By Mark Guarino
When Yoko Ono turned 70 this year, people in her life as well as journalists began asking the same question: “how do you look so good and remain so upbeat?”
Her answer is always the same.
“Attitude is everything,” she said. “When you stick to your anger, it starts to eat you up. You have to release it. You have to transform it. It’s a beautiful energy when you do that. Resentment, sadness, all that is going to eat you up. It’s just a matter of changing your view of things. That’s all. That’s the only thing we have as human beings, the freedom to change your attitude.”
Coming from the Dr. Phils of the world that might sound like precious advice, but from Ono, it’s wisdom earned from a long and tumultuous life marred by violence. Her early childhood in Toyko includes memories of running for shelter when American B-52 bombers ran nighttime raids over her city. Growing up in both Japan and America, she said a combination of racism and displacement made her feel never at home, but instead compounded the feeling that no matter where she lived, she would always be an “outsider.” That feeling would escalate once she married John Lennon. It would later intensify when watching him die in her arms of an assassin’s bullet.
Yet, turning 70, Ono is reinventing herself as anything but a mourning widow, an ostracized celebrity, and a misunderstood artist. These days, she is a triumphant disco diva. Her song, “Walking on Thin Ice,” was released in ten re-mixed versions, and recently shot to the number one position of Billboard’s dance chart. She is coming out of her otherwise protective shell, showing up at New York clubs, and appearing on late night television, gabbing with Jimmy Kimmel and twirling her trim 70-year-old body for Jay Leno.
“I think she’s enjoying it,” said Rolling Stone contributor Anthony DeCurtis who attended her 70th birthday party in February. “People have largely perceived Yoko as a forbidding person but Yoko has always enjoyed a certain type of popular success. And the fact that this is hip and is getting an audience is lighting her up. In a lot of ways, it’s a part of her dream come true.”
To most people, Ono is simply the woman who broke up the Beatles. This is rock’s most persistent myth and is one that is fueled by three factors: racism, sexism and convenience. In truth, the Beatles were reaching a boiling point well before Ono entered the picture. Her entry — and eventual exit with Lennon in tow — provided upset fans with a convenient scapegoat. That she was a Japanese woman made her more worthy of rejection.
“Sometimes it hurt me … but it really didn’t shake me up to the point that it would destroy me,” she said. “I was lucky to have John close to me and with me and he was a great protector in the sense that he always encouraged me and loved me.”
But even without Lennon, Ono said she was braced for the “whole world throwing stones” because of the 33 years that preceded their meeting in 1966. “By then, probably my brain was ready for it. It was well prepared for the stones,” she laughed.
The stones first started dropping in the shape of bombs. Ono was born in Tokyo into a wealthy family. Her father was a banker and spent much of his time working in his company’s branch offices in San Francisco and New York. She remembers escaping to underground bunkers while Tokyo was getting razed by American bombs. To escape the burning city, she, her mother and two siblings fled to the countryside where they encountered starving farmers who chased them away, fearing the wave of city dwellers would steal their food.
“I think it really did something to my head,” Ono says today. “They say when kids witness violence in the household or in the ghetto … their brain starts to change.”
Eventually, her family joined up with their father in Scarsdale, New York. It was a time in the U.S. when anti-Japanese sentiments were high and Ono remembers that it was not uncommon to be the target of stones thrown by other kids.
“When we would go to the theatre and watch the film, always the baddie is an Asian,” she said. “And when the lights go up, it’s like ‘uh-oh, what do I look like?’ It was scary.”
Ono attended Sarah Lawrence College and started writing poems and composing music. She ended up in New York in the ‘50s, marrying composer Toshi Ichiyanagi and working to establish herself in the underground art scene. There, she eventually became involved with an international movement of artists later known as Fluxus. The group worked to cut its ties from the conventional art world, believing the audience should be less observers and more participants. Humor, minimalism and rebellion were all components to Fluxus and sculpture, performance art, film, music and installation became instruments at their disposal.
Ono soon became one of the movement’s most notorious artists, known for shows in which she kneeled motionless on a stage, inviting the audience to snip off pieces of her clothing, or another in which she sat and simply banged her head upon the floor. She published a book called “Grapefruit” that consisted of “instructional poems” like “breathe” and “paint until you drop dead.” Other pieces invited people to simply hammer a nail into wood. Her knack for drama and use of fetishized objects was meant to loosen the grip of the abstract expressionists (who were mostly men) and to make inspiring, Zen-like statements about the relationship between physicality and mysticism.
“Artists are just deliverers of messages,” Ono said. “(They) are meant to be prophets. They don’t even think that they’re setting the tone. The inspiration comes through them. I never looked back. If (critics) hated it or trashed me, it was like ‘okay, next’.”
Jim Yood, a contemporary art historian and critic at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has taught Ono’s work for almost 20 years and considers her to be an “independent visionary.”
“There’s a tendency to culture to follow the herd,” he said. “What Yoko and Fluxus represented was a tremendous rejection of formalities. They were really one of the ‘why not?’ people. They had an ability to rethink the structure of what art was supposed to be about. A lot of people don’t like it when you do that. It’s not marketable, it’s hard to put in museums. Yoko’s like smoke. She’s a little hard to get your hands around but she represents this fierce commitment to openness. Young people especially sense that.”
Ono existed in such a secluded world that when she met John Lennon at one of her art openings in London, she later said she had never even heard a single Beatles song. Although both were already married (by then, she with a second husband) they corresponded and collaborated on music and films for three years before marrying in 1969.
The day they met, Lennon walked up a ladder in one of her installations and looked through the spyglass she had placed there. Looking through it, he read a tiny piece of paper she had fashioned to the ceiling. It read simply, “yes.”
Life as art
Lennon and Ono entered the ‘70s on the run. Their life became an art project. Twined by rebellious spirits, they staged their now infamous Bed-Ins to stop the Vietnam war, formed the Plastic Ono Band and together recorded some of the most inspiring (“Give Peace A Chance,” “Imagine”), the most politicized (“Woman in the Nigger of the World,” “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier”) and the most personally harrowing (“God,” “Mother”) music of that era or any other.
Lennon often talked to Ono through songs (“Jealous Guy,” “Move Over Ms. L,” “Woman”) and credited her for helping him appreciate feminism while also giving him the strength to unshackle himself from pop superstardom in order to live a normal life. “Double Fantasy,” the last album they made together, is a testament to the power of domesticity and enduring love. Lennon was murdered a month after its release in 1980.
Earlier that summer, the Rockford power pop band Cheap Trick was hired to back the couple on the album demos. Drummer Bun E. Carlos remembered walking into a surreal studio atmosphere, with Lennon going on pizza runs with the staff and Ono wandering through rooms, handing out granola to any takers. Although Lennon was more famous, it was evident they created a musical partnership that was equal.
“He called us ‘The Boys’,” Carlos told the Daily Herald in 1998. “We were working on a Yoko tune and Yoko’s in the singing booth … and John Lennon goes ‘mother dear, why don’t you guys do the first verse like (bassist) Tony (Levin) does it and then do The Boys’ arrangement on the second one?’ And she goes ‘(expletive) you very much John’ and he goes ‘okay, mother, okay’ and everyone laughs and he sits back down. It was all pretty goofy.”
Ono said she survived the end of their relationship the same way she survived the scrutiny of its beginning: through her artwork. She likened herself to Adrien Brody’s character in ‘The Pianist’. “He’s a pianist so even when he’s starving, his fingers are always tapping,” she said. “That’s me. I was always thinking about ideas — ‘oh, I have to make sure I remember this idea’. So that was my take on life. I nearly disappeared. Strong as I was, it started to take a toll on me.”
While Ono re-invested herself in her artwork in the years following Lennon’s death, she also found herself faced with the enormous responsibility of handling Lennon’s estate. Raising their son Sean alone, she was given some perspective.
“For me, creative work comes pretty easily an the business is a little bit harder. But being a mother is the hardest. You have to be very delicate and you have to be very caring. It’s a very different game than being a businesswoman or an artist. So when you think about it, business is not so bad,” she said.
Over the years she released much of Lennon’s unreleased material, culminating in the four-disc boxed set, “The John Lennon Anthology” (Capitol). She also represents Lennon’s interests when it comes to Beatles decisions and was forefront in the comprehensive “The Beatles Anthology” series.
“I want to do my best keeping it out there in the right way and to make sure it’s not changed the wrong way,” she said.
That includes the Beatles song publishing credit, which Paul McCartney has been trying to change for years. For the Beatles songs he had the bigger hand in, he wants the credit switched from “Lennon-McCartney” to “McCartney-Lennon.” After Ono refused to allow it for the “Anthology” series, he changed 14 song titles on his recent live album without her permission. She has since been consulting lawyers.
Her reason? “John wanted it that way. That’s it. Another reason is it’s a trademark,” she said. She compared it to New Coke, the fabled and failed attempt by Coca-Cola to start a new brand in 1985. “They changed it and no one wanted to buy it,” she said. “Power is a very beautiful thing if it’s used well. You don’t want to mess around with it.”
She also went into action after Sept. 11 after a leaked memo from Clear Channel suggested the radio giant wanted to suppress Lennon’s pacifist anthem “Imagine” from the airwaves. Ono quickly bought billboard space and placed full-page ads in major newspapers across the country that said “Imagine Peace … Spring 2003.”
“I was totally in shock,” she said. “I was trying to say, ‘hey, don’t be scared, just imagine’.”
While she says the Internet is a boon for political activists since the Nixon era, she is worried that isn’t enough. “The people who believe in war are stronger. They’re really intelligent people. So we have to know that,” she said.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s Ono began recreating works from her earlier life as well as staging major exhibitions of new work around the world. She was beginning to be discovered by a new generation as an innovator and feminist pioneer.
“She was never Mrs. Lennon, ever,” said the Art Institute’s Yood. “The influence in her work is in attitude rather than specific object. When students learn of Yoko Ono, they learn of someone who can speak freshly and can communicate through bright intellect.”
Musically, her reinvention continues. She released solo albums, toured with her son Sean and composed two off-Broadway musicals. Art-minded noise bands like Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo and feminist-leaning rockers like P.J. Harvey claim she is an influence. Ono wants to continue in her new club incarnation because “the music is great but when you put lyrics to it, it’s stronger,” she said. “And then when you start to dance and invoke your body, it’s the strongest thing in the world.”
Her dance direction might never have happened. “Walking On Thin Ice” was one of the master tapes Lennon was holding the night he was shot. The song held too many bad memories for her. It wasn’t until another song, “Open Your Box,” became a club hit last year that she felt it was time. “I thought, ‘okay this is opening up for me, I should walk through it’,” she said.
What is happening, said DeCurtis, is that Ono is being “seen in three dimensional terms.” “I think people will allow her to escape the cliches she has been bound by. I think she’s conscious of that and I think she wants it. I think it was very painful for her. A lot of what people saw as coldness was really was defensiveness or Japanese pride. But I think all of that has made it more gratifying at this stage. I think she is very appreciative.”
These days, Ono is often invited to speak to students. This Spring, when giving a commencement address at an art school, she began her speech saying, “art is love.”
“Later, teachers were saying ‘thank you for bringing back the love because all kids think about is how to get a job’,” she said. “And basically, that is what we have to go back to. We artists need to bring love to the world through our work. That’s it. Right now, love is what we need in this world. It’s a very important time.”