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Yoko Ono has survived the death of two Beatles, is 8 years older than Ringo and 9 years older than Paul, yet she consistently manages to look and feel younger and more vibrant than them and, well, a lot of other people (especially Keith Richards). Not too bad for a strange 71 year old frizzy haired dragon lady.
Though most of the song "Julia" was in reference to John’s late mother, when he sings about an ocean child, he’s referring to Yoko, whose name literally means ocean child. Born at the beginning of 1933 to affluent parents, she did not meet her banker father until her mother and she traveled to San Francisco to be with him in 1935. She moved back to Tokyo in 1938, and lived through the infamous 1945 bombing. Yoko and her family fled, and managed to find safety.
Education wise, Yoko was trained as a musician at some of the finest schools in Japan. She also was taught how to train her voice in both opera and German Lied. At the age of 13, she announced to her father that she wanted to be a composer. Her father gently discouraged her because she was a girl, but as a failed pianist turned banker, he did sympathize a bit. This sort of prevalent sexist attitude in Japan, as well as the stifling nature of her lonely, privileged upbringing, got her thinking about freedom.
At the age of 19, she and her family settled back in America again, this time in New York. She continued her music training at Sarah Lawrence College. Yoko took an almost immediate interest in the avant-garde composers, which is how she met her first husband Toshi Ichiyanagi. They married in 1956.
In the early 1960s, Yoko really started to blossom as an artist. She began a series of performance events that included music, poetry and anything else that interested her. Yoko made it a point to encourage participation from the audience, and they became a part of her art, just as she tries to do with her audiences today.
In 1962 it was back to Japan for Yoko. She had an art display in Tokyo, divorced her husband, married jazz musician and film producer Anthony Cox and gave birth to her daughter Kyoko, all within the course of two years. In 1964 it was back to New York for Yoko.
Back in New York, Yoko delved even further into the experimental artist scene. She wrote the book Grapefruit, she performed more and she made movies, one of which involved naked butts, and only naked butts. In 1966, Yoko journeyed over to England to let people cut off her clothes with scissors, in an art piece entitled "Cut Piece." That led to a personal exhibition, which led to John Lennon. He looked in on her art work, and was impressed with the ladder that led to a sign and a magnifying glass. On the sign in tiny letters was the word ‘yes’. Later on, John said he liked it because it gave off a positive message, and if it had said something negative, he probably wouldn’t have been interested in her work.
John and Yoko became intellectual soul mates, and worked on several projects together before declaring their love for each other in 1968. The first night they had sex, was after a recording session that would soon become the "Two Virgins" album. A naked John and Yoko graced the front and back of the album, but not in the U.S., where they covered the naked bodies. It wasn’t just John and Yoko that were criticized when that album came out; the rest of the Beatles also got a lot of flak for that album. Thus began the awkward Yoko-John-Beatles recording phase, but not the break-up, which had started long before Yoko came on the scene.
After divorcing their current spouses, John and Yoko married in 1969, coincidentally within two weeks of Paul and Linda McCartney, who had also became an official item in 1968 amidst some fuss of their own (i.e. the Jane and Paul break-up). Yoko was awarded custody of her daughter in the divorce from her second husband, and he retaliated by kidnapping their daughter. Yoko’s daughter and she have just recently begun to get to know each other again.
Next came the incredibly infamous honeymoon bed-in for peace. From then on out, John joined Yoko as a huge peace activist. More John and Yoko albums came out in the early 1970s, directly before and after the Beatles break-up. In one especially interesting duet, Yoko made turkey sounds for the song "Cold Turkey." These sort of performances made Yoko seem like an untrained want-to-be musician, though in fact, Yoko had become a musician way before John did.
Yoko and John spent a lot of time together. After a while it became a bit much, so in 1973 Yoko ordered John to leave and come back only when he was really ready to return. John described the lost weekend as a 15 month long exorcist from the old Beatles John.
John came back and their son Sean was born in 1975, after several miscarriages. He was born on the same day as his dad, October 9. John thought that was wonderful and that Sean was wonderful. He adored his son and became a house husband, though he had neglected, and basically continued to neglect his first son Julian. John did not pick up a guitar for five years.
1980 was a good year for both John and Yoko, musically. They were working on "Double Fantasy" which included both John and Yoko songs. One of Yoko’s songs, "Kiss Kiss" even managed to become a disco hit. But their happiness was short lived; David Chapman had other plans.
John was shot in front of their Dakota home by a fan who thought John had turned into a materialistic phony. Chapman had arrived in New York some months before to kill John Lennon, but returned to his wife (who didn’t know anything about his plans) instead. Then he decided to come back.
In late 2004, Chapman was up for parole for the third time. The first time, he had said he didn’t deserve to be let out. The second time, he said John, as a peace activist, would have wanted him to be freed. The third time, he explained that he hadn’t wanted to kill John the person; he wanted to kill John, the guy on the album. Chapman has been denied parole three times, and will get another chance at freedom in 2006. Chapman’s wife is still married to him, and still visits him.
Yoko has fiercely objected to Chapman’s release, saying that he still poses a threat to her family. Yoko was walking up the Dakota steps with John when he was shot. Chapman has said that he will never forget the look on Yoko’s face as the police handcuffed and arrested him for John’s murder.
In recent years, in addition to guarding over the John Lennon legacy, Yoko has also been active with her own projects. In the 80s, Yoko redid a lot of her early artwork in bronze, and continued on with her music. In the 90s she released her own musical box set, as well as several other albums in the mid 90s. She also composed two off-broadway musicals. In 1997 she had a retrospective exhibition called Have You Seen the Horizon Lately? Her latest album was the 2001 "Blue Print for a Sunrise," for which she received critical acclaim. In 2003 her 1992 song "Walking on Thin Ice" reached the top ten as a remix cover by the Pet Shop Boys, whose music just so happens to fall under two genres that Yoko helped create: New Wave and SynthPop. She has continued, and continues, to promote peace, especially in the face of the recent Iraq war.
As for the John Lennon legacy, in the late 90s she let the then three remaining Beatles take some of John’s unfinished solo work and finish it, and out came the song "Free As a Bird." Unfortunately that was closest the Beatles ever could come to reuniting.
She has also protected the order of the Lennon-McCartney writing credits, so that Beatles songs will always remain Lennon-McCartney. Though to be fair McCartney was never super happy with the name order to begin with, but while he was in the Beatles he, ehem, let it be.
Thanks to Yoko, John also has the Liverpool airport named after him, with a statue of himself inside (one of the only Yoko has authorized). She has released certain home videos to private audiences and is letting Capitol release two new John CDs, both of which will be available in November of 2004. One is a two disc acoustic compilation of songs; the other is a reissuing of his 1975 "Rock ‘n Roll" album, which he made during the lost weekend. She has also helped restore John’s childhood home so it could be open to the public. And on John’s birthday in 2002, she created the Lennon Ono Grant for Peace for those with the courage to seek truth as a means for a more peaceful world.
But beyond John and the Beatles, Yoko has had her own rewarding, though understated, brilliant career. Some of her 70s and 80s music has been classified as early alternative, punk, new wave and synthpop music, and she has inspired numerous current artists and musicians free themselves.
Always be on the look-out for the ever active Yoko. She is fun to watch, and who knows, she could even outlive the rest of the Beatles.
Rachael Stillman © beatlesnumber9
Yoko Ono is happily shaking things up - again - at the age of 71, as befits a woman who was a devoted avant-garde artist and cultural provocateur before and after she met and married Beatle John Lennon in the 1960s.
Her recent, citywide display of public art, “My Mummy Is Beautiful,” caused an uproar in Liverpool, Lennon’s hometown in England. Created for the Liverpool Biennial by Ono as “a tribute to all our mothers,” it featured billboards, posters and banners that each contained a photo of either a female breast or genitalia, including her own.
“Usually, I don’t mean to shock people; that’s not the intent,” says Ono, who late last month filmed a video for the song “Give Peace a Chance 2004” in Los Angeles.
“The (1969) ‘bed-in’ did shock people, but at the time John and I thought it was a great idea (to promote peace by staying in bed for eight days in a Montreal hotel, with nonstop media coverage) and that people would love it.”
Perhaps even more shocking, at least for those who never warmed to Ono’s uniquely piercing vocal style, is the fact that she is at the top of Billboard’s national Hot Dance Music charts.
Her No. 1 hit is the politically volatile “Everyman ... / Everywoman ...” It’s an upbeat remake of her love song “Every Man Has a Woman Who Loves Him,” originally released on “Double Fantasy,” the album she and Lennon were working on just before his murder in late 1980.
The new version, credited simply to ONO, boasts lyrics that are unabashedly in favor of gay marriage and same-sex love. But Ono is as happy to embrace these controversial issues as she is the legacy of her late husband, whose two new CD releases, “Acoustic” and “Rock ’n’ Roll,” she closely oversaw. The fact that 11 states recently voted in favor of banning gay marriage adds an urgency to her revamped song, which has become her second No. 1 dance-music hit in as many years.
“Originally, I was writing a love song to the straight audience, I suppose,” says Ono, whose music has been cited as an influence by Bjork, Chrissie Hynde and members of Sonic Youth and Pere Ubu.
“And it was more natural for me to write it that way, because I’m heterosexual. But then I thought (that) I forgot about a whole group of people who are very dear to me, gay people. They were outsiders and persecuted and went through a lot of pain, and here comes the (Bush) administration, which - for very political reasons - said: ‘Oh, we won’t let gays get married, ha, ha, ha.’
“And I was very indignant. I don’t like that injustice done, especially to gays, because I know the suffering they’ve gone through. So I just had to do it, and I’m glad I did. Because I realized some of my straight friends, who I’ve cherished all these years were - surprise! - a little, well, not very happy about it. And I said: ‘What? You’re not happy I did this?’ It was an awakening for me.”
Asked why she records simply as ONO, she replies: “Because people have so much emotion, accumulated emotion, if you will, toward the word ‘Yoko.’ So it’s nice not to have it.
Some fans blamed Ono for the demise of the Beatles, the world’s most famous rock band, and she was the subject of widespread hostility. But Ono and Lennon’s love endured, even during their 1974 separation, which has come to be known as his “Lost Weekend” period and saw a depressed and an often-stoned Lennon indulge in an extramarital affair.
The attacks on Ono continued after his 1980 death. It was only in 1992, following the release of the six-CD retrospective “Onobox,” that the woman who had been dissed by many as an opportunistic pariah was belatedly applauded as a brave artist whose edgy work had anticipated future musical trends by a decade or more.
“When I was being attacked by the whole world, that was outside of my world,” Ono says. “My world was with John, and we had a very beautiful and intimate and inspiring life. That was the main thing.
“(Regarding) what they were saying out there, John was like: ‘Well, don’t listen to them.’ But we did listen, and get angry, but it was not that damaging to my artistic inspiration. Artistic inspiration is the most important thing in my life. So I didn’t feel destroyed in any way.”
Ono has given her official approval to a Lennon musical, scheduled to open next year on Broadway. While she corrected some parts of the script for “historical accuracy,” she is otherwise taking a hands-off approach.
Along with former Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr and George Harrison’s widow, Olivia, Ono recently signed off on a multimedia Beatles extravaganza that will be staged by Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas. It is scheduled to debut within a year or two.
“Cirque du Soleil is fascinating and interesting,” she says. “Because I’m one of those artists who was always interested in the new, the avant-garde, the things we can do in terms of expanding the horizons (and) in terms of knowledge and creativity. So it’s great to have this partnership between the Beatles and Cirque du Soleil, who are very adept at physical body movements.”
Ono is preparing to oversee the CD release of Lennon’s 1974 solo album, “Walls and Bridges.” She also is flying to each city around the world where her major retrospective art show, “YES Yoko Ono,” is being staged. At 71, she is busier than ever.
"This is funny," she says. "Because when I was 69, I kept having this incredible feeling that I haven’t done anything in my life. And I kept saying that to my two children, Kyoko and Sean. I said: 'I can't believe I didn't do anything in my life.' And they said: ‘Please don’t say that, because we haven't done anything!'"
Yoko Ono Turns 74 With Remix Album
Yoko Ono, one of the most outrageous, controversial and fascinating figures in art and rock 'n' roll history, turns 74 years old this month.
Not surprisingly, she's marking the occasion in unconventional fashion.
John Lennon's widow, who was born in Tokyo on Feb. 18, 1933, is the subject of a wild new recording, "Yes, I'm a Witch." A diverse group of contemporary artists reworks and remixes her songs, while leaving Ono's vocals in the mix. The musical contributors include the Polyphonic Spree, the Flaming Lips, the Apples in Stereo and Cat Power. It's very much in the avant-garde tradition that Ono has embraced since the 1950s.
Many rock fans first got to know her through her wailing, shrieking vocal blasts on the Plastic Ono Band's "Live Peace In Toronto" album in 1969. Her primal-scream approach to singing was unsettling to many at the time but enlightening to others down the road, including the B-52's, Talking Heads and Blondie.
Ono's career with Lennon continued on more conventional albums like "Sometime in New York City" and "Double Fantasy," and on her solo efforts such as "Approximately Infinite Universe." Ono's masterpiece, "Season of Glass" from 1981, is haunting, harrowing, incredibly moving and essential listening for anyone trying to learn more about the devastating aftermath of Lennon's murder.
She still lives in the Dakota, the vast New York City apartment building which was also the scene of the crime that changed her life forever in 1980. Ono recently discussed "Yes, I'm a Witch," as well as her career.
Q: Tell me about how this disc came about and what it means to you having these artists interpret your material.
A: I was told that some people wanted to do a remake of "Open Your Box" [in 2001] and I said "That's fine." I was making my new album "Blueprint for a Sunrise" and [producer] Rob Stevens brought this in and said "Listen to this." And I started crying. It's so beautiful what they [the Orange Factory] did. I was surprised. I like the idea of letting people do remixes. That's sort of in the tradition of my artwork really, where I ask the audience to participate and do things. All my artworks are unfinished objects and paintings, so I feel it's very good when people do something like that. When John and I did the "Two Virgins" record, I slapped the title "Unfinished Music No. 1" on it because I joked that it might become material for other people to do something with it. But at the time nobody thought of that. They said "Ugh, what's this?" [laughter]
Q: I had to buy that record in a brown paper wrapper.
A: I know. The [nude] album cover became more famous than the music, but that was just another performance-art kind of thing, so that's all right.
Q: Each artist was given your catalog to listen to and select a cut for this project. Were you surprised by any of their choices?
A: I was surprised by "Cambridge 69." That was a big surprise for me.
Q: The Flaming Lips did that.
A: I thought, what are they going to do with this? [laughs] Actually they did an incredibly creative and interesting job. I thought it was beautiful.
Q: What do you think of the title of this album? "Yes, I'm a Witch." Tell me about that.
A: [laughs] "Yes, I'm a Witch." Well, that's a song I wrote or recorded around 1973 or '74. I don't think it was that popular. The concept of being a witch and all that is something that people understand now, in a way. In those days people use to call me "dragon lady" or whatever they wanted to call me. A witch is a female version of a wizard. A wizard is a good word. People say "Oh you're a wizard," and it's a compliment. But if they say "You're a witch," that's derogatory. That's a put-down. But it shouldn't be. Think about it. A wizard's a guy, and a witch is a woman.
Q: I want to ask you about some of the lyrics that can be heard on the new album. I'm interested in your recollections of what you were inspired about when you were writing them, as well as their relevancy in 2007. For example, "Sisters O Sisters," which you wrote in 1972.
A: I was just looking at those lyrics. "We lost our green land/We lost our clean air/We lost our true wisdom/And we live in despair." Is that what I'm saying about now? You know? There's a lot of that going on. "Death of Samantha." [A song Ono released in 1973] When John passed away, many fans sent me the "Death of Samantha" lyrics saying that it was uncanny that the lyrics seemed to be describing the vigil. They said, "You were talking about now." It was very sad but in a way it was kind of spot-on. I think that a lot of things that I've written, I thought I knew about them when I was writing, but in hindsight after 30 years or so, you start thinking, "Oh that's what it is about." It's very interesting.
Q: Several of these artists have helped prove that the original songs sound strikingly contemporary, in some cases 20 or 30 years later. When everyone was saying your work was so avant-garde years ago, did you see it that way? Or did what you were doing seem normal to you, compared with what was going on in pop music at that time?
A: Well, I didn't label myself. I didn't think I was avant-garde, I thought I was me, just doing my thing.
Q: How do you feel that "Yes, I'm a Witch" differs in scope from the "Every Man Has a Woman" tribute album from 1984?
A: That was a start of this in a way, but it's very different. I was inspired to put that together because Harry Nilsson actually got interested in all my work, and he just went into the studio and went on and on recording all these songs. I thought, well this is great, and I loved Harry's voice, it was just incredible. So then I thought, it's great to see other people cover my songs, and we reached out to some people and they all did it. That's a very different thing, but it was a start in a way of something happening other than what I did myself. But this ("Yes, I'm a Witch") is very different in that they can actually bring in my voice as well.
Q: Of all your solo albums, which is your personal favorite?
A: "Blueprint for a Sunrise" is what I did most recently so I'm still stuck on that in a way. I love it.
Q: You had been a performance artist long before you met John, but did you ever get stage fright, like when you were suddenly playing before thousands of people in Toronto with the Plastic Ono Band?
A: Well, I used to perform as an avant-garde artist before I met John. I was not afraid at all of what I did on stage, probably because it was just me, and I could do whatever I wanted to do. Then in Toronto, I was just feeling, that's just me, what's wrong with it? But later, people told me there were people booing and all, that I didn't notice it. But I thought, well, it's a different game and I have to start being a little bit concerned for John's sake and everything.
Q: You've made a few live concert appearances in recent years but not many. Do you miss playing live?
A: Well live is all right [laughs]. Sometimes I get the urge to do it, and then sometimes I feel like I'd rather spend time in the studio. But I can't even find the time to spend in the studio right now, so many things are happening.
Q: Do you still write music? When's your next solo album?
A: My plan is that this year I will try and find the time to go into the studio.
Q: How did you and John influence each other musically? What do you think you brought to his music, and what did he bring to yours?
A: Well that's for the critics to think about. I mean, I don't know and I'm sure he didn't know either. But just the fact that we were together made a difference. Of course I didn't know anything about rock, that's obvious, clearly. But then he picked up a few things too I'm sure. Between us we had an incredible kind of respect for each other and we showed that. Because we were artists, each one of us knew what would not be right to say. You want to always encourage each other, and that's what we did.
Q: You are the gatekeeper to John's music, and you've been very careful with how that is handled, but you've also been generous with fans by gradually releasing many of John's previously unreleased work, or special projects. What unreleased work of John's would you still like to see issued?
A: I just don't know the answer to that yet. I usually do it when I feel it's appropriate, when something happens and I know "Oh this is a very good venue for this song or that song." But I don't have a set plan.
Q: You gave the surviving Beatles' several home demo songs of John's to finish for the "Anthology" project. Two ("Free as a Bird" and "Real Love") were released. They supposedly did not complete another one, which I believe is called "I Don't Want to Lose You." Would you ever like to see that song completed, perhaps by Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr?
A: That's up to them. They shouldn't do anything they don't want to do.
Q: But you're not against it?
A: No I'm not against any of that.
Q: It's got to be fascinating as far as being involved in the business side of the greatest pop music catalog in history with the Beatles. Are there offers for Beatles' projects that you have voted against? Do you, (George Harrison's widow) Olivia, Paul and Ringo all have to be unanimously in favor of something before it gets approved?
A: Well, that becomes talk about business, and we have this very set situation where we don't talk about business [in public].
Q: Anything else you'd like to say about the new album?
A: I just hope people enjoy it, and I'm very pleased that it's happening.
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