by Nina Myskow, The Times.
“I know you’re not supposed to show your legs at my age,” she says with a giggle. Then she shrugs and adds without a trace of self-pity: “I don’t know how long I’ve got, so I’m just going for it. I thought I better just do what I want to do.”
Ono is certainly going for it, having recently topped the Billboard Hot 100 Dance Club Play charts, curated a hugely successful Meltdown festival on London’s Southbank and published Acorn, a new book of “enchanting exercises to open the eyes”. As for her pins, at the astonishing age of 80 Yoko Ono looks sensational, whether cavorting in cheeky shorts and sexy seamed tights in the Plastic Ono Band’s playful video, Bad Dancer, or as she is tonight in her hotel suite, dressed in her black trousers, black scoop-necked top, black hat and black, big-bumpered platform shoes.
We are in Reykjavik, where she is staying on her annual pilgrimage to Iceland. Her suite overlooks the bay and the tiny island of Videy, where she has come each October since 2007 to illuminate her Imagine Peace Tower, in memory of her late husband, on what would have been his birthday, and in the name of peace. A massive and dramatic beam of light that shoots straight up to space, it remains lit until December 8, the anniversary of the day in 1980 he was gunned down in front of the Dakota building in New York.
It is the day after the moving and dramatic ceremony. It was witnessed by a crowd of 2,000, who piled on to ferries to go to the island, then walked the flare-lit path to the bitterly cold, windswept hillside. A choir sang, Yoko declaimed Cheshire Cat Cry , her antiwar poem, and we were plunged into utter darkness. Out of which came — as the first beam of light shot upwards — the voice of John Lennon singing Imagine. It was a heart-catching experience, and the faces reflected in the gathering light were wet with tears.
“ I know,” says Ono. “I was choked up too. I was thinking, ‘How many times have I heard John sing this song?’ But it is always very emotional for me.”
As well as being loyal keeper of the Lennon flame, Ono has gained respect over the years by being an artist and activist in her own right. Last week in Berlin, she received the Theodor Wanner Lifetime Achievement Award for her commitment to peace and gender equality, and during this stay in Iceland she was made an honorary citizen of Reykjavík. It was an intimate ceremony in the historic Höfði house, conducted by the charismatic mayor, Jón Gnarr, a former stand-up comedian who praised her dedication to peace and who said of the peace tower: “It is impossible to see it and be pessimistic.” Yoko, who adores Iceland for its green policies and enlightened attitudes, is a fan of Gnarr’s: “When he was elected the whole world was saying ‘Oh my God!’ but he is very hip, extremely witty and incredibly wise. It’s just worked.”
It’s now a year since Paul McCartney publicly admitted in an interview with Sir David Frost that “Yoko certainly did not break up the Beatles”. When I mention this to her, she smiles instantly and sighs with relief. “I was very, very thankful,” she says. “I mean I was shocked. I thought, ‘NOW you are saying it? NOW, after 40 years?” And she laughs. “But it was very good. And in the atmosphere that the world created for us, it was not easy for him to say something like that.”
We have been talking for ten minutes, and laughing, and she starts to tell me a story about John that follows on from her train of thought about doing what you want in life: “You know when John passed away we had been trying not to eat chocolate, to be healthy. He loved chocolate so much, but I would say, ‘Let’s not do that.’ But two nights before he died, he was in the studio, and I thought I’d go out and buy something.
“I thought, ‘Why don’t I get him a chocolate bar?’ So I came back with a bar of chocolate… ” her voice trails off, and suddenly the eyes looking at me from behind the trademark dark glasses are filled with tears. “Even now it makes me choke up a bit.” She starts to sob gently, but takes a deep breath and continues: “I didn’t know he was going to die, but he was so happy that I got him chocolate. Isn’t that amazing?”
I can only rub her back, and hold her hands and she composes herself. There is a vulnerability about her that makes you feel protective, something that her detractors could never have imagined when they castigated her for the “crimes” of being Japanese, of being eight years older than John, and for splitting up the Beatles. A witch.
I wonder if she deliberately keeps herself busy on anniversaries, and then what happens once the ceremonies are over and she is alone with her thoughts? “Of course memories come back,” she says in the Japanese accent that she has retained, “but I am always alone — are you kidding? And yes, there are still difficult days for me. Sometimes it’s not, and then suddenly something happens. Like now. I was just talking about chocolate.” And she laughs gently at herself.
Ono keeps herself busy at the Dakota, the home she shared with John and where she still lives — it’s where she feels closest to him. She has a schedule that would fell someone half her age. “Work is a sacred thing for me, I’m always working. John’s stuff, my stuff, stuff for the world. For my children. I enjoy the busyness. I’m one of those people who is a workaholic.”
She sleeps just four hours at night, and makes it up to six with a couple of naps here and there during the day. She reads voraciously, and stays up late: “There’s a lot I have to do, Q&As for Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Japanese Twitter, I do those on the weekends. I have so many business things, copyright issues, many people have different projects. I’m hands-on, you know, a control freak, I suppose. Especially with John’s stuff, I want to do the right thing, do the best I can.”
She admits that she has used work as an excuse to skip exercise: “I soon get lazy, and then I don’t bother.” Nevertheless she is in terrific shape, tiny and birdlike; in her customary black clothes, the effect is not so much rock chick as chic rock. She laughs. “That’s because I was doing my first gig in New York City since 1976, last month at the Bowery Ballroom, and I felt a bit chubby!
“I thought, ‘My God I don’t want to mess this up, I want to be at my best.’ ” So she bought a diet book: “It was a tacky title, a tacky cover, but six million people are reading it, so why not? The point it makes is that you should eat when you’re hungry, eat what you want and not very much.”
She just grazed at the buffet at the Harpa concert hall reception before everyone boarded the ferry to the island: a little taste here, a spoonful there. She doesn’t drink alcohol: “In my twenties, when I was dating, I’d have a Pink Lady cocktail, a social thing. If you didn’t do it, they’d think you were a nerd, but I never liked it.”
No wonder her skin looks so good. There are only laughter lines and she could pass for someone decades younger: “My skin is not as good as my mother’s,” she says. “When she was walking outside, guys would really take a look. She didn’t do anything to it, and neither do I. Of course I wear make-up, and when I read the magazines there’s always something that’s going to make you perfect. I buy it, but I forget to use it, so there are lots of things I’ve never opened. Because at night I finish all the things, reading and writing, and when I want to sleep I just go to the bedroom and plonk! When you wake up at 4am you want to read, and you forget. Also I don’t like that gooey, sticky feeling.”
It is exercise, she says, that did the trick for the gig: “I added half an hour on the treadmill every day. And I live on the seventh floor, and every floor has high ceilings, so I started walking up the stairs instead of taking the lift. That and my usual walking did it.”
She walks a lot: “I walk to where my son lives sometimes.” A distance of at least 60 blocks. “Sean is a musician, he sleeps late and I don’t want to bother him. But he works all night, sometimes, and my schedule is early morning, so if I know he’s still up I say, ‘Let’s have a coffee before you go to sleep.’ I’ll walk over there.”
It’s obvious that they adore each other, Sean delights in organising her birthday parties, and she has made him the musical director of her Plastic Ono Band: “He’s blossomed into that role,” she says with pride. “He’s a very good musician, I’m very lucky. If he was bad I could still say, ‘Oh no, that was good, dear.’ But I don’t have to. And sometimes I’m saying, ‘Shut up!’ because he’s so meticulous. Both John and I were meticulous, we were a meticulous couple.”
Although Sean accompanied her to Reykjavik last year when Lady Gaga attended and was awarded a LennonOno Peace Award, this year she was joined by Kyoko, her daughter from her marriage in the early Sixties to the American art promoter Tony Cox. The couple split when Yoko met John, and a few years later Cox vanished, taking eight-year-old Kyoko with him, a source of much anguish for Ono. “It was so hard,” she says. “It was more than 20 years that we spent apart.” They were reunited in 1994, when Kyoko — by then 31 — contacted Yoko: “She phoned my office downstairs. I saw the office people, very pale, scurrying around, and I asked, ‘What’s going on?’ They said, ‘We’ve had a call from your daughter. And we think it really is your daughter.’ I thought, ‘Oh my God…’” And her eyes, which have been twinkly and mischievous for much of the time, fill up again. “That first meeting I was so nervous, so nervous. I was at the airport in New York waiting for her to come out.”
“You know, she and [her husband] Jim are very sensible people,” Ono says. “They had planned to have children — they are that sort of people — and he said to her, ‘Before we have a child, you have to go to your mother.’ What a sensible idea.”
There are two grandchildren, Jack is 11 and Emi is 15. Do they call her granny? “Before Emi was born they asked me what I wanted them to call me and I said Baba (bubba), it’s very easy and a sound that’s used a lot in Japanese.” She laughs again, almost shy.
Ono says that she does not fear death, adding that she ignored a warning that her recent involvement with an anti-fracking campaign might endanger her life: “Whenever I do something that I believe in, I think, ‘Well, this might kill me, but if I’m killed I’m going to be with John, so it doesn’t matter.” She laughs. “Not that I want to get there right away! I think, and I hope it’s true, that my two children would like to have me around for a little bit. I think it’s very difficult for them if I just suddenly plonk!”
As for regrets, she says the past is just so much spilt milk. “I’m also starting to understand something very interesting,” she adds. “If all those people hadn’t bashed me, what would I be doing now? What I am now was made by all those terrible incidents. I thought it was terrible all those years, but when I think about it now, I realise it was a blessing.”
Yoko Ono’s Take Me To The Land of Hell is available now.