This year marks the 25th anniversary of the death of John Lennon, who was murdered in front of his apartment building in New York City on Dec. 8, 1980. In Japan, owing to the time difference, the anniversary is Dec. 9, a day after the anniversary of that other day that will live in infamy. Recently, Lennon’s solo catalog has undergone remastering, yet another greatest hits compilation was released, and a Broadway musical about his life and work opened and quickly closed.
In Japan, the commemoration has been site-specific. The annual Dream Power concert, held in October on the anniversary of Lennon’s birth by Japanese musicians covering Lennon’s songs to raise money for charity, was augmented this year with a tribute album by most of the same Japanese musicians. None of the above would have been possible without the participation of John’s widow, Yoko Ono, whose full-time job is curating the Lennon legacy. For years, showbiz journalists have written about Yoko’s iron grip on this legacy, which goes beyond royalties and trademark protection to the elevation of Lennon as the Working Class Hero, a title that Yoko may have copyrighted by now. This is the woman who once threatened to sue a company that planned to market a breakfast cereal called Strawberry Fields.
The late Beatle belongs to the world, or, at least, to that generation who grew up listening to him while he was still alive. But he belongs to Yoko first and whatever image we have of him now is mostly filtered through her public-relations machine. Given Lennon’s fame and influence it’s a huge undertaking, and one that becomes more difficult as time goes by. Yoko herself is 72 and seems to be working even harder to make sure John’s memory is designed to her specifications. In an interview that concludes a seven-page feature about Lennon in the Nov. 28 edition of Aera, the writer describes Yoko as an “avant-garde artist” who “captured” the famous musician, and gives the impression that Lennon is one of Yoko’s works of art.
She takes credit for his first post-Beatles solo album, “Plastic Ono Band,” having convinced him to abandon the “elaborate” production values of the Beatles for something more minimalist; and describes him as an earthy working class poet trapped in the body of a pop star.
But Lennon was also a utopian dreamer, as exemplified by “Imagine,” a song that would be inconceivable without Yoko’s influence. She says she is working hard to make Lennon’s songs “last as long as possible,” which may explain her well-publicized swipe at Sir Paul McCartney two months ago at England’s Q Awards ceremony, where she said that John used to wake up in the middle of the night worrying that more people remembered Paul’s songs than remembered his. She would comfort him by saying that his songs were more artistic. Though Lennon’s tendency toward emotional self-abuse has been well-documented, it’s difficult to imagine him worrying over his legacy in this way. Yoko has since publicly apologized for implying that McCartney’s songs are fluff, but right now her main endeavor, she says in the interview, is to “promote [John’s] songs, which aren’t sung so much,” by which one would have to assume she means not sung as much as Paul’s songs. John’s songs are still, after all, pretty famous.
As one of those handful of superstars who connect Japan directly to the world, Ono gains more automatic respect here, which means no one questions her motives the way some people do in the West. It would be interesting to see how non-Japanese would react to the appropriation of Lennon’s songs and likeness for TV commercials.
Yoko herself appears in two of these ads. She even talks in the television commercial for Fuji Film, reciting in both English and Japanese a series of phrases beginning with the words “Photo is . . . ” The commercial is filled with snapshots of John and Yoko demonstrating for peace, relaxing at home, even riding bicycles in Japan. The familiar strains of “Imagine” play in the background. Yoko keeps her mouth shut in the commercial for Gibraltar Life Insurance, the Japanese arm of Prudential Financial Services, but she’s just as intimately connected. She and Lennon were wed in Gibraltar in 1969, and the commercial shows the couple standing in front of the famous Rock, which is Prudential’s symbol. This time the song “Woman” is used.
Though it’s become commonplace and generally acceptable for rock stars both old and new to lease their songs for advertising purposes — Sir Paul now shills for Fidelity Investments and Lexus — John Lennon’s might raise eyebrows, owing to both the Working Class Hero and the utopian dreamer images.
But in Japan, advertising doesn’t carry the same sell-out stigma it does in the West because people tend to see it as more emotion-generating than product-mongering. At any rate, no one here is going to think Yoko Ono licensed her husband’s likeness and music for personal financial gain. On the list of dead artists who make the most money on a yearly basis, Lennon is only outstripped by Elvis and Charles Schulz.
But these ads are successful in furthering her aim to keep John in the hearts and minds of the public and, more importantly, connect that image with hers. The two commercials, not to mention another one for Nissan that features a series of couples singing Lennon’s ode to domestic bliss, “Starting Over,” present him as a private person; not as one-fourth of the most famous pop group ever, but rather as one-half of one of the most famous married couples of the 20th century. Yoko is a respected artist in her own right, but she doesn’t seem interested in her own legacy. Her late husband’s is guaranteed to last forever, and she’ll be damned if you don’t think of her whenever you think of him.