This was the first interview I ever did with someone of note, and even though it was a phoner, I was terrified. Yoko Ono has something of a reputation as a ‘difficult artist’, and I was well aware that she’d probably spent most of her life being asked about her former husband than her own art – getting the balance right was extremely important to me.
She turned out to be a delight, of course. I remember describing the experience afterwards as not dissimilar to chatting with a high level Japanese student of English, only one who kept throwing disarming comments into the conversation. At one point after the interview was over, she asked me why I was in Japan. I told her I was married to a Japanese woman, to which she replied, “Oh, that’s sweet! My husband was from England, too…”
It’s 3:30am on a cold March morning, and I’m quietly soiling myself. As always, I’ve not thought this through properly. Being a “homely” rag, Japanzine isn’t used to dealing with big celebrities, and my rash promises to “land Yoko” were received with the kind of humor usually reserved for a senile relative. A few tentative emails later, and here I am hanging on the end of a phone line as an assistant takes an eternity to put me through to The Dakota building.
The Dakota. A gothic, gloomy edifice that overlooks the Strawberry Fields Memorial in New York’s Central Park. Home to Yoko Ono since the mid 70s. Home and office to Widow Lennon since her husband was gunned down on the doorstep nearly 27 years ago. Lennon, Ono, Beatles, Fluxus – the historical reverberations are overwhelming. I think I’m having a panic attack.
And then, there she is. Kindly, fun, given to a youthful giggle that, in conjunction with her recent dancefloor-friendly brace of albums, betrays her years (she was 74 in February). For these 15 minutes at least, her dragon-lady reputation seems wildly inaccurate: I repeatedly get the feeling that I’m talking to a top-level NOVA student who knows a thing or two about The Flaming Lips. Any hint of annoyance at my line of questioning is always accompanied by a sense of cheeky humor, as though she’s playing me for a line.
She guides me out of my obvious nervousness, chatting amiably about a recent trip to Washington where she found time to indulge in a spot of hanami. Clashing against the hardened New Yorker that her press image exudes, the thought of Yoko Ono sitting seiza-style at a cherry blossom party catches me off-guard, but then I’m equally thrown when she mentions “John” and “Sean”. It takes me a second to realize that these aren’t mutual acquaintances she’s filling me in on, but, well, you know who.
Known worldwide as the provocative Beatle-wife who oversaw the band’s early demise, the general public have little idea that Yoko Ono was an established artist in her own right long before her first encounter with Lennon. With her art acclaimed by such avant-garde luminaries as Andy Warhol, Ornette Coleman and John Cage, it’s an often overlooked but unsurprising fact that she first met Lennon at a major London exhibition being held in her honor. In November 1966, Yoko Ono was the hippest cat most people had never heard of.
As her relationship with the four most famous men on the planet developed, her art began to take a backseat. Politics crept in during the early 70s and the Lennons spent much of their time battling John’s deportation order. As the decade progressed, however, her influence began to be felt in the punk and no-wave movements, and while her hubby happily settled into middle age, wallowing in his beloved rock’n’roll, Yoko once again embed herself along the cutting edge of the modern arts. A fresh spin of the couple’s Double Fantasy album demostrates that while Mr. L was happily setting domestic bliss to radio-friendly, MOR ditties, Mrs. L had her fingernails severing the pulse of the New York underground. The contrast between the two halves of this paean to love and married life is startling. Lennon sounds cosy, contented; Ono sounds fractured, teetering. How can ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’ and ‘Give Me Something’ inhabit the same album? When were the divorce proceedings due to start?
Ever the forward-thinking artist, Yoko recently opened her vaults to some of her admiring contemporaries. Allowed free rein over four decades’ worth of Ono sound, Basement Jaxx, The Flaming Lips, DJ Dan and others have come up with two albums of remixes and re-imaginings. The first, Yes, I’m a Witch, a collection involving artists from the alternative rock scene, was released in February, quickly followed by Open Your Box – a more dance-orientated offering – in April.
Orange Factory, who perform on Open Your Box, first approached you about doing a remix back in 2001, right?
Right! Isn’t that an incredible track? But, you know, I wasn’t keen at all. I didn’t want people to meddle around with my stuff.
Really? I’d have thought that’s the kind of thing that’d interest you.
Yeah, I was always interested in that kind of thing, you know. Like the first album, Two Virgins, andUnfinished Music Vol.1, Life With the Lions… I was always interested in the theory. But the thing is, when they started to want to remix my stuff – around the time of John’s passing, around 1981 – I just said, “forget it! We did a good job! Just leave it alone!” I totally forgot about the ideas I’d had earlier. And then Orange Factory asked me and I said [indifferent voice] “oh, ok, ok, ok” – a bit like that. But then, when they did it, it was so beautiful. And so then I said, “Oh! What am I talking about?! Remember those ideas I had!” From then on I was fine.
How did you go about selecting the artists to work on Open Your Box?
I didn’t select at all, actually. Either they asked me if they could do it – ’cause they all knew I’d done ‘Walking On Thin Ice’ with The Pet Shop Boys, and then Orange Factory. By then there were a few club mixes. So people came to me saying, you know, “could we do it too?” But also I think the record company approached some of them.
So presumably you had final say?
I had final say. So I can put my stamp on it, like Andy Warhol did – “I thought of it anyway, so…”
But you must have taken some of those artists on advisement from somebody else? I mean, did you talk to Sean or…
No. When everything was rounded up and done and they let me hear them, there must’ve been 17 tracks – there were other tracks, you know. I heard everything and I said, ok, “this, this, this and this and that one.” I decided. I didn’t get anyone to whisper to me.
How about Japanese artists? Do you get any offers to work with artists from the Japanese dance scene?
Well, I suppose the Japanese artists have just never thought of asking me.
Do you follow any of the modern music in Japan?
Yeah! Every year I come to Japan and we do a big charity show… I know them all!
I wanted to ask you a bit more about your connection to Japan. I mean, these days, you’re seen as more of a New York, international figure…
Well, I’m not hiding my roots. And a lot of people do think of me as a Japanese and the minute they meet me they go, “Oh! It’s a Jap!” The point is I am a Japanese – an internationally known Japanese – but a Japanese, yes.
Is it true you went to the Peers School with the emperor?
Yeah, true! Classmates – is that the word? Yeah. We were classmates. But, you know. It’s just a fluke!
Going back to your new remix album: it could be argued that you were one of the original remixers, given your heavy involvement with ‘Revolution Number 9′ on The Beatles’ White Album…
Yeah, ok. Well that’s unmentionable.
[Quickly taking the hint] Ah, OK! In that case… I recently saw a clip of you performing Cut Piece at Carnegie Hall in 1965. A fabulous piece. Looking at that clip, I can’t help wondering what was going through your mind at that precise moment.
Well, I just did it. I didn’t know it was going to be famous 30 years down the line or anything. I suppose I thought, “I should’ve put nicer clothes on!” But I didn’t have anything. They were the nicest.
How does the Yoko Ono of Yes, I’m a Witch and the girl in the Cut Piece video relate?
Relate? Well, I’m the same person.
Of course, but are you essentially the same artist, do you think?
Essentially I’m the same person, let’s put it that way.
But is the drive to create interesting art as strong as it was then?
Of course it is! What are you talking about? I mean, I just had two albums out and you’re saying I don’t have the passion for art? I can’t believe it!
I’m not saying you don’t have the passion at all…
No, but that I don’t have the same kind of passion… Of course I didn’t put out two CDs at once in those days. I couldn’t afford to. The thing is, back then in London, I was doing a concert every month actually. Every month, somewhere. I mean, that’s before I got together with John.
Well, not to get too heavily into all that, but I wanted to ask you about the accusation that’s trailed you since you met John – the idea of you being the woman who broke up The Beatles. But you could argue that it’s the reverse: that The Beatles derailed the career of a very original avant-garde artist.
Well, that’s true too. I mean, in a way the fact that I was there might have affected the situation. I don’t think so because, you know, they were already going that way a little bit. Each person was going his own way. But I don’t know. For me, too, it was very bad actually.
Well, bad in the way that suddenly people started to just look at me as Mrs. Lennon rather than anything else. I was suddenly a housewife! But, I mean, I can’t say it’s bad. Those are the things that happened, and I accept it.
In a 1995 interview for your album Rising, you said that you don’t ever expect to have any satisfaction from your critics. Do you think that time has passed?
Well, I didn’t know that I said that, but you know, critics have their own agenda and their own lives. Whatever they say… when I say “satisfaction”, it doesn’t mean that they’ve said something great or super and that’s why I’m satisfied – I really think that what they wanna say is what they wanna say for themselves to the world. It doesn’t really have anything to do with my creativity.
You’ve always been a forward thinking artist. Do you feel that your new collections break any new ground in any way?
I don’t know about that. That’s like some critic saying, “this is not breaking any new ground.” I feel that unless you’re going to bring out something that’s creatively new, there’s no point in bringing out anything. A repeat is not an interesting thing to do. My feeling is that Yes, I’m a Witch and Open Your Box are terribly new, fresh things.
But do you think there’s any new ground left to be broken musically?
Of course! Of course! You know, we’re breaking new ground every day. That’s how the world is. And you know, anything that comes out is better coming out, because the other side of this is the war industry – and you don’t want that to be active. We have to be active ourselves. The peace industry.
Do you consider yourself still a strong part of that?
Oh, definitely. Why, “still”? What is this word, “still”? That sounds like I’m too old to do anything!
Sorry, Yoko! What do you think John would have made of DJ Dan’s remix of ‘Give Peace a Chance’?
Oh, he would have had a good, good laugh. John had an incredible sense of humor, and we did these things not with incredible seriousness. Tongue in cheek, you know.
Do you think he’d be doing similar things – remix albums – if he were around today?
Well, I don’t know.
‘Cause he was quite a rock’n’roller, wasn’t he?
He’d probably have said, “let me do it first!”
Originally published in Japanzine