The Lost 1981 Yoko Ono Interview
Why do I miss you so/If you’re just a speck of dust/Floating endlessly amongst a billion stars/Knowing one day/We may float apart/Meeting each other in/Memories …
It is a wistful, melancholy song — reminiscent of “The Way We Were”— and Yoko Ono’s soprano breaks on the last chord. She jumps off the piano bench and paces the living room floor of her home in Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, barefoot and clad in a pistachio T-shirt and white shorts. “I’m too emotional about this,” she apologizes between coughs, as Girard, the chauffeur, dashes out to retrieve some lozenges from her cocoa-colored 1963 Rolls-Royce. “Whenever I had a new song, I used to be so happy, I would show it to John.…” Her voice trails off, wounded. Suddenly she is softly weeping. “Now, they don’t mean a thing.”
Suddenly, Sean Ono Lennon, 5, bounds into the room with his pet Akita, a pony-sized dog named Mary. He is all sweet smiles and soft almond eyes, babbling happy nonsense about bellybuttons. In a moment, Yoko’s cloud has passed. “Well, it’s all right, then,” she sighs. Composed, she turns to Girard and asks for the bag of letters that came in yesterday’s mail. “I’ll tell you how I feel,” she says. “Remember that old man in Star Wars who disappeared to join a bigger power so he could do what he couldn’t do before? It’s just like that. John left to become the Great Force. And I’m thinking, ‘Oh, so we’re doing it like that, eh?’ We’re still a duet. He’s doing what he can upstairs. And I’m doing what I can down here.”
Nine months after her husband died before her eyes, Yoko Ono is picking up the pieces of her shattered life — gingerly, as she would shards of broken glass. Always her salvation and the thread running through her forty-eight years, work has also become her antidote to mourning. One week after What Happened — as she continues to call Lennon’s grisly murder — she dragged herself out of bed to the piano and composed “I Don’t Know Why.” Its snarling lyric exposed the violence and intensity of her anguish. “You bastards! Hate us …/Hate me … We had everything,” she hissed. Just weeks later, she attended an Apple business meeting, and soon afterward she was editing a videotape for John’s song “Woman” and for her own “Walking on Thin Ice,” a track, she says, on which John’s unrestrained guitar fire is indicative of the new direction his music might have taken in the Eighties: “More ambitious, more far-out, more complex.”
“When John left, it was as if the car we had been driving together was still going full speed,” she said during a series of summer interviews at her Dakota apartment, at her cloud-ceilinged work studio there, and at her Long Island estate. “The wheels are still turning, and instead of trying to brake, I have to let them go on spinning for a while.”
Possibly Yoko has borne the pain so well because she is no stranger to it. As John Lennon once said: “Her pain is such that she expresses herself in a way that hurts you — you cannot take it.”
Yoko, whose first name means “ocean child,” was born on February 18th, 1933, into a prominent Tokyo banking family. Her father was a pianist who gave up a career in music to become a banker, and he traveled widely. Before Yoko was born, he was transferred to San Francisco and didn’t meet his daughter until she was two and a half years old. Her earliest recollection of him was a photograph: “My mother would show me his picture before bedtime and tell me, ‘Say good night to father.'” Her Westernized mother enjoyed playing the role of social hostess to the hilt, but warned her eldest daughter against marriage or motherhood, claiming they had ruined her chance at a painting career. Yoko and her younger brother and sister were raised by a series of nannies.
When U.S. forces began bombing Tokyo during World War II, the Ono children were evacuated to the countryside. “My mother had some crazy idea that this would be a nice time to get in touch with nature,” gripes Yoko. “She bought, sight unseen, a farmhouse that turned out to be only half-finished. The farmers wouldn’t give us any food, and my mother rook the next train back to Tokyo.” Young Yoko became the businesswoman, begging and bartering for staples. “I had a very romantic picture of myself as a hero,” she says. “I lived in a half dream world.” She escaped into it, writing stories and poetry.
After her father became president of the Bank of Tokyo in New York, the Ono family moved in 1951 to Scarsdale, New York. Yoko attended Sarah Lawrence College but dropped out to elope with Toshi Ichiyanagi, a talented, Juilliard-trained pianist. Through him, she made her first contacts with avant-garde musicians and artists, including John Cage and La Monte Young. She began to stage performances and sponsor artists’ “events” in her lower Manhattan loft. Longtime friend Beate Gordon of the Asia Society recalls: “We sat on orange crates. There was a large piece of paper tacked to the wall. Yoko went to her refrigerator, took a bowl of jello and threw it at the paper. Then she rook a couple of eggs and threw them. Then she took some Japanese sumi ink and started finger painting. Finally, she took out a match and lit the paper. I remember looking about the rickety loft and thinking, ‘I’m going to die.'” Luckily, John Cage had warned Yoko to treat the paper with flame retardant.
Though Yoko’s conceptual pieces and her salon gatherings attracted such luminaries as Jasper Johns, Peggy Guggenheim, Robert Rauschenberg and Max Ernst, local critics paid her “action” poetry, events and writings little heed.
After a Tokyo reviewer accused her of stealing ideas, Yoko attempted suicide. It was not the first time and would not be the last. “As a teenager I was always trying to cut my wrists or take pills,” she says. “And later, even though my three husbands were terribly supportive of my work, I was always feeling frustrated as an artist. I felt I was not being accepted by society, workwise.”
Yoko’s suicide attempts stopped soon after the birth in 1963 of her first child, Kyoko, with her second husband, filmmaker Tony Cox. But she found neither marriage nor motherhood particularly fulfilling. “At age twenty-nine, I was not ready,” she explains. “Back in the Fifties, abortions had seemed like the practical and necessary thing to do, but when I was pregnant with Kyoko, Tony and the doctors frightened me into thinking that I could not safely have another abortion. At the time I decided to have Kyoko, I thought, ‘Maybe if l have a child, I’ll feel differently,’ because society’s myth is that all women are supposed to love having children. But that was a myth. So there was Kyoko, and I did become attached to her and had great love for her, but at the same time, I was still struggling to get my own space in the world. I felt that if l didn’t have room for myself, how could I give room to another human being?”
In 1967, Yoko and Tony were divorced, and shortly thereafter, she married John Lennon. Although she was later granted custody of Kyoko, Cox disappeared with the child. Yoko has not seen her daughter since she was five, but in 1979 she received a phone call from Kyoko, who was then sixteen.
“I asked her what she wanted to be and she said, ‘A psychologist,'” Yoko recalls. Though Kyoko promised to visit, she never appeared at the Dakota. Bur she did send a telegram of condolence after Lennon died. “When she comes out, I will tell her straight the kind of life I had and what happened,” Yoko adds. “Despite the fact that I wasn’t tying her shoelaces during the years we were together, we had a buddy-buddy relationship and I’m sure she missed me as a mother.”
But Yoko’s primary love became focused upon John Lennon. “To me John was a mountain,” she says, “and I was the wind — I was just blowing around, going from one country to another without a root. By connecting with him, I became anchored.”
Although many critics have in the past either ignored or derided her work, Yoko over the years has gradually been accumulating a large audience. “It’s not like ten years ago — people are catching on,” she says of the good reviews that have helped make Season of Glass a best-selling record. But the tragedy for her is that she may never know whether the public interest is truly in her art — or in her late husband. “I have no dreams about that,” she says. “I think the fact that I’m a widow is the initial concern that people have.”
Still, even Yoko seems more interested in pointing out Lennon’s achievements than in collecting kudos for her own. “It’s funny,” she remarks with a lopsided grin. “The struggle all these years was to get credited and to have an independent image, but now that he’s gone, the thing that really makes me cry is that Record World voted us top duo — I still feel I’m part of a duet.”
Given that, the problem for Yoko was obvious: how to begin a solo career after leading a relationship so intense that she once described life with John Lennon as “fourteen years in the same prison cell.” At first, Yoko thought of leaving the Dakota; in fact, for weeks after John’s death, she hadn’t been able to bear leaving the building for fear of passing beneath its once-bloodied portals. But finally, after apartment-hunting on Fifth Avenue, Yoko decided to remain. She abandoned their bedroom, though, leaving it bare, and moved her most personal belongings, including her art nouveau and art deco treasures, down the hall into a refurbished morning room — an airy white chamber facing Central Park. Outside this chamber, which has eighteenth-century Indian palace doors of ivory over silver, is a sauna — but for months, Yoko refused to use it. Pointing to a diamond heart she wears on a thin chain around her neck, she explains: “This has a very difficult clasp so it won’t drop off. I used to complain to John about it, and he’d say, ‘Well, look, I’m always going to be around, so let me do that.’ After he died, I thought, ‘Who’s going to take this off for me?’ And since metal gets very hot in a sauna, I just didn’t take one. Finally, I learned to do it myself.”
Most of Yoko’s days are spent in her dimly lighted work studio, a room dominated by Egyptian artifacts and a massive oil painting of John and Sean hanging above her piano. It was a surprise gift from father and son, who posed last year while on vacation in Bermuda. She composes in this room, adding pieces to her “pending” song folder kept in an attache case, bits and pieces she may use if she decides to perform, as she now considers doing. On weekends, Yoko visits Sean at the Cold Spring Harbor estate, a ten-room, Tudor-style retreat boasting a spectacular view of the bay, a small pool and acres of forest. A small staff of young, loyal assistants go, too, continuing their regular work of aiding Yoko and Sean and trying to preserve John Lennon’s memory.
One night recently, seated in her Cold Spring Harbor living room as the assistants scurried back and forth, Yoko gestured to the numerous family photos and other personal memorabilia that mark this very special sanctuary. “Could I bring another man into all of this? I don’t intend to spend the rest of my life alone, but in this state of mind, it would be very unfair to any man who gets involved with me.
“Because,” she added, “I am still very involved.”
ON WAR, PEACE AND LITTLE TOY GUNS
In Cold Spring Harbor one afternoon, I walked out of a room into the waiting cap guns of Sean and his pal Maxie. “We’re gonna shoot you,” yelled Sean, his long, red-brown hair swinging over one eye as he aimed his silver revolver at my kneecap. It seemed like a good place to begin the interview.
You and John stood for peace. In light of what happened, I’m surprised to find Sean playing with toy guns.
John and I debated this: are we going to give him toy guns? Also, a lot of people said we should carry guns, because, after all, many people in New York do. As you know, we didn’t carry guns ourselves, but at the same time, Sean was going through different stages of playacting, and we didn’t think we should stop it.
Life is not that simplistic, to say, “Okay, you have a violent feeling, just repress it.” It’s gonna go deep down inside you and grow. The only way to let go of it is to let it out, and playacting is a marvelous way of doing that. If I stopped Sean from doing anything suggestive of violence, then the violent streak that is in him — and in all of us — might get even worse.
Since the tragedy, Sean keeps saying that he wants to learn karate or kung fu, and he is more physically active. But I don’t stop him from saying things like “I’m gonna shoot you.” I just ignore it. It’s not like he’s obsessed about it.
How do you feel about gun control?
Eventually, I would like to think that the world will be so peaceful we won’t need to carry guns. But of course guns are not the only weapons. Control the guns, and somebody will think of another method. It’s not the weapon that creates murder — it’s the mind. It might just be like Prohibition, when liquor went into the hands of the privileged few who could afford it. So guns would become more expensive.… What would that mean?
Isn’t that an elliptical way of saying you don’t favor gun control?
I would not say that. I would say that it’s very difficult to just say that I’m in favor of gun control. It’s almost like saying I’m in favor of a charity concert. I can’t say that I’m not in favor of charity concerts, but knowing what happens — that the money may not get to the right party — I can’t naively say that I’m in favor of them, either. It may sound like a good idea, but the reality is not the same. That goes for gun control, too. It’s too simplistic to say, yes, if we have gun control, everything is going to be fine.
Actually, it was pleasant to see Sean playing at his mother’s estate. For months after John’s murder, Yoko closed her child out of her life. At one point, Sean was sent to Yoko’s Palm Beach home, where he was cared for by his nanny Helen Seaman, a close family friend. Why had Yoko chosen to avoid her and John’s only child for so long?
I was like a person who was drowning — I didn’t have the energy to reach out to him. And he reminded me so much of John. Because John was so close to Sean, I thought, “Without John, we’re not a family anymore.” Looking at him was painful. It was hard to see each other’s pain. And he was very strange. He was being the tough guy to protect me. He would come into the room and say, “Don’t cry, Mommy. Daddy’s not the only man around.” And he’d start clowning. Later, my assistants would tell me that when he went back to his room he would start crying.
Sean visited me here in the studio one day, and he looked at the portrait [of John and Sean] and said, “I remember when we did that.” I just hugged him. But he didn’t want me to see the tears in his eyes, so he jumped up and said, “Let’s ask Daddy how the weather is up there: ‘How’s the weather up there, Daddy?'”
We never discussed what death was. It seemed like he knew. He already had this concept that John is out “there” and he’s still talking to him. And it’s an unknown territory for me, too. So I decided I’m not going to hold back. When I start crying, I say, “Oh, Sean, I don’t know what to do; what are we going to do?” I’m not trying to be a strong mother in front of him. By being myself, I’m trying to tell him, “Be yourself, open up.”
I think the nicest thing I did on Season of Glass was to put Sean on it. Up until the time that I made the record, it was very hard for us to communicate, because he was hiding his fear and protecting me. But when I started to record, he would visit the studio every day and listen to my cassettes at night. So I thought, “Why don’t I just get one little thing from Sean?”
One morning, before I went to the recording studio, he came into my bedroom and started telling me a story. I said, “Well, that’s what I should put on.”
That night, we went into a dark living room in the studio that was miked. I put him on my lap, and he started talking. He said, “It’s just a little story … it could end any time.” When he said that, I realized he wasn’t just talking about the story! He was talking about what had happened. It was coming through him. When he said, “It’s just a little story,” I choked up. That summarized the whole album.
You know, the world is thinking of John’s death as a big event, and it was, especially for me. But in the context of the universe, it’s just a little story. And maybe Sean was telling me that’s the way I should think.
I could live out the memory of my past fourteen years for the next fifty years and be like Mrs. Havisham in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, sitting in the dust in exactly the same position: “This is where John sat, this is where we sat together. This is his picture. This is the letter he sent me.”
Even now, I was just sorting out this drawer [gesturing to a magnificent gold-inlay desk], which has been a mess since last October, and I found a little note from John saying, “I’m going to take a nap, so be sure, if you go out, to come back for lunch.” I’m suddenly discovering unopened letters to me all over the house. With all these reminders, it’s hard to go forward. But at the same time, you know, I have to keep remembering … it’s just a little story.
ON PREMONITIONS, GUILT, WIDOWHOOD
Did you ever worry that John might be in danger?
Of course, there were signs. I felt the danger. I sensed John was going to be kidnapped. I kept having a recurring feeling. And I told John that he should go to Bermuda with Sean while I made an interview record to plug Double Fantasy and finished the video. I said, “I’ll do all that. Why don’t you guys go to Bermuda?” And he said, “I’d rather be with you.”
I’m really feeling terrible about that, but I did my best. I actually rented a place, paid for it and tried to force him to go there. That was the first time I tried to force him to do anything. I know most people think I usually forced him to do a lot of things. But I’m not that dumb. I don’t do that to somebody like John. If you wanted him to do something, he had to want to do it. It was always that way. But I kept saying, “Look, John, I have this feeling. Don’t go down a dark street, just stick to Madison Avenue” — which he liked. “And would you mind bodyguards?” He laughed. “Look what happens in Italy,” he said. “So first they hit the bodyguards. That’s silly.”
For me to start thinking about bodyguards and dark streets and going to Bermuda was strange. But there was a reason. Both of us had been leading a very quiet life, and we suddenly became public. So there was that feeling in the air, that sort of electric feeling, that we were visible again.
The fears, of course, proved justified. And they were followed, after John’s death, with the burden of a heavy conscience. And for reasons more intimate than anyone could ever have known. As we sat one afternoon in the gazebo overlooking the bay at her Long Island estate, Yoko had this to say:
Afterward, the thing that made me feel most terrible was that John kept wanting a second child. We were planning another child. Before the five years of seclusion, we had never planned anything. But we did a lot of planning during that time, like the five houses, so we could spend the winter in Florida and the summers wherever. So I said: “Well, I have to stop smoking first. And you and I have to do a cleaning job — a juice fast. After we do that, then we’ll have our next child.” If we hadn’t planned it like that, maybe I would have a second child now.
After he died, I went through a period of guilt. Maybe I could have prevented it, or I should have been able to protect him enough to keep this from happening. If I had been pregnant, maybe it might have changed everything. I don’t know. That’s my guilt trip. Maybe we might have had to retire quickly or stop doing a few things. Our life might have changed.
I think that it’s a very deeply instinctive thing — that men and women are here to propagate and that the most significant thing John could have left was a child inside me. I think about this while I go through the process of change and shock. I am East and West. I do have a tremendous guilt feeling. But I also have a tremendous acceptance.
It’s a terrible thing that happened, but at the same time, look at that ocean; it’s beautiful [she gestures to the wind surfers gliding across the bay]. The fact that I feel the ocean is beautiful and that I felt that it was beautiful before — there’s no change in that. I even feel guilty that maybe the ocean suddenly shouldn’t be beautiful. But I can’t help it. I’m alive. And I feel that way.
And that’s what I mean when I say life is beautiful. In spite of it all.
Yoko phoned me one morning to chat about the angle a Los Angeles music critic had chosen in writing about her for his paper. “It’s another ‘grieving widow’ story,” she sighed.
Part of me is feeling that I don’t want to be loved for being a widow. In the past few months of people saying “Now I love you, Yoko,” I’ve been suffocated. I don’t want to be on a pedestal. People should know I’m no angel, but I’m no Madame Nhu, either. I’m just a very vulnerable person.
I want to say, “What is this weird behavior? Suddenly you’re loving me — and for what? I haven’t changed.” If they hated me as they used to, then it would be like old times. But it’s as if John was replaced by all their love. And I’d rather have hate and have my husband back and complain about the world — “Oh, they don’t understand us.” Because that was fun! It appealed to the rebel in me — the two of us against the world! We really enjoyed it, you know.
Some conservative Republican politician commented, and I suppose he meant it in a flattering way: “I didn’t know very much about John Lennon, but now that I do, I like what she stands for.” Now, what does that mean? What do I stand for?
That’s one of the reasons I dare to do all that at the end of “I Don’t Know Why” [where Yoko screams, “You bastards! Hate us … Hate me”]. I want to challenge, to say, “Look, I’m just going to be totally honest. And could you still love me? Not just as the cartoon called ‘Widow of the Year.’ But as I really am?”
I don’t want to tiptoe. Because John and I tried so very hard to be tactful, but then you die — and so what?
The good things I remember were not when we were being tactful but when we came out with honest statements. And we always had to pay the price for it. In those days, we called that making a mistake. John made a lot of mistakes — like saying the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. But that was real! And I’m glad he made that statement, even though I know that he paid the price for it.
After John was shot, Ringo came to see you. Did it help to have him there?
Yes, it was very comforting. He played with Sean, and it was a beautiful, sweet gesture, I thought.
Shortly afterward, Ringo got married. Were you invited to the wedding?
No. My way of taking it now is that, because of what had happened to me, they felt intimidated about inviting me, because it was really not the right time to encounter people being happy … but it would have been nice to have been told about it!
Did that bring back all the old feelings of being excluded?
It’s like we’re a family. We say all sorts of things, but in the end, they are close people because of what they meant to John. It’s fate that these four people were brought together — they are brothers. So my feeling is, even if they exclude me or hurt me, I’m not going to say anything unkind about them. Because if you asked them, maybe they would say that they were hurt because of things John and I did. We don’t socialize because they are in England, but George called me, and Paul called me, after what happened in December, and they were quite civilized about it. It’s like when Brian Epstein died. I think everybody was unhappy and shocked about it. But they are very sensitive, and they weren’t talking. I see the same situation here. I’m sure Paul and George are deeply shocked. Ringo expressed it in the way that he does best. But you know, internalizing it is probably a very personal lament for the others. They don’t know what to do about it.
Paul, in his way, probably felt he had to disguise his feelings. He is like that, and I’m sure he knows it, too. He is his own worst critic. People who know him know how he expresses himself. But if you don’t know him, it may look very bad. But the face he shows to the world and the face he shows to someone like John are very different.
George, in his own way, is like that, too. I haven’t heard his song [“All Those Years Ago”] — I don’t listen to the radio much — but I have heard of it. My feeling is, if he wants to express soul like that, fine. You have to understand, we’re all extrasensitive people, and we don’t always express things in an orthodox way. That’s why they write songs, probably — because they can’t deal with life. They cover the side they can’t deal with in songs.
ON HER RELATIONSHIP WITH JOHN
Were you aware that people saw you as threatening to John’s music and threatening to his career? Did you think you were threatening?
While we lived in seclusion for five years and I could look back on things, I thought, “If John wasn’t with me, he would still be making Number One records.” His Mind Games was not Number One. Walls and Bridges didn’t sell as much as it should. John was artistic, quote unquote. He needed somebody with the ability to be more commercial than he if he was to make it in the world. But he had teamed up with somebody who was less. We were a sinking boat. I felt guilty about that. From a purely record-industry point of view, I did damage to him. But if you had asked him, he probably would have said he wouldn’t have wanted to miss it for anything.
Was John as dependent on you as he has been portrayed?
We all know that John was not with his mother very much when he was a child. And with me — he was with me twenty-four hours a day, so maybe I resolved his need for that kind of closeness. But that’s not the whole thing.
When you compare John to other men, he was a terribly independent guy. He was financially independent. I was doing the business — but that’s incidental. He could have hired lawyers and accountants. If there had been a situation in which he would have had to live apart from me, I’m sure he could have done it. But he chose to be with me. And that goes with me, too. I did not need him, but I chose to be with him.
Of course he had a need to be dependent, too. What was beautiful was that he wasn’t afraid to show it — that was the difference. We all want to lean on somebody, but we are too embarrassed or too shy to show it that much. Now the fact that John became naked and took that position [for a photo that appeared on the cover of RS 335] wasn’t a private perversion but a symbolic statement to tell the female species, “We guys have this vulnerable side, too.” And to tell the guys not to be afraid of showing it. He preferred to show that vulnerable side rather than show the sarcastic, cynical, intellectual and violent side — the typical rock & roll guy image, the macho image. Which is an element he had, too. He could express himself like that because he was very confident about his masculinity.
Did he reach that point because of you?
John had the money and fame and power to dare to be himself. At the same time, yes, living with a woman might have helped. What I did, if anything at all, was to give him freedom to be himself. And he just jumped on it: “Oh great, I can be free!” The freedom was what he enjoyed. Already there was in him the elementof a rebel, and he was suffocated with having to conform. At home, he was making little cassette tapes of crazy music and feeling like a lonely artist because he was being told by people around him, “That is not good; it’s a bit too crazy.” When he met me he asked, “Is this all right?” and he brought out these cassettes. I’d say, “Are you kidding? This is beautiful.” Not because I was intentionally flattering him, but it was really hitting my soul. And he was starting to say, “It’s all right just to be myself.”
What did you get from your many years with John?
Many people think that I was arrogant because I was with John Lennon. I was more arrogant before I met John Lennon.
Until I met John, I was always thinking, “I am the artist.” I didn’t care what my partners or ex-husbands really thought. I mean, anyone who was working with me was an assistant: ”All right, then, just shut up, don’t interrupt me.” Now, with John, you couldn’t just say, “Shut up!” Because he demanded attention.
John would start telling me his childhood stories, and through him I learned what men go through in society. I was very naive. I didn’t know anything about the working class. I’m one of those people who could have said, “Let them eat cake.” And here is John insisting that it is not so.
In the beginning we were egocentric people who felt that we were it. I thought: “What a burden. You mean I have to listen to him?” I’m sure he felt that, too. “You mean, she has to tell me about her concert?”
A funny thing happened once in the recording studio with all the Beatles. Their assistants were joking around, saying, “Do you remember Shea Stadium? Wasn’t that fun?” And, of course, I thought Shea Stadium was a baseball field. What had the Beatles been doing there? When they explained it to me, I said, “Oh, that was 1966? Well, in that year, I gave a concert in …” I started to explain, and there was this silence. I looked around. All the faces were saying, “How dare she talk about herself?”
But John was interested in the things I had done before. He discovered in me not the differences between men and women but the similarities. And I discovered in him the humanness of men. And through him, I finally learned to tune in to people other than myself.
Shortly after John Lennon died, stories appeared implying that he had been taking drugs — even heroin — during his five-year seclusion. Yoko vehemently denied those rumors. “When John died, he was clean,” she said firmly. “I was very proud that there were no drugs found in his body. That was a beautiful thing, and I say, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ Yes, at another time — in London — I admit it. But not lately.”
Several evenings later, curled up on comfortable living-room sofas, we continued the conversation. It was a subject with which she was uncomfortable, and she spoke about it hesitantly, pausing frequently and often lighting up her slim, brown Sherman cigarettes.
John once said, “‘I’ve always needed a drug to survive.”
It sounds like a very shocking statement, and the world will take it in a limited context. But you have to understand that John was a surrealist in the strongest sense of the word, so his statements were often symbolic. He started by drinking, and I know he considered that a drug, too. He needed a crutch. He might have even thought that having an affair was a drug, too.
Did your relationship serve as his crutch?
Yes, he might have thought that. Anything to do with forgetting oneself.
Granted, his response could be taken on many levels. On the literal level, did he often need drugs?
We were not drug addicts; we were not as drug-oriented as people think. When John took drugs, he took them in extremes, and that was true of me, too.
When John and I met, we did take acid, but he had stopped using it in the extreme because he was afraid of getting burned out. He was eager to have a child, and we were having so many miscarriages that we felt it was because of his drug intake in the past.
What about heroin?
Honesty, taken out of context, could endanger us. Ask me whether John was taking anything during our five years together, and I’d say no. But what you want to know is what we were doing in London. [Sigh] Yes, in London, we were taking something. We were taking it together.
Were you frightened about becoming addicted?
I wasn’t frightened, maybe because we were together. In most cases, a husband takes the drug, hiding from his wife, and then maybe it’s a lonely trip. But we were taking it in celebration, not out of depression. We were artists. We were celebrating ourselves. It was beautiful to be on a high. And then, after we took drugs for a while, we would stop and go through the withdrawal, which is terrible, but we went through withdrawal fairly early on, and it was not that serious. You know, when you think about people who take drugs, you think of weak people who can’t help themselves or get off. But that’s when I realized what a powerful person John was. Once he decided, he would just say, “Okay, this is the last one.” And then he would go through withdrawal and I would, too. He had willpower that was amazing.
The trouble we had for being known to take heroin is incredible. For instance, when we had Sean, we had stopped taking drugs for a long, long time, because we really wanted a baby. When I had the baby, because of the Caesarean section, the doctors had to give me sedatives. And when Sean was born, he was shaking a little. It lasted, on and off, for about a month. But instead of thinking that the sedatives had caused this effect, the hospital actually accused John and me of taking drugs during my pregnancy. They not only accused us, they threatened us, saying that they had to detain Sean in the hospital because we were not qualified parents. It was the most frightening moment of our life. They might have disqualified us as parents!
John and I immediately said, “Look, it must be the sedatives you gave Yoko, because there is no other reason for it.” They checked and decided that it was the damn sedative they had been using.
When you asked me about John being a junkie during the five years when I was with him, it hurt me, because I know how he suffered not being one, always being on such a health diet. And it was such a rigid diet that I used to feel, “Do we have to live like this?” I mean, Sean was brought up on rice milk instead of cow milk, and there were times when we ate only vegetables.
John had a high resistance to alcohol from drinking hard liquor when he was young. In the end, if he had a glass of wine, he couldn’t stand up. So a glass was a lot for him. When he was putting a lot of sugar into his tea, we read Sugar Blues, and I said, “Let’s stop sugar.” Tea, with caffeine, was the extent of his drugs.
Of course, John had a self-destructive quality, too. But in the end, I think he conquered a lot of it. The self-destructive side came out in his early years, and so he was ready for the constructive side of him that really loved life to come out.
The turning point was Sean’s arrival. But the fact that Elvis died the way he did may have had an influence on John, too. We were in Tokyo when he heard about Elvis’ death. John had already started his cleanup; he was with his family, he was cycling. He was upset about Elvis’ death, but it was another reassurance that he was going in the right direction. And he was proud of that.
BUSINESS AND THE STARS
Yoko talked at length about women and power and about what she calls the need for “feminization” of society. Yoko’s argument went like this:
If women put themselves in a situation where they are demanding their rights, they put themselves in the position of beggars. If we are really going to change society, we have to be in a position where we can give. If we want to be in a position to give, then we have to realize that we have something to give. We have an innate intuition of how it is with nature, to the point that we have menstruation every month, connected with the moon and tides. Therefore, we are receiving a part of nature and that makes us very powerful. We have to use the fact that we are outside of the male social structure. We should try to work in our own way rather than in theirs — and use our own wisdom.
For instance, when I was going to Apple meetings with lawyers who represented the other Beatles, if I tried to play the same game they were playing, I would lose because I didn’t have their experience. In confronting them, I had to be myself, which meant using my instinct. In one meeting that was very important, I knew I didn’t have the power to stop the dangerous things that the lawyers would try to do. The only power I had was to manage to move the date of the meeting to when the moon was void astrologically — not in line with the earth. If you have a meeting when the moon is void, everything you decide will later be annulled. I said, “Well, we have to meet on this particular date because it is the only one available to me.” And we met, and they decided on a lot of things I couldn’t stop, and later the decisions were annulled. This is just an example of how I operate.
You tell me. I really don’t know. If I chose to, I could be spending the next ten years doing an archive of John and Yoko, which I don’t wish to do at this point. People have to understand what I’m going through — I was drowning, I was pushed to the bottom of the water. And I’m trying to get up to the surface to breathe. I don’t know what I’m doing, really, but any way I can get out of the water is fine.
Part of me is feeling responsible to those people who are waiting for the archives to be straightened out. I know publishers really want John and Yoko’s story — how we met and all of that. But I’m not ready to write that. Double Fantasy, that dialogue between John and me, is 120 hours of tape. For me to sort it out now would be so unhealthy for me. First of all, I’m not much of an archivist. My mentality is not that of a librarian. And I don’t like living among many gravestones. Or many, many father figures. In art, there already have been Marx, Chekhov, Aristotle, Jesus Christ — with that burden on us, how are we going to be ourselves? I have my own feelings and my own life now I’m not dead!
I have enough material to do a second album, and I’m writing songs all the time. I’m completing a video for Season of Glass, and aside from that, I’m writing an essay, almost a diary, of what happens when you suddenly lose your husband, how you cope with it. I mean even what you go through physically — eating chocolate cake like crazy. I’m looking at myself the way I would an experimental rat in a laboratory. There are certain experiences that are well documented — like falling in love, having a baby, going through a seven-year itch. But this was so foreign that when I searched into the old encyclopedia of my mind, I found nothing. What was I supposed to do?
Writing is therapy as well. I’m not trying to force myself to let go, but at the same time, it is an organic process. Even now, Sean and I talk about John as if he’s on another trip to Bermuda. It’s very hard to think he’s not coming back. I think, Is it healthy to feel like that? I believe this essay is a historical document I owe it to the world to share.
Could you describe the stages of mourning that you went through?
What happened in shock is that I suddenly became retarded to the stage where I became a little girl sitting on this big bed, saying, “Chocolate, please.” Chocolate was John’s thing. The night it happened, I couldn’t eat anything. The fans had gathered below our bedroom, which faces Seventy-second Street, and they were playing John’s music all night. “Imagine” — it was torture. I sent an assistant down to beg them to stop it, but … at the same time I was saying, “I can’t stand it” — what if nobody had been there —how would I have felt?
The second night, people starred saying, “You’d better eat something.” Then I said, “Okay, chocolate cake.” At first I felt so guilty I couldn’t eat it. I would remember when I’d go out to the newsstand and then bring back a cake. And John would be waiting and would say, “Chocolate, goody!” Then I forced myself to have a bite, all the time saying, “I’m sorry, John.” After that, I just got into it.
For a week, I just sat in bed; I couldn’t move. Just going to the bathroom was a big trip.
What finally got you out of bed?
Season of Glass was the salvation for me. I had gone into an uncharted period in my life, with no reference points. But work had always been the strong line that went through all my life, the one thing I held onto even during the war. And believe me, there were plenty of ups and downs in my life; it was always pretty difficult.
In the middle of one night, about a week after John died, the words to “I Don’t Know Why” just came to me, exactly as it is on Season of Glass. I sang it into a tape recorder — and in the end there was a long, long curse. There was hate coming through, but I was perfectly comfortable about it. If it had been John, he probably would have said worse things!
People advised me that it wouldn’t look right to make the record so soon. But if I had had to sit in the Dakota without doing anything — because I am a workaholic by nature — I would have jumped out the window. Music was the most natural thing I could think of. It was part of our life. For me to wear a black veil or go to the mountains or take John’s body and bury it in a graveyard — that would have been foreign. But going back to the studio where we had been making music up until his death was like going back to the family. And music was our family language.
When I recorded “Goodbye Sadness,” you can hear my voice cracking left and right because it was hard to cut the past. With an engineer’s help, I tried to fix it up. But when I heard the smooth version, it was a stranger’s voice. So I thought, well, it’s hard to say goodbye, anyway. So what if it’s cracking?
Like all my records, this album has a little theme to it. First you say goodbye to sadness, and then there are flashbacks to different aspects of our relationship. After that, you know what happens — “I Don’t Know.” And in the end, a woman tries to stand up on her own. It’s my diary, in fact.
Why did you dismiss Phil Spector as producer?
Initially, when I brought Phil in, I was thinking it was a good idea to make the record really AM commercial so my message would get through. Phil was a top producer, and I wanted his help as a friend. In the end, I just felt that his way of doing things was very different from mine. And because of John being so heavily in the record, I thought I had to do it my way.
Phil said, “Don’t worry, when we’re finished with it, people will never recognize your voice.” He meant well, because my voice is not a “commercial” voice. But then I thought, “It’s a gamble. Why guess what AM is going to like? Why not do it my way?” Phil probably still believes that if we had done it his way, it would have gone to AM, and he’s probably right.
There were comments afterward that, musically, there was nothing far-out about Season of Glass — that, in fact, it was quite ordinary. I agree in some ways. It’s like when people criticized John for singing “sissy” love songs. I still think it was important for John to say, “I love you.” I am not going to do a far-out album just to please a small minority. To communicate my feelings sincerely was the most important thing. Sincere feelings are usually best expressed with simple gestures. And if I had to make a decision again whether to be sincere or to be “artistic,” I’d probably choose sincere.
After Season of Glass was finished, I felt a relief. I finished the mastering, sent the disc to the record company and, for the first time in a long while, I took a walk in Central Park. I felt relaxed, and I thought, well, maybe I could go to a coffee shop. And then I thought, “I could possibly even go to the theater.” And slowly I worked my way back into the world.
I think John’s death made Sean and me very strong. A lot of people are saying that because of what happened, he’s going to grow up to be a neurotic kid, and I worried about that. But looking at Sean, I see only strength in him. And somehow I think that Sean is going to be all right. Not just all right, but beautiful.
It’s like this event — isn’t that a terrible way of putting it? — affected us all in different ways, but we are all stronger and more aware for it, and probably for the better.
I can’t think it was all for the worse.
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When John and I were saying, “The world is one, one world,” it’s almost like fate told us, “Okay, prove it. Prove it with your life.” And that’s what John did. At the time of his death, the world definitely became one. And though we might forget it, we’re never going to lose that sense. It’s in us, and it always will be. Somehow we’re gonna be different. And the sense of oneness that we preached, well, John actually had to show it physically, and somehow he did it. That was his fate. And I keep thinking of it.
It’s like preaching is not enough. Let the whole world feel it. Let it happen.
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