by Jonathan Dekel, Spinner
Yoko Ono is in the midst of a critical and popular comeback at the age of 78 — she reunited the Plastic Ono Band for a series of star-studded shows last year, was a featured speaker at SXSW last month and recently scored her sixth consecutive No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot Dance Club chart. The notorious artist, musician, cultural scapegoat, social activist, mother and widow of John Lennon has, with the grace of time, found a new generation of fans that are open to her avant-garde take on music, melody, art and life.
An outspoken advocate for peace, women’s rights and homosexual equality, Ono has recently focused her efforts on a cause alarmingly close to home. Having lived through the fire-bombing of Tokyo in 1945, and watched first-hand as the country rebuilt itself from almost nothing, Ono has taken the recent tragedies in Japan — which just suffered a massive 7.0 aftershock Monday morning — extremely personally, and recently organized the ‘Yoko Ono & Friends to Japan With Love’ benefit concert in New York City.
Here, she speaks with Spinner about her feelings on the devastation of her homeland, her unwavering ego and unexpected cultural resurrection, and her surprisingly recent realization of John Lennon’s genius.
You were in Japan during the Second World War and you’ve spoken about how seeing those events has affected you. When you heard about Japan’s devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, how did that make you feel?
It’s my country — and I just got a shock. It doesn’t compare with John dying, that was a big shock. But this is the second biggest shock of my life. This is like my hometown.
You think it’s never going to happen again. Japan made an incredible leap [since WW2] and the thing is, Japanese people are very resilient, very wise and they’re all workaholics. They have an obsessive goodness about things to do it right. So you see that people are not spilling anger, you see that they are just sad. Nobody’s being destructive; nobody’s going into other people’s house and taking things. They’re a very sensitive people, and I think they’re going to make it. I think we’re going to make it.
You’ve been a vocal social activist since the ’60s, what comes to mind when you see the uprising in the Middle East?
The civil uprising in the Middle East and before that were the earthquakes and the [2004 Indian Ocean] tsunami and Katrina in New Orleans — they are all connected. I think even with the Japanese situation, they blame the “ring of fire,” but whatever it was I think human greed had much to do with it. It didn’t help.
It seems that over the past couple of years you’ve finally managed to shed your public stigma and turned the focus back to your work as both an artist and a musician.
I always thought that I was an important musician. If you don’t have that confidence, why would you go on and do it? People accuse artists of being narcissists — of course we are! If we don’t like ourselves, who’s going to like us? No one in the world liked me, everybody hated me, but still I went on. How about that?
Reuniting the Plastic Ono Band last year [with original members Eric Clapton, bassist Klaus Voormann and drummer Jim Keltner alongside special guests like Lady Gaga and Perry Ferrell] seemed to be a turning point in the public and artistic perception of you. When I spoke with Sean he mentioned that was kind of the goal with that series of shows.
I said to myself, first of all, it’s good to do a show to showcase my son because Sean has had a very hard time by being Lennon’s son. Because people, perhaps out of jealousy, are all very hard on him.
He would Google and then tell me that people are saying terrible things about him, and I would say, ‘You should not read them.’ So I felt that I should showcase him because he’s so good. He doesn’t have to be Lennon’s son, he’s a good musician. He plays the guitar, the bass guitar, the piano and the drums so good. So I thought I was gonna do it for that, but it turns out he was showcasing me.
You’ve just had your sixth consecutive No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot Dance Club chart, do you feel a certain degree of retroactive critical and musical legitimacy?
In the old days rock was rock, blues was blues, and jazz was jazz — nobody crossed over. But now they’re all mixed up and it’s great. Rockers are taking elements from blues and jazz and avant-garde, it’s getting richer and richer. So in the current climate, I think [critics and musicians] have started to notice that I was doing that years ago.
The times have caught up with you?
Yeah. Even in the old days, musicians loved to perform with me because it’s not in a rigid form, it’s more about emotion.
Historically, in the face of sadness and bleakness, you’ve tried to relay a positive message to the public via song and art.
It was really bad, and when it gets really bad, you have to stand up. When I was with John there was sadness in the world, and thoughts were coming out from that sadness. But when he died, I was at the bottom and I knew others were at the bottom, too. So I thought, “We got to get up,” so that’s why I wrote ‘It’s Alright.’ When I wrote ‘It’s Alright’ there were some people who wanted to kill me; bomb where I was, so I had to stay in a hotel, and so I wrote that in a hotel.
You’ve said you feel responsible for John Lennon’s fans.
I definitely feel that, because John was always feeling that.
This year would have been his 70th birthday, how did it feel to go through all the celebrations and the remastering and releasing of his solo records?
Sometimes I was choked up. When we were together I was a cocky artist, as myself, independent of John. I never said, “Oh John, you’re such a genius.” I never felt that way. I always felt we were equal in what we were doing. And when I heard all his music last year, I thought, “My God, he was a genius!”
Have you ever thought about dating or remarrying?
I’m one of those independent and cocky people. I don’t care if anybody’s around and I don’t want anybody around.
As you approach your 80th year, what makes you happy?
One thing I’m very thankful of is that I don’t have to worry about Sean. When he was 10 or 11, who knows what he’s going to be. But now I see he has a good career, so I don’t have to worry about him, he’s going to make it.
When you saw that he was heading into the music business did you have any reservations?
I didn’t encourage it at all. I didn’t think anybody could make it in the music business since Lennon and the Beatles, so I was hoping that he would be a scientist or a scholar. But the only experience he had as a child was with music — John was playing, I was playing, we were all in the studio.
More About Yoko Ono on AOL Music