In the 60s, Yoko Ono married John Lennon and campaigned for peace in Vietnam. More than 30 years on, she's still irrevocably linked to her dead husband and America is once again at war. Here, she talks to Andrew Smith about marriage, art and inner peace
November 4, 2001 The Observer
How does it feel to have the whole context of your life and work changed in an instant? And then frozen in another? Yoko Ono was a star of the New York avant-garde art scene when Lennon walked into her show at the Indica Gallery in London in 1966, grabbed one of the exhibits, a green apple on a glass plinth, cutely labelled 'Apple', and took a bite out of it. She was cross. 'Oh, I was terribly cross,' she says. 'He'd been showing his sophisticated artist side, and then he suddenly did that and I thought, oh dear...'
Reminded that the value of the exhibit probably increased a thousandfold, she laughs. Her voice surprises in its sing-song pleasantness. She has turned 68, but could pass for 20 years younger. Ono will not be what I expected in any sense, and the answers to those opening questions will be even less straightforward.
'It was funny. I didn't know what to make of my feelings for him. He was very sexy. In that first meeting, he showed a sense of humour and very complex sides of his personality. But for me, he was also... I think that in the crowd I was in, in the avant-garde, there were a lot of guys who were extremely interesting as composers, but I didn't feel anything coming from them. No kind of guy guy thing. He had a charge, a force. And I felt that.'
She's sitting at the mosaic dining table in the kitchen of the rambling top-floor apartment she shared with Lennon in the Dakota building, the gothic apartment block where Polanski filmed Rosemary's Baby and outside which the former Beatle was shot by Mark Chapman as he stepped through the entrance arch on 8 December 1980. There are Magrittes and Warhols on the walls and, down the hall in the 'white room', the piano on which 'Imagine' was written. Like so many before, I will stand in front of it resisting an urge to play something, while not being quite sure where either impulse (to play, not to play) is coming from. Today would have been his 61st birthday and is also that of his son, Sean, who will be a sullen presence in the background of this first meeting. I wonder if he's angry with his mum for working today.
Lennon's birthday aside, it's a strange time to be visiting. I've seen the remains of the World Trade Center and realised with horror that the lonely, cathedral-shaped spear of steel frame that defied the destruction will be the first iconic image of the 21st century. Ambling through Central Park towards the Dakota on this cold, clear morning, I came across several dozen people singing a shrill chorus of 'Give Peace a Chance'. And I wondered, what's changed? Where is John and Yoko's Nutopia? According to the newscasters, the last time such a concentration of American bombers had been assembled was in March 1945, when Tokyo was razed to the ground and 83,000 people were killed.
Strangely, she was there.
Lennon had been born into a chaotic working-class family, but Ono (born 18 February 1933) was an heir to privilege. Her father was an aspiring concert pianist turned banker, while her mother came from the wealthy Yasuda banking clan, and she was schooled at the Japanese equivalent of Eton. Nevertheless, during the war, they struggled as everyone else. She remembers being woken at night and hustled into a bomb shelter, where the group would listen to the series of regular thuds coming closer, then fading like the steps of a retreating giant into the distance. At one point, the children were evacuated to the country, where the city kids were despised by the farmers they were billeted with.
'It was very frightening,' she replies, when asked if the experience marked her permanently. Kids must have had to learn to rely on themselves and contain their feelings. 'Oh of course, I have that side, too. Even now, I'm always thankful that we have something to eat and a roof over our heads. Because there was a time when we were starving. I also tend to keep paper bags and boxes and things, I can't throw them away. My daughter thinks it's funny.'
She has said that she was 'always afraid' as a child and always felt herself to be an outsider - which is odd, because, as we shall see, she grew into a remarkably fearless adult.
Moving to the US with her family after the war, Ono went to art college. Her father was passionate about Western classical music and had made sure she was schooled in it, while her mother taught her Japanese idioms - making her at the time one of very few people in the West with an intimate understanding of both. In her early twenties, she hit Manhattan and married the Japanese piano prodigy, Ichiyanagi Toshi, subse quently falling in with the clique of avantgarde composers gathered around the likes of John Cage, David Tudor and La Monte Young (whose first collection of musicians went on to become the Velvet Under- ground). Ultimately, this movement would be known as Fluxus, and Ono, as a pioneer of 'performance art', would be a dynamic force within it.
As the 60s began, she reluctantly moved back to Japan with her husband, but, unable to work properly, she was miserable and is said to have attempted suicide in 1962, at the age of 29. Eventually, she met the American Tony Cox, who had admired her paintings, and returned to New York, where he became her promoter. Friends had expressed doubts about his advisability as a partner, and this - in keeping with the pattern of her life -proved to be a volatile, if professionally successful partnership. They had a daughter, Kyoko, whom Cox would finally wrest custody of by citing Ono and Lennon's dissolute, drug-sodden lifestyle, and later disappear with. Yoko wouldn't see Kyoko again for 25 years, and if you look at news footage from the time, was clearly seen to be heartbroken, but before then her career had taken off. Which is how she came to be invited to swinging London in 1966 ('It was, like, bang! - I couldn't believe what was going on there') and to have her own fateful exhibition at the Indica gallery in November 1966.
The tales of her camping out in front of Lennon's house until he let her in are not true, she says. 'I didn't even know where he lived. That's not my way of doing things. And also, I wasn't that intent on connecting with him. The point is that now people read those stories and think it's beautiful. Women send me letters saying, "Oh, it's so beautiful to know that you were so forceful and thank you for doing that for John", and stuff like that. But I went to Paris after we met and said that I wouldn't go back to London. I didn't want a relationship at the time, because I wanted freedom for my work. And I don't like the idea that I'm creating a situation where women think that they have to stalk a man to get them. It's really serious! No, don't stalk them!'
She dissolves into laughter again. From everything I've read and heard, he seemed the more besotted at that point. 'Well, I thought that and I thought that I didn't want to get too involved in it. It seemed like the wrong situation at the wrong time. I was already aware that there was an entourage looking at me like, "What are you trying to do?" and I thought, I'm not trying to do anything, leave me out of this. It's like, something told me this is bad news - and it was!'
People have asked what John Lennon saw in her. One of the things, certainly, was her art. There is a growing body of critical opinion which holds that meeting Lennon was the worst thing that could have happened to Yoko Ono as an artist in her own right. Her poetry's never been up to much, but her broad musical sensibility and feral singing voice were intriguing enough for the titanic jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman to invite her to join him for a performance at the Royal Albert Hall in 1966 ('Only if we do my compositions, I told him') and some of her Zen-touched visual work has been inspired.
A pioneer of conceptual art as now practised by Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Jake and Dinos et al, she was about tickling the imagination. A chess set, in brass, with all the pieces enamelled white, is entitled Play It By Trust ; a glass case containing four glass keys becomes Glass Keys to Open the Sky . Blood oozes from under the lid of a brass box labelled Family Album (this one post-John). A grey line on canvas is accompanied by the handwritten suggestion that 'This line is part of a very large circle'. At the time of that first London show, she had just been on the evening news while making her Bottoms film, which depicted 365 perambulating bums, accompanied by the subjects' commentary on the experience. The sense of play and mischief is what got lost in the mainstream shift that followed Ono's liaison with Lennon, while the avant-garde shunned her for 'selling out'.
Ono appears taken aback when I ask why she always wears shades (today's are tinted blue), spluttering, 'I don't know. I did that even when John and I were together... probably.' Actually, I don't think she did. She's a fascinating woman, but a difficult interviewee. She smiles and laughs, but turns hostile in a beat, often in anticipation of a question you'd never even considered asking, and is fiendishly hard to engage with. On occasion, I suspect her of using the subject of John, which is safe because everything's been said, as a shield to protect herself from scrutiny. Perhaps this is what it's like being frozen in time by a man with a gun: only much later am I able to recognise the contradiction between the openness and generosity of her political ideas and her anger with 'the world' she once accused of killing her husband. I'd imagined this to have been uttered out of immediate hurt, but when I ask if she still believes it and whether she excuses herself (and the other 'poets', perhaps?) from being part of 'the world', things will take a bewildering turn. Ono may well be as tough to do business with as McCartney, the other Beatles and her stepson Julian complain that she is.
The most interesting stuff comes up where I least expect it, around a retrospective exhibition, Yes Yoko Ono, and a new album, Blueprint for a Sunrise , which was made with her son Sean's deft band, IMA. She was going to call the record Sondown , she says, because she liked the play on words, but was pulled up short. 'I thought, I don't want to write a song called "Sondown". I thought, my God this is terrible. I always think in terms of multiple meanings. I don't want to lay that on my future, or my son. So I thought, no, I have to write something about "Sonrise".'She laughs. 'Then I thought, but there's no son rise here - I mean, yes, Sean is doing OK, but the point is in the society.'
You think that you can bring things into being with your songs, I ask? She mentions 'Walking on Thin Ice', the tune which she and Lennon had been working on and was in his cassette machine when he was shot in the archway of the Dakota.
'Afterwards, I was always thinking, why did I write that? Because you know they're playing it all over the world, and I was actually walking on thin ice after John's passing. I thought, did I set this up?'
A belief in that kind of power must be frightening for an artist. 'It's scary, but you know in hindsight, a lot of things did happen that I was not aware of at the time.'
Are there other instances where you think your work changed the future? 'Well, I think 'Imagine' was prophetic, in a very positive way. I think it's all right that it's not fashionable or faddish and might seem simple.'
Only afterwards does it dawn on me quite how wildly untrue this statement is, even if the song did piss off the Nixon administration and seem challenging for a while at the time. I enquire after two of the most striking tunes on Sunrise - 'I Want You to Remember Me' and 'Rising II', both of which are funky little dramas centred around a woman being attacked by men. She seems to have heard me suggest that the stories being told are about her in a literal sense, where they actually sound more generalised to me.
'I object to that. If a woman writes about a domestic situation, everyone automatically assumes that it's about her. I'm speaking for victims. In 'Rising', I was thinking about a little girl, an abused little child - which was probably me. I mean, that's not what happened to me, though.'
She draws a clever parallel between people and the environment, the world generally. 'It's the same sort of logic in a way. We tend to misuse an object that is passive.'
We fall to talking about the sleeve, which has her dressed as the 'Dragon Lady' of Chinese legend. It's what the British press used to call her, referring to the last empress of China, who history paints as a tyrant, but was actually a fierce defender of her people against the colonising British, according to Ono.
'We learnt about her in school in Japan and she was always quoted as an example of how cruel women can be when they get power, and I totally believed it. And it was like I was in the same position of protecting a country, which was the Nutopia. Which they did not like. It was a kind of conceptual country that I was protecting. I thought the parallel was interesting. There were many monstrous things that were said about me.'
Her notoriety is ascribed to her being not only a woman, but an Asian woman (not long after Pearl Harbor and Korea and during the war in Vietnam) and, worst of all, an avant-garde artist who'd snagged one of the most blindly revered men in the world.
'I was trying their patience, without wanting to. I understand now and I think that it's interesting that all of us together had to go through that to come to a kind of awareness of each other. Now when people meet an Asian woman, I don't think they automatically think of Madame Butterfly or geisha.' She laughs brightly. 'And the attitude to women is changing, which is not my doing, but I was part of it.'
All of which is probably right, though the conspiratorial closeness which unsettled the Beatles in the studio probably also made others uncomfortable. Not that it's anyone else's business, but it seemed to come mostly from John and could look a little desperate.
'Well,' she says, 'he was extremely insecure in that way. I think he didn't want to leave me alone - that's one thing. But also, we were in love, like teenagers. We wanted to be together. And I think that, in his mind, probably, he knew the others were not happy about it. But in his usual way, he was saying, "Forget it! Too bad!" Their relations had been strained anyway after his "We're bigger than Jesus" remark. And he felt guilty, but also he was angry. But the anger was repressed anger, because he couldn't blame anybody else! But there was also the feeling of being caged in by the band at that point.'
When she talks about him like this, you feel Lennon's presence at the other end of the table, still alive for her and smiling affectionately back, and I become aware that few people are forced to continually rake over the death of a close partner the way that she is.
Two days later, we're shoeless in the 'white room' and Yoko is sternly instructing me that she doesn't want to talk about the recent split from antique dealer Sam Havadtoy, her partner of many years, which strikes me as amusing because I didn't know about such a split until she mentioned it - though I had intended to ask how anyone can sustain romantic ties with her when the relationship with Lennon is still so present. Anyway, now she asks me not to mention that, or the fact that she'd explained her attraction to John in terms of his sexiness. It's early and she's tired, because Sean and his young and notably more gorgeous than him girlfriend left for home in LA today and they stayed up late, chatting.
We talk more about John and spend some time on the Fluxus years, much of which is interesting, but all of which I've heard before, then come to the war on terrorism. After I'd left the other day, her PA had called to say that, contrary to what Ono told me, her most recent artwork was not the spectacular piece currently receiving rave review in Yokahama; an old Nazi box car such as Jews were transported in, with mounted machine guns and a powerful searchlight streaming to the heavens through a hole in the top and myriad bullet holes, as recorded ambient noise swarms around it. Rather, it consisted of two things I would find down by Times Square, which turned out to be a pair of billboards containing stark black lower-case type over a pure white background, quoting portions of the lyric to 'Imagine'. Surrounded by all the corporate logos and screaming neon lights, they're effective, and we're on to the subject of the war on terrorism. Ono feels that she's been there before and learnt a thing or two.
'Some people may feel that it's necessary to strike back, and when someone is striking out you don't go and stand in front of them and try to stop them. I'm saying, "We don't fight for peace, we have to be peaceful." Which is different. In the 60s we fought for peace, when the Vietnam war was on. We were against the cops and against the politicians and there was a lot of waving banners and all that. And I think in a way, just as they were enjoying that machoism of war, we were enjoying the machismo of being anti-war, you know? So I thought, not this time, it's too complicated a situation. We cannot enjoy the machoism of fighting for peace. I felt that I wanted John's fans to know that. You can stand for peace, but not fight for it.
'There were some factions of flower children who felt - rightly -extremely angered by injustice and so they wanted to wake up the politicians, bomb the White House, whatever. And John and I were saying, you can't do that, that's not how we do it. They would say the result is the most important thing. But no, the result is important, but so are the means. So I think our side felt that John and Yoko were too tame and optimistic. And felt that was Yoko's fault.' She laughs. 'But kids were hurt. John was kind of angered that innocent kids were led to demonstrate because the leaders told them too, et cetera. So this time we don't fight for peace. And if the truth be told, the people who are fighting today, probably think that they are fighting for peace, too. Probably we are all imagining the same thing in the end, but we have different ideas of how to get there.'
And our time is up and I go away feeling strangely deflated. It's lovely to think that we might all want the same thing, or even imagine the same thing in the end, but we don't. I don't want the same thing as George Bush, or the president of Exxon or the people who make the bombs being dropped on Afghanistan right now. Pretending that we do, flowerchild-style, looks to me like another way of avoiding inconvenient truths, part of a legacy of self-delusion that Ono's generation left to mine; just one more way of getting people to shut up and stop asking questions. Which, you frequently get the feeling, is what Ono wants more than anything else.
Later, on the phone, I finally get a chance to ask whether she still feels that John was killed 'by the world'. 'Yes,' she states flatly. But what do you mean by that? 'I think I mean what I said.' But the world didn't kill John literally. Aren't you part of the world? 'I don't think I have anything to add,' she concludes sharply.
So I ask whether her 60s ideals have survived the decades intact, or been tempered by time? 'Look,' she says, 'we're growing up together, the human race. And we've discovered a lot of things that we didn't know. We're finding our way. Instead of thinking about doomsday all the time, think about how beautiful the world is. We're all together and together we're getting wiser.'
Another lovely thought. The irony is that she sounds kind of angry as she says it.