John Lennon & Yoko Ono
updated 02/12/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 02/12/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST
Whether Yoko Ono was savior or spoiler will be eternally debated among fans. But the unsmiling, unorthodox artist Lennon came to call Mother certainly shifted his vision and reshaped his life. "When I fell in love with Yoko," Lennon once said, "I knew, my God, this is different from anything I've ever known.... This is more than a hit record, more than gold, more than everything."
The fateful first meeting fell on a November night in 1966. Ono, who had made a name for herself among the intelligentsia as a performance artist, was having a solo exhibit at London's Indica gallery, and Lennon was curious. Inside the gallery, he spotted a ladder with a spyglass on top, climbed up, looked in and saw a single word: "Yes." "Just that 'Yes,' " he said, "made me stay in a gallery full of apples and nails."
The artist herself took a bit longer to make the musician want to stay. Though she "attached herself to him like a limpet mine...talking away to him in her funny little high-pitched voice," in the words of Lennon's limo driver Les Anthony, it was only after several more meetings that the Beatle succumbed to her charms. "They were drawn together very powerfully as artists," says Ray Coleman, a friend and author of John Lennon—The Definitive Biography. "John had had enough of life as a major pop star. Yoko was the catalyst for his latent avant-garde nature."
His sexual nature responded first. By 1968, Lennon, 28, had left his wife, Cynthia, and their son Julian, then 5, and moved into a London flat to savor, as he put it later, "a strange cocktail of love, sex and forgetfulness"—and, on occasion, drugs—with a woman seven years his senior. "When we weren't in the studio," he said, "we were in bed."
It was in the studio that the problems began. Though the Beatles had recently decided to stop touring, the group spent time in 1967 at Abbey Road studios, recording the Sgt. Pepper album. Wives and girlfriends had never been present before, but Yoko accompanied John everywhere—and she wasn't shy about offering her musical opinions, which exacerbated tensions already threatening to sunder the group. To Yoko, it felt "like I sort of went to bed with this guy that I liked," she said, "and suddenly the next morning, I see these three in-laws standing there."
By 1970 the in-laws had gone their separate ways, and Ono and Lennon, who had wed in 1969 on the Rock of Gibraltar, were pursuing their own artistic endeavors. "They both felt the function of art was to shock," says biographer Coleman. But their "bed-ins"—two weeks spent under the covers talking to reporters about peace (and recording the 1969 single "Give Peace a Chance")—had not endeared them to Beatles fans who blamed Yoko for the group's breakup. "There was a lot of hostility, and it surprised John and Yoko and hurt them," says rock critic Robert Palmer, a friend of the couple's. "I believe it was the beginning of their withdrawing into their little world."
In 1971 the pair moved to New York City, where they recorded Lennon's hit album Imagine as well as Ono's less successful Fly—and where their relationship hit the skids. At Yoko's request, John moved out in 1973. "The pressure from the public, being the one who broke up the Beatles...I thought I wanted to be free from being Mrs. Lennon," Ono has explained. Eighteen months later—after fevered pleas from Lennon, who had taken up with his assistant May Pang but soon tired of the drunken bachelor life—Yoko took him back. Their son Sean, born in 1975 after several miscarriages and endless fertility treatments, came along when Yoko was 42 to cement their bond. The family spent the rest of the decade living quietly, John taking on the role of househusband while Yoko sorted out their business affairs. "They were home all the time watching TV," remembers film critic Rex Reed, a neighbor of the Lennons at Manhattan's Dakota apartment building. "Or they'd go to Central Park for picnics: ham sandwiches and Dom Pérignon. They would drink out of the bottle, passing it back and forth like hippies."
Ono's spokesman Elliot Mintz has more romantic memories. "One New Year's Eve—they weren't drinking at the time, so there was really nothing for them to do—John put an old 78 of 'As Time Goes By' on the jukebox, and they danced," Mintz says. "John was wearing a long black tuxedo with tails, it was snowing, and up in the sky there were flashes of fireworks going off. I'll never forget that image."
In 1980, Lennon and Ono began working seriously again. The single "(Just Like) Starting Over," from their album Double Fantasy, was climbing the charts as the year drew to a close, and Lennon gave Ono much of the credit. "I'm the famous one, the one who's supposed to know everything," he told Playboy, "but...she's taught me everything I f—king know." On Dec. 8, Lennon was shot down outside the couple's building by a deranged fan, Mark David Chapman. "Tell me it's not true," Yoko sobbed when she learned the bullets had killed him. Fifteen years later, Ono was asked why she still lives in the apartment she and Lennon shared. "That is the home we created together," she replied. "He would be very upset if I left home."