. The front cover is full frontal, and the back shows their behinds. These photos may be seen as follow-ups to Ono’s Cut Piece (1964), an art performance in which she sat unprotected on the stage and invited audience members to cut off her clothing with scissors, and her Film No. 4 (1966‒67), as known as Bottoms. In its short and feature-length versions, the work consists entirely of close-ups of different people’s buttocks. “String bottoms together in place of signatures for petition of peace,” reads Ono’s script, displaying her patented combination of serious purpose and dry humor.
Lennon and Ono look serious on the front cover of Two Virgins and playful on the back, where they’re twisting to face the time-delay camera and grinning mischievously. Overall, they look young and innocent. The artwork seems like a lark. In November 1968, both photos accompanied a Lennon interview in Rolling Stone, with the backside photo on the magazine’s cover. Yet to this day, you’ll find squeamish Beatlemaniacs and perhaps other record collectors scandalized by the sights. Pubic hair! Penis! Breasts! Reach me the smelling salts!
Lennon later described standing in place with Ono, looking down at his penis, and thinking: We’re on. So, on the one hand, the photo and title coupled to announce the beginning of Lennon and Ono as a physical and artistic duo. They were facing the world, even with their backsides to it. Soon they would confront the world (such as in their world-peace advocacy), be embraced by parts of the world, and be up against parts of the world. But on the other hand, there was the sense, in this photo, of John and Little John, of the Beatles giving the world a look at part of him not dreamt of in the glaring light of Beatlemania. Lennon—the Lennon who, performing before members of England’s royal family, advised them not to clap but to “rattle your jewelry”—must have experienced wicked glee at the prospect of shocking people, including the other Beatles.
The posing pleased him enough that the following year he performed a variation of it in a film made by Ono: The 42-minute ‘Self-Portrait’ consists entirely of Lennon’s penis, unaided, becoming semi-erect. At the end, a drop of semen makes a special guest appearance. How neither Lennon, his organ, nor his come failed to win any acting awards escapes me, but I haven’t seen the film. ‘Self-Portrait’ may be seen as an extension of a spiritual sequel to Ono’s 19-minute 1968 film Two Virgins, which used the album as a soundtrack and consisted of “home movies” showing Lennon and Ono not naked, not making love, but in love, making faces, kissing, and so on.
Both films may be seen more in any sense than visually because, unlike Bottoms, they have rarely been screened. They are considered curiosities best contemplated. More accessible, and perhaps more successful aesthetically, is the series of lithographs Lennon executed in 1970 depicting his and Ono’s lovemaking.
Through these ventures, a theme emerges: “Look at me,” as Lennon put it in a song recorded in 1970 but written, he told Rolling Stone, in 1968.
Sometime between 1975 and 1980—in a brief, posthumously published prose memoir called “The Ballad of John and Yoko”—Lennon both disparaged and celebrated his and Ono’s appearances on Two Virgins, calling the duo “slightly overweight ex-junkies” giving “a damned good laugh and apoplexy to the Philistines of the so-called civilized world!” (“Overweight” seems laughable—even, given our current obesity epidemic, mind-boggling.) However, he never second-guessed their exhibitionism. Indeed, in Lennon and Ono’s final photo shoot, on the day he was killed, Annie Leibovitz created a provocative image that recalled the couple’s body-related artwork and even revised the Two Virgins cover image.
The 1980 photo, which also appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, captures Lennon and Ono from above. They’re reclining on their bed, on their sides. Ono is fully clothed. Lennon is nude, scissoring her, but really curled up behind her and grasping. His nudity seems unsexual, just as theirs does on Two Virgins. The image speaks mainly to Lennon’s psychological dependence on Ono and his lack of pretense in her presence. The 12 event-filled years between Two Virgins and the Rolling Stone cover shoot transformed the meaning of nakedness between them, at least in their public presentation of it. We have no reason to doubt that Lennon wanted us to read into that latter image as much symbolism as we wanted to.
By 1980, the world that paid attention to such things read the symbolism, then shrugged. In 1968, by contrast, the cover of Two Virgins became a huge problem. Apple Records’ distributors, EMI and Capitol, refused to handle the LP, so it was distributed by other companies in a one-shot deal. It was also wrapped in a brown-paper sleeve.
My copy of Two Virgins is a counterfeit, an illegal duplicate I bought in 1978, thinking I’d found a miraculously affordable copy of this collector’s item. This beautiful bootleg comes complete with fake brown wrapper. As on the legitimate version, printed peek-a-boo windows enable Lennon and Ono to peer out from the front and back covers.
Below the back window, again as on the legitimate brown wrapper, Genesis 2:21‒25 is printed, with verse 25 in boldface: “And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.” That use of Judaeo-Christian verbiage is meant to be funny and instructional, but it ends up touchingly unguarded.
In 2023, it’s hard to wrap one’s mind around the considerable controversy surrounding Two Virgins. In the US, the hand-wringing extended to a few copies of the album being confiscated as pornographic. Record executives reportedly became convinced that Lennon was a dangerous subversive.
Now, try to gauge the gap between the humorous, straightforward, egalitarian nudity of Two Virgins and the prurient, violent, exploitative imagery used to sell so many records since. Compared with covers from heavy metal, funk, punk, alternative, and hip-hop artists, Two Virgins looks like a holiday greeting card. “Best Wishes from the Ono-Lennons!”
The late rock critic Lester Bangs used to check people’s copies of the Velvet Underground‘s 1968 noise fest White Light/White Heat to confirm his sense that few album owners actually played it. I’ve never had the chance to inspect anyone’s copy of Two Virgins because I’ve never seen it in a record collection other than my own, but I suspect that pristine copies of Two Virgins abound.
Make that “abound”. Not many legitimate original copies ever existed (only 5,000 were pressed in the UK), and most of those probably sold because of the scandalous cover or to Lennon completists, but imagine the responses of record buyers who bought Two Virgins expecting to hear songs played on instruments and sung. Few probably made it far into the first side, and a few probably flung the record across the room. In 2023, a person who’s been a Beatles fan since the 1960s, who’s aware of Two Virgins but has never heard it, asked me if the album included any Lennonesque songs, and I explained that the record contains no songs. Instead, Two Virgins consists of music mainly in the Cagean sense of all sounds being music if we open our ears to them.
Now and then, the album appears on “all-time worst” lists, but really: “worst” compared with what? Grouping this recording with traditional music—evaluating it in relation to classic rock, let’s say—represents a confusion of categories. Even its creators understood the difference between Two Virgins and other records. They were making a statement at the moment, not a platter meant to entertain the family. “Things to hear in an earphone,” Lennon aptly called it in a BBC interview done on 6 December 1980, two days before his murder. “Variations on a theme of sound”.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Lennon often wanted the approval of the cognoscenti—the smart, cool kids—but he probably most wanted Ono’s approval. Ono has never seemed concerned with anyone’s approval, including Lennon’s, and probably couldn’t have cared less how the record was received.
While the sounds themselves are thus a bit beside the point, let’s put judgment aside and listen to all 30 minutes. The “tracks” flow seamlessly from “Two Virgins No. 1” through “Two Virgins No. 10”, without bands of silence but with a break for turning over the LP….
OK, was that good for you?
After not hearing Two Virgins for at least half of its 55 years, revisiting the album for this article proved satisfying and unexpectedly pleasurable. I could see why I thought kindly of the record even when I wasn’t inclined to spin it, being otherwise occupied. In short, the record is better than its reputation might have you believe.
My major revelation in 2023 was how much vocalizing Ono does. Elsewhere on the web, I’ve celebrated her singing in its various incarnations, from freeform to melodically straightforward—I consider her 1972 double album Approximately Infinite Universe one of the best records ever made—but I confess to writing about Ono’s subsequent music without relistening to Two Virgins. It’s now striking to see how of a piece this work is with her oeuvre.
A different article could trace the connections among Ono’s works and place Two Virgins within her life story in more detail. Between 1968 and 2023, Ono became a lightning rod, an icon, and many other things we thought she represented, but only sometimes did we think so because she said it. Her puzzle pieces may ultimately show a sphinx because she has always tended to use as few words as possible and let us fill in the gaps.
If you’ve never acquired a taste for Ono’s voice, you won’t be won over by Two Virgins. But you might admit that recording artists with track records have sounded far less inspired. Ono was clearly her own person and enjoyed improvising these vocals. She deserves credit for not holding back on freeform expressiveness during this extra- or premarital date with a Beatle. No wonder Lennon considered her at least his equal.
Another revelation was just how much undeniable music resides within the kaleidoscopic flow. Imagine Walt Disney Studios’ Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted Horse (1964), but without the narration. Distorted whistling and echoing percussion suggest isolated bits or dub without the bass. Lennon doesn’t sing, vocalizes sporadically, apart from a brief monkish hymn toward the end (I think that’s him), but he occasionally talks, bangs on instruments (especially piano), plays and manipulates old records, and provides the tape loops that create repetitive grooves.
Side one seems to build, but side two doesn’t capitalize on that effect. Lennon’s mock hymn provides a suitably irreverently Lennonesque ending. That’s followed by some muttering and a final, abrupt electronic noise—as in, that’s what we did, folks. It’s modern art, after all. The whole displays no structure or overall drama, but it does include movement: riffs appear, moods shift, interludes come and go, quasi-industrial sounds approximate brief rhythms and drones. Imagine if one of Brian Eno’s ambient constructions had been made or covered by the assemblage composer John Zorn, maybe backed by the art-conceptualist band the Residents. The whole thing fairly flits by, proving less boring than many experimental recordings.
In that 1980 BBC interview, Lennon ventured that late-1970s punk rockers had been influenced by some of the intense live music he and Ono made in the early 1970s. Here, I’ll venture that over the past 55 years, avant-gardists have taken conscious or unconscious cues from Two Virgins. How much you’ve heard of the experimental deluge that has poured out from far corners of the Earth over the decades may determine what music you find in Lennon and Ono’s construction.
For me, another revelation from relistening was how good-natured and unassuming the album sounds. It’s a lower-key, less-polished “Revolution 9”, whose professionalism made it a more Beatles-worthy version of the same aesthetic.
While Two Virgins has always seemed like a vanity project, a testament to self-importance, the album stands also as a dialogue, a testament to love. It’s as harmless as the uncovered genitals and buttocks of two slightly overweight ex-junkies.
We might consider Lennon and Ono’s first three albums together—again, Two Virgins, Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions, and The Wedding Album—a trilogy. That grouping makes the most sense because of their nature as artworks first and personal statements second (or vice versa), listening experiences third. In addition, all three of these recordings preceded Lennon’s first proper solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970); its distaff companion, Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band (1970); and even the Plastic Ono Band’s concert document Live Peace in Toronto (1969), split between Lennon’s side one and Ono’s side two.
But Two Virgins perhaps benefits more by being compared with Life with the Lions and The Wedding Album than by being grouped with them.
Both Lennon and Ono perform live on the first side of Life with the Lions, “Cambridge 1969”, where he provides electric-guitar feedback, she vocalizes wordlessly, and they are joined at the end by a percussionist and a saxophonist. More conventional than Two Virgins, yet most people’s idea of hell, this music, like free jazz, eschews rhythm and melody in search of an alternative beauty, one forged from an expressive and provocative use of sound. The album’s second side ranges from Ono’s singing a newspaper article to their (eventually unborn) baby’s heartbeat to literally two minutes of silence.
The Wedding Album lacks the hooks, if you will, of its predecessors. It’s not titled Unfinished Music No. 3, presumably because Lennon and Ono recognized that calling these recordings music would be too much of a stretch. Side A consists entirely of Lennon saying “Yoko” and Ono saying “John”. Side B assembles audio-verité documentary snippets related to the couple.
As a Beatles- and especially Lennon-obsessed teenager, I spent some number of hours listening to Two Virgins, a lesser number listening to Life with the Lions, and maybe a couple listening to side two of The Wedding Album. When you’re a teenager, if you’re lucky, life seems long enough to spend time taking in cultural artifacts that don’t necessarily bring you great pleasure. Decades later, when your earthly horizon is that much closer when you know that anyone’s prospects can be cut off instantly when you’re already older than John Lennon lived to be, you may prioritize pleasure.
Somehow, I think John Lennon would understand why, at 58, I’d rather listen to just about any of his or Yoko’s pop-rock songs, or a record I just found in a thrift shop, or—to offer a random example of sugary fun—the Bay City Rollers celebrating summer love sensation than any of the first three Lennon-Ono albums. However, I’d choose any of those three albums over lots of conventional music. I’d much rather hear Lennon-Ono in any form—even side one of The Wedding Album—than “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel or anyone else.
Having enjoyed Lennon-Ono’s debut after being away from it for so long, I most likely won’t wait years to replay it. And at least once more before the end of my life, I’ll play “Cambridge 1969” again, remember what it was like to hear it with fresh ears, and most likely love it. But then it’ll be back to business as usual here in pop-rock heaven. Life’s too short to be serious all the time.
In 1980, when Lennon and Ono emerged from a five-year recording hiatus to make their comeback, Double Fantasy, they shopped around for a record label and took umbrage when executives wondered what kind of music they had in mind. They signed with Geffen Records because label head David Geffen expressed no reservations about their return. But how could the couple expect record-company people, keepers of the bottom line, to trust them?
Lennon and Ono’s previous collaboration, 1972’s heavily political and topical Some Time in New York City, had bombed critically and commercially. Their debut as a duo had been a different kind of explosive: Two Virgins, with its unlistenable record and naked cover! People can have short memories, but Lennon and Ono had created indelible images that music-biz people no doubt recalled and recoiled from.
Between Two Virgins and Some Time in New York City, Lennon and Ono engaged in events meant to get people watching, wondering, talking, thinking, even laughing. In interviews, they described themselves as clowns with a purpose. They made public appearances in a bag or bed (fully clothed, happy just to be), promoting peace and love, potentially, but also contributing to their image as abnormal at best and deranged at worst. Thus, they turned their lives into conceptual art, their music into the soundtracks for that art.
Conceptually, the distance is short between showing your naked body as a self-portrait and stripping your artwork. Hence, it delivers a seemingly unvarnished picture of your intellectual and emotional states. In 1970, Lennon explained to Rolling Stone that his 1969 Beatles song “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” is a ferocious love song for Ono. He related the rawness of that song’s expression to cries for help: “When you’re drowning, you don’t say, ‘I would be incredibly pleased if someone would have the foresight to notice me drowning and come and help me.’ You just scream.”
That get-to-the-heart-of-it aesthetic ripened into or fueled most of Lennon’s and Ono’s solo work. In their post-primal scream therapy manifestos, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band, the music, lyrics, and vocals were stripped to the bone. “I just believe in me,” Lennon sang, “Yoko and me / And that’s reality.” (Ono generally just screamed.)
Ten years later, Double Fantasy was a continuation of that reality and another inversion of Two Virgins—or perhaps Two Virgins became a dry run for Double Fantasy. Here we are, “the man and his wife”, still telling our story after all these years. Again, we appear on the black-and-white cover, this time clothed but locking lips. This time we want to actually sell records, so we’ve transmuted “our life together,” as Lennon put it in “(Just Like) Starting Over”, into glossy pop songs, hers and his—more best wishes from the Ono-Lennons to anyone willing to listen, and this time they were hoping many would be willing.
“You see,” Lennon told the BBC in 1980, “we could have come back and tried to be freakier than the freaks.” By “freaks”, he meant the young musicians—punks, new wavers, what have you—drawing on the spirits and sounds of early Lennon-Ono.
“Because we were freakier ten years ago than these people,” Ono added. “But we didn’t want to,” Lennon went on. “We wanted to do the same as we did then when we did whatever we were doing then.” In other words, having gotten back in the game in 1980, they wanted to do exactly what pleased them, not necessarily what would make them cool.
By emerging from retirement to sing about starting over and celebrating his life with Ono, Lennon once again called attention to himself in a big way. He’d hidden himself at home in New York City’s Dakota apartment building for five years, being a house husband and raising Sean, and now he was ready to reclaim his crown.
Then Lennon’s assassin, a fan who hours before had obtained an autograph, took the star’s return and turned it into his own agenda, killing a famous person as an achievement. In his insanity, the nonentity sought to unite himself with the secular god and thus become something. This act inverted Lennon’s path: Self as celebrity became a celebrity as self. And who knows what point or points in either man’s story set this tragedy in motion. In other words, if Lennon hadn’t become Lennon in quite the way he did—if he hadn’t put himself out there so nakedly, literally, and figuratively, inviting the world to contemplate him not just as a musician but as a meta-celebrity—might he have lived past 40?
“You know, the way things are going,” he’d sang in the Beatles’ “Ballad of John and Yoko”, “they’re gonna crucify me.” He wasn’t asking for martyrdom, but he’d seen the possibility. And that was in 1969.
The previous year, 1968, Lennon’s erstwhile aesthetic partner, McCartney, was in a tough position. He wasn’t exactly thrilled about Two Virgins, Lennon’s relationship with Ono, or Ono’s presence (at Lennon’s insistence) at Beatles recording sessions. However, he provided (again at Lennon’s insistence) a blurb for the couple’s album. Under the front cover, full-frontal image, McCartney’s testimonial read, oddly: “When two great Saints meet, it is a humbling experience. The long battles to prove he was a Saint.”
How ironic was McCartney in offering that quote? How ironic was Lennon in using it? Many more long battles were to come for Lennon, and in the end, through tragic irony, he became Saint John. On the one hand, that someone would kill this advocate of peace and love made no sense and seemed cosmically unfair. On the other hand, of course, John Lennon would be singled out for murder because he mattered so much. The long battles were really to prove that he mattered. He and Ono will continue to matter for the foreseeable future in ways that, as a couple, they could and couldn’t anticipate.