Interview Date: 08/20/2010
Run Date: 09/10/2010
Given her work as an artist and musician and, of course, her place in musical history as the widow of John Lennon, the prospect of talking with Yoko Ono would be a daunting proposition for anyone. As someone who had been in attendance for her “LENNONYC” panel during the TCA Tour this summer, however, I was a little concerned about whether she might recognize my name and hold it against me.
Not that Ms. Ono necessarily frequents Bullz-Eye on a regular basis, but…well, you see, I have a Canadian equivalent within the Television Critics Association – Bill Harris of the Toronto Sun – and his unfortunate claim to fame this summer, as he proudly yet embarrassedly admitted in the opening line of his coverage of the panel, was that, “Yes, I’m the guy who made Yoko Ono cry.” Granted, it was utterly accidental, as you’ll see if you read Bill’s piece, but even so, I just had visions of the conversation taking an unfortunate turn, with Yoko suddenly saying, “I have just remembered why your name sounds so familiar…”
In the end, there was no case of mistaken identity, but it’s highly probable that I’ll be remembered no more fondly than my Canadian counterpart. Not that I really did anything wrong, at least from my perspective, but in my attempt to cover all of Yoko’s current goings-on, I’ve been led to understand that she felt that I was giving short shrift to the original reason for our conversation, the celebration of her “Wouldnit (I’m a Star)” remixes taking the number-one spot on the dance charts. That was never my intention, of course. It’s simply that, as ever, she has so many different things going on at once that I felt it was my obligation to cover as many of them as possible. As it is, I felt like my attempts to keep our discussions steadfastly on her present projects showed remarkable restraint on my part. Oh, sure, I wanted to ask a Beatles question – more on that in a moment – but I was asked not to do so, and in the name of politeness, I agreed.
That’s just the kind of professional I am.
Yoko Ono: Hi, Will! How are you?
Bullz-Eye: I’m wonderful. It’s lovely to speak with you! So how does it feel to be recognized as a dance floor diva at this stage of your career?
YO: Diva? Wow! (Laughs) It’s great. I’m really happy about it. Of course, I didn’t expect it. I wasn’t expecting “Wouldnit” to be #1. I mean, “Wouldnit” is a very difficult song, I thought. But it’s okay. (Laughs)
BE: I generally think of “Kiss Kiss Kiss” as the first of your songs that made me go, “Okay, I could dance to this.”
YO: I know! “Kiss Kiss Kiss,” you know, that is really dance music, isn’t it? That’s ideal to make dance music out of.
BE: When you originally recorded that song, did you imagine it as a dance song?
YO: No, I didn’t. You know, I sort of like the fact that I constructed it in such a way that it’s sort of a free thing in the end.
BE: So what were the origins of this remix series?
YO: Well, the origin is somebody did “Open Your Box,” but before that, many people asked me… well, okay, you could count them on one hand, probably. (Laughs) But they asked me could they remix “Walking on Thin Ice.” And I was so rigid about it and so stiff. “No! No, you can’t do that!” Because I felt that that was one thing that John and I did, in the end, and he was carrying a cassette when he died. It was the sentiment, you know. I said, “No, we’re not going to do that. We’re not going to change anything!” (Laughs) And then “Open Your Box” was done, dance music-wise, and at the time, I was busy creating…well, making an album, and somebody said, “What about…?” And I said, “Okay, just tell them to do it. It’s fine.” I was just trying not to think about any of those things, because I was concentrating my mind on my record. And then one day, while I was still in the studio, they said, “How about this?” And they played the “Open Your Box” dance mix, and it was so good I started crying. So after that, I think my stiffness was sort of melted down, and I just said, “’Walking on Thin Ice’? Okay!” (Laughs) So that’s how it happened!”
Just as Yoko was finishing her answer to this question, I had a sudden power outage at my house, resulting in our being disconnected. Fortunately, the publicist called me back almost immediately, but before reconnecting me to Yoko, I was ominously informed that she needed to pass me over to Yoko’s assistant for a moment first. The problem was that, although I’d submitted my questions in advance to make sure they were acceptable, two of them – specifically, the ones relating to the Beatles – had been declared insufficiently relevant to the subject at hand. I admit that I was disappointed, but being pretty easy-going by nature, my reaction was basically to shrug and say, “Fair enough.” I’ve since had some of my friends say that, since I was already on the phone with her, I should’ve just asked them anyway, but, wow, talk about your bridge-burning moves…
YO: Hi, Will! I mean, it was like we were suddenly cut off!
BE: That’s because my power went out! I’m sorry about that.
YO: Crazy! But, you know, some things happen. It’s okay. So what were we talking about?
BE: We were talking about the remixes, and…
YO: (Laughs) I know we were talking about the remixes, but what angle?
BE: You had just mentioned how you started crying when you were presented with the first one.
YO: Yes, you asked me how it happened, I said how it happened, and then – bum! – the electricity went off. (Laughs) Isn’t that amazing?
BE: Perfect timing! So how did you come up with your list of collaborators? Were they all your idea, or did Sean throw some names at you? I know he had worked with some of the artists.
YO: On the remixes…? Sean didn’t collaborate on the remixes.
BE: No, I know, but I know that he’s friends with some of those who did.
YO: Oh, yes, and they’re fantastic people! I developed an incredible respect for them. I’m sort of, like, happy that I’m being a conduit to their creativity, in a way. But that’s how these things happen. They ask, “Why get to #1?” I say, “Because the remixers are fantastic, creative people.” They’re brilliant, you know. I’m very, very proud that maybe my little songs… (Laughs) …did inspire them.
BE: Were there any songs that were so completely transformed by their remixes that you almost didn’t recognize them…or, at least, you wouldn’t have if you didn’t know what you were listening to?
YO: No, of course, when I listened to them, I knew exactly what I was listening to. (Laughs) But talking about avant garde, they’re very avant garde, but that’s another thing: dance mixes, they’re avant garde. Very avant garde. But, also, you know, their feet are on the earth. It’s a very kind of interesting mix of all that, and I really love it.
BE: When you have these remixes done, how collaborative is the process? Do you have final say on what’s released?
YO: I have the final say, but I’m usually, like, just going, “Wow!” (Laughs)
BE: When these people are working on your music, do you find that they occasionally slip into an “oh, my God, I’m working with Yoko Ono” mode?
YO: I don’t think so. I think I’m just a little Japanese woman. (Laughs) They don’t get too frightened of me!
BE: I’m a big Basement Jaxx fan, so it was a real pleasure to hear you turn up on their song, “Day of the Sunflower.”
YO: Isn’t that incredible? I thought that was great fun. But, also, you know, the fact that I was in there…well, they had the courage to put me in there, but I felt it was really interesting. It was an interesting mix.
BE: I know that you’ve got quite an impressive line-up for your Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band shows at the Orpheum.
(Writer’s note: The concerts took place on Oct. 1 and 2, but the line-up included Perry Farrell, RZA, Sonic Youth, Lady Gaga, and many more.)
BE: How did all of those artists come into the mix? Was that a case of people coming to you and looking to collaborate?
YO: Well, you know, they’re my friends, and I have warm feelings for them, and I hope they do for me, too. (Laughs)
BE: When you did the new Plastic Ono Band album, I’m sure it must have been exciting to bring the band back, but what was it like to work with Sean in a musical capacity?
YO: Well, you know, it’s, like, all mothers will know what I went through, probably. He said, “Come and join me in this concert in Japan.” “All the way to Japan? But I was going to go to Washington, DC, to see President Obama.” “No, this is most important. You have to come and join me in this concert.” So I said okay, I went all the way to Japan, and I joined him in the concert without any rehearsal or anything. I was just there. But I enjoyed it because he invited me. And then he said, “Well, what about making an album together?” And I’m thinking, “Wow, that means I’m going to see him every day! Okay, fine!” (Laughs) It was like that.
BE: What was the dynamic like in the studio? Was it easy to shift from mother and son to musician and musician?
YO: Oh, sure. Sean and I are very professional people, you know, and so that comes out, in a way. We weren’t sort of huggy-huggy at all. (Laughs) I’d say, “That one, that note, uh…” And he would say, “Yeah, I understand.” And it just worked very fast, because he knew all my songs. It turned out that he knew all my songs, and that was a surprise. I don’t know when he was listening to them. Certainly not in front of me! (Laughs) So, anyway, he knows all the Beatles music, all of John’s music, and all of mine. That’s kind of a rich book there.
BE: The album received considerable critical acclaim, but was there still some grumbling from people who couldn’t imagine any incarnation of the Plastic Ono Band without John?
YO: There was probably that, but I don’t think that people… (Hesitates) You see, luckily, this is 30 years later, and a lot of people were not born then. (Laughs)
At this point in the conversation, Yoko and I developed a bit of a conversational disconnect for a minute or two. I mentioned that I’d been in the audience for her panel at the TCA Tour in Los Angeles, but the name of the organization didn’t ring a bell, and when I clarified that it was the Television Critics Association, she seemed to think that I was asking for her feelings about critics…though it was pretty funny when she observed that the only reviews anyone ever seems to send her are the bad ones. I tried again, this time citing the specific name of the program, but based on her comments, she clearly thought I was talking about the Orpheum shows. By that point, I was so confused that I think I accidentally told her that I was going to be attending one of them…and, based on her comments at the very end of the interview, I think I gave her another reason to not be happy with me.
BE: I’m extremely excited to see the “LENNONYC” program.
YO: Are you going to be there?
BE: Yes, absolutely.
YO: Great, great! I think it’s going to be so excited, because this is the first time I’m doing it in L.A. in my fifty…wait, what is it, seventy-seven years? (Laughs) So I’m very excited about it, but very nervous, of course. And Sean…I don’t know if Sean has played L.A. at all. I’ve never asked. But it’s kind of a debut for us together. We did one in Brooklyn, and in San Francisco and all of that. So we can do it. Those were rehearsals for L.A. (Laughs)
BE: (Trying again) Well, with the program that’s upcoming for PBS, the “NYC” program, putting that together, was it an emotional tightrope, going from “these are such wonderful memories” to “I still miss John.”
YO: (Wistfully) Yeah. It was very, very emotional for me. And I just never thought it was going to be that emotional, because I thought, “Okay, thirty years…” I’ve been doing John’s songs and dealing with it on a business level for thirty years, so it’s nothing, right? But it wasn’t.
BE: What do you think John’s fans will learn about him from watching the new special?
YO: Well, they’re going to learn a lot, actually. They might faint. (Laughs)
BE: Are there any particular moments in the special that really stand out for you?
YO: No, no. Well, the whole thing is very pretty, let’s put it that way. (Laughs) For me, it was, you know. “Is that my life? Did I have that kind of life? Oh, dear…” I mean, I can’t repeat it, I can’t do it over again, but it’s very pretty.
BE: To jump back to the remixes, do you find that you’re developing new fans as a result of having some of your songs remixed, folks who might not have looked into your music before?
YO: Well, it seems like the people who want to remix my songs, they all seem to know my songs, you know? And they’re, like, “What about this one?” That’s how it is. And the next one, which is going to be a CD called “I’m a Witch #2”… (Laughs) …is really going to be people who know my work .
BE: Well, I know we’re coming up against the wall here, but what would you say is, in your mind, the greatest accomplishment by the Imagine Peace movement so far?
YO: Wow. (Laughs) Well, you know, we just did that the other day, you know. Somebody showed me a map of the world and how the Imagine Peace people are in different countries and all that, and it’s covering the whole world now! There are people in every country who are doing Imagine Peace. I was just amazed. But I’m just very happy about the Imagine Peace thing, and I think it’s going to get somewhere. I mean, it’s getting somewhere already. People are saying, “Oh, it’s not getting anywhere, is it?” But I say, “Please! Look at it!” Lots of crazy things are happening, things that we didn’t know are coming up, because we have to first have a total take on reality before we have world peace. So don’t be frightened about these things coming up!
BE: I know we’re out of time, Yoko, but I really appreciate you talking to me…and thank you very much for calling me back after my power outage! (Laughs)
YO: Okay! (Laughs) So, anyway, I’ll see you there…? I’m going to check. I’m going to look around the audience, and if I say, “Oh, he’s not there,” I’m not going to be very happy about it!
BE: I’ll do my best!YO: Okay!