Sitting at her kitchen table, sipping green tea, Yoko Ono looks much the same as she did when I met her 20 years ago. Dressed in a black top and trousers and peering intently over tinted spectacles, her face bears little trace of the passing of time and her diminutive form exudes utter calmness. Having crossed the famous threshold of the Dakota building, and been ushered through the interior of possibly the most exclusive address in Manhattan by her assistant, then instructed to leave my shoes at the door, I do feel like I have been granted an audience with a grand historical figure. Which, in a way, I have.
Having recently turned 80, the woman who was once regarded as a kind of latter-day witch who led John Lennon astray and broke up the Beatles, now occupies a more complex historical position in the pantheon of celebrity. She has been recognised belatedly as a pioneering conceptual artist, a musician and performer in her own right, and an activist in the spirit of her late husband. Her latest causes include campaigning for gun control and against fracking – the extraction of natural gas by cracking open shale rocks below the Earth’s surface under high pressure and at great ecological cost. Quiet-spoken, but still outspoken, Yoko Ono’s vision remains utopian and her thinking seems utterly untroubled by the hard facts of contemporary geopolitical reality.
“I do feel that I am starting a new life at 80,” she says, at one point, “a second life that will have so many things I didn’t have in the first life. I don’t know how long I am going to live, but my prediction is that we will have heaven on earth in 2050. When I tell people this, they say, ‘Oh, but you won’t be there,’ and I say, ‘Well, who knows?’ ”
Before the arrival of heaven on earth though there is a more pressing commitment: this year’s Meltdown festival, which she is curating, and which takes place at the Southbank centre in London next month. It will feature various musical pioneers such as Marianne Faithfull, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Siouxsie and Yoko herself, alongside contemporary cutting-edge acts such as Cibo Matto, Deerhoof and Immortal Technique. What, I ask, was her criterion? “Oh, energy. I think energy is the most important thing that we can give to people as performers. Anything else is a little bit pretentious. But energy is not. It’s so direct and so pure that it becomes a kind of freedom. If you don’t have it, don’t bother with rock and roll.” Is it hard to find that energy as she enters old age? “Well, as you get older, you realise that you can only do a performance on stage through the energy that is inside you. You transform yourself. I find that so interesting. I think that there is a sort of spiritual power that is translating into our bodies as we perform. Performers give and giving is so important. It can heal. That is my experience anyway.”
Alongside music, Meltdown will also have two weekends of talks, lectures, workshops and discussions, one devoted to activism, including a debate linked to the publication of a book of artists’ work in support of Pussy Riot, and one concerned with the digital future. “I think this is the beginning of a time of big change,” she says confidently. “The 60s were very sweet in a way, but things are more urgent now because we really do have to get on with it. Time is running out for the planet. The only option is do something or do nothing.”
How would she describe her politics, if indeed she believes in politics? “Well, I believe in people. People change things. And I am against negativity in all its forms. I think we should be discovering and inventing things that help the human race, not that damage the planet. By now, we should have realised this is what is needed, no? The future is now. We can’t wait for the future.”
I ask Yoko why she has so ardently embraced the anti-fracking cause, becoming, alongside Lady Gaga and actress Susan Sarandon, the most visible spokesperson for the recently formed Artists Against Fracking. She has made a TV advert about the dangers of the process, addressed to New York’s Governor Cuomo, to the soundtrack of John Lennon’s Gimme Some Truth. And, alongside her son, Sean, and some famous friends, she has recorded the folksy, early-Dylanish protest song, Don’t Frack My Mother.
“Well I’m getting bashed for it, but I have to speak out, it’s so potentially bad. These big gas corporations have so much money and they think that gives them the power to do whatever they want. They are going to put strong chemicals in the water and that water is going to splash all over the place. In Pennsylvania, already some people are getting cancer and the corporations are saying, ‘Oh there’s no proof.’ The usual. All the wells have no clean water now. You can show that. The water is cloudy. And people who are not rich, they cannot afford to buy clean water every day.”
She pauses for breath, and continues in a conspiratorial whisper. “When I speak out against the guns or against the big corporations, some of my friends say, ‘Oh Yoko, be careful. These people have all the power.’ But, you know, most people don’t speak out because they are frightened. It’s best to have no fear. Plus, I am not going to rest well if I don’t do it. We cannot stay silent, so I ask people to please join me. If a million people stand up, they will have to take notice.”
Thus far, activism apart, Yoko has marked her 80th year on Earth in style. Alongside the imminent Meltdown festival, a touring retrospective of her art, entitled Half-A-Wind, has just finished at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt and will travel throughout Europe and the US in the coming months. A big art book, Infinite Universe at Dawn, spanning her long career as an artist, will be published later in the year. She has also just finished a new album and overseen an extensive reissue programme of her back catalogue from 1968-85.
In February, she celebrated her birthday with a Plastic Ono Band concert at the Volksbühne in Berlin, where the group, which now consists of Sean and sundry friends, was joined on stage by Peaches, Michael Stipe and Rufus and Martha Wainwright. The show culminated with the arrival of a birthday cake and a chorus of Happy Birthday in English and German. The audience of ageing hippies and younger art-world hipsters lapped it up, raising the roof with the chorus of Give Peace A Chance without the slightest trace of irony or cynicism.
The concert itself was a curious affair, with the group moving often unsteadily through a selection of songs from her career, while Yoko submerged her more arty side – there wasn’t much atonal screaming – for wavering renditions of songs including Walking on Thin Ice, Between My Head and the Sky, and Yes, I’m A Witch, on which she duetted with the towering Peaches.
I tell her I have always been intrigued by this song. Was it a late retort to those who blamed her for breaking up the Beatles? “Not just that, but all the negativity. I had to combat the negativity coming towards me. I felt like the world was trying to kill me spiritually for 40 years, so one day I just said, OK, I’m a witch. You are saying it, so am I. Don’t ever touch me as I am doing what I want to do. It is a song of rebellion. It didn’t seem to go anywhere at the time, but maybe it went everywhere spiritually. It certainly made me feel that I could go on.”
The song is a testament to the lunar miles she has travelled since those strange days in the late 1960s, and the restless, ambitious years of creativity that preceded them. Born in Tokyo in 1933, to an aristocratic family, she was close to her father, who briefly harboured an ambition to be a classical pianist before settling down as a banker. His job meant that the family moved back and forth between Japan and America, returning to Tokyo before the second world war broke out. They were in the city when it was firebombed in March 1945 – killing more than 100,000 people, it was the deadliest air raid of the entire war. Hard times followed – her parents had to barter some of their possessions for food and, for a while, live nomadically in the countryside.
I ask her if she can recall the first piece of art she ever made. “I remember, when we were evacuated during the war, my brother was really unhappy and depressed and really hungry because we did not have very much food. So I said, ‘OK, let’s make a menu together. What kind of dinner would you like?’ And, he said, ‘Ice-cream.’ So, I said, ‘Good, let’s imagine our ice-cream dinner.’ And, we did, and he started to look happy. So, I realised even then that just through imagining, we can be happy. So we had our conceptual dinner and this is maybe my first piece of art.”
She describes herself as a “very thoughtful, always dreaming” child, who escaped constantly into words. Did she consider herself an outsider in the family? “A little. I was known for creating poetry anytime. Just like that! Somebody said to my parents, ‘She walks and when she stops walking, she has a poem coming out of her mouth.’ Was she rebellious? “Oh yes. Naturally. I did not like the conformity of Japanese life and, though I did not have any bad feelings against my parents, the whole history of the family felt like a big weight.I felt like I had to succumb to that and become a little particle in their big family and die spiritually. Or I had to survive on my own. It was that simple. And that complex.”
After the war, the family returned to New York and Yoko attended the exclusive Sarah Lawrence College, a liberal establishment where activism was encouraged alongside study of the arts. She also trawled the city’s art galleries and artists’ hangouts, connecting with leading lights in the American avant-garde, most notably the composers La Monte Young and John Cage as well as George Maciunas of the Fluxus group.
“I bumped into them,” she says. “I didn’t search them out as people think. I created friends that are like me. I attracted them. It’s a journey and you have to make your own way. If you have too many quotes from other people in your head, you can’t create. You have to keep your head empty. That’s why I am constantly enjoying the sky, the park, the walk. Anything in life is beautiful.”
Her early performance pieces included Lightning Piece from 1955, in which she sat at a piano and followed her own instruction to “Light a match and watch it till it goes out.” In 1964, she first performed her most famous work, Cut Piece, in which she sat still on stage while members of the audience cut though her clothes. “It was a little scary,” she says now, smiling, “but just nerves. Not fear of the people. That’s another thing that is very me, I suppose. I don’t let fear or suspicion in or they would affect not just my performance, but my health.”
Much of her text-based work, like her famous book Grapefruit, comprises short instructional sentences (“Imagine the clouds dripping./ Dig a hole in your garden to/ put them in.” “Let people copy or photocopy your paintings. Destroy the originals.”). “I made it into instructions because I did not have a way to make some of the big things in it,” she says laughing. “Plus, it’s important to be mischievous. I think Grapefruit is very much a mischievous book for now. The age of the internet, the age of fast-forward thinking. You can use that, too, as an artist. People often talk about that in a negative way – oh, I have no concentration to read a big book now. But it is not all bad. When I was doing Grapefruit, I wanted it to read so there is no way to get bored with it. It’s short but it says it all. I wanted it to do that so I made it short but full.”
It was her art, of course, that caught John Lennon’s attention, when he attended her exhibition Unfinished Paintings and Objects in the Indica Gallery in London in November 1966, which included a conceptual piece in which she covered herself in a black bag. According to Peter Brown, director of the Beatles management company, in his book The Love You Make, Lennon had “been up for three consecutive days, tripping on acid, and he had not washed or shaved for 72 hours”, when his friend, John Dunbar, the gallery owner, cajoled him into coming to the exhibition with a vague suggestion that it might include “all these beautiful young people lying around in a bag”.
As Lennon walked around, bemused, Dunbar urged Yoko to “Go and say hello to the millionaire.” Brown remembers their first conversation thus: “ Where’s the orgy?’ John asked her, slightly disappointed that nothing sexual was happening. Wordlessly, she handed John a card. On it was printed the word ‘breathe’. ‘You mean like this?’ John said, and panted. The small Japanese woman seemed unimpressed.”
So, remarkably, began the ballad of John and Yoko, which was to enthral the world’s media and appal many Beatles fans as the couple grew rapidly closer to the point of inseparability. It is still intriguing to see the film Let It Be, which details the dogged, fractious final recording sessions, and to watch Yoko right there in the studio with the group, albeit at Lennon’s insistence. I ask her if ego is important in order to be an artist. “No,” she says.
John Lennon spoke often and passionately about what he got from Yoko Ono; what did she get from him? She replies without a moment’s hesitation. “An energy that said; ‘It’s all right to be me.’ And that’s what I gave him also. I didn’t change him, as many people think, but he had a side of him that he was not able to express, because of the environment he was in, the people around him, his upbringing and all that. Because I was expressing those kinds of things, I think he thought, ‘Yes, I can do that.’”
More than 30 years have passed since his death. Though he still looms large in her life, she managed to escape the role that many people predicted for her: the perpetually grieving widow forever in her husband’s shadow. “Well, I could not ever just be one role like that. I never even thought of the word widow. I thought I was a soldier. We were both fighting for freedom and justice and self-expression and he just fell in the battlefield. That is how I thought of it. That I had to keep on going. I saw that right away. And I had a young son. I had to keep going.” Is she concerned about old age at all? “No. I feel good. Maybe it’s because I don’t think about the past so much. The past is so heavy. Part of me, of course, is still carrying it, but part of me is free from it.”
John Lennon was murdered on 8 December 1980, just three weeks after the release of their album Double Fantasy. The Meltdown festival will culminate with the first ever live performance of the album, featuring Yoko and Sean and some “very special” musicians and singers. It will undoubtedly be an emotional evening for her. “And exciting, too,” she says, smiling. “John will be present for sure, but he was present from the beginning when I made the decision to curate and was thinking, I have to get this, I have to get that. Then it came to me that it was John’s power. He was helping me, because, you know, he has big power now. I realised suddenly that he decided he wanted to be in a more powerful position to help us.”
I am slightly taken aback, but Yoko is smiling her enigmatic smile. Are you suggesting, I ask, that he somehow chose to go? She nods and continues calmly. “Yes, in a way, I think so. All of us decide at one point how our fates would or should be. It’s logical to me, but I don’t want to go too far with this or people will think, oh she has gone crazy, but I do get some messages from John. I do think there are certain things that I got help from him with. Certain things that are so fantastic I almost don’t want to take any credit for them.”
Could she give me an example? “Well, Meltdown. You know that a lot of concerts sold out right away. That sort of thing. We are getting people to understand what I understand and what John understood.”
“Future now! The future is here right now, it’s only that we ignore it. Many many beautiful things are happening now, in our heads especially, but we have to act. What is really important is to say I can do it! Let’s do it! I have always said this. John said this. What I want to tell people most of all is if you don’t attempt to do it, you will never do it. And you don’t realise you can do it until you do it.”
It’s that simple. And that complex.
Yoko Ono’s Meltdown at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, runs from 14-23 June. The Observer is media partner
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