It’s Me, I’m Alive: A Conversation with Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono uses the autobiographical approach to reflect her experiences outward. It is this openness that has made her both a controversial and an acclaimed figure.

The Plastic Ono Band
Chimera Music
21 September 2009

Yoko Ono began 2010 by participating in “Art Adds”, a project that exhibits her artwork on New York City taxicabs. Replacing advertisements that traditionally decorate the rooftops of taxis, Ono’s peace-promoting works (along with pieces by Alex Katz and Shirin Neshat) move throughout the city as a kind of public art. In Carol Vogel’s

New York Times article about the project, Ono likens the experience to a dance, saying, “The message is always in motion.”

In a sense, Ono’s contribution to “Art Adds” is an extension and distillation of her life’s work. Principles of motion and collaboration run throughout her oeuvre, although sometimes these qualities are obscured by other aesthetic or social factors. For instance, while her long-running
Wish Tree is an earnest, even prayerful, inspiration for others to (in the artist’s words) “keep wishing while you participate”, works such as A Hole or the infamous Cut Piece are at first glance more violent and austere.

Yet each of these pieces challenge and shift the spectator’s perspective as they invite active involvement. Ono’s musical output has gone through several diverse phases throughout the years, yet it, too, shares these qualities. Our discussion about music starts with her most recent activity and moves through the big ideas of life, death, and the Beatles.

Form and Feeling

We talk first about “Give Me Something” (Morel’s I Gave You My Heart Mix), Richard Morel’s remix of
Double Fantasy song “Give Me Something”. Repurposing an Ono classic for a dance mix is nothing new. From the 1996 release of Rising Mixes onward, remixes of Ono tracks have been very well received, particularly those that cater to dance music listeners. In January of 2008, Season of Glass track “No No No” (1981) reached #1 on the Billboard Dance/Club Play chart. Perhaps most notably, in December 2009, the song appeared at number four on Billboard’s list of top ten Dance/Club Play songs of the 2000s.

Like the various modernizing remixes of “No No No”, “Give Me Something” (Morel’s I Gave You My Heart Mix) extends the taut, new-wavy original into a fresh dance number that has much in common with live mixes from Daft Punk and Vitalic. Although these mainstream analogs are rather obvious within the mix, Ono says she gives little direction about how the song should sound, particularly with regard to its resemblance to other current dance music. “My principle is to really see what the people do with it — it’s called the audience participation format. If he did do something he was influenced by, then I understand that. It has a very good feeling anyway.”

She’s equally charitable in handing over a song’s component parts. When asked about which compositional elements she tries to preserve when others are remixing her work, she says, “I realize that the best thing to do is to give it all.” She admits, however, that the process of collaboration has not always been so carefree. “The first time around, I was in a shock — ‘oh this is new’. But now I know what’s happening.”

Yes, I’m a Witch, Ono invited rock and dance music acts to choose and remix songs from her catalogue. The results — from artists such as Jason Pierce, the Apples in Stereo, and Craig Armstrong — reveal the versatility and pliability of Ono’s unique vocal instrument. Those successful 2007 collaborations have roots in projects that began four decades earlier.

“In 1968, I put out an album called
Two Virgins with John [Lennon] and I put in there that it’s ‘Unfinished Music, No. 1’. And all of the reporters were asking, ‘Why is it called unfinished?’ Well, because I want to make sure that this is participatory music and that they can put their own things on it, maybe even put a track over it, or extra percussion or whatever they wanted to do. And I thought it was an interesting idea that I came up with. Life with the Lions is the next album of mine and it’s called ‘Unfinished Music, No. 2’.”

Although “Give Me Something” was not technically designated as unfinished music in 1980, dance remixes of the song from the current decade do deliver a certain “snappy” feeling that carries over, despite the change in musical form: “Well, it’s a totally different game, you know, because it is dance music. The original “Give Me Something” had this feeling of something that shines and suddenly when you look at it, it’s not shining anymore — an incredibly interesting briefness.”

It becomes clear that dance is the foundation of much of Ono’s work, even when the song moves the mind more than the body. She sees these remixes as a way of transforming the presence of movement within her catalog from a theoretical notion to a concrete, physical happening. “A side of making these songs — and I was very hot about this idea, proud about it probably — I always liked dance and think that you have to incorporate dance in music, whether it’s conceptual like “Mind Games” or actual physical dance. And so now this
is dance — it’s not some kind of little thing that passes your mind. You relax and dance with it. It’s very beautiful.”

Life and Death

Ono’s inspiration is not limited to conceptual and physical movement. As she approaches her 77th birthday, she also enters her sixth decade as an artist. This creative longevity is rare for even those most dedicated to the artistic life. All too frequently, outside events intervene, motivation fades, or the audience turns away. Ono, however, has maintained such a long career by remaining true to a single muse — herself. She says her motivation is always “me, and it’s my life that I experienced.” An admission of this sort might seem self-seeking, but Ono uses the autobiographical approach to reflect a number of experiences outward, sharing them with the audience. It is this openness that has made her both a controversial and an acclaimed figure.

Between My Head and the Sky, her well-reviewed 2009 album, is strikingly forthcoming in both style and subject matter. Reviving the “Plastic Ono Band” moniker she last officially used in the early 1970s, Ono, her son Sean, and new recruits including Shahzad Ismaily, Yuka Honda and Cornelius, deliver a collection of songs that tell a refreshingly complete musical story. In addition to Ono’s songwriting and the dexterous musicianship throughout, a key contribution is that of Sean Lennon, whose role here could be compared to Jack White’s enlivening work on Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose.

The most outstanding aspect of Between My Head and the Sky is the way in which the album undulates with the energy of a living being — rising and falling, celebrating and mourning, and coming to terms with the inevitable end. Ono contends that the album is no more honest and open than the rest of her work, saying, “If you go back to all my albums, they’re all confessional.” The album does, however, reveal a consciousness of mortality that makes a more substantial emotional impact because of the insight that accompanies advanced years.

“After I was 70, I realized that, okay, I would like to have another 50 years, and I probably could. But part of me is saying, maybe I’m not going to have that much time. It was a very strange feeling, so some of the songs are very eternal and some of the songs are like somebody who might die tomorrow.”

Of that line between life and death, Ono says one of her chief concerns is the finality of expression. This is somewhat surprising, considering that she has already secured such a well-preserved and documented body of work. Though it is the stuff of ordinary interactions and statements, in addition to lasting legacies, that occupy her mind. “It’s at the age of, a very interesting age actually. Even in a day you think about, ‘I want to be nice and thorough about my explanation because I might not have another chance to explain to this person’. If it’s the last time for me to say it, then I better say it, I better not hold back. But then the other side of me is thinking, ‘I might have an eternal life so forget it’ (laughs).

The concluding songs of Between My Head and the Sky form the album’s most elegant expression of this approach to life and death. Over a foundation of spectral strings, “Feel the Sand” reminds the listener of even the smallest pleasures of creation and declares, “That’s what we live for / to feel, to heal / to live, and to give.” Piano ballad “I’m Going Away Smiling” is a goodbye poem, devastatingly direct in its address to an unnamed beloved. Ono sings, “The boat is slowly leaving / leaving the life I loved,” and the listener considers both those she’s leaving behind as well as the person she might be joining on the other side. It is impossible not to picture John Lennon standing there.

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.