by Arsalan Mohammad, Esquire, December 2009
Yoko Ono has just made one of the year’s best avant-garde records and is celebrating the 40th anniversary of Give Peace A Chance. What more does she have to do to prove she’s an icon of our times?
Each October for the past three years, a black-clad widow has sailed across the harbour of Reykjavik, Iceland, to a small island called Videy. There, she lights a torch in memory of her late husband, who died twenty-nine years ago, and dedicates it to his memory.
But this isn’t a tale from the Icelandic sagas. It’s Yoko Ono and the torch is a colossal jet of pure light, a sculpture she devised that beams up four-thousand metres into the northern skies. Such is its beauty, even the most cynical of observers, standing at the foot of the tower shivering in the icy wind, head craned upwards, has to admit is a mind-blowing piece of work. And as she returned to Iceland this autumn, to spark up the ‘Peace Tower’ the world finally seems to be reconciling itself with the stubborn and passionate woman who has beguiled, infuriated and intrigued the world for so long.
While many of us might find it hard to imagine the utopian world of peace Yoko has long believed in, it was until recently, scarcely less difficult to imagine a world in which she could finally achieve artistic credibility. Yet that is what has been happening over the past decade, as a younger generation of critics, artists and fans have been discovering Ono’s life and work for themselves, untainted by the prejudices of their elders.
This critical upswing has reached hitherto unprecedented levels of late. Ono’s latest album, Between My Head And The Sky, is a vibrant, energetic collection that melds her trademark eclecticism and unique vocal stylings to avant-garde rhythms, jazz, abstract electronica and crunchy rock. The band’s young Japanese/American band’s musical director also happens to be one Sean Lennon.
Today, Yoko Ono is smiling, positively beaming actually, as she greets me to her tropically-heated hotel suite on the top floor of Reykjavik’s Hilton Nordica. It’s October 9, her late husband’s sixtyninth birthday, her son’s thirty-fourth and the third annual lighting of the Peace Tower. This evening, we will watch Ono switch on the beam from a reception at the hotel’s plush penthouse. Following that, Yoko is set to make a ‘surprise’ appearance at a Lennon tribute gig in downtown Reykjavik, in the city’s art museum. Later, when she does, the crowd goes positively beserk and joins in a mass singalong of ‘Give Peace A Chance’. It is oddly moving, even as she energetically jogs about the stage exhorting this peace-loving audience of a nation that has not been at war for over a millennia, to give peace ‘a chance’. Yoko, it transpires, approves of Iceland.
“The air, because it’s so pure, and the land is clean and the water is clean, so you feel like, you know, you’re alive… ”The new album is a ‘Plastic Ono Band’ record, reviving the name she and Lennon devised in the chaotic, final dying months of The Beatles’ existence. It was conceived as a liberating, free-form musical entity, a release from the shackles of The World’s Greatest Band. Sean persuaded Yoko to revive the concept, initially meeting with some resistance. So why now? “Well, why not now?” she smiles. “It’s like breathing. I’m still breathing. Okay, the reason is this: when John passed away I thought: no way. I just went numb. I blocked my mind towards this idea of the Plastic Ono Band because it was so… it was such a deep thing for both of us, you know? So I wanted to forget it and move on. And when Sean said ‘Mommy, we should do this as a Plastic Ono Band album’, I said ‘Why? Why?’ and I got really, like, upset. But then I said ‘Why am I upset? Oh, I blocked it’. And then, you know, it was John and me and now it’s Sean and me, so of course it’s alright now, it’s his son! So I’m very glad that Sean mentioned it.” The album came about after a gig in Japan, where Sean was touring with his band, which included members of Cibo Matto and other notables from the alt-rock scene. Yoko flew, reluctantly she says, to Japan to join him onstage one evening and found herself surprised and inspired by the band’s energy, originality and improvisational skills. “He said, ‘Some of my friends are going to back you, don’t worry.’ And I said, ‘Your friends?’ – I didn’t trust him.
But then I thought: Well, if it’s really bad, it’s fun too’; you know, it’s funny and good, so I didn’t care. I got on the stage and I was like, ‘Who are these people? The band is so good.’ It was the first time I had looked at the band and they were smiling. It turns out they’re very, very hip people — very famous in Japan. I forgot that Sean is not five-years-old. So Sean said, ‘Mommy, just make your album now. ‘ And I said, ’Okay, invite those people, please.’ So we invited them to New York and we did a great session.”
Yoko Ono is now 76. Small and compact, her features remain distinctly defined. Sharp cheekbones, piercing eyes and soft skin, she looks much younger than one would expect. The voice is immediately identifiable, biting off words with soft, Japanese precision, tempered with New York cadences and still, eerily, occasional Liverpudlian inflections. We take delivery of a huge plate of fruit and chocolate biscuits and peer out of the window. A rainbow has appeared, ending in downtown Reykjavik. Yoko jokily claims she has arranged it for my arrival. It fits the mood, and — who knows — she’s about to send a beam of light 4,000 metres into the sky, so organising a rainbow should be child’s play. But its absurdly serendipitous landing just outside the window seems to characterise everything in Ono’s public world right now. There has been the recent, rapturous response to yet another round of Beatles marketing (the remasters and Rock Band game); the success of her own music, and the warmer response to her ongoing peace activism (as bitterly relevant in 2009 as it was in the 1970s). “Oh, I have so much love for the world” says Ono, with the breathless sincerity of a schoolgirl begging for a pony. “And I do love the world. I love every part, you know, every city. And just for that and the seasons… I love the seasons, the change of seasons and all that… just for that I would love to live another hundred years.”
You probably already have an opinion on Yoko Ono. Most people, even those with the most fleeting engagement with 1960s pop culture, do. Even my mother has an opinion (emphatically negative) about Yoko Ono, and I am talking of a Pakistani-born woman whose sole concession to that decade of free love and cultural revolution was the purchasing of a Pat Boone LP.
Forty years ago, she managed to send the world into a frenzy of mystified outrage (Yoko, not my mother). Ono was accused of violating a National Treasure (for The Beatles were sacrosanct), luring him away from his anointed role as national moptop jester and musical hero to this… this pair of long-haired freaks, lying in bed, demanding world peace; sitting in a bag promoting ‘Bagism’; consorting with radical political activists; issuing unlistenable albums featuring themselves nude on the cover.
From being the butt of the world media’s wit — she was described in one magazine as ‘John Rennon’s Excrusive Gloupie’ – to the studio, where Lennon insisted on having her by his side as the band recorded everything from 1968’s ‘White Album’ onwards — her presence raised the hackles of the band whose hitherto inviolate solidarity was now augmented by a small, hirsute figure to whom John would ask for a reaction before anyone else.
Today her wry smile, when asked how she coped with such an onslaught of public vilification speaks volumes. “Yeah, I know, but… Well, we had to do something about it. And yes, at the time, it was so radical. Nobody liked it! You know they would take photos of me, lots of photos and then there would be one that’s very bad, and they’d publish that and say: ‘Ah, that’s Yoko Ono!’” And how did that make you feel? I ask. She sips at her green tea and considers the question.‘‘I was put in a position in a very strange way from the beginning to be the bridge of things. You see, in my life I don’t really plan things and that’s why it works well. You know, if I planned it I would somehow be editing my life into a smaller version. But because I don’t, things come to me. Back then, most people thought we were just being positive, we were just being optimistic. I would tell them that you have to bring out all the dirt because by bringing it out and putting a light on it, then it disappears.” From media hostility, to the underhand sleaziness of Nixon government’s persecution of the politically radicalised Lennon of the early 1970s (revealed brilliantly in David Leaf’s documentary The US Vs John Lennon) to the scornful reaction to her work, and finally the ultimate trauma of December 8, 1980, the fact that Ono can still speak of the world with love and compassion is quite remarkable. One is left almost bewildered by her relentlessly sunny-side up disposition and can only suspect the depths of personal pain she must have plumbed in order to achieve it. Over forty years on from meeting Lennon, and the lifetimes of incident and adventure in-between, the black-clad widow — once vilified, now respected and listened to — is smiling.
We’re on Videy Island now, in the chill autumn evening, and a group of around two hundred locals have turned out for the lighting ceremony. They gather around the Peace Tower, listening to a choir of children harmonising ancient Icelandic folk tunes, their voices floating out over the chilly night.
As the colossal beam shoots upwards, like a zephyr, the choir begins an Icelandic version of ‘Imagine’, the utopian national anthem that Yoko has adopted as her own.
Gazing up at the unchanging stars, some words she spoke earlier come back to me. “You know, I’m not remaining positive; I think that the situation is a very positive one. I really think that it’s a very positive reality. I kept saying, even ten years ago, ‘Look, until everybody in the world is happy, nobody is going to be happy’. We’re human beings, we’re animals, we sense other people’s pain; other people’s pain is our pain. Until everything is done we’re not really going to feel happy. We might have temporary happiness, but that’s all we’re going to have. So we’ll see what happens but I think that it’s getting there. First we need awareness, and then we proceed from that.”