Yoko Ono, forever a force for peace

Artist, musician, Lennon's widow — a lifetime of trying circumstances has 'prepared' her

by David F. Hoenigman

Even before she married John Lennon, even before she embarked on a career as an avant-garde and conceptual artist, Yoko Ono was under scrutiny, first by her teachers and peers, later by people of a different region as her family fled the fire-bombings of Tokyo.

When asked if it was discouraging to have her character questioned and her work strongly criticized after she became the wife of the beloved Beatle, Ono didn’t even pause before responding. “I was not particularly affected by what people were saying about my work. It was kind of a normal procedure for my work in a way. I mean, I had been criticized all the time up until then.”

Yoko Ono was born on Feb. 18, 1933, in Tokyo. Both of her parents were from wealthy families of bankers, and as a child she went to the elite Gakushuin school, which was also attended by members of the Imperial family.

A love of the arts was encouraged throughout her education; she studied singing German lieder and Italian opera and she took piano lessons. As she matured, she felt increasingly constrained by her instructors’ overly pedantic adherence to form.

“My ideas from the beginning were extremely different, and I suffered from that, I think. I mean the boundaries that were set up in this society and the prescribed forms of art were something that I ignored from the beginning. And when I say ‘from the beginning,’ I was creating haiku and things like that even when I was 4 1/2 years old; it started very early.

“And in the beginning I think they thought that for a very young child I was rather special, but then when it came to the point of writing something when I was 16 or 17, I think they felt that my writing, and I did some plays as well in school, were a little bit too out of the form.”

As her father’s banking business dictated, the family moved often. She had already moved to San Francisco and back by the time she was first enrolled at Gakushuin. The family moved to New York City in 1940 and then back to Tokyo in 1941, later fleeing to Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, after the great fire-bombings of Tokyo in March 1945.

Was it hard to be uprooted so often during her formative years?

“No. It was very educational, but even when I was so young, I did get racism directed towards me. It wasn’t just racism, it didn’t happen just in the U.S. When I went back to Japan, I was kind of delicately ostracized. Just the way I acted, I seemed a bit different from other kids. And also when we all evacuated to the countryside where farmers were the main people there, they were not very happy with city people, so each time I was plunked into a different situation.”

Rather than dwell negatively on any of these trying circumstances, Ono chose to use them as learning experiences that would toughen her up for breaking into the art worlds of New York and London. She says good-naturedly, “That was my preparation, wasn’t it?”

Despite her frustrations at school, she persevered and became the first woman ever accepted into the philosophy program at Gakushuin University. Perhaps the feelings of intellectual constraint finally got to her; after only two semesters she left the school and moved to the U.S. to rejoin her family, who had moved to Scarsdale, N.Y.

She enrolled in Sarah Lawrence College, where she encountered more of what she may have been trying to escape: “Even at Sarah Lawrence, I think they felt I was a little bit out of form. My teacher of music composition told me that if I wanted to create music in that fashion, then there were people in New York City that I should seek out.”

Ono would befriend classical avant-garde composer John Cage, minimalist composer La Monte Young and gallery owner and impresario George Maciunas. She became an integral member of the Lower East Side bohemian scene and the Fluxus movement of 1960s Neo-Dadaist artists.

Ono recalls that when she first met John Cage, she felt reluctant to be overly amicable: “I did not immediately take to someone who was considered an authority of some kind. I mean John Cage was already an authority in some ways, you know; people respected him. I was just being a bit cynical.”

This initial attitude toward one of the leading figures of the postwar avant-garde exemplifies the defiant nature of Yoko Ono as a young woman. The friendship that evolved between her and Cage suggests a softening of this attitude over time, and may indicate she was beginning to find the kind of people she needed to connect with. She and Cage became close and collaborated often.

Ono traveled to London to attend an art symposium in September 1966. Subsequent opportunities to perform and display her work would keep her there until 1968.

She first met John Lennon on Nov. 9, 1966, at her own exhibition in the Indica Gallery in London. Though they initially seemed rather intrigued by each other, their affair wouldn’t begin until 18 months later.

Her film “Film No. 4 (Bottoms),” which simply portrayed a closeup of nude bottoms of models walking on a treadmill, created a minor sensation and garnered her an invite to the Knokke Film Festival held in Belgium in December 1967.

It was here that she made her first antiwar statement. “It was the time that the Vietnam War was starting and I felt that I wanted to make a statement about it. And in the lobby, in this huge lobby, I crawled into a black bag and I put a sign out saying, ‘I’m in the bag to protest the war;’ ‘I’m in the bag for world peace,’ or something like that.

“And you know, some people probably noticed, and some people were very upset and just kicked me. So that was the first public statement, and then after that, when I went back to London, I went to Trafalgar Square and stood in a black bag. All the journalists knew of me by then and wondered, ‘Is that Yoko?’ ‘Could it be Yoko?’ ‘Yes, it is.’ And so I was making a statement alone in a black bag in Trafalgar Square, and I think that was early, very early 1968.”

Those who’d dismiss close-ups of human buttocks or women standing in bags as meaningful art would probably have little time for Ono’s self-explanatory “Painting to Be Stepped On” or “Cut Piece,” a performance in which Ono sat motionless and mannequinlike as audience members took turns with a pair of scissors cutting off her clothes.

Discussing her visual art, renowned art critic Michael Kimmelman, in a recent New York Times article, encourages viewers to extend themselves a bit: “You either meet this sort of art halfway or fail to see the point. If you’re predisposed to dislike it, maybe because your life has not been the same since the Beatles busted up, don’t bother. I choose to acquiesce, appreciating the lightness of spirit and often delicate edge. Ms. Ono’s art is a mirror. We see ourselves in our reaction to it. ‘A Box of Smile’ (open the hinged top and find your reflection in the mirror inside) may be a simple, hokey idea but it’s emblematic of her best work.”

Though her first album was made in 1968, Yoko Ono made music that was so far ahead of its time she’s really only began to receive acclaim as a musician in recent years. She headlined the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago in 2007 and received Mojo magazine’s lifetime achievement award in June this year for her musical contributions.

Like her artwork, her music was met with skepticism by some, though it’s hard to imagine any other musician who’d collaborated with such luminaries as John Cage, Ornette Coleman and John Lennon still being regarded as having something to prove.

Her music was extreme and “out there,” but those receptive to its charms are unrelenting in their praise. Mojo editor Phil Alexander called Ono “a huge influence on modern music.” Two collaborative tribute albums support this sentiment. “Every Man Has a Woman” (1984) featured Elvis Costello, Roberta Flack and Harry Nilsson. “Yes, I’m a Witch” (2007) featured Cat Power, The Flaming Lips, Jason Pierce (from Spiritualized) and Antony (from Antony and the Johnsons). When asked how the acts on the 2007 album were chosen, Ono responded: “We didn’t ask. They came to us.”

Never one to rest on her laurels, even at the age of 76, Ono released “Between My Head and the Sky,” produced by her son Sean Lennon, in September. It’s her first album of all new material in nine years, and the first album to use the name Plastic Ono Band since 1973.

“Sean said ‘Would you mind using the name Plastic Ono Band?’ and I had a resistance about it. I said ‘Why would we do that?’ I analyzed why I had such a resistance about it and realized I had some blockage about using the name because John passed away, and he was the one who’d thought of the name. But John is Sean’s father and Sean probably has some different sentiment about it from me, and I really thought that it was sort of silly of me to have been blocking that name, and then, you know, let’s use it then.”

The album is getting rave reviews from major music magazines. Uncut gave it five stars and called it “an excellent album.” The Daily Telegraph also gave it five stars and said “fantastically cool, fearlessly weird.”

The current lineup of the Plastic Ono Band includes Sean Lennon, Cornelius and Yuka Honda (of Cibo Matto) among others. For their upcoming Tokyo International Forum performance, they’ll be joined by special guest Haruomi Hosono (of Yellow Magic Orchestra).

The uncompromising sense of herself and dismissal of convention that shaped her artistic drive can also be considered the force that fuels Ono’s role as a peace activist, long after the political consciousness of the ’60s has petered out.

By encouraging people to “think peace, imagine peace and meditate on peace,” she believes the world can change. “It’s a very strong mediation that we could do all together and through that we can create a new world. I’ve been going to many many cities throughout the world from the time that I became 70. I’m just going to these cities to sort of promote world peace and just share that moment of peace and love with people.

“The response has been great; it’s been fantastic. I mean, it’s almost like a drop of water that people need and so they’re bursting out with love for each other. It’s an incredible thing that happens. Because, you see, now in the real world love is becoming scarce and violence is becoming increasingly strong, so in a situation like that, it’s very important that we cover this Earth with love.”

Yoko Ono and her late husband’s message of peace and love will be celebrated at the ninth annual Dream Power John Lennon Super Live at Nippon Budokan on Nov. 12.

It’s an event Ono attends every year and is quick to express her enthusiasm about: “All the proceeds of the concert go to creating schools in Africa, and I think we’ve created over 80 schools so far. It’s a tribute concert to John, and all the incredible Japanese rockers sing, play and perform John’s songs. It’s a beautiful thing that’s happening.” This year’s concert will feature Bonnie Pink, Love Psychedelico, Shigeru Izumiya and Tamio Okuda, among others.