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'Come Together' exhibit of John Lennon's artwork reflects Yoko Ono's effort to keep his memory alive

One of the most revealing moments in the very public relationship between John Lennon and Yoko Ono involved a brief, wordless exchange that few people noticed.

It was December 1968, and Lennon had been invited to perform on the Rolling Stones' Rock & Roll Circus television special. Fresh off a divorce - from his first wife, Cynthia - and the completion of The Beatles' White Album, Lennon showed up with Ono, his girlfriend of six months.

After ripping through his song "Yer Blues," Lennon - with a monumental backing band featuring Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Mitch Michell - kicked into a guitar riff loosely based on Bo Diddley's "Roadrunner," for Yoko's solo showcase. While the band jammed, a shy, reticent Ono stood by the mic for what must have been the longest minute in recorded history. Finally, Lennon looked at her and sweetly motioned her to go for it.

Recalling that moment, Ono says he wasn't overwhelmed by the star power around her. "It wasn't an intimidating thing at all, because I didn't have that incredible respect that most people had for the Rolling Stones or The Beatles," Ono says, during a phone interview. "I think it was the idea that probably they would not want me to go up there, so I was being very caring about that. And John's the one who says, 'C'mon, c'mon.'"

5-9pm Friday,
September 5
11am-7pm Saturday,
September 6
11am-6pm Sunday,
September 7
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Sunset Station
123 Heiman St.
That moment stands out because it not only demonstrated what a stubborn advocate Lennon was for his future wife - which we all know - but also how concerned Ono was about getting in the way of Lennon's work - which many of us don't know. Ono's reputation rested so long on the image of the dragon lady insinuating herself into her husband's career that even Yoko admirers easily forget that Lennon practically had to force her to go onstage with him.

Much as people perceive Lennon to be an international icon and Ono as the woman he happened to marry, they always saw each other as collaborators. And both of them learned to deal with rejection. While Ono struggled to find acceptance when she moved from the avant-garde art world to music, Lennon met derision when he tried to move from music to visual art. As Ono points out, in his lifetime, Lennon could not find galleries or museums willing to exhibit his art work.

"I think it was frustrating for him as much as any artist would be frustrated in a situation like that," Ono says. "In a very strange way, with all the acceptance that he received, I think he was just a very normal, frustrated artist."

In recent years, Ono has put together touring shows of Lennon's spare, childlike drawings, and the "Come Together" collection will be on exhibit at Sunset Station from September 5 to 7. A former art-school student who had been drawing since early childhood, Lennon benefitted from Ono's philosophy that as a true artist, he had something relevant to say in any medium.

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Yoko Ono selected the drawings in the "Come Together" exhibit, including "Karuizawa '77" (above). Courtesy photos
"He was not limited to one medium anyway, so I didn't have to encourage him on that," Ono says. "But I did encourage him to bring it out. There are many things he was doing up in the attic without showing to people. And I felt that it was very important, not only to exhibit them, but to sort of share the spirit of them. Which he did, of course."

Over the years, it's been a parlor game of sorts for Lennon fans to pin culpability on Ono for any shift in his career that they found objectionable. Self-proclaimed feminist Camille Paglia, for instance, holds Ono responsible for Lennon giving up his love of surreal wordplay in favor of literal-minded, first-person explorations of his own life and trite social anthems. While there is some validity to this argument, Ono merely encouraged impulses that Lennon already possessed.

Along the same lines, Ono alternately encounters flak for releasing too much, or not enough, of Lennon's outtakes and raw rough drafts. Where his art work is concerned, the situation is particularly problematic. When Lennon's drawings co-existed with his irreverent stories in the books In His Own Write or Spaniard in the Works, their slapdash, tossed-off quality seemed charming. But when you put such drawings - largely done for his own amusement - in the context of an art exhibit, they look amateurish, inflated beyond their natural station.

For Ono, however, the key concern is to keep Lennon's name and work alive, and she trusts her instincts about what Lennon himself would have wanted. Concerning the possibility of a vault-cleaning followup to the 1998 Lennon Anthology box set, she says: "There may be another Lennon anthology, but I doubt it very much, because that Lennon anthology took about two to three years to really accomplish. It's a good one, I think. And it's not very easy to do something as rich as that, because there's not a wealth of material already.

"He was always very close to his way of thinking, and to honestly express that. I think in that sense, he was a very precious artistic person."
— Yoko Ono
"I don't think it's fair to John's work, because John was just strumming. It would just be cassette tapes, not good quality. We could maybe clean it up, but still, he didn't mean to put it out. With the anthology, I did put many things there that he didn't put out, but I think the way I did it was mostly to make you feel you're witnessing the historical event."

One of the intrguing aspects to the "Come Together" collection is the wealth of material from Lennon's so-called "house-husband" period of 1975-80, including several affectionate drawings from the five months John and Yoko spent in Karuizawa, Japan, in 1977 with their son Sean.

During this period, Lennon grappled with the realization that the strictures of pop songwriting no longer seemed to contain the complexities of his life.

"He was saying, you just can't say 'moon-spoon-june,' or something like that," Ono says. "When you're older, your mind becomes more complex and your thinking becomes more complex. There are so many artists, singer-songwriters, who would just dish out something so they'd make a hit song. And of course, John was not working on that level.

"He was always very close to his way of thinking, and to honestly express that. I think in that sense, he was a very precious artistic person. Especially nowadays. You can think, 'Oh, my God. People used to do that?'" •