John Lennon gives a rye smile in November 1980Ono On Lennon
Yoko Ono Reflects on the Making of
The John Lennon Anthology

by Jerry McCulley (Courtesy of

While sifting through the work John Lennon
compiled in his post-Beatles years in order to
put together a new box set, Yoko Ono was given
another opportunity to reflect on her late
husband's unique genius. talked
with Yoko about The John Lennon Anthology,
which emcompasses a more personal look at
the solo work of a 20th-century rock icon.

He was the son of a ne'er-do-well English cruise-ship steward; she, the privileged daughter of a Japanese bank executive. He fell in love with rock & roll and forged a union with similarly smitten cohorts that changed the world; she became an artist, then his lover, accomplice, and soul mate. He was her third husband; she, his second wife. Together, their names merged into a cultural and grammatical contraction: JohnandYoko. Their art and public pronouncements carried such weight that governments conspired against them. Her influence over him held such sway that many of his would-be faithful damned her for dissolving the most mythic musical partnership ever. By 1980 he was dead, felled on his own doorstep by an assassin's bullets.

And so Yoko Ono shouldered John Lennon's complex, impossibly conflicted legacy. Though he was known as a man of peace, Lennon's temper could be as quick as his wit. And though he cultivated one of the most public personas of his era, he lived his final years as a virtual recluse.

On the heels of the surviving Beatles reconciling their own legacy and, perhaps ill-advisedly, trying to reunite with Lennon's disembodied voice via digital studio sorcery, Ono has painstakingly sifted through the daunting, eclectic artifacts of his music to assemble The John Lennon Anthology, a deeply satisfying sonic gallery of Lennon's post-Beatles solo work. Rich with studio outtakes, live tracks, and revealing home recordings, Anthology pays often bittersweet tribute to the many facets of Lennon's life and music.

Whether masterfully lampooning his peers (George Harrison on The Rishikesh Song, Bob Dylan on Serve Yourself and Satire(s) 1-3, paying loving tribute to his rock & roll forefathers, or exorcising his own personal demons, Lennon's best music has an emotional nakedness that's especially startling from the perspective of an era in which rebellion and individualism are but ironically ubiquitous tools to market the latest fashion trend.

Ono spoke with's Jerry McCulley about Lennon's music and legacy from her studio in New York's Dakota Apartments. The anthology seems to argue against the popular notion that John went through various phases of anger and peaceful reflection. Instead we hear that all those facets of his personality were always at play in his music.

Yoko Ono: That's a great observation, actually. People have wanted to box him in: “A certain period was this, and a certain period was that.“ But he was a very human, three-dimensional person. He always had those emotions. Sometimes he was angry, sometimes he was sad, sometimes he was very vulnerable and sweet. All of that was going on in every period of his life. But at the same time, I think there's a slight difference in character of how he communicated to the world among the four [Anthology] CDs. Did John hold a grudge, or was he forgiving?

Ono: John did get angry very easily. But he would soon forget it. Which was kind of nice--rather than somebody who's not really angry but that it's there all the time. I think I tend to be more like that. I wasn't that quick to anger, but I would remember! [laughs] I'm more passive-aggressive, and John was more aggressive. Did John ever have regrets about some of the anger he expressed in his work?

Ono: I don't think so. He was a very conscientious person, so that each time he was angry, afterward he would be upset about it. He was very quick to own up to the fact that he was angry and would apologize. John expressed strong misgivings about the Beatles mythology in his solo career. Did he try to create a mythology on his own terms

Ono: I don't think any of them thought of their actions in terms of “myth making.“ That's kind of journalist-talk, in a way. Maybe from your point of view, you thought that they were making a myth. He was conscious of what he was doing, but he didn't think of that as creating a myth. That's a pretty strong kind of statement in the sense of suggesting that he was contrived as an artist--in a sense that he would do something for the press or for the world in terms of creating a myth. No, he was an artist who was trying to create good songs and also make political statements, but he was genuinely honest about it. Did you ever feel like you were manipulating the world?

Ono: You cannot manipulate the world, let alone yourself. Or your partner. A word like manipulation is used easily. But I feel like fate manipulated us. How did John's working-class background affect his music and, in a different sense, your relationship with him?

Ono: He had a sense of being a working-class person. In Liverpool, I would consider him maybe middle class or something. It's interesting, because we come from such totally different backgrounds, so that was a help--a kind of very heavy dialogue was created. And I learned a lot from him about the working class. There's very little music from '76 to '78 in the set. Was he as dormant then as the legend would have us believe?

Ono: That's been said before, but I think his mind was just as active. I have to give this analogy: In Japan a shogun asked a painter to paint him something. A year passed, and nothing was done. So he sent a messenger, and the messenger came back and said, “Here's the painting. But you know what the artist did? I went there and asked where the painting is, and he said, 'Just wait a second,' and he went in the side room and painted this, just in front of me.“ So the shogun was very angry and summoned the painter and asked, “What was this? I waited a whole year, and you didn't do anything, and then you scribble this right in front of my messenger!“ And the painter said, “I really wasn't doing the painting for a whole year, but I was preparing for it.“ That's a proper analogy, I think. But also, he was really not not doing it. The musical we were planning, for that he did some songs. There are many cassette tracks left from that time, but I didn't put all of them in because I didn't want the CD to become “here's John on the piano, here's John on the guitar.“ That's boring. Were there long-range plans after Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey?

Ono: First of all, we wanted to go on a tour. And then, afterward, we wanted to do some work. The direction was to do a lot with not just moon-June-spoon-rhymed songs but go into elaborate poetry-like things like Walking on Thin Ice--just talking kinds of things. We wanted to juxtapose singing and talking. Juxtaposing the two realities. He was thinking about a Broadway musical, and guess what--it was going to be called The Ballad of John and Yoko. He had a lot of ideas: “The first scene is this, the second scene is that.“ Some music was written for that. I've written some, too. It was going to be both our music. Then some of it went into Double Fantasy, and some stayed as cassette tapes. We know what the world is like without John. Do you ever ponder what a difference his presence would make today?

Ono: You would have had more fun. [giggles] It would have been great. He had such a sense of humor. I think on this box you'll notice that he was not just a kind of serious, political, worldly kind of artist. He had that side; he was highbrow, as well. In the end, the bottom line was that he was an incredible entertainer. And we were entertained in so many ways. But he was even good singing standard rock and all that. And who could do that now? Please! The new bands, would they even bother to learn those songs? John had a great love for the fathers of rock & roll, and there's a general sense now that they aren't as important to people.

Ono: Exactly. There's a retro thing going on, too. They know about the Beatles or Jimi Hendrix or the Doors. But they don't have that kind of love, maybe. But in John's case, he was passionately in love with rock & roll and, even before that, vaudeville. He knew it all. He listened to BBC radio, and all of that is in him as well. And it's so beautiful--all that love comes out. Something like [the guide vocal to Ringo Starr's] Only You--he wasn't rehearsing or anything. He just went on the mic and started to sing. He sings so beautifully. There are a lot of musicians who think things through very methodically. But John connected us to his soul in a way that a lot of artists don't.

Ono: Exactly. I think he thought that was bull--people making too much of these things in a kind of philosophical, logical, intellectual way. He cut through all that bull, and he was just really real. That's what I loved about him. What's the biggest misconception of John that you hope The Anthology will correct?

Ono: One: he always tended to bury his voice in [the music] tracks. Now you can hear his real singing. Two: he never [talked] much about his abilities as a producer. I'd like people to see that. When I was checking the tracks for the box, the most important thing for me was whether John would be proud of it. That he wouldn't be ashamed of it. And then I wondered whether the fans will have fun with it. I didn't want to please just the hardcore fans; they would be pleased if John was just scratching the tape! I didn't want to count on his fame, his myth, and the name. I wanted to do it in such a way that even kids of this generation who really don't know John so well would listen to these tracks and think, Wow! What power! Thanks for giving this power and inspiration. I think John deserved that. I didn't want to assume that John was the Beethoven of our period and whatever he did people would just love it. With all that you've heard, you might not believe it, but he was a perfectionist. He always tried to give the best of himself to the world.

Copyright © 2001-2002

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