Continuing our week-long celebrations commemorating John Lennon's 75th birthday, here Yoko Ono recalls their relationship
Some 34 years later, Yoko Ono is sitting in a hotel suite on the edge of the Grand Canal in Venice, sipping chilled water and telling Uncut about that love; about being half of the most famous couple in rock history. Why has their snapshot of togetherness endured through the years?
“Because it was genuine,” says Yoko. “Truth hurts some people – there was a lot of chip-chip and trying to make it sound like it was really something that didn’t happen.
“Maybe in history, a lot of beautiful miracles that happened have been chipped so much that you don’t know about it. It’s the loss of the world to not know that miracles could happen. That was one of the miracles to me. It definitely was a magical thing that happened in my life.”
Yoko is 70, and she recently enjoyed her first No 1 single, with the remixed “Walking On Thin Ice” having topped the Billboard dance chart [May 2003 – see panel, p138]. She approached the milestone birthday on February 18 wondering whether she should keep a low profile, knowing that someone would inevitably work out the dates, or make a stand and announce it. Characteristically, she chose the latter – and when the hit single came along only a couple of months after she blew out the candles, she was suddenly happy to celebrate her age and see it as a reassurance to others.
“Some people immediately feel like, ‘How dare she? Oh, now, well, she must be doing something, some trick there…’ But the majority of people feel really good because they now think that when they’re 70, they don’t have to worry about it.
“I think that’s really good, but also with John and I just getting together – it could happen to anybody. It was just a man and a woman getting together. As long as you know it could happen. It does happen.”
Has the idea of ‘John and Yoko’ become idealised over the years?
“We were just real people, we had our arguments and all that as well. Two very headstrong people. I think that we expressed it differently. It’s like yin and yang. He was like very explosive, and I’m the one who’s, like, ‘Take it in’. It doesn’t mean being submissive. Take it in, and it comes out as songs.”
Yoko is not your average pensioner. She has recently thrown herself into a new life of late nights and live performances in dance clubs around the world. She has had no cosmetic surgery, but looks like a woman in her fifties – trim, energetic, her short, dark hair glowing with a reddish hue and her black top, with its colourful, butterfly patterns, plunging in a V at the front to reveal a daring cleavage.
Yoko is in Venice for the Biennale festival of contemporary art, where she is exhibiting. It’s early in the morning, it’s already baking hot, but Yoko is, as usual, welcoming and direct. She is witty, good-humoured and revealing as she skips through what her husband once called their “scrapbook of madness”.
Yoko was living in a flat at 25 Hanover Gate Mansions, near London’s Regent’s Park, with her second husband Tony Cox and their daughter Kyoko. John was stretching out in the splendid surroundings of Kenwood, a palatial, mock-Tudor house in Weybridge, Surrey, with his wife Cynthia and their son Julian. Months had passed since the legendary first meeting of John and Yoko at the Indica Gallery in November 1966. Occasionally, they had bumped into each other at art openings, but apart from a vague mutual interest, there was nothing remarkable between them.
Despite the popular theory that Yoko was frantically inventing schemes to snare the wealthy Beatle, she was struggling with problems in her marriage and also working hard to establish her career in the UK. Arriving in London in September 1966 to perform at the ‘Destruction In Art Symposium’, Yoko was already respected as an avant-garde artist and performer in New York, where she was allied to the Fluxus movement. She had a trained musical background, and had recently been involved in the improvisational music favoured by her peer group. She had also compiled a book of conceptual and instructional pieces called Grapefruit, and printed up a limited edition.
Yoko distributed copies to a number of influential people during 1966-’67. And John Lennon was one of the recipients. This has since been interpreted as one of various ruses on Yoko’s part to enchant Lennon.
She retorts: “There was a myth that I sent Grapefruit to him… how I wanted to trap him. It was a printed, published book. I had an orange carton of them, a lot of it. I would be giving it to critics. It was that sort of thing. He wasn’t the only one who got it.”
However, Lennon was intrigued – and would later be clearly inspired – by this book with its instructions to “imagine” various things. Keeping it by his bedside, he found it by turns inspiring and exasperating.
“Finally,” says Yoko, “there was a call from him that he’d like me to come to Kenwood. And a car was sent for me, and I went and I was thinking, ‘What is this about?’ He said he’d read Grapefruit, and he wanted to know whether he can get this Light House on the sales list in Grapefruit.”
Appearing under “Architectural Works” in the book’s spoof merchandising list, Light House is described as “a house constructed of light from prisms, which exists in accordance with the changes of the day”.
“And he wanted to build that in his garden,” smiles Yoko. “I said, ‘It’s very sweet… but it’s conceptual.’’’ She pauses, laughs affectionately.
And after that: “Many things happened.”
It was an unconventional courtship.
“There were times when he would call me,” says Yoko. “My guess was that he was in the studio where they [The Beatles] had to wait for the engineer to prepare the tapes or whatever. And there was times when he was upstairs on the third floor at Kenwood. He had this kind of a studio, many tape recorders and all that, and he’d be there, probably, just being alone with the tapes. That’s the kind of time that it seemed like he called. I was always wondering why he called me. There was many people who used to call and just chat. He wasn’t chatty – ‘Hi’. Then silence. I wasn’t chatty either. There was a lot of silences in the phonecall.”
In 1967, Yoko talked to John about a show – ‘Half-A-Wind’ – that she wanted to put on at the Lisson Gallery in Bell Street, Marylebone. It went ahead in October and November, and it included her famous “Half-A-Room” – where the furniture and objects are neatly sliced in half and painted white. The other halves are “contained” in 15 empty, labelled bottles of varying sizes. The show was billed as “Yoko And Me”, the “me” referring to Lennon, who did not attend because he was “too uptight” but nevertheless funded it.
Yoko: “I didn’t have the money to do it. I needed a patron to put up some money, and he [John] said he would like to do it. I explained it all, and I’m looking at him and I thought, ‘Here’s a guy who’s an artist himself, and a very good one,’ and by then, I really felt it was good.”
Is this the source of the stories that you were chasing John for his money and profile – as a benefactor for your artwork?
“It’s possible. I don’t connect in that way. In America too, when I was doing some projects, Tony, my then-husband, would go and raise money and then he would say, ‘Oh, so-and-so is putting up the money, so we have to have dinner with him and thank him.’ I’d come out at the end – the artist! – and say, ‘Thank you.’ Tony did the work, kind of thing. With Lisson Gallery, the reason why I went to John – because he invited me to talk about it and everything – it’s because Tony and I were not really getting along too well any more, and so I thought, ‘Now I have to do it myself.’ And it was a bit embarrassing for the artist herself to do it.”
How did you feel about asking John for the backing?
“I’m approaching him as a patron to raise money or something. He wanted to do it. He was taking the position of somebody with money and I felt terrible about that. I said, ‘Well, why don’t you put a piece in there, too?’ It’s not the kind of thing I’d ever say to anybody. I’m an artist myself who likes to fill the room with my works. He immediately said, and this was funny, cos I was putting together “Half-A-Room” – he said, without even missing a beat, ‘Why don’t you put the other half in the bottles?’ I just thought that was an incredible idea, and I just stood there. It was beautiful. And he was very pleased.”
He understood your work.
“Of course. It’s not like he understood it – he was on exactly the same wavelength. That’s the kind of thing that he would do if he had a chance.”
Did it surprise you that someone from such a different environment, a pop superstar, could be on the same wavelength?
“What I was amazed about was not so much finding somebody from a different environment – I was just amazed that he was so different from other guys. Because this society is like a male society, they tend to be very conservative. He just wasn’t. Or shall we say, I didn’t see that side of him at all at that point.”
Was that the moment that it all really started?
“What happened was… and it’s all mixed up, in a way, in people’s minds… I never bothered to talk about it. But there was a time in London – time-wise, the Lisson show was on already – when John made a kind of decisive move to me, and I didn’t think that I should take it. I didn’t, in fact. After that, there was immediately an invitation I got from the Belgian Knokke Film Festival. They invited me to show my Film No. 4 – the butt film [aka Bottoms].
“So I went to the Knokke Film Festival and my work was shown. Then all the artists were going back home and they were saying, ‘Are you coming to London?’ And a very famous artist called Jean-Jacques Lebel – he and his group said, ‘We’re going to Paris, do you want to go?’ I went to Paris instead of going back to London. I thought, ‘I will never go back.’ Paris was great fun. I kept saying, ‘I’m not going to go back to London.’ I had this feeling about John – our feelings were getting too close to danger. I thought, ‘Totally, that’s it.’
“As an animal instinct, I must have known that there was something really seriously wrong there, you know. The kind of incredible attack I got from the whole world – of course, I never knew that that would happen. I knew that we were kind of hot about each other by then. In any situation, it was so easy to run. It was always that. Because it’s my instinct to protect myself, I suppose. I could be sort of destroyed.”
What made you change your mind about coming back to London?
“So then, he went to India. I was in Paris. It was like that. And fate would have it that [American modern-jazz saxophonist] Ornette Coleman came to a show I did in Paris. It was music and performance art. He said he’s going to go to Albert Hall to do a concert [on February 29, 1968], and would I come and perform there.”
That’s an honour…
“You don’t know what I was like. I said, ‘If you’re going to do my composition, I’ll come with you.’ He said, ‘OK, sure.’ I didn’t want to be a vocalist in somebody else’s composition. That was not my style. And then when I went back, well, I went into my apartment – and my then-husband Tony was staying somewhere else – and when I opened the door, there were piles of letters from John in India. [Hands on heart] It hit me.”