The Big Read – Yoko Ono: Imagine The Future

Once vilified as the person who broke up the Beatles, Yoko Ono is finally being recognised as a treasure, for her  commitment to peace, her solo work and her unwritten contribution to much of John Lennon's work. As her peace tower shines its beacon into the stratosphere from Iceland's capital, Elizabeth Aubrey talks to Ono about the new, archive version of 'Imagine', and why women in art are finally being recognised.

December 21 marked the start of Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. On that long, dark night a week ago, the Imagine Peace Tower lit up in Reykjavik, Iceland. An artwork conceived by Yoko Ono in 2007 in memory of her late husband John Lennon, the Imagine Peace Tower beams a huge, intense light into the sky from the start of Winter Solstice until New Year’s Day each year. An enduring symbol of peace and hope in darkness, the tower is lit on just three other occasions each year: on Lennon’s birthday in October until the anniversary of his death in December, then again each spring, to mark Lennon and Ono’s marriage and honeymoon. In 2013, Ono was made an honorary citizen of Reykjavik in response to the powerful message of hope and peace that her artwork created: it’s now lit each year on Ono’s birthday too.

“I have plenty of hope still. Large as the Atlantic Ocean,” Ono tells me, shortly after she has just chosen the recipient of the Lennon-Ono Grant for Peace. Given out on Lennon’s birthday biannually at Ono’s New York apartment – the same apartment she shared with Lennon until his untimely death in 1980 – previous winners of the award have included Pussy Riot and Alice Walker. “It’s a very difficult thing actually,” Ono says, describing the process of choosing a recipient. “But I [always] find, thank god, somebody who’s not being recognised in a way they should.”

yoko ono

Ono’s words resonate towards the end of a year which has seen the 85-year-old artist and activist receiving some long overdue recognition herself, having had much of her contribution to Lennon’s work written out of history. Her own subversive solo work too, previously observed through critical lenses of misogyny and racism, is gaining greater prominence in a climate slowly waking up to the exclusions of its past. “I am used to people not liking my work,” Ono says reflectively, adding: “but I created a nice box for me to be sitting in.” There is, remarkably, no bitterness or resentment from Ono, only a desire to follow through on her artistic vision as truthfully as possible. As a ground-breaking avant-garde artist in the 1960s with a string of innovative exhibitions to her name, Ono was used to following her own artistic path long before she met Lennon. The history books, however, often reveal a very different story.

The final page of the new volume Imagine John Yoko which accompanies the vast Imagine: The Ultimate Collection (Ono has spent the last eight years as a creative director on the project) is a page of well-known artwork created by Ono herself and one that accompanied hers and John’s enduring Christmas hit. “Happy Xmas (War is Over) If You Want It”, the text on the artwork reads, a message mirroring the opening page of the book which Ono has also written: “if one billion people in the world think peace, we’ll get peace.” It is perhaps apt that Ono punctuates both the start and end of a narrative from which she’s so often erased but now, via manifold new interviews, photos, video footage, demos, letters and handwritten lyrics that make up the Imagine project, Ono’s pivotal role in its creation is being seen afresh – not least through the inclusion of interviews with Lennon himself. Speaking about ‘Happy Xmas (War is Over)’ in an interview from the early ’70s, for example, Lennon frequently talks about his and Ono’s work in the collective: “We wrote [the song] together…[the] idea of the poster event was Yoko’s. She used to do things like that in the avant-garde circle.”

Last year, Ono finally received a writing credit on the song ‘Imagine’ from The National Music Publishers Association, a staggering 48 years after its release. Ono’s role in the making of the song is well-documented in the new Imagine John Yoko book, with Lennon’s words about her work on the song gifted an entire page. “I was a bit more selfish, a bit more macho, and I sort of omitted to mention her contribution,” Lennon said. Did the record industry finally awarding the credit to Ono coincide with a shift where women were finally starting to receive greater prominence? Maybe, Ono says, but she is more sceptical, believing it’s down to the music industry and what makes money: if it’s profitable for women to suddenly receive credit, they will.

“[The] music industry goes with the public to make money,” Ono says, matter-of-factly, before she poeticises the situation – something she often does in her short responses. “If tulips become very popular, they would probably create thousands of tulip songs.” On her latest album, ‘Warzone’ – the fourteenth of her career – Ono covers the song ‘Imagine’ in what feels like a reclaiming of the song’s narrative for herself. An anthem known the world over, did Ono feel daunted taking it on? “By the time I sung it, it was alright, but it suddenly occurred to me that many people [were] going to be listening to it. That was frightening.”

The fear is understandable. Almost unanimously blamed for the break-up of The Beatles, Ono was vilified in the media because of her creative and personal relationship with Lennon. The two formed a band and released experimental albums years ahead of their time and whilst Lennon’s side of the work was praised, Ono’s was not – her use of innovative sound experimentation ridiculed in a world unable to deal with a powerful female artist unafraid to deconstruct the givens. The ridicule spilled into her studio work too. During the recording sessions for ‘Happy Xmas (War is Over), as revealed in an article documenting the sessions, Yoko confided to Lennon that she was concerned the musicians in the studio weren’t taking her as seriously as they might whilst she directed them when recording her gentle B-side, ‘Listen, the Snow is Falling’. Her direction was seen as bossiness, of someone overstepping her mark. Yet Ono continued to set out to achieve her vision, the result being a song that could have easily been an A-side. Just like her determination to cover ‘Imagine’, Ono’s pursuit was fearless, something her close friend and colleague Simon Hilton says is typical of her as an artist.

“Yoko’s a very strong-minded person,” Hilton says. “She’s had to go through everything from being demonised by the world to having her husband assassinated and die in her arms…to being further demonised after that for being John Lennon’s wife, for being a woman, for being a feminist, for having a voice. And yet still she stays strong…as a strong woman in the music business in the seventies and eighties, they just wanted women to be pretty. Nobody liked the idea of Yoko managing John, or collaborating with him. That didn’t fit into the narrative of how it should be.”

Lennon Yoko NME

Having worked with Ono since 2003 – most recently in helping to re-mix and remaster the ‘Imagine’ video Ono and Lennon created – Ono entrusted all of her and John’s archives to Hilton and they have worked closely together on several projects. She has, he explains, a selfless ability to draw out the best in other artists too. “Yoko has this amazing ability to get the best out of people. She pushes people really hard and has this really innate way of drawing magic out of people, which makes her so fascinating to work with. She can be really opinionated…but she’s nearly always right,” he says, laughing.

That ability to bring out the best in people is arguably most apparent on Lennon’s ‘Jealous Guy,’ a song which Yoko helped to evolve dramatically. On 2018’s newly re-mixed version of The Beatles’ ‘The White Album’ is a demo version of Lennon’s solo hit, the melody recognisable but the lyrics entirely different. ‘Child of Nature’, as it was known, was written during ‘White Album’ recording sessions. “I’m just a child of nature / I don’t need much to set me free…” became “I was feeling insecure / You might not love me anymore / I was shivering inside…I didn’t mean to hurt you / I’m just a jealous guy.” Hilton says it was Yoko’s influence that changed the song.

“That was her going, ‘You’re just writing words. Write about something real and something that matters.’ And then he came out with that. If you really tune into the lyrics of ‘Jealous Guy’ it’s really very heavy and profound. You can see how, in John’s search for a guru or for enlightenment of some kind, Yoko loomed so large in that landscape, because she was a philosophy major…

“But at the time, Yoko had so much bad press and people didn’t seem to like her. She was kept out of things in order not to spoil the public’s reaction to them. I think there was a sense that they were trying to protect the art from being defamed by the sort of negative halo of associations with her. And that’s why she was so reticent about acknowledging her credit for the song initially. And the lyrics of ‘Jealous Guy?’ Come on, people never bared their soul like that in those days. That was unheard of.”

yoko ono

Speaking to Ono about ‘Jealous Guy’ and her role in the song, that reticence is still evident as she evades a response initially. “Well I was there!” she replies, her well-known humour never far away before a much truer answer arrives. “Well, if it was just John,” she begins, “John would have given me the right credit, but it was a difficult time. No famous songwriter would have thought of splitting the credit with his wife.” When I ask Ono about how she influenced the song, her reserve appears again before she hints that it became a better song because of the way it encompassed a female standpoint, something she helped John to imagine. “I think it’s a good song from a women’s point of view as well [as a man’s]…John was [initially] trying to create a fun song about going on a trip to Rishikesh. That might have been great too, but it ended up not being that.”

In the newly released Imagine archives, John was more certain about Ono’s influence. “The melody had been written in India. I never did anything with it, but always liked the melody. The words were silly, anyway,” John admitted. “I sang it to Yoko, Phil Spector and a few people and they always winced. I decided to change it – and with Yoko’s help, I did…” In the book, Ono is a little clearer too about her influence. “I said to John, ‘that’s a beautiful melody, but you have to think about something more sensitive. It’s in you.’ So whenever I hear ‘Jealous Guy’ I think ‘Oh my god!’ because he really did that.”

yoko ono

When asking Ono about other works she may have had an influence on, she won’t be drawn but does say that there is indeed more to reveal. “I think in maybe ten years I can tell it all,” she says, seemingly shielding secrets that she still needs to keep close. “But I don’t know if I want to”, she adds, with no further elaboration. It has at least, says Hilton, started a conversation about her role in the work that hasn’t been dealt with extensively. Hilton also explains that it took Ono almost a decade to share the Imagine archives because of her exacting attention to detail in ensuring the standard of the project was “kept to an absolute maximum.” This, he adds, could be why another decade is needed.

How did Ono lead and guide the Imagine project? “All the way to the truth,” Hilton says, describing Ono as “a fearless leader.” He continues: “Gimme Some Truth became a real mantra because she’s an artist fearless in her pursuit of the truth. Absolutely fearless. For her, if it’s true, then it’s okay – even if it means somebody saying something bad about her or bad about something [she’s done]. If it’s true, then it’s okay for Yoko.

“But I think also the truth is that her involvement in the Imagine project has been hushed down as has her involvement historically. It’s a bit like Sharon Osborne. Sharon managed Ozzy for years, Yoko managed John for years and even when they were going through troubles, she was still managing him and has also managed the estate after John’s death and managed it in a really classy way. All that, as well as being an artist in her own right.”

Alongside her work on the Imagine project, Ono has re-visited her own back catalogue for Warzone, re-imagining a selection of her own songs from 1970-2009. It’s a pattern she’s favoured in recent years, going back to old works and renewing them afresh. Was it difficult choosing which songs to include? “I felt that I knew all those songs [well], so it wasn’t difficult [at all],” Yoko says, thanking me for asking her an easier question. What about her influences of late? Whose work is inspiring her? “Mine!” is the one word exclamatory half-serious, half-playful answer I’m gifted. Whilst many of the songs chosen by Ono made little mark commercially or critically at the time of their original release, their recent inclusion has brought greater critical attention – not least because of the bold re-writings of some of her lyrics, such as that on ‘Women Power’. “All women have a story to tell,” Ono sings, before adding: “Someday you’ll have to pay, man…in the coming age of the feminist society we’ll regain our human dignity / we’ll lay some truth and clarity and bring back nature’s beauty…”

Ono’s message couldn’t be more pertinent or timely. “It’s amazing,” Ono tells me, of the recent #MeToo movement. “[As women] together we have an enormous energy, it’s just that we are still scared of bringing it out. But that goes for men too. Let’s not be scared…I have plenty of hope still.” Ono’s latest collection is mournful and reflective in places, riotous and rallying in others but always with hope ever present. “I think the songs I chose were not for hope, but for showing exactly what is happening right now,” Ono tells me. “Wake up, wake up!” she says, is what she wants her music, art and activism to loudly shout. Music and art, she continues, still have the power to change the world for her. “People have to be creative and what they can do is make an incredible pure sound and as you know, sound vibration goes everywhere and breaks the sky as well.”

Ono’s hopefulness resonates loudly – indeed, it was the first thing Lennon noted about Ono when he visited her art exhibition at the Indica Gallery in London in 1966 and met her for the first time. In Imagine John Yoko, there is an interview where Lennon recounts the moment. “I went in [to the gallery] and I was looking at it and I was astounded. I thought it was fantastic. I got the humour in her work immediately. There was a fresh apple on a stand – this was before Apple – and it was 200 quid to watch the apple decompose…there was a ladder which led to a painting which was hung on the ceiling – a blank canvas with a chain with a spyglass hanging on the end of it. I climbed the ladder. You look through the spyglass and in tiny little letters it says ‘YES’. So it was positive…it [was] the first show I’ve been to that’s said something warm to me.” In another interview, he puts it more succinctly. “And her whole trip is this: ‘imagine this, imagine that.’”

yoko ono

The power of her imagination, Ono tells me, it what helped her through the early sixties and seventies when the supposedly open minded artistic society of which she was a part was in fact very closed to women and to diverse cultures. In the imagination, came strength, she says. “I had so many things to [think] of that I felt stronger in fact,” Ono says of the issues she faced and that in dealing with each area of prejudice through artistically led to survival. “In a situation like that, it was very difficult but John and I survived the maze.”

As well as being artistically fearless, Ono has also proven fearless in compiling the Imagine project too. Ono doesn’t share her thoughts on this, but Hilton gives a moving insight. “I think in the process there was a lot of joy and there were a lot of tears. It was really joyful for her to go through these memories because it was a very happy time for them, but there’s also some bit where…” his voice trails off and he takes a moment. “In achieving our goal of making you feel like you were there, this immersive experience, when you’re sat listening to some of those mixes and interviews it does sound like John’s in the room and that was really profound for her. At times, there were some really big, sobbing tears and it was hard. It was tough. At other times she had us dancing round the studio to ‘Crippled Inside’ with a huge smile on her face…of course it’s a bumpy road. Her husband was murdered. How do you ever get over that?”

The Imagine Peace Tower will light up again in Iceland later today, Ono’s beacon of hope and peace sending a powerful message to all. Simultaneously, in Lennon’s hometown of Liverpool, Ono’s ‘War is Over!’ posters are being displayed all over the city just days after Ono shared a new acoustic mix of the song in time for Christmas. “I think John’s powerful message will always hit people,” Ono says. “What I wanted to say was another matter.” There is a fearlessness in Ono’s words which last long after the interview has ended, together with hope. Soon, maybe Ono will be recognised with the significance she rightly deserves.

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