Yoko Ono: Between Her Head and the Sky
By Denise Sullivan, Crawdaddy, 3 Dec 2009
“I’ve passed the time when I used to think I’m going to surprise people with this, break the sound barrier, I’m going to put in some chords that nobody has ever put in or whatever. That day is over. I just want to be myself,” says Yoko Ono.
Pioneer of the avant-garde, godmother of the new wave, conceptual art maker and peace advocator: Ono has been called all these things, and others, some of them not quite as nice, during her 40 years in the public eye and 50 years as a working artist. These days, she’s back to fronting the Plastic Ono Band, the group she and her husband John Lennon founded in 1969 as an outlet for his post-Beatles expression and the couple’s most political and experimental work. It was also the beginning of a period of intense collaboration for them, inside and outside the studio, which lasted ’til Lennon was assassinated in 1980. Beatles fans and critics were notoriously unkind about the partnership, particularly regarding Ono’s musical participation in it. “I’ve been attacked so much, I thought, ‘Oh, being attacked… this is a normal thing,’” she says.
Next year marks 30 years since Lennon was murdered and 40 years since the break-up of the band he founded in Liverpool over 50 years ago. Had he lived, he would be turning 70, while his and Ono’s son, Sean, who shares a birthday with his father, will turn 35. Though I neglected to ask the reported numerology and astrology buff Ono about the significance to all those round numbers, I don’t have to consult any oracles to know that her next birthday in February will be an auspicious 77. After all these years, it is amazing that she even bothers with fielding the inevitable Lennon questions and Beatles queries, and she does it with admirable enthusiasm and personal dignity, too. Certainly, in the face of a tragedy that could’ve defined the last 30 years of her life, she couldn’t have been blamed if she had chosen to retreat. But Yoko’s too much of a life-lover to go down that way. “Why is this life so beautiful, so interesting?” she exhales on the new Plastic Ono Band album, Between My Head and the Sky. Remaining a kind steward of her husband’s legacy—overseeing the release of The Beatles: Rock Band, their remasters, and curating a New York exhibit of Lennon artifacts currently on display—it’s no wonder she demurs when asked if she’ll ever sit down to write her own story.
“I’m too busy to do that. I think it’s something that might happen later, but I don’t think I can do it now.”
Perhaps Ono, whose first name translates to “ocean child,” is waiting for old age for that; for now, her work as an artist and musician in her own right is demanding her full attention. She has finally transcended the myth that a petite conceptual artist could come in and break up the mighty force that was the Beatles, and she has been reborn in time, with a little help from her son. Karma finally won out, if not instantly, then ultimately, as today it’s a lot hipper to dig Yoko than it is to knock her. Of course, that’s what John had been trying to tell everyone since the beginning: “What in the world you thinking of, laughing in the face of love?”
“Suddenly this record… I think it has a lot to do with my son. It’s not too wacko,” she says. “Did you know ‘Higa Noboru’ means ‘samurai,’ means ‘the sun is rising,’ and that’s the last song on the album?” asks Ono, to which I must reply I did not know that, but I am certainly intrigued by the concept as well as her stream of consciousness style of speaking, and she’s got me thinking… Now that Sean is nearly 35, the age Lennon the elder was when his beautiful boy was born, I see that, in some kind of cosmic way, the son is indeed rising. If Sean’s musical career has been marked by anything, it’s been its tentative launching, understandable for any child of a Beatle (perhaps he and his half-brother Julian have talked about that); so far, it’s most notable for an eight-year gap between solo albums following his debut. As an alternative musician whose sound doesn’t fit the mainstream alterna-sound, Sean would’ve disappointed those looking for a reprisal of the angry rock ‘n’ roll John. As a teenager, he organized IMA, a three-piece to back-up his mother’s ’90s album, Rising. Going on to forge his own relationships on the downtown avant-garde and experimental scenes, he struck up a longstanding collaboration with Yuka Honda, one half of Cibo Matto, and played bass with her group for five years. Now he collaborates with wildman savant Vincent Gallo, as well as with his girlfriend, Charlotte Kemp Muhl, though Honda remains a studio collaborator and player in the new Plastic Ono Band.
“Sean was creating this music company… he had a few artists and a few songs on a website and I checked it out and I said, ‘Look, they’re beautiful songs but they need some fire,’” says Ono. “‘I’m going to give you some fire,’ and he said, ‘Great!’ I think still the fire’s with me.” Listening to the new album and watching a live clip of the band performing “Why”, from her 1970 solo debut, it is safe to say Ono’s still got it. But the littlest Lennon also has a way with his parents’ most outside music. “Isn’t that weird?” says Ono. “I didn’t know he was checking on me but he was. ‘You mean you know the intro to this?’ Yeah, he knows the intro, he knows the chords, he knows everything—all my songs. So when I say, ‘Let’s do this,’ and name one of the old songs, he’s like, ‘Okay.’” Ono says okay, nonchalantly, in an effort to put across the ease with which Sean tackles the often difficult and at times improvisatory music that defined the Plastic Ono Band.
Following their marriage in Gibraltar near Spain in 1969, and using the paparazzi moment of their honeymoon as an opportunity to wage peace, Ono and Lennon masterminded the Bed-Ins, first in Amsterdam and later Montreal, which is where Crawdaddy! first caught up with them: Founder Paul Williams participated in the anti-war event and got caught front and center on film. “Crawdaddy! I remember Crawdaddy!. My God, that was a long time ago… that’s nostalgia time for me,” says Ono.
Born in 1933 in Japan to a wealthy banking family, the Ono’s fortune waxed and waned during wartime and Yoko experienced extreme poverty and the horrors of war firsthand. By the late ’50s, her father had secured work in the US and she had begun her education at Sarah Lawrence College, though even before graduation she became immersed in the New York avant-garde scene of the early ’60s. Under the tutelage of composers La Monte Young and John Cage and her friend George Maciunas, founder of the Fluxus movement in art, Ono fell in with a pack of musical and visual conceptual artists. The Fluxus artists, with their ties to Dadaism, are credited for creating, among other things, “happenings,” art events that could include audience participation. Perhaps her most famous work of this period is “Cut Piece,” for which she invited the audience to cut away pieces of her dress as she sat passively on the floor (the work was a harbinger of what we now call performance art). During this period she was married twice and a daughter, Kyoko, was born.
It was at the Indica Gallery in London where Lennon first encountered Ono and her work in 1966. The usual telling of the story says he was initially skeptical of the art but smitten with the artist, and by 1968, he had divorced his first wife, Cynthia—leaving her with a young son—to begin life with Yoko. Ono and Lennon began their recorded collaborations in 1968 with the noise- and tape loop-based Two Virgins album (also notable for its frontal nudity of the couple on the cover). By this time, the anti-war movement had taken to the streets and the radical left’s rub with law enforcement was turning the peace movement violent; the Bed-Ins’ intention had been to pull focus back to nonviolence. “Nobody’s ever given peace a complete chance. Gandhi tried it and Martin Luther King tried it, but they were shot,” Lennon said from his bed at the Amsterdam Hilton. Recording from a bed in Montreal a few months later with a roomful of friends and fans, “Give Peace a Chance” became the peace movement’s chant, as well as the inaugural release for the Plastic Ono Band, its substance often referring to the anti-war effort and bringing light to matters of racial and gender equality.
Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band (which featured the heavyweight talents of her husband, Ringo Starr, Klaus Voorman, and appearances by jazzmen Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden) made its vinyl debut in 1970, but its experimental nature was easy to brush aside in the face of the simultaneous release of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, an album many Lennon fans maintain is his greatest solo work (it includes “God”, “Working Class Hero”, and “Mother”). Those releases were followed by Ono’s own 1971 solo album, Fly (featuring the addition of Eric Clapton to the ensemble), that notably included her song, “Don’t Worry, Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow).” Ono’s second husband had gone missing with the girl, essentially abducting her, and mother and daughter would not be reunited properly until much later in life.
That same year, the Lennons made their fateful permanent move to New York City, embarking on a path of radical political activism. Combined with their increasingly personal and self-revelatory music, the political era was arguably the most controversial time of the couple’s collaboration and remains topically relevant today. “And close to my heart, too” says Ono. “Because I had to suffer. Sexism, the whole bit.” It also marked the beginning of intense suspicion and surveillance of Lennon by the US government.
“When I hear the song ‘Revolution’, even now, it chokes me up. We were ostracized by the world and the fans too, and that John was daring to speak out,” said Ono in the film The U.S. vs. John Lennon, based on research compiled in the books Come Together and Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files by Jon Wiener that explore Lennon’s political life. I asked Yoko what she thought of the movie and if she had anything to add to it. “Not really. Except it’s the tip of the iceberg. But that’s all you need these days to open it wide.” She suggests, for anyone interested in such things, that the exhibit titled John Lennon: The New York City Years, currently on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Annex in New York, may be of interest. Yoko created it, gathering material for the exhibit by raiding her own closets. “There are things I put in there that I would never put in again,” she says of the items on display. The most talked about piece is a bag of blood-stained “patient’s belongings,” returned to her following the pronouncement of her husband’s death by hospital officials.
Some Time in New York City
In the late ’60s and early ’70s and until the end of the Vietnam War, the couple’s stock-in-trade had become the creation of one-line slogans, many of them appropriate for singing in large groups of people outdoors: “Give peace a chance,” “War is over! If you want it”; some of the song slogans had been appropriated from the people themselves: “Power to the people,” “Free the people now.” But the prescience of the concerns that Lennon and Ono raised in the high era of public protest and their position at the vanguard of musical revolution—raising ideas like changing the world by making music, standing together, engaging in small acts of human kindness—were considered a threat to national security and, eventually, they were even rejected by fans. But before all hope for political change was lost, there was an incredibly dynamic, cross-fertilized moment between pop culture and the counterculture: The week Lennon and Ono were invited to host The Mike Douglas Show for five days in 1972. To daytime television they brought Jerry Rubin in to explain the Youth International Party (Yippies) and Bobby Seale to represent the Black Panthers, while the straight-laced and game-faced Douglas gave the proceedings a stamp of middle-of-the-road approval. Ralph Nader spoke on student organizing and the need to vote and Lennon hero Chuck Berry rocked the house. The forum also gave Ono a chance to reveal more of her personality, as well as her excellent personal style, to the curious American public, still suffering from misperceptions of their Beatle’s wife. The week was a hit, and it was an optimistic time for anyone involved in the movement for change, though things were about to get rough.
By the time of the release of Some Time in New York City in June, critics and fans alike were in agreement that the couple had gone too far in their merging of music with politics. Produced by Phil Spector and backed by an anonymous New York group, Elephant’s Memory, the album was an accurate reflection of the chaotic times. “Attica State” referred to a historic September 1971 prison riot, allegedly sparked by the previous month’s murder of radicalized prisoner George Jackson, resulting in the deaths of 39 people. Lennon and Ono had joined the chorus of justice seekers (which also included Bob Dylan) who followed the case. “Angela” was written in tribute to young politico Angela Davis. There was also a song for Detroit hippie leader “John Sinclair”, who had just been released from his 10 for two marijuana conviction, following the Lennons’ appearance at the John Sinclair Freedom Rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan (musicians Phil Ochs, Stevie Wonder, and Archie Shepp, poets Allen Ginsberg and Ed Sanders, and activists Seale and Rubin also appeared). Ono’s contributions to the set were less experimental and more song-like: “Sisters, O Sisters” remains a potent feminist/environmental anthem. The album’s single, “Woman Is the Nigger of the World”, a concept expressed by Ono which Lennon turned into a song, was clouded by controversy and contributed to the unpopularity of the album, though it was meant to be understood as a pro-feminist statement. “The feminist thing is still very, very important. Most people think, ‘That’s over, isn’t it?’ Of course, it’s not over,” says Ono.
But while the Rolling Stones wrote “Sweet Black Angel” for Davis, and Dylan had a hit with “George Jackson”, other artists took nowhere the kind of heat Lennon did for making songs from radicalism’s headlines. Ono was getting her fair share of abuse, too. “I wasn’t heard then. Okay, I was heard, and then they trashed me for it,” she says. Her music didn’t really stand a chance once the press was through with her. “If it’s that bad, of course I’m not going to buy it!” she says of what average consumers must’ve been thinking. Some Time in New York City was their worst-ever received album, critically as well as commercially. “We thought it was really good,” says Ono. “When I went to Moscow, this was much later, after John’s passing, Some Time in New York City was something that they remembered, of course. I was so amazed and so happy.”
That same spring and summer, Yippies and musicians of conscience had been hoping to organize an anti-war concert of some magnitude at the Miami Republican National Convention and were very much after Lennon to participate. But the Lennons had never intended to go, declining the invite for personal reasons. According to Wiener’s FBI Files, a report filed by an informant stated Lennon said he would participate in the demonstrations, but only “if they are peaceful.” And there was no one on earth who was going to make an iron-clad guarantee of that, especially given the police riot that erupted at the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968 and the increased mood of violence in the air, fueled by the fog of war. In the end, the authorities, reportedly aided by hippie infiltrators and informants, were successful at thwarting the production of a large-scale anti-war concert in Miami. And with his position on nonviolence now officially committed to a government document, you would think the case against Lennon could be closed. But rather, it marked the beginning of a long hassle with the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, under order of the Nixon White House, and a dark period in the couple’s life that lasted for three years. Not only was there the pressure of the deportation case and the potential of losing their stateside residence, there was Lennon’s infamous “lost weekend” interlude involving Ono’s secretary May Pang. By the time the order to deport was overturned in 1975, the couple had not only survived the INS, their relationship had survived the seven-year itch and a new baby had been born.
“You see that he’s playing the piano? We didn’t have to dub again and it’s a long, long piano piece. I thought, ‘My God, it’s incredible, but he’s like that,’” says mama Ono of her son. Co-mingled with the loud, raucous, and electronic moods on the new album is Sean’s piano composition, characterized by sparkling minimalism and accompanied by Yoko on vocals, sometimes spoken and other times sung. His style and its production has more in common with his mother’s avant-garde and classical past than his father’s taste for rock ‘n’ roll and Phil Spector. I wondered if the Ono Lennons employed any of the techniques mother had learned as a student of avant-garde music in the late ’50s and early ’60s while they prepared the new album. “Whatever came to me when I was in the studio just got in there. It was like… I was inspired in Japanese—whoa! I was thinking, ‘This is going to be a Japanese song—in Japanese! And that’s good!’” she says. “Instead of, well, ahem…’ Ono adopts a serious tone, a little like John would do when he mocked things: “‘This is a good song and I don’t want to waste it, so I’ll first translate it to English…,’ I didn’t do any of that. I let it have the naturalness.” The resulting sound is unadulterated Yoko, accompanied by players comfortable rolling with her anything-goes attitude. “Isn’t that great?” she says, once again brimming with enthusiasm. “I didn’t realize Cornelius—which is Keigo, Shim, and Yuko, three people and they call themselves Cornelius—for some reason… I didn’t know they were that good! I didn’t have to tell them, ‘This is how you do it.’ They just knew how to play it!” In other words, the young folk were able to keep up with the septuagenarian.
It wasn’t all that long ago that Yoko’s music was on the mostly inaccessible side of alternative, though around the invention of new wave, the tide was beginning to turn in her favor. “I enjoyed the B-52s, because I heard them doing Yoko,” said Lennon in his famous final Playboy interview. In the early ’80s, Elvis Costello recorded “Walking on Thin Ice” on a 50th birthday tribute to Ono, but versions of her work by more mainstream singers like Rosanne Cash and Roberta Flack didn’t work as well. It would be a few more years before the culture would catch up with Ono, as well as with punk and new wave, but a new generation was definitely getting tuned into the sound of the future, something that Ono and Lennon had always believed in.
“Well, John, as you remember, was always jumping on the newest media. The computer… the global village… he would’ve said, ‘I told you so.’ I think he would’ve been at home sitting doing the email, website, all that,” says Ono. As far as her own relationship to technology, she admits to being slow to catch on. “I still like the typewriter.” The new album’s artwork reflects Ono’s long relationship with the typewriter, consistent with the look of her minimalist work, though its actual design was handled by Sean. “Isn’t it great? I have to tell you… John and I always did our album design, we were very hot on that. This time Sean did it. He kept saying, ‘Let me do it, let me do it,’ and I was like, ‘Uh, ah, ew… I’m going to break the tradition? Okay!’”
It’s funny to hear an iconoclast like Ono speak of the virtue of tradition, though aside from artistic presentation, I guess she’s always been about traditional values, like peace, justice, and equality for all. I wondered if she thought there was anyone out there doing the work she and John started, keeping the tradition of art and activism alive through music.
“Well, I think there are some indie artists out there… I put out an album called Yes, I’m a Witch—every one of them are fantastic, I really appreciate each one of them,” she says of Peaches, Le Tigre, and the Flaming Lips, among others who created remixes and covers of her old songs for a various artists compilation released in 2007.
Does she still think music plays a vital role in creating change in the world today? How can it help, for example, environmentally? “Okay, well, there’s so much we can do. And all of us can handle something. But I think what we can do is concentrate on something we really love. Try to do it as perfect as possible. That thing is going to send a most beautiful vibration to the world. Music covers the world and it heals the world. I do anything, really, to try to make a better world in my own small capacity, shall we say? But the thing is, actually doing one beautiful song—that makes it.”
I Love You
The obvious cruelty of a peace man dying by a bullet from a gunman’s hand would not have been lost on John, whose messages still resonate in the lifelong pursuit of art and peace activism of Yoko. Amongst her various other pursuits, she works to raise awareness of statistics on death by handguns occurring in the US each year. I have not yet admitted here that I am among those in supreme awe and great debt to Yoko and John, for the message of love they brought to the world, and for the many ways in which their work and their realness continue to inspire me. I figure in my last few moments with her, perhaps I should use the time to confirm those messages, and make sure I’ve interpreted them correctly: Was all they were saying was that peace and harmony begin at home and that to care for the world, we must first care for each other?
“Exactly,” she says. But were there ever moments back then when they faltered? Did she ever have to convince Lennon that applying spiritual solutions to practical problems was a sensible approach to life? I mean, did he ever think their cause was silly or, to use her word for it, wacko?
“Well, I don’t remember! The thing is… when you say ‘I love you’ to the one you love, actually you’re saying it to the world and the planet. I think that’s it. That says it all.”
After 13 songs of restless beauty, Between My Head and the Sky ends with the aforementioned piano song, “Higa Noboru”, played by Sean. But the final word belongs to mother: For 23 seconds, the album’s last track rests on the sound of metal on metal, ’til the voice of Ono, clearly smiling, emerges from the din. It is a breathtaking juxtaposition, between the harshest and sweetest of sounds. “It’s me,” says Yoko. “I’m alive.”