by Carol Clerk, The Quietus
Some of us may be surprised at just how good Between My Head And The Sky, the new album by the Plastic Ono Band, actually is. Not Carol Clerk, who met up with Yoko to talk about her music and peace projects . . .
It’s a beautiful September morning, and things really couldn’t feel more perfectly uplifting. The sun is shining, the sky is blue, and the trees are just beginning to take on the golden hues of early autumn.
Yoko Ono, a tiny figure, perches at one end of a squashy sofa in a hotel suite overlooking Hyde Park. She looks fabulous. Dressed characteristically in black, revealing a daring display of cleavage and with just a flick of mascara by way of make-up, she is as inspirational as usual.
It’s not just that, at 76, she has released what many consider to be the finest album of her career — Between My Head And The Sky — and will tour it in Japan in November with son Sean and the new incarnation of the Plastic Ono Band, featuring such estimable Japanese musicians as Yuka Honda (who played alongside Sean, her former boyfriend, in the New York-based band Cibo Matto) and members of the innovative pop outfit Cornelius.
And it’s not just that this remarkable woman, after silently enduring decades of abuse and derision, has finally won the respect of her peers, her critics and, indeed, the establishment, without ever chasing it. This year alone, she has been awarded two prestigious lifetime achievement awards for her adventures in the avant garde; one, from Mojo, recognising her pioneering musical experiments and the other, the Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion, acknowledging her contributions to art.
“It’s nice that I’m still alive and I’m experiencing it,” she admits, before half-joking, in her customary self-deprecating manner, about the directors who decided to honour her and the writers who have reviewed her album in unanimously glowing terms: “I was so worried for them. I thought, ‘Oh, I hope they’re not going to be attacked for doing it.'”
Of course, they haven’t been. But being Yoko Ono, Public Enemy Number One for so very long takes a lot of getting over.
And what else is admirable about Ono?
Well, there’s always the knowledge that in person, she’s as warm and smiley as her long-standing image was forbidding and aloof. Then there’s the fact that for long years, she braved an openly hostile environment to take a stand against racism, sexism and political injustice, and there’s the relish with which she has utilised playfulness, mischief, whimsy and the occasional shocking bombshell in tandem with the serious qualities of her instructional writings, conceptual artworks and unconventional singing and songwriting.
Equally commendable is that Yoko Ono has never given a fuck about age or expectation or the done thing, and she still doesn’t. She’s happy to take a risk, for love and for curiosity. For instance, when Sean invited her to join him and some musician friends onstage at a gig in Tokyo in January this year to launch his own record label, Chimera, she wasn’t convinced that the band would be up to playing her material. But she figured: “Well, it’s my son, I’m going to do that . . . If it’s really a mess, it’s interesting too.”
The eventual happy outcome was “a very zen thing”, and Yoko was so elated by the intuitiveness of the players that she asked Sean to bring them together as the basis of the new Plastic Ono Band for her summer show at London’s Meltdown festival and for the recording sessions in New York that resulted in Between My Head And The Sky, which is one of Chimera’s inaugural releases.
“It’s a very interesting mix of musicians,” says Yoko, “because they’re from the digital age and I’m like John [Lennon], I come from the emotional age. Sean said, ‘You’re the fire.’ And they were like the air, the cool air. But the spiritual connection was totally the same, the way we approached it.”
Yoko’s productivity, at a time of life when most folks would be thinking of putting their feet up in front of the plasma screen, is genuinely astonishing. A glance at her schedule shows that she rarely spends too long in any one country. Quite apart from making albums and playing gigs, she travels the world organising art exhibitions and events, researching and promoting charities, supporting humanitarian and environmental campaigns, looking after John Lennon’s career and reputation, and holding up his interests in the latest wave of Beatles merchandising.
Her vision, her commitment to quality, never wavers; Ono is a woman who seems able to juggle any number of balls without ever dropping them. What drives all of this unrelenting activity?
“Well”, she ventures, without missing a beat. “I think that each thing is very important. I pick the things out of love. Each one is a life.”
Does she have a life herself, though? Yoko claims that the weekend is a “very precious” time for her, yet she spends it completing paperwork and correspondence that there’s no time for during the working week. I wonder how she’d spoil herself if she woke up in New York one morning with nothing to do for the entire day.
“It’s very important that people know about this,” she responds. “Japanese culture is a culture of meditation, and meditation is not something you have to do cross-legged in a big circle. You can eat meditating, you can walk meditating. Meditation is the culture of peace. And so when you’re creating a life of meditation, then you’re actually directly connecting yourself with world peace. Keep on living a life of meditation, and let’s all achieve world peace through that. And we’ll send a peace vibration to the universe.”
Now, this is where any even slightly cynical individual is going to part company with me, but here is what I like most about Yoko Ono and find most inspiring about her: in her peace initiatives, and in her unassailable belief in the potential triumph of good over evil, she is absolutely trustworthy.
You can call her naive, you can call her preposterously idealistic, you can call her whatever else you like, but there’s no denying that Ono has been saying the same thing for almost 40 years now, that War Is Over — if you want it. And she has put her money where her mouth is, and she is still encouraging the world to join in.
There have been massive projects, none more ambitious or spectacular than the IMAGINE PEACE TOWER, a great beam of light that rises to the skies from a white wishing well on Videy Island, off the Icelandic coast at Reykjavik. Powered by geothermal energy, it’s lit between Lennon’s birthday (October 9) and the anniversary of his death (December 8), as well as on other special occasions throughout the year.
There have been ideas first explored in the old days with John, such as poster campaigns in major international cities, and messages placed in newspapers and magazines, and there have been fun events that depend on interactivity. Take Earth Day, back in April, when Ono appealed to her followers to create a wish tree – wishing being a recurring theme in her work, and wish trees long being familiar sights at her exhibitions.
The Earth Day tree could be a sapling, planted especially for the occasion, or an existing shrub, or a sturdy oak or a willowy birch, designated a wish tree. It could be in the corner of a garden, or a patch of waste ground. The important thing was that the participants and their friends would write their dearest hopes on pieces of paper or card, tie them to the branches, collect more, and finally send them all to Iceland, where they will ultimately join the hundreds of thousands of wishes already buried in the wishing well.
People from all around the world duly took up the challenge and sent photos of their trees to Ono’s website, Imagine Peace. She has announced a similar wish-tree project to mark Lennon’s birthday – “Peace Day” – next month.
Ono loves technology. Communication is the name of her game, and she uses it to mobilise her rapidly growing army of peace campaigners — “a very rich community”. She sends out daily messages on Twitter, writes blogs, and keeps her MySpace and Imagine Peace pages filled with news and updates, videos and archive footage. She also personally answers at least 20 of the many thousands of emails that arrive at the website every week.
“It’s amazing,” she enthuses. “There’s so many people sending emails to me saying, ‘This is what I’m doing.’ They’re all working for world peace in their own way, some of them in a big way. I can’t answer them all individually. On the weekend, I just do 20 replies, but it’s better than having a big company of people sending out replies to everyone as Yoko Ono. Truth is so important.
“I think there’s a big movement now. People used to write, saying, ‘You’re famous — it’s all right for you, you can say things.’ But whatever you’re thinking, whatever your action, each thought and each action directly affects the whole world. And I kept saying that.
“And now you know what happen? Two scientists who were researching about how the waves are made in the ocean, they found out that even a little pebble that stopped in the water, or a little boy who jumps in the water — all that affects the whole ocean. I thought, ‘This is so good.’ Before, I always thought about land. But now we know that land and ocean together, we’re having an effect together every day.”
Yoko says she originally started the concept of IMAGINE PEACE to bring about a movement that everyone, no matter where they lived in the world, could join without fear of being arrested, or causing a violent reaction.
She explains: “Before that, you had to speak out. But now we know that psychically we’re all connected, you don’t have to speak out loud and be put in jail or something. And that was the idea. Imagine peace, think peace, act peace, support peace, and let all your friends imagine peace. That whole thing is really sinking into people.”
This is the principle at the heart of all of Ono’s current creative work.
“There are many different kinds of vibrations,” she continues, with such heartfelt enthusiasm that it’s impossible not to feel wonderfully optimistic with her. It’s a feelgood experience, spending time with Yoko.
“The vibration of music and art is the vibration of freedom and justice, and it has a healing power, and we’re going to cover the earth with it, and this planet will become a planet of art and music. And after we achieve world peace, which we will right away because of that, we send a peace vibration to the universe, which the universe needs, probably.
“We’re now standing together on the threshold of the new age, but it’s not opening to us, we’re opening it. That’s a very important difference. My prediction is, it’s going to be fine.
“Right now it’s not good, because peaceniks are so afraid. They’re living in fear and doubt. That’s why we can’t have peace. Violence is a very strong power, a destructive power, and the two per cent of the people who want to solve things with violence can kill the whole earth. They see us people weak and being in fear.
“If we started to understand what we’re doing is going to create a beautiful future and we start doing that, the people who are violent are going to see that the peaceniks are building a beautiful culture and civilisation and enjoying it. We’re not going to solve problems with violence, but by discussion and conference. People say, ‘Why are some of your songs so sad?’ Because you have to bring out all those things.”
Typically, the general lyrical sweep of Between My Head And The Sky reflects the idea of our stumbling journey towards a better world. A “deluge” of new songs tumbled out in the studio in a burst of spontaneity from Yoko, with the sessions later described by Sean Lennon as “a tornado of inspiration”.
Ono, who wrote the album and co-produced it with her son, comments: “It was very exciting. The band were all excited too. It was almost like I was in a trance, so I wasn’t counting the songs. They just came to me. I allowed them to come through rather than holding back. When somebody makes an album — ‘This is a rock album’ or ‘a classic album’ or whatever, everything else that doesn’t fit in there, they edit out. If I make an album that’s totally edited and sanitised, it would be boring. I don’t want to create something that’s boring.”
There’s nothing boring about Yoko’s latest masterwork, a place of ever-changing colours and moods and tempos and tones. Typically, it hops from one style to another showcasing many vintage Ono vocal techniques, from spoken word to flurries of unorthodox, wordless outpourings, both wild and gentle, and from the velvety richness of ‘Watching The Rain’ to the fragile, bittersweet melodiousness of ‘I’m Going Away Smiling’ and the delicacy of ‘Memory Of Footsteps’.
Yoko makes unsurprising references to nature, the earth, the elements, the gardens, the grass, the sand, the birds and the animals, including ‘Ask The Elephant’, one of her particularly light-hearted, nursery-type compositions, and one that she audibly had fun interpreting, in front of a backdrop of parping sax.
But all of this familiarity is delivered by way of some really exceptional arrangements and a band who turn out to be every bit as “brilliant” as Ono promises. They hit a hard, contemporary dance groove on ‘The Sun Is Down!’ while also convincingly creating an urgent, riffy, rocky intensity with the title track, a delightfully jazzy drift with ‘Moving Mountains’, a swirly, spacious strangeness on ‘Feel The Sand’, and an exquisite, glassy sensitivity within ‘Healing’.
“I’m in love with all different forms of music, and I like to put it together,” Yoko ventures. “That goes back to what I was saying — what I do is out of love.”
The seconds-long ‘I’m Alive’ closes the collection with a barrage of banging sounds, signifying a new beginning.
“To start with, on [the opening track] ‘Waiting For The D Train’, D is death,” offers Ono, brightly. “But while we’re waiting for the D Train, the sun is down, things are happening. Some of them are very positive, feelings and ideas and all that, and some of them are painful incidents that we go through. And you’re not afraid of showing all that, and then at the end, the sun is rising and it’s ‘I’m Alive’. It’s all of us, we’re going to start a new age, building things, hammering things.”
All of Ono’s conversational topics chime together and revolve in perfect circles: the vibrations, the music and art that will cover the earth, the prospect of world peace and the new age, and the ultimate message to the universe.
But one person is working tirelessly behind the scenes towards these desirable outcomes without so far getting many thanks for it. That’s John, says Yoko. And he is doing it through the latest outbreak of Beatlemania — “the second revolution” — which has recently involved the release of the Fabs’ remastered albums and the emergence of The Beatles’ Rock Band video game.
Yoko, with the surviving Beatles and Olivia Harrison, went to Boston to advise the artists working on the game about the finer details of the boys’ appearances and mannerisms. “And I did my best,” says Yoko, who was sorry that the press could not resist the chance to revive an old, old story: “They were nearly going to say that she was going to break up The Beatles again.”
From somewhere, and quite unexpectedly, Yoko is propelled into a spirited defence of her husband. “I want people to know,” she opens, “John is the one who initiated The Beatles. He put it together, he named it The Beatles, he was the leader, and he really encouraged them to become Number One.”
Not least with his famous “toppermost of the poppermost” rallying cry.
“He did that and created a revolution. This is the second revolution. When he created the first revolution, not very many kids were playing guitars, just very unique musicians. Now most boys can play guitar. And the next revolution is going to be an education of music done by video game. The whole of the planet’s going to be educated by this, and it’s going to be a planet of music.
“And this planet of music is going to heal everything, it’s going to clean the earth, clean the air, clean the water, and it’s going to bring world peace, and we’re going to go on to send that peaceful vibration to the universe, and that’s it. And the second revolution could not happen without John. I just want people to know that.”
Yoko leans forward from the sofa, lifts a magazine from the coffee table, and stares at The Beatles on the cover. “I look at some of the photos of John, and he looks a little bit crazier [than Paul, George and Ringo], but he was not crazy. He was so totally intelligent and wise, and that made this happen. And it will make it happen that this will be the planet of peace.”
So John is still playing an active part.
“We have to remember that. I’m the only person who would say it.”
Ono, however, is not about to dwell in the past for too long. As I start getting ready to leave, she is telling me how “very honoured” and “very, very happy” she was to be asked to sing for Basement Jaxx on ‘Day Of The Sunflowers (We March On)‘, a track from their acclaimed new album, Scars. Yoko continues to attract admirers from a younger musical generation who have no bones to pick with her, only minds that are open to deriving inspiration from her considerable catalogue — Mark Ronson and Antony Hegarty, he of The Johnsons, were both delighted to join her and the Plastic Ono Band onstage at her old mate and free jazz legend Ornette Coleman’s Meltdown festival back in June.
It’s still early. Ono has quite a few more journalists to see today and tomorrow, and she is already leaping into a discussion about a competition she hopes to run, offering musicians the chance to compete for the best remix of ‘The Sun Is Down!’ Nothing ever stops for a second in Yoko’s world. Again, I marvel at her energy and commitment and sense of belonging in a world that she so hopes to change, and step back out into the bright sunshine, smiling.