INTERVIEW WITH YOKO ONO November 1984 New York City
Q: We crossed out death on our list.
YO: Yes, we have rather exhausted that subject, I think. I’m not going to say “no” to any issue. In other words, don’t worry about it, it just scared me when I saw the list, but you know, if you just ask me naturally, it doesn’t hurt me. It will be like a Rorschach test. When you say something, something comes to my head, I’ll say it-so don’t worry.
Q: Okay, the first subject area is music and art, and the basic question is, what do you think the sources and/or purposes of music are?
YO: Well, all right – I can only talk about myself. I don’t know what the purpose of music is, but I know what the purpose of music is for me. For me it’s a way of expressing myself-and sharing my feelings with other people. And I think that, basically, because I’m a shy person – which will never be believed – I’m not very good at, or shall we say I’m awkward in expressing my true feelings to people-whether it’s to one, or the world. And it comes easier for me when I do it in music. And that’s how I do it.
Q: Obviously, at some point there must have been a decision on your part or a sudden revelation that it was music that was your way of expressing yourself?
YO: To tell the truth, I’ll tell you the truth, when I was four years old my mother sent me to school where you got the perfect pitch and piano lessons, one of those schools where a first assignment was to compose a song. And my old classmate … I bumped into her on the street in Japan much later, and she said, “Hey, I still have your song:’ And I said, “What song?” You know, I was thinking that maybe she got my record or something. She said, “No no, when you composed it, you know, in school when you were four years old:’ “Wow, could I have it?” I said. Of course, I never got it from her. I was writing songs, just as all the other children were, it’s nothing special, and they used to have, once a month or something, a show for the parents – they used to have a little concert for parents to come see how their children were doing. And I was so nervous before I went on the stage, I started to have this strange tummy ache, and I threw up. I went on the stage, and I came back, and I threw up again. I remember that. I was particularly small- many physical aspects of me they always think of as a Japanese thing, but not necessarily, I was even small for a Japanese and so this tiny thing comes on stage and starts to sort of climb up on the chair to try playing the piano-of course it’s funny, so they all laughed you know. But the thing is, I took it as an offense, you know what I mean Oh, they’re laughing at me. These days when I see a two-year-old saying something so cute I try to control myself not to laugh because, I mean, they take it differently you know. Why are they laughing at me? So I remember specifically that I was feeling terribly embarrassed because everybody was laughing, and I was playing the piano. It started then.
It was not my decision, in a way.
I continued the piano lessons until my father, who’s actually an incredible pianist-was an incredible pianist-and it was when I was twelve or thirteen. I was too shy to play the piano in front of my father because he’s a good pianist, but I wanted to tell him how I was progressing, so when he was in a room, I would go and play in the next room just to let him know that I was working. One day I was playing the piano, and I heard my father say to my mother, “She’s never going to make it as a pianist:’ And I thought, “He’s right:’ He was quite disappointed because, well, my father had made an appearance as a pianist, and he got good reviews and all. Well, I don’t care if he got good reviews or not but the main thing was he was a brilliant pianist, and when he was about twenty-one, I think, his father died, and in the will the wishes were that my father would not become a pianist but would go into banking as his father had. And that’s a heavy trip. So anyway, he became a banker instead, and he’s one of those pianists who’s always playing the piano at home. When I was born, my father wanted me to be a pianist so badly. I was the first born, didn’t matter if it’s a girl or a boy. So he’d be sort of looking at my fingers and asking me to do this or do that, trying to see if I had good hands for a pianist. It was like that from the beginning.
When I was fourteen, I made a big announcement that I wanted to be a composer not a pianist, and my father was listening very carefully, very silently, and said, “Hmm – well I think that’s a mistake:’ I said, “Oh, why?” Not only had I mustered my courage to announce that I’m not going to be a pianist, but I want to be a composer! He’s one ofthose very classic persons, believes in the three big Bs, you know, Brahms, Bach and Beethoven, and all three ofthem happen to be men, as he politely mentioned. He thought that music composition, in a word, is a field that’s too hard for women. And he thought that I had a good voice, and maybe I should go into opera, maybe I can sing at La Scala. For women it’s an easier thing to do – to sing somebody else’s songs, etc. And I know that my voice became a joke in this society, so people are going to say -oh, no! But I had an incredibly good voice then, which was when I was around seventeen or eighteen, and I had instructors who would say that I could probably make it as an alto, or mezzo-soprano, so I started opera. I started to dislike it so intensely. I was supposed to go to music school to study voice, and then eventually go to Italy. I thought, there’s something wrong with it. I didn’t enjoy singing other people’s songs. You know, I like good German lieder and all that, they’re beautiful, beautifully written, I respected all that, but I had an urge to compose.
So instead of going to music school one day I made an announcement. And this really was an announcement because my father was in New York at the time, and I had to send a telegram saying – “Gave up on taking music school exam, going to university, would like permission .. :’- and my father said, – “If you really want to give up it’s too bad, but .. :’ – and so I went to the university, the philosophy department. I was happier then because, you know, I was a bookworm and it’s nicer just to read books. Then when I went to Sarah Lawrence, I again picked up on composition, and it was pretty nice, I wrote some songs there, and at the time my heroes were the twelve-tone composers, you know-Schonberg, Berg, those people, and I was just fascinated with what they could do. I wrote some twelve-tone songs, then my music went into some sort of area that my composition teacher felt was really a bit off-the-track, and one day-as ifhe were exasperated – he said, “Well look, there are some people who are doing things like what you do, and they’re called avant-garde:’
Of course, I came from Japan, I didn’t know anything about avant-garde. That’s the first time I heard John Cage’s name. I thought my composition teacher was just saying, “Get off my back:’ I wasn’t even paying much attention to what he said. And Stockhausen, too, I think he was mentioned. Just by chance though, I met Cage afterwards in New York City at a lecture at Columbia University. He was attending the lecture as well. We were sort of introduced. That was in the late fifties, if you can extend your mind back to the late fifties.
THE STRIP-TEASE SHOW In Kyoto, I had a concert at Yamaichi Hall. It was called ‘The Strip-Tease Show” (it was stripping of the mind). When I met the High Monk the next day, he seemed a bit dissatisfied. “I went to your concert:’ he said. “Thank you, did you like it?” “Well, why did you have those three chairs on the stage and call it a strip-tease by three?” “If it is a chair or stone or woman, it is the same thing, my Monk.” “Where is the music?” “The music is in the mind, my Monk.” “But that is the same with what we are doing, aren’t you an avant-garde composer?” Grapefruit, Yoko Ono, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964).
I gradually got into the avant-garde or whatever you call it. At the time I was married to Toshi Ichianagi. He was a classical composer who studied in the Juilliard School of Music. He was a scholarship student there. I was not attending the school but I used to go to the school library and read the scores that I would then do at Sarah Lawrence. Toshi was one of those composers who got prizes every year. You know, it’s very discouraging to see somebody who is like that. He got the Copland prize, and … I don’t know, every year he got those prizes. It just comes to him. He’s like a child prodigy type who started very young, you know, one of those. Well, when I met John Cage I thought-oh this is it! And I said to Toshi, “Do you realize this is it?” “Well, I’ve got two minds about that,” he said, because he’s sort of in the classical tradition, though his music now is very avant-garde. But anyway, John Cage was a bit too extreme for him. Then, later, he got into it too. For me, from then on it was a lot of avant-gardism, you know, for many years- until I met John, I suppose. That was 1966. But all that time I wanted to write songs because I’m a poet as well, and it combines the two. Even in the avant-garde where they didn’t believe in lyrics, I used to do voice experiments. Now, at the time, it was not well accepted even in the avant-garde because the New York avant-garde was into cool art, not hot. And what I do was too emotional. In a way they thought it was too animalistic. They were into controlling. They used to control the voice, rather than letting it out. And then I went to London, and I was making films and all that, and I met John.
After London I went to Paris, and I was still doing little things in little theatres, and I met Ornette Coleman. Ornette got interested in my voice experiments and said, “I’m invited to do a show in Albert Hall and maybe you’d like to join me?” I was in Paris, and I was having fun, so I wasn’t going to go back to London. Also I had had bad experiences before when people said, well do you want to do your voice experiments in my concert or something, they just used me as an instrument and forgot that it was my composition. So I said, “Listen, if your band is willing to play my composition, then I’ll do if’ So he said, “Of course. It’s your composition:’ So I went to Albert Hall with Ornette, and I wrote my instructions for them, and that instruction was in the program, I think Ornette still has it. Anyway, it had some four-letter words in it, or whatever it was- I think the word was “penis,” and that’s a five-letter word.
What happened was the Albert Hall tried to threaten us that they’re going to close the show because they thought it was obscene. So while we were performing, these people started coming around the hall. I was lucky we were able to finish the concert. It was really funny because Ornette was really into this voice experiment. It was great. He told his band to play it, and just imagine that this jazz band will have to play it the way some sort of kooky girl says to play it. They had some objections, but they respected Ornette, and he said, “Just play it like what she says:’
Yes, so it was. The way I got into it was, in 1963, when I was in Japan,
I thought about doing the “Bottoms” film. I went to England to do the film; well, not to do the “Bottoms” film, I went there, and I did the “Bottoms” film. It’s just a coincidence that it happened there. In London, everybody was talking about the “Bottoms” film. It was so outrageous. Everyday I’d see in the newspapers some joke about the “Bottoms” film. Then I thought, well, I’ve done it all in London, so I went to Paris, but then I came back for the Albert Hall thing, and when I finished I thought, I want to stay just a couple of days, and then when I went back to my apartment I noticed the piles of letters from John, he was in India then. So I was sort of hanging about in London for a while, and then John came back from India and called me. If I hadn’t gone back to do the Albert Hall concert, we probably would not have gotten together again.
Q: That’s on an album, right?
YO: Yes, Plastic Ono Band by Yoko Ono.
ON FILM NO.4 (in taking the bottoms of 365 saints of our time) spring 1967 This film proves that anyone can be a director… I’m hoping that after seeing this film people will start to make their own home movies like crazy. In 50 years or so, people will look at the films of the 60s … I hope that they would see that the 60s was not only the age of achievements. but of laughter. This film, in fact is like an aimless petition signed by people with their anuses!’ from Grapefruit by Yoko Ono.
Q: Then you did a lot of music with ]ohn. Were you still doing music by yourself, and with other people?
YO: In 1968 spring, John and I finally got together. And from then on I don’t think I performed with anybody else. It was just a totally different situation. We got together in such a way we felt very exclusive about each other. I think there was still one concert at Cambridge that they had asked me to do before I got together with John. And then, when we were together, they called me back saying, “Are you still going to do that one?” So I said, “Okay, I have to do this one, John, because I promised them and all that:’ So he said, “You should do it, and tell them that you’re coming with a band, okay?” And he was the band. It was a surprise, you know.
Q: Then you were writing songs, more exclusively as songs?
YO: Well, in London around 1967, I was writing songs too, and I was doing some voice experiments. But then, I think Island Records wanted to sign me up, and I went to John and told him, because we knew each other then, and he said, “Well, sign up with Apple? And I was saying “Maybe, maybe?. But when we got together, of course, we did do that. I didn’t sign up with Island Records because, in those days, I don’t know why, but I was very busy and doing so much that I’d forget those things- I mean signing and things like that. Even with the “Bottoms” film. There was a film festival in Belgium in 1967, the Kuokke Film Festival, and they invited me to show the “Bottoms” film. You’re supposed to sign some document to register for the festival first, and I forgot that part of it. So I went to the festival, and they showed my film and some of the judges came from America obviously, and they said “We were determined to give you a prize, but we can’t because you didn’t register?.
Q: Could you talk a little about what you were doing with the voice experiments? Did you have certain ideas you were trying out or were you just doing whatever happened?
YO: Well, some of it happened accidentally. In 1960 or ’61, in New York, I did a concert of my compositions in Carnegie Recital Hall, and I was going to do some voice experiment in that. I was already doing voice experiment in the sense of all that sort of moan and groan, but in those days, I was playing around with a tape recorder, an old-fashioned tape recorder, you know, where you can record and rewind it. And rewinding, playing it backwards, my voice was even more interesting. Instead of going [vocal sound], it goes [vocal sound], you know-sort of backwards. The beat is on a different place. And I said, this is interesting. This is beautiful! So I did that in Carnegie Recital Hall, in the dark. And people were saying, “Somebody is screaming or moaning:’ Jill Johnston wrote the review, in the Village Voice. That’s all they noticed. Then when I got together with John – and John’s group is like “rockers” -we’d go on stage and John would just say, do your own thing, come on, we’ll just play behind you. Now, the ”rockers” are using electric guitars and it’s loud. I’m just a voice so give me a chance.
I’d have to shout over it. That’s how that got started.
It was just a fusion. A free form. John’s doing his thing, electric guitar, and I’m singing. It became like a duet. Now, you should listen to Yoko and the Plastic Ono Band, which is an experimental album, the Ornette thing is in it. Listen to the first cut, “Why? That’s an incredible track, even if you listen to it now. I mean, you can just put it in your disco club and people can dance to it. That’s Ringo playing the drums, Klaus Vorman playing the- bass. John’s doing the guitar. The kind of thing John’s doing with the guitar is like a dialogue with my voice. So incredible. Nobody did it before. John and I thought, “We did it, we did it!” and we felt like we’d conquered the world.
So then the album comes out, and we get all these letters with photos of a big garbage can saying “Yoko Ono’s record, we put it in here? That sort of response. And John’s saying, “Well, it’s sort of understandable that they didn’t understand you, but why didn’t they notice my brilliant guitar playing?” And of course he’s right. But sadly, you know, because of me, nobody would listen to his guitar playing. I felt sorry for him about that.
I was sort of a hindrance and no one wanted to listen to the track, but he did incredible guitar playing. The kind of thing we were doing then was all improvisation. And because I was into that, I’d say to him, “Listen, we’re not going to rehearse anything, this is my game, all right?” So, we’re doing that and he was right into it, and he did better than any avant-garde artist I know in this town, okay? And it’s just the meeting of the two minds, or the meeting of the two fields, or two countries … or the two worlds, that’s what happened between us. It was just incredible.
It’s like music between some kind of contemporary jazz and rock, and the avant-garde. It made us very lonely – for being such a couple.
And I kind of wish, now that I see it in hindsight, I kind of wish that they had let us just go on with that. But, artists are very sensitive people, they’re not just animals like you expect them to be, we were sort of sensitive to criticism, and applause. If the whole world is hating it, and putting it in the garbage can, we’re not going to make it, thank you. So it dwindled in our minds. That sort of inspiration and excitement faded.
So we didn’t do very much of it, and whenever we’d do anything in the studio, engineers would just go to the toilet or something. And we’re looking around – “Oh, the room’s empty? In “Why,” right after we’d finished, you hear John saying, “Are you getting that?” It’s on the record. He said it because he was so worried that they might have again missed it, that they hadn’t recorded it.
Q: Did they think you were just fooling around?
YO: Sometimes they might have thought we were fooling around, sometimes they might have thought they couldn’t stand it, so they’d go in the bathroom. Sometimes they might have thought, “Oh, it’s Yoko’s, forget it?.
I don’t know. Maybe a mixture of those feelings. So John and I were fighting against those odds.
Q: It was so new that no one could hear it.
YO: Now it’s not new at all. You play “Why” and think, “Huh, good disco?.
Q: But everyone has been influenced by what you were doing.
YO: Well, I wouldn’t claim that. It’s more coincidence, and accidents, and all that. Everything in the world happens like that, it’s just chance. You know, it’s just by chance, so I can’t claim originality or anything, just like I told you how my voice happened because the electric guitar was too loud. So to compete with that you start doing this. In one of the pieces I think I realized that I can sing three notes at the same time, which again I’m not doing by controlling it or anything. I just started doing it, and I said,
“Oh, this is great!” And later, one of those doctors who checks your throat said, there’s a little sort of pea-sized something on my vocal chord, and maybe that’s the reason. From an early age I could sing a very wide range like alto, mezzo-soprano, coloratura soprano-a big range, and I knew that. But then I didn’t know that I could do two notes or three notes at the same time. And when we found out about that we were very excited. So there’s some songs in the Plastic Ono Band album, if you listen to it you’ll hear the voice going like a harmonica, you know, three sounds.
So all that happened because these two particular people met. And we were very thankful about it. If the world just, just let us be, and gave us the space to be, we’d have been great partners. Our partnership was still great, but mainly our energies were used in fighting the world from splitting us. And finally they succeeded, they split us in this big way. And if they had allowed us- I mean in 1980 we were full of it so we were thinking, all right, next is a musical on Broadway. We planned it all. There’s a lot of planning that we did. We didn’t get to do any of it. But also, what if we did, what of it? I have a feeling that there would have been a lot of antagonism still.
One of the reasons we went on, and were able to do things at all, was we maintained a kind of extreme naIvete. Whenever we discovered something that we thought was great, we thought the world was going to say, “Great!” After all that, you know, the different times when they knocked us. “This is great, we have to do it, let’s do it, yeah!” And then, “Uh-oh, remember that one? It was like that. So we went on. I don’t know why. I mean, with Double Fantasy we thought we made it this time, now they will understand because the time is right. And the first review we got was, “Do we want to hear love stories again from John Lennon?” They didn’t understand any of this. It was the man/woman dialogue and all that, and now people understand it.
So John was saying, “Well look, you’ve been in this record world for ten years now, and you were my partner for ten years, and if you were a guy they would have by now recognized that you’re great. But you’re a woman, and you’re a wife? and all that. And then he was saying,”Wait a minute, wait a minute, shall we announce that you’re actually a guy? That may do it!” That’s what he was saying in 1980. “You can get away with it,” and he was looking at me strangely, you know. That’s funny.
Q: How much do you think the antagonism had to do with certain things you represent like the merging of East and West, female energies being encouraged, and John’s part in that. Do you think your ideas were what people were against, and maybe they were taking it out on the music?
YO: Okay, I think a lot of things came together. One, they didn’t like the fact that supposedly I broke the Beatles up; two, they didn’t like the fact that I was a woman. I was an oriental woman, I was eight years older than him, I was doing music that was not particularly charming or acceptable, and also, John and I were facing the world saying “We’re partners, equal partners, and how dare you?” But I think that maybe the main reason is that the things we were doing artistically were not quite acceptable to people at the time. That has a lot to do with it.
Also, my attitude was – I came from the avant-garde where you know, who was it, Jonas Mekas or somebody said, “If the audience stays it means that your concert was not successful. If they walk out it means you were successful? I came from a totally different tradition, so I didn’t care, really. But then I think it was beginning to bug me too. It’s not much fun to make records and be- well, not communicating, not circulating, because people don’t buy it, simple as that. We tried to sort of stay on a kind of balance, a good balance of not being too extremely bored, maybe stick one song in that we liked very much because it’s a great advance.
We tried, but still it wasn’t acceptable.
Q: And now the avant-garde is so rock-oriented.
YO: Oh, I know. And it’s just as acceptable as can be. And in rock too, it’s more experimental, everybody’s doing funny tape things. Oh now it’s very experimental, but we started a long time ago, it was a different attitude then. Now I get letters saying, “Your thing is too middleof-the-road, what are you doing, we want to hear you screaming?.
Everything has changed for women, too, in a certain way, but there still aren’t very many women composers. There are a few more, and there is more of an openness to accept them.
I’m sure there were many many women composers in the old days as well, though there must have been some self-censorship and intimidation and all that, so there was not really a conducive environment to grow in. We just don’t hear about them. Or we hear about them as wife of a famous composer or something. Her piece might be known as that composer’s piece or something like that. John was a very macho guy when I met him, or before I met him. I know the kind of macho ism that he was surrounded with … in his environment- his nature itself was not very macho, he was a sweet, sensitive person but he was in that society so he didn’t know any better- and when he met me, and when he saw the society attacking me, I think his sort of knighthood side came out. And he observed it all, so then he realized what it is for women in this world. And that did a lot of good really – for him to understand feminism. He was a real feminist, you know, and he read a lot of books about it. He was a bookworm too. He read all of it and he understood it all. He was constantly encouraging me, always behind me. I spoke about the discouragement we got from the world as a couple, but at home I was very encouraged. And that really helped me. It was a great working relationship.
Q: And you weren’t being competitive, which is a problem some people have.
YO: I hear that, but you know in our case, because I was such an underdog – I mean society-wise – he was not feeling competitive about my position in society or anything, obviously. And also, his caring side, the protective side came out because of my position. In that sense, it was like the prince meeting the pauper, or one of those flower girls in the street. On the other hand, if there was anything to learn from me or learn from being with me, he cherished it. And I cherished learning from him too. So it worked out very well in that sense. We had a healthy competition, of course, a kind of healthy competitive feeling that you can only call inspiring. If it was a situation where it didn’t inspire you to do anything, I mean, that’s terrible.
And in that sense, we used to always say – “Okay, well, I’ll do this,” … “Oh, well I can do this,” and top each other. It was great. And maybe because we were so isolated, and we felt that the pressure from the world was so great, we felt very strongly that, if we become enemies with each other then what is left? We’re two lonely people. So we just huddled together.
Q: I have been strongly affected by the stories in your songs and would like you to talk about them. I get a strong sense of universal epics that your stories are part of .
YO: Somehow all the things that come out of me-like words or music or whatever-seem to be not my doing. It just comes in and I immediately write it down, and I catch it if I can. If I don’t, it’s not there. So the activity is something comparable to psychic understanding or mediumship. It comes from somewhere else, and I’m just catching it. When it comes it’s very quick.
Q: So you’re a receiver, or a transmitter?
YO: In a way – I don’t think of it as talent necessarily. I think of it like a good radio. You can turn the channel and all sorts of things come. And I have an antenna that’s sticking out there, and this antenna’s catching something. It’s a big opening that’s open to the stratosphere. It’s easy to come in and come out, there’s no blockage. That’s the way I feel about it.
And I think observing how John created all sorts of things, John was like that too. When a message comes he jumps up in the middle of the night, “I better write it down? He’s got the whole song down, that’s how it was. A lot of people say things like, “Why didn’t you write songs together?” We rarely wrote together, and we also very rarely sang together. What we found out when we tried to write a song together was that it comes so quickly, things come so quickly from me and from John, we don’t have time to discuss it. We’d say, “Okay, shall we write this?” And I’d start saying, “Well, okay, this this this and this? “Oh, you wrote the whole verse, that’s not fair, we’re supposed to write it together? So then he’s like that too, he writes the whole thing. I say “Well, aren’t you going to give me a chance?” “It just came to me, I’m sorry? So it doesn’t work. It immediately becomes two songs or three songs. There was no point in trying. He can write very well, thank you, by himself, and I can too. We just respected each other for each other’s writing. We helped each other in the sense of stimulating each other for writing certain things – it was inspiring in that sense.
Q: Are you continuing to write other things, essays and stories … like the parable of the little boy and the crystal ball from the inner sleeve of the album “Every Man Has a Woman”?
YO: “A Crystal Ball” was written because I wrote “Surrender to Peace”. When “Surrender to Peace” came out in the papers, I suddenly got tons of letters from one high school. I was thinking, “What is this, what’s happening at this high school?” I found out they had a social science class where as a project the teacher read “Surrender to Peace” and the homework was to write a letter to me about what they thought of that. So they all wrote to me, and I thought I can’t answer all these letters, each one of them. Then, I was just sort of inspired to write a story, and I wrote this story, and sent it to them saying, “This is in reply to your letters”.
I wrote a few others, around that time, I don’t know if you’ve read it, but I sent one to the Berkeley Fiction Review. It was this year or last year.
I wrote that story and people asked me, “Why did you send it to Berkeley Fiction Review?” I said, “Well, because they asked me! I have so many little bits and pieces. When I write I get so inspired that I want it out right away, and I’d send it to all sorts of papers-they wouldn’t mind printing something like, “Oh, Yoko’s eating hamburger and wasn’t she a vegetarian?” – but they don’t want to take my writing. So I got sick and tired of that game. I have it piled up now and when somebody asks, I just send it.
Sometimes the timing is so right, it’s uncanny. Like with Milk and Honey, I tried to put it out in ’81, ’82, ’83, it just didn’t work out for many reasons. It finally came out in January 1984, and then I found out that this year was the twentieth year of The Beatles, fifteenth year of the “Bed-In?”, eighteenth year of our meeting, John and I. They’re all sort of telling me about it, MTV calls me and on top of it, it’s 1984, and there’s an Orwellian suggestion in it as well. So in 1984, us singing “milk and honey” and “I love you” is a revolution, you know, because George Orwell said we’re not going to be saying I love you to each other, right? But we’re still saying it, even though one of us had to die. I mean, it’s that serious, George Orwell was almost right. Human love and spirit can’t be killed that easily. It turns out that luckily there were tapes and because there are tapes, we’re still saying “I love you”.
Q: Did anything like that happen with “Walking on Thin Ice”? It’s such an important song.
YO: Well, I wrote that song in a car coming back from Cold Spring Harbor to New York. Cold Spring is sort of like a country home. I got in the car and I just thought of a song and I said, “Quick, give me some paper, give me some paper! and they just gave me a little scrap of paper. I started writing it, but then I couldn’t write the score yet so I just rushed in, literally, to that piano and wrote the score on that little piece of paper. And that was it. Then, when we were going to record I thought, but I want, not just the song, I want a little … I want to push it a little further, experimentally. So I was thinking about Alban Berg, in one of his operas, you know, where a drunk is going “ahaahaahaa!” Just sort of saying things, but saying things in such a way that the emphasis is all wrong, distorted.
So today is the recording and you’re going to sing, I thought, okay, and then I sort of … I was lying down on the couch and resting before the recording, and then I saw the lake flash in my mind, a beautiful lake. And I said, okay, well, something like that. And I went to the studio, and they’re starting to play the track so they can overdub my voice you see, and while they were rewinding the tape, I just wrote that thing about “I knew a girl” and all that. And I said, “When you finish the song, just reel on? They said, okay. And it just came into my head about “I KNEW A GIRL” as if you – you know, usually you say, “Iknewagirrl”, “I KNEW A GIRL,” like sort of what’s that? And I loved it. That’s how it came into my head, so I did it that way.
And when I came out of that booth, John said, ”When did you write that? You didn’t have that when we were leaving Dakota today. I said, “I just did that now! He said, “Oh, great, I love that thing about- ‘and all this was ice’ because then the lake … ” You see he’s thinking of the lake-“and all this was ice? you feel it. [vocal sound] And he kept saying that he loved the song, both of us loved the song.
And we never thought anything would happen to us. So that Monday we were going to remix it, and all weekend he was just listening over and over again to “Walking on Thin Ice” and I was feeling a bit eerie, because “Walking on Thin Ice” is an eerie song. And I wake up in the morning, and I see him still playing it, watching the dawn and all that in New York, and he’s playing it. And I say, “What are we doing, what are we doing?” He’s just sitting there listening to it for the twentieth time or whatever, and I was thinking – afterwards – I was thinking, “What was that about?” Because the song says it all. But I didn’t know that, and he didn’t know it, and we thought it was just a story.
Q: Maybe it was a preparation.
YO: I don’t know what it was really, but it’s very strange. He died that day and he was carrying the finished tape.
By 1980 both John and I knew a lot about the effects of our music, because John basically was The Beatles and all that. You see, when you write words and when it communicates on this level or the level that The Beatles communicated, each word has such an impact, it brings back karma right away. So he wrote the song called “Instant Karma,” you know. The karma is very instant.
Q: Because so many people are affected?
YO: Yes. Sometimes it works for good, like if you have that communication power then you can change the world – if you have a bigger communication power than us, probably you can change the world in one minute maybe. So it’s a degree, a matter of degree, because they, The Beatles, communicated so much. So let’s say if there was one negative word in it, you know, that creates such a negative karma. You don’t know how, but it does.
So we were very careful about saying things or writing things. And some critics don’t realize the power of it, so then they say, “Oh well, we don’t want to hear everything goody-goody again? But we have to ignore those few critics who are cynical because when it’s on that level, it affects everybody. And not only the people who buy the record but the person who listens to the radio, who happens to hear it because he’s in a car or something. So you have to be very concerned about that. But then, you know, you get tired of being goody-goody, and you want to be real sometimes. Both of us actually liked songs like “Walking on Thin Ice”. We were at home with that sort of song – more than maybe “Beautiful Boy”.
Q: “Beautiful Boy” was a different emotion, it was beautiful and good.
YO: But we’d get into sort of punky or funky feelings that feel good too. Then it’s a dangerline. It’s really like the tightrope, you know, it’s the thin ice. Dangerline. And that’s why that weekend I didn’t like the fact that we were listening that much to that song. And it’s a trap you get into, you keep on saying, yes, it’s all right, it’s all right, it’s peace and love, etc. But then you’re human, so you just say something -about death or something, I don’t know-something to do with yin and yang, and you want to say something that’s not always sunshine … a shade darker. And then it sort of like affects you, affects your fate even. That’s incredible.
Q: So you really feel that you couldn’t deal with the other side at all? It seems like both the dark and the light are essential.
YO: And also there’s a part of me thinking, for instance, Greek tragedies, and there was tragi-comedy. I mean, the tragedy side was a kind of atonement that you do in public, a catharsis, and that catharsis helps others to go through their primal scream or whatever: A lot of people used to say to me when I wrote things like “Death of Samantha,” why so sad? And I said that sad songs are good because then you can get it over with and just go on, it’s a good thing.
So I have that feeling, that it’s all right, but when you see something like that happen, it’s weird, isn’t it? So it’s sort of like a mystery that I have to – there are many different things that we still don’t know. Did the song come first, or was the song a premonition, or did the song make it happen? That sort of thin line, you never know. And believe me, since I wrote “Walking on Thin Ice” my life was walking on thin ice. So this time I said, enough with walking on thin ice, I am standing on firm ground, good earth, and I have to tell myself that.
I guess it has to do with the power you have when you are so well known, and that power is the power that somehow everyone is giving over of themselves, right? And you have this power, but the responsibility that goes along with it is such a mystery.
Q: It’s immense isn’t it?
YO: It’s something I have to be very caring about, because I once met a guy in a record shop, and he just came to me and said, “Oh hi, you’re Yoko Ono? so I said yes, and he said, “Listen, I met you in London once, I was one of the assistant whatevers, and you looked at my numbers and you said – ‘Oh for the next five years it’s going to be terrible, and just be careful’ – and it was, it was very very terrible for five years, and how did you do it?” And I felt guilty like I had done something. I just looked into the numbers. Then I said, “Look, from now on it’s going to be good, okay?” This without seeing any numbers, I just felt like I had to say it. And I wondered if it was me who did it, you know, or if it was just the numbers I honestly read, was it that I’m psychic and I knew it, or was it that I said it, and it affected him, I don’t know. I don’t know what it takes. You have to be very careful.
Q: It has seemed to me, looking at your life, that if it were on a mathematical grid, you’re right at the center-and everything changes when it goes through you.
YO: I don’t know what it is. I just have to be very careful. Having good thoughts, and doing good things with good intentions. Both John and I never did anything otherwise, really. You might think ah ha! of course, you must have been hypocrites, I don’t know what you think-but you see, think of a suggestion where you are in a position where it affects a lot of people, then you would be careful too. And you can’t use it lightly. John and my life on the daily life level, was pretty boring in a sense, I mean boring for other people, pretty normal. I think that maybe a middle-America housewife has it better, you know, more exciting, because anything we did was going to be blown up to some huge proportion. So we were careful. We didn’t do things that were out of place much, if we could help it. Because it created a lot of repercussions. But then it’s not fun for people to mention about how he used to be always so generous with tips or whatever, it’s more interesting to write about somebody who was tight with his tips though he was a millionaire. Our life was pretty sort of like, well, normal is the word, not eventful in a sense that people think.
When you are really like that, so careful; sometimes we’d go “Oh to hell with it, let’s go out drinking,” because first of all everybody does that. You know, working-class people will go out on the weekend and have a beer or two, right? We don’t even get to do that. So one day we feel like doing it. Then you know John went to Los Angeles, and Elliot Mintz, a friend of ours in L.A., told me later, ”All this talk about his lost weekend was blown up,” one weekend he had a big drinking spree, and he did it in style, so to speak, so it got into the news and everything. It seemed like he was drinking every day, but he wasn’t that way. And maybe that’s the problem, that he wasn’t drinking every day, so when he got there he felt like, “Hooray, this is it!”
Q: I was just wondering if you have any theories about dreams.
YO: I think that dreaming is definitely part of our life. It’s part of reality, but how can we find dreams. It depends on the dream. Some dreams are just dreams to regurgitate whatever experience you’ve had or to get rid of certain emotions. And some dreams are maybe messages, you never know. But it depends on the dream as well, so I don’t have a general concept about dreams per se. But then also, there’s a thing called dream power, which is I think real in a sense. That all the things that happen are in human history, for instance, I mean, I believe in human race dreams. That we dream together. We used to be wanting to fly. I mean, you know about the history of flying, first it started with a wish to fly and then they started to try to jump off the hill and now we have something called an airplane. And also that wish that we always had, what if we went to the moon.
The moon was something that was always mysterious and poets always talked about the moon and there’s always a fairytale about “I wonder if?” or “I wish,” or “we flew to the moon,” and now finally we went to the moon.
So dreams come true if you keep dreaming about it, but then how much and to what extent and how many people have to dream – that sort of thing. Of course, if you dream alone or if you dream together there’s a big difference in its power, and how it’s realized, you know? And some people might inadvertently dream something negative, and they feel terrible about it, but it depends on who is dreaming stronger, you know, so you may not have to worry about it. You dream your competitor in your class died, you know, well, you’re thinking did I wish it- but then your competitor might have a very strong survival dream so it doesn’t matter. So I think that dreaming is part of our brain function, that it’s definitely very strong, and it’s a vibration that works.
Q: We did want to talk about food. But that’s really on the plane of ordinary reality.
YO: Well sure, that’s part of our lives. I’ll tell you what I think about that.
We went through the same mistakes, you know most people write a book, like “Saltless Diet,” or something. But if you investigate carefully you might find that that person has a liver trouble and he needs a saltless diet. We do tend to find an answer for ourselves and share it without knowing why. And we shared our concept of love or whatever, and maybe that’s not applicable to certain persons at certain times of their lives. We have to understand that. The diet that is applicable to me, may not be applicable to you. And I think that instead of listening to other people’s intuition, which is based on their condition, I think we have to relearn to listen to our own intuition. Our own intuition is very much destroyed and distorted and what-not because of all these messages coming to us, you know, from the television and from our parents and from our teachers and friends, etc. So we no more know what our instinct is, we no longer know.
Sometimes I have a strong craving for something, and I think “What is this craving?” is it craving or is it because I just heard on television that this tastes good or something. I have to really think about it. Once I was in a car and this filmmaker who was working for me in my film project was driving and I was sitting next to him – and suddenly I had a craving for hamburgers. “Stop, let’s go eat hamburgers? I said, and he said, “Oh, funny that you should say that because I’m a famous burger man and I love hamburgers!” He told me a story – when he went to Paris for the first time, he asked for a cheeseburger, and everybody laughed. He can’t stand not eating hamburger for one day. And I looked at him, and he’s one of these big guys, uh huh, ah, okay, so it’s his dream, I see.
And you know about the search for yourself, philosophically, it’s been discussed many times. But even on that level, foodwise, in everything to do with your life, you’re the wisest person, just remember that. And when you say search for self, you are searching for what you’ve lost because of all the other messages that are coming to you because of the hypnotism that you are put under by others in the world. It’s as simple as that.