John Lennon's widow on sexism, The Beatles' legacy, and how her banker father inspired her.
John created The Beatles, but there would be no Beatles without Paul.
John created The Beatles – he put it together. He named it. He was the leader. He encouraged everybody to go out there and make it happen. And it was a revolution – before that there were some kids who could play guitar. But now after that revolution most kids can play guitars. It’s a totally different world. Do I worry I might upset Paul saying John created The Beatles? Paul shouldn’t be upset, John said it himself many times.
When John decided to pick Paul up he was surrounded by girls and very popular and John was afraid Paul was going to take over. But he also knew if he didn’t pick up Paul it wouldn’t go anywhere. Also, Paul knew all about chords and John learned that from him. Are me and Paul OK now? Look, both of us believe in trying to create a better world and he’s doing his share. I respect that and I hope he understands what I’m doing too. The really good thing he did recently was [back the vegetarian campaign] Meat Free Mondays. I think that was brilliant, I joined him on that.
The world is still as sexist as it ever was.
A lot of my family were intellectuals and I decided early on I wanted to be a composer – I wanted to be different from them. But my father, who was in banking, told me that there were no women composers, so maybe I should just sing other people’s songs rather than write my own. He meant well, but when someone says that, it just makes you want it even more.
Even when I was in the New York avant-garde scene there was a sexist attitude. It was either that, or everyone else in the scene was so eager to have their own space, that anyone who came in was annoying to them – especially if it was a Japanese woman. One of the reasons that I survived at all was because of John – we came from different environments, but we were both rebellious. And that attitude always kept us going. If my father said, ‘You can’t be’, that was a sure-fire sign that I should be.
The pursuit of justice is an admirable thing.
John was very concerned with the idea of justice. Where did that come from?
I don’t know. I think it’s him. I think it had to do with the fact that he was considered Liverpool/Irish – which was the dirt, which was the worst. His father was Liverpool/Irish, his mother was English. So he related to the persecuted people in the sense and he was one of them as well.
It’s like how much he cared about women – there’s a book by Elizabeth Gould Davis called The First Sex about what women have done in history, and how things have been swung around to be credited to men. Me and John tried really hard to get this book in the 1970s, but it was sold out everywhere in New York. Then one morning I woke up and John was sitting in bed crying. He’d woken up early, got the book and read it while I was asleep. He just said, ‘I didn’t know’.
If you're committed to your art, it doesn't matter what anyone thinks of you.
The claim that I broke up The Beatles is totally, totally false. I endured that claim for 30 or 40 years because I didn’t want to say that John wanted to break it up – we were partners so I kept quiet about it and I was the one who was blamed. But because they were such lies it didn’t affect me so much. They said
I was after John’s money or something.
Even now when people like Cat Power or whoever say they admire me, I worry they’ll be persecuted by people who don’t like me! There were so many things said that were outrageous, but I was focusing on my work. It’s a kind of corny expression, but I’m a dedicated artist. I’m totally into that, so everything else is happening somewhere else – in a way, it’s like being a scientist who’s researching and working on finding something that can better the world.
Music is the best education a child can get
I was lucky that when I was younger my mother put me into this school of old education and music. The homework was to listen to all the sounds of that day then transpose them into musical notes. The kind of thing I was able to do was, when the clock strikes – ‘DONG DONG DONG DONG’ – I could transcribe those sounds. It taught me how to listen to music in the most elaborate way – that was my introduction to music.
My son will always make me think of John
I made my new album [‘Between My Head And The Sky’, produced by Sean Lennon] at [the old site of] The Hit Factory in New York where me and John made ‘Double Fantasy’. I didn’t select the studio – Sean did. I just went there because I love the studio, not because I thought it might bring back any particular memories.
I think when you’re at a place to be creative you don’t really think of things like that. John and Sean are very much alike physically, but John was much more forward, and Sean is a bit more passive-aggressive. But my son does lots of things that remind me of John. One night I was sleeping on the couch in the studio and I felt someone put an army surplus jacket on top of me, like a blanket.
It was Sean, but I remembered John had done exactly the same thing all those years before. The only difference was that John’s coat was slightly softer. Isn’t that amazing?