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Yoko Ono sounds off

By David McNeill

“I’m a witch,” warbles Yoko Ono on the title track of her latest album. “Yes, I’m a witch, I’m a bitch, I don’t care what you say. My voice is real. My voice speaks truth. I don’t fit your ways.”

And indeed there is something elegantly witchy about the tiny, astonishingly well-preserved figure (Ono is now nearly 76) who strides into Tokyo’s plush Hotel Okura. The trademark all-black ensemble, for a start; the sunglasses perched as always half way down her nose, leaving her peering imperiously over the top. Or the way those black eyes bore down on interviewers when they stray from the Designated Area of Discussion. It’s not hard to imagine her gleefully playing the well-dressed villain in some awful old Hollywood concoction: "The Brides of Fu Manchu," perhaps, decked out, as she is today, in the finest Keith Haring-designed clobber.

Ono says she is not intimidated by such perceptions. “If I was scared of the prejudice I wouldn’t call the album 'I’m a Witch.' I think that there is incredible prejudice about witches while there is no prejudice about wizards. Words are very important and I’m really into destroying myths.”

Re-appropriating the language of the enemy is an old tactic, she explains, recalling the days when she was dubbed ‘the dragon lady.’ “So one day I said, ‘Yes, I am a dragon lady. Thank you for calling me that.’ The dragon is such a strong, mythic animal. The minute I said that, nobody called me the name anymore.”

Ono is in Japan, staying at the same hotel she and John Lennon frequented during their trips to the country in the 1970s, to host her annual peace concert, Dream Power. Her manager makes it clear that the concert, and its proceeds, which have been used to build 75 schools in Africa, is the preferred topic du jour. Just in case we wander off base, an American PR woman hovers nearby, ready to leap into action, which she does when the subject of a new Lennon biography comes up. Ono reportedly said the book by veteran biographer Philip Norman was “mean” to John. Sighing unhappily, she plays down the dispute.

“Norman doesn’t want my OK because that wouldn’t sell the book, so the feeling was mutual. I’m not saying I didn’t approve of it, but there are certain out-of-context things that are being said, and there are relatives in Liverpool, and they’re not very happy with the book. And of course I sided with them because I’m protecting the family, in a way.” Questions about exactly what might have been pulled out of context are silenced by her U.S. minder.

Journalists have roughed her up for years

Ono’s distrust of the media is understandable. Journalists have roughed her up in print for years in language often tinged with innuendo and racism. In the ’60s, when vicious jibes like “chink” and “yellow” followed her around like a cloud of buzzing flies, Private Eye magazine parodied her using a sexual pun from the Kama Sutra.

Unlike previous biographies by legendary Beatles insider Peter Brown, who cast her as a stalker, and Albert Goldman’s extravagantly nasty "The Lives of John Lennon," in which she is depicted, among other things, as a dedicated heroin user, Norman’s treatment is largely sympathetic and acknowledges her as a talented artist and crucial foil to her often capricious husband.

The book does, however, include an unflattering account of Ono’s transition from bohemian radical to 9-5 businesswoman and über-consumer, a transformation that astonished even Elton John when he visited her in New York. “She has a refrigerated room just for keeping her fur coats,” Elton is quoted as saying. “I buy things in twos and threes, but she buys them in the fifties.” When Lennon was later ribbed by a friend about the yawning gulf between his life with Yoko and the anti-consumerist lyrics of his most famous song, “Imagine,” he reportedly said, “It’s only a bloody song.”

Where her husband’s matchless songbook ensures his legacy survives, however, Ono is a more divisive figure. Critics say her art has perpetually careened between inspired playfulness and childish doggerel. Her avant-garde caterwauling, re-exhumed for the YouTube generation, has always been an acquired taste, though it is cited as an inspiration to Cat Power and Peaches, among other artists on the "Witches" album. And in 2004, she performed the unique feat of almost uniting Liverpool against her when she flooded the city with pictures of a vulva as part of the city’s biennial celebrations.

Yet Ono has recently enjoyed a critical renaissance thanks to a 2001 worldwide retrospective, “Yes Yoko Ono,” named for the installation that famously brought her and Lennon together. The show received the prestigious International Association of Art Critics USA Award for Best Museum Show Originating in New York City, and the New York Times said, “Yoko Ono’s art is a mirror… a tiny prod toward personal enlightenment.”

Outside the art world, Ono is chiefly known today as a ferocious and sometimes controversial protector of her dead husband’s legacy, and a peace campaigner.

Ono despairs at the state of the world

After 40 years of activism, which she began with Lennon in the late ’60s, she says she sometimes despairs at the state of the world. “The last eight years have been completely shocking. And it is sort of depressing to read the newspaper. You just don’t want to see it. It is so easy to get depressed and just give up, but giving up means death, you know, and all of us have an incredibly strong survival instinct as a human race and we just have to go on.”

Years of criticism have also made her prone to vague hippy-speak. Ono says she has spoken so little about the war in Iraq because “if you fight (conflicts) one by one, you’ll get tired.” She believes the world is divided into two industries: peace and war. “The war industry people are very together; they know exactly what they want; they don’t even have to talk to each other. The peace industry people are just intellectuals who are very critical of each other...Unless the peace industry is powerful we’re always going to have war. It is as simple as that.”

She professes no concern, however, about the trajectory of Japan, a country that many of her generation believe is drifting away from its postwar pacifism — Ono grew up during World War II and has bitter memories of moving to the countryside to escape the bombing of Tokyo. “It’s a very delicate situation now for any country that doesn’t have a military force,” she says, overlooking the fact that Japan is the world’s fifth largest military spender. “Japan is not a militarily strong country and we have very bad memories of war, so there is no reason that we would use force.”

The state of the world today “has a lot to do with America” she continues. “The U.S. is egging even small countries to join them and it is a very difficult situation.”

Portraying Japan as a victim of U.S. pressure is, one might say, a stretch. Under a succession of conservative leaders, Tokyo has willingly deepened its alliance with America, increasingly sharing military technology, closely developing a joint ballistic-missile defense system and, recently, announcing the use of space for strategic purposes. But Ono says criticizing “small countries” like Japan is “very easy.”

“I definitely think that the worst situation is happening; some people were selling weapons to the people of Iraq while we were attacking the same people. In other words, we were selling to both sides. That is the kind of thing we should talk about instead of saying ‘Well, what about Japan.’ We are always criticizing small countries but we don’t have the courage to say, ‘What is going on here?’”

nd with that, the interview is over, except for one last piece of business: Ono fixes me with a stare and tells me not to mention Norman’s book in this article at all. Later, her manager will call and ask to see a copy of all photos and the article before they go to print, a request that not even a more famous dragon lady, Imelda Marcos, made when I interviewed her two years ago.

“I don’t care what you say,” indeed.

This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

© Japan Today

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

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That's a nice outfit Yoko's wearing there.

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Miss Ono is merely a stylish elderly poser, currently worth nearly one billion U.S. $. Why the media forever regards her as some kind of wonderful philanthropist/peace-maker is beyond me ... where is the evidence for this? What's she ever done for all the people she pretends to care about around the world?

If she really cared about the poor and disenfranchised little children, she'd give away 90% of her wealth right now. She would still be extremely rich.

But of course, just like her parents and grandparents, the size of her financial portfolio is what interests this lady most.

Yoko, please just go away and enjoy your lucre without the speeches and the silly 1960s clothes.

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Ono fixes me with a stare and tells me not to mention Norman’s book in this article at all.

I hope you said, "Bite me".

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Like a guest long overstayed. She's clawed and clung to the B-list of celebrity quite a bit too long. Retire, learn a thing or two from J.D. Salinger. Old bat.

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She is the reason the Beatles broke up.

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Although the interviewer may not have enjoyed this interview as much as others it is considerably informative.

I am not particularly fond of her vocal offerings in song but if half the women in the world today could accomplish as much in their lives, we would be thankful perhaps.

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Yoko is one of those irritants such that the world might produce a pearl or two.

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I'm not a fan or her or the Beatles, but I heard a track of hers a coupla years ago on an indie rock playlist I downloaded. It wasn't half bad. Kinda liked it. Won't be buying her album, but I imagine there is probably a track or two worth listening to.

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Her avant-garde caterwauling

That's the most accurate and, surprisingly, the most charitable description of her "singing" that I've ever heard.

As a guardian of John's legacy, she's been invaluable. Other than that, she's just the publicity parasite she's always been.

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I think she is off her trolley meself. I saw her interviewed by Andrew Marr, and she was talking weird stuff, as if she were on drugs or somethink.

This interview here, leads me to the same assumptions as well like. Mad as a March hare she is!

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For once JT got an accurate headline: Yoko Ono sounds off. I've always thought she sounded that way myself. Her and John deserved each other. He as weird as she. Who cares if she caused the Beatles to break up. Their weirdness together was given way too much publicity. I liked John's album back in 1980 actually. Better than that hippy "Woman is the N word of the world" BS. I thank him for giving us songs like "Imagine" and "Woman" but other than that maybe it were her that made his songs the drivel they were.

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I know this is a stupid question. But does Yoko Ono still speak Japanese. Has anyone heard her speak it?

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nothing avant garde about her, never has been. self obsessed rung grabbing media whore.

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GOOOO YOKO! Still a fan!

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34 DD

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She wants to use the words to point at men. Strong words, but it would do better to point them at religions. Men, are not the problem she ought to stir, and thus her dragon-ness is mearely only smokin'. She is still playing in the past. This is what is wrong with witches, wizards and warlocks who get off track. They become too indepth in the world of death, something so uncontrollable. Or perhaps they think they have that power in them?

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Saw her on a local show recently spouting her weirdness, her Japanese is native/fluent as ever. Someone with that much cash would never have to spend a lot of time isolated from her mother-tongue. And of course, there are many thousands of Japanese expats in the Big Apple. My favorite thing is she acts like Japan is the original peaceful utopian nation and seems to be clueless about the actual size of the military apparatus here and blind to the fact that Japanese industry makes their own tanks, rifles, ships, missiles and other munitions.

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Not as insane as Bjork , but also not nearly as talented musically.

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This interview is a confirmation of the whacked out self-importance that Ono and so many of the 60's hippies have about themselves. She was married to a man that struck it rich and was himself a self-absorbed narcisist. She is a singer who can't sing - there isn't much more to say about the woman.

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"John Lennon/Yoko Ono, New York City are you're people." We of the Beatles generation, how many turns we went through with each album from the first to the last. Yoko Ono was John Lennon' s fixation, to get another take on face-to-face communication. But we have to admit, they were both drug users and abusers. As many of our generation were. It was our way to "protest" war. Little did we imagine John would die so young from a lunatic shooting by a schizophrenic. Has he been released? I remember hearing about his "time" behind bars reaching the term limits. Ono's singing is anything but, as an independent artist, she had guts. I think I heard she was the daughter of a very rich shosha man or something. Whatever. The world we live in is shocking these past 8 years. In retrospect, Yoko Ono may truly represent the soul of Japanese women gone free from the confines of this island nation. And what do I know.

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She still speaks Japanese quite well, I hear. Her father was a banker.

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I also saw her on Japanese TV just a few weeks ago, and she speaks Japanese like a native speaker, as you would expect. Someone who left Japan as an adult is hardly going to forget their mother tongue. It's not as if she would never have any opportunities to speak Japanese in the US.

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This interview is a confirmation of the whacked out self-importance that Ono and so many of the 60's hippies have about themselves. She was married to a man that struck it rich and was himself a self-absorbed narcisist. She is a singer who can't sing - there isn't much more to say about the woman.

That's very true.

If there's one thing that makes me happy about the passage of time, it's knowing that it's going to silence the self-absorbed babbling of most of the 60s hippies before very much longer.

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LOL! So would it be because, they've been heard? Or because the troops have been flown in? that the silence would come about. Madonna couldnt sing either. I think their all about pushing people's buttons. I do agree though their tune is out a little with regards to the current generation.

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"She still speaks Japanese quite well, I hear."

Does Sean Lennon speak any Japanese?

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but if half the women in the world today could accomplish as much in their lives, we would be thankful perhaps

By "accomplish", I assume you mean marry someone famous, spit out some talentless children, and all of you ensure EVERYTHING you ever do mentions the fact that you were married to that famous guy?

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i'd prefer yoko ono speak in japanese, her english is lousy!!!!

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how i wish she'd stop singing

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