By Tony Bonyata
Jan. 6, 2010
She's been referred to as a witch, a dragon lady and, perhaps most famously (and inaccurately, it should be noted), as the woman who single-handedly broke up The Beatles. While Yoko Ono first made her name in the early '60s through her provocative conceptual and performance art as part of the Fluxus movement, and then later (through John's encouragement) in the world of music, she will undoubtedly be best remembered as not only the wife of John Lennon, but, collectively as John & Yoko; one of most renowned and polarizing couples of the last century.
Ever since the two first met in 1966 (November 9th to be precise at a London preview exhibition of Yoko's art) they were practically inseparable - save for the couple's 18-month separation in the mid '70s which resulted in Lennon's infamous 'Lost Weekend,' and, tragically in 1980, when Lennon was gunned down in front of the couple's NYC apartment building.
Yoko has kept very busy throughout the last three decades managing the artistic and financial affairs of the Lennon legacy, but perhaps most surprising is the fact that, despite years of intolerance towards her music, she is finally being revered by artists, critics and fans alike for her groundbreaking recorded works.
While Yoko's recording career began with the release of two extremely experimental and commercially challenging albums with John (Unfinished Music No.1: Two Virgins and Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With The Lions), the two began working on their individual projects (often using the same musicians for their concurrent efforts) under the band name Plastic Ono Band. Some of Yoko's early Plastic Ono Band releases - notably her self-titled album Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band (1970) and Fly (1971) - would go onto influence a growing number of modern musical acts - from late '70s/early '80s new wave artists such as Lene Lovich and The B-52's to a who's who of today's cutting-edge acts like The Flaming Lips, The Polyphonic Spree, Peaches, The Apples In Stereo and Cat Power (all who inventively reinterpreted Yoko's music for the 2007 release of her Yes, I'm A Witch album).
Last week I was lucky enough to be granted a phone interview with this innovative, evocative, yet often misunderstood, artist and musician. I found her to be very sweet, intelligent, charming and even funny as we discussed her latest incarnation of the Plastic Ono Band and their remarkable new record Between My Head And The Sky.
Tony Bonyata: You've been recording music for over 40 years now, but strangely enough with your new Plastic Ono Band album it sounds as if you may just be hitting your stride - both artistically and commercially.
Yoko: I don't know (laughs), if I'm not commercial at all by this point I'll never be.
TB: It seems as if people are a lot more accepting of you now as both an artist and as a musician.
Yoko: Well, I like to do all sorts of different things, you know. We just did a... you don't call it an LP now, what is it?... a CD... of dance mixes. That was very good. I like the fact that other artists are doing some interesting things with my old songs. I felt very good. Each time when I do something very different from what I've done before it just makes me feel better. I don't like being stagnant.
TB: It seems like when no one else understood where you were coming from musically in the late '60s and '70s, John was always there to defend and champion your music.
Yoko: Amazing, isn't it! He understood... it's really amazing when you think about it.
TB: You both really seemed a few decades ahead of the times, and it seems like now people are finally catching up.
Yoko: Maybe... I don't know. There are still some people... I mean, when I'm on stage and I start doing my stuff and there's all these faces, and some of them are like, "uhhh, what is this?," you know (laughs).
TB: Even now?
Yoko: Yeah, a bit like that. Yes, okay, so 99 per cent of the people that come to my show do get it.
TB: Since the turn of the new millennium - with chart topping dance hits and some of the most influential new acts today reinterpreting your music - you've been revered as an innovative and groundbreaking musician in your own right. Do you ever feel like "well, it's about time"?
Yoko: Well, I thought about it that way after, like, Life With The Lions or Fly or something like that (laughs). So I just gave up.... I don't feel that way. I don't think 'it's about time.' I was just doing it, because I enjoy doing music. And then this time around it was surprise, you know.
TB: The reviews for the new record are pretty much hailing it as amazing, as they should be.
Yoko: Well, I'm glad that some people understood it, or got something out of it.
TB: John has got to be beaming right now.
Yoko: Yes (laughs), he would be.
TB: Let's talk a little about your new record Between My Head And The Sky. You've brought so many different elements into it from your own musical past, such as jazz, heavy rock, trance, dance and pop, yet it still sounds remarkably new and cutting edge. At an age when most musicians are either well past their creative prime or merely treading water, how do you manage to stay one step ahead of game musically?
Yoko: Well, I don't really think I'm 'one step ahead of the game.' I just do it. I'm just me, which is really the most comfortable way of doing it. It's not like I'm not competing with anybody... obviously (laughs). I'm not even competing with myself. It's a nice feel.
TB: This is the first effort you've recorded under the Plastic Ono Band name since your Feeling The Space album in '73. Why did you choose to resurrect the name now?
Yoko: Well, I didn't. Sean was saying, 'Would you mind doing it as Plastic Ono Band?' I said, 'Why would I do it?' I didn't know what to do, but then I thought that this was a name that John gave to us and gave this band. He said from now on you should use that band name. The reason why I didn't do it up to now is because I blocked it. It was too painful to think about all of that after John's passing, you know.
TB: Do you think it's been somewhat therapeutic for you to get it out again as this new entity?
Yoko: I don't really mind doing it, because now I know why I blocked it - with John's passing and everything. But it was silly to block it. It's silly to block anything, and so I said, 'okay, let's do it.'
TB: Your son Sean has taken over his father's role as the music director for the band...
Yoko: Well (laughs), I didn't really know he was good in that sense. I knew he was a good musician, but being music director and all that was a bit of a concern. But he wanted to do it and I was like, 'okay, why not?' I didn't want to argue. I just like the fact that we're doing something together, and I wanted to sort of keep it like that (laughs) without being too bossy, you know. It was a surprise and really a very good move.
TB: How are his methods different than John's?
Yoko: Sean has such an energy, which is interesting. John was a bit more emotional... both John and I come from an emotional, romantic age, shall we say. And I think that this generation - Sean's generation and his friends - are more, sort of, mathematical. They can think about it from the point of view of trying to make it into something. We didn't try to make it into something... we just did it. That's the difference, I think.
TB: You mentioned that you had 'concerns' at first about Sean as your music director for this project. Was it concern between a mother and son, or was more from a creative point of view?
Yoko: From a creative point a view. I didn't want to be the mother who says, 'okay, anything goes is fine.' I didn't want to do that. And I didn't want to start arguing and fighting either. And we didn't have to. It was really good. One of the reasons I was concerned was that I really didn't know him in that sense, you know.
TB: Having the opportunity to perform respectively for both art and music fans, do you have a preference to either your performance art or live music concerts?
Yoko: Well, not really. Whenever I get an inspiration about something- whether it's visual art or touring, or whatever - I just go with it. And I'm lucky in that sense that I have so many different kinds of mediums that I use to express myself. One can get stuck, I suppose. I just never get stuck, you know (laughs).
TB: Do you also paint or draw, or anything along those lines as well?
Yoko: Of course I do. My artwork is mainly conceptual, but I do some drawings as well. It's my security blanket (laughs).
TB: I see that you performed a few shows in Tokyo and Osaka last month. Was the line-up pretty much the same as the album?
Yoko: Oh, yes. We also did Meltdown [London music festival in June], of course. It started with that and we did, what was supposed to be, a very important TV show in London. It's very interesting... I never realized that when you do a show in a concert hall or something for like two thousand people - well I mean that's us, you know? We don't get ten thousand people in a festival (laughs). But then you do a TV show and you do one or two songs and they go everywhere. You have millions in your audience and that's very interesting.
TB: You talk about TV being everywhere and connecting to so many people, but today the Internet blows up everything. Do you feel that John would've embraced the whole Internet age?
Yoko: Of course, John would've said, 'I told you so!' (laughs)
TB: You mentioned your audience reception a little earlier. How was it at your recent shows in Japan?
Yoko: Well, you weren't there, right?
Yoko: Well, then I can say how great it was (laughs). Just joking... no, it was good.
TB: I wasn't able to make your Pitchfork Music Festival show here in Chicago a couple of years ago, but I read nothing but positive reviews of it.
TB: You didn't?
Yoko: Well, I don't know. I don't typically read reviews... it's not the most pleasant subject in the world (laughs).
TB: And you've been through your share of 'reviews' in your life.
Yoko: Yeah, right! (laughs)
TB: Are there plans for any potential Plastic Ono Band shows here in the U.S. in 2010?
Yoko: I don't know. I'm just leaving it up to management. They tell me, 'so-and-so festival wants you. Do you want to do it?' So I just wait for them.
TB: Fingers crossed we get you here in Chicago next August for Lollapalooza. You guys would be a perfect fit.
Yoko: Wow, that'd be great.
TB: I'm assuming that, not unlike John & Yoko working as the nucleus of the Plastic Ono Band, that the creative core of the band is now Sean & Yoko.
Yoko: Yeah, although he wants to do his own thing as well. I really think it's good that he does things independently too. We don't know where it's going... we're just having fun now.
TB: I almost see a mirror between Sean and his dad, in that Sean's own records, like John's, are more direct and pop-related, whereas when both artists have immersed themselves under the Plastic Ono Band umbrella all of a sudden these strange animals start growing out of it.
Yoko: (Laughs) Yeah, right. Well, Sean is very prolific actually. He also plays many different instruments. So that's one difference. John used to play the guitar and the piano, but he was more of a guitarist as you know, but with Sean he's very good at piano and he does drumming and bass guitar and everything. He's just amazing.
TB: Speaking of Sean's bass playing, I saw him perform with Cibo Matto at the Tibetan Freedom Concert many years ago and it was amazing.
Yoko: That was when he was very young. He was behaving himself, you know (laughs)... he was the bass guitarist. When I went to see their shows, I was like, 'Where's my son? Oh my God, he's in the corner just sort of standing there. Oh, dear.' Those days are over (laughs).
TB: But his bass playing was super heavy... like this huge wall of sound.
Yoko: Yeah, yeah!
TB: Do the two of you have future plans for the Plastic Ono Band beyond this project?
Yoko: I'm just concentrating on what's happening now.
TB: Thanks for your time, Yoko...... and on a personal note today is my 50th birthdy...
Yoko: No? (laughs)
TB: And my wife just turned 50 yesterday.
Yoko: Would you mind telling her, and yourself, that it gets better now.
TB: Yes, definitely. I also wanted to share this true story... we opened our gifts last night together and she gave me the vinyl version of your Life With the Lions LP. I didn't even know I was getting this interview with you until yesterday, so the coincidence was a bit freaky.
Yoko: (Laughs) I can't believe it. That's so beautiful. Please thank her.
TB: Yes, and thank you. You definitely made my day all the more special.
Yoko: Happy Birthday.