A conversation with Yoko Ono
Words: Everett True. Photo collage: Yoko Ono
Reprinted from Careless Talk Costs Lives #11 (2002)
… What motivates you to work?
“What motivates me?”
To still make music …
“Music is the beat of life for me. It’s like my heart. You have to keep on going. Motivation is too light a word for it. It is life itself to me. It’s like I have to keep on breathing, it’s a way of survival, a way of being alive.”
You move between different musical styles on your new album …
“It’s good, isn’t it? I’ve always done that. It’s like my diary, and in your daily life you do go from one thing to another.”
That song where you’re talking about walking in Central Park and it’s got a kind of reggae beat to it. I’m really bad with song titles …
“Isn’t that great? Usually reggae is an upbeat thing. This is kind of upbeat but also down as well.”
It’s kind of sad as well. I felt that the music you were playing was reflecting the sounds of Central Park …
“Well, it’s a woman thing. All women understand it.”
The album seems to have quite a sad mood.
“You feel that?”
Yeah. Not always, but there’s a kind of melancholy …
“Yeah, probably because my life was pretty rough, you know.”
There’s a song on 2001’s Blueprint For A Sunrise, ‘Rising II’ – actually a reprise of a record Yoko made a few years back that ended up being remixed by artists like Tricky and Sonic Youth and the like, people who understand that far and away the most interesting people in rock’n’roll are the outsiders, the ones ostracised, and who could be more outside than Yoko, the woman who emasculated The Beatles and caused the mainstream to come into contact with strange art that it usually never encounters – that is pure beauty. It’s a live track. The NYC hipsters’ voices come whooping in at the song’s end like they appreciate beauty (rather than are merely grabbing another opportunity to prove how cool they are). It builds and builds, and doesn’t let go of its stately melancholy, its grace. Yoko, throughout her reams of experimental albums and occasional pop song – witness Galaxie 500’s icy reading of her ‘Listen The Snow Is Falling’ and Fuzzbox’s disco attempt on the chilling ‘Walking On Thin Ice’ – has always carried herself with considerable dignity.
Or maybe she hasn’t? Maybe she was a gold-digger who got lucky? It’s your call. I’m not going to upset decades of accepted hegemony with a few words here: just remark upon how strange it is all these rock men with their love for the rebel stance of James Dean and Mick fucking Jagger despise Yoko so greatly. My introduction to left field art came through Yoko’s 70s albums and the underground female cartoonists. I’ll admit I’m prejudiced.
And you aren’t?
It’s apparent from the album’s sleeve notes that you feel strongly about the question of women …
“Yeah. There are still a lot of women suffering in the world and we don’t see it so much because we live in a privileged society. In the Third World, women are really treated badly. And it’s not just that. That’s why I wanted to put a man in the song too, for a man’s point of view of them having a hard time of it. I think all underdogs, whether they’re women or men, or if they’re in a Third World country, would understand it. Melancholy’s not really the word. It’s a kind of deep pain and suffering that is in life and we all go through that.”
Usually, as they get older, musicians become blander and blander. You go the opposite way …
“That’s true. I get more angry.”
That intrigues me. What makes you different from your peers? Why do you make music that’s still challenging?
“I have no idea. I always have, I felt. My music is always trying to bring out the truth in the world. In this album, you have all this showing what’s going on and then in the end, it ends with a bird singing.”
How long did it take you to do that album? Clearly, there are some tracks here that are from five or six years old.
“I wanted to make a music collage, and bring in live shows and studio tracks. Usually you either do a live album or a studio album. I wanted to have the juxtaposing of that so it goes into a different space but knows it’s in one.”
Does it bother you what reactions you get?
“When am I going to be bothered by it: before, after or while? Just joking. You can’t be bothered by it or you can’t do it. How are you going to guess or imagine who’s going to think what?”
Yeah, but people make music to get a reaction. Music is communication …
“Of course reaction is important, but you communicate in the soul of a person. On stage, I think of me as presenting this communication of gods and goddesses within me – the real spirit and the real soul. The cynicism that you have is not your real soul.”
I’m rarely intimidated by interviews these days. Met one musician, met a thousand. How many different ways are there to plug an amplifier into a wall, and make jokes about Michael Jackson’s latest escapades are there? You drink, they like you. You drink even more and they think you’re a fucking Rock God. Walking up to the Dakota, by Central Park, past the spot where The Cranberries immortalised John Lennon’s death in the truly terrifyingly bad song ‘I Just Shot John Lennon’ (“It was the fearful night of December 8/He was returning home from the studio late/He had perceptively known that it wouldn’t be nice/Because in 1980, he paid the price”… “With a Smith & Wesson, 38/John Lennon’s life was no longer a debate”), head swimming from jetlag and the rain, I was scared. This is Yoko. She’s no fool. She won’t be impressed by my sad Nirvana stories. She won’t care for purple nail gloss.
The security guards are firm, but friendly. They phone up to the apartment. Yoko’s not ready yet. Would Mr True mind pissing off for another 30 minutes with his backpack and sweating brow and zero questions, and sitting in a coffee shop down the road. We can mind the backpack, sir. Oh thanks. I sit in the coffee shop and my mind slips back, to being a scared teenager, my post-pubescent sensibilities not helped by my love for Yoko’s Plastic Ono Band album one jot. If only I’d liked Marc Bolan, maybe I could have fitted in, maybe even today I’d be allowed to write for Q or Uncut or someone. David from the Shop Assistants wrote a line about me in one of their songs: “Still clinging on to your bitter ideals.” I didn’t want to be that way. I’ve probably remembered it wrong. What’s the time? Damn. Better chuck that over-priced latte away. There. It goes on that fancy wall fine.
“You can go up now, Mr True.” Oh, thanks. This isn’t going to be real, is it?
You’re something of an icon to a lot of people I know in the counter culture. If I’ve had a conversation about you once, I’ve had it a thousand times. My friend goes “I like Yoko, but you’re the only other person I know that does” …
“Because there’s a very big opposition still to me, in terms of the big picture. I always think of myself as an outsider and there’s a power in that, there’s wisdom that you gain by being an outsider and that you can bring into society. The main society always benefits from what the outsider can bring to them.”
But there’s also a whole New York thing that’s totally separate to anything else. If you’re from New York, people here appreciate you for that …
“There’s a certain spirit that we share.”
Did you consciously choose to be the outsider?
“No, I didn’t. I was just true to myself and that made me that way.”
Yeah, probably because most people are true to what they think other people want. Most people spend their lives trying to second-guess others.
“It’s sad, isn’t it?”
So I’ve gone up through a maze of corridors and lifts, noting the giant Beatles posters and posters of John & Yoko on the walls of her PA’s office for future reference (but little else, except the cleanliness and softness of the towels in the bathroom and the hum of computers), and I sit in a large kitchen at a wooden table on a stone floor, small glass of water in front of me, waiting for history to start lurching again. Here apparently, is where the Yoko Ono interviews are conducted. I’ve been given 30 minutes, and we’re already running late. In the hallway, next to a large white piano, some workmen discuss the best way to lay a fancy carpet. “Yoko will be with you, shortly. Are you all set?”
Yes, I’m all set.
I’ve always felt that in rock music, because it’s such a patriarchal tradition, women make the most interesting art.
“I think that there’s a certain kind of productivity that is there within us.”
See, my end is a little bit negative. I know what men are like, especially in rock music because it’s been so male for so long.
“So male. That’s all I’ve done and they have been outlets. That was very important for them and the society. The kind of repression and anger they felt, they transformed it into an art form, which is better than going around and killing people. Rock is just as angry as soldiers, maybe even more, and the way they chose to express it is beautiful. It’s better than going to war and killing and feeling good about it. I don’t know if they feel good about it. Artists are people who are trying to take this tumour and heal it. I like that. I don’t know if I like it but it’s the only way to survive. Art is a way of survival.”
Healing yourself or others?
“Healing yourself and others. Healing yourself is connected with healing others. Quite often it’s not that easy to heal yourself, it’s much easier to reach out and heal others and by doing that, you heal yourself. It’s like an interesting dance.”
Yeah. It’s best not to stay apart from everybody else. It’s better to interact.
“Definitely. We’re interacting anyway, even if we’re isolated. If I isolate myself, we’re still communicating.”
Where you aware of the Riot Grrrls in the early 90s?
“No, I didn’t hear about this.”
They were this new generation of female artists, around the time of grunge. You were a role model, not just because you were an outsider but because of your art. Anybody can be an outsider.
“An outsider in the sense of being a stranger?”
Courtney had massive potential, but she threw it away.
“Well, it’s very hard for women. If she insisted on being herself, there’s a certain point where she has to be protective of herself and maybe that’s what she’s doing now. She might go back to it.”
Maybe. I liked her because I thought she was original. Now she just seems to be trying to fit in.
“Yes, but it’s a lonely game. When I first did the band, it was like everybody just smirked and laughed and put me down. I got a photo of a group of Japanese kids and a huge trash can like Yoko Ono’s album. I was so far ahead. It’s a painful and lonely trip. I never want to do that again. I’m still a little bit off in terms of timing. I have some stuff that I can still bring up and nobody understands. I can’t do that 30 year trip again because it’s too painful.”
Yeah. I can’t imagine, because I’ve never been in that situation. It’s a very female thing, I think. You were a female in a very male world back then.
“But John understood it. I think he was the only person who did at the time. People thought I was crazy. He was an intelligent guy. He wasn’t going to say ‘this is great’ just because I was with him.”
He didn’t strike me as the kind of person to say he liked something just for the sake of it.
“Yeah, he didn’t take fools easily. So at least I had that, one guy understood me. True artists are prophets. I don’t want to be that prophetic in that sense now because it’s so lonely. My bones are starting to relax a little bit.”
I totally understand. I feel guilty that I feel that way about Courtney because she deserves a bit of happiness. But it’s almost like if you’re an artist, you can’t be happy.
“In the world of the artist, you give what you have to society, but you’re giving something real so of course they’re not going to take it. That’s normal so I wasn’t fretting over it. But it was a lonely trip.”
So I meet Yoko Ono. What do you want me to tell you? She’s short. She’s wearing shades because she’d been out a disco till three am, checking out potential remixes for her songs, apologetic for keeping me waiting. She ushers me through to the main room, past all the white and through the inch-deep carpet, where we both curl up on large sofas. She throws open the curtains, and the noise from 8th Avenue below sounds like a symphony of life. She sips tea from a tiny cup. She’s courteous, friendly. I don’t remember what the gloomy Old Masterpiece on the wall was, but doubtless you can check your history texts. We talk for an eternity, and when the moment comes to leave – assistant ringing the phone, knocking on the door deferentially – she makes a point of asking whether I have any more questions. How could I? I didn’t have any to start. What makes you Yoko?
You must have had your moments of self-doubt when there were all these people against you.
Really? That’s interesting.
“Not at all. I knew what I was doing. I was aggravated by the fact that nobody understood it. I was reading from my inspiration and that’s my life. I’m not going to doubt my life.”
Does your act actively reflect your life or is it separate?
“No. Reflect is a strange word. That’s my life. Reflect is something removed.”
So it’s the same thing.
“Art is my life and my life is art.”
You don’t divorce yourself?
“No, art is my life and my life is art.”
I can never figure out at what point art exists. You could argue that something needs a certain degree of acceptance to be considered art.
“It’s almost like the trees in the park. Some people think you should cut all the trees in Central Park because you can make tons of money. That’s denying the trees. If you cut all the trees in Central Park, you would notice that this city is no longer the city it was, so you would see that the trees are important. I’m like one of those trees. I’m just being myself and staying alive.”
Do you find yourself getting angrier as you get older?
“Listen, I’m not mellowing at all. What is there to mellow for? The kind of world we’re living in, how could we be mellow? The artist’s world is becoming more important and more urgent. Art is a way of survival. I said this in my liner notes, there’s a guy in St Petersburg, a DJ who put a metronome on because the whole city was in a siege and there was no food, nothing, and people were getting lethargic. The DJ was playing all kinds of music and making people happy. But then he became lethargic too and he put the metronome on and the whole city was just listening to it, tick tock, tick tock. That’s how they survived. That is the thing that was needed, not tap-dancing but a metronome. Artists are going to be the metronome of this society.”
Yeah, I’d say right now in America, that’s very true.
“I put a billboard up in Times Square and you must see it. When you see that billboard in the context of all the other billboards, the advertisements, you will see that it is art. I don’t feel like … how do I put it? It’s not a pain that’s coming from my body, but it’s almost like a body pain I feel, even because of September 11, the world condition. When you go to war, both sides lose totally.”
But some people must enjoy it.
“It’s a very high price for enjoyment. Why don’t you buy a CD or something?”
But somebody must, they must.
“It’s so sad though, isn’t it? It’s hurting kids as well. We are all feeling the pain. We’re all angry. What is this mellowing?”
So there’s incredible wealth in the Dakota and in the apartment on one hand, and art and talent and (yes) beauty … and then, on the other, there’s me. What use is music or writing or criticism if it’s not trying to make sense of life? I walked out of Yoko’s life – and sure, one of the worst days I ever had was when John Lennon was killed, I was squatting at the time, no electricity, no water, and all I had to keep me going like a metronome was that dumb ELO pastiche ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’ – and it was still drizzling outside, the cars were still fucking with my health.
Still. I got to stay in a nice hotel for a few days.
What inspires you to write music?
“It’s like breathing. It comes to me and so I have to put it down. If I don’t, it’s like a form of death, of not being alive. Sometimes it’s really terrible, especially when I was in New York before I met John and I didn’t have a studio to do these ideas.”
Do you see a common thread running through your music?
“I think so, definitely. Freight Train is a good example. I saw the Freight Train [in my head] and I thought ‘Wow, I have to make something with this’. Whenever I was chatting with people, I was saying, ‘I have to do this’. People were saying, ‘You can’t do that, freight trains are so big and you have problems with transport and where can you exhibit?’ Not many galleries are that big. I had to make it. So in Berlin, they found this old freight train that they’d used for transporting people in the 40s. We had to create these bullet marks with a machine gun and there’s a law in Germany that only military people can use a machine gun. So then I had to get permission from the German military to do this thing and they did it.”
Were they Yoko Ono fans?
“I don’t know. They exhibited this thing in Berlin that is like their national gallery. That was incredible. The mayor was saying that it was two blocks from where they actually had the train and these prisoners. It was very good for them to confront it. I was in pain for about three years about being able to do this. But now it’s done.”
That’s good. If you like Yoko Ono, you tend to have a few arguments with people over the years.
“I’m sorry. I remember there was this guy who kept insisting he liked my music when he was in high school and he was totally ostracised.”
Well, it’s a choice you make. Not a deliberate choice but you go for what sound you like. When I first heard your music, I hadn’t heard anything like it before. It was also the time in England of the punk movement. The punk movement itself wasn’t so interesting but the bands that came immediately after were very interesting. They were trying different things, different rhythms and a lot of females were involved, which I found more interesting. Like your albums …
“I just went with my inspiration. It’s all you can do. You say, ‘Don’t you want to guess what people think?’ What people? And you can never guess.”
Exactly. Some people will like what you do and some people won’t. If you’d written a bunch of pop songs, a load of people would have hated you. Was The Beatles one of the reasons why you didn’t write pop songs? Because you clearly could if you’d wanted to.
“It’s a matter of attitude of life, that if you want to push the edge … My father used to tell me, he was a classical pianist, the one who introduced me to this, he was a very far out guy in that sense, in terms of classical music. He taught me that, in terms of performance, the composer writes something a little bit more challenging that maybe the performer can’t play. The performer tries to play it and then, when they have conquered that part, the composer goes a little bit further and the performer becomes more competent because of the challenge. It progresses them. That was the spirit of pushing the edge, that’s what the whole of the human race is doing to become wiser.”
“Yes, to grow. It’s a process of growing. I never thought we shouldn’t grow, I never thought we should repeat. Repeating is just like water when it stops flowing, it becomes muddy. That’s how I feel.”
Art is life. Life is art. See how simple it is?
“We have to round it up now so if there’s anything else you want to talk about. It’s great. Where were you … where were you when I needed you?”
At any given time, the people in power are always the wrong people, as I’m sure you know. The only thing that keeps me going is the fact I know everyone else is wrong.
“It’s like those fish that go upstream.”
“Right, salmon. It’s the energy of going upstream.”
Maybe if people had been supporting you throughout your career, you wouldn’t have felt that energy.
“It’s OK the way that most of my work has circulated. What is in this album, even if it’s hidden, will have some impact in the world. The fact that I made it and finished it and it’s there is important.”
(Anyone interested in reading the unabridged interview, drop me a line or leave a note in the comments.)
Related posts: the full transcript of the Yoko Ono interview