Times Online


by Craig McLean, Times Online

Have Beatles fans finally learnt to love Yoko Ono? She talks about building a tower of light for Lennon

Yoko Ono was thinking ahead. That was the only way she could think. Like an art-shark — not one of this elaborate theoriser’s metaphors, but it could be — she has to move forward at all times. To think about the past would mean thinking about her upper-class, conservative upbringing and eventual disowning by a family with rarefied banking and imperial connections; about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, whose destruction happened when she was a 12-year-old in Japan; the firebombing of Tokyo by the Americans, which she actually lived through.

“I’m sure that’s part of me, of course,” the artist and musician says when asked if the horrors of the Second World War are reflected in her work. “The Holocaust? That is something I feel very close to and feel very badly about it, only because I was on the other end. I was experiencing not anything so terrible, but I witnessed a lot of things. It was terrible: there was the siren, and the American planes are coming over our heads, and we have to go down to the shelter and in the shelter all the kids are praying.” She clasps her hands together and mutters a quick, childish imprecation in Japanese. “And when that’s over we come out. Well,” she smiles, “another day. We lived another day. That’s the only reality we knew. In a way it wasn’t that horrible,” is her rather remarkable conclusion.

But in 1964, Ono was thinking ahead. After a stint as part of the Fluxus movement in New York, she was now an avant- garde artist working in London. She had drawn up a “sales list” — a catalogue of theoretical artworks she would like to make. One of these was entitled Light House — “a phantom house that is built by sheer light”. What was its purpose?

“I just thought it would be a cool idea! I was also into that idea of something that is not concrete and set in reality. Something that is between the reality and the conceptual; the physical and the metaphysical.”

Also on that list was a “wind house”, in which all of the rooms would make a different noise. Back then Ono had so many ideas that she didn’t know what to do with them — the technology hadn’t been invented — other than show them to friends. In 1967, for her show at the Lisson Gallery in London, she rewrote the Light House concept. That was the year she met John Lennon, and the Beatle invited her to lunch at his home in Weybridge, Surrey. He asked if she would build him a Light House for his garden. She replied: “Oh, that was conceptual. I’m convinced that one day it could be built, but I don’t know how to do it.”

“They were ideas you couldn’t create in one day,” Ono, now 76, reflects. “So it was better to just write it down.” Hence Grapefruit, “the book of instructions”, she says of her famous Sixties manual-cum-event. “In other words, I’m saying, ‘I can’t do it, I have this idea, please do it’.”

Another famous mid-Sixties work was No 4, aka Bottoms, a film that showed exactly what it said on the tin. Whose bums were they?

“Well, so many people,” Ono replies, laughing. “I don’t know if they’d want me to mention them! That was really the London Sixties bottoms.”

Famous Swinging Sixties bottoms?

“Yes! It was really like an incredible expression of energy.”

Is John Lennon’s bottom there?

“I don’t know,” she replies, giving a smile one feels obliged to describe as enigmatic.

Several years later, Ono would deploy nude body parts again, in an installation piece called My Mummy was Beautiful. It featured images of a breast and a vulva, and was made for the 2004 Liverpool Biennial. Did she expect the upset it caused?

“I was totally surprised! I said, ‘This is Liverpool, the birth of the Beatles and everything.’ Just a hip city, I thought. And I was dedicating it to John because John was so much into his mother, you know? And I thought people would love it. And I wanted to cover Liverpool with beauty. And they didn’t think it was beauty!”

Even when she tries to do right by the Beatles and their legacy, it seems that Ono will always be cast as the villain in some quarters. But it’s hard to square the antipathy of some cultural observers with the small, giggly, friendly woman sitting so close that our knees are almost touching. It is Friday, October 9, 2009 and we are in a Reykjavik hotel suite. This would have been John Lennon’s 69th birthday. It is also the birthday of Ono and Lennon’s son Sean, who turns 34.

Today — 42 years after Lennon first voiced his enthusiasm for Ono’s light tower — on the small island of Videy, just offshore from the Icelandic capital, the artwork will become reality. At 8pm, six mirrors and nine searchlights will be turned on, shooting a beam high into the sky. This is the Imagine Peace Tower. Inaugurated by Ono, Ringo Starr and Olivia Harrison (widow of George) in 2007, it will stay lit until December 8, the day of Lennon’s murder in New York in 1980.

Ono is dressed all in black; not widow’s weeds — the horizontal and vertical prominence of her frankly remarkable décolletage further belie that image — but the funky, utilitarian threads of the artist who still feels compelled to work, despite her years and the countless millions in the bank. Art work, peace work, memorial work: it’s what Ono does, and she can’t imagine life without it. Little wonder, perhaps, that in June she was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale for Lifetime Achievement.

Musically, too, she’s super-busy: shortly after our trip she was coming to the UK to film a contribution to this week’s episode of Later … with Jools Holland, she’s a guest vocalist on Basement Jaxx’s new album, and has just made an album produced by Sean Lennon and released on his label. She’s also had a hand in a key soundtrack component of Nowhere Boy, Sam Taylor-Wood’s forthcoming biopic of the teenage John Lennon. In the field of music, too, Ono has earned another lifetime achievement award this year, from Mojo magazine. All this while approving the myriad details involved in the release in September of The Beatles: Rock Band.

So many questions … First, though: why are we in Iceland? “I wasn’t intending to, it just happened,” she says, her girlish and airy-fairy response at odds with a woman (in)famous for her steely business mind. “In the beginning I was incredulous, when they invited me to do a museum show here, why would I go to Iceland?” she continues in an English that is still heavily accented and still circuitous 60 years after leaving Japan. “And this curator was very intelligent — he said, ‘Well, two thirds of the Icelandic people have the experience of publishing their own writings.’ Two thirds!” she exclaims. “I come from a land with so many illiterate people you have to put them in a bag and drag them around . . .” I think she means, in her singular style, that this is — or was in the Fifties — how one makes the Japanese read books.

“And I came here,” she says, gesturing out of her window at Viday island and the mountains beyond, “and it was beautiful. The land was clean, the water was clean, the air was clean.”

Also, ’s a] totally different type of people here — sort of like a land of gnomes or a land of wizards!” Ono adds, with more affection and less patronising intent than it might seem from her words. “So I thought it was very interesting. And I fell in love with this place. And of course it’s the northernmost land on the map. And north is wisdom and power. You want to give that power and wisdom to the whole world from the north, you know.” She stretches out her arms and draws them down. “So that’s why I thought it was very good place to have the tower.”

Somebody up above must agree with her: just before our interview, there was a brief lull in the violent storm outside and a rainbow filled the horizon. It seemed to touch earth right on Viday. Ono was delighted by this, not least because she seems to have an affection for the sky. Her album is called Between My Head and the Sky. Her last UK exhibition, held at the Baltic Centre in Gateshead earlier this year after its debut in Germany, was entitled Between the Sky and my Head.

Why, I ask her, does she like the sky so much?

“My theories are so far-fetched that you are not gonna think it’s serious. But I think that we all came from another planet. Some of us were probably here. And the sky is the passageway. And so I feel like the sky is the passage to my home planet.”

This is similar to the theory of exogenesis, an idea that the cosmically inclined British rock band Muse also explore on their new album. Has she always believed this?


Why does she believe in it?

“I don’t know. There was some proof — the things I was thinking, even when I was very young, about 4 or 5. I got inspired by all these ideas, which was not of this planet.” She clarifies, a bit. “I didn’t think they were coming from another planet, but coming from me who probably had different roots.”

So she’s an example of a kind of interstellar reincarnation? She nods.

A few hours later, just before the lighting of the Imagine Peace Tower, a small crowd, including the mayor of Reykjavik, gathers in the hotel’s eighth-floor function suite. Ono, unstinting activist that she is, is bolstering the Imagine Peace Tower message with the spreading of the “ONOCHORD” message. That is, “I LOVE YOU” blinked out, Morse-code style, using little torches that she is distributing.

Kyoko, Ono’s daughter by her second husband, the American film producer Anthony Cox, is also here, with her two children. After Ono and Cox split before her 1969 marriage to Lennon, Cox kidnapped Kyoko and raised her in a religious cult. Mother and daughter were estranged for years, reuniting in 1994, but “we have a very good relationship now”.

Of the ups and downs of her life, she says: “I thought it was strange that so many challenges were given to me.” Her losses, it seems — of her family, her daughter, of John Lennon — were channelled into her art. “I know. I’m so thankful that I have that, otherwise I would have gone crazy. That was the only thing I could do, if I wanted to survive. My back was up against the wall.”

Sean Lennon is here too, with a small group of hipster New York friends. Ono said she encouraged her children to accompany her as a show of solidarity with an Iceland bankrupted by the financial crisis.

I ask Sean how it was working with his mum on Between My Head and the Sky, which has received plaudits for its mixture of dance beats and more experimental, Ono-like textures. Mum and son both admit to liking being in control. “Sean’s a little bit more passive-aggressive [than me],” Ono had said. “John was really upfront. Aggressive-aggressive!”

Says Lennon Jr: “I respect her as a single parent, someone who’s been through a lot of things, so I didn’t want to be a brat any more.”

Between My Head and the Sky is, in a way, classic Ono: adventurous, daring, and not a little bonkers. It makes Madonna sound like Vera Lynn. Ono’s banshee wail encapsulates her Marmite nature: for Beatles luddites it will be torture; for the rest of us it makes for one of the albums of the year.

Do John’s fans like her? “I still don’t feel that John’s fans are accepting me. I don’t know who’s really John’s fans, and who’s really John and Yoko fans. The Beatles fans, some of them really denounced John in a way. So I don’t know who’s who. So whenever I create something I never think about who’s gonna listen to it.

“But then, I’m getting some beautiful letters. So they like the CD or something. It’s really great, but I’m not gonna ask, ‘Are you a Beatles fan?’”

Here in the hotel, Yoko Ono’s redoubtable New York lawyer is, as ever, on hand. He and Ono meet every Tuesday to discuss the latest issues pertaining to her work and the Lennon estate — with his other clients including the heirs to Bob Marley and Janis Joplin, her lawyer knows all about managing dead legends. Similar “eyes and ears” duties are provided by a middle-aged couple who have travelled from Liverpool — they are involved with the upkeep of Mendips, Lennon’s childhood home, which Ono bought and donated to the National Trust. It was opened to the public in 2003.

One thing that recently passed — fleetingly — across her lawyer’s desk was the script for Nowhere Boy. Written by Matt Greenhalgh, who captured the life of Ian Curtis in Anton Corbijn’s Control, Taylor-Wood’s film is an affectionate but gritty telling of the life of Lennon in the years leading up to the formation of the Beatles. Deprived of his mother Julia for much of his childhood and raised by his Aunt Mimi, he was reunited with Julia in his mid-teens, only to lose her again when she was killed by a car when he was 17.

Ono says she is asked to approve many scripts about her late husband. “It was hard for me — I didn’t want to say no to Sam, to another artist. And I was so glad when I saw it — I didn’t have to feel bad about it.”

Her involvement in the film was “nothing”. But she was impressed enough to agree to let them use the singularly appropriate song Mother.

Does she think that Aaron Johnson — a 19-year-old actor from Buckinghamshire, most recently seen in the teen movie Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging — makes a good John?

“Oh, isn’t he good?” she gushes. “Fantastic. The mannerisms were very accurate.”

Was it emotional watching the film?

“Yeah,” she nods slowly, before adding hastily, again, “well, I was looking at it from an objective point of view. But I thought, ‘My God, he’s doing a great job’.”

A few hours later I catch another glimpse into the strange world Ono has been forced to inhabit by the tragedy of her husband’s murder and his all-powerful legend. A concert is being held in a draughty Reykjavik art space to mark the switching on of the Imagine Peace Tower. On the VIP balcony some large-screen computers have been set up. The online community Second Life has set up a Viday section. Members can visit the peace tower and groove to Lennon’s music. Ono, swaddled in a black Puffa jacket, is controlling her own Second Life avatar. She spins the computer-generated likeness — Ono notes approvingly how skinny and tall it is — around the beam of light while fans dance with her.

Over in the main hall a selection of Icelandic pub bands are playing covers of Lennon songs. Huge black-and-white photographs of John’n’Yoko scroll through a screen behind the stage. Ono walks over to watch briefly, then wanders off again. One of the bands plays Jealous Guy. Then the MC, talking in Icelandic, says something about “the lost weekend”, the fabled 18-month period when Lennon and Ono separated and he embarked on a bender in Los Angeles, having an affair with May Pang in the process. Then the band play Woman. Even in a pub-rocky incarnation, it’s heartbreaking. How hard must it be for Ono to see and hear this stuff, still, constantly?

But she’s tougher than that. Ask her about her critics and, now, the plaudits coming her way for Between My Head and the Sky — and ask her about her still-youthful artistic exuberance — and she brushes it all away. “I don’t compare myself with anybody. But the point is, I feel physically good. And I think I’m given this opportunity to do something.”

A short while later she’s on stage, with Sean Lennon on drums, leading musicians and crowd in a performance of Give Peace a Chance. She may look like a groovy grandma, but the power and feeling in the room is incredible. “Iceland, I love you!” she yells before leaving the stage.

Earlier I had asked her what John Lennon, idealist and dreamer, would have made of the state of the world some 30 years after his death?

“He’d be angry. And he’s right to be angry. But you see, anger is not going to solve the problem. So we have to be extremely intelligent,” she nodded sagely. “And we will be.”

Between My Head and the Sky is out now on Chimera.