Starting over

The press hated her. Beatles fans blamed her. But over 30 years ago, Yoko Ono created one of the first collisions of the avant-garde with pop. It's time, she tells Nick Hasted, to give her music a second chance
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The Independent Culture
Yoko Ono was a lightning rod for the Sixties' most vicious currents. John Lennon was a man she'd barely heard of, a man she fell in love with. But with that act, the world heard of her. The peace and love generation rained all the hate and prejudice, all the reactionary bile it could muster on her head. She was The Woman Who Split Up The Beatles. She was the outsider who had wrecked a sacred institution, the scapegoat for a moment that left a generation bereft. She was hated for being Japanese, hated as a woman. She was called ugly in the press, as if she had no feelings at all. And she was thought to be "weird", a talentless parasite. That was as far from the truth as anything else.

In fact, Yoko Ono had spent the 1960s at the heart of New York's tiny but influential avant-garde world. She was a driving force in the period's conceptual art. She created the downtown scene that would spawn untold numbers of artists when she turned a loft into cheap performance space, and invited her friends. It was her art that Lennon loved first, a conceptual piece at a London exhibition, a ladder that you climbed to find a pulley revealing a message, which said "Yes". When the two made love, they spent the night recording the album Two Virgins, creatively co-mingling, first.

That album, and the three that quickly followed - Life with the Lions, The Wedding Album and Plastic Ono Band (Yoko's companion piece to Lennon's 1970 masterpiece of the same name) - have long been dismissed as more examples of John's Yoko problem, unlistenable mistakes. But their re-release this month, following the recent Royal Festival Hall retrospective of Ono's visual art, continues an unexpected reappraisal of her work. Listened to now, these records no longer sound like the product of disordered minds. The first three mix screams, radio-tuning, pop, a baby's heartbeat, silence and speaking. Leaving out no aspect of their creators' lives, they sound as natural as breathing. One of the first collisions of the avant-garde with pop, they're a revelation.

"John felt that he was stuck in the rut of the life that he'd created," Ono remembers now. "I was feeling the same thing. I was top of the hill of the avant-garde and there was nowhere to go. It was like rolling down the hill, rolling together in the mud. I was elated." Ono is talking in a hotel room in London, the city where she and Lennon met. Now 64, her old image, like that of her records, is rubbished by meeting her now. Dressed in a neat black suit and shades, she is accommodating, friendly and unaffected. One of the most irritating things about old footage of her, even for the least prejudiced observer, was her giggling, supportive, rarely articulate presence next to Lennon, a somehow exclusionary force. She was irritating, in other words, because she acted as if she were in love. In the years since his death, those mannerisms have been replaced by cool intelligence. Now you can see why Lennon loved her.

She remembers their first creative efforts with affection. "We just got together and did something reckless," she says. "We didn't know what would happen next, but we wanted to try things out. We kept exchanging ideas." It's what keeps the records alive, unpretentious, human. Two Virgins, for instance, features Ono's trademark rhythmic screaming. At the height of one such avant-garde yowl, Lennon can be heard heckling: "That's right, dear. Spit it out." "I know, I know," Ono says. "Instead of just letting me go like that, John had to do something to step on me. And, of course, I'd do the same." Were they aware of how ridiculous a lot of their work then seemed? From the records to the bed-ins and the bag-ins, the derided "advertisements for peace" with which they marked their marriage?

"Yes, of course. With the bag-ins, we wanted to point out the fact that world peace was important, but we were giggling about it too. We felt we were giving fun to the world. But you know how a joke is not a joke. What we didn't think about was the effect of it. What we did then, which we didn't realise, was to make our beds, literally. We're saying peace and love, and we're sitting there, giggling a bit. But our lives from then on really became devoted to social change. Even the way John's life ended so quickly had a lot to do with what we did then." She halts, in pain at the memory of Lennon's shooting in front of her. "And also, in hindsight, you can even say that the fact that he... he passed away in that way might have promoted some awareness of world peace. I will never know."

What Lennon and Ono had also failed to consider, in the flush of their creative enthusiasm, was just how much hatred their antics would arouse. Ono especially was subjected to unrestrained viciousness. The documentary Imagine shows respected media figures looking at her and saying "You've got to live with that," as if she wasn't human. You can see Lennon's face freeze in cold fury. Ono just looks shocked as if what's been said is slowly penetrating a mind numbed by disbelief. "I became wiser for it," she says. "I don't know if people will believe me if I say I was this naive, but I did not think of the racial aspect. I did not think of the female aspect, either. Later I realised that the attacks stemmed from some kind of strong feeling against us. At the time I thought, `This is a misunderstanding, what's going on?' It was almost like I was in Alice in Wonderland All these things were happening to me, and I wasn't aware of why they were happening. I was just moving through them, like strange rooms."

A photo on the back of Life with the Lions shows Ono in 1968, looking lost, almost falling, leaving a London hospital after a miscarriage, Lennon holding her up, holding off the police and reporters jostling them. It looks as if the world is closing in on her. She looks pained for the second time at the memory, then admits that her life then was sometimes like the photo. Did she insulate herself, develop some kind of second skin? "Oh, no. I'll tell you what happened. I was in Harvard summer school back in the Fifties. I was walking on campus one day, and there were so many students, guys, just looking at me. I got so nervous that I tripped on myself, and fell flat. It embarrassed me, and I went zoom, out of my body, way up. After that, when something was happening that was very intense, I had a way of moving my spirit a little bit above it. Part of me would pull deeper into myself. The other part went further away." It must have happened a lot. It seems that no one wished her well then. "Except ourselves," she says immediately, as if that were enough.

In the midst of such charged emotions, no one paid much attention to the records Ono made then, or the more conventional, often searingly feminist work she recorded on her own later on. Ono's life in the Seventies, as far as the world was concerned, was one of soap opera - rifts and reconciliations with Lennon - and exile, as Lennon's late-Seventies withdrawal to the role of house-husband was matched by her own concentration on their business affairs. Then he was shot, and she became the administrator of his memory, the tireless widow. But Ono never forgot the experiments they'd recorded at the start. Coming from the avant-garde, she knew that, for recognition, you sometimes had to wait. In the years since, their importance has slowly become apparent. Listen to Patti Smith, PJ Harvey, Courtney Love and others and you can hear Yoko's inquisitive howl. With the current reissues (which will include her whole catalogue) and the Royal Festival Hall's retrospective of her visual art, it seems as if she is at last moving back out of her husband's shadow. It isn't something that concerns her.

"When John passed away, there was this incredible urge to have John's picture on his own. I didn't mind. I kept releasing John's image, John's songs, John, John, John. Because that is what people wanted, and I felt thankful that people wanted that. It was fine. It was like John and Yoko was over, because he passed away. Now I'm just going with the flow, with the fact that they're starting to have some interest in my work as well. But I'm not pushing it. We both had a very independent side. We were never meshed. That might be interesting to people one day. I think the truth comes out when people are ready for it"n

`Two Virgins', `Life with the Lions', `The Wedding Album' and `Plastic Ono Band' are out now on Rykodisc; Ono's subsequent albums will be reissued later in the year