Unfinished Music: An Interview with Yoko Ono

San Francisco Bay Guardian
by Miya Masaoka
August 27, 1997

A conversation with Yoko Ono.

YOKO ONO’S MANY YEARS — and considerable success — as a performance artist, vocalist, filmmaker, and object maker have been obscured by her relationship with John Lennon. Since the early 1960s, when Ono entered the avant-garde art world and helped build a movement of artists who defied artistic convention, her body of work has remained relatively unknown to large portions of the public.

This summer, Rykodisc remastered and released 11 of Ono’s albums, a sprawling collection ranging from wailing, shrieking predecessor-to-punk performances with the Plastic Ono Band (which included Lennon on guitar, Ringo Starr on drums, and Klaus Voorman on bass) to such painfully personal sounds as the heartbeat of a child that Ono and Lennon lost to miscarriage.

Recently, in New York City, Ono and I had a long, free-flowing conversation.

Miya Masaoka: When you are vocalizing, screaming, it evokes a certain primalism, almost a deeply rooted sexuality. Is it a sexual experience for you as well?

Yoko Ono: I think that it’s more a total experience, and sexuality is part of that, maybe even a large part. I do these sexual sounds, but these sexual sounds could also be someone who is being tortured. I was interested in the animalistic side of the human voice, like the groaning when a woman is having a baby or something like that. So there is no line, or maybe it’s a fine line. When I went to Morocco and heard people chanting, I thought it sounded familiar to the stuff I was doing. Deep-rooted memory, human history, part of it, a kind of memory cell in DNA.

MM: Some of your vocal work is evocative of Japanese vocal kabuki and even the oral history singing that accompanies the biwa. Do you feel a connection to traditional Japanese artistic forms?

YO: My mother was an established musician in several Japanese instruments, shamisen, and kabuki singing; she played nine instruments. I got training in opera, and when I do these vocal things, using the voice as an instrument, a lot of things from my background come out even if I don’t intend it.

MM: Today, vocal artists such as Pamela Z and Mike Patton of Faith No More are using extensive processing as a vehicle for vocal expression. Is technology something that you want to continue to explore as you did in your earlier works?

YO: That’s very interesting. I’ve done collages and vocal processings, and I was enjoying emulating sounds with just my voice, and then I heard the reverse tape. I would copy the reverse of the sound, the sound going backwards.

MM: What was your first connection to Fluxus?

YO: There was no Fluxus at first. I thought it would be better not to name it, but George Maciunas wanted to name it and it turned out to be a good idea. He was involved with me and other artists in New York, and he wanted to have a name for this movement. That night he looked in the dictionary and came up with the name Fluxus. We were a group of 20 or so people doing gallery shows and events, and people chose a name, like “Let’s call this Dada.” That was summer 1961. Fluxus came out in 1962. In Fluxus we all came from totally different backgrounds — Terry Jennings came from the West Coast, many people came from the West Coast. Very few people had our inclinations, and artistically we were drawn to each other. We had that kind of inclination. George was a very creative promoter, not just an impresario. He held performances in Grand Central Station and unusual places like that.

MM: The Fluxus pieces preceded by 10 years the event piece in which you and John held a press conference in bed for peace, itself a predecessor of current politically inspired performance art. You’ve said, “I like to fight the establishment-type thinking; the establishment doesn’t know how to fight back. They cannot stamp out John and Yoko events like Two Virgins, Bed Peace, Acorn Peace.” Thirty years later we have artists like Guillermo Gómez-Peña who are exhibiting themselves in cages as ethnographic specimens, authentic indigenous people, a reverse anthropology, illuminating aspects of immigration and the ways people of color are cast in this society. Do you have plans to do other performance events?

YO: I go with the flow, I go with the flux.

MM: When I was growing up, you were the most visible Japanese woman or man in the world, yet you were thoroughly vilified by the press. How did being Japanese and being a woman affect the response of the media?

YO: They had to think about how to think about an oriental woman. I think it was very difficult for a lot of people who never had to deal with anybody oriental before, especially for the oriental sisters. I feel very protective of them and I hope that they won’t have to go through what I had to go through. I hope that my experience would help them to not repeat it — that someone had done the damage already.

MM: Did you have any connection to the Japanese experience in the concentration camps?

YO: I arrived in America when I was two and a half years old. I went back and forth. I’m very aware of what was happening on the West Coast. I was following the story of the concentration camps and all that, and my Japanese American friends told me that their savings were all confiscated. I was in Japan during World War II. Just recently, the events with the Swiss bank and the Jewish people who couldn’t get back their money reminded me of that time.

MM: There is a koanlike quality to your earlier compositions, such as “Making Piece 11,” which contains instructions to “send the sound of one hundred suns rising at once,” or “Clock Piece,” which instructed, “Listen to the clock strokes. Make exact repetitions in your head after they stop.” Is there any way to make these pieces available to the public?

YO: If somebody wants to do it. I try to never look back and just keep on creating things according to the present inspiration I receive. It’s out there; if you want to do it, you can do it.

MM: One of my favorite pieces is “AOS,” from the album Plastic Ono Band, on which Ornette Coleman plays trumpet. This last month in New York City I was rehearsing with Ornette — unbelievable saxophone playing. But here he is playing the trumpet on this album. How did you meet him?

YO: I was in Paris doing my own concert in a small café — things like “Bag Piece,” strange stuff — and someone came up to me and said, “Ornette would like to meet you.” Ornette told me, “I dig what you do with your voice. Would you like to do a piece with me? I’m playing at the Albert Hall.” I said, “OK, but only if it’s my piece.”

I said that because before I did the music for a very famous Japanese animation filmmaker and he said that for his next animation he would like me to do the music. Then when I saw the film, in the credits all he gave me was “voice by Yoko Ono,” and I was upset when I saw the credits but it was too late. So I thought, never make that mistake again. When I said the piece had to be mine, Ornette was laughing, but he said, “OK.” So every rehearsal these guys had a little problem — like “What is she doing? Why do we have to follow what she’s doing?” But Ornette said, “Listen to her, listen to her.” He was great that way, so we did the piece.

MM: The 1967 Trafalgar Square Wrapping Piece in London, in which you wrapped enormous lion sculptures with canvas — is there any relationship to Cristo’s wrapping of the Reichstag?

YO: Now, I really don’t know. It was one inspiration and I just did it. The point is, he’s doing this as his thing, and it’s beautiful.

MM: What is the relationship between avant-garde and pop?

YO: I was a rebel even in the avant-garde. They were becoming their own establishment, another institution. I kind of rebelled against it. When Ornette said, “Let’s do improvisation,” I thought it was great. I like any kind of improvisation, and I think only people in jazz were improvising like that at that time. It was the best, so I was very lucky. Then later, when I met John, they were doing this pop-rock kind of thing, and I thought, “Wow, rock is great.”

I think that the pop-song part of it was very similar to what I was doing at Sarah Lawrence — writing songs, throat tones. I was one of these people who didn’t care about genre. I didn’t stick to anything. It was a “Who cares?” kind of thing. One time I gave this concert and this guy came in with a shrill voice and told me I shouldn’t use a stopwatch in jazz music. Well I didn’t like this “what you are supposed to do or not do in jazz music.” This was not in my dictionary.

So when I met John we did this Two Virgins kind of thing. Two Virgins is so reckless that it’s great. And then we did some really reckless stuff. John was doing these scratch kind of things with the radio, almost the predecessor of scratch. I picked up this newspaper that was lying around and chose a title from the headline. I showed him I can take this and make a song, to show him you don’t have to be constricted to make a song. We put the child that was miscarried’s heartbeat into the song. The doctor took this ultrasound around the third month of the baby’s heart.

MM: What did John Lennon’s skin feel like?

YO: He was like the English rose. Do you know the English rose? Very white, I don’t know how to put it. Very white and very soft.

MM: What did he smell like?

YO: Very clean. Always showers, baths — he didn’t have a very strong odor, how some men have to use very strong cologne. Sometimes both of us liked the idea of having a beautiful scent, so we would both wear rose oil or something. He liked to use witch hazel. One thing about his body that is very important: he had three prominent moles on his forehead. I think it was a sign of him being connected to maybe Buddha, like a third eye. He was also double-jointed; he could put his legs around his neck. We would all struggle with these yoga things, but it was a cinch to him because he was double-jointed. Photos could never catch the three moles on his forehead — maybe it would make it look like a pimple or something, but it wasn’t a pimple; the three moles were beautiful. His face was very large like in a kabuki mask or something. When you see Sean you see it, very like John and very oriental. People thought our features looked alike. Sean looks oriental but looks like John. People say it’s eerie.

MM: Do you think there is a Japanese artistic movement in Japan that is pursuing a Japanese identity, rather than following the Western model?

YO: There are a lot of interesting rock bands coming out of Japan right now. My feeling is that, except for the conservative, nationalistic people, the young generation has welcomed Western influence. From my mother’s time and before, Japan has welcomed the input of Western culture. And there’s a word for it: wakon yosai. Wakon means Japanese spirit and yosai means Western technique. That word was used in Meiji time [1868-1912]. Before that there was a big 300 years of isolationism; people panicked at the thought of being overwhelmed by Western culture.

But then we said, Relax, we are going to maintain the Japanese spirit and learn from the West about technique. By making the statement that people don’t have to worry, they can keep their identity. I think that’s beautiful. Now the young Japanese, some people are very afraid that the Western culture will take over and the Japanese culture will be lost. And some Japanese people think that Western culture is part of them; some people disdain Japanese culture and they don’t like people who speak Japanese and have snobbery about speaking Japanese, even in Japan.

When you look into history, countries that are not considered first-class countries, even eastern European countries, have this complex. The first group of Japanese models were discovered by Westerners because they thought they were beautiful. Japan is one of the very few countries that has not become a colony of a Western country. But Hollywood conquered Japan anyway; it’s an incredible situation. That look, the Marilyn Monroe look, is what they go for. It’s what the whole world goes for.

MM: I want to read what you said on the introduction to “Coffin Car,” on the album On Feeling the Space, and ask you to comment on it: “I was living as an artist and had relative freedom as a woman, so I was considered the bitch in this society, and since I met John I became upgraded to a witch, and I think that was flattering. What I learned from being with John is that the society treated me as woman who belonged to a man who was one of the powerful people in a generation…. Because the whole society started attacking me and wishing me dead. That’s when I accumulated a tremendous guilt complex, and as a result of that I started to stutter. All my life I considered myself a very eloquent woman, a very attractive woman, and suddenly, since I became associated with John, I was considered an ugly woman, an ugly Jap, for taking away your monument or something like that. That’s when I realized how hard it is for women, because if I can start to stutter — after 30 years of being a strong woman — after getting treated like that for three years, then it is a very hard road.”

The term “ugly Jap” was used to describe you, and it’s interesting that that term attacks both your gender and your ethnicity.

YO: I was horrified that I was stuttering. I was attacked in so many ways. I could write a book…. In hindsight I think it was better than if I had a very easy career. I could have had a very easy career. If I stayed just as an artist and didn’t get involved with that whole scene, I would probably have been known as a good artist and had a small apartment in the Village. Whatever happened, I don’t regret it. I should tell you because I don’t want anyone to go through the same thing — censoring yourself. Self-censorship as a result of getting attacked. Well, maybe if I didn’t censor at all, maybe I wouldn’t be living — so it might have been a survival tactic — but I did censor myself and I regret it.

MM: Did “Woman Is the Nigger of the World” predate feminist organizations? At that time were you associated with any organized feminist groups?

YO: I was very isolated. The rock world was very macho, and I thought “What am I doing here?” I think that initially the feminist movement was going away from men, being separate. It was painful to think about guys. They are so macho. Our dignity was lessened by how we were treated by the opposite sex. But I have always felt that we have to stand together, woman and man. That is harder — feeling the mutuality of man and woman, rather than to go to the lesbian nation.

MM: How has the attitude of your family in Japan to you and your work changed over the years?

YO: My father passed on. My mother accepts the situation — she feels like, “What can I do?” My other relatives still think, “That woman.” Every year they would announce to the press that they had very little to do with Yoko Ono. When I was attacked by the whole Western world, shall we say, John and I thought that maybe the Japanese would stand by me, but they didn’t. And that type of attitude comes from the colonization of the mind. They were ashamed of me; they felt ashamed of what was being said about me.

The Japanese press was knocking me for no reason. They didn’t even know me but just followed what the West was doing. It was like the oriental people were not on their own. There was no way to be in the center not being blond. That was the attitude. But no power outside can destroy you. You can destroy yourself by agreeing with them. Just understand that nobody can deter you, nobody can intimidate you, nobody can stop you, except yourself. You just have to remember that. I have to tell myself this all the time.

MM: You still do?

YO: Sure. Nobody can touch you but you. Just remember, nobody can destroy yourself but you.