The activist artist on writing a vital chapter at the age of 85
To say Yoko Ono has spent her life flipping the script would be a big understatement. Her art and activism have, since her first gallery show in New York City in 1961, run at a parallel, in a constantly unapologetic fashion. In the middle of being blamed for the disintegration of The Beatles, she formed a new band with John Lennon, played a show and released The Plastic Ono Band’s first album – ‘Live Peace In Toronto 1969’. If the act itself sent the message that Yoko Ono wasn’t going to do what we wanted her to, the recording almost gleefully played out the fears of Lennon fans unhappy with this new bad influence: following a side one of rock ‘n’ roll standards that included The Beatles’ ‘Yer Blues’, side two consisted of two long tracks of feedback and Ono screaming.
Before that, she defied her parents when they emigrated from Tokyo to the affluent town of Scarsdale, New York, where Ono would go to college and fall in with the art crowd that her parents disapproved of. She’d follow that lifestyle all the way to Downtown Manhattan, and into a lifetime of non-conformity that, in 2018, brings us ‘Warzone’ – Ono’s fourteenth solo album: not an easy listen for Sunday driving, but arguable the less muddled Yoko Ono has ever sounded. At 85 years old, it feels like a vital chapter for her – one she was compelled to write.
Titled after her 1995 song of the same name, ‘Warzone’ is both a statement of intent and a feature-length red flag. Comprising 13 interpretations of her own songs, originally released between 1970 and 2009, it veers between mournful monitions about the state of the world and rallying cries to rise against. For someone who has always put lessening the chasm between people and peace at the heart of her art, it’s perhaps no surprise that Ono has opted for a direct title for the album. “It’s called ‘Warzone’ because that’s where we are living now,” she tells me, her answers to my questions considered and always short. “Some people are not even aware of it.”
The album is released via Sean Ono Lennon’s co-run Chimera Music imprint this month, and highlights abound. A slow-burning, desperate plea, its title track plainly relays the agony and reality of war across the world, beginning with the not-so-subtle sound of machine guns – “Warzone / We’re living in a Warzone / Men flashing their guns and their balls / Woman looking like Barbie dolls / Wake up.” In 1996, on her album ‘Rising’, ‘Warzone’ was a head-down heavy metal track – now, as is the case with all these adaptations, it’s a starker beast altogether, and more affecting for Ono’s vocal clarity and the tortured soundscape underneath.
A primal take on ‘Why’ (from her 1970 debut album – her personal favourite on the new record) also drags the original into manic new territory, where it’s no longer a funk track with a semblance of joy, but rather an increasingly disturbing rumination on modern life in one howled word. And there’s ‘Now Or Never’, with a woozy backing that marries ambience and lounge MOR, which asks of the United States: “Are we going to keep digging oil wells and gold? Are we going to keep thinking it won’t happen to us?” Each song is as spare and skeletal as the next. Centre-stage is Ono, speaking as directly as she has her entire career. Her words double up as an open letter pleading with the world to take a step back and recognise that, actually, yes, it almost certainly will happen to us.