The intensity of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s connection saw them joined at the hip for a time. Together, they released music under Plastic Ono Band and took on world leaders from the comfort of their marital bed. But that same intensity brought with it a number of difficulties, and, in 1973, it all became too much. Ono told John that she needed space; that she felt suffocated by the relationship and by his need to have her absolute undiluted affection, which, it transpired, she simply could not offer him.
But they were going to need something more than marriage counselling to get over this particular stumbling block. Back in 1970, the pair visited a progressive psychotherapist called Arthur Janov, who had developed a form of therapy called ‘Primal Scream’, which seeks to resolve childhood traumas via a range of unconventional techniques. While the eight-week program was a great help to the couple and informed many of the tracks on Lennon’s debut solo album, by 1973, John and Yoko were basically back where they started. Amid all of this turmoil, Lennon began an affair seeing his 22-year-old personal assistant May Pang.
Having worked for both Lennon and Ono as a personal and production assistant, Pang was a familiar face. Feeling that she needed to step away from John for a while, Ono decided to find a temporary companion for her husband. Ono remembered John mentioning that he found Pang attractive, so, one morning, Ono took a leap of faith and approached her. As Pang later recalled: “Yoko came to me at 9:30 in the morning – I hadn’t even had my first cup of coffee – and said: ‘May, I’ve got to talk to you. John and I are not getting along.'”
Pang continued: “I knew because the tension was thick. She said: ‘He’s going to start going out with other people. I know you don’t have a boyfriend and I know you are not after John, but you need a boyfriend and you would be good for him.'” Slightly taken aback Pang replied: “I said I didn’t think so, but she said: ‘You don’t want him to go out with somebody who is going to be nasty to him, do you?’ I said: ‘Of course not.’ She said: ‘You will be perfect,’ and walked out.”
Ono only opened up about the decision to set up Lennon’s affair with May Pang years after her husband’s death: “I was hated and John was hated because of me … The affair was something that was not hurtful to me. I needed a rest. I needed space. Can you imagine every day of getting this vibration from people of hate? You want to get out of that. Also, we were so close John didn’t even want me to go to the bathroom by myself. ‘I will come with you,’ he would say. And this would be in public places like the EMI recording studios.”
Pang and Lennon dated for a year and a half, during which time she guided him through the recording sessions for Rock ‘n’ Roll – an album made while Lennon was crippled by his addiction to drinks and drugs. Meanwhile, Ono got on with her own life, content in the knowledge that she would return to her husband when the time was right. “I was prepared to lose him, but it was better he came back. I didn’t think I would lose him. I wanted to be sure,” she said.
“I’m thankful for John’s intelligence… that he was intelligent enough to know this was the only way that we could save our marriage, not because we didn’t love each other but because it was getting too much for me.” A year later, in 1975, Ono gave birth to Sean, her and Lennon’s first child together. For the next five years, Lennon took a step back from the music industry, dedicating his time to becoming a better husband and father.