The second half of our archival interview with Yoko, conducted at her home at The Dakota.
This is Part Two of our two-part archival interview with Yoko.
You can read Part One here.
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Today, July 7, 2020, is the 80th birthday of Ringo Starr. He is the first Beatle to ever turn 80. John would have turned 80 this year as well. But as we know, he lived only half that span, to 40.
Yoko is now 87.
We did this interview, which was set up by her friend Elliot Mintz, in 1992. The first part was mostly about her history, and her own art.
This continues into this section, and also touches on “Walking On Thin Ice,” her song which was one of John’s favorites, and was the last recording on which he ever played. She also speaks about many of his famous songs and even some by other Beatles, which seemed sometimes aimed in their direction.
AMERICAN SONGWRITER: One of the songs I’ve been especially loving on Onobox is ‘Yume O Moto’ which you sing in Japanese.
YOKO ONO: That’s nice, isn’t it?
Very. What does it mean?
Let’s have a dream. Yume o moto.
Season of Glass was such a powerful record, and so meaningful at that time for so many people.
When I made Season of Glass, I felt like I was still like walking underwater or something, so I didn’t really know people’s reaction.
In that poem you wrote, “There is a season that never passes, and that is the season of glass.” Which echoed the way so many felt after John’s death, that this is a time that won’t pass. Do you feel that we’re still in the season of glass?
I don’t know, because I may have been talking about something more than John’s death in a way. At the time, of course, I was talking about my private experience. But I’m doing a piece right now for a gallery show which is about a family that is sitting in the park at meltdown time, and I was thinking in terms of the meltdown of the human race and the endangered species. And somebody said that it looked like genocide as well.
So it’s like the season of glass is still here in terms of the whole world. We’re still not reaching a point of not having… bloody glasses.
A very positive message you put out that I think people have missed is that on Season of Glass, on the back cover, the glass of water that was half-full on the front is now full.
Yeah, Oh, you mean you noticed it? Very few people noticed that.
Yes. It was subtle, but not too much. And so touching, that photo. Do you think your positive messages often were overlooked?
Well, some people got them and some didn’t. It depends on the person, too. I mean, you noticed something, you know? [Laughs] But most people didn’t notice it.
So many of your songs are positive. Does an artist have an obligation to have a positive message?
No. Some artists are writing depressive songs and killing themselves, you know? [Laughs] It depends on the artist. There are some depressive moments in my work, but, yeah, generally I try to fight back.
John was attracted to the word “Yes” in your art show when you first met.
Yeah. Well, we just have to, you know? It’s not like I don’t know that the world has various negative aspects. But writing about that is not going to help anybody.
Would it be okay if I asked you your response to some of John’s songs?
I love it. You know what it is? That was the first John Lennon song that I encountered. And there was a party at the editor of the Art Magazine’s house in London. And I went to that, and I think I was a bit earlier than the others and I was in the house and the editor said, “Oh, listen to this, Yoko. When a pop song comes to this point, what do you think?”
And he played ‘Strawberry Fields’. in London. And I thought, “Hmmmmm…” Because there were some dissonant sounds and I thought it was pretty good. For a pop song. [Laugh]
It thought it was cute. I thought it was some cute stuff. Because I was making songs with all dissonant sounds. It impressed me. I was surprised a pop song could be that way.
I like the song. Musically, it was very terrific. And there’s a lot of connections about it. I mean, I think of John as an artist, a songwriter, a fellow artist. But also, he was my husband, you know. And I remember all his pain as a child, sort of looking at Strawberry Fields, which was an orphanage, you know. He always told me about his Aunt Mimi saying, whenever he was out of hand, Mimi would say, “You can go there. You’re lucky you’re not there, John.” So, Strawberry Fields to him was connected with this strange kind of fear and love, love for the kind of children that were very close to his condition. John was in a better position. So there’s that love and that strange fear for it.
It’s very strong thing for him. That sort of painful memory that he had of Strawberry Fields, he transferred that into a song. And made it positive. And that song was transferred into a park. [Laughs] It’s a very strong thing that I witnessed. So it means a lot to me.
Oh. Oh, that’s a beautiful song. Well, that’s very John. That’s a very John song. And a lot of people came together to his music. It’s like a symbol of that, you know?
Well… that’s a nice song, isn’t it? [Laughs]
Yeah. It’s very happy.
Like me and him, right? [Laughs]
‘Across the Universe’.
Oh, ‘Across the Universe’. That’s beautiful poetry. And also, ‘Across the Universe’, the kind of melody and rhythm and all that, reminds me of the beginning of the so-called New Music.
Oh, ‘Bless You’, of course. I have a special emotional thing about it, don’t I? I remember when he first came and played it to me.
Well, that’s very beautiful. I was there when he wrote it. I think it’s such a strong melody.
He wrote so many beautiful melodies, yet McCartney has the reputation for being the melody writer.
No, no, no, no. It’s not true at all. John was a great melody writer.
Is it true that ‘Because’ was based on ‘The Moonlight Sonata, which he asked you to play backwards?
When you really listen to it, you see that he did play the chords backwards at one point but I think eventually it cleaned up a bit into a pop format. So he didn’t use all the chords. But that was the initial inspiration.
There were many songs he wrote with your name in it, such as ‘Dear Yoko’, ‘Oh Yoko’, ‘The Ballad of John & Yoko’ in which you became almost a folk hero…
Well, I don’t know about that. I think that from where I come from, in the art world, Picasso’s always painting the wife, or Modigliani only had one model, who was his wife, so that kind of thing is normal. So it didn’t strike me as anything unusual.
Do you find that it’s more natural or pleasing to sing in Japanese than in English?
I don’t think so. I don’t feel that way.
Vladimir Nabokov said that English is like a blank canvas, that it doesn’t have an inherent beauty the way other languages do. Do you find that?
I don’t find that. I think English is a very beautiful language. All languages are beautiful, really.
Do you think in English?
Sometimes I think in Japanese, sometimes I think in English. But mainly in English at this point, you know. I mean, when I’m talking in English, of course I think in English.
Do you dream in English?
‘Yume O Moto’ was from an album called A Story, which you recorded in 1973 during your separation from John, what you both called your “lost weekend.” You decided not to release it at the time, and have included it here as the final disk of the Onobox. There are so many great songs on it, hearing it now it’s surprising that you didn’t want to put it out.
Well, you know, there are many things that I just chucked, you know, or shelved, you know. Like from my early days, like the stories that I wrote, that it was just in the course of going from one country to another or one relationship to another. Something I lost or whatever. It was one of those things. I didn’t think that much about it.
John recorded Walls and Bridges during that time and he released it.
I know, John can do it, [but] I can’t, right? There’s a difference.
Many of your best songs, such as ‘Loneliness’ and ‘Dogtown’ came from that album. Had you released it, do you think people might have recognized you as a songwriter earlier in your career?
Well, I couldn’t put it out then, anyway. Let’s put it that way.
Well, I don’t know, it’s just… Look. Listen to Feeling the Space. That’s a pretty good album. There’s some good songs in there too, you know that, right? So? That was out there but nobody cared. It’s the same thing. Now you say that people might have known I was a songwriter.
At the time, putting out Feel the Space, people should have know, or putting out Approximately Infinite Universe, people should have known that I’m a songwriter, and they didn’t, so what are we talking about? You know, one more album is not going to help, you know?
In a way, it’s good that came out now. You get it? Then if people hear it, without kind of the Yoko-bashing… I didn’t think so. I thought it was going to be bashed again. But obviously they’re taking it differently now. I don’t know why. Let’s put it that way. I’m very lucky because I could have died without hearing about it.
I think there’s a small group of hardcore fans who had to literally go through the same bashing that I went through just because they like my music. So I’m doing it for them, too, this box. I felt I really had to make sure that every note was right. For them.
I’ve been surprised by some of the resistance to your work, especially when Season of Glass came out, because it was such a meaningful album.
I wasn’t too aware of what was going on then, but it seems that it’s easy to concentrate on the kind of things that I was doing, it was easier to concentrate on that than to go into the outside world.
Oh, that was so difficult. It was a very difficult one to make, really. But I loved it. That was after John’s death and everything and I was really trying to get into music. So it was like getting into harmony, and putting in all the harmonies. There were many things that I wanted to get in, so I intentionally made it so that there were holes in it. And I filled those in with different kinds of little choruses.
It was like a collage, and it was a big production. A big production with not many people, not many musicians. In other words, all those sort of overdub things that I did.
Oh, “Mindweaver,” oh… [Pause] I wanted to make it like a duet with the guitar and my voice. And I was thinking of basically making it like a Spanish mourning song. It has that kind of dignity.
Oh, “It Happened” was actually composed in 1973 and at the time it had to do with moving away from each other. But then, when John died, I thought, “Oh, that’s what it was about” [laughs] and I put it on the back of ‘Walking on Thin Ice’.
I look at that period of separation like a rehearsal.
A rehearsal for what?
For the big separation that I didn’t know would happen. It was very good that I had that rehearsal in terms of moving along. That helped me later.
‘Cape Clear’ was first called ‘Teddy Bear.’ [Laughs] I was writing at the piano. I was writing at this piano in The Dakota and in Cold Spring Harbour. In those days I still had Cold Spring Harbour. And it was just one of those songs. Central Park gave me that inspiration, you get it? Like the girls are sitting in the park and the clouds passing by, you know? I was looking over Central Park and I was thinking, “Oh. I could be sitting there.” It sort of flashed in my mind.
How about ‘Walking on Thin Ice’?
Oh. [Laughs] ‘Walking on Thin Ice’. What about it?
It’s such a powerful songs, both musically and lyrically. Do you recall where it came from, or how you wrote it?
I was thinking of Lake Michigan. I went to Chicago. And Lake Michigan is so big that you don’t know the end of it when you look at it. I was visualizing Lake Michigan. I was just thinking of this woman that is walking Lake Michigan when it is totally frozen, and is walking and walking but not knowing that it’s that huge. [A siren sound starts from outside, getting louder.] I’m like one of those people. “Oh, it’s ice but I can walk on it.” I walk like that in life.
That song is about yourself?
Yes. I think so. The spoken part, “I knew a girl…” and all that, that feeling came to me after we recorded it. But I wasn’t sure about it. I just knew it had something to do with a girl who is walking. Then I sang the song, and I was still sitting in the chair by the mike, waiting for them to change the tape. That’s when it just came. So I just wrote it down quickly. I said, “I got it!” And I told them I was just going to do something after the singing, and I just did it.
Where do you think those kinds of thoughts come from?
No idea. It’s very interesting because it could be something that came totally from somewhere else. But, of course, it’s about me, and that’s how I was looking at it. But then, I don’t know. I didn’t think it was about me, really. I was just looking at this girl who is walking, you know.
It seems like a visual message. You see, in my mind, sound and visual is all very closely connected. It’s mixed almost. So when I hear sound, I almost hear it in color as well.
When you listen to something like ‘What a Bastard the World Is’ or something, you probably see something, some filmic image. Many of your songs are very visual.
Yes. Because that’s how I see it and I hear it. Seeing and hearing is very closely connected.
When I said, “I knew a girrrl…,’ that I thought was to accentuate certain syllables that it’s odd to accentuate. And that was like Alban Berg. Let’s do like Alban Berg.
That’s some of John’s most passionate guitar playing.
Oh, incredible. He did great guitar playing on ‘Woman Power’ and ‘She Hits Back’. Very good. But also, not talking about those normal ones, what did you think about “Why”? He’s so good, isn’t he?
Yes. On something like that or on “Walking On Thin Ice” did you give him the kind of sound or direction that you heard in your head?
Kind of, yeah. I mean, we’d talk about it. Like I would say, “I’m going to go like this, you go like this.” I don’t mean “go like this” in terms of notes, but just the mood of it.
It depends. On ‘Cambridge’ he wanted to know how to do it, so I kind of explained it to him before we went to Cambridge. With ‘Why’ I was talking about the kind of dialogue we could do in terms of my voice and his guitar. But it’s not like telling him what note to play.
Speaking of a dialogue, you also wrote songs in dialogue on Double Fantasy.
Yes. We sort of vaguely had this idea about doing a dialogue album. But some of the songs, like ‘I’m Moving On’, were written before. In putting together an album, I’d bring out a song and say, “What about this then?” When you do ‘I’m Losing You’ I’ll do this.” That part of the dialogue was a conscious sequence.
‘Sisters O Sisters’.
‘Sisters O Sisters’ was written for a rally in Michigan for John Sinclair in 1971. When we were in Ann Arbor, Michigan at the concert, John said, “She’s got something, Yoko’s got something,” I said, “This is for the sisters of Ann Arbor, Michigan.” And we sung it, and that was the premiere. [Laughs]
Afterwards I didn’t think much of it until we were making Sometime in New York City, which probably was in ’72. At the time we did that, we did it in the recording studio for the first time with Phil Spector. And the way I’m singing in Ann Arbor, Michigan is very different from the way I sung in the Phil Spector version. And I think Phil Spector version is a good one.
Did you and John ever discuss songwriting?
For me, it’s so natural to use so many different chords. Because in classical music, you just do this. The kind of thing he would show me was that instead of using so many different chords, just use two chords. It’s funkier. That’s a great trick. That’s the kind of thing that classical musicians or composers lost, of course.
Do you have a favourite song that John wrote?
‘In My Life’ is a pretty good one, isn’t it?
McCartney’s song ‘Get Back’ seemed to be directed at you.
We thought that.
Did you have any inner response to that?
No. I don’t know. That’s another thing that is the strength of an artist, probably. Artists always think, “Oh, maybe they’re trying to hurt me,” or whatever. You think that but in the next minute you’re thinking about your own songs, your own art or sculpture or films or whatever. So by doing that, you shake it off. So it doesn’t stick so much.
You’ve had a lot of tragedy in your life. Do you feel that tragedy helps an artist to open up in any way?
I think that tragedy comes in all forms. No one should encourage artists to pursue tragedy so that they might become a good artist. I wouldn’t encourage that. You don’t have to have tragedy to create, really.
Was there ever a feeling on your part that you would want to leave the Dakota, and live elsewhere?
Not really. It was the spot that my husband died, you know? It was… like you don’t want to leave there, you know?
These days this place represents teenagers, Sean and Sean’s friends. It’s quite a different scene, and it’s very nice.
Early in your career you worked with John Cage and you called “imaginary music” and music that can’t be notated. Later you said you felt that the pop song was more powerful because it could reach more people. What do you think now?
I still feel that there’s kind of an extra-sensory perception kind of area where you can pursue that sort of communication and sound vibration on that level, et cetera. But, yes, I really think the pop song, or rock, is a very good means of communication.
Do you think the song form is restrictive?
You once said that you felt songs were like haikus.
Yes, definitely. But also it’s either way. Even when it’s twenty minutes or an hour, in the context of the big world, it’s very small [laughs], you know what I mean? It’s all very relative, you know.
Was it difficult for you to continually create in the face of people’s negative energy? Even when you were a little girl, your teachers were harsh with your writing, yet you always had the bravery to do your art regardless.
In a sense because of that I lost many writings. Because they would discourage me so I would keep on writing, but I wouldn’t hold onto them. And the same with the tapes. A lot of tapes I did, like ‘London Jam’ kind of things with John, it’s a pity that they’re lost. And the reason why they were lost was because there was so much antagonism about it.
I would insist on going on and doing something, but I wouldn’t keep them. It’s not like I would intentionally destroy them. But it’s like easy to let it slip out of your hands. That’s how it’s manifest.
In looking back at all this work, do you have a favorite song?
That’s a difficult question, isn’t it? I wouldn’t know. The other day I was listening and I thought, ‘What Did I Do’ was one I liked very much. But that’s just in passing. I did like, ‘No, No, No’ a lot but now I don’t feel like listening to it. It’s like different times, you know, something fixes in your head. Of course, I did like ‘Walking on Thin Ice’ but [laughs] how long can you like ‘Walking on Thin Ice’? I got over it.
The number nine has been significant in your life, and we’re in the nineties. Are you optimistic about these times, and times to come?
Yeah, I think that we’re going back to a good age. The 1980s were hard because it was a material age and people were just into materialism, I think. But I always liked it that I didn’t go into that expansion thing. I think that this decade people are going to start to sober up a bit, and start to really understand or appreciate the value of real things. So you can’t just con them with a bit of commercial music. People are going to be more interested in real music. Genuine emotion.
Do you think songwriters can still write real songs?
We have to strive to be real, that’s all. Being real is not something that just happens to you. You have to sort of keep at it.
In ‘Dogtown’ you write about “the true song I never finished writing all my life.” Do you feel that you have finished yet or are you still working on it?
I’m still working [laughs]
Do you feel that songs are timeless, and that they can last?
Oh, sure. I think that if you’re really communicating on a basic level, you’re going to be communicating all the time. Once it’s there. Once a song becomes a song, it has its own fate.
This is Part 2 of our two-part archival interview with Yoko.
You can read Part One here.