The passage of time has been miraculously beneficial for Yoko Ono. While previous generations held grudges and questioned her motives, in the 21st century Ono is cherished for her provocations and wisdom. As a musician and multimedia artist since before the term was coined, Ono holds the rare position of courting a global audience without ever having to compromise her work, which is often wilfully impenetrable.
At the age of 77, Ono continues to think of the long-term, with two forthcoming exhibitions and a recent album, as well as progressing her ongoing project around the world, asking the masses to imagine peace. It is a message from which she will never waver.
Ono is telling me her beauty tips: “Stay positive, never eat after 8pm, and walk every day.” She looks amazing for 77, in mannish trousers and fitted jacket, a tie loosely knotted round her neck. Hair cropped short, she’s wearing her trademark fedora. She has wonderful skin. Partly genetics, one imagines, but she also looks after herself. “Health is very important. It’s not so much that we have the ambition to live very long – although I don’t mind doing that either.” She laughs girlishly. “But we want to live healthily. We don’t want to just be stuck in a hospital.”
And you’ve developed a respect for the body?
“You have to. I wish I’d been like that from the 1960s,” she says. “We all went through some very heavy times.”
Are you driven mad by society’s fear of ageing?
“Yeah. But not really. This youth thing, I think it’s over, don’t you think?” she says. “We’re all still very young. Your age is almost decided by what you do – or how you think.”
Rather touchingly, Yoko is bowled over that she won a Woman of the Year Award from the UK magazine Glamour earlier this year. “I was delighted. When I get a music award, I think, ‘OK, that’s something I’ve done, I get it.’ But Glamour, my God, I didn’t think I had glamour! Wow.”
Yoko met singer Lily Allen at the Glamour awards ceremony and says she liked her feisty outspokenness. “Don’t you think it’s much better for women now?” she asks earnestly, pondering whether there’s more equality in the younger generation than in her own. “Had I been younger now it would have been easier for me,” she says ruefully. We discuss how young men of her son’s age can and do talk to women as equals. “It’s amazing, isn’t it, yeah.” They’re genuinely friends, I suggest. “Which is good,” she smiles. Of course, notions of role, style and beauty were very different in the 1960s, especially for a young Japanese woman married to a pop idol.
If you weren’t a white, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon girl, did you have a tougher time?
“I think being a woman in those days was very different from now. We got plenty of praise and attention from men.”
Whereas today we’ve gained equality but lost some of the flirtation and playfulness?
“Yeah. Because although those days are over, they did give us a feeling of, ‘OK, we’re all right.’” Yoko never dressed in a conventionally feminine way in order to please. “I was always like this. When John and I were going around together, I think I was the first one who wore pants and men’s jackets.”
I tell her I’ve always liked her Katharine Hepburn uniform of black trousers and black polo neck, with absolute minimum fuss. “I was doing that in high school and the teacher would say: ‘Why aren’t you wearing your uniform?’ I was rebellious from the beginning, actually.”
We meet at Yoko’s suite at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park* in London’s Knightsbridge. “It’s not flashy and it’s quiet; I like that. It’s not – how do you say – kitchen sink. It has a proper living room. It feels like it’s one of my homes.” And indeed, she is notably house-proud, spending time lining up the art books completely symmetrically. Order matters to Yoko. She comes across as warm, maternal, but then suddenly the mask descends. You sense it’s shyness rather than aloofness. Later, she apologises that she has just done a press conference about the Beatles, it’s hard to reclaim her own identity.
These days she lives a lot in her head and enjoys a solitary existence. As part of formerly the world’s most famous couple, she needs to retain her anonymity. She rarely goes to the theatre. “I watch DVDs at home, but not so much. I look at the news on TV, but it’s so edited I think it’s much better to read a newspaper.”
She loves walking but she has to go early in the morning “when people are on their way to the office and don’t bother me”, or at dusk with a bodyguard in tow. “Even now it’s not that easy for me to walk around outside because I get hassled, so I tend to stay at home and read a lot. The nicest moment is on a weekend when I’m just reading. It’s not just pleasure; it’s a necessity in a way to know what’s going on now. The interesting thing is that people are not reading so much fiction now; they’re all watching documentaries online. I tend to be like that, too. I think the computer age is changing all of us, in a good way.” And yet she collects rare antiquarian books – for the sheer love of print – and refuses to carry round an iPad.
Does being nosy keep us young?
“The human race really doesn’t stop being curious about things. The point is we’re here to be educated. I have all this information and I think: ‘What am I going to do with it?’ But then I think of people who are killed with so much knowledge in them, and they didn’t have the opportunity to bring it out in the world,” she adds.
It’s hard not to think of John.
“I really think that if you’re killed or die, your thoughts and energy have a way of being active in the world. I’m not being religious about it at all – I think it’s just a very scientifically logical thing.”
John died in 1980, Yoko has become keeper of the Lennon flame. At times, you guess, the role must have been frustrating – but this year is special. Not only is it 30 years since Lennon died, he would have turned 70. “It’s going to be so powerful because of that. This year I’m trying to cancel anything that comes to me work-wise so that I can just devote myself to this enormous project.”
Does she often wonder what sort of older man John would have been?
She nods. “Oh, yes. That I do. And then of course this is the 70th tribute; the next is the 80th, and I’m thinking: ‘Well, probably I’ll be there doing the same thing,’ but maybe not. Maybe I can’t. So this is really a very important tribute year for me. I’m just seeing it as a challenge.”
In October she will turn on the Imagine Peace Tower, a monumental shaft of light that she designed in his memory, just off the shore of Reykjavik. It stays lit every year from 9 October to 8 December, the day of John’s death.
So this year may be devoted to John, but Yoko also has two major art shows: a solo exhibition at Haunch of Venison gallery in Berlin and a forthcoming installation in Rome. And some of her early pieces are in the Museum of Modern Art’s current Contemporary Art from the Collection exhibition.
Is it a collaborative show?
“I don’t think about others,” Yoko says firmly. “I just do my own thing.”
For years she was blamed for breaking up the Beatles – the woman who came between John and Paul. As if the Beatles wouldn’t have split up anyway. It was a learning experience, she says now without a trace of self-pity. But it’s almost embarrassing how long it took the art world to really acknowledge her work. Lennon once called her “the world’s most famous unknown artist: everybody knows her name, but nobody knows what she does”.
People tend to assume Yoko became a musician because John gave her a role in his band, just as Paul recruited Linda – the famous-wife syndrome. But not at all. In contrast to Lennon and the rest of the Beatles, Yoko is actually a trained musician. She’s always been at the cutting edge of technology. She loves dance music. In 2007 she released the remix compilation, Yes, I’m a Witch, with covers of her songs featuring artists such as Peaches, Cat Power, Antony Hegarty, the Flaming Lips and Jason Pierce. She is a witch, she laughs. “All women are witches in the sense that a witch is a magical being.” But back in 1974 when she wrote the song at the height of her unpopularity, she was advised not to release it. Men are allowed to be wizards, of course. But witches get burned.
For all her radicalism, there is a patrician air to Yoko. Born in 1933, she grew up in an aristocratic family in imperial Japan. Her socialite mother and banker father came from families with high-level political and social connections. Her grandfather, the son of a samurai, was a self-made billionaire who founded the Yasuda bank.
She attended an elite school in Tokyo; one of her classmates was Crown Prince Akihito,* now the emperor of Japan. It was a life of isolation and privilege – without friends. “It didn’t occur to me that I was supposed to play with people.” But during the Second World War, when the US Air Force firebombed Tokyo, the teenaged Yoko was evacuated to the countryside. The family’s wealth was confiscated to help fund the war effort. Local children taunted her for ‘smelling like butter’ – a reference to her being urban and Westernised. She remembers foraging for mulberries. It was, she says wryly, a little more real than the average experience of the aristocracy during war. At the time, her father was interned by the Americans in French Indochina. She recalls the horrific bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Her means of escape was telling. “Lying on our backs, looking up at the sky through an opening in the roof, we exchanged imaginary menus in the air and used our powers of visualisation.”
After the war, her father’s work took him to the US. Yoko was sent to a music college there and composed her first piece of music. She was supposed to transpose birdsong into musical notation – but instead she instructed her readers to go outside and listen to the birds sing. She developed a fascination with bohemian art culture, meeting progressive composers such as Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage and free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman.
She joined the radical art group Fluxus* in the early ’60s and began creating her own events. It wasn’t easy: like the jazz world, the art world was very male. Experimental art was, she realised, a way of rebelling against her family’s wealth and expectations. Her parents probably would have applauded if she’d become a classical composer. “I just wanted to create my own niche, you know,” she says. “Which is what I did. With John, he had that drive in him to be free and individual, and so he eventually got that after the success of the Beatles.”
To her parents’ displeasure, she married the avant-garde Japanese composer Toshi Ichiyanagi.* When the relationship ended (they’re still friends), she became acutely depressed, attempted suicide and stayed for a while in a psychiatric institution after she returned to Japan in the late ’50s.
She was rescued by the man who would become her second husband: the American jazz musician and art promoter Tony Cox. He pretended to be her US doctor and took her back to the States. They married and had a daughter, Kyoko, in 1963. After the birth, she never again felt suicidal, but she admits she was a distracted mother. Yoko left the family in Tokyo to make herself a new life in New York. When they followed her, she left them for London. They followed again.
In 1964 she was settled enough to publish her first book, Grapefruit, a book consisting of instructions and drawings. Her instructional art pieces were all about putting the viewer in charge, aiming for transformation and participation of the audience. ‘Painting to Be Stepped On’ consisted of blank canvases covered in footprints. ‘In Kitchen Piece’ she asked people to throw food at a canvas in their kitchens.
Yoko supported herself by working in a macrobiotic restaurant. Critically quite successful but very lonely, she met John in 1966. He climbed up a ladder to look through a magnifying glass at a tiny word she had placed in a frame on the ceiling of the Indica Gallery in London. The word – as he saw to his relief – was YES.
For the next year, Yoko send him cards saying “dance” or “watch for me in the sky”. Eventually they got together, ending both their marriages. For the first time, she says, she wasn’t lonely. She married Lennon in 1969. After their wedding they famously held a bed-in to protest against the war in Vietnam – a logical extension of her own conceptual art. But there was personal grief. Her former husband, Cox, disappeared with Kyoko in 1971 when she was eight and raised her in a religious cult. Yoko didn’t see her daughter again until the 1990s. You realise many of her songs, heartbreakingly, refer to her lost daughter. She spent years searching for Kyoko, with only her curiosity as an artist keeping her sane. “I kept imagining I was talking to her, but I couldn’t speak to her,” she says.
In 1973, she and John temporarily split when Yoko encouraged him to start an 18-month relationship with their personal assistant, May Pang. She didn’t want the marriage to be “so suburban”. But they got back together. “Both of us were very accommodating by then, because we had killed…no, not killed…broken so many relationships. So we were thinking ‘Well, we have to do it right this time.’”
Their son Sean was born in 1975.* But the loss of her daughter inhibited her relationship with him at first, she recalls. She didn’t want to get too close in case she and John split. She made sure she was the artist and it was John who stayed at home and did much of the childcare. Then John was murdered. On that night – 8 December 1980 – they were working on her most famous song, ‘Walking on Thin Ice’, in the studio. Returning home, Lennon was shot outside their apartment building, the Dakota, in New York by a deranged fan. Yoko cradled the dying Lennon in her arms. Later she used a photo of his blood-splattered glasses on her 1981 album, Season of Glass.
For a time, she felt she must protect Sean from her own imminent assassination. “I had to make sure he could survive without me.”
That sounds painful.
“I know. It was very hard. But now everything’s all right.” In 1994, Kyoko got in touch at long last. Yoko is now a grandmother. Kyoko has two children, a girl, Ann, and a boy, Jack. They live in Colorado and often come to stay. “We have a very good relationship now.”
After John’s death, Yoko’s friend the interior designer Sam Havadtoy moved in to support her. It was platonic, she later revealed, but there were other lovers. Today she claims to be too independent for another relationship. “I don’t have many friends. Also my life, in a way, made this unusual turn, so it’s very difficult to share that with people.”
Whatever has happened in her personal life over the years and decades, Yoko has remained a steadily working artist and musician, making art and releasing decisively weird and beautiful pop music, with her singing finding a captivating balance between melody, spoken word and shrieking.
year Yoko was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale – one of the art world’s most prestigious awards. Not before time, but at least the world has finally realised Yoko’s importance as an artist and acknowledged all the obstacles she has overcome. Long before Tracey Emin, she broke taboos about the body – Yoko was posing nude with John for the cover of their album, Unfinished Music Nº 1: Two Virgins, making sculptures of contraception, making her miscarriage public and incorporating the unborn child’s heartbeat into a song. Hers is a social art that requires collaborators. In her seminal performance work, ‘Cut Piece’, staged at Carnegie Hall in 1965, she sat motionless in a traditional Japanese feminine position, inviting the audience to snip off her garments until she was in her underwear. It can be read in many ways, but it clearly deals with issues of loneliness and isolation, gender and sexism.
And were the scissors a weapon?
“It was really frightening actually. There was part of me thinking that maybe I shouldn’t be so cocky about it.” She laughs. “I wouldn’t do it again, but it was OK.” Four decades on, she still courts controversy. For the 2004 Liverpool Biennal, she created an installation piece called ‘My Mummy Was Beautiful’ – dedicated to John and his mother – featuring images of a breast and a vulva. Yoko was astonished that it caused such a fuss.*
Her works can shock people, or simply touch them. Last year, she spread thousands of posters on billboards, walls, historical buildings and bus stops in Italian cities such as Milan, Rome, Venice, Bologna – giant white posters with the word ‘DREAM’ in simple black type on it. She hasn’t lost her ability to transmit messages and engage the viewer since she and John posted “War is over!/If you want it” around the world.
Her latest album – last year’s Between My Head and the Sky – features a new incarnation of her Plastic Ono Band and has received rave reviews. It’s produced by her son, Sean, and released on his record label, Chimera. She has been working steadily with Sean, with whom she also recorded a delightfully odd album called Rising in 1995. “He’s very, very good,” she says, but she does not find it easy working with him. “I don’t want to infantilise him or start fighting.” In general she tries to keep Sean away from the business side of the Lennon empire, the reissuing of songs, the controversial use of Lennon imagery in a Citroën ad and so on, so he can float freely as long as possible.
We talk about Sam Taylor-Wood’s film, Nowhere Boy, about John’s early life in Liverpool. At first Yoko was wary. “It was hard for me. I didn’t want to say no to Sam, to another artist.” But after seeing it, she approved the use of Lennon’s song ‘Mother’ at the end of the film. “Isn’t it fantastic, such a beautiful film? I think some people closer to the Apple label didn’t particularly warm to it, but I think the world is warming to it because it’s so good. I think it’s so important they made it about an ordinary working-class family in Liverpool, not just about John as a rock star. Because it’s his roots that gave him a lot of power.” She’s particularly moved by the way women often had to make sacrifices around family in the ’50s. “John was surrounded by very strong women when he was young, and that reflected in his character after I met him. Everyone wanted to be his mother. He was an only child so that was good in a way, because he didn’t have to compete with another boy.
“I have a brother and sister,” she continues. “But in my case, too, I was the eldest and I wasn’t really in competition with them because they were younger. It’s very interesting that John and I went through almost the same thing – we both lived through the Second World War, although I’m sure that was very different in England, but still, you know, it was war.”
Loneliness was a shared bond. “It was very difficult for John not being with his mother and not being with his father, and that’s the kind of thing he was feeling. And in my case, of course, the fact I was a woman and Asian. And of course I’d come to a world where, although I didn’t think of it at the time, they had been fighting with Japan only a few years earlier. That probably was one of the big reasons I had a hard time.”
Yoko is remarkably tolerant about the abuse she suffered. “You know, I go to Berlin a lot – it really is the new art centre; all the young artists are moving there. But I feel saddened by the fact that they are still being accused for what happened in the Second World War. I think that’s very, very sad. They should know that we understand that they are human beings who didn’t participate in it.”
For years she avoided Japan. The one time she took John back to meet her upper-class parents was not a success – they were not enamoured by of their beatnik son-in-law. But these days she goes regularly. “I hadn’t spent much time in Japan until about ten years ago. Then we discussed doing an annual tribute concert – just with John’s songs, with all the proceeds going to building schools in Africa. We’ve built 80 schools already – can you imagine? And it helped me wake up to my roots after spending so much time away.”
Does it allow you to see your parents in context?
“In history, yes. They had a kind of position in Japanese society that at the time I didn’t want to know about. Now that they are gone it’s a bit easier for me to deal with.”
is no romantic relationship in her life, she says. “It’s difficult. I just think it’s great that I’m alone now because to involve any guy in this strange life… They’d have to give up too much. Or, if they don’t give up, it’s going to be very difficult for me, too.”
But she was certainly was never going to be a professional widow, attending red-carpet premieres.
“Well, that’s not me. And also most of my friends are very busy, including my son, so we don’t make a point of always going for dinner. We just don’t have the time. My children and my grandchildren know that I’m very busy.”
They don’t have to worry about you?
“No. And I’m sure it’s a relief for them. Although they liked it when I invited them to Venice when I got the Lifetime Achievement award. I said: ‘I would like Jack and Amy to stand up, please.’”
How old are they?
“Twelve and ten, I think.”
Do they know you and John are so famous?
“Well, the Beatles, they have that very strongly. At the school that they go to, they all ask questions. So my daughter is making it so that they cannot ever wear Beatles T-shirts at school. I said: ‘Why do you have to do that?’ And she said: ‘Well, because it becomes such a conversation piece.” So I said: ‘Oh, OK.’”
It’s the end of the interview, and Yoko is already steeling herself to dive into her next meeting. “Thank God I have all this work to do,” she beams. “It’s such a blessing because when you’re working, you find all this new energy. It’s very important not just to live by the clock. I don’t do that anymore. I just work, work, work.”