Create a rock ‘n’ roll map of London showing the hot-spots past and present, you’d be left with a big empty space called Knightsbridge – it’s about as rock ‘n’ roll as Harrogate. Which explains why I haven’t been near the place for 20 years or so. I park my car at the back of Harrods and wonder through the food hall –it’s nowhere near as impressive as I recall. Has Harrods lost it’s sparkle? No, it’s just the rest of the retail world has caught up. I’m as likely to see an impressive display of fresh fish in my local Sainsbury’s as I am at Harrods. We can all buy sea bass now; it’s filtered down to us plebs, no longer do Harrods have the monopoly on the exotic. Emerging from the store on the Knightsbridge side the traffic thunders back and forth and the pavement is thronged with the middle classes of the world, all caught up in their competitive consumption, striving to out-do the next with meaningless extravagances that somehow justify their empty existence. These are the ladies who shop.
A quick dash between anguished motorists and I’m hovering outside of a large and impressive hotel. Do I really have to go in there? I’ll stand out like a pimple on the Mona Lisa. Time to grab a last gasper before plunging into a world of comfort and money as alien to me as Mars. Inside it’s like a law court, all dark wood, filtered light and men in suits. I’m told to wait and am ushered to a seat that owes its existence to The Spanish Inquisition, upright, unyielding, designed to remind you that you’re not a real guest, an interloper, just passing through. Ten minutes of discomfort follow, relieved by the arrival of the charming Murray Chalmers, PR to Yoko Ono. Up in the lift we go and I’m expecting the ‘do’s and don’ts’ lecture. “Don’t mention The Beatles”, etc, but it doesn’t come ad I’m conducted to the door of The Royal Suite. Knock, knock, the door opens and a little head pops round to see who it is, two little eyes glint over sunglasses – it’s Yoko. We shake hands and Yoko invites me to sit next to her on her large, overstuffed sofa.
As it happens I wouldn’t have needed the lecture, I wasn’t here to talk about The Fabbies, I was here to talk about Yoko. I’m a big fan of her, you see, her art and her music, and that has nothing, or very little to do with the Liverpool lads. Right now we’re at the receiving end of a concerted Beatles frenzy and I couldn’t care less.
So there I sit, just Yoko and me. And all my nervousness has gone. I’d like to point out that I never get nervous about interviews, but this is Yoko Ono, one of the most significant people of the last half-century, and that has nothing to do with a former pop group. But I’ve taken my jacket off and dumped it on the other side of the room, the jacket that contains; my reading glasses and my questions. Keen to press on I decide I can do with out them, until I press play on my new MP3 Dictaphone, about the size of a matchbox. Without my reading glasses the tiny display panel is a blur, so I ask Yoko is she can see the dot that tells me it’s recording. Yoko confirms, across the top of those sunglasses, that the dot is there. We laugh. So, without my carefully considered questions we commence. I kick off by complimenting her on the new Plastic Ono Band album, ‘Between My Head and The Sky’, a very fine piece of work. But tell me Yoko, why Plastic Ono Band?
“I wasn’t thinking about it all. I freed myself after John’s passing. But then, the thing is, The Chimera music company that my son Sean has opened said please make it Plastic Ono Band would you? I said why, why? I thought about it, that was John naming the band for me, well for him and me. And this is John’s son who’s going to do this with me, it’s a family thing so let’s do it”
There, you see? Determined as I was to avoid the ‘B’ word, and by extension the ‘J’ name, and Yoko has mentioned him three times in the first two minutes. It wasn’t me guv, honest, she bought it up, what can I do? Move on, best move on.
And how is it working with your son? Any arguments?
“Well it’s so amazing. A lot of people advised me, if you’re going to do that, it’s going to be very difficult, it’s not the sort of thing you should be doing – so I got nervous. When Sean said let’s do it, I said fine – but then I got nervous. But then when we started it I realised I didn’t know anything about him, I mean I knew he was a good musician but for this he was a music director and partner with me in production. So, I thought maybe he’s a good musician, but what about directing, what ca he do? He was so perfectly professional, and I started to discover him and I think maybe from his side there was some discovery too. So we kind of enjoyed it and used that time to know each other, which we didn’t have before because he was so busy…and so was I.”
You’re a very busy person, aren’t you? (Do like I did and type Yoko Ono into news Google – the woman never stops!)
“I’m very busy, Sean would say: “Mummy you’re never in New York, you’re never here and we miss you” and I said, “well, when I’m in New York you’re not there so what are you talking about?” But for some reason we were given this chance to know each other, and it’s fantastic.”
The album didn’t take long to make.
“No, well if it had taken longer maybe we would have had a disastrous argument or something, you know, like Oasis backstage. That’s so easy to happen, to any musician or group of musicians because musicians are very sensible people. But luckily we did it in a week.”
Band break-up? She’s talking about band break-ups? There was a band-break-up some years ago that she was, ridiculously, blamed for. But that band had run its course, as they all do, and it just so happened that Yoko was around when it happened – how thoroughly conniving of her! But I’m not going for the bait, let’s get onto interesting stuff, her art.
What was the impulse that drew you towards art?
“It was in the late 50’s. My parents put me into an early education at music school before elementary school and so I studied chords and notes and all the musical things. When I was four, music was a part of my life. I wanted to be a composer but my father thought that was something that did not lay in the aptitude of women; there were no famous women composers. So, in a nice way he was concerned for me. ‘Why don’t you become a singer and sing other people’s songs?’ But I think the more people say don’t the more you want to. I think my parents didn’t mind if I became a classical musician, but in avant-garde?!”
So when you were in New York working with the Fluxus people how did your parents take that? Were they confused?
I didn’t even report it, and luckily they were in Japan so…”
I read you were a reluctant member of Fluxus?
“I was never reluctant at all. I’ll tell you what it was: there were several very kind of seminal artists in New York and George Maciunas came into my loft to a concert I was giving and said: ‘This is great’. So he got all the musicians who did the concert and them into concerts in a more mid-town place, a mid-town gallery, my place was just a loft you know. So then he listed all those names and said: ‘This is a group of people who should be known as something and we should have a name’. I said: ‘No, you’re just putting together these people, it should be some kind of movement so that the artists can make a statement together. Him making statements for them was not right. But then the thing is, the next day he showed me: ‘This should be the name of the movement’ and he just came up with Fluxus. So most of the artists who were already there on the New York scene were saying ‘What’s he up to?’ So we were pretty cynical at the beginning, but when I think about it now it’s great that he named it, and that’s why it’s still circulating.
When did you first come to London?
1st September 1966…which is funny because On Kawara, who is a very famous artist, does all this art with dates like, “September 1st 1966 so and so happened”, so in this particular painting, I think he calls them paintings although they’re actually these numbers, ‘September 1st 1966 Yoko Ono went to London’. I’m glad that someone remembered it.”
I complain about anniversaries, the world is infatuated by them.
“John is going to be 70 next year.”
There she goes again! Isn’t this the 40th anniversary of the bed protest?
“Yes, I know, this year, because it’s 40 years since 1969 and in 1969 there were so many things we did, so even the sending of the acorns to heads of state, we did it again this year.”
Could a work of art be as effective in getting the message across again?
“At the time we thought: ‘Great, this is going to work!’ Not only didn’t it work but we got so much backlash, and we were not prepared for that. Oh my God, they were outraged.”
Can we outrage people with art anymore?
“I still think that the vibration of art and the vibration of music, which is a healing vibration, a vibration of freedom, a vibration of justice, I think is something very important and this vibration will cover the earth. I think this planet is going to be a planet of music and art and with the healing power that these things have it’s going to finally become world peace and we’re not only going to create a world of peace but we’re going to have that peace vibration and send it to the universe.”
Okay…now we’re getting into some rather deep stuff. If anybody else had tried to sell that particular parcel of goods to me I’d have laughs a big, deep, 21st century cynical laugh and written them off as hippies. But Yoko has got me, the eyes, the sunglasses, the voice, the honesty – I’m trapped like a spider in the bath and for now all I can do is nod in agreement. Before I know it I’m slipping into Yoko-land and my mouth is moving independently to shape the next question – Is man’s destiny in the stars? (Is Yoko working me like a vent’s dummy? I’ve never asked a question like that in my life.)
“Well I think this is an embryonic stage, almost like we’re babies, jut born, then gradually we’ll start to communicate with the stars and I really think that it’s going to be beautiful. So the Imagine Peace Tower is shooting up the light to let them know that we’re here and we’re going to do it. It’s not crazy, it’s logical.”
And maybe it is but I need to get of this subject before I say something dismissive. But I left my questions across the room…Panic! Get back to music Tom, for fuck’s sake. Ah, how about this? What did you think of punk?
“I was interested in all kinds of music. There wasn’t any music formed that we didn’t experiment with, I mean John and I did.”
There he is again! Press on. Some may see punk as a rebuttal to the idealism of the 60’s?
“That’s not true at all, see, the thing is they still say things like that to me, you know, you’re supposed to be a very positive person and there are some songs that are very sad and so on. I’m saying look, don’t hide the sadness under the rug, bring it out and shed light on it and it will disappear, it will become confident. You have to do that, you cannot just say: ‘Everything’s fine’, you have to make it fine.
That told me! Isn’t the world in a war-like state at the moment?
“No, because you see the thing is, the big difference between now and the 60’s is the fact that in those days there were not very many people who thought it was so important to work for world peace. Many people wanted to be soldiers, many people who wanted to be Shogun in the sense of honour and medals and that sort of thing, and they had respect for these people. Now very few people have respect for people who want tom kill a lot of people or bomb a city or something like that. So now I think, almost 99% of the world is wishing for world peace, desperately, and the 1% is thinking they should solve problems with bombs…and it isn’t going to work. Finally they’re going to join us. They’ll think, maybe its better to join them because we don’t want to lose our arms and legs. And it’s really that, if we don’t, if we have this fear and doubt, which we do, even the peace people. One of the things that’s bad about peace people is that there’s so much doubt about and so much fear, and the violent people say: ‘Oh these people, they are nothing’, but once we are so into what we are doing and we can do it, we know we can do it, and they’ll join us. Power speaks. And so it’s going to be instead of solving these things with violence it’s going to be solving things with discussions and conferences.”
I was with her right up to the bit about conferences, personally I’d rather gouge my eyes out than sit around a table talking to dumpties. Ugh!
Yoko, if you were to view your life as a work of art…
“I think that reality is stranger than fiction.”
Which pieces in the gallery of your life are you most proud of?
“Well, first of all I don’t think of my life as a wok of art, saying it’s a work of art is just saying there’s a suspicion I created, I really think that things come to me in a way that, you know, somehow I was supposed to do things, and I get inspired by it, I’m like a medium, I get all these messages and dish it out for the benefit of the world.”
Do you feel privileged in that position?
“I feel very privileged. I don’t think everybody’s into that trip, but whether you’re into that trip or not, everybody can be that be one bit, that I am the one who’s interested in that.”
I’m not letting this go. I thought hard about that question, try again. Are there any pieces missing in the exhibition of your life? Which pieces would you like to add?
“Well, I just like the idea of not setting any definition or limitation to my life, anything I say would be setting limitations to my life and I just want it to be an open book.”
Check mate to Yoko. I go about our readers being predominantly young and Yoko jumps in –
“You want a message to our readers? Be yourself, don’t be afraid of being yourself.”
No, I wasn’t going to ask for that but thanks anyway. I was just going to ask whether you thought the young generation had that spark? The creativity and freedom of thought that exemplifies the 60s generation?
“They do, what they’re doing is a totally different trip, it’s a very difficult age in terms of climate at the same time so they are covering themselves, and there’s and incredible power they have and they know it.
“And instead of freaking out they’re letting their creative imagination talk and they’re using that.
“I really think that what they’re doing is stronger and we’re going to get results from it. Whenever you speak there’s always a backlash you know? But if you don’t speak…”
The lady will not be nudged from her positivity, no matter how I try she won’t say a bad word about anybody. Time to change track.
How about attacking something abstract? The web – isn’t it just a confusing ball of chaos? Isn’t it overwhelming?
“No, no I’m just trying to put myself in the right so that I don’t get confused or upset.
“There’s always false information. All my life I was surrounded by false information about myself and others, I’m used to that, it’s nothing.”
Do you have to develop an ability to see through all that false information?
“Yes, see through, you want to preset the truth, you want to preset the real truth, even if it’s a tiny bit of truth it does reflect the world. And so I’m always very concerned about what I preset the world.”
Yoko has been making a stir on the club scene with her remixing projects these last few years. What attract her to the concept of the remix?
“Well first of all, the first record that we made (we being Yoko and that bloke from Liverpool), ‘Two Virgins’ it said: ‘Unfinished Music 1’ and Life With The Lions was ‘Unfinished Music 2’ – I just wanted to make a statement about the past, that I’m into having other people participate in the creativity, and I did say that then but nobody understood it really.
Well a lot people didn’t understand what we were doing then. Were there any people at the time who thought those records were any good?
“Nobody thought that. I was looking at this newspaper and there’s a beautiful photo of a trashcan, you know, and there was a photo sent to me from Japan of a huge trash can saying: ‘This is Yoko Ono’s LP’ or something, and that’s where it started.”
Was it a step too far? A step too far into the art world?
“I think so yeah, but you know the ‘Two Virgins’ was really the first kind of mesh of a Liverpool guy and a Tokyo woman bonding like that, it was really incredible.
It was readers, quite incredible. So did it hurt when people were rude about it?
“No, we kind of expected it.”
So was it fun?
“It wasn’t fun, but we thought: ‘Ok, you know, they didn’t understand. I come from a New York art tradition; an art tradition where if people walked out on your theatre, on your performance that meant that you were doing something that was totally revolutionary. And if you were doing something that people loved it got a bit annoying: ‘What am I doing wrong?”
Sensing an opening I veer back to the subject of the present youth, they don’t seem to have that spirit or desire to tip over the apple cart do they?
“Well because they don’t have to. Because the world is upsetting enough and they really want to create peace and I think that’s a really good way to do it.”
So is there no place in the world for the sort of attitude you had in the 60’s?
“It has to change. And we have to use the healing power of music rather than the rebellious part of music, we don’t need that anymore.”
“Because we found that it was so urgent and necessary to heal the world, and everybody agrees on that, so we don’t have to be rebellious to say that. We’re all on the same page.”
Something in those eyes tells me the interview is over. She picks up a copy of ArtRocker from the coffee table and starts to flick through it. I leave.
Back at the office I’m asked how it went. I say it was great and that Yoko was lovely. I’m floating like a feather on the wind. A few days later, as I transcribe the interview I become aware that I’ve been Yoko-ed, I’ve fallen in with a 76 year old lady with a twinkling eye and incredible mind. And I know that you, like that guy form Liverpool, would have fallen in love with her too.
I re-cross Knightsbridge on winged feet. I met Yoko, and that means more to me than you can possibly imagine.