At the kitchen table in the Dakota with the world’s most famous mother-son music collaborators.
by Tim Murphy, New York
The kitchen is where the business gets done at Yoko Ono’s famous apartment at the Dakota. It’s bright, sleek, clean, overheated—Yoko likes to keep it semi-tropical—and, most important, convenient to the service entrance, which is how I come in. It’s also buzzing with assistants when I arrive to discuss with her son, Sean Lennon, her new album, Between My Head and the Sky, a Yokonian collage of spoken-word/avant-dance noise, which Yoko and Sean co-produced. The night before, on Jimmy Fallon’s show, they did the punky “Waiting for the D Train.” In a tight black suit and bowler hat, Yoko fiercely screamed and danced, while Mark Ronson and Sean, wearing a Sgt. Pepper–type jacket, backed her on guitars.
But Yoko is running behind, leaving me with Sean, 34, scruffy, bespectacled, and a little on edge. Usually it’s Sean who’s not on time. “If I’m ten minutes late, she thinks that’s, like, half an hour, because she’s so prompt,” he says.
Then Yoko enters in all black and stocking feet, chic glasses perched on her nose. Green tea is served, and a pattern quickly emerges: Yoko mostly talks over Sean’s asides, and they finish each other’s sentences, almost like they’re on parallel tracks. Mostly they refer to each other through me, not directly to each other, and Sean often stops to “explain” her.
It was Sean’s idea to perform “D Train,” because, a few weeks ago, on The View, she’d sung a simple, moving song with just Sean on piano. “I just felt like we’d done this French- ballad thing—” Sean begins.
“The torch singer!” Yoko exclaims, giggling.
“If we’re going to do TV again, she needs a hipper, younger audience,” Sean pushes on.
She took Sean’s advice “because he’s my son and I don’t want to be sort of argument, you know?” Yoko explains, though she feared it might be too out-there. “I didn’t know if I should go really rock and just go on in my underwear or something,” she says. “She doesn’t mean underwear,” Sean corrects. “She means like an undershirt.” (She wore Alexander McQueen.)
I ask about the song on the album “The Sun Is Down!”, where Yoko talks over a stripped-down retro house beat. “I was like, ‘Can you do the same thing as the girl in “Walking on Thin Ice”?’ ”— Yoko’s first dance hit, from Double Fantasy, just before John was shot—Sean says. “That character is a little cold and sexy.”
“So I said, ‘Okay … it’s disco,’ ” says Yoko, sweetly resigned.
Sean lives downtown and a few early mornings a week, Yoko and an assistant will walk to his place. She says she walks fast to avoid interruptions, but she’ll always sign autographs. “I’m very thankful that I can make people happy just by signing my name,” she says. Sean notes that there are other celebrities these days for the public to fixate on. “He’s right,” Yoko says. “If Britney Spears is walking there, I think they would rather go for her than me, you know?”
I ask what “Ask the Elephant!”, a silly-seeming song on the new album, is about. “Well, it’s an elephant that I meet, you know?” she answers. For real? “Symbolically speaking.”
“I don’t think with her songs you should ask what it’s about,” Sean reproves me.
I chide Sean about interrupting his mother. She tells a story about hearing a beautiful piano on a track and asking her assistant to find the pianist so that she could work with him, only to learn it was her son. Sean drums his fingers listening to this. “He was living in the shadow,” Yoko says. “And I just, you know, choked up, because I just knew the pain that he’s living.”
“I don’t feel that my life is like that,” Sean interjects.
“Maybe he doesn’t even know that much pain, you know,” Yoko continues. “Maybe he thinks that life is like that or something.”
Sean was 5 when his father was killed. “It must have been really shocking!” Yoko breaks in.
“I remember the sound of the people outside,” Sean says. “The fires and the singing the songs and the police tape downstairs, Double Fantasy being recorded, my dad’s voice, the texture of his skin, the look of his ankle. It’s like, I awoke from a dream and I’ve never been a child since then.”
Yoko says she’s happy with how Sean has turned out. There were rough patches, of course. But “he’s totally different now,” she says, adding, “the minute we start to realize we can do more, we do more. And he’s really using all his faculties to do things.” Yoko likes his girlfriend, model and singer Charlotte Kemp Muhl, 22, who makes him happy and makes sure he walks more, for exercise.
Finally, I tell Sean that he seems more high-strung than his mother. “You think so?” Yoko asks, curious.
“Today I’m high-strung, especially,” he says. “I’ve had seven meetings. And that’s even before I meet Charlotte’s mom tonight.”
“Oh, that’s an audition!” Yoko exclaims, pleased.