Walter Mencken 11 a.m., Nov. 27
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My Brunch With Yoko - excerpt from the Story of Rock 'N' Roll Comics
Now that the Story of Rock 'N' Roll Comics documentary has had a successful DVD release courtesy of Wild Eye Releasing, I've been compiling my various Reader articles about the Hillcrest-based comics I used to help produce, for an upcoming eBook called *Unauthorized: The Story of Rock 'N' Roll Comics.*
I've also been compiling and writing new essays about some of our more infamous adventures: getting sued by the New Kids on the Block and insulted in Rolling Stone by Axl Rose, being chased out of a sports convention by Pete Rose, attending Gene Simmons' birthday party in an LA bowling alley (on the night when our Carnal Comics imprint was essentially born), having Jerry Garcia save our asses from another lawsuit, driving Noel Redding from San Diego to L.A. for a gig with Mountain the day before he quit that band, bringing my mom backstage to a Pantera concert we were co-sponsoring, and this tale of a mutual friend who lined us up for a brunch date with Yoko Ono, who he was working for at the time doing art appraisals and Lennon Gallery promotions.
Here's an excerpt:
At about 9AM, I got a call from Rickey on his cell phone. "Hey, Jay! We're in the car right now! Wanna say hi to Yoko?"
"Herro, Jay! Richard has told me a lot about you!"
I have no idea what I said in response. Probably "Er, uh, well, um, errrrr…."
She said something like "Well, we'll see you soon," and put Rickey [Richard?] back on the phone so I could give him directions for their driver.
I told him I'd be waiting out front, and to look for the guy who appears to be seconds away from actually crapping an actual brick.
My watch said exactly one minute before one o'clock when a sleek towncar (not a limo) pulled into the driveway in front of the restaurant. I started walking up to the car to open the back door for them but their driver beat me to it, getting out and stepping around to open it. Rickey got out first, nodded in my direction and then bent over to hold his arm out and help a teeny tiny Asian woman out of the car.
Yoko has fairly short hair, upswept, and she was wearing a pair of tinted glasses that covered approximately half her face. She had on black slacks and a kinda glittery blouse that I think was purply-black, short sleeved. Not at all flashy or "odd" looking.
Except maybe the giant glasses, tinted so black under the sun that her thin mouth looked like the horizon of a darkening night.
I was struck by how small she was – like a child, really. Rickey, standing next to her (who knows or cares what HE was wearing), isn't exactly a giant, but she still looked like a schoolgirl next to him.
I stepped up, I'm sure looking as nervous as I felt. I was glad I hadn't overdressed – just my nice gray Polo short, dress gray pants, a stone necklace with a white onyx elephant (John and Yoko's first band was Elephant's Memory) and a new pair of black Italian loafers I'd bought just for this occasion.
Rickey shook my hand and introduced Yoko. She reached out to offer her own handshake, saying "Nice to meet you, Mr. Sanford." That's when I first became aware she was wearing membrane-thin clear surgical gloves, almost invisible to the eye. I only noticed because her hand crinkled as I shook it. I must have looked down at her hand with the evident fear that I'd cracked her fragile flesh or something. "Oh, I wear these everywhere. I hope you don't mind."
Why she thought I'd mind, I don't know. Maybe some people get offended and assume Yoko considers us all germ-infested untouchables. Me, if I had the entire world reaching out to shake my hand everywhere I went, I'd probably wear burlap gardening gloves every time I leave the house.
To my surprise, she crooked out her arm as if expecting me to take it. I looked at Rickey, he nodded again and I linked my arm around hers - the next thing I knew, I was squiring Yoko Ono into the restaurant.
There was an unusual amount of people in there for lunchtime, nearly a full house. The staff was clearly expecting us. I suspect they spent the night and morning before our arrival notifying everyone they knew that Yoko was coming for brunch, that's how uncharacteristically large the crowd was. We were escorted to a nicely placed table at the rear of the restaurant (boy, I never got to sit at that great table on the other two occasions I'd been there…).
Yoko ordered unsweetened tea, Rich and I ordered sweet tea and we made small talk while looking over the menus. Yoko was asking me about the area, how long I'd lived there, what it's like, were there a lot of restaurants like this. Rickey said my torso-length hair had grown even longer since he'd last seen me (I wore it down that day) and suddenly Yoko was reaching out to stroke my hair!
Indoors, her glasses had cleared so I could see her eyes and, even though they were Asian-thin, I could see she was looking at me really intently. Staring, even, as she ran her fingers lightly up and down the length of my hair.
I had a split second thought - "Jeez, is Yoko Ono coming ON to me?!?!" – but then I could tell the little 70-something-year-old lady wasn't thinking at all along those lines. "Why do you wear your hair over your face like this? I'm sure he and everyone else here would rather see what you look like!"
That's when it dawned on me that, to her knowledge, since our mutual friend Rickey was gay, she assumed I must also be gay. I doubt she ever would have stroked the hair of such an epically heterosexual male, especially one she'd just met, in such an intimate studying manner, though I can't say for sure why I feel this way.
I think I "ummed" and "errrred" and "ahemmmed" a bit more but I somehow managed to crack a little joke and said "My ears get cold real easy," and she let out a little hiccupping giggle.
Somehow, having made Yoko giggle put me immensely more at ease than I had been up until that particular moment.
My back unstiffened, my toes uncurled (I hadn't realized how tightly they were clenched in the grip of my too-tight new shoes) and I managed to sip the iced tea our waitress dropped at the table without choking or spilling anything down the front of my most (and only) expensive shirt.
We talked about the menu. I told her I'd chosen the place because I knew she was vegetarian and they had a great selection of specialty salads. She mentioned a restaurant they'd found the previous day that specialized in gourmet vegetarian food and I sort of regretted not having done more research before recommending this as the ideal place for us to eat.
On reflection, it was probably fine – she ordered a vegetable plate, I ordered pasta primavera, Rickey asked for one of the specialty salads and we were left to nibble on our rolls amidst a mildly awkward silence for a moment before Yoko looked me straight in the eye again with that unnerving look of hers.
"So, you're an Aquarian?"
I should have expected this, having read about her fixation with astrology (and having been asked my astrological orientation when first contacted by her assistant). She said "That explains your creativity. Did you draw the comic books I saw?"
This took me by surprise, I didn't think it would come up, Rickey having given her that set of Beatles comics quite a few years previously.
"No, I only edited those. I was still teaching myself to draw then."
This seemed to fascinate her, to discover that I learned illustration only AFTER getting into the comic biz, and this became the topic of our discussion until dinner salads arrived a few minutes (seemed like hours) later.
Rickey told her about the comic strip I do for the Reader's music section, and she said "Well, you know, nobody ever encouraged John to draw either, not even the other boys in the Beatles, and it wasn't until we started meeting art gallery people that he realized his art actually meant something, that it wasn't just John scribbling again."
I'm not sure why this sentence literally took my breath away. I couldn't breathe for a moment, it felt like my blood entirely stopped circulating.
I'd been instructing myself all week to NOT bring up John, to NOT mention the Beatles. I wanted to congratulate her on her #1 single she had at the time, "Walking On Thin Ice" (the dance remix), to talk about her own music, her own career, thinking this would surely be more rewarding for her than the endless discussions people want to have about her husband, dead twenty three years, and the band she was not only never a part of but that the world had long accused her of ruining.
And here she was, mentioning John and the Beatles in the same sentence, all the while staring into my eyes as if my reaction would be the basis of whether she likes or dislikes me from that moment onward.
I'm not positive exactly what I said when I was finally able to breathe again, but it was something like "If great artists are never recognized for their art until late in life, then there may be hope for me as an artist after all!"
Yoko's entire body seemed to smile at this, not just the perfect white teeth she fleetingly flashed (dentures? Why was I suddenly picturing Yoko's teeth in a glass of fizzy water and sitting atop a Romanesque white pedastal?!).
I think I heard another of those disarmingly girly chuckles, just barely audible, with the slightest shudder of her shoulders as the only proof I can offer that the chuckle really happened.
I was awash with marvel at how surprising my brunch with Yoko was already turning out to be.
Our dishes were served and I finally did get to congratulate her on that #1 single. Neither John nor the Beatles ever came up again, I suspect to everyone's relief.
We talked a bit more about self-taught musicians and artists and I mentioned being close to a young woman in prison who's using her time to followup on her own artistic aspirations, like writing short fiction, poetry and children's books. This brought a raised eyebrow and Yoko said "Is that your sister?"
"No, she's, uh, well, we talked about getting married, but she got in trouble and she's going to be in prison for, well, a long time."
"Why? What did she do?"
"She was involved in a robbery and things went really bad so she ended up in a lot of trouble."
Yoko nodded and didn't seem to want to pry, but she still stared at me with a curious expression (possibly trying to decide if I was gay after all). I took out my wallet to show her the photo I always carry around of the young lady in question, along with her lipstick-print on a piece of paper I keep in the same photo slot.
"She's very beautiful," Yoko said softly. "Tell her I said that, and that her life can always be as beautiful as she is, if she wishes it."
I rambled on for a few minutes about the young lady's accomplishments, how she's keeping her head together and remaining true to herself and her ideals even in the midst of so much sociopathic, aggressive humanity. Yoko listened and nodded, seeming to be genuinely interested.
"We have many friends who end up in jail for wrong reasons," she said (making me wonder who she meant by "we" – surely not her and Rickey, they're only casual acquaintances…does she still refer to "we" as in her and John Lennon, I wonder?). "That doesn't make them any less our friends, and we look at them for who they are, not where they are, and for what they are doing rather than what they've done." I think I'm quoting her fairly closely here, if I'm off it's only by a few words.
Her wisdom and warmth, the words she said and the way she said it, filled my heart with appreciation for the tiny little Asian woman with the giant glasses who was once accused of breaking up the world's biggest rock group. I felt renewed respect for this most singular of artists, one who's always held her head up high in the face of indifference or outright ridicule, who followed her own muse and screeched to a different drummer and maintained extraordinary dignity through and beyond the assassination of the love of her own life, John Lennon.
I can honestly say that, at that moment, I decided I loved Yoko Ono. Loved who and what she was. Yeah, I'll never be able to listen to her caterwauling "Don't Worry Kyoko, It's Only Mummy's Hand Bleeding In The Snow" without blowing chunks, and you couldn't force me to listen to "Baby's Heartbeat" again with a gun to my head, but just because I don't "get" her art, doesn't mean I don't love and respect the artist...
(To be continued)