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Our interview with Yoko Ono

The transcript of a phone conversation on Jan. 19, 1998

by Steve Marinucci

This interview is copyrighted by the author. No portion of this interview may be republished elsewhere without the written permission of the author.

This interview occurred in advance of a local visit by "The Art of John Lennon" traveling exhibition, and naturally, includes discussion of John's art work. But it also includes other topics, including her reaction to the Internet, the "Lennon Legend" album, the release of Sean's first solo album and her relationship with the other Beatles. Her answers were honest and quite outspoken, reflecting, at times, attitudes she and John held in the '60s. This transcript is our complete conversation.

Q: Let's first talk about the artwork. You've said, ''John's sketches are autobiographical; they were his diary.'' I was looking through them. You just see little bits of John in every one, little qualities.  

Yoko: Yeah.  

Q: Is that the way you feel, too?  

Yoko: I feel that way, too. It's great. He did that with his songs, too, that he always made it kind of personal. His songs were like diaries, too. The same goes with his drawings. He was just using his life as objects for his creativity.   

Q: I have a book probably remember the drawings (he did) when he was learning Japanese. Some of those are really amazing. I realize they're not part of the exhibit, but just the fact he used his artwork to try to develop an understanding of the language. Have I got that right with those?  

Yoko: Yeah, also you know, he had a sense of humor. He wanted to kind of make it a fun thing to learn Japanese. I think it's really working. They can read that book...they can learn Japanese words just by having fun and looking at his drawings and all that. So, he was always thinking about those things, you to make things fun and easy for people.  

Q: I'm told that the exhibit that will be here in February is different than the was here a couple of years ago.  

Yoko: I think this one is very different.  

Q: How does the exhibit evolve over time? How does it change?  

Yoko: Well, this year there's a special thing about John's handwriting. I think that's very very special. I come from a culture where calligraphy is art. But also, in the Western culture, too, handwriting analysis and all that is a very scientific thing. It's not hocus-pocus. And so, in that sense, a lot of people can analyze from his writing what kind of mood he was in, etcetera, when he wrote these songs. And some of the songs, when (they were) written, (are) a little bit different from how he recorded it. So, historically, it's interesting as well. Some research of John's songs would be very interesting...that side of it. But also, just as art, when you just look at it, they're a very interesting thing. It has emotions. It has everything in it.   

Q: Yeah, I found that in looking at the different songs. How did you pick which songs you were going to use? I notice that the solo ones were basically ''Double Fantasy'' and ''Milk and Honey'' stuff, while the Beatles stuff obviously comes from all over the place. How did you choose which songs you were going to include?  

Yoko: Well, it's not like I had a lot there that I can choose from. And so I did choose the ones that were kind of more complete, I think.   

Q: Oh, I see. He didn't leave a lot of those.  

Yoko: There wasn't like a lot, no.  

Q: OK. Besides the ''Bag One'' drawings, which I know there are some included, what other drawings are included in the exhibit?  

Yoko: You see that's another thing. I always make sure that the local curator, which would be the local gallery or the local.....would do the curating, and they choose from what I have offered.  

Q: Oh, really?  

Yoko: Yes, that's how I want to do it, because I want them to respect their own character and they're the ones who really know what's happening locally and so...what would be more appealing to people, etc., you know? And of course, I set up the program. It's not like I sort of say, ''Well, OK, take anything, you know..'' So, from the program I set up, they can choose, you see. So I really don't know what they chose. I know, I'm sure, that they chose the new ones. Other than that, I don't know what they chose.  

Q: So it's different in every city. It's not the same. I wasn't aware of that.  

Yoko: Well, that's very important, you see. And especially, the erotic ones that John did. Some galleries prefer to show it in the back room. Some galleries would like to put it in the show window.   

Q: Well, in this particular case, it's in a shopping center, and I suspect it'll probably be out in the open where everybody can see it.   

Yoko: Uh huh, uh huh. You mean the erotic ones?  

Q: Well, I don't know.  

Yoko: I don't think so. Well, maybe, I don't know...  

Q: Well, this is a newly remodeled shopping center and I haven't been there in a while, but it is in a shopping center.

   Yoko: I see.   

Q: I have to ask and I'm sure you've been asked this question before about the colorizing of the drawings.    

Yoko: Yeah, OK, go ahead. (Laughing) I'm prepared.  

Q: Some people would say this is, 'Well, this is like Ted Turner coloring movies.'  

  Yoko: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.   

Q: I'm gonna let you ...  

Yoko: No, no, no, you're right to say that. I was, you know...first thing that happened was when this program was set up, I did ask professionals to come in and set up the program. So I selected the drawings, etc.. So then they come in,because, you know, I don't know how to set up these things, I don't know how to get in touch with galleries and all that stuff, so then they came with John's drawings one day with colors in it. And I said, 'What did you do? ''Well, we colored this one.'' And I was thinking, ''How dare you,'' but I wasn't gonna say that.''What is this? What is this?''   

Q: So you didn't do this originally.  

Yoko: No, no. Originally somebody did it. And so, you know, because I thought it was sacrilegious. And I said, ''What's this?'' And he said, ''Well, I'm sorry we had to do this because, you know, without color, they won't put it in the windows.'' And so I said, ''Oh, that's interesting.'' Because in the beginning, I had a hard time convincing galleries to do the shows. You had to say, 'Well,Yoko will be there for the opening, ' that kind of condition, because they still didn't believe in John's work because he was more famous as a musician.   So anyway, so I said, ''I see. So they won't put it in the shop window.'' That's interesting.Then I realized it's like records. They say, ''Well, the record shop is not gonna put it in the window because they don't like the cover'' or something. It's as simple as that. So I said, ''Look, OK. We have to do this to establish John's program.'' So I said, ''OK, at least let me color it because John wouldn't have minded if I did it because we were partners, etc.,'' because I didn't like the way they colored it, either. It's like the color was exploding.'' And I thought, ''Well, you know, I wanted it in a way it would enhance John's drawings, if anything, but, like quietly, so it's not like the color does his work, you know? And that's how...I tried to do it that way. That's how I did it. Now some people would still not think it's a good idea, but as Ted Turner would say, ''The black and white is still there in the story,'' so it's not like I destroyed his original work, you know? So, that's kind of a debatable situation. It's interesting, that yes, many people do like the colored ones, you know? And now, the program has developed. This was in the beginning and it was a question of make or break, you know. So I think it was important that I did it. I made that decision and proof is the fact that it is a very successful program. We didn't know whether it was gonna go this way. And it's a successful program, not because I colored it. That was part of the deal,in a way. So I did it. And I hope you don't mind it, that's all.   

Q: Well, I'm just asking the question.   

Yoko: Well, I'm saying, ''I hope you don't mind it'' to the public. Some people prefer it and some people don't, that's all.   

Q: Is the exhibit going to go on indefinitely? Have you got a timetable for...are you going to keep showing these things as long as people want to see them?  

  Yoko: I don't want to scratch the bottom of the barrel-type of thing. I just want to do it until it's OK. I have to feel it out. And one day, when it's not OK, I'll say, 'Listen, this is the end of this program.'' And so it's not gonna go on and on because we want the program to go on and on. But a lot of very positive, interesting things happened since this program started.

Q: Well, John's awareness as an artist has been raised.  

Yoko: Yeah. You'd be surprised...some (of the younger) generation really don't know about John. And they walk in and they like this and then they think, ''OK, well why don't I listen to his record as well?'' So all in all, I'm trying to keep John alive...his work know, and this is part of it. And also, people learn a lot from knowing John's work. So I think it's a good thing to do. It's not vanity, you know. I think it's good for the young generation as well, that they would be exposed to John's work.   

Q: Kind of getting into exposing John's work, I know that there's a ''Lennon Legend: The Very Best of John Lennon'' CD coming out here....  

Yoko: (laughs) Yes!           

Q: ...Feb. 24. It's already out in Europe. In fact, I have an import copy. And all the people I know that have heard it say the sound is wonderful. How much input did you have on that?  

Yoko: (chuckles) I had a little input in it. I just like...I wanted to make sure that it communicates in the way that John wanted to communicate. So, well,I did have some input in it.   

Q: You chose all the tracks and everything, right?  

Yoko: No, no. There was a kind of...they chose some tracks...the record company...and I kind was a dialog, let's put it that way. And also, even the order of it, that kind of thing. And a little kind of when you master a tape, you know, there are ways of mastering the tape so that the sound is more enhanced or whatever or that kind of thing. I was there.   

Q: OK. That begs the question that a lot of people would kill me if I didn't ask you...  

  Yoko: Yeah, what?  

Q: There's been a rumor of a boxed set from ''The Lost Lennon Tapes'' radio series...  

Yoko: Yes! It's not just gonna be ''Lost Lennon Tapes.'' I mean, when you say ''Lost Lennon Tapes,'' you're talking about the Westwood One program. But it's not just (the) Westwood One program. It's a kind of collection of stuff that is lying around there that's kind of here and there that's important to share with you. The goal is maybe this autumn, but you know those things can just take a little time, you know. I hope it's this autumn, but maybe it would be next spring, who knows, that kind of thing.   

Q: OK.  

  Yoko: We're now working on it.   

Q: A lot of people will be very happy to hear that because that's one thing that keeps coming up on the Internet all the time. They keep saying, ''When are we gonna see this stuff?'' There's a big demand out there for that. People are really excited about that.   

Yoko: Yeah.  

Q: How about Sean? I hear Sean's got a new album coming out. Are you giving him any guidance?  

Yoko: (Laughs) I'm not giving any guidance, OK.I mean, you know, mothers are not supposed to give guidance, right? Anyway, so he's doing his own thing. And that's gonna come out...well, I don't know when it's gonna come out.  

Q: I think it's (February). I think I saw something that said it'd be out in February.  

Yoko: I think it's gonna be more like March...more like March, April or May. (Laughs) But anyway, it's before summer...or early summer. I just wish him the best and also, I listened to the tapes and things like that, but I think that just in any circumstance, every household is like that. We have to, like, not comment on it, you know. Parents don't comment on it, you know. I'd just like him to know it's gonna be a beautiful, beautiful album. But I didn't interfere, let's put it that way.  

Q: There was a recent interview in a British magazine called Uncut where you said thought John would have loved the Internet. I found that quite interesting....John sitting there looking at web sites and everything like that. Have you seen any of the Beatle or John Lennon web sites?  

Yoko: No.  

Q: Are you interested in that at all?  

Yoko: Well, I'm not that interested. I'm a very busy person. And what happened one day was that they kept saying, ''You should look into Onoweb, you should look into Onoweb.'' (Note: Onoweb is a fan web site with news and information about Yoko's life and musical and artistic careers.) So OK, now look into it. So one night, I did look into it. And when I finished, it was dawn. And I said, I'm not doing this, you know. (Laughing) I don't want to be one of those people who gets obsessed with it. And I'm a very obsessive type. So, no, I have to sort of, like, leave it alone. At this point, I have to leave it alone. If I do get into it, I'll soon be there 12 hours a day or something...and I just don't want to do that.  

Q: I know you have your web site. Somebody else is taking care of that, right?  

Yoko: Well, somebody else set it up, not me.  

Q: The  

Yoko: I don't even know Anyway, whatever is out there, I did not set it up and, you know, my office has nothing to do with it. (Note: A spokesman for Ms. Ono later confirmed that the web site at is not Yoko Ono's official web site.)      

Q: Really? OK.  

  Yoko: Yeah.  

Q: OK.  

   Yoko: That's not to put it down, you know.  

Q: Well, there is a domain out there called and it claims to be your official web site.   

Yoko: Well, I mean, you know...Ononet is claiming to be official for me, too, you know...  

Q: No, I don't think but that's...well, all right?  

Yoko: Yoko what?  

 Q: I was just there this morning, actually, to see if it was still in existence.   

Yoko: I'm gonna find out what that is. (Laughing) OK. (Note: Since the interview took place, that site has become unavailable.)

Q: There's supposed to be an upcoming movie about you and John.

Yoko: Yeah, you know, that, too. I think it's interesting because, no, I don't have a contract with any company at this point, etc., but I might do it. And I did have a talk with some people because some people were interested. But you know just because I had a talk with some company or whatever it seems like the world is up in arms about it. ''Ah, she's gonna tell her side of the story,'' and for the Beatle fans, this is the most terrible thing that's happening. And I think, ''This is really interesting, you know. You mean they can only endure me if I don't say a word? Is this a kind of typical racism, chauvinism situation? And so, my rebellious spirit is really sort of perking up and sort of saying, ''Maybe I should do a film. Maybe I should do it then.'' But I don't know. I'm too busy with other things at this point. But I think that it's so unfair that they should think that way. I mean why shouldn't John and Yoko's side of the story be told. What's wrong with that?   

Q: I have two more questions.   

Yoko: OK.   

Q: Getting into the press, there was a widely quoted quote that the British press had about Paul...  

  Yoko: Saying what?  

Q: The one about you comparing John to Mozart and you to Saulieri.  

Yoko: No, I didn't. I said he was put in that position.   

Q: OK, I wanted your take on that.   

Yoko: Well, you know how press is.   

Q: Right.  

Yoko: You must know.  

Q: Yeah.  

Yoko: So you know, well, I wish somebody would just, you know, get the real interview. You see, now London shut up because they showed the real interview.This whole set of articles was, I think, in some paper and then came here...and then all that story about ''Yoko said John is Mozart and Paul is Saulieri.'' And that came out...that story came out before the TV show was on.   

Q: Yes, it did. It came out about a week and a half before the TV show was on.  

Yoko: And so, I don't know who was saying that...somebody who looked at...  

Q: First story I saw was in the London Observer or some British paper.  

Yoko: But anyway, I don't know but somebody sneaked it or looked at the film or something, and then made it sensational. Then, when the actual show was on in England, from then on I heard nothing. They said, ''Oh, it's a bit different from what we thought, yeah.''  

Q: Are you...For the record, are you and Paul getting along OK?  

Yoko: Well, we go off and on, shall we say. But, he called me to say ''Happy New Year'' or something like that two or three days ago. It's not so bad. And we...all of Christmas gifts and things like that.  

Q: Last question. Do you think that in the years since you and John first sang ''Give Peace a Chance'' that the world has done exactly that?  

Yoko: Well, we still have a long way to go, I think. Still some people are being killed and a lot of weapons are sold and all that, you know. And it's a very lucrative business. It's very sad that business comes first before human life and destruction. But I think that the world is changing, though. And gradually. It's too slow. But...for my liking, it's too slow. I think it will change eventually. It will become a world eventually...the world that we're dreaming of.   

Q: OK.  

Yoko: And then John will come out and say, ''I told you so!''  

Q: OK. Yoko, thank you very very much.   

Yoko: Enjoy the exhibition.   

Q: And one final thing. On behalf of all the fans, I want to thank you for ''Real Love'' and ''Free As a Bird.''  

Yoko: Ahh. (pauses) I accept. OK.  

Q: Thank you.  

  Yoko: Thank you for saying that. OK. Bye.  

Q: Bye bye.  

   Yoko: Have a nice day.  

Q: You too, Yoko. Bye.  

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