Yoko Ono: Imagine Peace

By: Forrest Reda

Yoko Ono
By definition, the term avant-garde represents a pushing of the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm or the status quo, primarily in the cultural realm. Yoko Ono represents the very essence of avant-garde. Throughout her career she has consistently pushed the envelope artistically and politically.

Ono has led a remarkable life, first as a member of the influential Fluxus movement from the early '60s and most famously as the wife of John Lennon. Ono met Lennon in 1966 at an exhibition of her work in London. At the time Lennon was one of the most famous people in the world. Ono's indifference with his celebrity, the positive energy that she radiated and the interactivity of her work intrigued Lennon. Ono recognized a man in need of something that his fame had not given him. Ono's Wikipedia entry states that Lennon's first personal encounter with the artist involved her passing him a card that read simply, "Breathe."

For the next two years Ono and Lennon corresponded frequently and their relationship deepened. George Harrison's ex-wife, Pattie Boyd, wrote in her autobiography that while Lennon was in India with the rest of The Beatles and their assorted wives or girlfriends, Ono sent him a note that read, "If you see a cloud in the sky today, know that it is me sending you my love."

In the spring of 1968, Lennon sent his first wife Cynthia away on a vacation and the night before her return, he invited Ono to his country home. They stayed up all night and recorded some experimental music entitled Two Virgins. The title was related to the fact that they consummated their relationship at dawn after the recording session.

It was the first glimpse of the music of Yoko Ono, and when it was released in 1970 it was met with derision by the music press and Beatles fans. Her guttural screams and tribal whining was not meant to please anyone except herself. It was merely the music inside her head, expressed as best she could at the time. Perhaps Lennon recognized the potential, or at least he respected the honesty.

Yoko & John
Because of the perceived notion that she came between Lennon and the rest of The Beatles, the music media and fans persecuted her. The Beatles would have broken up regardless. They were trapped inside a fishbowl and touring had become impossible because of all the attention they received. Ending the band was the only way each of them could move forward musically, and the many years together had frayed their friendships. They were looking for a way out. Lennon later admitted to Rolling Stone that he used Ono to drive a wedge between him and the band, saying, "It was like, now I have the strength to leave, because I know there is another side to life."

Lennon recorded some of his best work post-Beatles, including "Imagine" and "Happy Xmas (War is Over)," but slowly changed his focus away from music. Ono and Lennon devoted themselves to the peace movement and the lifestyle of activists. Hounded by authorities and ostracized by a music press that just wanted The Beatles back together, the "two gurus in drag" were destined to wait for the world to catch-up with their musical ideas.

John and Yoko were seldom apart, save for an 18-month-long "lost weekend" that Lennon spent in Los Angeles getting a last gasp of the single life before he returned to New York in 1974, and dedicated himself to Ono. They had a son, Sean, whom he doted after lovingly for the later half of the 1970s.

When Lennon heard the B-52's song "Rock Lobster" in 1979, he decided to get back to work. "It sounds just like Ono's music," he told Rolling Stone, "so I said to myself, 'It's time to get out the old axe and wake the wife up!'" Lennon set out to work on new music with his wife. He was returning home from the recording studio, having just finished mixing the song "Walking On Thin Ice," the night he was shot outside his hotel residence. He died in Ono's arms on a cold night in December, but his spirit lives on, enduring through their message of peace.

Yoko Ono
After her husband was murdered, Ono completed the album they were recording. Season of Glass was a critical breakthrough for her, and she would continue to release albums in the 1980s that would influence the new wave and electronic music movement. While the art world embraced her early on, the music press and Beatles fans have maligned Ono based on the misnomer that she broke up The Beatles and the unfair and untrue characterization that she capitalized on Lennon's musical legacy. She and Lennon were musical partners.

It was Ono who first said that, "Woman Is The Nigger of World," an expression and idea her husband would later write a song about. Her art and music has consistently shocked people, but on her MySpace page, Ono writes:

"People think that I'm doing something shocking and ask me if I'm trying to shock people. The most shocking thing to me is that people have war, fight with each other and moreover take it for granted. The kind of thing I'm doing is almost too simple. I'm not interested in being unique or different. Everyone is different. No two persons have the same mouth shape for example, and so without making any effort we're all different. The problem is not how to become different or unique, but how to share an experience, how to be the same almost, how to communicate. Basically I am interested in communication and therefore participation of everybody. I'm just part of the participation and the thing to participate should be basically a mind sort of thing. I can express it in any medium, just as you use water in everything for cooking."

Ono has endured criticism from those who do not understand her music, but that hasn't stopped her from continuing to create the music that she hears in her mind. In the process, Yoko Ono became a pioneer for punk music, indie music and electronica, which has provided her a perfect medium for the beats that have been playing inside her head for so many years.

Yoko Ono
Her influence on these varied genres has never been more apparent. In 2006, Ono collaborated with some of today's indie and electronic darlings including The Flaming Lips, Cat Power, Spiritualized, The Polyphonic Spree and Le Tigre for an album seemingly named for all her critics. Yes I'm a Witch became a surprise hit, with the song "Walking On Thin Ice" reaching the top of the dance charts. Two more remix singles followed, "Every Man/Every Woman" and "No, No, No." Another single, "You're the One," was the number six club record of the year. Not bad for a woman who turns 75 this month.

The reworked versions of Ono's music pulsate with energy. It may be electronica but the underlying energy is organic and powered with love. Yoko Ono's music is more relevant and important then ever, but success and critical adoration is not what she is after. She wants to create peace on Earth.

Ono capped her amazing year by dedicating the Imagine Peace light tower in Iceland to her late husband in December. The light tower had been a sketch in her notebook that Lennon took note of and suggested she build. Now, each year on December 7 a beam of light shoots up from Iceland to commemorate Lennon's life and his vision of peace on Earth.

Carrying on the legacy of Imagine Peace that she and Lennon started, Ono travels around the world as a peace ambassador. Her message is simple: Imagine Peace. It sounds too simple to be effective but Ono says, "You can't be sad or resentful or attacking somebody when you are just imagining peace."

Ono has a strong online presence and blogs regularly on her MySpace page. She writes that she is constantly dancing through life – in her mind – and invites everyone to join her.

In a phone conversation with JamBase, Ono talks about her collaborative spirit, why artists need to push the status quo and (with apologies to Neil Young) why music can still change the world.

Continue reading for our talk with Yoko Ono...

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