Illustration by Daniel Park

Blueprint For A Reprise

An Interview with Yoko Ono

Many of us remember the scene: Yoko Ono, in a white sleeping gown, unmistakable long black hair framing her face, sitting in bed next to John Lennon in a hotel room packed with reporters, celebrities and activists. Tape recorder on and guitar in hand, he leads everyone into song: Everybody’s talkin’ ‘bout bagism, shagism, dragism, madism, ragism, tagism, this-ism, that-ism, ism ism ism, all we are saying is give peace a chance, all we are saying is give peace a chance. Their faces bear a unified resolve, as steady as the beats they clap in time. It was June 1, 1969 in Montreal, Canada, scene of the couple’s second “Bed-In for Peace”-a protest against violence marked simply by the act of “staying in bed and growing your hair out,” Lennon stated at the time. Meanwhile, in the world outside, conflict between Biafra and Nigeria continued, and the Vietnam War raged on.

Lots of things have happened since that day, of course. “Give Peace a Chance” became an unofficial anthem against the Vietnam War, which ended six years later. It was remembered again after Lennon’s shocking death in 1980. Ono, along with a celebrity “Peace Choir,” recorded a version in 1991 to protest the Gulf War. This past June, exactly 39 years after the song’s first recording, she released several dance club remixes of it-available only by digital download in an environmentally conscious “green” effort. And its lyrics appear to be as relevant as ever, with seemingly interminable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan consuming the American political consciousness, igniting the newest wave of impassioned pacifism. So for Ono, how has its meaning changed over the years?

“Oh, it hasn’t changed at all,” she says. “I mean, it’s a great song and it’s a kind of upbeat song. It’s not saying (she adopts a commanding tone),‘Give peace a chance.’ It’s (she sings), ‘Give peace a chance!’ Like, very joyful, you know? It’s not confrontational, you know. And it was really great that way. People loved singing it.”

“But I think that not just singing, but they can dance!” she adds. “I mean, I think dance is it, you know. Dance is very, very important. It’s for the health and for the health of the mind as well, you know. It’s beautiful. Instead of being confrontational, instead of being depressing, instead of being angry-when you’re dancing, you’re not angry, you know. It’s just a joyful way of going through life. And that’s how we should be.”

It’s this kind of serene enthusiasm for life that Ono, now 75, exudes over the phone. An outspoken feminist and gay rights supporter as well as a pacifist, a brief review of her life’s work recalls the boldness of her existence, no doubt born from the combination of being a woman, Asian and the wife of a Beatle – all during one of the most politically tumultuous periods in the United States, a time of dynamically changing racial and gender relations.

There was “Cut Piece,” a 1964 Tokyo work of performance art in which the audience was invited on stage to cut off pieces of her clothing until she sat almost completely exposed. There were the years when she and Lennon were friends and supporters of Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, the progressive black political organization that-marked as a threat to political order-fell under attack by the FBI in the late sixties. (Despite the Black Panthers’ militant image, Lennon stated that he believed in their “Ten Point Plan,” which asserted a right to defend against attack by armed forces and the police.)

And in 2004, as a reflection of vigorous gay rights movements throughout the country, Ono recorded two new versions of the song “Every Man Has A Woman Who Loves Him”-originally co-written with Lennon-this time titled “Every Man Has A Man Who Loves Him” and “Every Woman Has a Woman Who Loves Her.” They now celebrate the legalization of marriage in a select number of states. “I’m totally protective about gay people,” she says of the songs. “I really think that it’s such an injustice done for such a long time, and it’s great that now they can get married.”

But make no mistake: despite Ono’s recent involvement in various civil rights battles, we’re still a generation that largely identifies her as “the woman who broke up the Beatles.” Or, more recently, as the party sued for her use of Lennon’s “Imagine” in Ben Stein’s pro-intelligent design documentary. Even in favorable light, some might see her merely as a flower-child icon of a long-gone decade. For all the derision thrown her way, it’s a wonder that she chooses to remain in the public eye, one that has and will probably always be quick to criticize her. We might even question her relevancy now-as an artist, a musician, a peace activist. During our conversation, I wanted to get a better sense of who she is, what she thinks of the current state of the world, and what keeps her going.

I start by asking her to reflect on the feminist mantra, “The personal is the political,” and how she lives it out in her day-to-day life. She directs to me her website, “I’m promoting people to think peace and act peace and spread peace,” she says. “I still of course believe in peace and so I’m doing that. You know, we’re all together now. That’s the funny thing. Together, we can probably create a peaceful world.”

The website is a collection of videos, photos, artwork, essays, poems and statements memorializing her past and present peace efforts. She calls it an Internet billboard. “It’s like the most modest billboard on the busiest street of the city, surrounded with colorful signs selling commercial goods, none of which belong to you,” she writes in a message on the site. Encouraging visitors to download the Imagine Peace logo to make their own buttons, posters and T-shirts, she also suggests “sending in suggestions of important films to see, books to read, and statements by the greats of all centuries to chew on. Bring in good food for thought for the family!” Letters submitted by individuals spearheading their own peace projects are posted regularly, with encouraging personal responses from Ono. Clicking through the site reveals handmade peace posters from schoolchildren in Poland, a pledge from one artist in Massachusetts to construct hundreds of thousands of paper cranes representing lives lost in Iraq, an Imagine Peace birthday cake made in memory of Lennon.

Among the website’s archives is a 1982 essay published in The New York Times, titled “Surrender to Peace,” in which Ono urged the United States to initiate world peace, “to work together through affirmation and reaffirmation of our unity.” In October 2007, she wrote an addendum:

This was my statement in the 80’s.
I am amazed and saddened that the situation is incredibly similar now. But we overcame in the 80’s. We can overcome again now. We are larger in numbers now.

I ask for her thoughts on the statement, which appears to be an expression of discontent over the Iraq War. “Yeah, yeah. You know, I think that it’s starting to happen, really,” she says. “I think about all the things that have been said to really try to make this country well. More people are working on it, yes, because there are more people too.” She laughs. “More people born as well, but anyway, yes-there’s a lot of people working towards a beautiful world, a beautiful, creative, and peaceful world. And I’m very, very honored and happy that I’m part of it, you know.”

And part of it she continues to be, with seeming pertinacity. Since the time we spoke, the “Give Peace A Chance” remix hit number one on the Billboard dance charts. Music, of course, is one of our most powerful modes of expression, and served an integral role of the anti-war protests during Vietnam. I ask Ono if she thinks today’s music sends as strong a political message as it did during that decade.

“In the ‘60s and ‘70s too, we sort of expressed the statements that we hoped would change the world,” she says. “There’s a lot of people now who are really wanting world peace, and that didn’t happen in those days, you know…. I mean, of course, many people say, ‘Well, it didn’t work because we’re in war.’ Yeah, but it’s almost like…we’re in the same boat. And if people in the left side stand up, and the people on the right side don’t stand up, then, you know, the boat is going to topple. So just even to balance it, you have to keep saying, ‘give peace a chance.’”

In the end, promoting peace isn’t just a matter of saying “no” to violence and war, Ono reiterates. “It’s kind of like an exchange: they like to sing too and we like to sing too, and we keep singing the same songs together, you know.” This rather non-radical, self-focused, and meditative approach really comes across at the end of our interview, when I commend her for her ongoing work. “Oh, thank you,” she says. “Yes, well, you know, we’re sisters, you know, and you’re doing your own thing and I’m doing my own, and we understand each other. That’s all. It’s great.” In taking the focus off herself, her “imagine peace” philosophy seems to make the relevancy issue irrelevant, after all: she is not Yoko Ono, the iconic activist, but a member of the family, charged with the same duty to “think peace, act peace, and spread peace, and tell all our friends to imagine peace.” I ask if she still identifies with her self-described fiercely rebellious nature, once such a large and memorable part of her public persona. “I try not to be too rebellious,” she says, “but it seem like the very fact that I am what I am is creating some controversy.” In that case, how has her idea of being fierce changed- as an activist and an artist?

“I haven’t changed, you know,” she insists, laughing.” People don’t change so much.”
by Lydia Fong,