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“Speaking Freely” show recorded May 20, 2003, in New York.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression in America. I’m Ken Paulson. Our guest today is Yoko Ono. Great to have you here.
Yoko Ono: Thank you.
Paulson: You know, after a … half-century of creativity, you can make the case that your popularity, your visibility has never been greater than it is right now.
Ono: It’s true. I’m very amazed. Yeah.
Paulson: We — I just happened to pick up a recent CD. Your music is being embraced by a new generation of young people. And the remixes of some of your work — “Open Your Box” was a huge dance hit. It’s — that, of course, along with “Walking on Thin Ice” —
Paulson: — which you can hear in clubs all over the country right now. And then in the past two years, you’ve gotten this extraordinary book called Yes Yoko Ono, which was based on an exhibit, a remarkable retrospective of your work at the Japan Society.
Ono: Thank you.
Paulson: And you are someone who has faced a mix of critical acclaim in some quarters and mean-spirited criticism in others, dismissed by others. And, in fact, I remember a quote by you where you said that you didn’t mind if you put on a play, for example, and everyone walked out, because that would mean that you had done something that wasn’t easy, that you’d touched people’s emotions.
Ono: Yeah, maybe. Touching their emotions in a very kind of strong way, maybe.
Paulson: As someone who is ready to embrace unpopularity as a positive, how are you dealing with this popularity now?
Ono: Well, I’m not used to it, so, I don’t know. I have to think about it, really.
Paulson: One of the things you’re best known for, in addition to your art and your collaboration, of course, and partnership with John Lennon, is your lifelong commitment to peace. And we want to talk about that during the show as well. I was struck, though, reading a bit more about your early years, that, in fact, you were in Japan —
Paulson: — in 1945, and you saw the horrors of war firsthand.
Ono: I know. It was terrible, really.
Paulson: And you were — do you have a recollection of that time?
Ono: Yes, well, you know, it was a very difficult time for me, but also it did leave an incredible impression on me.
Paulson: And, and do you think in part that is what has given you this lifelong commitment against war?
Ono: Well, I wasn’t aware of it that way. But probably that had a lot to do with it.
Paulson: The great misconception, as you’re well aware, of you is that you were not well-known when you connected with John Lennon, when in fact, you were somebody who had a — you were in Recital Hall at Carnegie as early as 1961. You were regarded as an important avant-garde artist and emerging talent. Can you talk a little bit about how that career began? I was very interested to read that as a young girl, you went to your father and said, “I want to be a composer” at a time —
Ono: Well, because he wanted me to be a pianist, and there was a certain point when, I think he was listening in the next room or something, and telling my mother, “She’s not going to make it,” you know? And I was a bit hurt, but I really agreed with him. And, so, I had to just sort of — I wasn’t going to tell him about it, but I said, “Well, you know, actually, I want to be a composer instead of a pianist.” So, he, he was really kind about that. He was saying he’s never heard of a woman composer, so, maybe women don’t have the aptitude to be a composer. And maybe I might struggle in vain or something. And he felt that it would be easier for me to do — well, to be a singer and sing other people’s songs.
Paulson: And you were not terribly discouraged. You, you went to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville and then came to the city and found new and creative friends.
Ono: Yes, it was very, it was a very exciting time for me, yeah.
Paulson: And, you know, your art was unique, has always been unique. Was there anyone in the world that you modeled yourself after, or did it all just come from the heart?
Ono: Well, I don’t know. It seems like I couldn’t help being myself, because even in the early days, when — when I write a poem, they would say, it’s, it’s almost like an essay. It’s a little bit too long for a poem or something. And when I write a short story, they think it’s too much like a novel. When I write a novel, they thought it was too much like a short story. And there was always that — there was one point in my creativity that was a little bit off, you see. And I just couldn’t help it. I was like that, you know?
Paulson: The people, the artists you were drawn to shared that sensibility, though. These were creative people who saw art differently. And there was a movement at the time called fluxus. And I know that you didn’t regard it necessarily as a movement, but many others have described it as what you were part of and what you helped inspire. Could you describe fluxus for those who’ve never seen that movement?
Ono: Well, it certainly had some sense of humor, and also there was a kind of rebellious attitude about it all, and the concept was very fresh. Yeah, I really think that it was a very — and it is a very good movement, and it’s still going, I think.
Paulson: What was the first piece of art that you exhibited publicly? Do you recall?
Ono: Well, because I had a loft, and what happened was, at the time, it was very difficult for composers because there were only two halls that you can express yourself as composers. One is Carnegie Hall. Well, Carnegie Recital Hall, too, is a small one that’s right next to Carnegie Hall. And Town Hall. Only three, actually. And to be able to perform your work in Carnegie Hall or Town Hall, that’s like, well, Stravinsky could maybe. You know, it was that kind of situation. And most of us probably did something Carnegie Recital Hall, but even that was very difficult. People like John Cage did it, but — and then I did it, too, but — I was feeling that there were so many incredible, creative friends, and I thought, “Why don’t I create a place for them to express themselves?” And, so, I got a loft and started a kind of concert series with a friend called La Monte Young, and we did it together. And that was called the Chambers Street Concerts. That was our first loft concerts. And, so, most of my things were expressed there first. So, it was my loft and, you know? And then I did it in George Maciunas’ gallery which he had on Madison Avenue. So, maybe that’s the first expression of —
Paulson: You dabbled in a wide range of media and turned to films in the mid-’60s. Probably your best known, most notorious is “Bottoms.”
Paulson: A series of the photographs of the backsides of how many people?
Ono: It was supposed to be 365 people, backsides, but I think it was like, maybe 200 — a little bit short of 300.
Paulson: You had them on a treadmill?
Paulson: How did you recruit people for this?
Ono: Well, there were — actually, all my friends didn’t mind it at all. They thought that it was a nice way to sort of — it was a protest. It’s kind of a way of creating a kind of peace protest.
Paulson: And, and the British Film Board disapproved. Is that right?
Ono: I know, yeah.
Paulson: They told you it could not be exhibited?
Ono: They censored it once. And then, of course, I had to demonstrate and say, “Please don’t censor it,” and all that, you know? And I was carrying flowers, lots of flowers. And I was standing in front of the censor, and it was really amazing, and, and I said, “Well, these are flowers for — ” What was his name? I forgot, but anyway — the person who was censoring it. So, then I was invited in. And when I went upstairs, there were my daffodils all over the place. It was very nice. My flowers went there first.
Paulson: The — another much-talked-about work was a performance piece called “Cut Piece,” which you did in September of 1966, I believe … in which members of the audience are invited to come up and actually cut pieces of clothing off of you.
Paulson: You’re a very trusting person, aren’t you?
Ono: No, I wasn’t necessarily. But it was just — I thought it was a good idea as an artwork. So, when I think of a good idea, creative idea that I think was good, then I just do it. And, then in the middle of it, I was, “Ah, this is a little bit too much.” You just get like that, you know?
Paulson: Did it surprise you that you became a sensation from that, that people all over London talking about you?
Ono: Well, no, it wasn’t a sensation at all at the time. The first time I did it, well, it was a quiet sensation in the avant-garde world, let’s put it that way.
Paulson: I see. I see.
Ono: But I think by the time I went to London and did it there, it was the swinging ’60s, and the Londoners loved it. And, you know, so, it was really interesting.
Paulson: And I guess that helped set stage for the exhibit at which you met John.
Ono: Yes, well, I did a show there in London in Indica Gallery.
Paulson: And the famous piece that drew John Lennon and is actually the title of the retrospective is “Yes.” Which I wish people could see. It’s hard to convey verbally. It’s hard to convey in a book, but you walk in, and there’s a ladder.
Ono: Well, there was a ladder, and then you’re supposed to climb up the ladder. And then on the ceiling, there’s a kind of painting that’s there. And you want to see it, and, so, you have this magnifying glass that’s kind of dangling, and you put the magnifying glass there and look at it, and it says, “Yes.”
Paulson: And the story goes, and you would know, that when John walked — marched up the ladder and saw “Yes,” he was excited about that, because he —
Ono: Well, he felt it was a personal message to him, I think. I didn’t think about that angle. But anyway — at the time. But when he came down from the ladder, he didn’t seem that excited or anything. He just looked at me and just went — [Shrugs] like that and just walked out, you know?
Paulson: And the two of you connected again days later, weeks later?
Ono: About two weeks later, I think, in Claes Oldenburg’s opening or something like that. I was there.
Paulson: Were you — did you know that a Beatle was there? Or did you have any idea who John was at the time?
Ono: At the time, I didn’t, but right after he left, there were students from St. Martin’s Art College — Art School, I suppose. They were all helping me for the display. And we just finished the display, so, they were all kind of standing there. And one of them said, “Is that John Lennon?” I said, “What?” He said, “I think that’s John Lennon of the Beatles.” You know, and the way he said it, very slowly, it sounded very impressive. And I said, “Oh, really?” It was funny.
Paulson: And in time, a partnership was born, in the truest sense, and it’s interesting to work — to look at your work with John in that — well, you would know the dynamics better than anyone else, but clearly, you helped each other. You, you — John Lennon did things he never would have dreamed of doing without your participation. Did it work the other way, too? Did John help your creativity?
Ono: Well, it helped me in the sense that — Well, how did it help? I’m just thinking. Well, I think that the fact that he was much more experienced than me in terms of the worldly aspect of life.
Paulson: And for a time — well, what was interesting, do you think John — he did a portfolio called “Bag One.” Would he have done that without having you there to help him through that process? Would he have had the confidence?
Ono: Well, I didn’t really help. I mean, ah, well, who knows? He might have done it. I think he was rather timid about doing something like that. And not something like that in terms of erotic art. I mean, that’s not what it was. But it’s just doing something in the field of art —
Ono: — because he felt that now he was a Beatle, and nobody wants to know something like that.
Paulson: Right. Well, he — his artwork has been reproduced, and you’ve helped preserve and protect his legacy. That — the “Bag One” portfolio, in addition to having a wide range of works of it, “The Alphabet” is great fun. There are illustrations of your, of your getting a marriage license, getting married. And then there are some erotic pieces.
Paulson: And here come the censors again.
Ono: Oh, I know.
Paulson: What happened?
Ono: I was totally — well, we were in Toronto at the time when we heard that it was censored. And so we were just giggling, you know, because, it was in the midst of a sexual revolution in the ’60s and all that. So, what happened was, “They’re censoring it,” you know? And they wouldn’t have done it if it was Picasso. I mean, many artists who went into, delving in erotic art, of course, as though it was just a normal thing. But they didn’t think that way because it was John.
Paulson: Right. And it was regarded as obscene.
Ono: I know. Well, I — you know, in the art world, it wouldn’t have been considered anything. And I didn’t think, I didn’t even think about that way, and maybe I blocked it or something. But I thought the lines were beautiful, very artistic and all that. That’s all I thought — great.
Paulson: Well, you and John went into recording studios — or maybe this was portable recording equipment, things like the Wedding Album and Two Virgins. In a very short time, you had a number of albums out and — that challenged John’s usual fans, to say the least.
Ono: Well, I think that, well, obviously, I offended them. I wasn’t even aware that I would offend them, you know? Or I wasn’t even thinking about them, probably.
Paulson: The — again, you had a censorship battle of the week, basically. I mean, on Two Virgins, the album cover is a picture of you and John in the nude, front and back. And, and that was — let’s see, the Union County Prosecutor’s Office in New Jersey seized all the copies of that album coming into the country from that port. All over the country, there was great — all over the world, people were saying this record can’t be released or — in the end, it was sold with a plain brown wrapper. Did — there had to come a point when you were thinking, you know, “Here we go again.”
Ono: Well, I just thought that was a very artistic venture.
Paulson: Yeah. And you never thought, you know, “We want people to hear this music. Maybe we shouldn’t put this on the cover of the album. Maybe it will cause more trouble than it’s worth”?
Ono: Well, I thought it was an independent creative event, you know, and together, it was very interesting, I thought. But in hindsight, I do get a little bit embarrassed about the “Bag One” erotic art and also the Two Virgins cover. Because now I know how people looked at them, you know?
Paulson: Well, when you were not in the headlines because you posed nude for a record album, you were in the headlines because you were making a statement for peace.
Paulson: And I’ve never seen such a creative approach to a honeymoon. You and John got married and decided to take advantage of all this press interest and had a bed-in for peace. You knew how to draw the media.
Ono: Well, he did.
Paulson: I see. And that constituted, I guess, two separate events in ’69.
Ono: Well, I think that, well, I knew how to organize things. I mean, the creative art — as expressing creative art. But he had a kind of way of putting it on a different level. It was very interesting. So, in that sense, I think it was a very good match — or partnership, yeah.
Paulson: When you — as you sat in bed surrounded by reporters asking, I think, kind of cynical questions about your sincerity and how you, how you defined peace, did you feel like they were listening? Did you feel like the world was listening at that point? Or was this just a desperate —
Ono: Oh, they were listening. They were listening, but in the wrong way. I mean, they thought that we were crazy. And we got a lot of attacks, and we were actually very surprised and disappointed.
Paulson: But it was — you know, if people made fun of it then, it’s now almost an iconic moment in the movement. The photographs of the two of you are classic photographs. We had Tom Smothers on the show not long ago.
Ono: Oh, really?
Paulson: And he talked about sitting by your bedside —
Ono: Yeah, he was there.
Paulson: — and playing “Give Peace a Chance.” In fact, he remembered, with some embarrassment, that John told him to tone it down on guitar, that Tom was trying to be too fancy with the guitar.
Ono: Was he?
Paulson: And in that recording session came — out of that recording session came “Give Peace a Chance.” The peace movement was dear to your heart and clearly you had a commitment to that throughout your lifetime. It also got the attention, though, of the American government. And a couple of books have been published, one in particular that details the FBI files on John. And it talks about him being under surveillance and appears to suggest that he’s being targeted, because of his political beliefs, for deportation. Was the public — was the release of those documents sort of a confirmation for you of what you believed all along? Did you, did you have a sense of the government was out to get John?
Ono: Oh, of course they were trying to. And we knew it, and, so, it was no surprise, and, and — but also, I didn’t really look into that released information and documents and all that because it was just kind of — I just don’t want to know about it now. Just blocking it from my mind, I think.
Paulson: It was a difficult time, and in the end, justice prevailed, and John was able to stay in this country and make many contributions to his adopted country. I was reading about a review of your — of a show you had at the Everson Museum in Syracuse back in 1971. And the local newspaper was attacking the, the museum, saying, “At a tremendous loss of good taste and of respect in the art world, they’ve chosen to book Yoko Ono.”
Ono: I didn’t know that. That was hidden from me.
Paulson: Well, I’m sorry to break it to you.
Ono: No, no, it’s fine. It’s great, so.
Paulson: But, you know, in sharp contrast to what we see here in this book, what was it about your art that offended, frightened, disturbed people so much, so, they said, “This shouldn’t be shown in public”?
Ono: Well, because one, I was an Oriental woman. Well, Oriental and woman. And standing beside John, as if I was — I had the right to, instead of maybe walking three steps behind him. I mean, that’s the kind of thing that, basically. I always found it very strange, because at the time when we came to New York, we did a radio show. Just — and tons of fans complained. They, they called up this deejay and complained that I was stepping on John’s talk. Like when John was talking, I would just interfere and start talking or something, and it was very unpleasant. So, the deejay wanted to know if that was true or not. And he listened to it, and he realized that John was always stepping on me. And I was never doing that. Of course, I’d be very careful; by the time that was going on, I knew that people didn’t like it if I stepped on John’s talk, so, I would never do that. So, I was really surprised that that was the kind of perception, despite the fact I wasn’t doing it.
Paulson: You know, it’s, it’s common perception that you had some role in the breakup of the Beatles.
Ono: O, yeah, yeah.
Paulson: That has been — there’s all kinds of antipathy directed towards you because of that. And yet I think in the last 20 years, and perhaps tied, again, to this kind of resurgence of interest in your work, there’s also maybe a grudging recognition that you are also protecting his legacy in a very positive way.
Ono: Begrudgingly, they have to admit maybe; that’s true.
Paulson: That may be the case, but the — you know, a great example is what you’ve done now with John’s childhood home in Liverpool. In addition to preserving that piece of property, you’ve preserved his music in a lot of different ways. You’ve documented his music. You won a Grammy Award for your work on Gimme Some Truth: The Making of John Lennon’s “Imagine” album.
Ono: Thank you for remembering.
Paulson: And you, you also organized a nice benefit for the Red Cross and other relief organizations held at Radio City, which was a night for —
Ono: That was very good.
Paulson: — John’s words and music. And of course your son, Sean, also performed.
Ono: I know.
Paulson: As did Julian (Lennon) —
Ono: Yes, and, you know, it was very nice of him, because naturally, it’s very difficult for him, you know, so, I think that the first idea that he had was just sort of like crawl in a bag or something and not, not ever come near the hole or something, you know, but then — I mean musical. But then he said, “OK, we’ll do it.” You know, it’s very nice that he did.
Paulson: And he chose a song that John wrote for his mother, which was very powerful. So, you know, no one needs to be reminded of John Lennon’s contributions, but you’ve managed to maintain his visibility with new and interesting projects and works of art. You also have honored his music in other ways. I was struck by your reaction to this mess at Clear Channel, where some employees put together a list.
Ono: Oh, I know.
Paulson: And they say the corporation didn’t do it, but we do know that throughout Clear Channel Communications, a huge radio company, was sent a list of songs that they suggested not be played. And there’s some strange songs on there, but the oddest selection is, they’re telling people “Imagine” shouldn’t be played because of the sensitivity in the wake of September 11. What was your reaction to that?
Ono: Well, I felt that I wanted people to know that it’s not a dangerous song. It’s a very normal song and, and a song that people enjoy all over the world. And, so, I just put one line of, “Imagine all the people living life in peace” in The New York Times or Sunday Times ad, you know? And then from then on, I’m just kind of promoting “Imagine.”
Paulson: In closing, given your lifelong commitment to peace and the fact that you were there when you — when John encouraged the world to give peace a chance, and you have been a voice for peace for literally decades and most recently in the wake of international debates about Iraq and military action — again, you are paying for billboards reminding people about the need for peace. Do you ever get discouraged? Is this a message — is this message getting through?
Ono: Oh, yeah, sure. I think that we should not be too impatient. And, you know, it’s just like a dance step. You know, you go one forward and then one back, you know? Going like that, you know? It’s fine.
Paulson: Thank you so much for joining us here today. It’s been a pleasure.
Ono: It was my pleasure, too.
Paulson: Our guest today has been Yoko Ono. Please join us again next week for “Speaking Freely.”
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