Yoko Ono Teamed Up with Lady Gaga?
The flip side of this ego-vacuum is the attention-seeking diva who crawled onto the piano while Lady Gaga was singing at a performance of the Plastic Ono Band in 2010.
Helen Brown finds Meltdown curator Yoko Ono as provocative and unknowable as ever.
The afternoon is overcast, and we're inside. But Yoko Ono is still wearing a pair of shiny black shades. She studies me over the brims like a playful librarian, then springs up from the sofa of her luxurious hotel suite with such vim that it's hard to believe the woman John Lennon described as "the world's most famous unknown artist" turned 80 earlier this year. "Energy is so important," she likes to say. "If you don't have it, don't bother with rock and roll."
Ono is in London in her role as curator of this year's Meltdown Festival, which places an accent on "pure 'female' energy" in particular. Her lineup includes women like Siouxsie Sioux, Patti Smith and Marianne Faithfull, who, she tells me, has "created something incredible with her voice".
"She had that pretty voice when she was young and now she's using this rich resonance. We fell in love with that. I think a lot of women learned from her that age is fine. And I think for Meltdown she's going to be doing something very different from what she does usually."
Ono has always been an avowed feminist. The first woman admitted to the philosophy programme at Gakushuin University in Tokyo, she challenged cultural perceptions of female passivity through the music and performance art she was making long before she met her third husband, Lennon, when he attended one of her exhibitions in 1966. He climbed a ladder leading up to a canvas suspended from the ceiling, with a spyglass hanging from it on the end of a chain. Through the glass he read the word "YES" printed in tiny letters. In a counterculture context in which the avant garde were against everything, her positivity appealed to his quirky sense of humour - and they fell in love.
As a "Beatle-wife" Ono helped her husband to acknowledge his former chauvinism and the pair ended up writing songs like the controversially titled Woman is the Nigger of the World. "We make her paint her face and dance," they sang in 1972. "If she won't be a slave, we say that she don't love us/ If she's real, we say she's trying to be a man". Lennon's most famous solo song was inspired by a poem from Ono's Grapefruit book, published before they met: "Imagine the clouds dripping, dig a hole in your garden to put them in."
Although he took all the songwriting credit, Lennon later said that it "should be credited as a Lennon/Ono song. A lot of the lyrics and the concept came from Yoko, but in those days I was a bit more selfish, a bit more macho, and I sort of omitted her contribution, but it was right out of Grapefruit."
Whether publicly bedding down, banging a drum, or ululating wildly beside her husband, Ono became a lightening rod for attitudes both to women and to avant garde art. Fans blamed her for breaking up the greatest band in history (it took Paul McCartney until his 2012 interview with David Frost to unequivocally state that she was not responsible). There was clearly sexism and racism at work in the media portrayals of her. "John Lennon's Exclusive Groupie" ran one notorious 1970 Esquire headline over a grotesque caricature of her and John.
But this doesn't mean that finding her singing unbearable, or her art empty and pretentious, necessarily makes you racist or sexist. She's cryptic, conceptual, confusing and as we talk it becomes clear she has no interest in making my understanding of her any easier. She evades questions, offering polite platitudes and gnomic smiles.
Her art can be funny, empowering and warm - or naive, clinched and vain. Most of us have wondered what was going on with her voice, which I can find thrilling or jarring depending on the context and my mood.
She tells me: "When I was a very, very, young girl, my mother said: 'Don't ever go to the servants' room because they're talking about things that you shouldn't know.' Well, that's a fine introduction! So I slipped out and went very near the room and heard these two young girls, one was talking about her aunt in hospital giving birth. And she was going: Ahh! - ahhh! - ahhh! ahhh! Well, I got scared and I ran away. But that experience stayed with me. And I thought: why is woman always known for pretty voice and pretty songs? Because that's what the world wants. They don't want a woman to sound too strong.
"We feel we shouldn't scream out. So I thought we have to show what women are, we're the birthgivers of the human race. Why should we be ashamed of it or treated differently? Of course, when I started to show it, most people thought it was terrible. I was aware that I was doing something unique and important. But they thought: 'How dare she?' So when I was doing a recording, even the engineers all went to bathroom. There's a tape somewhere of John saying: 'Are you getting that?'?" She laughs. "But John really took to my way of singing."
Yet, there were many strong female voices in popular music - Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Janis Joplin - before Ono. And I'm not entirely sure she sounds like any labouring woman I've ever heard. I sounded like a cow under a steamroller while delivering my children, and while I'm proud of the "strong, female energy" it took to bring my kids into the world I don't think I'd want the album, any more than I'd want to listen to the moans of men wounded in war. Then again, Ono began doing this at a time when men's pain was acknowledged all over the Six O'Clock News. What makes Ono a feminist proto-punk - as opposed to a woman expressing vocal strength - is that she wanted her sound to be disruptive and provocative.
In fact, a lot of her music - like 2009's Between my Head and the Sky - is also really good if you give it a shot: fearless and electrifying. Like her art - in which she tells you to burn her book, sleep on her paintings, cut pieces from her clothing - Ono's music works by asking questions of the audience.
In a compelling essay for The New York Times last year, Lisa Carver wrote that: "It takes an enormous lack of ego to not put your imprint on everything you do, to not employ your learning and position. To stand back, to hold back, to keep your mouth shut. To yell with your silence, when you know you very well could make soothing and welcoming sounds at the drop of a hat. [Ono] could sing; she knows how. And being a Beatle's wife could have been a magic charm but she wasn't interested. It takes willpower to overpower the will to power. To be accepted, to be thought nice, is traditionally woman's power. That is something Ono doesn't need."
The flip side of this ego-vacuum is the attention-seeking diva who crawled onto the piano while Lady Gaga was singing at a performance of the Plastic Ono Band in 2010. The pair ended up writhing about there in high heels until the musical director - Ono's son Sean Lennon - got the musicians to wrap things up. She tells me that although she once let anybody who was "feeling it" join in, she's "pretty much a tyrant" when it comes to her band.
Boy George, who'll also appear at this year's Meltdown and covered Ono's The Death of Samantha on his last album, said recently that he's "one of those weird people who really love her music, and who argues with people all the time because people write her off. What I like about her is that she obviously doesn't need the money. And I just like the noise she makes."
The festival will also feature a performance of Ono's best performance art work: Cut Piece, the one in which audience members are invited onto stage to cut pieces from her clothing.
First performed in 1964, she tells me that as a young woman she was "too involved with being complacent" to study the people who approached her brandishing scissors. But although the work comments on societal control over a woman's image, she never felt vulnerable on stage.
When she first felt the metal against her skin she was a cult artist. Later performances would call into question the public's response to Lennon's wife. I was surprised to go back and read, in her description of the piece, that the performer does not have to be female. Although she tells me that: "I went to one where a man was performing. And I think because of shyness or something they made it into a joke, you know. So it wasn't that interesting."
Which artists does Ono admire today? "Myself." she says. "Because I'm the only one who knows how much I did, using my energy and effort and learning so much about life."
She's asked Canadian electronica artist Peaches to take on her Cut Piece role at Meltdown. A career-long subverter of gender roles, Ono says: "I think Peaches is gonna do a great job. She's like an Egyptian queen. Performance art is going to be the future. Plays on Broadway are so restricted. But performance art is like haikus, just a one-line thing. And it's more casual but more interesting.
"Lady Gaga did an incredible performance art piece in New York. Just her sleeping and if you wanted to say 'hello' you could put your hand in to touch her. It was beautifully done." Did Ono reach in? "I didn't have the nerve to! But I think Lady Gaga's amazing. Born this Way is a great statement song. So freeing."
Ono's Meltdown will also include elements of artist activism and the first live performance of the album Double Fantasy: released three weeks before Lennon was gunned down outside the Dakota Building, where Ono still lives ("Where else would I go, it was our home?"). She tells me that she doesn't know the lineup yet, but promises "it will be very interesting. I don't think many people want to sing it. They get intimidated because Double Fantasy is so famous." Will it be very emotional for Ono? "I get emotional at anything," she smiles. "I always get totally emotional when I hear I'm Losing You."
Famously, the song was written when Lennon couldn't get through to Ono on the phone, and it deals with his guilt over his affair with May Pang. Ono tells me she still feels guilty for not answering the phone. Was she avoiding his call? "No, I wasn't avoiding it so much as being busy. I was doing an installation work in Shea Stadium (where the Beatles performed their biggest record-breaking show in 1965) and I was trying to arrange things and I came home and they said the phone rang many times." But if you'd answered it, I say, we wouldn't have the song. "I know," nods Ono. But her mood has shifted and she is sad.
Is it hard for an artist whose life's work is devoted to moving on and living in the moment, to spend so much of her time shackled to the past, curating her husband's legacy? "One part of me is so glad that I didn't make a real boob, just stick my tongue out. I was making work that would mean something. But the emphasis for me should be now and the future."
After an hour together I still cannot make her out. There is so much to admire and so much to doubt. Do those shades represent the "black hole" Lennon's first son, Julian, described her as. Or are they a witty philosopher's mirrors?
Maybe Ono's a little of both and maybe she's beyond caring what we think.
As she tells me: "Everything has complexity. Everything has simplicity. You just grab it."
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