A Survival LP for Yoko Ono

Rock's most famous widow opens up about the responsibilities of being Mrs. Lennon

Yoko Ono at The Promenade Theater in New York, July 4th, 1984. Credit: Ron Galella/WireImage/Getty

You don't have to have your horoscope done before you go to the Dakota to interview Yoko Ono these days; you can even keep your shoes on as you walk over the white carpet to where she is curled up on an overstuffed chair, ready to chat. And her eyes, so often hidden by sunglasses in the past, look straight at you. Even though Ono is still a chain-smoker, she seems healthy, almost robust. "I'm into building my body," she says with a smile that vacillates between witty self-deprecation and skittishness. "I'm doing the racquetball. And also, trampoline. And swimming. And walking." She's half-considering entering a marathon.

It's a far cry from the Yoko Ono of a year ago: a gracious but wan woman, still physically ravaged by the death of her husband John Lennon. This year's release of Milk and Honey — the album which was to have been John and Yoko's sequel to Double Fantasy, and which contained six of Lennon's most personal songs — has been the catalyst for her new upbeat attitude. "It was like a burden of responsibility, and I thought, 'If I don't do it, I'm not going to sleep well.' And I kept feeling guilty about it."

She's made herself available to talk about Every Man Has a Woman — an LP of her songs recorded by such artists as Elvis Costello, Roberta Flack, Rosanne Cash and others — although she had very little to do with it on the creative end. The project began as a 50th-birthday present to her from John as a way of displaying her songwriting talents to a wider audience. After his death, the project fell to Sam Havadtoy, Ono's boyfriend and aide, who coordinated the recording of the tracks and steered them through some tangled legal thickets ("Don't Worry" by the B-52's didn't make it through).

As John expected, her songs do take on new life. Although the performances by Ono's longtime pals (Harry Nilsson, for example) are a bit maudlin, the wackier efforts really work: a nutty version of "Wake Up" by Trio (their connection is producer Klaus Voormann, the ex-Plastic Ono Band bassist) and even Eddie Money's AOR-aimed "I'm Moving On."

It sounds like a vanity project, but Ono sharply denies that. "It's a survival project," she asserts. "I mean, my songs do need a push. John was always saying, 'If you had somebody to cover them, then people would know your songs. Your voice is sort of in the way, you have to take that away and then they can see the songs as they are.' And he was right about that. He was right about a lot of things."

One thing that hasn't changed about Ono is her constant invocation of her late husband's name — and the public appearances of their son, Sean Ono Lennon. This continues to be a source of controversy even among those sympathetic to Ono's work. Those moved by the stark bereavement of 1981's Season of Glass LP were soon given images of more questionable taste to cope with: Lennon's specter standing beside Ono and their son, Sean, on the back of It's Alright; Ono and Sean ascending the stage during Elton John's concert at Madison Square Garden, with Sean wearing a T-shirt that read WORKING CLASS HERO; Yoko and Sean touring Liverpool on the very day that Milk and Honey was released in America.

But to those who criticize Ono for exposing her son to the glare of publicity, she says, "I didn't intend to turn him into a public figure. The easiest thing was to just keep him in a box, but the more I wanted to hide him, the more they wanted to find him, take his picture. So I just said, 'Enough of this game.' If he's here and he wants to go to a Michael Jackson show ... well, that means he's going to be photographed, but it's all right. 

"See, I didn't even stop him watching the TV when his dad died. If I wanted to give him a 'normal' life, I'd have to stop him from watching the TV, for instance, so he wouldn't see some gossip about Dad. But I'm not doing that. So normal life means watching the TV, going to shows when he wants to and going to school normally. And that's all he's doing." Not quite all: Sean, in fact, sings "It's Alright" at the close of Every Man Has a Woman. But to all appearances he is a well-adjusted nine-year-old.

Ono's day-to-day work centers on a plethora of projects that bear her late husband's name. There was the Sotheby's auction of Lennon memorabilia, which benefited the Spirit Foundation; a John Lennon museum, for which Ono is scouting out space in New York; a fully endowed Lennon scholarship, like the Fulbright, which would enable students to study overseas; Strawberry Fields, the Central Park memorial to Lennon to be completed next year; a full-length documentary, set for airing this fall on what Ono describes as "a major network"; and a made-for-TV movie about her and John's life, produced by Carson Productions.

That last project, she says, has stirred criticism from fans concerned about how Lennon will be portrayed. She has already sent back a first draft of the script for revisions ("I wasn't that impressed with it"), but she does not hold final control over the project. "I'm hoping that they will make it something good," she says. "But if I didn't have a foot in, then we would have really been ..." Her voice trails off, but the implication is clear.

Whatever her wishes, her identity has switched irrevocably from Yoko Ono, Avant-Garde Artist, to Mrs. Lennon, Keeper of the Flame. The transition has not been an easy one. "When John and I got married and somebody called me Mrs. Lennon, I was extremely surprised and shocked: I'm Mrs. Lennon? And John was giggling and saying to me, 'That's one thing that you're never gonna get over. You're gonna be known as Mrs. Lennon forever.' And he was chuckling like crazy 'cause he knows me and he knows how proud I am. But I kept my independence pretty well in a circumstance like that.

"Then he died, and now I'm really Mrs. Lennon; everybody's writing to me saying, 'Mrs. Lennon ...'" She turns her face to the ceiling and addresses her late husband directly. "All right, so you won; you won this game." She brings her glance down again. "When people call me Mrs. Lennon now, maybe because of all the other things that happened, I cherish it."

It's that identity and those projects that keep her from seriously considering marriage to Havadtoy, the handsome, cheerful Hungarian émigré who has lived with Ono for some time. Though the pair choose not to pose for pictures, they are unabashedly affectionate with each other out of the public eye. "I can't think of marriage now," she says simply. "I had a very intense relationship with John and to have a very intense relationship like that ... I want to rest from it. I'm sort of intimidated by what happened [to John], and I don't want to go into another big relationship, you know. But Sam has been here for several years and has been very, very supportive and extremely good to Sean, and all the work wouldn't have happened without his effort. It's good, that. But it's too much to ask me to think beyond that, because my energy is exerted in so many different areas. I'm surprised that I'm doing this much!" She laughs. "I don't have time to put so much energy in a one-to-one relationship."

Up to now, Ono feels that she has been tolerant of criticism from the outside world. That, too, has changed. "The family of the deceased goes through a kind of a guilt complex," she says at the end of our chat. "And I went through all that, too. When people started to persecute me about 'Oh, well, she's ripping him off,' initially I sort of felt like, 'Well, okay, it's all right for you to criticize.' But now I'm just sort of saying, 'All right, no more persecution please.'"

She laughs again, but she means what she says. "'How much do you want from me? How much can one person do? I'm doing my best.'"