Have Beatles fans finally learnt to love Yoko Ono? She talks about
building a tower of light for Lennon
October 24, 2009
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
"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
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
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 forte