Conducted at her home at The Dakota, 1992
With recent news from Elliot Mintz and others who know her well that Yoko, who is 87 now, is not in great health, and rarely leaves her home at The Dakota, it seemed a good time to bring this. A two-part interview with her conducted in 1992.
She’s someone whom people have long misunderstood or worse, ascribing dark motives to her, as in her secret, single-handed strategy of breaking up The Beatles. (That was sarcasm).
The irony is that she is one of the most generous and gracious people there is in this industry. She is tremendously generous to charities than need donations. During my time at the National Academy of Songwriters editing their journal SongTalk, she became one of our most substantial donors ever.
At the start of the coronavirus pandemic in New York, Yoko donated $250,000 to Montefiore Medical Center in The Bronx. She knew that unlike other hospitals in town, it didn’t have wealthy donors for support.
Not only that, but, unlike everybody else I have interviewed through the decades, she is the only one to send my Christmas cards every year. And cards from Yoko, theye glorious: often a photo of her, sometimes with family (the first was of Yoko, Sean and Santa), with great Yoko poetry and prayers for peace and love.
I received my first card from her, in fact, before we ever met. It was in response to my letter thanking her for the album Season of Glass, which she made in the awful aftermath of his death. Many criticized her for sharing such direct, intimate aspects of this tragedy, such as a photo of his bloodied glasses. Yet this is what John & Yoko always did. They shared their lives. We were grieving too, and she honored us by including us in this relic of her personal grief.
She also wrote a poem from which the album is titled, and which spoke to how so many of us were feeling then, that this was a tragedy we did not want to pass. The idea that his murder in front of his beloved New York home would soon be normalized, and part of our everyday experience of life seemed so atrociously wrong.
and one remembers one’s innocence
and one remembers one’s exuberance
and one remembers one’s reverence
winter passes and one remembers one’s perseverance
There is a season that never passes
and that is the season of glass
Yoko Ono, 1981
We sat near his big white piano in the white room, looking out at a wintry Central Park spangled with Christmas lights. We spoke about her history, of which little is often discussed, leading up to her life as a Beatles wife. I wasn’t sure if she would mind, but towards the end I asked her to talk about some of John’s most famous songs, and other Beatles songs.
Even with that, she was so sweetly gracious about the interview and grateful for the focus. “You are the first one,” she wrote, “to not interview me as Mrs. Lennon.”
So if you ever hear anyone saying anything unkind about her, tell them they’re wrong. She was, you know, the love of John Lennon’s life. “She didn’t just inspire the songs,” she said. “She inspired me.”
It was sad and a little spooky to walk into the Dakota on this dark and rainy winter night, an evening not unlike the one on which John Lennon was killed here twelve years earlier. It seemed like no time had passed since I stood here in shocked silence with hundreds of others on the terrible day after, the old iron gate woven with flowers. And now I was back at that same gate, but this time with an appointment to go inside and talk to Yoko. To enter the old building, one passes through the bleak guard’s station, a gloomy room made more mournful by the recognition that this was where John staggered and fell, before being taken to the hospital.
But none of this gloom pervades the warm, elegant interior of Yoko’s apartment, with its enormous windows overlooking Central Park, the rainy streets below sparkling like glass. As you enter the apartment, you’re asked to take off your shoes in traditional Japanese style (having known this in advance I wore my best socks), and ushered by one of her assistants into the famous “white room”, with its giant white couch and tuxedo-white grand piano. It was at that keyboard that John was filmed performing ‘Imagine’ as Yoko slowly opened up the blinds, letting in light.
Suddenly she arrived – she didn’t seem to walk in the room, but somehow simply appeared – and her gentle demeanour and warm smile instantly caused all nervousness to dissolve. As soon as I met Yoko, I understood why John loved her. She’s charming and beautiful, with a gentle smile in her eyes that photos never seem to reveal. Though she was a few months shy of 60 when we met, she looked younger and prettier than ever, especially without the dark Aviator shades she wore like a veil through much of the last decade. In their place, she wore clear, round spectacles, the kind still commonly referred to as “John Lennon glasses”. She was barefoot, and in blue jeans, and nestled comfortably on the white couch.
Yoko’s speaking voice is soft and melodious, her accent bending English into musical, Japanese cadences. Contrary to the usual depictions of her in the press, she’s quite humorous, joking frequently and punctuating her comments with little bursts of laughter. She’s also quite humble about her work and her influence on John and other artists. “People can listen to the music,” she suggested softly, “and make their own judgment.”
There is a season that never passes
and that is the season of glass
She wrote “Season of Glass” more than a decade ago now, a time she said “passed in high speed”. And like so many of the songs she wrote herself and with John, the truth in them remains constant, undiminished by passing time. In this verse she miraculously conveyed what millions around the world were feeling during those dark days following that darkest day in December of 1980 when John died. That this was a season that wouldn’t pass, a tragedy that wouldn’t be trivialized by time, a wound that wouldn’t heal. And in a way, we didn’t want it to.
But perhaps the one thing that has shifted since then is that the work of Yoko Ono can begin to be seen in a new light. Rykodisc Records released a six-CD set of Yoko’s recorded works call Onobox in 1992, and for the still uninitiated this collection serves well as a revelation about one of the world’s most famous yet still misunderstood songwriters.
Known for the high-pitched, passionate kind of ‘Cold Turkey’ wailing she has employed through the years- what she refers to as “voice modulations” – in truth she sings the majority of her songs in clear and gentle tones, usually wrapped in rich layers of vocal harmonies. When her father discovered that Yoko as a teen wanted to be a composer, he objected and suggested instead that she become a professional singer. “I knew the whole world would laugh”, she said, cognizant of the common misconceptions about her music, “but I had a good voice.” She studied piano and music theory while growing up in Japan, and can both read and transcribe music- something none of the Beatles ever learned.
She’s a musician who worked in experimental music for years before she inspired and aided in the creation of ‘Revolution 9′, the most avant-garde track ever included on a Beatles’ album. In New York circa 1965, along with the composer John Cage and others, Yoko delved into areas of “imaginary music” and “invisible sounds,” concentrating on the creation of an unwritten music, a music that transcended our need to notate. “You can’t translate the more complex sounds into traditional notation,” she said. “I wanted to capture the sounds of birds singing in the woods…”
She put on concerts with great jazz musicians like Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden in the years before John insisted she record her songs with some of his “friends,” an above-average assemblage of musicians that included George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Klaus Voorman and Ringo Starr. Most of her work with this group were jams at first, musical improvisations based on her poems. But gradually she started crafting songs, composing melodies as eloquent as her poetry. And contrary to the idea that John arranged and produced her songs, Yoko always had a firm grasp on the translation of her inner visions into recorded music. “Though, of course, you do make little mistakes,” she admitted, laughing.
She’s known both dire poverty and great wealth in her life, and has boomeranged between the two. She was born in Tokyo into a wealthy banking family in March of 1933, the Year of the Bird. The descendant of a ninth century emperor, she was raised mostly by servants as her father was often away on business in America, and her mother tended to social obligations. When she was 11 in wartime 1945, much of Tokyo was being destroyed by American bombers, and her family were forced, in her father’s absence, to flee from their home. Yoko was sent by her mother with her brother and sister to a small village called Karuizawa. Until the end of the war they lived there in a little house on a cornfield, raising money by selling off kimonos and other possessions until they simply had to beg for food from door to door. Yoko and the other children were almost always hungry. After the war the family was able to gradually return to their wealthy lifestyle.
Yoko’s father decided to pursue business in America, and the family moved to suburban New York. Yoko attended Sarah Lawrence College in Scarsdale and began spending a lot of time in Manhattan. It was there that she met a young Japanese composer named Toshi Ichiyangi who was studying at Juilliard. In time she moved into a loft with Toshi and married him, much to her parent’s dismay, and the two experienced a repeat of the poverty Yoko knew as a child.
In New York Yoko began to gradually establish a reputation for herself as an avant-garde performance artist. She put on a series of shows at the Carnegie Hall Recital Hall, performances such as the infamous ‘Cut Piece’ in which she sat onstage in a black shroud holding scissors and invited the audience to step up and cut away portions of her gown, which they did, until she was nearly naked. She also wrote and published a book of instructions on how to see the world in new ways called Grapefruit, and launched a movement known as Bagism, in which people would be invited to come onstage and get into large black bags with other people, their mysterious shapes creating an ever-moving art piece. She divorced Toshi around this time and married New York artist Tony Cox, with whom she had a daughter, Kyoko.
Yoko met John Lennon in London 1966 at the Indica Gallery. It was the ninth of November, the number nine always prominent in their lives. When they eventually came together, many months after that evening, they made art before they ever made love, collaborating on the experimental recording Two Virgins until sunrise.
Four days before John died, he and Yoko had been busy in New York’s Hit Factory working on a song that surprised both of them for its fire and passion, Yoko’s amazing ‘Walking on Thin Ice’. Though they had released their dialogue of the heart, Double Fantasy, only weeks earlier and it was racing up the Top Ten, nothing on it matched the pure electric fury of this record. “It was as if we were both haunted by the song,” Yoko wrote in the liner notes for the single. “I remember I woke up in the morning and found John watching the sunrise and still listening to the song. He said I had to put it out right away as a single.”
The next music of Yoko’s we heard was the album she started working on just months after John’s death, Season of Glass. It’s a phenomenal work, expressing the sequence of emotions she experienced, passing through shock, denial, outrage, madness, horror, pure sadness, and ultimately unconditional, undying love. It’s an undeniable masterpiece of songwriting straight from the soul, and even critics who routinely attacked her music for years recognized in print the pure, naked power of this album.
Some of Yoko’s sweetest love songs are here, such as the Spanish-tinged ‘Mindweaver’, ‘Even When You’re Far Away’, and the irrepressible ‘Nobody Sees Me Like You Do’. It also contains recordings of found sounds that expressed this time in her life: gunshots, screams, and her son Sean’s voice. As always, she left no barriers between her life and her art, which is immediately apparent on the album’s cover. It’s a photograph she took in early morning with the skyline of Manhattan across Central Park looking purple and blurry in the background. In the forefront there’s a table top on which sits the clear-rimmed spectacles John was wearing the night he was shot, one half splattered with blood, reflected in the transparent surface of the table. Beside the spectacles is a glass halfway full of water.
As Yoko expected, many people were outraged by this image. But they missed the fact that she was simply revealing the actuality of her life in her art as she always has, refusing to hide the real horror she had to endure. “It was like I was underwater,” she confirmed. “Like I was covered in blood.”
People also missed the fact that on the back of the album Yoko included a sign of hope. She’s sitting beside the same table by this same window, and in the same spot where John’s glasses were now sits a potted geranium, happily reaching towards the trees and blue Manhattan sky. Next to that germanium is a glass of water. And the glass is full.
From the beginning of her career, Yoko Ono’s message has been a positive one. Though dark and negative motivations have consistently been attributed to her, any analysis of her songs reveals a dedicated optimist at work more than anything. A quick survey of titles makes this clear; ‘Give Peace A Chance’ (written with John, of course), ‘It’s Alright’, ‘I See Rainbows’, ‘Hard Times Are Over’, ‘Goodbye Sadness’, and so on. When John first met Yoko at her art exhibit at London’s Indica Gallery on that legendary day in 1966, it was the fact that her message was positive, that there was a magnified “Yes” at the top of the ladder he climbed, that bought them together. And when I asked her about her hardships as a child during the war, she remembered the light in the darkness, “I fell in love with the sky during that period,” she said, “The sky was just beautiful in the countryside. The most beautiful thing about it.”
Through the eighties after John was gone, again and again her mission has been to give hope, and the exuberance of her music was reflected in this affirmation. It’s Alright, which followed Season of Glass, is one of the most hopeful and inspiring albums ever made.
Despite all of it, though, Yoko Ono has been subject to some of the most extreme and bitter criticism any songwriter has ever had to endure. For years, hordes have held on to the notorious notion that she “broke up the Beatles,” still refusing to give John Lennon credit for making his own choices. That John’s life, both personal and professional, was entirely transformed when he fell in love with this woman, was never Yoko’s fault. If anything, she deserves praise for her profound influence on his art. He felt reborn when he and Yoko came together, and his enthusiasm for artistic expression was renewed. “I was awake again,” he said. “[Yoko] inspired all this creation in me. It wasn’t that she inspired the songs. She inspired me.”
When the criticism came, though it wasn’t ever easy to abide, it was anything new for Yoko Ono. When she was a kid growing up in Japan, her writing was roundly rejected by schoolteachers who objected to the fact that it didn’t fit into existing forms and that she had no desire to make it fit.
“It’s not that I consciously tried not to conform,” she explained, smiling, “I was just naturally out of the system.”
Since that time she’s bravely made her art regardless of whether it was embraced or rejected by the critics of the world. “It cost me my dignity sometimes,” she recalled. “But who needs dignity?”
When did you first start writing songs?
YOKO ONO: I was sort of a closet writer [laughs]. I was writing in the style of atonal songs but with poetry on top of it. I liked to write poetry and I liked to make it into music, into songs. It was something I liked very much to do anyway.
And then in London I think I was writing a couple of songs before getting together with John. The songs were in quite an interesting style, really. I don’t know how to put it. Maybe there’s some tape that’s left.
It was some interesting stuff I was doing. It was mostly acapella, because I didn’t have any musicians with me in London. And doing a kind of mixture of Oriental rhythm & blues, I suppose [laughs].
I think ‘Remember Love’ was the first so-called pop song that I wrote but before that, before I met John, I wrote a few songs and one of them was ‘Listen, The Snow is Falling’. I made that into a pop song later. ‘Remember Love’ was probably the first one I wrote as a pop song from the beginning.
Do you generally have the same approach to writing songs?
I can’t stand being in a rut, so I sort of always jump around. That’s me. [Laughs]
Do you write on piano?
Yes. I use the piano because I don’t know any other instrument, really. I tried the guitar once and it hurt my fingers so much and I didn’t like it. John said, “Try it” so I tried it in L.A., when we stayed in L.A. But I didn’t like it at all. So, I just naturally go to the piano.
If I’m not at the piano, I can write riding in the car. And I just write down the notes and bring it in to the piano later.
Do you find your songs come in a flash, or do they come from the result of a lot of work?
No, it’s always a flash. And if I don’t catch it [laughs] and write it down, or put in a tape [softly], it just goes. Never comes back. Isn’t that funny?
Can you control when that flash comes? Do you ever sit down to write a song?
No, I never did that. But I mean, the point is that sometimes words do come back. The words are a different thing. Sometimes I will forget to write the music down and I’ll have only the words. And then I’ll put it to music at the piano, and it becomes a totally different song, you know.
When you first met John, did you have much enthusiasm for rock music?
Well, I started to have an incredible enthusiasm. In the beginning when I was sitting in the Beatles’ sessions, I thought that it was so simplistic. Like a kind of classical musician, avant-garde snobbery. And then I suddenly thought, “This is great!” I just woke up. And then I really felt good about it.
There’s an incredible energy there. Like primitivism. And no wonder. It’s a very healthy thing an no wonder it’s like a heartbeat. It’s almost like the other music appealed to a head plane, like brain music, and then they forgot about the body.
[Softly] It’s a very difficult to go back to your body. You know that bit about without the body we don’t exist. You forget that! It’s almost like we can just live in our heads. And a lot of intellectual, academic people, they tend to be that.
So I thought, “This is great!” It’s a total music.
Then I realized what was wrong with the other music. It was removed from the body. It lost that kind of energy. And I thought, “No wonder I was just sort of wondering around. Okay, well, this is great.” I went back to my body. It’s true.
It seemed that you had a big effect on their music by being there. Even McCartney said that he felt that he had to be more avant-garde when you were around.
I don’t know. It might have affected them that way on a peripheral level, the fact that I was there. But I was just living my own world inside. Dream world. [Laughs] I was sitting there just thinking about all the stuff I’m doing in my head. So I was there and in a way I wasn’t there.
Some of your diehard fans felt that being with John Lennon was detrimental to your art, while other have said that your work blossomed in a new way.
Probably it would have been easier for me, career-wise, if I didn’t get together with him. In a way, I lost respectability or dignity as an artist. But then, what is dignity and what is respectability? It’s a kind of thing that was a good lesson for me to lose it. What am I supposed to be doing, carrying respectability and dignity like a Grand Dame of the avant-garde for twenty years? That would have been… boring. [Laughs]
That was a kind of option that was open to me, you know, and [softly] I didn’t take it. It was quite more fun to go forward into a new world.
John’s famous song ‘Imagine’ originated from an idea in one of your poems from Grapefruit about imagining a different world. Do you feel people ever understood the source?
No. A song like that, it’s a political statement in a way, and it’s about changing people’s heads. And I think that people don’t have to understand anything except the message of the song, and hopefully that will get to them.
With John, people have named his songs to get his response, but no one has done that with you. May I?
Oh, sure. Do you mind if I just get my cigarettes? I still can’t shake it, you know?
I was in an apartment on Bank Street with John. It was early in the morning and John was still asleep in the other room. I was at the window and the window was in such a way that the front room was very dark. The room was a few steps down from the pavement so from the window you would kind of look at people walking. It was like that feeling. Early morning. It was just that. I lit my cigarette and listened to the early morning sounds. The song was almost like a diary, describing what I was doing.
I didn’t want to wake up John. I had an electric piano that you can tone down very very quiet, and you’re the only one who can hear it, you know? That’s how I made ‘Dogtown’. [Laughs]
So it started as a quiet song.
Well, I wasn’t thinking quiet, I was just making sure that he couldn’t hear.
‘Death of Samantha’.
Oh, yeah. I know that one. There was a certain instant and I felt like I was really sad, so that’s when it happened. Something terribly upsetting happened to me and then the next time we were at the studio, while the engineers were sort of putting the board in order, it flashed to me. So I just wrote it down.
This is funny, because with ‘Death of Samantha’, while I was writing I sort of saw this graveyard. It’s not a graveyard, because when you think of a graveyard, you think of many, many gravestones. It’s just a kind of grey kind of day, grey scene, and grey people standing around like somebody has died. And after John’s death people said, “You were writing about his vigil, did you know that?” And I read the lyrics that they sent me from ‘Death of Samantha’ and I just reread it and realized, oh, that’s true. Of course, I didn’t realize it then. So it’s very strange. You know, images come to me.
Many of your songs told future things.
It’s scary in a way.
Why do you think that is?
I don’t know what it is. So I’m very careful about what I say or what I think or do. Cause it could mean something later.
Oh, ‘Yang Yang’ was based on a chord change. I like to use, kind of an ascending harmonic change. I showed it to John that instead of ascending by half-notes, you can ascend by whole notes, and that gives a kind of vital power that is interesting. And ‘Yang Yang’ is the first thing that came to me with those chords.
That song is in E minor and a lot of songs from this period are also in that key. Do keys have different significances for you?
Yeah. Each chord has a difference significance astrologically. I use F# a lot, and E minor too. And I’m thinking why, and it seems like it’s agreeable to my astrology.
I was also thinking why I sometimes use the key of C [major] because C is so simplistic, most composers probably avoid it. But I don’t avoid it. Why not? Why do I do that? C s a key of communication, I understand. So I used it in a song I had to communicate. The kind of songs that I wrote in the key of C or rewrote in the key of C, like ‘Give Peace a Chance’ or that sort of thing, it’s all to do with communication, of course. The widest communication you want, so you go back to the simplest key, which is C.
That’s interesting. I’ve noticed that TV commercials are often in C, probably for the same reason.
Oh, yeah. It’s fascinating. And I think that most writers instinctively go for something simple to communicate.
Your song ‘Silver Horse’ is in C major.
Yeah. [Laughs] You know what it was? ‘Silver Horse’ is like a fairy-tale. It’s like a story that you tell your child. It just happened, you know. It’s that kind of nursery rhyme feeling I was trying to give.
I love the spoken part on that song when you say, “I came to realize the horse had no wings,” and then you ask yourself, “No wings?”
[Laughter] Oh, by the way, John loved that song. Yeah. He kept saying, “Oh, that’s a great song” because he liked the fact that I say, “It wasn’t so bad, you know.” [Laughs]
I know John also loved your song, ‘Nobody Sees Me Like You Do’, which has a wonderful chord progression.
Yeah, he liked the chord sequence. It’s a chord sequence that is probably pretty prevalent in country music but you don’t use that much in rock.
That’s one of your happiest songs, and yet you bring in the sadness in the line, “The feeling of loneliness hangs over like a curse…”
We’re all complex people, you know. You can’t just sort of be happy all the time, you know, like zombies. [Laughs]
Another one of your happiest songs, which was also on the It’s Alright album, is ‘My Man’.
You like that?
I wanted to make a real pop one, you know? A lot of people think that wasn’t artistic, like it’s sort of silly or something. Which is true: “Bab-a-lou, bab-a-lou.” I liked that. [Laughs] Dumb but nice, you know?
On ‘Woman of Salem’, you used the year 1692 without knowing that was the actual year of the witch trials?
Isn’t it amazing that I didn’t know that year? After I finished Salem, you know, I just thought of it. It’s incredible. It’s uncanny, isn’t it?
Yes. Any explanation?
No. [Laughs] I went to see her house and I was nearly crying. I mean, you talk about witches and it’s not a witch at all. It’s a sensible doctor’s house, you know? Very intellectual, artistic kind of person living there, you just know it.
It makes me think of your song, ‘Yes, I’m A Witch’ in which you say “I don’t care what you say, my voice is real and speaking truth.”
Yeah, I know. That’s me.