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Oh, Yoko 

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"Holy leapin' Lennon," I said to myself as the escalator reached the second level of Water Tower Place. Hundreds of people were queued up in front of the Merrill Chase Gallery, the line curving out around the escalators, past the elevators in the mall's central section, and down to Lord & Taylor. An exhibit of drawings by John Lennon was opening at the gallery that night, and Yoko Ono was scheduled to attend and talk briefly about the works. Even though the exhibit had been minimally promoted, a veritable horde of Beatles fans turned out to view Lennon's sketches and, of course, try to catch a glimpse of his widow. At 5:30 on a Friday aftemoon, art galleries are populated chiefly by the artists who create the art, the patrons who regularly buy it, and the critics who evaluate it, plus a number of tall, lithe models. This was different. The Lennon exhibit, displayed here and at two suburban malls, attracted thousands of people, a good percentage of whom had probably never bought a work of art from a gallery or, indeed, ever been in one. But then, John Lennon isn't just another artist. Particularly since his senseless murder, Lennon has become a symbol for many of idealism, peace, blasted dreams, moral courage, or what have you. The exhibit was a chance to share a bit of his life, to get a peek into the man's psyche.

Few if any artists could have attracted a crowd this diverse. Neat college types, Loop businesspeople who came directly from work, trendily disheveled teens, and a few unreconstructed 60s veterans all came to pay homage to a man who, in one way or another, touched their lives.

Jamie and Nancy, for example. They got in line shortly after I did, about ten minutes before the exhibit was to officially open at 6 PM. Jamie was eager to talk about how important Lennon and his music have been to her over the years. "Do you remember the white album . . . no, what was it, Abbey Road, with John walking across the street in that white suit? Well, I made myself a white suit and got some of those round glasses he wore. I thought I was John Lennon." She laughed, then paused. "Geez, I must have been . . . eight or nine back then." Nancy said, "You're crazier than I thought, Jamie."

It was Jamie's idea to come to the exhibit, and she was the more enthusiastic of the two. Nancy seemed a little dubious at the prospect of spending her Friday evening in a shopping mall, so Jamie tried to buck her up: "Just think of who you might meet--Yoko Ono, George Harrison, Ringo Starr . . ."

"George Harrison would be worth it," Nancy replied. It figured Harrison would be her favorite Beatle, since she was the quiet one.

Around 6:30 the line, which had been moving at a pretty good clip, slowed considerably. I got involved in a game of peekaboo with a cute little blond girl standing in front of me. She belonged to a large bearded man who could have been the dictionary definition of "Deadhead": tie-dyed T-shirt, granny glasses, blue jeans that looked like they'd been at Woodstock, and a denim jacket covered with patches (one depicted a flower and the legend "War is not healthy for children and other living things").

The girl, who raised six fingers when I asked her how old she was, commandeered my notepad and began drawing on it, first with cigarette butts she found on the floor and then with a black pen I lent her. Very painstakingly she drew a female figure, a disembodied head with feet, something I think was a dog, and a flying bug. She shaded the drawing with ash from another cigarette butt, made some final additions, and signed her name: Harmony. Then, for good measure, she wrote her father's name--Peter--and proudly gave me back my pad. "There," she said with a happy smile, and ran off to play catch with her dad.

While Harmony was drawing, I talked to another man who had been in earlier that afternoon and saw not only Lennon's drawings but the T-shirts, coffee mugs, dishes, playing cards, address books, and other "memorabilia" that were on sale for those of us who couldn't afford an actual print. That was most of us: The "Bag One" portfolio--lithographs of the sketches John gave Yoko for their wedding--sold for $3,000 and up; serigraphs, or silk screens, of the other drawings were priced between $600 and $900. Nancy Voss, a director at the gallery, told me Yoko had set the prices herself. There were also some sculptures based on the drawings and renderings of them in neon.

Then there were the souvenirs (pardon, the "boutique collection," as they were referred to on the price list). Canvas tote bags went for $38, as did sweatshirts, while T-shirts with one of five drawings on them were only $20. A deck of cards was $11. I didn't see a price on the Swatchlike wristwatches with the "Bag One" design on the face, but the guy in line said they were $71.

"It all looks pretty tasteful, even if it is outrageously overpriced," he said. Nancy Voss said much the same thing when I spoke with her the day before. "The T-shirts and things could have been really tacky, but Yoko and everyone involved with the collection is really high-class. The dessert plates, for example, are Limoges plates from France."

Well, class is in the eye of the beholder. Just then a shout rose from the back of the line, and we all pressed against the railing and strained our eyes toward the gallery. I could just make out a small Oriental woman dressed in black with large mirrored sunglasses; Yoko had arrived. She said "Hello," waved, and said she'd see us inside.

She came at just the right time, because a lot of people were beginning to tire after standing in line for 90 minutes or more. Harmony was curled up in Peter's lap, and Nancy and Jamie were leaning against a pillar, smoking. But after Yoko disappeared inside we were all reenergized. Harmony borrowed my pen and a sheet of paper to draw another picture, this one to give to Yoko. She decorated it with a large peace symbol and gave me the "V" sign as I inspected it. Peter explained, "We've got this old psychedelic van and people give us the peace sign a lot, and Harmony loves to flash it back to them."

The line was moving slowly but steadily now, and soon we were in front of the gallery. "I'm finally getting excited," Jamie said. "It took me about six pillars, but I'm getting excited."

But when we were less than 15 feet from the entrance everyone let out a groan: Yoko was leaving. At least, I'm pretty sure she was; I couldn't see anything through the press of people, but the scattered calls of "bye" and "sayonara" led me to believe that we'd missed out. "We were so close," said Nancy. Behind me someone muttered, "Shit."

Surprisingly, however, no one left. After all, this was John's show, not Yoko's, and it was his art that we'd come to see. "She would have made it a little more natural, but I'm here for the drawings," Jamie said. Peter just shrugged his shoulders and said it didn't really matter to him. It mattered to Harmony, though, so Peter promised they'd mail her picture to Yoko.

After Yoko left there wasn't as much reason to linger in the gallery (aside from the free champagne and Perrier, that is), so it wasn't long before we were motioned in and got to see the prints of Lennon's drawings. Even though they were enlarged, framed, and hanging on a gallery wall, there was something small and personal about them. Some showed Lennon's sense of whimsy: Rabbits Rabbiting was two bunnies, uh, in a close embrace, and Kangaroo depicted a bunch of tiny figures jumping out of a kangaroo's pouch, the kangaroo representing the Establishment. Others were much more poignant: one had Lennon's head rising up out of Yoko's to indicate that he felt they were one.

I hung around for a while, looking at the drawings and thinking about all the changes, personal and otherwise, that have gone down since December 1980. At the very least, who would have thought Lennon would have an exhibit in an art gallery, George Harrison would have a top-20 single, and "Revolution" would be used to sell sneakers? The mind reels.

I worked my way through the crowd to say good-bye to Harmony and her dad, who were standing by the champagne table. How did they like the exhibit? "Neat," Peter said from behind his beard and mustache. Harmony agreed and began tugging at his jeans. "Yeah," she said. "Now let's get something to eat!"

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