Yoko Ono on Bowie Memories, How Meeting John Lennon 'Saved' Her

Multimedia artist talks about childhood fables, ephemeral success and importance of getting outside

Yoko Ono reflects on her life with John Lennon and her quest for peace in a new interview. Credit: Illustration by Michael Summers

After spearheading a loving tribute to her late husband for what would have been his 75th birthday in 2015, Yoko Ono is turning her attention back toward her own work. Or rather, the reinterpretation of that work, as heard on the new remix LP Yes, I'm a Witch Too. We spoke with the 83-year-old artist about world music, her favorite books and why she never takes advice.

Who are your heroes?
That's easy — my husband, John Lennon. He was the only person who put up with me. It's difficult for a guy to understand what women are thinking. Most guys don't even listen. He was very forward-thinking in that sense. He really jumped into feminism, no argument. He would ask me, "Could you find feminist groups for me?" Even now, I don't think men get together and say, "Let's be feminists."

Do you have a favorite city?
I love every city I've been to, but Liverpool is great. John and I would pass through and say hello to relatives. People 
there are really strong in spirit, especially the women. 
I wouldn't say they're working-class — I don't think they'd like for me to label them that way — but they have a working-class mentality, a strength and wisdom.

What music still moves you?
Indian music is incredible. Gypsy music is fantastic. All the Middle Eastern music is very strong. John and I loved folk songs from different countries — the rhythm and the harmonies are very, very different. I can't say, you know, "Be-Bop-a-Lula."

What do you think John would have made of social media?
John felt that something like social media would come out. He was doing that anyway. When somebody said something he didn't like, he would send a letter: "It's not true!" He would never ignore those communications.

Do you have a fitness regimen?
I walk around. Walking is such a great way to relax. I know it might be dangerous, but that's only in the corner of my mind. Maybe I'm the only one now. Very few famous people are walking around now. They disappeared. It's that kind of world. It's sad, isn't it?

What's the best advice you've gotten?
I don't take advice. My background is very different, so it's very difficult for a person to advise me. My parents were very liberal and cherished that I had my own opinions. Other people's thinking is theirs, and my thinking is mine. There's no point in listening. And, so far, it's gone well.

Did you get advice about how to
 make records a certain way?
I make records my certain way.

What was your favorite book growing up?
There were two, and both are Chinese. One, Sangokushi, tells you how to battle very carefully and logically. The other, Saiyuki, has more to do with spiritual traveling. One monk decides how to solve a situation, not in a battle. One guy is very cocky. He says, "I know everything, and I can fly to the end of the world in 10 seconds." The monk says, "Show me how you do it." The guy goes zoom, zoom to the end of the world, and at the end are five huge poles. He says, "I'll put my name on that." He writes his name and goes back to the monk and says, "I just went to the end of the world." And he says, "Oh, really?" The monk opens up his hand and says, "Are these the poles?" Meaning the guy never went anywhere. He never went outside of the monk's five fingers.

What's your favorite memory of your friend David Bowie?
He was one of the very few people who liked my work. I think he said something about my music in [the 1992 compilation] Onobox that was very nice. At the time, nobody cared about it, and he was courageous to say something.

What books are you reading right now?
I usually read three books at once. One right now is The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success [by Deepak Chopra]. It pretends to be about success so people will say, "I want to read that!" But actually, he's making a very good statement about how you can be spiritually successful. I love actual printed books. I can't get out of that yet.

"[David Bowie] was one of the very few people who liked my work."

Have you thought about writing a memoir?
No. That would be a very tricky thing to do. I care about writing something that would make some people feel bad, even though they maybe were bad. I think about their children and wives, and I don't want to hurt anybody. So the book would be rather … boring [laughs].

What's the best part of success?
Well, I don't know, because I'm not successful yet. We're not getting world peace.

Is that your gauge for success?
Well, I wouldn't say, "Until then," but it's one of the big things for me.

What do you do to relax?
Relax? I don't relax too much. I'm always thinking about the next project.

This November will mark the 50th anniversary of you meeting John for the first time, when he attended your gallery show in London. You had a spyglass he looked into that said, "Yes." What does that work mean to you now?
At the time I had a very difficult life. I said, "Well, I want to change it," and this was a sign that said "yes" instead of "no." It saved me.