In the mainstream popular memory, for better or worse, it is Ono’s relationship to John Lennon that defines her. There is perhaps no more contentious rock and roll relationship (as spectator sport) than the one that began with his attraction to her artwork and concluded with his tragic death at age 40. The incontrovertibly mythic status that persists around Lennon and the Beatles seems to cast an extended, growing shadow in which Ono thrives creatively on one hand, and continues to be maligned and misunderstood on the other.
The flurry of Beatles activity last year (long-awaited reissues, games, and other merchandise) renewed interest in the band and set minds wondering afresh about Ono’s place in the band’s history. Gaming and tech publications/blogs ran wild with a quotation by Paul DeGooyer that appeared in Jeff Howe’s Wired article about The Beatles: Rock Band. DeGooyer, described in the article as the “senior VP of MTV’s game division,” was quoted as having said Ono “gave the [game] designers hell.” He later recanted, releasing a statement on the online Rock Band Forum that describes her contribution to the game as “invaluable” and stating, “She was such a source of positive energy for us that she was awarded a unanimous standing ovation and many hugs from grateful team members at the end of her visit.”
After so many years of misconceptions about Ono’s relationship to Lennon and the Beatles, the selection and dissemination of a single negative quotation from the extensive Wired article seems especially mendacious. Additionally, DeGooyer’s retraction has been reprinted on a far smaller scale than the original quotation—a sort of proof that many would rather highlight the negative narrative than the mostly positive reality. Perhaps this kind of response is why Ono is initially so hesitant to discuss her contribution to the video game. “I don’t want to talk about my role in it because I want to be very humble and sit in a corner of the room or something. Mentally, you know. So, yeah, I had some role. The fact that I was there probably helped.”
She is more eager to discuss how younger fans are responding to the Beatles’ music. There is, she says, something familiar happening even if the technological means are new. Describing The Beatles: Rock Band with a laugh, she says, “The thing is, again, this is audience participation.” Though she sees the method of expressing the music as a continuation of the participatory approach we discussed earlier, she says she could have never predicted the specific kind of interactivity that is now possible.
Ono offers her own account of Lennon’s revolution and links it to a second revolution wherein newer fans are experiencing the music more actively. “John Lennon, who happens to be someone I know very well, he put together a band and called it the Beatles. And he really conquered the world with it—conquered the world with music. So around that time there were some special kids who learned how to play guitar. But now, most kids know how to play the guitar. The first [revolution] brought this love of true music, not music that is pedantic, and the first thing was to let kids learn about love for the music. The second one is, ‘Okay, we can play too.’ So that was creative, that first revolution, and now this next revolution is going to be participating in the Beatles music and really learning how to play. It’s going to be a very interesting physical revolution of music on the planet.”
Evident in all of Ono’s work is a desire to advance peace and healing. This, she says, is the ultimate goal of these revolutions. “I’m promoting world peace, but that’s the pathway of getting there. Music is healing and if all of us want to make music then the planet’s going to be healed. We started with my husband’s revolution and so this is the second revolution that managed to happen because of him.”
Our conversation comes to a close with this discussion about the alignment of Ono’s art with the enduring work that John Lennon left behind—a concept that brings to mind the final track on Between My Head and the Sky. “I’m Alive,” which lasts just beyond 20 seconds and begins and ends with some unidentifiable source of percussion, is very much a nod to Ono’s avant-garde roots. The four words at its center, however, are the summation of the sagacious perspective she has shared with me in our talk: “It’s me, I’m alive”. With her own life as the source of the art she creates, Yoko Ono perceives with clarity the physical limits of her existence. For now, she is very much alive, and the art she has created across the decades ensures that, in some form or another, she always will be.