Interview with Yoko Ono by Jody Denberg

The following conversation with Yoko Ono took place on Saturday morning April 15, 2000 at 10 a.m. CST. In this interview Yoko not only discusses John Lennon's visual art, but the re-release of his Imagine album, the accompanying Gimme Some Truth video, the potential parole of her late husband's murderer, her own artwork and other Lennon/Ono topics. Yoko Ono and KGSR present The Artwork of John Lennon at the Omni Hotel, May 12th, 13th and 14th. We'd like to thank Jody Denberg for allowing us to post this interview. You can find out more about Jody's station, KGSR-FM, at their website.

Q: Yoko, the first artwork that most of us saw from John: the erotic 1969 Bag One lithographs…

A: (Laughs) Yeah, right, yeah.

Q: But art that John did as a child was on the cover of "Walls and Bridges." Was John a natural or did he develop his visual arts skills at school?

A: Well, I think he was a real natch, you know, because -- I think, there's a book - a little notebook that he did when he was nine years old. And it's called The Liverpool Echo, taking the title from the newspaper at the time in Liverpool. And it's like a kind of put-on thing. And it's so beautiful. And when you see that, you see that -- his artwork, unless you knew that he was nine years old, you'd think it's some satirical animation guy. Very, very good, good drawings. So he was like that. And at school, he was kind of -- he was not accepted too well because he was kind of not studying too well or whatever. And finally, the teacher said, "Well, listen, the only place that he can go is probably art school." The teacher knew that he was very good in artwork. So that's how he went to art school.

Q: Do you think that John, if he hadn't become a musician, would have concentrated more on being a visual artist?

A: Definitely, yeah. He could have been anything, actually. He was such an incredibly, incredibly talented guy. He might have been a writer. He always said, "Journalists are very intelligent people." And you know, "I could have been a journalist or whatever." I don't know. He probably would have been definitely a painter, anyway.

Q: When you first decided to make prints of John's drawings, did you always know exactly where the originals were and did you ever look at them over the years?

A: Yes, of course, I knew. Yeah.

Q: And did you ever take them out and look at them before you decided to share them with the public?

A: Well, definitely. Each one of the serigraphs, that was a result of me going through the originals again and deciding, okay, this year it has to be this one. We should show this one. We should share this one. You know, that kind of thing. I hand pick them.

Q: Was there a physical place where John liked to draw, like a certain room in the Dakota or in Long Island or --

A: No, he -- you know, he was an obsessive artist in a way. And he's kind of driven in a way. So he would do it anywhere. He would do it on the plane, even. He was like that.

Q: So he always traveled with his sketch pad and some pens?

A: Well, sometimes traveling with a sketch-pad, yes. But sometimes when he felt like doing it and he wasn't carrying a sketch-pad, that wouldn't deter him. He wasn't like that. He would say, "Oh, do you have paper somewhere?" And he would just do it on anything. He was that kind of person.

Q: One of the newest releases from John's art archives is "Real Love, The Drawings For Sean." Did John sketch these with Sean there or would he do them and then show them to Sean?

A: No, no, no, John definitely did it with Sean there. That was part of it. Like, "What do you think this is going to be?" And Sean's kind of intently looking at it. And he'd say, "Oh, it's a froggy." "Right. Right. It's a froggy." That kind of thing. It was part of it.

Q: A lot of these drawings weren't in color when John did them. You colorized them yourself, which made it a collaboration with you and John. Why did you decide to do that?

Q: Well, first of all, yes, I did color them. But the reason for that is because, initially, when this whole program was set up and I got some professional people to set up the program, et cetera -- the Bag One art program -- and they brought this colored stuff. And I said, "Why did you color John's work? That's sacrilegious." And they said, "Well, I'm sorry, but if you don't have color, they don't put you in the windows." I said, "Well, that sounds like record time, you know. Record cover - we need this that and the other." And, okay, let's just be practical about it. But at least, let me do it, because I'm the partner. And maybe John wouldn't have minded if I did it. And the reason why I said that is not just because I was a partner with -- not just sort of like insisting that I do it because I was a partner, but I realized that the stuff that they did, of course, was -- the color was overwhelming John's work. And the way I did it was, I wanted to make sure that John's original drawings were kind of standing out and that the color was just to enhance it or something, delicately. Now, with the Real Love book, that was a different story. I supervised it, but I had a professional colorist who does children's books. And that was very important because they have a certain format, you see, of coloring children's books. So I went along with that.

Q: Sometimes it seems like you're between a rock and a hard place because if you don't share all this work, people say you're hoarding it. And then there're people who say you merchandise John too aggressively. How do you feel about that?

A: Well, I don't think I'm merchandising John aggressively at all. And if John's stuff is not out there, people forget about him. It's as simple as that. Or in the case of John because John is so popular, if I didn't do it, then some people would do it and make some kind of cheap version of it or something like that. And it would really destroy John's work. And so I have to protect his work. And this is the only way I can do it.

Q: Yoko, you co-produced the original "Imagine" album. And it's just been re-issued, digitally re-mastered and re-mixed at Abbey Road Studios. Why did you choose this album to focus on from all of John's discs?

A: Well, because we're doing it like -- well, the next one is going to be Plastic Ono Band, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. And -- because John -- John cannot make a new record or anything like that. So each record that John made is very, very important. And they need a certain space to be promoted and to get to the people. So this is the first one. And then it's going to be Plastic Ono Band and then the…well the third one, I don't know what the third one is. But this year, is -- because its John's 60th and all that, so we're going to put Double Fantasy as well. At the year end. So it's like the first one and the last one. That was the first hit and his last one.

Q: I listened to the new "Imagine" last night. It's just beautiful. And I also had a chance to watch the video of the making of Imagine, called "Gimme Some Truth." You let Andrew Solt direct the piece. Why didn't you do it yourself?

A: Well, I could have, but you see, if I did it, then -- I'm too -- you know, it's a very personal thing. It's a personal subject. So that I could become a little bit too emotional about it and it chokes me up and everything. And I might be partial. And it's bad. It's bad that I do it. I just wanted a kind of objective person do it. And Andrew's not just objective, but he knows about us and everything. It's just the ideal person. He did a great job, I think.

Q: There's the video and DVD "Gimme Some Truth." There was also a recent book out called "Gimme Some Truth" about author Jon Wiener's quest to recover John Lennon's FBI files. Would you read something like that?

A: I happen to -- well, I happen to like Jon Wiener a lot. And he's a very nice person, et cetera. And it wasn't like -- it was just a coincidence that his book was "Gimme Some Truth" and mine was "Gimme Some Truth," the video. But I don't know. I mean, it's -- it's hard for me to go through a book like that. So I haven't had a chance to do that. It doesn't mean that it's not a worthy book. It's a very interesting book. But I lived it, you know, so -- for other people it's very interesting maybe, but not for me. You know what I mean? I get too emotional.

... But may I just go back to this thing about, okay, people think that I'm just aggressively merchandising John? And I just want to say, one, that I get the best people to create the program. I, myself, hand-pick all the drawings to make the serigraph. And I use the best material, best printer, et cetera, et cetera in the world. And also, whenever I present it in a city, I make sure to hook up with the local charity and make sure that something goes to them. There's a format which I can live with because it's very John. It's presenting John in the right way. And if I hadn't done that, I think it would have been a very different situation, because some people are just greedy and just would do it, do something cheaply and try to sell it for a lot of money or something like that. And that would not have been right for John's work. So I (would) just like the fans to know that I'm doing my best.

... The thing is, for instance, I mean, you do know that the art world now, every artwork is so expensive. It just goes on being so expensive. And we're keeping the price down and everything because it's definitely for the people. I mean, John's work was for the people. So I have that in my mind, too. The thing is, John created these things with love. It wasn't like a gallery or the museum said, "John, you can have a show and so, you know, create." I mean, nobody cared about his artwork. And still, he just had to do it. It's just that kind of genuine feeling of an artist that created these things. And there's a lonely artist in that sense.

... Strangely enough, he was known all over the world, a very famous person and a very popular person. But he couldn't get his show in a gallery. So in a sense that he was playing the kind of -- not playing, but was put in the position of a contemporary Van Gogh, shall we say. In that sense. And you feel it. When you see his work, you feel it.

Q: Yoko, we've been hearing about the forthcoming Beatles' Anthology book. Did you have any involvement with its creation?

A: I did make sure -- tried to make sure that John is represented well, as much as I could that is.

Q:A few months ago, on VH1, they had this fictional account of a reunion between John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Do you have to give your permission for a project like that?

A: No, there was no permission given to a project like that. I think, because this particular filmmaker was -- he was the one who made "Let it Be," and I think that there was no reason not to trust him?

Q: I'm imagining that's not something you would watch (laughs)?

A: No, no. I didn't (laughs).

Q: You didn't miss very much.

A: Oh, okay.

Q: A few weeks ago, there were news reports that three collectors had purchased nine hours of footage of you and John from your ex-husband, Tony Cox. Would you rather own the footage for your own purposes? How will you deal with that?

A: Well people think that -- the way it was written up, sensational and all that -- wow, it must be great. But I was there and I've seen the video. So I know what it was. Or what it is. And I'm not that interested in it.

Q: I understand that by the end of the year there's going to be a parole hearing for the man who killed John. Will you be giving your feedback to the Board and what will influence what you tell them?

A: Well, that's a very difficult question and it's a very sensitive issue. I think that this is not the time for me to voice anything. I have my own thoughts about it. And my thoughts are -- or my opinions, would be based, definitely, on my concern about the safety of Julian and Sean and myself and, and other famous people as well. But also, not just famous people, but other people who would be subjected to a kind of dangerous situation, maybe. So that's all I can say now. But I think that it's not the time to say anything about that.

Q: Yoko, we've been talking a lot about John's art. But you have so many great projects that you've been working on. I'd like to get a chance to just ask you about some of them. I understand that next month you're going to be doing a website event from the Sydney Opera House in Australia. I read about that. I

A: Oh, next month, is it? Oh, yeah. Because there's a Sydney Biennale -- Biennale is kind of big, you know, in the art world. They have Venice Biennale as you know. Sydney has this big Biennale coming up. And I was invited to show my work and everything. So I'm going to be there, you know.

Q: And they're saying there will be something happening on the Internet. I guess we'll see what that --

A: I don't know if they're going to put it on the Internet or not. But I mean, I suppose these days they do it automatically. And I'm just doing a little thing there.

Q: Did you get a chance to see the play in Toronto called the Yoko Ono Project?

A: Oh, yes, I haven't had the chance to see it because this - well, this year -- from last year on it's just a very busy time. But I was thrilled about it and tickled about it. And I heard about it that it was very good and bless them for it.

Q: So many of these projects focus about you and/or John in the past because you're historical figures. How do you stay focused on the present as well?

A: Well I'm totally focused on my present life. Otherwise, you know my life would go haywire. I am taking care of myself. And I'm trying to keep myself centered and everything and doing things daily. Every day I think about that day. And that's how I'm doing it. But yes, of course, all these sort of past things come. It's part of it that I have three or four different hats to wear, caps to wear.

Q: At the end of last year, you took your one-woman art show to Israel. Last February, you opened a one-woman show in Spain. And now I understand that your show will tour America soon.

A: Yes. So it's great. I'm…I'm feeling very lucky that I'm still working. And that's why one of the concerns that I have is that I want to make sure that John's work is alive and well.

Q: And your work as well. There is a retrospective of your art that is going to go to Minneapolis, Houston, Texas, I understand. And this will be a retrospective, so it will be the same as it travels through. But when you go to Israel or you go to Spain, the shows are slightly different, aren't they?

A: Well, yeah. Each time the show, up to now, is slightly different. This particular show that started in the Japan Society in New York, will be the same, but not quite the same, because each town it's a different environment. It would be shown in a slightly different way and the local curators would put -- sort of like be inspired and add some creativity of their own, et cetera. So it will be very interesting. I'd like to see them all.

Q: There was a photo in Billboard magazine recently. It showed you and Sean and Yuka Honda in the studio. Are you planning a new CD for this year?

A: Well, yes, definitely. I'm planning a new CD, but that was just something that we tried for a coffee table kind of book that's coming out of my artwork. And the inside cover, I think, they want to put a CD in it or something like that. So it's a kind of -- it's a totally different kind of thing. And we will probably -- or I will probably do something about it and put it in there. But outside of that, I think -- I'm hoping that I have enough time this summer to go into the studio.

Q: Well, that would be great. I know it's a very busy year. October will be the 60th anniversary of John's birth.

A: I know, it's a very busy year, Jody (laughs). I can't believe how busy I am. So in a busy year like this, I have to really focus on taking care of my health and keep it going.

Q: First of all, you look great every time we see you on TV. I know you kicked that cigarette habit, so good for you.

A: Yeah, I kicked that one.

Q: And I wanted to wish you a belated 67th birthday. We had a party here for you in Austin.

A: That's great.

Q: I faxed the information to Studio One and we had a lot of people doing your performances and your music. And hopefully, they passed that along to you. And I hope if you tour behind your next record, you will come and visit Austin this time.

A: Okay. Well that's a promise.

Q: Alright. We've been talking with Yoko Ono. She and KGSR present the artwork of John Lennon at the Omni Hotel.

A: I hope you enjoy it! Nice talking to you again, Jody.