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.
In the half-century since spending her honeymoon in bed with John Lennon, all in the name of something as idealistic but simple as World Peace, activism has been at the forefront of how we see Yoko Ono, partly due to the iconic power of seemingly everything that ever happened in the 1960s, but also because it’s how Ono still sees herself. Of course, you could reasonably argue that wealth affords oneself to remain a hippy well into old age, but still, it was a lot easier to believe in giving peace a chance in 1969 than it is in 2018. Ono has never waivered on that front. For her, lighting a flare via song is, today as much as it was during the Vietnam War, its own kind of revolution.
“The current state of the world made me pick up my pencil,” she says. “The reason is, I thought maybe I’d wait until 2020, but everyday I’d read the newspaper and more and more [war and bad news] was coming to us and it seems like plain hypocrisy that I’m alive, surviving, and not speaking out.”
Last year Ono won a hard-fought battle. After 45 years, the National Music Publishers Association finally awarded her a co-writing credit for one of the most recognisable songs ever recorded – ‘Imagine’. It’s fitting that ‘Warzone’ closes with Ono’s own take on the single. Considering its clout, though, one can’t help but assume she was apprehensive about covering it? “Yes, I was totally frightened to do it,” she says. “But also I thought I must do it and I’m happy that I did do it. The reason I was totally scared, I’m sure you understand, is because millions of people love the song and they could trash it.”
I do understand, even if I’m a little surprised to hear that the opinions of others is something that concerns her. Having spent five decades sidestepping derision dictated by either lazy sensationalism or pure ignorance, Ono has never been one to be deterred. In the 1960s she pioneered conceptual and performance art via seminal works including Cut Piece, first performed in 1964, in which Ono, dressed in her best suit, knelt on the ground and invited audience members to cut away as much or as little of her clothing as they wished with tailor’s scissors. The performance was largely met with total bemusement.
Between 1964 and 1972, she emerged as an experimental filmmaker, with a pigheaded flair of the times that she filtered through albums as genre-mangling and subversive as her 1971-1973 home run flurry: ‘Fly’, ‘Approximately Infinite Universe’ and ‘Feeling the Space’.
She has built her creative career since before meeting John Lennon, and has continued to do so long past his premature death. Perhaps her reservations in covering ‘Imagine’ lie in what that song has come to represent, and in her respect for her late husband. Her love for him does, after all, endure. And for all the boring bashing around the subject of The Beatles, Ono appears to strike a pretty good balance between the artist and activist she’s always been, and the widow of one of the most famous musicians of all time. More than that, she revels in both – making new music because she’s unable to be passive, and keeping the memory of Lennon alive, launching funds, charities and memorials in him name.
For a record that is her and her alone, across 40 minutes, ‘Warzone’ is a release reconfigured for, and framed by, the uniquely worrying state of the world in 2018. But befitting Ono’s nature, it’s a triumph of pragmatism, bursting with plain and powerful words that drive home an immutable truth about politics, human rights, corruption, the environment and beyond: change is ours, if we want it. “When I created those songs, I was thinking about politicians and how lost they became,” she says today. “They say that the fight at dawn is the severest and I think this is the time of dawn. In other words, I think it’s going to be better very soon.”
Ono has been preparing for the “fight at dawn” her entire career. But for her, the duel is as much a matter of personal politics and one’s fundamental human rights as it is the world at large. Having emerged as one of the strongest feminist voices in the art world of the ’60s, she has, likewise, wielded words of empowerment via music across the decades. On her new album, a new take on ‘Woman Power’ makes for one of her most emphatic solo efforts yet. Though each track here serves its own purpose (“There were many more I could have added, but these thirteen felt right,” she tells me) it’s a scathing riposte that reimagines the 1973 original for the modern age: “Do you know that someday you’ll have to pay, man? / In the coming age of feminist society we’ll regain our human dignity / We’ll lay some truth and clarity and bring back nature’s beauty.” The bluesy guitar riff is rusty and almost out-of-time, but it remains the album’s most instantly digestible track.
As she emerged as the ‘High Priestess of the Happening’ in the late ’60s, Ono’s original artistic intention was to harness Buddhist mentality with a strong feminist subtext. Aside from the conceptual and performance art she was making, both solo and with the New York group Fluxus, nowhere was that more on display than her essay, The Feminization of Society. Featured in the liner notes of her 1971 LP ‘Infinite Universe’, its thrust bounds from the past as pure wisdom:
“I am proposing the feminization of society; the use of feminine nature as a positive force to change the world. We can change ourselves with feminine intelligence and awareness, into a basically organic, noncompetitive society that is based on love, rather than reasoning. The result will be a society of balance, peace and contentment. We can evolve rather than revolt, come together, rather than claim independence, and feel rather than think. These are characteristics that are considered feminine; characteristics that men despise in women. But have men really done so well by avoiding the development of these characteristics within themselves?”
On ‘Warzone’, Ono looks back in order to gain a new vantage point. Telling me that she has always chosen to look in both directions – into the past and towards a brighter future – one of her turns of phrase carries a certain weight: “Looking back, I remember how human I was.” Sure enough, it’s that simple yet profound sense of humanity – and what humanity ultimately deserves – that defines Ono’s new album. From the ebullient ‘Children Power’ (in which she proclaims, “Caring people / Loving people / Growing people / We’re all one”) to the piano-led ‘Where Do We Go From Here?’ Ono offers up a potent reminder that the more human we are, the better.
It wasn’t how she and John Lennon were treated in1972 when they were faced with the very real prospect of being deported from the US by Richard Nixon. Displeased with the pair’s anti-war efforts, Tricky Dicky’s machination was overthrown by a legal ruling that has helped form the basis of immigration reform in America ever since, in case you were convinced that hippy ideals were well-intended but ultimately didn’t harvest any results. At the time, Ono said, “If immigration decides to deny our extension, they might use my appearance as a pretext. I’m a conceptual artist, you know, and I perform my art in a somewhat unconventional manner.”
Forty-eight years on, and eight sitting U.S. presidents later, Ono is very much the woman she was in 1972: a conceptual artist performing her art in a somewhat unconventional manner, and a U.S. citizen that refuses to kowtow to the country’s less statesmanlike side.
In November 11, 2016 – three days after Donald Trump became President-Elect – Ono tweeted, “Dear Friends, I would like to share this message with you as my response to @realDonaldTrump. Love, Yoko.” Embedded was a 19 second clip featuring the octogenarian expending a trademark anguished cry. Though incalculable brain cells and column inches were dedicated to trying to comprehend why Trump was elected, Ono’s pained reaction remains, in its own way, beyond comparison. “I think John would feel the same as all of us,” she says. “Terrible.”
In early 1968, as the Vietnam War raged on and The Beatles put the finishing touches to ‘The White Album’, Ono took to the stage of the Royal Albert Hall with free jazz trailblazer Ornette Coleman. Largely improvised, based on a set of instructions from Ono, it was a convulsive union between two luminaries of outlier art, and an early public airing of Ono’s instantly recognisable (and notoriously divisive) vocal style. Recorded during its rehearsal, and later appearing on Ono’s debut ‘Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band’ in 1970, ‘AOS’ is a song defined by Ono’s trademark stream of unguarded screams, guttural bursts and wails. Here, on the 19-second clip she tweeted in 2016, and right throughout her career, Ono’s ‘scream’ continues to strike a midpoint between helplessness and an act of defiance in relation to any number of modern socio-political issues.
Though perhaps not as incendiary, vocal blitzes like ‘AOS’ crop up throughout ‘Warzone’. But it’s on the album’s more understated moments where you get a full sense of Ono’s intent. As she delivers the “You may say I’m a dreamer” line on her minimalist take on ‘Imagine’, she is the sound of pure conviction. Spoken, not sung, through Ono, those famous words seep with new purpose and clarity. Lennon – who would no doubt approve – lingers in the background. In the foreground is Yoko, and only Yoko, quietly raising a fist, as the borders close and the waters continue to rise. I ask her, considering her distrust of those in power, who must join the “dreamers” of the song? “I am busy thinking about it,” she says. Then: “I think it has to be people, not professional politicians.”
Just as ‘Warzone’ recontextualises older material for a whole new generation, Ono continues to revisit the past in the spirit of positive action. Most recently, she recreated the original Bed In for Peace with Ringo Starr in New York, in aid of supporting the city’s schools and making available to students the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus, a non-profit mobile production facility. As she told the crowd “I think that maybe John is hearing us, yeah. John, are you listening to us? Give peace a chance” the lines between the distant past and the present day – between the mythos of the late 1960s and the realities of 2018 – were once again blurred for the common good.
When asked which worldly developments are commanding her attention most these days, she says, “The world.” Ninety nine times of a hundred an answer this brief would denote a certain degree of disinterest or impatience. For Ono, it’s an example of how, not least in public discourse, she has spent a lifetime using simple words in order to convey much less simple truths. In other words, big questions deserve short answers and direct action. “The situation is every country is trying to accumulate weapons,” she says when I ask about what is preventing a more peaceful world from being a reality today. “It’s getting to the point that no country can do it anymore because they don’t have the cash to compete with the others.”
With another new album reportedly in the pipeline, you get a strong sense that Yoko Ono isn’t winding down as a recording artist just yet. The time, it seems, continues to be now. But what compels her to keep making statements as defiant as ‘Warzone’? Aren’t 85-year-old supposed to be flag-wavers against change? At the very least, haven’t they earned the right to keep themselves to themselves? “My emotion is wanting to do it,” she says. “So I’m letting it do it. If I don’t I would have a bad headache or something.”
And what about the rest of us, I ask, namely because I hope it’s a question that Yoko Ono will answer with a sense of positive conviction that belies our cynical times – together, can we really still change the world? “Yes, of course,” she says. “We are changing it. We are rapidly changing it. You must be feeling the fear of it changing so fast. But it must. Then again, you and I have the choice of changing or not changing.”
Photography: Tom Haller