Has there ever been a figure more polarizing than Yoko Ono? Who hasn't actually been President of the United States?
As she turns 80 Feb. 18, even most young people don't need to be educated that Ono has long been reviled as the "Dragon Lady" who supposedly broke up the Beatles... and revered as an important avant-garde-ist who also happened to bring domestic tranquility and stability to the life of the most untamable Beatle. Her music, once popularly regarded mostly as caterwauling, has been a constant subject for reappraisal and been cited as a crucial influence by artists ranging from Sonic Youth to Lady Gaga. It wasn't just John Lennon who wrote songs with her name in the title—so have Barenaked Ladies, Ben Lee, and Dar Williams. She is eternally both punchline and beloved icon.
Celebrating her ability to divide the world into pro- and anti-Yoko forces, here are two dozen of the cruelest and kindest things ever said about Ono:
“Thanks for being so brilliant and such an inspiration to so many women… When I was really young, I was fascinated with performance artists... And when I got older I became fascinated with Yoko Ono and Marina Abramovic. I grew up with them, and sort of naturally became the artist I am today. It wasn't until I started to play out in New York and my friends said, 'Look how much this has influenced you,' that I realized it… I would say that this is the most important thing that has happened for me in my life.” —Lady Gaga, after receiving an award from Ono last year
“The coolest Beatle?” —The Guardian, calling Ono not just the fifth but possibly best Beatle in a headline atop a flattering 2009 reappraisal of her legacy
"I can tell you this: I’d just had Frances, and Kurt came into the hospital with a Yoko Ono box set, and I threw it at his head. I was so offended by it, because of what it meant. He thought that was cool; I did not at the time. He loved Yoko Ono and he loved her work. Then I got round to listening to it and I thought she was quite brilliant. Bizarre but brilliant. She sticks with her own thing.” —Courtney Love
“Yoko Ono couldn’t carry a tune in a briefcase.” —critic Lester Bangs in Creem magazine in 1972
“A disaster in stereo… Oh, no, Yoko!” —fashionista Mr. Blackwell, putting Ono on his Worst-Dressed list in 1972
“The anti-Yoko reaction has long since passed beyond boorishness, but that doesn't mean I want to hear her keen for 20 minutes.” —critic Robert Christgau, reviewing Live Peace in Toronto 1969 for the Village Voice
“[The collection of her work] ought to convert anybody with better taste than Albert Goldman--namely, you... A transparently simple, transcendently self-conscious triumph of the will—and of the ‘Woman Power’ she was corny and prophetic enough to crow about back when she was the weirdo who broke up the Beatles. Grade: A” —Robert Christgau, again, giving Ono an upgrade as he reviewed her 1992 best-of album for the Voice
"Yoko was such an inspiration for us in the early days. That's definitely an homage to Yoko when Cindy [Wilson] does that scream at the end [of ‘Rock Lobster’]. You know, 'she broke up the Beatles' and all that bulls---. But there was this whole generation of kids that just loved her. We just thought she was fantastic, so it felt good that we were kind of able to give back and say, 'Look, we love what you did.’… [Having her join us on stage] was one of the highlights of our career for me." —the B-52s’ Keith Strickland
“We loved Yoko Ono. It was actually Fred who turned me on to Yoko. I went to the record store there… and got some early Yoko albums on vinyl and just started playing, playing, playing them. All of us really loved her, so it was definitely an inspiration when Cindy did her vocal part [on “Rock Lobster”] and some of the background parts. Those were definitely Yoko-inspired. And we truly loved her as an artist. It wasn’t, like, a joke or anything. We just thought she was a genius. I still think she’s a genius.” —the B-52s’ Kate Pierson
“Although [John Lennon] was definitely afraid of fatherhood, the combination of that and his life with Yoko Ono led to the real breakdown of our relationship… I wonder what it would have been like if he were alive today. I guess it would have depended on whether he was John Lennon (Dad) or John Ono Lennon (manipulated lost soul)… Yoko is very insecure… She’s got everything she could ever want… Any success that I have is a bane in her life and a thorn in her side because I’m John Lennon’s blood… She always has to be the winner.” —Julian Lennon, prior to finally making up with Ono in 2010
“I don’t want to sound anti-Yoko because I’m not, but there was always some kind of minor war going on. In the end, Lennon would always fold to ‘Mother’—he just didn’t want the grief.” —producer Jack Douglas, recalling how, with Double Fantasy, Ono insisted on having her songs interspersed with Lennon's instead of relegated to one LP side
“As we were listening, I noticed that something down in the studio had caught George Harrison’s attention. After a moment or two he began staring bug-eyed out the control room window... Yoko had gotten out of bed and was slowly padding across the studio floor, finally coming to a stop at Harrison’s Leslie cabinet, which had a packet of McVitie’s Digestive Biscuits on top. Idly, she began opening the packet and delicately removed a single biscuit. Just as the morsel reached her mouth, Harrison could contain himself no longer. ‘THAT BITCH!’ Everyone looked aghast, but we all knew exactly who he was talking about. ‘She’s just taken one of my biscuits!’ Harrison explained. He wasn’t the least bit sheepish, either. As far as he was concerned, those biscuits were his property and no one was allowed to go near them. Lennon began shouting back at him, but there was little he could say to defend his wife (who was happily munching away in the studio), because he shared exactly the same attitude towards food.” —the Beatles' engineer Geoff Emerick, in his book Here, There and Everywhere
“Grapefruit is one of the monuments of conceptual art of the early 1960s, She has a lyrical, poetic dimension that sets her apart from the other conceptual artists. Her approach to art was only made acceptable when white men like Kosuth and Weiner came in and did virtually the same thing as Yoko, but made them respectable and collectible.” —former Village Voice art critic David Bourdon, speaking to the New York Times
''The Beatles were fantastic. They left their mark. But a hundred years from now, it's Yoko Ono the world's going to remember, and not John Lennon or the Beatles.'' —performance artist Charlotte Moorman, to the New York Times
''Yoko became an important person in the New York avant-garde. People came from long distances to attend the performances. They were the most interesting things going on.'' —composer John Cage, describing Ono’s pre-Lennon art career
“Vampire-woman-sucks-life-out-of-man-who-enjoys-every-minute-of-his-destruction.” —music critic Geoffrey Stokes, describing what he saw as the “theme” of Double Fantasy in a Village Voice review titled “The Infantilization of John Lennon”
“It’s one thing to treat John Lennon’s widow with due consideration, and another to endorse her rather pedestrian synthesizer and vocal experimentalism… Her new music… is aimless and indulgent, outstripped by any number of less well-known innovators. As if that weren’t bad enough, the cover is a prime example of Yoko’s overt exploitation of her widowhood, none of which inclines me to believe that her elaborate public displays are intended more for the exculpation of grief than for the opportunity to promote this album.” —critic Dave Marsh, reviewing 1983’s It’s Alright in Creem
“It is indeed a shame that the vocals on this album have been allowed to dominate the music, for the boys from Elephant's Memory have rarely sounded better. Yoko, however, in her role as lyricist, is, as they say, laughable. Her sense of poetics and metaphysics are not even up to your average garage-band standards… The beatnik poets on Perry Mason used to write better stuff, for Chrissake.” —Nick Tosches, reviewing Ono’s album Approximately Infinite Universe for Rolling Stone
“I learned everything from her. ... It is a teacher-pupil relationship. That's what people don't understand. She's the teacher and I'm the pupil. I'm the famous one, the one who's supposed to know everything, but she's my teacher. She's taught me everything I f---ing know.” —John Lennon, in an interview three months before his death
"We live in a country where John Lennon takes six bullets in the chest. Yoko Ono is standing right next to him. Not one [expletive] bullet. Explain that to me! Explain that to me!" —comedian Dennis Leary
"If I were John and you were Yoko/I would gladly give up musical genius/Just to have my own/Personal Venus" —Barenaked Ladies, "Be My Yoko"
"I wonder if Yoko Ono/Ever thought of staying solo/If she thought of other men and/If she doubted John Lennon/Worrying that he'd distract her art/...Did she guard her Yoko human heart/...They could rag about me/Throw me to the velvet dogs of pop star history/But I won't be your Yoko Ono/If you're not good enough for me" —Dar Williams, "I Won't Be Your Yoko Ono"