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Yoko Ono comes into her own in biography

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Yoko Ono

Collector of Skies

By Nell Beram and Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky

Amulet Books, 180 pages, $28


"Everybody knows her name," John Lennon once said about Yoko Ono. "But nobody knoews what she does."

Though she became famous as "the woman who broke up the Beatles," Ono was an established avant-garde artist before she met Lennon. This intelligent -- though occasionally overly adoring -- authorized biography goes beyond the usual "ballad of John and Yoko."

Authors Nell Beram and Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky look at Ono alone, revealing an original, independent woman who has broken a lot of ground as an artist, activist and feminist.

Beram, a journalist, and Boriss-Krimsky, a visual artist and art writer, proceed chronologically, beginning with Ono's birth into a wealthy and aristocratic Japanese family.

The young Yoko went to school with the sons of Emperor Hirohito. The family lived in both Japan and the U.S., and Ono grew up feeling neither Eastern nor Western, an outsider attitude that became crucial to her creative life.

After a brief first marriage to Japanese composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, Ono became involved in the radical redefinition of art in 1960s New York. Using hybrid art forms such as text pieces, performance, experimental sound, music and video, she developed conceptual and collaborative works that needed to be "completed" in the minds of audience members. Ono wanted to break down barriers between life and art.

After meeting Lennon at a London art show, Ono became involved with him in 1968. Their first years were shadowed by the loss of Ono's daughter, Kyoko, from her second marriage. In 1971, Ono's former husband, Tony Cox, fled with the child and later disappeared into a religious cult.

Ono also faced public hostility for her perceived role in the breakup of the Beatles, these attacks often fuelled by a nasty combination of sexism and racism. Ono once said that she entered "a strange, rare, invisible prison" by marrying Lennon.

As Boriss-Krimsky and Beram point out, her admirers thought he made her too mainstream; his fans thought she made him too weird.

It's not surprising, perhaps, that they both retreated from their art in the late '70s, with Ono becoming an astute business manager and Lennon staying home to raise their son, Sean.

Often overshadowed by her roles as muse, wife and then widow, Ono comes into her own in this bio. The book occasionally dips into breathless, uncritical admiration, and there are one-sided or glossed-over accounts of key events, such as Ono and Lennon's 14-month separation in 1973 -- a period Lennon called his "lost weekend."

Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies also seems to be hedging its bets about its intended audience. The book has been released through Abrams' Amulet imprint, which is aimed at teen readers, but the authors -- or perhaps the publisher -- seem reluctant to give up on grown-up readers.

The resulting prose is often caught at that awkward in-between stage. Adults will probably find the painstaking explanations of Beatlemania, hippies and Watergate unnecessary, while adolescents might be bored by the detailed art talk.

At its best, though, the book is poetic and passionate. Released to coincide with Ono's 80th birthday, it will be a gift for her fans.

Winnipeg journalist Alison Gillmor, who studied art history at York University, writes on pop culture for the Free Press. She has gotten over the breakup of the Beatles.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 9, 2013 J7

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