Yoko Ono: In Her Life / Shining On

After 40 years of being unfairly accused of breaking up the Beatles and harshly mocked for her avant garde art and pop music, Yoko Ono is finally being recognised as a true pioneer.

By Sheryl Garratt, Daily Telegraph

Soon after I sit down to talk with Yoko Ono, I knock my glass over, spilling water all over the huge mosaic-topped table that dominates her big, comfortable kitchen. As she grabs a cloth to wipe up, she sweetly tries to put me at ease, gently saying that people often find it overwhelming when they first visit her rather grand apartment overlooking Central Park in New York.

‘It’s a very difficult situation,’ she says kindly. ‘Right now, where you’re sitting, that was where John would sit to eat his breakfast.’ I laugh and tell her that she’s misunderstood. If I seem nervous, it’s not because I’m treading the hallowed ground where a Beatle once stood. It’s because I’m meeting her, and wondering how we can possibly cover such a long and interesting life in one short meeting

‘Oh!’ she says, peering at me over the top of her dark glasses as if to check whether I’m joking. Then she shakes her head in disbelief. ‘Amazing!’

Ever since she met John Lennon in 1966, Ono has been so consistently derided that you can hardly blame her for assuming the worst. But attitudes have changed dramatically in recent years, and the time is right for a reappraisal of her work. At the Venice Biennale this summer she was given the Golden Lion Award for Lifetime Achievement by the event’s director, John Birnbaum. ‘Yoko Ono reminds us that art can be something other than a commodity,’ he said in a speech acknowledging her role as a pioneer of conceptual art. ‘The market has been quite dominant lately, and it’s all been about precious objects that can be sold and bought. Her art has shown that there are other possibilities.’

A few days later, Ono picked up another lifetime achievement award, this one from Mojo magazine. Over the years, she has accepted many such awards on Lennon’s behalf. But this one acknowledged her own contribution to popular music, where she was again a pioneer, exploring new ways of articulating female experience especially. ‘Isn’t that incredible?’ she says of the awards. ‘I was so grateful. But I have been attacked for such a long time that automatically the initial feeling I had about the award was, “Oh, I hope it’s not going to be another attack.”’

It is customary when interviewing someone older to say that they look far younger than they are, but Ono really does. A petite figure dressed in designer monochrome, she looks nowhere near her 76 years, with a trim figure, a chic, short haircut, a cleavage to die for and barely a wrinkle to be seen. Her secret, she says, is staying positive, never eating after eight at night, and walking every day. In Manhattan that means setting out early in the morning or at dusk with a bodyguard in tow, but at her weekend retreat, a country farm a three-hour drive away from New York, she is usually left in peace and can go out alone. Her weakness is chocolate cake.

‘I don’t even like it any more, and I still eat it. Then I feel upset when I can’t wear my good jackets and clothes, so I have to get back to my old size. But when you’re in the recording studio, you’re just waiting and waiting, people are eating all around you, and pretty soon you’re eating too.’

When I suggest that she could be enjoying a comfortable old age instead of waiting around in studios, she says, in a Japanese accent undiluted by her half a century in the West, ‘I don’t think of myself as old. And I am comfortable. The reason I’m comfortable is that I have all this inspiration in my head, and if I kept it there I think my brain would burst. It’s nice I can get it out.’ She enjoys taking on new challenges, she adds, and she can’t imagine a day when she won’t be creating: ‘That’s hell, for me.’

All of which explains why Ono is as active as ever as an artist, exhibiting all over the world. As for her music, remixes of her 2001 track I’m Not Getting Enough were at the top of the Billboard chart for US club play when we met last month, and her latest album, Between My Head and the Sky, comes out this month. It features a new incarnation of her Plastic Ono Band that includes her son, Sean, cool Japanese musicians such as Cornelius and Yuka Honda, and a sound that confidently spans jazz, pop, dance and rock without losing any of her edge. She also guests on a track on the new Basement Jaxx album, a further indication that her back catalogue is being enjoyed by a generation that has come to it without preconceptions.

Felix Burton of Basement Jaxx was 11 when John Lennon was shot dead outside the Dakota Building in New York, where Ono still lives, and says he wasn’t even sure who Lennon was at the time. But a few years ago, playing Lennon and Ono’s Double Fantasy album, he found himself enjoying her contributions more. ‘I thought her music was miles ahead of its time,’ he says, explaining why he approached her to collaborate on the track. ‘Then I saw something on TV, a piece of work Yoko did on the Holocaust, and it was absolutely beautiful, really moving. It was like a big cube with these narrow corridors that you walked through. She just seems a really alive and relevant artist. She’s quite a wise woman, and it doesn’t seem that she’s become over-cynical. There’s still a lightness in her mind and her soul.’

Yoko Ono was born in Tokyo in February 1933. She rarely talked about her wealthy, aristocratic parents while they were alive, wanting to protect them from the media. She didn’t even tell Lennon about the world of tradition and privilege she was born into, and when he first went to meet her family in 1971 his main worry was whether her father would be as short as his own father. ‘It was a very different scene to what he was thinking,’ Ono smiles, saying that her father was actually very tall – as well as being rather more posh than her husband had expected.

Lennon recovered well, however, and threw a formal party for her relatives to show that the English knew how to do things correctly, too. ‘He wore a beautiful dark-navy suit and a carnation,’ she says proudly. ‘It was so proper. I was amazed!’

Ono’s father, Yeisuke, worked in the family banking business but was also a keen musician who introduced his young daughter to the radical 12-tone experiments of Western composers such as Schoenberg. Her mother, Isoko, painted and played more than 10 musical instruments. ‘She was one of those society ladies, and she always looked very good, right up to the end,’ Ono says. ‘She would wear the most beautiful hats.’ Even during the war, when many Japanese women wore an ugly uniform of peasant work clothes, Isoko kept up appearances by having hers cut out of a fine silk dress.

Ono was taught music at nursery school, learning to notate sounds from nature and make them into music – an influence on some of her later musical scores, where she gave up trying to imitate nature with instruments and instead just instructed her readers to go out and listen to the birds sing. Later she went to the exclusive Gakushuin school, for the Japanese aristocracy. One of her classmates was the Crown Prince Akihito, now the Emperor of Japan. Hers was a traditional upbringing, where women were highly educated but knew their place, and where a smile had to be hidden by the hand. When her father’s work took the family to San Francisco, it was stressed to Ono that she must be on best behaviour at all times, an ambassador for the Japanese people. ‘So that was a little heavy burden, there,’ she laughs.

People sometimes forget, when mocking her pleas to give peace a chance, that Ono’s own experiences of war were very real. She was in Japan when the bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Her father had been working in Vietnam and was imprisoned in a concentration camp there, but his wife and children were in Tokyo when it was razed by American firebombs in 1945, killing more than 100,000 people. Afterwards Ono and her younger brother were evacuated to the countryside, where they were shouted at by the local children for being too Westernised, and where food was so scarce that they often had to resort to begging.

‘I feel lucky to have experienced that,’ she says, with her gift for turning the negative into a positive. ‘When I came back to Tokyo, and my classmates were all talking about how they’d evacuated from one of the palaces to another, and how the food in this palace wasn’t so good, I realised I’d experienced something a bit more real.’

After the war, she told her father she had decided to become a composer. He pointed out that there had never been any great female composers and encouraged her to perform music instead. Ono tried training as a classical singer but didn’t enjoy it, so instead she became the first woman ever to study philosophy at Tokyo’s elite Gakushuin University. But when her father’s work again took the rest of the family to the US, she dropped out and went to join them, soon gravitating towards New York where she became part of the new avant garde. She collaborated with the experimental composer John Cage and the free jazz supremo Ornette Coleman, she held concerts and exhibitions in her downtown loft that were attended by art world figures such as Marcel Duchamp and Jasper Johns, and became part of the radical Fluxus group in the early 1960s, as well as creating her own events and shows. ‘It was the right time to be in New York City,’ she says. ‘All these things were happening, and I was part of it. It was very exciting.’

Fluxus was about working outside the conventional art world, about provoking thought rather than making objects. For someone who has often been accused of being a control freak, Ono’s early art was all about putting the viewer in charge. She would supply a blank canvas and instructions for the audience to complete the work by treading on it, burning it, banging in nails or using their imagination. Later, she abandoned the canvas altogether and just left the instructions. Since the art she was making was mainly conceptual, she had nothing to sell. Mostly, her work has always been about imagining. ‘I always felt that what we made in art and music would have to be totally pure. You don’t want to make money with it.’ So she supported herself by working in a macrobiotic restaurant that also served as a venue for her early installations, and the Japan Society would book her to give lectures on subjects such as calligraphy or the Japanese tea ceremony.

Her parents said very little, but she knows they were disappointed. ‘It was all right for me to be an artist or a musician, but they were thinking of a more conservative route.’

When she married her fellow avant garde composer Toshi Ichiyanagi in New York in 1956, they were even more silently disapproving. ‘They didn’t outwardly complain,’ Ono says. ‘But my second marriage, to Tony Cox, they did really complain about that. And then by the time I got married to John, I think they just gave up on me.’

By the mid-1960s she had exhibited and performed in Japan, the US and Europe. She had created a stir with an experimental film of naked bottoms, she had collected her poems, scores and instruction paintings into a book, Grapefruit, and she had created Cut Piece, a powerful performance art piece in which she sat, impassive, while members of the audience cut off her clothes.

Yet reading through much of her press coverage, it would be easy to believe that Ono came into existence only in 1966, when John Lennon climbed up a ladder to look through a magnifying glass at a tiny word she had placed in a frame on the ceiling of the Indica Gallery in London. The word was ‘yes’, and in interviews later, he said it was a relief, after all that, to find she had written something positive. The gallery was also showing one of her instruction paintings: a blank canvas with a hammer and a jar of nails ready for the viewers to complete. Lennon asked if he could put the first nail in, and she said yes, if he paid five shillings. He then wondered if he could bang in an imaginary nail, in exchange for an imaginary five shillings.

A connection was made in that moment, an understanding reached – although it would be another year before this blossomed into a relationship. Lennon was still married to Cynthia, the mother of his son Julian. Ono was still married to Tony Cox, an American art promoter and the father of her daughter, Kyoko, who was born in 1963. The divorces were messy, the Beatles split up and Ono somehow got the blame, and the vitriol that was poured on her was astonishing. ‘I was like a punchbag for the world,’ she says. ‘But you know what? I’m very grateful for every experience that I went through. I’m here now because of all those experiences. But what happened was really hard.’

In the meantime, she won a bitter custody battle over Kyoko, only to have her ex-husband steal her daughter away while on an access visit, changing her name and choosing to raise her in a fringe Christian group called the Church of the Living Word. Losing her child was, Ono says now, like losing a limb. She spent years searching for her daughter, giving up only after one of the private detectives she had hired was involved in a high-speed car chase with Kyoko and her father, and Ono realised that the search itself was putting her child in danger. I asked how she stayed sane, and she says it was a struggle, but she had Lennon. And her work.

‘John and I, we really stimulated each other [creatively],’ she says. ‘And that was really great – you never get that. I think my curiosity as an artist kept me sane. That’s all that remained for me, in a way. Everything else was taken away.’

When I arrived at the Dakota Building for our interview, there was a tour group outside, their guide reliving the moment in December 1980 when Lennon was shot dead returning home from a day’s work in the studio with his wife. When I leave, a proud father is taking a picture of his two smiling daughters, standing on the spot where it happened. Ono doesn’t like this, but has learnt to accept it. ‘It’s just part of life, isn’t it?’ she shrugs.

People sometimes question why she chose to stay in the apartment after what happened, but it was the only home Sean – who was five when his father died – had ever known. And besides, it’s a lovely, comfortable home, with John’s white piano now covered with family photographs, his and Yoko’s art scattered among an impressive collection of antique and 20th-century pieces (she asks me not to be too specific about this, saying that New York is still a very violent city), and her offices located on another floor below.

After Lennon’s murder, Ono unravelled. She turned to a friend, the interior designer Sam Havadtoy, for help. He moved in, and stayed for nearly two decades. ‘John was a very strong presence in the family, and he just suddenly left,’ she explains. ‘And we were not prepared for it. Sam was a very special person who was very good with Sean – and I needed some support as well.’ The relationship was platonic, she says, and contrary to some media reports, they were never married. ‘It was a friendship,’ she says firmly. ‘A very good one.’

Now, she says, she can’t imagine being in a couple. ‘I’m pretty independent. I feel that being alone is very important for me at this point in my life, and I’m enjoying it, too. But I was not in that position at the time, and Sam gave me a kind of protection. It was not quite what John was giving me, but I needed somebody who was there, and who was also very intelligent, quick-minded and capable. Sam was that.’

Other friends also stepped into help. Ono had known Andy Warhol from her early years in New York, and throughout her relationship with Lennon Warhol had always encouraged her to ignore the critics and just keep on working. When Warhol came to Sean’s ninth birthday party at the Dakota, he noticed that all the photographs of him stopped after his fifth birthday. Ono explained that John wanted to photograph Sean every year, a project that ended when he died. ‘And Andy said, “OK, I’ll continue from here.” And he did photos of Sean, a lot of work using Sean’s face.’

The two formed an unlikely friendship, and when I say I can’t imagine Warhol playing with a child, she says that’s not really how it was. Sean grew up as an only child, and his parents had always talked to him like an adult. ‘He was a very quick, witty child, and Andy felt very comfortable with him,’ Ono says.

Warhol died in 1987, and Havadtoy moved back to his native Hungary a few years ago, but Ono stresses that although she now lives alone, she has a strong network of friends. There’s also the work, always the work. You sense she’s doing it now with an eye on the clock, aware that time is running out. With some of her conceptual work, technology has caught up with her ideas, so the house made of light she dreamt up in Grapefruit is now the Peace Tower in Iceland, a ‘building’ made of light that beams into the sky every year from John – and Sean’s – birthday in October and is extinguished on December 8, the day he died. She has also set up an annual Peace Award and, more recently, a Courage Award for artists.

She produces so much work that there’s bound to be an element of hit and miss, but there’s a serene beauty in many of her large-scale installations now, and she says she’s no longer so wary of emotion. She still manages to cause controversy, too. In 2004, for the Liverpool Biennial, she erected posters showing close-ups of a breast and a vagina, a piece she called My Mummy Was Beautiful. ‘I didn’t think that in this day and age they’d be so upset about it,’ she says, but when I say I think she enjoys causing mischief sometimes, she just smiles. Her work has consistently broken taboos, whether in posing nude with Lennon for the cover of their early album Two Virgins, making sculptures of contraception, making her miscarriage public and incorporating the unborn child’s heartbeat into a song, or more recently making work that unflinchingly deals with death: ‘I keep trying to put something new in there. And that gives me joy.’

As the genre-hopping of the new album shows, she is also more relaxed now, less rigorous in her approach. At one time, she wanted only to make sounds that hadn’t been heard before. ‘My attitude was never look back, and keep on moving. I was interested in finding new forms of music, and I think I actually did that with my Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band record [in 1970]. Some people will think that’s arrogance, but if you don’t believe in what you’re doing, you’d be dead as an artist. You have to be yourself. And you have to stand up for what you’re doing.’

She used to think that as she got older, she would know all there was to know about life. ‘But life keeps changing, and each time you’re surprised by the next step. Being pregnant. Being a mother. And then of course being a widow – which was an incredible surprise, terrible. The next one is becoming old, and dealing with that is very, very tough. And then you have your grandchildren.’

In 1994 Kyoko – at the urging of her husband, Jim – finally got back in touch with her mother. Ono now has two grandchildren, a girl and a boy, and Kyoko brings them from her home in Colorado a few times a year to visit. ‘They’re really beautiful people, and I enjoy them very much,’ Ono says. ‘I think they were intimidated at first, to come to my place. But now they’re used to it, and they love it. We have a great time, going to my country farm.’

As for Sean, he lives in Greenwich Village now, but his mother says he’s often away. ‘He just went to LA to do a concert. He’s always travelling. You just feel like, “Oh why did I have this son? He’s not calling me!”’ She admits that when he suggested they make an album together the main reason for agreeing was maternal: ‘I’m thinking that if we work together, we’ll be together every day.’

Early on, she and John had decided not to play their music to Sean. ‘Because it will be so difficult for him, you know. But he did his homework, without us knowing about it. I didn’t know that Sean knew so much of my work.’

She recalls the first time she appeared live with his band, in Japan. ‘There was no rehearsal, nothing. I just got on stage and started doing a spontaneous thing. I thought, “Oh. They’re not going to follow this. They can’t follow this.” And they did.’

She was impressed, and these musicians became the core of the studio band on the new album. ‘It just went so smoothly!’ she says proudly, urging me to listen again to Sean’s piano part on one track, Higa Noburu. ‘It’s a pretty long song, and I would have expected somebody to make a mistake in the middle of it, but he just did it, in one take.’

A couple of weeks later, Ono talks to me on the phone from Japan, where she is promoting the new album. Towards the end of our time in New York, I had brought up the subject of the Beatles Rock Band video game that comes out this month. It’s a real coup for its maker, MTV, allowing fans to become one of the Fab Four and ‘play’ along with their hits, but also allowing them to download Beatles tracks digitally for the first time. I had asked Ono if it was a hard decision for the four shareholders in Apple Corps – Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison’s widow, Olivia, and Ono – to make, and she had explained that McCartney had been the driving force behind it, but that she thought it was a very good idea. Then she talked warmly of going to Boston to see the game’s programmers at work and offer her input. ‘They were beautiful, beautiful people, all incredible artists. They’re doing fantastic stuff.’

A week later, a press story headlined ‘Yoko tries to split Beatles Rock Band’ portrayed her Boston visit as a last-minute attempt to derail the project. Once more, Yoko was the villain. ‘There’s this recurring myth that I broke the Beatles up, and that was repeated yet again,’ she says wearily. ‘I was horrified.’

In fact, all of the Apple Corps shareholders had input to make the game as accurate as possible, and as well as Ono, Olivia Harrison asked for changes, supplying new pictures of her husband so that the team could get his digital version right. ‘Both of us have a responsibility to our husbands,’ Ono says about a role neither of them asked for or wanted. ‘We’re doing our best.’

On the whole, she says, relationships between the shareholders have improved greatly in recent years. ‘All of us are more mature, and know that we just have to get on with it and make the best of it.’ One of their biggest concerns now is simplifying the company, clearing up any outstanding legal complications and making the Beatles’ legacy less of a burden for the next generation to inherit.

‘I’m not involving Sean in the businesses because I think he should have the time to fly on his own, as an individual, and that’s what he was doing until he helped me create this record,’ she says. ‘I just want him to have that time, as much as he can. He will have to take responsibility for it all at some point, but maybe by then it will have simplified. If I can somehow set it up so that he will not have to be burdened so much, I would love to do that. I’m trying to do as much as possible before I go.’

‘Between My Head and the Sky’ is out on Monday September 21

Ono’s secret to looking young, she says, is staying positive, never eating after eight at night, and walking every day.