"I don't think that people should follow in my footsteps. I would say, 'Learn from my mistakes’."
PHOTOGRAPH BY Mary Ellen Mark
Yoko Ono comes from a long line of strong women. Still, what she has endured over the years is astonishing: the bombing of Tokyo during World War II; public outrage over her marriage to John Lennon; and his devastating death, in 1980. Born into a prominent Japanese banking family in 1933, Ono moved to the United States 20 years later to study at Sarah Lawrence College. Shortly thereafter, she dropped out to pursue performance art in New York as part of the conceptual art movement Fluxus, and worked with such avant‑garde musical luminaries as John Cage, La Monte Young and Ornette Coleman. Ono met Lennon while visiting London in 1966; they were married three years later. The two made a fanciful and formidable team, from their notorious 1969 "Bed‑In for Peace" to their numerous musical collaborations with the Plastic Ono Band (1968's "Two Virgins") and as a couple ("Double Fantasy," released just before Lennon's death). Since then, Ono has continued to release records, including 1992's "Walking on Thin Ice" and 1995'S "Rising," recorded with IMA, the band led by her and Lennon's 22‑year‑old son, Sean. In 1992, she collected her solo material into the acclaimed six‑CD "Onobox." Also this summer, Rykodisc reissued 11 Ono albums.
What were the assumptions about women in rock when you entered the arena?
My first impression was that they were all wives, kind of sitting in the next room while the guys were talking. I was afraid of being something like that.
Do you think things have changed significantly?
Very much so. There are a lot of women out there doing it.
I was listening to your early albums "Fly" and "Plastic Ono Band" in the last week or so, and I was amazed at how free and forward that work is.
I was thinking of my voice as an instrument. And I wanted to explore the possibilities of the instrument itself, but also the very shape of human emotions. I was doing the Carnegie Recital Hall concert, in 1961; I was thinking in terms of a woman who was having a child. When I was very young, about 4 years old, I went to the servants' room, where I was not supposed to go to. And they were talking about childbirth. And one was groaning. I never forgot that. And I think that was the reason why I was [trying to] capture a certain kind of sound and then modulating it. It comes way back from the time that I was very young.
What role would you say that anger has played in your music over the years?
A lot, I suppose. I think that my anger stems from a very early age. It was a kind of environment that was repressive. On one hand, though, it was very progressive. But around the time of John's passing, I really felt that I had almost an uncontrollable anger in me. And I felt that I really needed to do something about it. Otherwise it would eat me up. I felt a desperate need to transform that energy into creativity.
What would you say is the biggest misconception about you?
I can write a series of books about it. Somebody said something like "a dragon lady." I don't know what that means ‑ something that people don't know, or fear. It might be flattering, something to do with power. I really don't know what my image is at this point.
What criticism of your music has bothered you the most?
I feel that I was doing something very musical in the Plastic Ono Band and something quite new. The fact that they just took it as, oh, screaming and screeching. I hate to use such a word, because it sounds contrived, but there was a side of me that was a professional artist. My pride of being a professional was hurt.
Did you ever feel any special kinship with Linda McCartney, solely because you were both married to Beatles?
Oh, definitely. You see, the thing is not only that there was a kind of kinship between Linda and me, but John was saying it's too bad that we can't be friends with that couple, because we are the two couples who really have a lot to share.
Do you think that rock has the power to transform society?
So that if women had a stronger role in rock roll, it would eventually ...
I really think that all people should sing. I think it's very good that society is getting more and more musical. I really envision a society where people would even – in court, the lawyers would present the case by singing, or the politicians will make a speech and sing it.
Are you still collaborating with Sean as you did with his band, IMA?
He's into doing his own music now. I think he's doing really good work. He's in a very difficult position ‑ he doesn't want to be compared to his father. I think that it's courageous of him. I think it's very good that he's moved on to do his own thing.
What to you is the perfect pop song, and why?
"All You Need Is Love." It moved a lot of people, but also it's a sing‑along song. It had everything.
What advice have you ignored that you're glad you ignored?
After John and I got married, we had lunch in Paris with a very famous artist, Salvador Dali. I think he meant well, but he said, "I'm going to give you some advice" ‑ this is, like, right after the wedding: "Just be aware, don't be jealous." Meaning, a guy is going to screw around, so don't be jealous. I mean, I was over 30, and I thought, "Well, why isn't he giving that advice to John?" I was upset; I was very politely not saying anything.
What would you say to women who are just starting out about what's ahead of them?
Don't listen to anybody. Follow your heart.
Do you feel like a role model for other women?
I don't feel that way. I don't think that people should follow my footsteps. I really think if they can get some energy and inspiration out of my work, I'm very happy. I would say, "Learn from my mistakes." That's all.
Have you ever felt intimidated, either in business or in the studio, as a woman?
Oh, yes. I mean, that's my specialty. It was very difficult in the studio. In this society, still, guys like to feel that [women] are kind of helpless creatures. And I think that if we take the attitude of, "Look, I know what I want and I'm going to do it," they get very hurt.
You're known as a brilliant businesswoman. Did that come to you naturally or did you teach yourself that?
Well, I'm certainly not a brilliant businesswoman.
You must have some aptitude for it.
I think that was the circumstances I was put in. John felt very insecure about our financial future and all that. And I really wanted to make sure that I could take care of that for him. Then, after John's passing, everything was dumped in my lap, and it was for Sean as well as myself. I was responsible.
What's your future in terms of projects or work?
This year I have a couple of interesting art shows coming up, and I'm thinking of making a record. Right now, I just don't think I have enough time to go to the studio. It has to be maybe next year. And we talk about touring next year, but I want to see how it goes with this studio work and then we'll see.
You have always had a strong sort of pro‑woman perspective in your work. To what do you attribute that?
Maybe it has to do with my personal history, in the sense that my grandmother always had to tone down her strength, her power, to make it look like my grandfather was doing more work. My grandmother was a very strong woman who actually really did a lot to make a success. And she was always trying to make sure that my grandfather didn't feel bad. And my mother was in the same position. I thought it was sad that they had to do that.