The opening lines – “We’re born in a prison/Raised in a prison/Sent to a prison called school” – position the song along a similar theme to John Lennon’s earlier ‘Working Class Hero’. Yet while Lennon’s songs of the time were direct and largely free of imagery, Born In A Prison relied on metaphor to make its points.
One wonders, too, how prison-like Ono’s early existence was. She was born into a wealthy family, descendants of a banking dynasty and an emperor of Japan. At a young age she was enrolled at the exclusive Gakushiun school in Tokyo, later became the first woman to be accepted into the philosophy department of Gakushuin University, and went on to attend New York’s prestigious – and expensive – Sarah Lawrence College.
By 1972 she was married to John Lennon, was independently wealthy and living once again in New York. Lennon and Ono’s life of privilege often sat jarringly alongside their messages of empathy with the poor, disaffected and lost, but perhaps none more so than on the clumsy sloganeering of Some Time In New York City.
Ono’s 1964 book Grapefruit and her artworks often contained instructional pieces intended to inspire thought, and her lyrics were often written in a similar style. However, the approach is unconvincing on ‘Born In A Prison’, with lines such as “Wood becomes a flute when it’s loved/Reach for yourself and your battered mates/Mirror becomes a razor when it’s broken/Look in the mirror and see your shattered fate” failing to convey any clear sense of meaning.
‘Born In A Prison’ was performed live on just two occasions, at the afternoon and evening One To One concerts at Madison Square Gardens on 30 August 1972. These were in aid of handicapped children, with Lennon and Ono appearing onstage with the Elephant’s Memory band. Neither performance was included on 1986’s Live In New York City album, but it was included on the accompanying video release.