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Thursday, April 13, 2006

You know it ain't easy: Remembering the wedding odyssey of John and Yoko

Special to The Japan Times

Anyone who has gotten married outside of their home countries knows that international nuptials are hardly a piece of cake. There are the mandatory visits to embassies, the notarized translations, the forms to be filled. And then the mutual concerns of how to celebrate it right.

In 1969, a wealthy British musician wanted to marry the daughter of a wealthy Japanese banker. Their original plan for a romantic wedding at sea, however, turned into a two-week, five-country odyssey that is immortalized in postage stamps and a pop song that went to No. 1 on the British charts.

So take it from John and Yoko: No matter how much fame or fortune you have, procedures and paperwork are as inevitable as death and taxes.

Beatle John Lennon and artist Yoko Ono had their work cut out for them from the start. At age 28, Lennon was going through divorce proceedings with his first wife, Cynthia; At 36, Ono was already divorced twice and going through a custody battle over her daughter. Ono was Japanese-born but a longtime resident of the United States; Lennon was a British citizen. To add to all of these pending legal hassles, they thought it would be fun to get married in a country where neither of them lived, away from the crowds.

On top of that, The Beatles had criminal records: George Harrison was busted for drug possession on the same day that Paul McCartney married Linda, and in the U.S. the FBI was watching Lennon because of his outspoken stance about the Vietnam War and Christianity. And Lennon was wrestling with a heroin addiction that started in the gloom of his divorce from Cynthia.

As a result, Lennon and Ono couldn't exactly count on any favors from government officials, even if they were to try to pay for them.

* * *

On March 15, 1969, just eight days after McCartney's wedding and the drug raid on Harrison's home, Lennon and Ono headed for the British ferry terminal at Southampton with marriage on their minds. Within the first 24 hours, they were set back by a mistake that many aspiring newlyweds make when getting married in a foreign country: insufficient documentation.

Lennon, trying to avoid the kind of chaos that occurred at Paul's wedding, where children were knocked over in scuffles and had to be rescued by police, came up with the idea of getting married in the romantic yet controlled atmosphere of a ferryboat sailing from England to France.

Accounts vary as to why they were prevented from boarding the ferry. Some say that neither of them had brought a passport. Others say that the captain was not authorized to conduct a wedding on board; others write that Lennon had his passport but Ono had left hers at home. For whatever bureaucratic reason, they were turned back and left on the docks at Southampton, weighing their options.

In the 1969 hit song that Lennon wrote about the adventure, "The Ballad of John and Yoko," he penned the lines

Standing in the dock at Southampton,

Trying to get to Holland or France,

The man in the mac said you've got to go back,

You know they didn't even give us a chance

Disappointed yet still determined, they decided to bypass the normal transportation routes and chartered their own plane to Paris. But that was their second mistake: Arriving as tourists did not grant them residency rights, and as non-French citizens in pre-European Union times, they could not have an on-the-spot marriage certificate drawn up and signed.

The couple tried to cut through the red tape by enlisting the help of one of The Beatles' top business managers, Peter Brown. While Lennon and Ono had a five-day pre-wedding honeymoon, Brown spent those days on the phone calling around to various embassies and government ministries. He finally found a solution: Since Lennon was a British citizen, the tiny British colony of Gibraltar would issue a marriage certificate to Lennon and his non-British wife, and would do it in one day.

Lennon later wrote the lines:

Finally made the plane into Paris,

Honeymooning down by the Seine,

Peter Brown called to say

You can make it OK

You can get married in Gibraltar near Spain

Arranging transportation for the wedding party with a change of venue was not a problem -- Lennon chartered the plane again -- and their small entourage had the ceremony at the British diplomatic mission in Gibraltar. They had the marriage certificate in hand in less than one hour.

They took some photos -- Lennon wearing a white jacket and trousers reminiscent of the white suit he wore on the iconic "Abbey Road" album cover -- and Ono in a white outfit with knee-high white boots and a giant mushroom-shaped white hat. They didn't have to worry about distributing copies of the photos to the guests: Gibraltar later issued postage stamps of the couple standing in front of the famous rock and displaying their marriage certificate.

The newlyweds reboarded the same plane, returned to Paris, and then drove to Amsterdam to face the next hurdle of wedding protocol: what kind of wedding reception would they have, and who would they invite?

As artists in the global limelight, they relished the opportunity to have a reception that was artistically provocative, socially inspired and media-friendly. Ono was already an avant-garde artist famous for her simple if esoteric works (a giant canvas on the ceiling with the single word "yes" printed in small letters on it, or wrapping sculptures in white sheets and then tying herself to them).

For the reception, the installation would be the couple themselves, both dressed head-to-toe in white, sitting on a bed with white sheets, under large banners that read "Bed Peace" and "Hair Peace." There, they gave interviews, speaking on everything from hairstyles to women's rights to the Vietnam War. Photographers came by the hundreds. The party lasted 12 hours per day for a week in the Presidential Suite of the Amsterdam Hilton, with music provided by Lennon and various musicians who stopped by.

Lennon and Ono were taking a fashion statement and using it as a stage from which to proclaim their agenda for peace. Speaking from under the covers, Ono said to reporters, "We're thinking that instead of going out and fight[ing] and mak[ing] war or something like that, we should just stay in bed -- everybody should just stay in bed and just enjoy the spring."

In response to a reporter's questions, Lennon said, "The Vietnam peace talks have got about as far as sorting out the shape of the table they are going to sit around. . . . In one week in bed, we achieved a lot more." Not your typical wedding speeches, but certainly memorable.

Reception gifts were handed out, but naturally they were anything but traditional. In keeping with their wedding theme of peace, they later sent 50 acorns to 50 world leaders and asked them to plant the acorns in the ground as seeds of peace that would grow stronger in the years to come.

As media events go, this one was a success: The "Bed-In" was front-page news around the world. But despite even the best intentions and creative genius, no one can force all the guests to approve. Some people made fun of them, and the press viewed them as something of an amusing oddity rather than serious social visionaries. Lennon later wrote the caustic lines

Newspapers said, she's gone to his head

They look just like two gurus in drag

* * *

Within weeks Lennon was back at work at Abbey Road Studios in London, recording "The Ballad of John and Yoko" in one day on April 14, 1969. With The Beatles already heading for a breakup, Paul was the only other member available to assist in the recording: Paul played drums while Lennon played guitar and they then added the other instrument tracks in a nine-hour session. (At one point Lennon looked at Paul on drums and cheekily said, "Faster Ringo." Paul responded in kind with "OK, George.")

With a wedding scrapbook of items such as plane tickets, front-page news articles, TV interviews, acorns, white hats and even commemorative postage stamps, the Lennon-Ono international wedding was certainly one of vivid memories, however not necessarily the ones that they aimed to have when they first started at the docks.

But as Lennon said years later, "Life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans."

Shibly Nabhan is currently writing a book about The Beatles' "Abbey Road" album.

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