It’s hard to say that I was a museum junky when I was a high school and college student, but MOMA was like my heart’s second home (hey, what can I tell you, I’m a Tin Pan Alley baby, and Times Square has been and always shall be the Center of the Universe. I was in Bryant Park one Monday night in the 90s, and we were watching an outdoor showing of THE SOUND OF MUSIC, and the crowd would be singing along (mayhaps this was the origin of the Sing-Along trend; when I did later on attend one the first official showings of Sing-Along Sound of Music, it was with some of these same people. When we were singing “Edelweiss”, I was looking around from the park at the skyscrapers that encircled us, looked toward the northwest, and remembered my grandfather was a projectionist at one of the string of movie theaters that used to line Time Square (where the hotels are now), and that this, Times Square, Manhattan, New York, these are my deepest roots, and this is my own fatherland, the land of my father, and his father before that (but only that far; I am a 2nd generation American).
I was born 30 miles outside the Center, in a now-defunct hospital in Amityville (yes, that Amityville), New York, but I’ve always been a city boy, not a suburban one. We started going to museums in grade school; sure, it started with the Museum of Natural History (and I remember going twice), but it’s still a museum. I don’t believe we ever made it to the Met as children, but I had certainly been introduced to MOMA by high school. I loved that place; with the water lilies along one wall, and in an adjoining space, another room featuring Guernica. I was in total awe of that picture; I would return whenever I could and just sit in front of it, totally absorbed. I can’t say, “I ‘got’ it”, I can’t say what it’s ‘about’; I knew then about the Spanish Civil War, and what happened at Guernica, but the details of what he included (the slaughtered horses, the light bulb) and the relative placement didn’t ‘speak’ to me, rationally, intellectually; it absorbed me intuitively. I’d been to galleries on class trips that I’ve never found since; there was one museum with a central sculpture gallery – for all I know, I may have returned to that space and had lunch there after they converted it to a dining area, but one can never be sure about confirming or substituting these early memories.
By the time I went to Syracuse to attend university, I was no stranger to art museums, both traditional and modern. Originally, I thought it was in 1973, when I would have been a junior or senior, but later internet evidence places Yoko Ono’s exhibit YOU ARE NOT HERE in Syracuse at the Everson Museum in 1971 – and I would have been a freshman. I wouldn’t go, at first; throughout the years before I came out, I was a total coward, cowed by anything and everything. John and Yoko came to town (where I was! Of all the world, they came to me, it seemed remarkable, so I’m remarking on it. Actually, the Everson was the museum closest to New York City that would exhibit Yoko’s artwork. Lucky for me), David Bowie showed up, Elton was there – it was a huge event, and I was too cowed to go while all the hubbub was going on. Oh, I went; I waited until everyone was gone and went scurrying over like a vampire in the daylight, trying not to be seen.
And again, I entered a familiar place – only this time, to an entirely unfamiliar configuration. I’d never seen “an installation” before, but the entire front rooms of the museum were dedicated to Yoko’s work; there was a video room (first I’d ever seen) with multiple screens going at once, mostly in silence from what I remember), but there were also art pieces I’d never have recognized as pieces of art before. Yoko Ono taught me to see with new eyes. Her marriage did that; I looked past her appearance, and credited John with some sense; I had been GROWING UP WITH THE BEATLES, along with a generation, and I understood viscerally that it was time for the Beatles to move on; 1970 was my high school graduation, it only made sense the Beatles moved along at the same time. Over the years, I’ve read every analysis of the phenomenon and it’s life-time I could get my hands on, and I understood when John said it had become time to stop hanging around with the mates, and get serious about an adult relationship. Yoko liberated John, and her art liberated me.
She was avant garde, certainly. She challenged viewers and visitors, audiences and the general public, but as an artist she both expressed herself and communicated her understanding, her perspective in new and “dangerous” ways. So, while the “Yoko broke up the Beatles” ruckus was going on, I was sitting back, amused and bemused, watching both John and Yoko for their next public foray, knowing I could trust that they were who they said they were, artists, wizards, and holy fools. You know what it was like, living in Atlanta in the early 1980s, having this argument at work with an adult woman? The best I could get was, “I’m not really familiar with her art.” Yeah. thanks.
After It Happened, she was my bud. I wrote her a note of condolence (the address of the Dakota not being hard to find), and was so gratified that she responded with a public thank-you letter, she is such a classy lady, I admired her for that as well. I sent her a personal note of thanks for the acknowledgement, and started periodically writing her letters. There was a restaurant on Peachtree Avenue (!) near Peachtree Hills, that was going out of business and selling the interior of the restaurant. When the Beatles played Atlanta, they ate here, and John (if not all four boys, it was a long time ago, and I’m a little fuzzy on these details. It would all be in Yoko’s letter, though) autographed plates, and John not only signed the plate, but drew a little impromptu design as well. I wrote Yoko to tell her the plates were going to auction, if she were interested.
Then I moved to Los Angeles, toting Yoko’s two albums produced after John’s death with me. Probably right from the time I bought SEASON OF GLASS, I was listening to it daily. I often did that with albums, and then stopped when I’d absorbed as much as there was to absorb, and move on. I never moved on from SEASON OF GLASS and IT’S ALRIGHT (I SEE RAINBOWS); until at least the fall of 1986, listening to Yoko deal with her grief in very direct and immediate ways (there are reflections of Janov’s primal scream in there that I still find painful to listen to, emotionally – not intellectually nor artistically. LOL) every night before bed first the one, then both, sometimes alternating between them, but every night I was listening to Yoko.
I had known about my mother’s diagnosis of cancer since 1975, and although she was following a full treatment course of radiation and chemotherapy, she continued to smoke daily until the day they put her in the hospital the last time. I know because I was there. The week after Labor Day in 1986, I took a week off from work, and arranged a trip back to Long Island to visit. I didn’t do any side-trips this visit, I stayed close to home, and my mom. The day I left, I went to the airport from the hospital where we were waiting for her to be admitted for what turned out to be the final time. I’d know what was coming, although one never knows the hour; it wasn’t a shock, and I’d had time to prepare, and Yoko’s help in getting through the process of releasing a loved one to death’s embrace.
When Yoko went to Budapest and sang “Imagine” with 500,000 people, I read the news amazed and gratified, wondering, “Can that happen here?” She announced booking a theatre in L.A. (the Beverly Theatre, maybe?) to do a performance, only to have the show cancelled due to lack of ticket sales (we hadn’t yet bought our tickets, due to budget constraints anyway, but I was still hoping to go. When we lived in Atlanta, we would go to shows at the drop of a hat, but in L.A., the stressors were greater and the budget constraints were greater as well. I wrote Yoko another letter, this one about my disappointment at not getting to go to the show (for which I had not yet bought tickets, and was cancelled because no one else had done it, either – I know, mea culpa).
In response, I got my first card from Yoko. Written on the face of it was “Yes!” and signed “Y.O.L.” CONTACT! After OnoBox came out, I wrote her again, expressing my regret about not having one yet. I had a lot on vinyl, including Two Virgins and the Wedding album, but her stuff proved difficult to find on CD at first. She sent a second card, this one expressing her hope I get my OnoBox soon! Sorry to say, I was pleased; pleased at the acknowledgment, admittedly pleased with myself.
I wasn’t hounding her, I was respectful of her privacy, and respected her request for distance. When I went to New York (the first time had been in 1983, when I took St♥ for his first trip to the Big Apple) after It Happened, I made my pilgrimage to the Dakota and later, after I moved back to New York in 1989, to Strawberry Fields. The glasses I wear as I write this are the same glasses I bought – round gold-rimmed frames – in honor of John on my first trip to Strawberry Fields. Even after returning to New York, I maintained my life, she maintained hers and the twain didn’t meet. In 1993, when I was Chairman of the first Heritage of Pride PrideFest committee looking for entertainment for the festival stage, I invited Yoko to come downtown and do a set for Pride. She didn’t respond, and never showed. Ironically, while looking in the village for talent, I went to see Penny Arcade and fell in love. Over the objections of nearly everyone else – she’s not ‘gay’, this and that – Penny and I arranged for her to be the centerpiece of the stage acts; she would take the stage just before 2:00, and time the moment of silence for a particular place in her set. One of my proudest moments. Turns out, I didn’t know she was a Warhol superstar, and I’d actually seen her on film in the past; she wasn’t a braggart, she was all into the now and the next performance, not the historical ones; and I’m given to understand they’d been around the village at the same time, and she knew Yoko as well.
In 1994, with a broken leg, I went to see Yoko’s show at the WPA Theater, NEW YORK ROCKS. It was my 42nd birthday, I was either barely out of my cast, or about to be, but still on crutches – and one of the actors comes out on stage in a cast, with a broken leg. No reference was made to it in the script nor songs, so it was genuine, and he just believed, “The show must go on.” I said hello to Yoko that night, who attended the performance, sitting with Sam across the aisle and just enough rows ahead the I could see her from my seat on the aisle, and she said hello back, but that was the extent of my first encounter with my guide to art enlightenment.
In 1996, Sean turned 21. During the summer before his birthday, Yoko and Sean announced a performance at Central Park’s Summer Stage series. Ever since Los Angeles a decade earlier, I’d waited and wanted the chance to see Yoko live in performance. The play had been great; it was the songs from the Double Fantasy series – Double Fantasy, Milk & Honey, Season of Glass and It’s Alright (I See Rainbows) – strung together in such a way to tell the story of What Happened, but Yoko and I were in attendance, they were performing her music, but it wasn’t her performance, so it didn’t quite count. Suddenly, here it was, my first chance to see a performance in person. The billing was Yoko and Sean, with Chiba Matto and Ween, whom I didn’t know at the time, but would later come to love. I’d have missed it, been late for the performance except for a flyer sent from Yoko’s office about the concert taking place in the afternoon, instead of the evening as I had anticipated. If Yoko’s assistant hadn’t sent the flyer directly to me, I’d have missed it entirely!
I had written her one longest letter, after my mother passed away, about how she had guided me though the process of grief, a huge fat thing. I still have it here, somewhere, I never had the nerve to actually send it on. She was with me every step of the way through what was to come, and for that I will always be grateful. She taught me as much about art as any other teacher in my life. She opened my eyes, taught me to see in a new way, and when it became hard to watch, she stood by and said, “You’ll get through it. I did. It’s all right; I see rainbows. You will, too.”