“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