It was still chilly in New York City in the spring of 1992 when I flew in from Los Angeles to interview Yoko Ono at her home in the Dakota building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I’d been listening to all of the wildly creative music that she and her husband, John Lennon, had made together since the late 1960s, and I felt strongly that Yoko had gotten a severely bad rap from Beatles fans over the preceding quarter century. I was convinced that this bad rap was nothing short of barely veiled bigotry: racism, misogyny, anti-intellectualism, and not just a little Boomer entitlement. People didn’t understand Yoko, and they didn’t want to. I wanted to change that. Yoko hadn’t granted many interviews since Lennon was murdered outside of that same building 12 years earlier, and I felt privileged to be given time with her in her home. I found her to be warm, pleasant, and present — the opposite of how she had been characterized in the media. She teared up as we talked about her re-listening to recordings of music that she and Lennon had made — recordings that had just been re-released as the 6-disc anthology Onobox. We talked a bit about her life with John, but mostly, we talked about Yoko: her life, her art, her music, and her impact on a new generation of women aritsts.
Yoko Ono Reconsidered
By Mark Kemp, Option, July 1992Living well may be the best revenge, but vindication is just as sweet. In Yoko Ono’s case, the payback is that while many of her former critics have faded into the seams of that chapter in the history books called “The Turbulent ’60s,” Yoko remains a vital influence on contemporary music. Kurt Cobain of Nirvana calls her “the first female punk rocker.” Donita Sparks of L7 refers to her as “a real gem.” And the feminist music fanzine Bikini Kill recently noted that women musicians should “rescue our true heroines from obscurity — or, in Yoko’s case, from disgrace… What your boyfriend teaches you is that Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles… But besides being the victim of the girlfriend-as-distraction thing, Yoko was so fucking ahead of her time.”
More than two decades of pop music evolution later — during a time that’s seen the B-52s, Sonic Youth, Babes In Toyland, L7 and other noisy and atonal rockers signed to major labels — Yoko Ono’s music is being re-examined in a fresher light. Truth is, her dismissal by the old pop/rock elite should never have happened. “John Lennon saw the light,” says Donita Sparks. “And the fact that he and Yoko had the moxie to get out there and sing about the things they sang about, do the stuff they did for humanity, and play the kind of music they played, was really courageous. Yoko just told everybody, fuck you, I’m not going to disappear.”
When she hears such comments, Yoko smiles. “I wish John were here so he would know this,” she says. “He would say, ‘I told you so, Yoko, I told you so.’ The B-52s really cheered him up; he thought from that point on everything would be okay for me. But it wasn’t, really, not right away. Anyway, I’m thankful that I’m getting a second chance. It’s like getting a second life.”
THE CASTLE-LIKE APARTMENT BUILDING at the corner of 72nd and Central Park West has been photographed a zillion times since the winter of 1980. Those black-and-white newsprint images of teary-eyed Beatles fans, standing at the iron portcullis that shields the building’s dark, vaulted carriageway from the streets, are now as permanently etched into history as the Kennedy motorcade. The Dakota’s sooty, salmon-colored brick and olive-colored sandstone trim, its massive pavilions and steep-sloped roofs, give it an almost haunted house-like aura today. Watching people come and go beneath the two-story-high archway where Mark David Chapman stood, took aim, and fired five deadly shots at John Lennon so many years ago, you wonder how anyone could even live here anymore.
It’s a clear, breezy April afternoon on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and the side-walks are unusually quiet. Just beyond the Dakota’s archway a guard stands with his hands in his pockets. When I ask the question he’s heard probably a million times by now, he shuffles self-assuredly and points to a spot some ten feet in front of him. “Right there, sir, that’s where it happened.” To his left, a pair of double doors opens into a small vestibule with wood-paneled walls. There, a second guard sits behind a counter surrounded by television monitors that are zeroed in on the building’s various nooks and crannies. Another door opens to a maze of passageways, one of which leads to Studio One, the office where Yoko Ono has managed John Lennon’s legacy for the past 12 years.
Visitors are asked to remove their shoes before entering Yoko’s sanctuary, a spacious room with soft white carpet and white furniture, a black piano, an enormous desk with hand-carved Egyptian motifs, a statue of a “feminist geisha girl” and an amateurish painting of John and Sean (the latter two being gifts from John). Yoko explains the painting: “They were in Bermuda having the time of their lives, and I was back here working. I called them every day, but they were always out. I thought they were just having fun at the beach or something, but as it turns out they were going to this artist every morning, having that done for me.” She glances up at the painting. “Isn’t that sweet of them?”
Yoko has live a hard, charmed life. At the peak of her creative years in the avant-garde of the mid-1960s, she met John Lennon at London’s Indica art gallery, where she was showing her work. She was married at the time, and not only did meeting Lennon mean she would be divorced (for the second time), it meant she would lose her daughter, Kyoko, to her ex-husband. Within the next 14 years, Yoko would miscarry her first child with Lennon, suffer through a relentless effort by the U.S. government to deport Lennon, separate from Lennon during his notorious “lost weekend,” become a drug addict, lose Lennon to an assassin’s bullets, and finally be cruelly immortalized by scandal biographer Albert Goldman in The Lives of John Lennon. On the other hand, she would become one of the wealthiest bohemians in the world, and produce a prodigious volume of art and music apart from her celebrated husband.
Earlier this year, she took a breather from her management of Lennon’s posthumous career to focus on herself. She compiled Onobox, a six-CD boxed set on Rykodisc that traces her own music from the way-out jams she did with Lennon in New York in the late ’60s to the solo music she released during the six years following his death. “It was very painful to go through that material and listen to it, because you would just suddenly, unexpectedly, hit that emotion,” she says. “I had a lot of feelings like that when I was working on the boxed set. I’ve always had feelings like that when I’m hearing John’s music, but this time it was different. It was my work, so it was a different kind of pain. It was really weird.”
Yoko prepares for our conversation by carefully placing a tumbler of water and then an ashtray on the glass coffee table in front of her. She reaches into her bag for a cigarette and inadvertently spills the contents onto the floor. A dozen or so half-full packs of Marlboro Lights tumble out. She smiles sheepishly, picks one from the pile and gingerly places it on the table next to the ashtray.
Wearing a brown sweater, a pair of faded blue jeans and wire-rims that are only slightly larger around than the granny glasses John Lennon made famous, Yoko projects a vastly different image from that of the tortured Dragon Lady who “broke up the Beatles,” or the mysterious woman who never leaves the Dakota without her wraparound aviator sunglasses and an all-black wardrobe. Her hair is short and ruffed today, and her face — those broad, smooth cheekbones, dark, sloped eyes and tight, rigid mouth — is shiny and youthful looking. At 59, Yoko looks happier and healthier than she has in years. But the marks of her painful life remain: She stops almost immediately when she catches herself laughing, and at least twice in the span of nearly two hours her voice cracks when speaking of Lennon.
“I don’t know why I’ve had to go through what I’ve had to go through,” she says, in her still noticeable Japanese accent. “But, you know, I’m not really…” She trails off and lights a cigarette. “I mean, you can either feel sorry for yourself and go through life that way — which is what a lot of people who go through these things have the right to do — or you can just sort of decide that, in the big picture, the fact that you have your health, a roof over your head and a few nice friends, these are things you can cherish and be thankful for. We really don’t have much of a choice, do we? We could wallow in our pain, and then what? The next step is, well, you know, okay, kill ourselves so it will be easier. But I think this is just how we have to live our lives: by not dwelling on these things and just going on.”
It’s been said that falling in love with John Lennon was the worst career move Yoko could have made. Her association with the Fluxus art movement of the ’60s, her experimental music, conceptual film work and performance art had just begun to gain international attention. When she started hanging out with rock musicians, the avant-garde people, who already had looked down on her work, dismissed her behavior. Moreover, Beatles fans saw her as the woman who destroyed their heroes, the avant-garde singer with a shrill voice but no conventional reference point for comparison. At the times, almost no one considered Yoko on Yoko’s terms — no one, that is, except for John Lennon.
She leans forward in her chair, as if to emphasize what she’s about to say: “John was the first guy who really understood that it was okay that I’m just screaming and shouting, you know? ‘Too dramatic’ was the way the avant-garde was looking at my work; that was kind of looked down on, you know. But now I went over to rock, so the old avant-garde people — I mean, they don’t mean it badly or anything — they said, ‘Oh, it’s too bad that you’re fooling around with that sort of scene. You should come back, because you’re too important for that.”
AFTER DROPPING OUT of Sarah Lawrence College in 1957, the wealthy Japanese banker’s daughter moved to New York City in search of a circle of artists who shared her unconventional ideas about music. In college, Yoko had studied composition, but had run into a brick wall. “I was fascinated by the birds singing every morning from my window,” she says, “and was trying to translate it into regular musical notation. But I couldn’t be done. So I explained this dilemma to my teacher and he said, ‘You know, the direction you’re going in is similar to some of the sort of left-field people in New York City.’ And he mentioned a few names: Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, John Cage, people like that.”
When she arrived in New York, Yoko married fellow Japenese music student Toshi Ichiyanagi, and the two jumped head-first into the burgeoning avant-garde scene, meeting Cage and Feldman, as well as electronic music pioneer Richard Maxfield, minimalist La Monte Young, and Henry Flynt, the father of “concept art.” At the time it was difficult for fringe musicians to find places to perform, because the uptown concert halls had not yet opened their doors to the avant-garde. “There was nothing downtown, either,” Yoko recalls. “So I was thinking that there should be some kind of alternative to places like Town Hall and Carnegie Hall.”
Yoko mashes out her cigarette and glances up into the space of her office. “I remember exactly when I thought about doing it,” she says, of her idea to open up a concert space. “I was walking with a friend of mine on Broadway, somewhere around 108th Street, and the evening light was shining on the window of this…I dunno, I think it was this dance studio or something. I told my friend, ‘You know, if we could get a place like that to do concerts in, it’d be great.’ I thought I could get all these friends of mine and we could all perform together.”
A smattering of painters and sculptors had already started renting loft spaces downtown and turning them into studios. But it was still a long time before the word “loft” carried any kind of musical connotation. Says Yoko, “I’d never even heard the word.” Today, it’s fairly well accepted that Yoko’s fifth-floor walk-up at 112 Chambers Street was the precursor to the Soho lofts that later would nurture the likes of Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson, and contribute to Soho’s boom during the 1980s. But this was 1960, and to the 27-year-old Yoko, downtown seemed a million miles away. “It was the first time I’m going that far downtown,” she says, “and it felt really strange.” The loft Yoko rented cost $50.50 a month, 40 or 50 times cheaper than those of Soho’s ’80s heyday. “It sounded very cheap to me, but it wasn’t really that cheap, because I was probably earning only about $25 to $50 a week. But I thought, ‘Okay, I can afford it.’”
Yoko (right) with composer John Cage and art collector Peggy Guggenheim in Japan.
She describes the obsession she felt about acquiring the loft in a near whisper. “The night after I looked at that space, I felt my whole fate was sealed,” she says. “I mean, I don’t know why I felt that way, because it was only just one option, right? Also, I should not have known the significance of it at the time, but it seems like I did. It’s almost like…” She pauses to take a sip of water “You know, people are kind of like animals: there’s stuff that you just instinctively know, but you don’t know exactly why. That night I was rolling in my bed. I could not sleep. I was thinking, ‘I have to get that place, I have to get that place.’ And then I’d think, ‘Oh, god, I’m not going to get it! I’m not going to get it! Somebody’s going to get it before me! What am I going to do if I don’t get that place?’ I just couldn’t sleep.”
Yoko did get the loft, and immediately began holding concerts there. “I got all these orange crates and during the days and evenings they became chairs for people to sir on,” she explains. “At night, I would pull all the crates together and that was my bed.”
The space had no electricity, though, so she had to wire it from an outlet in the hallway. “We did the first concert without light because I hadn’t figured out how to wire it yet. But it was beautiful; we did it under candlelight. It also snowed very heavily that day and I thought, ‘Oh, God, no one’s going to come.’ But about 20 people showed up. Most of them had come down from Stony Point, New York, where John Cage and Merce Cunningham had this sort of commune. It was funny; everyone was wearing heavy coats and all. It was really great.”
By the mid-’60s — during which time Yoko had divorced her first husband and remarried, performed with a number of experimental artists, including Ornette Coleman, and done lots of conceptual art and film work — she had become disenchanted with the avant-garde, feeling it was too cool and academic. “That’s what I was sort of rebelling against at the time,” she says, “I mean, I like the music of Schoenberg and all, but I don’t care about the 12-tone stuff; that’s just shit they like to talk about. Schoenberg’s music has soul. It’s great and I was impressed with that. But among the New York avant-garde, it was all so theoretical, it was all just a head trip. Among that circle, my stuff, they thought, ‘What’s she trying to do?’ I mean, I’m coming out with…’AH-ee-YAH-ee-YAH-ee-YAH-ee’…and to them, that was just…I dunno. First of all, the avant-garde guys didn’t use the voice. They were just so cool, right? And there was also that very asexual kind of atmosphere in the music. And I wanted to throw blood.”
Before John Lennon walked into her life and changed it forever, Yoko experimented with film and tapes in her art, and she stretched the boundaries of the human voice as a sort of sonic paint brush.
ALL THAT WAS YEARS AGO, though, and after about half an hour on the subject, Yoko suddenly stops. “I think some of the things I’ve said might sound like I’m bitter or whatever,” she says. “I don’t want to put down the avant-garde. I mean, why should I? They don’t need that, they need encouragement. It’s just that this is what happened to me; it’s my experience, my evolution as an artist. So perhaps you could edit out some of the things that I’ve said about the avant-garde, anything negative. They’re all very nice people.” And then Yoko drops a word she uses often in her conversation: “I think we should be more positive.”
In other words, Yoko wants to talk about the work she’s done since November 7, 1966, the day John Lennon walked into her one-woman show and into her life. “There were various reasons why I left the avant-garde,” she explains. “But I hadn’t really left it. I had gone to London and was still doing this one-woman avant-garde show. And then later, after I got with John, we started doing music that was different from anything either of us had done.”
This is where Onobox comes in. The first disc, called London Jam, is an all-out avant-rock bonanza. It has Yoko doing her voice improvisations over basic blues jams featuring Lennon, Eric Clapton, Ringo Star, percussionist Jim Keltner, bassist Klaus Voorman, and various other English and American rockers. Throughout the disc, you can hear Lennon doing things with his guitar that he rarely did in his solo work, let alone on a Beatles album. The jams are as close as pop or rock had gotten at that point to the downtown avant-garde world, save for a few albums by Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa. “Of course, when John and I first starred doing that kind of music together we thought it was great and that everybody else was going to automatically understand how great it was,” Yoko says, with an I-shoulda-known-better smile. “We were thinking, ‘Okay, let’s show them!’ And we did.” She giggles like a child, “But it wasn’t like that at all. Nobody listened to it. So there was that big difference in our two realities: the reality that John and I lived in and the reality that the world was in. And there was a certain feeling of isolation.”
Coming from the avant-garde, however, Yoko was better prepared for the criticism than John was. “You know, part of me sort of comes from the tradition of knowing that there were many composers who would compose things and no one would pay attention to it during their lifetime,” she says, pausing to light another cigarette. “So, okay, a lot of people didn’t listen to my music, right? But that’s just a given when you’re an artist who’s doing something that’s a little far out. So I didn’t sit all that uncomfortably in that particular role. It was okay, in a way. And when you’re exchanging your musical ideas with other musicians, you know when they’re getting it. I had a nice rapport with those musicians, and you can hear it on [the London Jam disc] if you listen. There was no way that those guys were just playing with me out of politeness or anything. There was a real kind of ‘getting into it’ thing going on, it was a nice groove. That’s something that you just can’t fake.”
Drummer Jim Keltner recalls Yoko’s musical single-mindedness during those sessions on a press page that went out with Onobox. “She told the horn player next to me to throw away his mouthpiece and make his instrument sound like a wind that was sliding down a frog’s hack. I rolled my eyes because it all seemed so strange and ridiculous. When we were finished, the track sounded perfect.”
Other parts of Onobox are equally as interesting, if perhaps spotty in places. The New York Rock disc is an edited and resequenced version of Yoko’s 1972 album Approximately Infinite Universe, done with the Plastic Ono Elephant’s Memory Band. In its attitude, danger and vocal execution, the music clearly prefigures punk on many of the tracks: ‘What a Bastard the World Is’, ‘I Felt Like Smashing My Face In a Clear Glass Window’, and ‘Don’t Worry, Kyoko’. Though the music sometimes sounds dated (for instance, on ‘Catman’) or overly lush (‘Winter Song’), her singing remains consistently forward-looking. Some of the best material of the boxed set appears on New York Rock, like the song ‘I Want My Love To Rest Tonight’, a feminist ballad that’s at once strongly pro-women and sensitive to men’s issues.
The disc Run Run Run is Yoko’s 1973 album Feeling the Space, plus five tracks left off the original. It goes from the menacing sounds of ‘Coffin Car’ (“Life is killing her/Telling her to join the dead”) to the campy cocktail jazz of ‘Yellow Girl (Stand By For Life)’. Disc 4, Kiss Kiss Kiss, jumps straight to 1980, including tracks cut during Yoko and John’s Double Fantasy and Milk & Honey period; No No, No consists of excerpts from Yoko’s post-1980 albums Seasons of Glass, It’s Alright and Starpeace, with much of the material produced by either Phil Spector or Bill Laswell. The final disc, A Story, is an unreleased album Yoko did in 1973 and 1974, during Lennon’s “lost weekend.” Like the second and third discs, the music on it is folky and arty in nature, with an eclectic assortment of odd melodies, acoustic guitars, piano, and even pedal steel guitar. The lyrics document Yoko’s feeling during the separation.
Onobox, and in particular the London Jam disc, has received accolades from the mainstream music press. But it wasn’t always like that. Just as Beatles fans and the avant-garde had dismissed Yoko, most pop and rock critics of the ’60s at first carelessly dismissed her music as the eccentric warblings of a “too dramatic” avant-gardist who had interfered with the Beatles’ creative process. (In fact, not only are Yoko’s releases not mentioned in The New Rolling Stone Record Guide, but there’s also no mention of her in the more adventurous Trouser Press Guide, the Bible of alternative albums; accordingly, you won’t find Yoko’s early records in Robert Christgau’s Rock Albums of the ’70s.) “Maybe it was because there were more men critics back then,” Yoko says, “I dunno.”
OTHERS HAVE DARKER THEORIES. Donita Sparks of L7 believes the criticism Yoko got was the result of a variety of factors. “I think it had as much to do with racism as anything — her being Japanese and John Lennon being white. And the fact that people said she broke up the Beatles and all that bullshit.” L7 actually used a sample of Yoko’s trademark scream in the song ‘Wargasm’ on its latest album Bricks Are Heavy (Slash). “Her avant-garde-ness was amazing,” Sparks says, “and what she did for music was great. Yet she was totally ignored.”
But Yoko says that musicians, as opposed to Beatles fans and music critics, were always more accepting of her music. “John and I heard the influence even back then,” she says. “Even after Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band was out for, like, two weeks or something, John turns the radio on and somebody’s playing, right? And he says to me, ‘Listen to that, Yoko, they’re already copying it.’ The copying was going on from the beginning. The beginning! When we put out Approximately Infinite Universe, right away people were listening to it. While all the journalists were saying, ‘Oh, nobody’s listening to her music, ha, ha, ha,’ a lot of musicians were listening.”
Notwithstanding all the gushy, sentimental accounts of the ’60s we hear about today, for Yoko, being not only the wife but also the musical partner of one of the four most famous pop stars in the world, the pressure was tremendous. “John was white and I was yellow, I was a woman and he was a guy,” she says. “But that also created a kind of awareness in us. I had not been so aware of feminism until…” She stops and corrects herself. “Actually, I knew of feminism because my grandmother was a feminist; there was a Japanese feminist society, and she was one of them. But I didn’t think it applied in my life until I went to London and met all those macho rockers. It was then that I thought, ‘Christ! Women really are suffering.’
“John was a macho guy who didn’t understand at all about women in that sense,” she continues. “But when we got together he went through a real change, a real process of realizing, ‘Oh, so that’s what women are going through?’ So, in a way, we were fortunate to be in a situation where such an awareness was promoted in our lives. But it was a bit of a lonely trip at the same time.”
It was an atmosphere in which John and Yoko felt at once isolated from the world and totally free to air their dirty laundry in a blend of performance art, political expression and personal confessions, such as the bed-ins, the “War Is Over” gigs, the bag-ism, fagism, this-ism and that-ism. “For me, in my private life, I’m not a particularly open person,” Yoko allows. “I have a very difficult time communicating my feelings; it chokes me up. It’s easier for me to say it in songs or in artwork, or films, or performances or whatever. And I think maybe John was a bit like that, too. I mean, we tried to be honest with each other and we tried to confront each other. But, say, if he didn’t like something that I did, and he wanted to communicate to me that he didn’t like it, it would take him maybe a week to finally come out with it. And I was like that, too.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono just before Lennon’s murder in 1980. (Photo by Jack Mitchell)
“But on the level of songs, it’s much easier to be extremely honest, and it’s also easier with stuff like the bed-ins and Two Virgins [the album cover on which they posed nude], which were more like performances. I don’t really know why that is. I don’t know why, being two very introverted people, we could be so extroverted in public life. But that’s often the case, isn’t it? Most extroverts in public life are very introverted in private. It’s not really contradictory, because the reason you thrive on creative work is because that’s where you know that you’re more eloquent; whereas in your private life you have more difficulty, there’s a certain repression. Lots of people are like that: Elvis Costello, Phil Spector, those kinds of people who, in real life, are actually very shy. It’s like, if you’re so versatile and eloquent in your real life, why should you need to be so eloquent in another medium? There would just be no need for that kind of outlet.”
To some, it’s almost inconceivable that the woman who gives her songs such titles as ‘What a Bastard the World Is’ ‘Woman is the Nigger of the World’, ‘I Felt Like Smashing My Face In a Clear Glass Window’, and writes lyrics like “Are we going to keep digging oil wells and gold?” would turn right around and jump into bed with the corporate world. Over the past five years, Yoko has sold John Lennon’s songs to companies including Nike for use in TV advertisements. Yet Yoko has always demonstrated incredible business acumen. When she took over the business management of John Lennon’s career, she made investments that quadrupled his wealth. And while much of her own material has been astonishingly naive in its political and social idealism, there’s a deep cynic lurking within Yoko Ono. Of course, cynics are mostly just frustrated idealists.
Yoko raises up in her chair, her face and voice growing stern. “Listen,” she snaps, “you have something against big business? Well, so do I. But, look, even if we have something against big business, big business is going to thrive. It’s going to be there. The way I see it is: I’ve got an access there for millions of people to hear ‘Instant Karma’; and I got $800,000, which went to the United Negro College Fund. That’s what I got for that song. You have a problem with that? What’s the alternative?” She switches to a singsongy voice: “‘Oh, we don’t like big business.’ Well, OK, sure, but big business is going to be there no matter what we do. So if it’s going to be there, why don’t we use it for positive things. To say this is wrong is the same kind of snobbery as, like, an avant-garde composer saying, ‘Ah, we should not do that commercial deal; it’s bad.’ I don’t buy that. I mean, what is sell-out? What does sell-out mean?
“For instance, there was that big thing about Mapplethorpe, right? People were saying it was so horrible that museums weren’t showing his work. But I come from the background and tradition of, like, if a museum doesn’t show your work, then show it in a subway or put it on TV and sell it mail-order. To me, artists have to be aware of constantly creating new ways of showing their stuff. John’s not going to be on the charts anymore with new music, right? And I can’t go to EMI and say, ‘Would you please put out ‘Instant Karma’ as a single again?’ So if this ad can get that song out to millions of people, what’s the harm? And it’s a very important message today for young kids; it’s not like it’s a perfume ad or anything.” (Nonetheless, Nike is an expensive brand of sneakers that urban kids fight, steal and have even killed to acquire because they’re presented as being so hip and desirable.)
Lennon’s songs aside, Yoko hopes to release some of her own new music after the buzz on Onobox and her recent visual art show at New York’s Mary Boone Gallery settles down. “I’ve already gone into the studio and I’m starting to do something with a few songs that I made during that period when I wasn’t doing anything. But I don’t know where it’s going. I’m not very happy or satisfied with the way it’s going at the moment.”
I ASK YOKO IF SHE’S EVER thought of doing music with Sean, who at 16 has begun to write songs himself. Yoko just smiles. “I’ve never really thought about it,” she says. “Like both of his parents, Sean is fiercely independent. And I think that’s good. But it means that I would hate to even suggest that we do something together. I don’t think he needs me and I think it’s better that he does it on his own. He’s really incredible. He plays guitar and piano and he has a good voice, too. But mainly he’s a good songwriter.” You figure she’ll bring out the snapshots at any moment. “I don’t know how he manages it,” she continues, “but he writes songs in a way that’s not at all like John and not at all like me. It’s like there was a crack somewhere in between and he’s filled it.”
Like the course of her life, the conversation returns to the subject of Yoko’s inner pain. A few years ago, Yoko published an open letter to her daughter Kyoko in People magazine. It encouraged Kyoko to get in touch with Yoko if she wanted to — but only if she wanted to. If she didn’t, the letter said, Yoko would understand. “There are two things that I have to deal with: one is my daughter and the other is John. Losing my daughter was a pretty heavy experience and uh…” she pauses. “But, you know, I’ve totally gotten used to it now, because I have Sean. Sometimes he’ll say someting like, ‘Well, I’ve got this sister that I don’t even know.’ But I’m totally into Sean, you know, and I’ve totally accepted the fact that I lost my daughter.
“There were times that I couldn’t stand it,” she continues, “but that was, like, until 1978. By then I was sort of getting used to the idea. And then the big tragedy that replaced that sort of feeling sorry for myself and all was John’s death. After John died, it seemed like nothing could be that bad again. That’s sort of the ultimate, isn’t it? At least let’s hope so. I mean, I don’t know for sure, but I’m not asking for another tragedy. I’ve had my fill, thank you very much.”
In an awkward moment right at the end of our conversation Yoko’s eyes begin to well up slightly. Suddenly, very quietly, and without any prompting, she murmurs, “I guess I’m still living in a lot of pain. Yeah…um, um…like, just the other morning in London I woke up in a hotel and was very frightened. I’m thinking, ‘What am I frightened of?’ And then I’m thinking, ‘Well, I guess I’m just frightened of being me.’ That’s a lot, you know? It’s like, if you’re frightened of being yourself, then nobody can stop it. I didn’t try to make it difficult on myself. Even in the beginning, I suppose…” She trails off and looks down at the now-overflowing ashtray. “I guess I’m just one of those people who, no matter what, could never have been comfortable with a mainstream kind of life. Yet all of us — every one of us, really — are looking for some kind of comfort level in our lives.” She smiles, disconsolately. “And that level is not very easy to find.”
Three years after this story ran, Yoko teamed up with her then-19-year-old son Sean for the 1995 album Rising, backed by Sean’s band IMA. It was the first of many collaborations the two have done in the years since. Yoko’s latest album, as of this writing, is Warzone, a set of re-recorded versions of her compositions spanning the decades. This is a clip of the original version of “Where Do We Go from Here,” from Rising.