THE SUNDAY TIMES
27 MAY 2007
YOKO ONO - SO YOKO
The provocative ‘dragon lady’ tells why she is suddenly so now.
One cannot help having certain preconceptions about the "dragon lady", as Yoko Ono was described in the press. Would the interview with John Lennon's widow have to be conducted in primal wails? Would it take place in bed? Would it take place at all? The super-friendly little woman in the saucy black see-through cardigan and plunge-neck T-shirt who bowls over to say "Hi" bashes most of them on the head.
"Come," she says, heading for the sofa and patting it with a diamond-studded hand. "Come sit down right here next to me and tell me where I can get good Japanese food in this city. And what about all those great little Indian restaurants you used to have in the 1960s? Where did they go? Because, you know, curry powder - it's very good for the brain cells. Oh, you didn't know? Well, think of all the Indian people you know who have Alzheimer's, then you'll see what I mean."
It is six o'clock in the evening, and we are sitting in Ono's palatial and somewhat overheated hotel suite overlooking Hyde Park, the one she always stays in when she is in London. The short, spiky hair and the blue-tinted Lennon-style specs may be different, but Ono, 74, looks barely a day older than she does on the cover of Ballad of John and Yoko. No wrinkles to speak of; no crisscross lines; nothing. Does this mean Asian women take longer to age than European women? Who knows? But were it not for the fact that she is so vehemently against plastic surgery - "How have women become available to be dissected like this?"- I would swear she had had something done.
Ono is in town to promote her latest album, Yes. I'm a Witch, a technoy collaboration with artists such as the Flaming Lips, Peaches and Antony of Antony and the Johnsons. (The title song was, in fact, written and produced in 1974 but, under the advice of lawyers at the time, was not released "in case someone tried to kill me for it".) In two days' time, Ono is flying up to Liverpool, where she will be sending off the first direct flight from Liverpool John Lennon Airport to New York. She will also visit the children's hospital, Alder Hey, which, thanks to the Imagine Appeal, which she set up in October 2005, is going to be completely rebuilt. A fantastically wealthy woman - the Lennon Estate, of which she is the main beneficiary, is estimated at about £390m - Ono has always been supportive of Liverpool, secretly paying for new school playgrounds and suchlike. Sometimes, however, her generosity can be misconstrued - as at the time of the city's art biennial, when she filled it with images of a woman's naked breast and her own vagina.
"Oh, you mean for the My Mummy Was Beautiful piece?" she exclaims. "I had no idea they would get so upset. I was, like, giving it to them as a symbol of motherhood. But then, a lot of the young generation now, they get my sense of humour, they get where I'm coming from, they don't hate me the way people used to hate me. And I just think that is so ... great." It's true. Having once been the most reviled woman in modern British history (bar, perhaps, Heather Mills McCartney, of whom more later), Ono is having her moment right now. Her 1971 single Open Your Box is a huge hit in the gay clubs ("Well, I mean, they're intelligent, sensitive people, and, as an outsider, I understand their pain"), and there are those within the indie-music community, members of Sonic Youth among them, who would be furious to hear you criticise her. She has been hanging out with Ana Matronic from Scissor Sisters and Beth Ditto of Gossip. Maybe, just maybe, she really is, as Lennon always used to have it, a bit of a genius, a bit of a pioneer.
Certainly, that's the way it looks when you compare some of her earlier works with the conceptual-art scene now. Take, for example, Self Portrait (1969), a short film in which she videos Lennon getting an erection to a background soundtrack of industrial machinery; Bottoms (1966), a slightly longer film showing, well, people's bottoms; or, indeed, a recording called Cough Piece (1963), in which she does only that, for 32½ minutes.
"Oh yeah, the coughing piece," Ono says with a regal smile. "It's beautiful, isn't it? See, people, they always thought I was being provocative, when actually I was being myself. It's like the bed-in John and I did in Toronto. I was so surprised when everybody trashed it. I guess my naivety kept me going - that and inspiration. The only thing that would make me want to kill myself would be inspiration stopping. Luckily, it keeps coming and coming."
For those of you who, like me, find it hard to banish that image of her in the 1970 film Let It Be caterwauling away while the band doggedly jammed on, it is as well to take note of her impeccable musical background. As the child of a wealthy, cultured banker, growing up in 1930s Tokyo, Ono was sent, aged four, to a "far out" school for gifted children, where homework involved "listening to the sounds of the day and transposing them into music". Later, she trained in classical music, but it was not until the 1950s, when the family moved to New York, that she began to make tunes out of lavatories flushing and the like, and was introduced to the Fluxus group, an avant-garde art movement.
When Lennon met Ono in 1966, she had already been married twice, and, during the first marriage, to a Japanese composer, had been institutionalised in Japan by her family for attempted suicide. "Yeah," she shrugs, matter-of-factly. "I guess I was really insecure at the time. They were jabbing me from all sides for being the one who wore the pants and treated me like such a foreigner in my own country. But then, this guy who had seen my work in New York [her second husband, the jazz musician Anthony Cox, by whom she has a daughter, Kyoko, 44] came all the way out to visit me, and then I was okay."
When the love of Ono's life was assassinated in front of her, outside the Dakota building in 1980, her world fell apart, but suicide was the farthest thing from her mind. "I mean, that next bullet was meant for me," she says. "I was so lucky I was saved. Just imagine what would have happened if I'd gone, too. What would have happened to Sean?"
It is not hard, sitting here having one's knee patted, to picture Ono's maternal side (she and Sean, her son by Lennon, are close, and she was reunited with Kyoko in 1994, after the latter was taken away by her father in the late 1960s). Nor, curiously, is it difficult to see why she had the hold she did over Lennon. She is not, and never was, a dolly bird. But, despite the lack of female concessions and the heavy feminist stance, there is a geisha-girlness to her manner that suggests Ono could be quite the coquette if she wanted. (The only relationship she has ever publicly acknowledged post Lennon was with the Hungarian antiques dealer Sam Havadtoy, with whom she split in 2001.) Coquette, but tough, too, as her former chauffeur Koral Karsan - who threatened to release secret information about her unless she paid him £1m, and went to jail for his trouble - would surely attest.
True, her naivety is not something she is unconscious of; true, too, the big, fat diamond on her finger and the lavishness of this hotel suite don't quite gel with the hippie-dippiness - "Through music, we can heal the earth planet. We can cover the world with love." On the other hand, as she herself says, "The worst thing a woman can have is guilt. As long as your intention is not to hurt or upset other people, then anything you do is fine." Unlike a lot of hippie-dippy women, she seems genuinely supportive of her own sex, including Heather Mills McCartney. "I mean, did you see what she did?" she says. "That was so incredible. Making herself a heroine with that ballroom-dancing stuff in America. She did that single-handedly, and that's difficult for anyone to do."
One senses, too, that in spite of the very slight language barrier, she means exactly what she says. Such as that ageing is merely a disease that can be cured: "Oh, yeah, I think finally we have come to a point where we can choose between living and dying. I don't know. I had a rough life in the sense that there were times when I, er, didn't treat my body right. But you can help your body to recover - that's what is important now. It's probably going to take another 10 years for me to be young again, but I will be young again. And isn't that just so ... great?"
Yes. I'm a Witch is out now on Parlophone.