Graham Reid | | 4 min read
For reasons which withstand no scrutiny at all, there’s an expectation Yoko Ono will be miserable in interviews. After all, here is the Famous Rock Widow whose husband was gunned down before her eyes leaving her with a much beloved five-year old son, the legacy of the Lennon name and fortune, and the still prevalent perception of her as The Dragon Lady.
But the child Sean is now 23 and has a band of his own, and she’s been in a relationship with Sam Havadtoy for 15 years. (Sean refers to Sam as his stepfather.)
Her reputation also rests on twin poles: her own albums and artwork; and her exploitation of John Lennon’s memory, art and music -- for which she has been publicly criticised by his other son Julian who says his dad would have recoiled at seeing his drawing on silk ties.
So Yoko Ono is on the line, laughing, chatty and candid about yet another Lennon commemoration, this one to take place in Central Park the following day on the anniversary of his birthday.
Frankly she hasn’t a clue what will happen at the ceremony other than the City of Liverpool is planting a tree in Strawberry Fields, the section of the park dedicated to world peace and Lennon’s memory.
“It will be very nice and I’m sure John would have loved it, etc,” she says dismissively, “and so I’m just going to be there. I don’t know who is going to come and who is not. It’s up to the weather maybe.”
Ono is also on the line because there’s another slice of Lennon on sale -- a handsome four-CD box set of Lennon’s home recordings, live tracks, some goofy spoken word things and alternative versions of many of his classic songs. The set include Lennon’s guide vocals for some songs he gave Ringo Starr, some studio banter with Phil Spector, and his wicked parodies of Bob Dylan during his Christian Years (Serve Yourself which skewers Dylan’s You Gotta Serve Somebody), George Harrison’s Krsna mysticism (The Rishi Kesh Song) and an especially vicious take of How Do You Sleep, the song on the Imagine album in which he openly attacked Paul McCartney.
The collection’s title, The John Lennon Anthology, virtually ensures it will take its place alongside the three double discs of The Beatles Anthology series. That said, as with most such projects, the released versions of the songs are mostly superior.
“I was more interested in making it into an event,” says Ono who supervised the project, “and an artwork in the sense like John and I would do. Each CD would have a theme, a kind of total experience and each should be different from the other.
“Of course, some things didn’t get in there. I don’t have enough to make a strong statement like this again. I don’t think there’s going to be another box, but it may have to come out in a different way.”
And she has a tart riposte for those who have seen her as exploiting Lennon’s art and music, selling it for advertisements or flogging off expensive prints of his throwaway scribbles.
“It think [the criticism] is a laugh. I know what you are thinking, ‘Well, Julian said it’. But he’s an intelligent boy and I doubt he said it that way. I think it was turned around.
“He knows obviously that the Beatles were the first group that started large-scale merchandising including lunchboxes -- and all four of them loved it. John loved the lunchboxes.
“They were the first group that did that. The first thing is people get the lunchbox maybe and then they might get into buying the record.
“In John’s case he’s not here any more so he can’t promote his catalogue of songs. I’m just doing my best to keep his catalogue out there and for that you have to keep on creating familiarity through merchandise or whatever.”
She acknowledges as Lennon mellowed he became more attracted to his early life to the point of collecting school photos and early Beatles memorabilia,
“At one point he said, ‘You should wear a tie today, this should be a good one,” and he put a tie on me and said, ‘Actually, it’s my school tie’.“
When Ono tells such a simple anecdote it’s hard not to be moved by her candour.
Over a number of years she has avoided reading any of the numerous books about Lennon and her relationship with him, feeling the works were negative and invasions of their privacy.
“It’s just not pleasant to waste any energy on something like that. You can’t do anything about it. It’s like the waves of the ocean, just coming at you all the time. So if you concentrate your mind on taking care of that, it can take so much time. I don’t have that kind of time. I’d rather do something creative or positive.”
She says she will be recording another album of her own after the critical acclaimed Rising, but “I need about six bodies, one to take care of the business, one to take care of the art work, one to take care of my health like jogging or on the treadmill or Stairmaster or whatever.
“I don’t jog now but I walk a lot and do the Stairmaster and all that, just to keep in shape kind of thing.
“I’m always cheating. Like this morning I said to myself, ‘I’m busy so I can’t go do it‘.”
This interview first appeared in the New Zealand Herald.