REMEMBER ‘YOKO ONLY’ by Brian Hendel
Some of you may remember my labor of love that started way back in the early 80’s called YOKO ONLY. For those of you who missed it, it was a fanzine I created as a forum for those who respected and admired the work of Yoko Ono. At the time, we needed a place to share our thoughts without the prejudices of our friends and families who probably thought we were all crazy. Remember, this was long before Yoko was having number one dance hits, art retrospectives in museums around the world, and glowing reviews from the mainstream press. The “Dragon Lady” stamp was still sticking. I felt we all needed a “comfort zone” where we could come together. We were on to something… and we were tired of waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.
Looking back, YOKO ONLY was a little rough in those early days, and, some may say, amateurish – but it had an infectious spirit that truly glowed. Honestly, I was only about 15 or 16 when it started, and I knew nothing about publishing a magazine. There were no computers to fix typos or fancy design programs to help make polished layouts. I will always remember those early days back in my New Jersey high school sneaking into the faculty offices to use the Xerox machine and school supplies to copy, collate, and staple thousands of pages together without getting caught. It wasn’t until years later that I would discover the joys of using a professional printer.
Early on, Yoko took notice of the endeavor and was quick to share her insight, support, and priceless archival material with people who really got what she was about. I’m sure we all agree that our lives have been enriched beyond words for having discovered Yoko’s incredible life and art. It’s a special bond we have, so I’m happy to share some of the material that first appeared on the pages of YOKO ONLY with you today here on the internet.
This was the very first interview Yoko and I did together way back in 1984. It was the beginning of a very special friendship that continues to this day. I’ll never forget being a nervous teenager borrowing the tape recorder from my college and heading to the Dakota. I had been doing the magazine for a couple of years, and Yoko had invited me to come to the Dakota to conduct an interview. To say I was excited is an understatement. I remember walking into Studio One for the first time and her then office manager noticing I was hyperventilating. “Take deep breaths,” I remember him saying. It was hard, but Yoko couldn’t have been sweeter which helped me relax a bit. I also remember being so nervous that the tape recorder wasn’t working that I kept banging my soda glass on the table to make sure the meters were moving (our voices were too soft to register for some reason). Luckily, the tape came out perfectly and it is two plus hours of audio that I will always cherish. What follows is what Yoko and I edited down for Issue No. 7 of YOKO ONLY. Even though Yoko could have focused her time on something for a major publication that would be read by millions, she spent hours going over our chat making sure every word was just right… So relax and throw your minds back to the Fall of 1984… the Yoko tribute LP (yes, it was still vinyl time), EVERYMAN HAS A WOMAN had just come out so that’s where the conversation began… Enjoy!
for Yoko Only fanzine #7, 1984
Interview by Brian Hendel
BH: First of all on behalf of all the members of “Yoko Only” I would like to thank you for doing this interview.
YO: “Yoko Only” is a thrill for me too.
BH: Let’s start there then. You said recently that last week’s October 9th marked a milestone in your life and that you and Sean were hit by reality. What did you mean by that?
YO: Well, the past several years was like a dream. You just feel more real now, the fact that John is not around. It’s like the initial shock is over and it’s more difficult emotionally. Is this reality?… that sort of feeling.
BH: ‘Every Man Has A Woman’ is out. Are you happy about the way it turned out? It’s been over a year in the making.
YO: The real high was when we made it and when we first heard it and said great, great. But then there was a long waiting time. But I get letters from fans saying we bought it and like it on whatever, then I check the stamp on the envelope. “Ohio, okay they’re getting it there, too.” That’s my barometer.
BH: “Dogtown” is my favourite track. Alternative Boxes is the only group or artist who is virtually unknown. Did you discover them for this project?
YO: Yes, I’m very happy about that one. It’s a nice story, too. The story is, when I did “Dogtown” on Season of Glass.. he heard it, he liked it, and made a demo tape so he could present it to a record company to get a contract. All his friends told him he was crazy to do it and they were right. He didn’t get a record contract. So the tape was sitting there. Then Rolling Stone did a little article about “Here comes another Yoko Ono this time with all these artists,” etc. He read that and thought “Why not send the cassette to Yoko, maybe she would put it on the album.” I usually don’t open any cassettes because there are some crazy people out there. I get letters like “I’m the guy who wrote Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey so when are you going to send me my royalty?” That kind of thing. So I don’t listen to cassettes when they’re sent. The office just returns them automatically. But for some reason I opened this one and listened to it. I didn’t expect it to be so good. I immediately called him and said, “Hey, you’re in.”
BH: Was he excited about it?
YO: I think so. The excitement was coming over the phone.
BH: Why did you chose to remix that one. I heard the 12” and it’s great.
YO: I just wanted to try something special for the club mix.
BH: Sean does a fantastic job on “It’s Alright.” I understand he was a little shy about it at first. Did you have to coax him into letting that track go out?
YO: Yes. It seems like Sean went up and down about this. Initially, I think he felt good about recording it. So, I thought if I brought home a remixed cassette for him to listen to, a rough remix, he’s love it. But as soon as he heard the intro, he said “Noooo!” and “By the way, you’re not putting this out.” Oh, I see! So I left it at that and thought all that effort for nothing. But then gradually, he started to feel good about it. Then I got “Mommy, when are you putting my song out?” “Why isn’t it out yet?”, you know. So maybe it was lucky that we had to wait this long.
BH: When he sees himself on MTV, what is his reaction?
YO: I think he is still shy about it. Each time he sees himself on MTV he’s looking very pensive… that ‘thinking’ look. Sean what are you thinking? “Oh nothing.” He won’t let me on, but he was probably a bit worried about the reaction of his classmates.
BH: I just saw the “Everyman Has A Woman Who Loves Him” video and was surprised to see that you used a different couple since all your work has been autobiographical.
YO: I had a great laugh when I saw that one. My guess is that it was filmed in Brighton, and it’s so working class… very, very English… I enjoyed it in that sense. I didn’t have anything to do with it, by the way. First I was going to make the video myself just like the other ones. I had memories of all the different shots. I planned it in my head and had it all set up in my mind. I went into the studio to edit the bits. That’s when I noticed that id didn’t feel the same. I felt very, very strange about it all, about watching John’s image and watching him talk and sing on the screen, and to edit all that to make a film. In fact, I had two night of nightmares, right off. It wasn’t worth it. I didn’t want to get too let down by all this and I decided to leave it to someone else to make it. I think it’s a good change anyway.
BH: Now you have the album and the video’s out. Do you see this productivity continuing in the future as it is now?
YO: I don’t know when to stop! I’m one of those workaholics and when I finish a product I’m already thinking of the next. But I think timing wise you have to think of the timing out there too. So I will go and record the next album when the timing is a bit better. I shouldn’t do it now because then I’ll be waiting for it to come out. It’s that one.
BH: Do you feel more comfortable with Polydor rather then Apple or Geffen? I remember you used to say that at the Apple business meetings they would “accidentally” forgot to put your albums on the list. Do you feel any of that pressure now?
YO: I would say that most record companies are the same when you get down to it. There are a few good friends in there who like your songs, but then there are the others who are just cut and dry business people. Usually the business people win in a company. So that’s how it is. But the game is all the same everywhere so I don’t particularly feel terrible about this company.
BH: Do you think that you hold back a lot of your more experimental work to make the product more commercial?
YO: Definitely. People write to me and say, “Look, your work was always artistic but was for a small audience. Why do you want to make it commercial and get a big audience? It was good when it was for a small audience.” They don’t understand that if you are not commercial, the record companies simply wouldn’t want to know you. They wouldn’t give you a contract for the next record. That means I can’t communicate. It’s as simple as that.
BH: That’s what I’m afraid of. I heart that Polydor was dropping a lot of their artists. And I was like once they have Milk and Honey forget it, there she goes.
YO: I know. There are many angles that fans don’t think about.
BH: George Harrison and Ringo Starr both lost theirs.
YO: I suppose if they want to record… but I know it’s not that easy. Then some people might say “You guys are rich so why don’t you start your own companies.” But there is such a thing as a distribution network and even if you make the record with your own company, you have to finally rely on one of these distributors to get to the shops. If you try to compete with them, they’ll cut you down to your size. What are you doing here, you know. So you have to rely on one of those, and that’s how it’s set up.
BH: When did you first realize that your art was different from the norm and you were going to have that Limited audience?
YO: Each time I was surprised (laughs). Let’s put it that way.
BH: Your individuality was evident even as far back as your college days where you were the first female to enter the Philosophy course. Did your actions get you in a lot of trouble back then?
YO: I suppose it did. But I’m certainly not a masochist, you know, neither was John. Both of us always felt we were doing something the world would understand and share with good feelings. If we thought we were going to be attacked for what we did, in the way they were attacked, we probably wouldn’t have done half the things we did. Because neither of us wanted pain. In that sense you could say that we were a couple of optimists. Whenever we came up with an idea, we were so inspired and excited over it that we couldn’t wait to share it with the world. “It’s great! Let’s do it!” Then we find out that the world didn’t get the point at all. “Why don’t they understand it? Are they crazy?” It was like that. Each time we sincerely thought that the world would understand our idea. I know that you can’t believe it, probably, but that’s how it was.
BH: Do you get that way now in the studio? Where your working on a song and you’re thinking that this is the one, this is it.
YO: This is it! And then someone makes a strange comment, strange to me, but what they think as normal, you know. I do have to rely on my own judgement. I’m not going to rely on someone else’s. Maybe to some people my judgement seems a little out of synch. Of course, to me it isn’t.
BH: Like when I first heard “My Man.” I really thought that that was going to be your first hit. And then I’m playing it for people and they’re saying- “Babalu, what’s a babalu?”
YO: I thought it was going to make it too… with all those nice hooks and whatever. I thought, “This is it, it’s great.”
BH: And the “My Man” video which was fantastic.
YO: I know. I like what I do. I literally get inspired by what I do. And I want to keep being myself. I don’t want to be intimidated into being somebody else.
BH: Going way back. Do you think your mother’s attitude that you should hide your emotions caused you to be even more emotionally expressive in your work?
YO: It’s not so much my mother, you know. It’s this society, I mean the world, that teaches you to hide your emotions. The result is, all of us are a bit like that. We do have a tendency to hide our emotions… especially men. Primal scream as part of the 60s liberation movement helped men to express their emotions. We learnt how to externalize our emotions in the 60s. In the 70, we internalized what we learnt in the 60s. Now in the 80s we are pretty normal. We are used to the idea of letting it all hang out. The society accepts people to be more emotional. But I, and the others who were born in the 30s, 40s and 50s, were brought up in the society which hiding our emotions was considered proper.
BH: So in 1956 you and your family came to Scarsdale, N.Y. and were you rebellious then? How did you discover New York City and the underground art scene?
YO: By chance. I’m sure that being rebellious is one of my labels, but I never considered myself as being rebellious. I keep trying to be a good girl. Finally you get sick and tired of that and one day you stick your tongue out. Just for a second, you know, and very quietly. But then they go Aha! I saw you, I saw you. And those are the moments that people are counting, as milestone events. So what do you do about that. They don’t remember how boringly good I was in between.
BH: You met George Maciunas and those people and did you feel that they were heading in the same direction as you were?
YO: Well, they were the people who didn’t mind accepting me… who accepted me without any resistance. Which was nice.
BH: Was that the first time you felt accepted as an artist?
YO: Come to think of it, yes. I didn’t realize it but that’s true.
BH: What are some of your memories back then in your smoky loft down in the village?
YO: Oh, that… there again I was just all excited about the creative aspect of it and the inspiration. From outside it might of looked like I was trying to live up a certain lifestyle, to create a hip scene or something, but my lifestyle was created only for its convenience and economy. Like wearing a black sweater and corduroy pants and flat shoes was practical. Living in a loft was cheaper. Everything was done for a good, practical reason.
BH: Were your parents trying to help you back then and you said that you wanted to do it on your own?
YO: Well, no. I think the feeling was mutual. They didn’t want to help me and I didn’t want their help.
BH: You once said, if I may quote that you hated men: “Men have an unusual talent for making a bore out of everything they touch.”
YO: When I did I say that! I don’t know how I expressed it at the time but I’m not responsible (laughter). Anyway, it’s true that I felt that men, because they controlled the society and they established certain rules and regulations for themselves and others that they were limited by their own regulations as well. There was a certain rigidity that I observed in men that I didn’t like.
BH: Do you think that that was a result of your first two marriages?
YO: No. They were pretty supportive of my ventures. When you try to get a job in the society, in that sort of situation I felt men’s rigidity a lot. I felt that a lot in the New York Art scene in the late 50s and early 60s. They don’t like taking chances. Even now, businessmen are like that.
BH: Did you feel that a lot of galleries did not present your work because you were a woman? Did they have to include you in group shows?
YO: No. On the contrary, men liked to go group shows for one reason or another. Herding instinct maybe? But they did not include me in the shows, and I had to do it alone most of the time. That’s how I became famous not as a group but as Yoko Ono.
BH: How did you decide to hold concerts in your loft? Was that a regular thing or did you start that?
YO: I think mine was the first. It just happened because no producer in those days wanted to give a concert in a regular concert hall for avant-garde composers, and it was very expensive to rent a regular hall ourselves. It was a practical idea. The chance I took was to do it in the loft section where most people did not think we could collect an audience. “Nobody in their right mind would go downtown for a concert.” “You couldn’t get people to come to a fifth floor walk-up,” etc. But I didn’t want to listen to them. I did it and it was successful.
BH: You did a lot of concerts in 1973 and ’74. Was this something you had wanted to do again for a long time?
YO: Yes. You see, since I was doing concerts almost every month somewhere before I met John, it was very difficult for me after I met John. My natural way of doing things was to do a concert once or twice a month. That’s how I was. But when we got together, John and I, people expected me to not do any concerts. That was the funny thing, but that’s how it was. And I missed doing concerts. So when we were separated in ’73 and ’74, it was natural for me to go back doing concerts again. I just went back being my old self.
BH: This was different. This was rock and roll.
YO: Yes, this time, it was rock plus. At Kenny’s Castaways, it was a very small hall, not like what they usually use for a rock concert, I mean, it was not even a hall, it was more like a hole (laughs). So I did my thing. I mixed the experience I had with rock but in between the songs I would do all sorts of little events. Like pass an empty bucket and then tell a story about the bucket, or whatever. It was closer to performance art with a rock backing band.
BH: I heart it was packed every night. There was lines going around the building.
YO: I know it was amazing. A friend of mine who was then an editor of Rolling Stone, couldn’t get in. She was furious, and I was saying “I’m sorry, I’m sorry I don’t know.”
BH: Did you have fears on opening night that no one was going to show up?
YO: I didn’t think that because it was a very small place (laughter). Somebody will show up. And, of course, I didn’t really mind it. I was never concerned about those things since I come from a different place like Fluxus and even pre-Fluxus.
BH: You had a concert once and didn’t give the location in the ads. Didn’t about two people show up?
YO: Something like that. Once I did a concert and one person came to listen to it, and it was beautiful. That was in the early 60s, and there was a subway strike that day, incidentally. Anyway, in Kenny’s Castaways it was a full house every day. Surprise, surprise. I liked doing that show. As it was during our separation and I was alone so it was easier for me to do concerts again. Maybe it wasn’t easy for the world (laughs), but, you know, I enjoyed it. The world was raising eyebrows saying “What does she think she’s doing?”
BH: All they said was that you were alone up in the Dakota.
YO: That’s another thing. It was interesting that they wanted to perceive me as the forsaken woman who is crying in the Dakota. That hurt me a little. Pride, you know. Now that sort of pride is vanity, it’s not necessarily a good thing to be carrying around. So it’s alright to get hurt on that sort of pride level. But still it was a bit humiliating, people saying “You must be heartbroken”, or whatever. Just naturally assuming that if a man and a woman are separated it must be the woman who is suffering. So anyway, I went through that period and what else?
BH: I read a review from one of your 1973 concerts in which the reviewer was furious that you were wearing hot pants and leather boots up to your knees and singing songs about female liberation. I always thought that was funny.
YO: I wanted to get out of the stereotype feminist.
BH: When one reporter asked you about your outfit you said that it was the “new feminist uniform.”
YO: (Laughs) Because I think that women or men should be allowed to wear what we feel comfortable in. The feminist idea was not to uniform us but to free us from things like that.
BH: If you had a chance like in the song “The Way We Were,” to do it all over again do you think you would?
YO: Um… I may have been dumb enough to do it all over again yes (laughs). I think that John and I could have been a bit wiser. But then again if we were we wouldn’t have been us. Some couples are like that. They never cause any trouble, they never make waves. But that wasn’t us.
BH: You say that you wear your sunglasses to hide your still sorrowful emotions. When you stop wearing them will it symbolize your complete re-emergence from pain?
YO: Sometimes I feel that it may be rude that I’m wearing my glasses and I take them off. Then I regret it later because I feel that I exposed myself too much. So I’m just going to be hiding myself until I feel comfortable to come out. I remember the day we picked these glasses the first time. It was in 1980 John and went to Saks Fifth Avenue and out of different sunglasses I picked these out and put them on for a try, and I remember John saying, “Umm, good.” I just wondered sometimes what that meant. I didn’t wear these glasses in 1980 you know. I bought them and forgot about them. I started to wear them in 1981. I’ve gotten used to wearing these now. One day I’ll take them off and that will probably be like 1986.
BH: Why then?
YO: Because I think I’ll finish all the past things by then. Somehow I feel that by then I would be a different person.
BH: Is that the new life you recently said that you are going to start?
YO: That’s my true feeling. I will start anew life but I don’t know how. By that I mean I don’t want to be stuck in this rut of always thinking about the past, or some project connected with the past. So I’d like to force myself to open up to the future whatever that is.
BH: Everything that you do in the future will probably be linked or refer back to your past.
YO: Well, I don’t know about that. You see I’m an optimist. Since I didn’t immediately run away from what happened, I’m probably going to come out of it. Some people repress it and then it’s never over. Of course, this is a wishful thinking as well, but I vaguely have a nice warm feeling about the future. Like all rainbow colours, and all of us being joyful and happy. But that’s a long way ahead maybe. In a realistic sense, I don’t think about my future in detail. I can’t, and I never have. I’m leaving it to fate while wishing well.
BH: What if someone landed from another planet and asked someone who Yoko Ono is, what would you want him to hear?
YO: I will ask him or her “How does it look from out there?” I don’t know. I think I’m an entity which is trying to grow to its full extent.
BH: And finally, how do you feel about having a club like “Yoko Only?”
YO: I’m just watching it grow. It’s great.
Reprinted from Yoko Only Fanzine #7