Talking Love, Life and John Lennon's Art With Yoko Ono
Yoko Ono is perhaps one of the most infamous women in rock history, yet even today people forget she was an artist first and wife to John Lennon second.Ono dropped out of Sarah Lawrence College in 1957, where she had been studying forms of music theory and composition. By 1960, she was one of a group of conceptual artists who were working with ideas of performance, chance and audience participation. It was through her art that Ono and Lennon met; he attended a preview for an exhibit she had at the Indica Gallery that featured a piece titled "Painting To Hammer A Nail In." Viewers were invited to pound nails into a white wooden panel; Lennon accepted the invitation. An artist himself, Lennon studied at the Liverpool Art Institute from 1957 to 1960. He was mainly interested in drawing, and he sketched in pen and ink throughout his life. Ono and Lennon were married at Gibraltar on March 20, 1969. On their wedding day, John gave Yoko the "Bag One Portfolio" of wedding drawings; Yoko gave John a series of sketchbooks. Most of Lennon's drawings depicted his everyday life with his wife Yoko and their son Sean. The "Bag One" drawings (which included images of John and Yoko nude) were confiscated during 1969 exhibits in London and Chicago for being too provocative. Lennon always felt that because of his rock star status, his drawings would never receive their due; more than a decade after his tragic death, Ono is doing her best to make sure they get the attention they deserve. Ono took some time out to talk with the SN&R about charity, art and remembering John Lennon. SN&R: In the past, you were personally vilified as the woman who broke up the Beatles, and almost portrayed, in a racist way, as this Asian dragon lady. YO: Almost? (laughs) Very much so.Has any of that hysteria subsided? Has anyone ever apologized for the attacks against you? "There's no apology or anything like that. It's a very serious situation to me. There's still a little bit of that. But people now are starting to know me. I've been around for such a long time. (laughing) They finally feel like I'm a familiar person, you know. My feeling is that when I just came out into your world, it must have been very hard. Your hero is standing with this ... not just a woman, but an Oriental woman. What is this? Is he from Mars or something? So it was a hard situation. I didn't realize it at the time; I was very naive. I think that you were surprised by me. And I was surprised by your ... what is it?" Animosity?"Animosity that was coming toward me. Very surprised. From my side, I learned a lot. [The experience] was very educational for me. I have this memory of having survived all that. So it gives me a little ... I don't know ... [it's] like giving myself a little kiss (laughs) saying, "OK, you survived." There must be a certain amount of strength there, just from living through the adversity. "I was lucky. I don't think that anybody's that strong. And I don't think that I was that strong. Maybe I'm stronger now. (laughs) But I suppose it was something good for all of us to go through." Have you and your son consciously dealt with the mythology surrounding his father? "It's been very hard for him to deal with it. We have to just give him a chance, you know? To sort out things for himself. There are a lot people who say to him, "Oh, when are you going to put out a record?" And this and that. I just think he's wise not to be pressured into it. He's taking his time. And also he's trying to create his own thing. Now, I don't know how he can do that, but it seems with even his artwork and songs ... [there's] not very much John Lennon. Not very much Yoko Ono. He has his own stuff going, and that's good! But it's very hard for him." John's drawings seemed to be almost like snapshots or pictures from a family album. Do you get that feeling? "Well, I tried to put out some of the stuff that had really nothing to do with the family. But basically most of the drawings he did were about family, so I can't help it. So it looks like it's all family, but not really. He did some black humor kind of stuff, too." Maybe it's just that the family drawings seem to resonate more. "You know why? Because they really came from his heart. And you can see that. You know when he sang, it was like, "I'm just going to be cool and clever"; the drawings are a different thing." You make many philanthropic and charitable contributions, but most of it is done anonymously. Why is that? "If I don't do it anonymously, most people think, "Oh, well, they got the money from Yoko, so we don't have to worry about it." So then, of course, it's much better to be anonymous. Basically, I think for me doing a lot of anonymous work ... doesn't create any waves, so it's probably easier for me. It's good for me in the long run. But sometimes organizations want to publicize it so that they get some benefit out it. People might say, "Oh, well, maybe it's time to do some charity work, too. That's a good one to do." Each time we discuss it, and hopefully do it right. That's what I'm trying to do." Was that the case with your last gift ($1 million) to AIDS research? "That becomes a statement as well. That was very important. They wanted it known, and I said that's all right." You've used so many forms of creative expression in your career. Are you still eclectic? "That's a way to keep myself fresh with things. When I'm just repeating myself in one area, I feel like my inspiration goes. But then I see something else, and that inspires me. I jump into that media and do something and then come back to it again. To something I was doing before. That's the way I keep myself kind of new. (laughs)." With some politicians interested in dismantling the NEA, do you think art is at a crossroads in this country? No, I don't think that at all. I think that art is a very important part of our society. It almost like the trees, the park. You think, "Oh, what a huge area! Why don't we cut down all the trees and build some condominiums so we can make some more money?" As to the effect of the trees, well, people are not that cognizant of it. In terms of money, of course it's better to build a lot of high-rises, but if you did cut down all the trees, then the park disappears. The city would be very different, you know? Most people don't realize how important that is. Well, artists are like trees. We're just silently sending good vibes to the world. Maybe people think, "It's not that lucrative. Art is not that lucrative to society and maybe we should just dispense with it." (laughing) But it doesn't work that way. Art is such an important integral element of human society that it will survive whether one politician decides to do this or that. Or our government decides to do this or that. It has a long history, and it will survive, regardless of not getting government money or government subsidies. In communist countries when art is very strongly subsidized, sometimes it's controlled by the subsidies. Sometimes that kills the artists. It's a very delicate situation. What were the pros and cons in your mind about letting Paul, George, and Ringo make the record "Free As A Bird," using old tracks of John's voice? There's the old traditional thinking, "OK, well he did it in his private quarters, without thinking this would ever get out there. Just singing with his piano. And then to apply that voice onto a multi-track and make it into something that he didn't write." I guess I thought, he was a public person who was a songwriter, and if his song is going to really make people happy and give them an up feeling -- energy, inspiration -- even for two seconds, he would have loved it. And I thought those three guys could do a good job. The type of song was very Beatle-like. All in all, I try to look at the big picture. At the time people were a bit depressed. Especially young people. I thought it's good, an up song -- "Free As A Bird"! Just that phrase. It sticks in people's minds. It might help, I thought. So I did it. I think it works in a way. A lot people enjoyed the song, and I was very touched by that. What is the most appropriate way for John Lennon to be remembered? I think John's work and what John has meant and what he showed to the world with his life will go on and on. I will do my best. There's no streamlining and saying, "This is John Lennon." I just want the total John Lennon to be out there. Hopefully, somebody will inspired by it, educated by it, and encouraged by it.