BY MIN CHEN
John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s professional and personal partnership began one spring evening in 1968. Following their first meeting at Indica bookstore—where the artist handed the Beatle a card that simply read, “Breathe”—Lennon invited Ono over to his home at Weybridge, Surrey, late at night, while his wife was away. “She came to the house and I didn’t know what to do,” he recalled in 1970. He ended up playing her some experimental tapes he’d made with electronic loops, comedic snippets, and other sound effects. Intrigued, Ono told him, “Let’s make one ourselves.” So they made tapes and then they made love. “It was very beautiful,” said Lennon. His wife Cynthia returned the next day to find him and Ono sitting on the floor in matching white robes, gazing into each other’s eyes.
The music that Lennon and Ono made that night would become Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, their first collaborative album, now remembered less for its scattered avant-garde contents than its cover, which featured its makers in the unabashedly nude. The couple felt, after all, like “two innocents, lost in a world gone mad.” So they set up a time-delay camera in the basement of Ringo Starr’s Montagu Square flat, stripped off, and captured themselves as pure, unguarded beings—Adam and Eve emerged from the garden. Indeed, the final photographs, which bedeck the front and reverse of the record, are not intended to be sexy or salacious, but as open and unchecked as the music it represented. Said Lennon of Two Virgins, “It is just us expressing ourselves like a child does.”
By their accounts, Lennon and Ono weren’t attempting to confront or brew controversy, but were underscoring the purity of their collaborative effort. Still, the record sleeve was deemed so obscene, it had to be sold in a brown paper bag, with a cut out that revealed only the pair’s faces. But those plain twinned gazes tell us as much about the couple’s inclinations toward the natural and unvarnished. “We used the straightest, most unflattering picture, just to show that we were human,” explained Lennon in The Beatles Anthology. It’s the same kind of honesty that Lennon and Ono would embody as they shared (and sometimes, over-shared) their lives and art with each other and us, their audience. They may have laid bare their bodies at the start, but as they would demonstrate over the years, there was much more they had to unveil.
Until Lennon’s death in 1980, their relationship would be assiduously played out and documented like some kind of mass participatory performance art. Always, the press and the people were invited: their honeymoon was spent staging press-friendly Bed-Ins for Peace; Lennon’s almost-deportation from the United States occasioned a press conference at which the couple declared their own state of Nutopia; their temporary 18-month split and Lennon’s ensuring “lost weekend” precipitated a cascade of news headlines plus his 1974 album Walls and Bridges. There was, too, a multitude of artistic collaborations, from Bagism and Acorns to the Plastic Ono Band and 1980’s Double Fantasy. Or hear it from Lennon himself on The Beatles’ “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” which buoyantly recounts the minutiae of the couple’s marriage and honeymoon.
It’s no surprise that these artifacts and happenings are enough to fill an entire exhibition: Double Fantasy at the Museum of Liverpool, which chronicles the duo’s partnership across music, art, and activism. What’s illustrated by the show isn’t just Lennon and Ono’s bond, but how much of it has been woven into their art and served to an audience. As George Harrison once shrewdly put it, “They were obviously into each other to such a degree that they thought everything they said or did was of world importance, and so they made it into records and films.” Whether these records and films were of any artistic merit seemed less important than the fact they were the products of these two virgins, partaking in a world gone mad.
If Lennon and Ono were making this much collaborative art, it was intended to be witnessed. And the couple, as much as anyone, understood the power of perception. Just observe “The Ballad” itself, which is scattered throughout with mentions of “the newspapers” and “the men from the press,” before the refrain, “They’re going to crucify me.” Of course, the pair did often leverage their celebrity for worthy causes (their Bed-Ins, for one), though often, it seems that cause involved their own celebrity or notoriety.
Even the Lennon and Ono that faced the world in 1968 on the cover of Two Virgins were far from innocent. Their joint image was run through with knowing and self-consciousness, cognizant of our gaze and willing our participation. According to Lennon, it served as some manner of display, “to prove that we are not a couple of demented freaks, that we are not deformed in any way and that our minds are healthy.” Yes, it is symbolically virginal—reflecting the couple embarking on their personal and professional relationship—but its intentions were hardly the stuff of purity.
But it’s this frank candor that has become emblematic of the pair’s partnership. Not for nothing does the album carry the phrase “Unfinished Music,” characterizing the couple’s in-progress, incomplete work, which asks the listener to fashion their own interpretations. “What we’re saying is make your own music,” said Lennon. More subtly, it also identifies the nature of Lennon and Ono’s collaboration—on Two Virgins and beyond—its rawness and openness, and in turn, its refusal of privacy and conscious tug on our attention. Naked they arrived and naked they remained.