The Book That Inspired “Imagine”

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
July 4 2014 9:03 AM

The Book That Inspired “Imagine”

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Brow Beat is following the Beatles in “real time,” 50 years later, from their first chart-topper to their final rooftop concert. Every once in a while we check in with Yoko Ono and see what she was up to 50 years ago, years before coming into contact with The Beatles, in a feature we call Yoko Watch. This week, Nell Beram, co-author of Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies, on the book that inspired “Imagine.”

Imagine there’s no heaven. Easy, right? Now imagine letting a goldfish swim across the sky. That wasn’t so hard, was it? Now imagine one thousand suns in the sky at the same time. Then imagine the clouds dripping. Dig a hole in your garden to put them in.

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If you like this sort of thing, you’re in good company. These “instructions,” as Yoko Ono called them, spoke to John Lennon after she gave him a collection of more than a hundred of them not long after they met at her Indica Gallery art show in London in 1966. (Other examples, in addition to the instructions quoted above, include “Imagine your head filled with pencil leads./ Imagine one of them broken” and “Imagine your body spreading rapidly all over the world like thin tissue./ Imagine cutting out one part of the tissue.”) In 1964, Yoko had self-published 500 copies of Grapefruit, her good-naturedly defiant little book. It compiled the absurd, funny, and open-ended ideas that she had been jotting down since she first decided that she wanted to break rank with her convention-bound Tokyo family and become an artist.

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When she published Grapefruit, Yoko was living in Tokyo with her American husband and baby daughter and trying to figure out why, given the city’s thriving avant-garde art scene and her increasingly known name within it, she was still feeling like an outcast—“a misfit in every medium,” she said later. She chose July 4th as Grapefruit’s publication date, seeing the book as her own personal declaration of independence from the narrow definition of what an artist was. She knew the date’s significance because she had twice lived in the United States as a child—her banker father’s career had brought him and his family to San Francisco and Long Island—and she had moved to Manhattan as a young adult. Yoko considered herself, like a grapefruit, a hybrid: Japanese and American, the product of a Buddhist parent and a Christian one, tied to Japanese aristocracy on her mother’s side and assigned to a lower rung on the social ladder on her father’s.

When Yoko got her copies of Grapefruit from the printer—its cover was white because that’s all she could afford—she lugged around the books in an orange crate and tried to entice people on the streets of Tokyo to buy them. Sales were few, so she ended up giving away most of the books. Grapefruit didn’t get much critical notice at the time, and those who read it were befuddled by its willful imperviousness to categorization. The instructions were generally minimal, like haiku, but they weren’t poetry. “Laugh Piece” reads “Keep laughing a week.” “Cough Piece” reads “Keep coughing a year.” “Painting to Enlarge and See” heads a blank page.

John was predisposed to appreciating Yoko’s edgy, label-defying book. When they met, he was a Beatle as well as the author of a couple of short-winded genre-flouting books of larky verse and prose; with their publication, he had hoped to reintroduce himself to the world as more than a witheringly quick-witted pop star.

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When Yoko and John finally got together in 1968, objections to their romance were globe-spanning and ear-splitting. The sexism and racism fueling the rage directed at Yoko had a hideous inevitability in the context of the prefeminist postwar era. Meanwhile, the protests of Yoko’s art-world collaborators were much quieter. Many of her friends thought that she was taking a step back—she was Meryl Streep cavorting with Lennon’s David Cassidy. The artist Carolee Schneemann, who knew Yoko from off-the-beaten-path performance events in New York in which both had participated, explained, “Yoko was a very important ... artist. And frankly, we all wondered if this … this … rock and roll guy was going to be smart enough for her.”

But the marriage took, and John spent the rest of his foreshortened life championing Yoko and her work, as if trying to invalidate his best-known remark about her: She was the world’s “most famous unknown artist. Everybody knows her name, but nobody knows what she does.” When Simon & Schuster, smelling a commercial opportunity, decided to rerelease Grapefruit in 1970, John contributed the book’s (literal) introduction: “Hi! My name is John Lennon/ I’d like you to meet Yoko Ono.” And he answered Yoko’s dust-jacket instruction “Burn this book after you’ve read it” with the note-perfect “This is the greatest book I’ve ever burned.”

It took John a while longer to credit Grapefruit with giving him the idea for 1971’s “Imagine,” his hymn to a borderless existence and his most iconic song. On Dec. 6, 1980, two days before he was killed, John and Yoko sat for an interview with BBC Radio’s Andy Peebles, and when they got to the subject of “Imagine,” John said this:

Actually that should be credited as a Lennon-Ono song because a lot of it—the lyric and the concept—came from Yoko. But those days I was a bit more selfish, a bit more macho, and I sort of [adopts a mock censuring tone] omitted to mention her contribution. But it was right out of Grapefruit, her book. There’s a whole pile of pieces about “Imagine this” and “Imagine that.” … But if it had been Bowie, I would have put “Lennon-Bowie,” you see. If it had been a male, you know…. Harry Nilsson—“Old Dirt Road,” it’s “Lennon-Nilsson.” But when we did [“Imagine”] I just put “Lennon” because, you know, she’s just the wife and you don’t put her name on, right?

It was a fair exchange. Yoko gave John “Imagine,” and her association with John gave Grapefruit a second life. Fifty years after its initial publication date, it’s regarded as a seminal work of conceptual art—an about-face following the extravagance of mid-twentieth-century abstract expressionism, which was gooey and grand and dependent on one-of-a-kind pieces. Conceptual art was, and is, the opposite: distilled and crisp, theoretically owned by none and all. It’s art of the mind, as Yoko would later call her work, and it could be as simple as a few words on a page. Or clouds dripping in the sky.

Nell Beram is a former Atlantic Monthly staff editor and co-author of Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies.

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