Give Peace Another Chance
By Mark Lepage, Special to The Gazette
March 20, 2009
New York Descending the subway steps to the uptown F train, an
instantly recognizable melody wafts up from below. There's a South
American-looking busker on the platform whose motley collection of
equipment includes the pan pipes, serenading the crowd with the
instrumental Andean version of Imagine and I'm thinking: "Nah.
Really?" Followed swiftly by the certainty: Yoko will appreciate this.
"Really?" she says once we've sat down in a hangar-sized photo
studio. "Well, it's not a coincidence, you know? It's like a message."
Meaning some numinous nod to our get-together, and the occasion.
Imagine: The Peace Ballad of John and Yoko opens April 2 at the
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, running neatly through the 40th
anniversary of the Bed-In at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel.
"There's always a reason," Ono says; or possibly, all coincidences
prove is that there are coincidences. But for the occasion, we'll
tweak that logic to admit the otherworld: that the New York subway
spirits, or some other energy, would get involved, because even in
2009, there's fame, and there's John and Yoko.
The Imagine exhibit is just the latest manifestation of Ono's life's
work on the legacy of John and Yoko's life's work. She travels
semi-regularly to Montreal to discuss Love, the Cirque du Soleil's
Beatles show. Before we speak, she will prepare for a photo session,
trying on a selection of whimsical wide-brimmed hats and yellow or
purple-tinged sunglasses in the impossibly bright 15-foot-ceilinged
Daylight Studios overlooking the Hudson River. Straddling a chair
flashing the peace sign, she vets the photos as they are shot. We are
prepared for "hands-on," given a pre-interview process that insisted
on full approval of any and all published photos, as well as
pre-submitted questions. This, then, may be the "Dragon Lady" of whom
the ancients speak.
As is most always the case, the mediation evaporates once you're
sitting together. Seated at a cafeteria table, we're left in the main
alone, and she answers, even when the conversation is borne way from
But first, celebration. Yoko remembers that 1969 week in Montreal as
"very intimate. We disappointed all the press people because they
thought that we were gonna make love in front of them or something.
But of course you know" she giggles " we didn't."
Well, you got pretty close on that Two Virgins cover… (which showed
them both naked).
"Yes," she smiles. And the intimacy will be captured in the MMFA.
Strikingly, John and Yoko will be heard whispering and singing to one
another from gallery to gallery as visitors take in Imagine's massive
collection of 140 works, drawings, unpublished photographs, videos,
films, artworks and interactive materials covering the 1966-1972
period and including some of Ono's '90s work. During the planning
stage, the museum dispatched two curators to Ono's apartment in New
York for high-level discussions.
"It was so thorough and creative and original. I was very, very
impressed," she says.
A stand-in for John's iconic white piano, featuring a Disklavier
sound system, will allow fans to play Imagine.
"Isn't that great?" she says. "And the bed will be there."
Not the same bed, surely, but a replica of the one from Suite 1742.
"It's just a very sweet and lovely memory. It was so beautiful, there
was no problem at all." She remembers fans downstairs in the Queen
Elizabeth Hotel, and Suite 1742 crowded with recording technicians
and media (including The Gazette's own Dave Bist) bang their way into
history on guitars and doorjambs to record Give Peace a Chance. "Very
nice people. They made it very easy for us. Those people were always
there. If they're not nice people, we'd feel it, you know?
"It was a very, very intense time in history. Don't you think? We
were very lucky. We were doing something out of love, and it was a
very peaceful environment and atmosphere. It was just an exchange of
love with the people near us, around us, and the world."
Of course, they were exchanging The Love because of The Hate, and the
not-nice people in the world.
"Even in those days, the generation before us were very upset with
what we were doing. But the young ones understood."
Some may see Ono as a relentless happy-talker, which would
conveniently leave out the complete absence of self-pity. Don't
forget during that period, Lennon would spend four years fighting
the U.S. government for his green card. Ono had already lost her
daughter Kyoko in a parental kidnapping following a custody case.
They were the uberfamous couple flashing peace signs, groovily
inspiring the counterculti and, in official channels, being …
"treated like trash," she finishes the sentence. "I do want to
mention one thing, the fact that (John) was a very courageous man.
Even though he knew there was tremendous objection and pressure from
higher up, he didn't want to quit. He was always truthful about it."
"We were very upset about things each time, but it didn't stick to us."
She describes the childlike world of instantaneous free exchange that
is the most public face of their marriage.
"Once we met, we were just like one person. Before I met John … there
were so many ideas that I couldn't realize all of them. When I met
John, we were both that kind of people. So can you imagine the speed
of the things coming out? We didn't even have to finish a sentence."
One sentence they finished, in their own write, will surely be
represented in the exhibit. WAR IS OVER! (If You Want It), the 1969
billboard/newspaper ad blitz, was that rarest of occasions when idea
and wealth met advertising not to sell product, but concept. Which,
pace John, is a theory/conviction running through Yoko Ono's work up
to that time (see sidebar on her career).
"It's a bit tacky to sell people, you know, 'peace'," she says. "In
our case, we were so much in a hurry, we just did it."
Once again, we enjoy interesting times. Obama's election was "kind of
like we won a war or something. I believe in grassroots movements,
definitely, and the people's power. And I'm not that much into
institutional politics, you know. But still once they're there,
it's much better that we get some support and patience and love. But
we have to have belief that we can do it, too, you know."
"Imagining it's like a meditative thing. When you're imagining
peace, you can't kill someone. By imagining peace, you are peace." We
speak briefly about the two of them discussing Imagine, the song,
before it was completed. There is more talk of how each person is
"like a superpower" and "an oasis. We're like 90-per-cent water, each
of us, so before we fight with each other, the water is already connecting."
All of which is as on-message as a peace sign, but certainly there is
another side. A private sense that "I was laying my whole self to the
world, dedicating myself to the world. And John … lived … and died from that."
And so there is risk involved.
"Well I didn't think about the risk. Every risk is a blessing."
And some of this must be painful? To revisit?
"No. Because we were sitting together, and we're still sitting
together. And now we are returning to Montreal. We're not visiting,
we're returning. And so I know that John is very happy. Our memories
were so good. So we're just sort of jumping with excitement!"
"Especially with Montreal, I know we are going back together."
Back to the subway, where the busker has been called to his next gig.
Imagine: The Peace Ballad of John and Yoko runs from April 2 to June
21 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Free admission.
Six of Yoko Ono's greatest hits
By Mark Lepage, Special to The Gazette
March 20, 2009
Hubby called Yoko "the world's most famous unknown artist." These are
some notable reasons:
Cut Piece (1964): Variously interpreted by reviewers as feminist act,
peace protest and striptease, it also now feels presciently "rock star."
The performance-art piece had Ono kneeling on a stage, fully dressed,
with a pair of scissors in front of her. Audience members would cut
off bits of her clothing which they could keep as souvenirs until
she was virtually naked. The themes intimacy, vulnerability,
inhibition, threat, martyrdom have been echoed in every female
experimental installation you've seen since.
Grapefruit (1964): Haiku challenges or zen gags? Ono's book appears
to demarcate the artistic line between liberating concept and scam.
Features John's review blurb: "This is the greatest book I've ever burned."
Nail and "Yes" (1966): Lennon (self-described as "The Millionaire")
is brought to London's Indica Gallery where the famous unknown artist
is putting finishing touches to her unopened show. He wants to try
the Hammer A Nail In piece. She says no. He offers her an imaginary 5
shillings to hammer in an imaginary nail. Smart boy. He climbs a
ladder to read a tiny word written above. The word is "Yes." Smart girl.
Live Peace In Toronto (1969): Is there a better word for "caterwaul"?
Eric Clapton, Klaus Voormann and Alan White are the Plastic Ono Band,
and on side one of this album (with its iconic cover), they crank
through dystopic, druggy and altogether raw versions of Money, Dizzy
Miss Lizzy, Yer Blues and Cold Turkey. It's great. On side two, well,
anyone who's heard it will remember their first time.
Among the moments captured in D. A. Pennebaker's footage is the
finale John, John (Let's Hope for Peace), when Clapton briefly rolls
his eyes at her screeches. Find it on YouTube.
Walking on Thin Ice remix tops dance chart (2003): "I think we've
just got your first No. 1, Yoko," said John after finishing up the
guitar on her Walking on Thin Ice. As usual, he was 20-odd years
ahead of the earthlings. Although the original version of the song
brought Ono her first chart success in 1981, that meant No. 58. In
2003, remix efforts by, among others, the Pet Shop Boys (bless their
little disco hearts) took the song to the top of Billboard's dance chart.
"I enjoyed it like I enjoy the weather," Ono told me last week. Great
line, but perhaps a little coy. It may have felt especially sunny
that day. That guitar, incidentally, was the last thing Lennon
recorded, on Dec. 8, 1980. It still feels unearthly to write that.
Ono will receive the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement on June 6,
2009, at the Venice Biennale.