IT STILL AIN'T EASY : ON THE ROUGH ROAD IN EUROPE WITH YOKO

Every time Yoko Ono has surfaced since the murder of John Lennon, she has been accused of trying to capitalize on the continuing adoration for her husband.

Forget the fact that she was a highly regarded avant-garde artist and film maker before she met Lennon. Ono has been haunted by the image of her as "the ruthless Dragon Lady" who was responsible for the breakup of the Beatles 16 years ago.

She has been ridiculed at times by the press and humbled by a largely indifferent public.

It's been no different on her "Starpeace World Tour," her first concert trek since Lennon's death in 1980.

In Vienna, only 700 of 1,800 concert tickets were sold. To make the turnout appear less embarrassing, 300 tickets were given away.

In West Berlin, a London Daily Mail reporter panned Ono's performance and dismissed the tour as merely an exercise in ego that would end up costing Ono in the neighborhood of $1 million.

Noting that the club where Ono played was a third empty, he added, "Now if John Lennon had been singing 'Imagine' instead of his widow, there would have been crowds stretching down the Budapester to the Berlin Wall. . . ."

As it was, the reporter continued, the East Germans should be grateful there is a wall keeping them from Ono.

If Ono was carrying a message of peace on this tour, the press and public seemed ready for war. And, in the end, the public and press won.

Ono's performance in London was a triumph of sorts, but the rows of empty seats finally took their toll.

Three days after returning home to New York, Ono "postponed" the North American portion of her tour because of poor ticket sales.

In retrospect, Ono didn't have a chance from the start.

Among the bizarre warning signs: one disc jockey at a press conference in Hamburg later identified himself as the head of the local anti-Yoko fan club.

The key song in the "Starpeace" tour, which ended a European swing here last weekend, is Lennon's idealistic "Imagine." But the line that best summarizes the struggles of her tour comes from another Lennon tune: "Christ, you know it ain't easy."

The line, from "The Ballad of John and Yoko," is a playful reflection on the controversy swirling in the '60s around the couple's peace campaigns and public romance.

After all these years, Ono is still speaking out for peace and it still ain't easy.

Ono plans to proceed with the Japanese portion of the tour and then reschedule shows in selected U.S. cities--including New York and Los Angeles, possibly moving to smaller venues. (At Los Angeles' 6,000-seat Universal Amphitheatre, where she was scheduled to perform April 17, only 1,500 tickets had been sold through last weekend.)

In announcing the tour, which began Feb. 28 in Brussels, Ono rejected the advice of friends who, worried that Ono was still too fragile from the trauma of Lennon's murder in 1980, didn't want to see her open herself to the potential abuse.

On the eve of her London appearance, she explained, "Look, I know if I just shut up and stay home at the Dakota (her apartment building in New York) and accept flowers every December 8, people will say, 'OK, we'll leave her alone.'

"I also knew that some people would say, 'Oh, no . . . not another peace campaign. You (and John) did that years ago with the bed-in and stuff.

"But I'm not living for those people . . . in that sense. It's my life and I have to do what I think is right. I had begun to look in the mirror and I didn't like my face. I didn't want to be one of those people who just give up."

Ono, 53, saw the "Starpeace" tour, in part, as a chance to give hope to those who have suffered great losses.

The early songs in the largely autobiographical program touched on the anguish following Lennon's death, but she eventually moved through tunes, such as "Goodbye Sadness," that represented the healing process and on to songs like "I See Rainbows" that salute the arrival of a brighter day.

However, the main theme of the "Starpeace" tour was a rebuff of the Reagan Administration's "Star Wars" thinking. In the London concert, she stressed her main message: The human race is essentially peaceful.

"Think about it," she said at the Wembley Conference Centre. "Ninety-nine per cent (of people) probably will die without knowing the experience of killing somebody--99%. That's a very peaceful race, don't you think?"

Few in the hall missed the cruel irony of that remark.

Ono is far from a Linda McCartney, artistically speaking, but many people continue to think of her in that light.

She had a provocative career as a film maker and artist before meeting Lennon, and her last three albums are far more involving than Paul McCartney's last three works.

Born in 1933 to a wealthy banking family in Japan, she moved to New York with her family after World War II. After attending Sarah Lawrence College, she married a Japanese violinist and pursued a career as a poet, artist and film maker.

Among her most publicized works: a film consisting of 365 pairs of naked buttocks and a concert featuring amplified breathing in the dark. While her early solo recordings featured howling, grating vocals that found little favor with critics or the public, they foreshadowed much of the hectic new-wave rock style associated later with bands like the B-52's. By the time she teamed up with Lennon in 1980 on the "Double Fantasy" album, Ono had moved toward a more accessible, mainstream style.

Her most impressive work on record came in "Season of Glass," a remarkably sensitive reflection on her grief following Lennon's death. Though widely hailed by critics, the LP was ignored by radio and record buyers. Two subsequent LPs fared little better.

Even the six New York musicians who back her on the tour were generally ignorant of her music. Most hadn't even heard one of her records until she gave them copies before the start of rehearsals.

Normally, sidemen in bands don't want to be bothered by reporters. They'd rather be off sightseeing. As I traveled with the "Starpeace" tour from Budapest to London, however, the musicians and other tour officials were so frustrated by the contrast between the "image" of Ono and the person they worked with that they checked in regularly with testimonials. They were so impressed by Ono's personal struggle that they continually viewed the tour as a series of victories--despite the problems at the box office.

Sam Havadtoy, 33, her manager and "lover" (to use the word favored by the British press when referring to the couple), said, "It's a personal triumph for her to be able to put all her fears away and do this."

Like most members of the band, Jimmy Ripp, a New York guitarist who has played with such bands as Kid Creole and Tom Verlaine, acknowledged that he had a "somewhat negative" impression of Ono, based on "what I had read in the papers . . . that stuff about her being the woman who broke up the Beatles."

But he was disarmed the first time he met her. "She's just one of the easiest, nicest people I've ever met," Ripp said at a Budapest restaurant during a birthday party Ono and Havadtoy held for him.

Keyboardist Phil Ashley echoed Ripp's sentiments.

"She's not your typical rock artist," he said, sampling a Hungarian speciality in a basement restaurant just around the corner from the band's hotel. "She's not just self-centered and superior. She's just the opposite and it shows up in the little things. . . . Like she made sure we each had our pictures in the program.

"But you know what impressed me most? She called us together before one of the concerts and warned us there may be a lot of empty seats out there. She didn't want us to feel bad."

Don't get the feeling the tour is all seriousness. We're talking rock 'n' roll here.

Ono was suffering from a cold in Budapest so she returned to her room after the birthday party. But Havadtoy, who lived here as a teen-ager before fleeing to the West, took the band members and Ono and Lennon's 10-year-old son Sean to Nightclub Havana, the local version of a Vegas lounge.

When the house band took a break, Havadtoy talked the six members of Ono's group into getting on stage, where they cut into red-hot versions of James Brown's sensual "I Feel Good" and Steppenwolf's rowdy "Born to Be Wild" that left the otherwise sleepy audience wide-eyed.

Informed that Yoko Ono's group was on stage, one middle-aged man in a business suit asked if Ono's son was in the room. When someone pointed to young Sean, who was wearing one of the "Starpeace" tour jackets, the man looked surprised.

"Oh," he said. "I thought he was much older . . . but I sure do enjoy Julian's records."

Ono scheduled concerts in the Eastern European cities of Warsaw, Budapest and Ljubljana, Yugoslavia, to underscore the universality of her peace theme.

Rock bands, too, are an increasingly familiar sight in Budapest since the building of a 10,000-seat hall a few years ago. Still, there was an aura of special excitement as fans poured into the cavernous International Fairgrounds hall, a huge, barren room almost twice the size of a football field that is normally used for consumer and/or cultural exhibits.

While several of the fans expressed admiration for Ono's peace theme, the main attraction seemed clearly to be her ties with Lennon. Though the crowd of 17,000 (almost as many as would see the dozen other European dates combined) responded warmly to Ono's own dozen songs, the concert--which was filmed for video and/or a TV special--reached its emotional center when Ono sang "Imagine."

Hundreds of fans pressed to the front of the stage, holding candles of tribute in their hands. It was a touching moment that brought tears to the eyes of some crew members. The show in Vienna almost brought tears to their eyes for another reason.

More than the weather was cold in Vienna. The degree of disinterest in the tour was startling.

Alexander Haide, 17, looked like a fan as he stood near the Koncerthaus stage door before the show, asking everybody who went past to help him get Ono's autograph on his copy of the "Double Fantasy" album.

But he admitted, "The only reason I'm here is that she is John's wife."

He hadn't even bought a ticket to the show, simply sneaked into the building with the crowd. As it turned out, anyone could probably have sneaked into the Koncerthaus.

Promoter Herbie Fechter said ticket sales moved quickly when put on sale a month before, but ground to a stop following news reports from Brussels that ticket sales there were slow.

"Somehow, those stories started people re-evaluating whether they wanted to go to the show," he said. "They began to equate poor sales with a poor show. We did everything we could to revive interest. We even flew some TV and newspaper people up to one of the shows in Germany and they came back with glowing reports. But it was too late."

Fechter, who promotes hundreds of concerts a year, suggested two reasons for the resistance to the show: the resentment of Beatles fans who still hold Ono responsible for the breakup of the Beatles and the people who simply don't want to hear another peace crusade.

By midpoint in the concert, a few people were already walking out.

"The truth is I don't think she sings that well," said Klaus Schausberger, 28, one of those who had received a free ticket. "Besides, I don't know any of her songs." Others complained that the sound was too loud.

Christof Pelz, 20, had a more studied answer. Pelz, who writes for a local pop publication, thinks this tour is a way of Ono retreating to the '70s when Lennon was still alive. "She may be singing 'Goodbye Sadness,' but it seems obvious she has never let go of him."

Inside the grand old hall, Ono, who had returned only hours before from Stockholm, where she had attended the funeral of Prime Minister Olof Palme, appeared tired. But she rallied near the end, drawing the usual emotional response with "Imagine" and "Give Peace a Chance." The crowd still present reacted strongly.

Yet there were elements in the show that would surely run into problems in London. Ono's performance was uneven--very strong on the urgent songs like "Walking on Thin Ice," where her passion was at its height, but less convincing in the series of optimistic songs from the latest album. Her manner, too, was too cosmic for most tastes, especially the "I love you's" between songs.

At dinner that night with the band in a local restaurant, concert promoter Fechter, who hosted the dinner, pulled a reporter aside.

"I must tell you about something extraordinary. . . . . She gave me back part of my fee because she knew I lost money on the show. That's the first time that has happened in my 18 years in this business."

Did the return of part of her fee mean that it is a vanity tour? Is she really going to lose $1 million by the time the tour ends this summer in Japan?

Havadtoy said absolutely not. "We will lose money in Europe, probably break even in America and make money in Japan. With revenue from the video, we will probably break even.

"We are definitely not throwing money away. You'll notice we're not going from city to city by private jet. We're going to Yugoslavia tomorrow by bus."

During a late supper at the hotel in Ljubljana, diners recognized Ono and asked for autographs and she readily complied. But there was one moment that tested her "openness policy."

About an hour into the meal, a man with a somewhat dazed, Charles Manson look walked up the stairs and rested on a rail directly opposite Ono's table. He stared at her so intently that it gave most of the people at the table chills, but Ono simply continued with her dinner. Despite the reminders in Stockholm of her own 1980 tragedy, she apparently has little fear of going out in public.

At the concert in a Ljubljana basketball arena, Ono demonstrated more confidence on stage. Her voice, given to wandering off key, is still something of an acquired taste, but she delivered her urgent songs with considerable power and her band is a hotshot crew that taps the emotional heart of her best tunes.

The 4,000-capacity hall was only about half full, but the response was encouraging. Even if the audience had come chiefly as Lennon fans, they seemed satisfied.

In the couple's hotel room after the concert, Havadtoy also spoke about strong responses in Warsaw, Stockholm and West Berlin.

"Regardless of the number of people at some of the shows, most of them have been really great. It's funny. We were on the same plane going to Hungary as the Brazilian football team and they lost 2 to 0 to West Germany and Yoko said, 'Well, I wonder what's better . . . having 52,000 people see you do a bad performance or 1,000 see you do a good performance.' She paused for a minute, then said, 'I think I'd rather have the good performance.' "

Ono was nervous about London. She met Lennon here in the '60s, but memories of her exciting new life with him were tarnished by the hostility of press accusations that she was a home wrecker (Lennon was married at the time they met). She even considered skipping London on the tour. "It's a no-win situation, so don't do it," she said. "That was the advice.

"And, it's true, the press here has been very antagonistic towards me . . . but I thought it was important to go ahead with the concert. For one thing, it's John's homeland. And, I figured if the situation (between the press and me) was that bad, it couldn't get worse . . . only better."

Brave words.

But Ono looked as if she were headed for an emotional battering in London. Ticket sales at the 2,400-seat Wembley Conference Centre were slow and she was scheduled to meet face to face with the normally caustic British press.

On her first evening in London, she surprised even herself when she decided to go see a West End production of a musical based on the life of Lennon. "I thought I'd be too nervous," she said, later. "But I was curious about what they would say about John."

Accompanied by security aide Jim Callahan and tour manager Michael Ahern, Ono slipped into a rear seat at the old Astoria Theatre just as the houselights went down. She wore the simple, loose-fitting red jacket and gray trousers that she wore much of the tour.

Word of her presence spread through the theater and the audience ended up watching her more closely than the events on stage. They studied her reaction as the good moments in the couple's life unfolded: the first meeting at an Ono art exhibit, their famous "bed-in" press conference in Toronto to promote the peace issue and the birth of Sean.

As the end neared, however, the atmosphere was tense.

Would Ono stay through the tragic moment when Lennon was shot, or duck out early?

Ono remained--though clearly flinching at the moment a synthesizer offered a stinging noise to symbolize the murder.

Afterwards, she met briefly with the producer and the cast, thanking them for saluting Lennon's music.

Later, however, Ono reflected on her own character, who was portrayed as an eccentric, inarticulate "foreigner" who carefully directed Lennon's actions.

"Movies and plays always like to have a little edge to it by making me appear the powerful, strong person who made John do various things," Ono said, lighting one in her steady stream of cigarettes in the living room of her hotel suite.

"To change history is an insult to John because he was was a strong man who could think for himself. But I'm used to it by now. Even when we were together, people would attribute things to me that really came from John. It was always easier than attacking him.

"Likewise it was easy to say Yoko caused the Beatles split . . . it was easier for fans to say it, journalists to say it, even the other Beatles to say it. It still happens. At some point you realize you can't worry about that. You can only deal with things that are in your power to change."

About that 16-year-old connection between her and the break-up of the Beatles, Ono sighed.

Picking up a cup of tea from the room service tray, she said, in her soft-spoken, but deliberate way: "In the first place, everyone has it wrong when they say the other Beatles were nasty to me. The atmosphere was a lot nicer than people think. I also didn't ever say to John, 'Look, you've got to leave these guys' or 'You should leave these guys.' "

Ono paused to pull her pink scarf around her neck. It was chilly in the room, but the window had been left open because it was a rare sunny day in London. Then, she resumed the discussion of the Beatles.

"When I came into the picture, Paul was taking over the group. John had always been the real leader--and an incredible politician. He was good at keeping everyone's egos satisfied. But he was getting less and less interested in the Beatles.

"To be fair to Paul, he probably thought, 'I'm the only one who is trying to pull everyone together.' But he wasn't very diplomatic about it. The others--especially George-- resented it. It looked like he was trying to control everyone and make the Beatles into his sidemen. But that was just one of the things. The person who broke up the Beatles was the Beatles."

Ono's meet the press at the elegant Dorchester Hotel on March 20, the day before the concert. The journalists--about 80, including photographers--arrived early, eager for what promised to be a scene.

"I wouldn't miss this for anything," remarked a writer for a local magazine. "These guys have been waiting years to get their hands on her."

As Ono sat at a table in the mirrored conference room, the reporters edged forward in their chairs. Instead of the expected zingers, however, the opening questions proved surprisingly gentle: "What memories do you have of London?" "Did you bring (your son) Sean with you?"

Maybe it was her size that disarmed them. This supposed dragon lady--barely five feet--looked short enough to go under supermarket turnstiles. But her graceful, open manner seemed to take some of the sting out of the journalists.

Rather than the bumbling figure shown in the "Lennon" play, she gave detailed answers, looking especially confident. Maybe sitting through play (and having to deal again with the tragedy of Dec. 8) put things in perspective. Next to that horror, the meeting the press was pretty tame.

Sure, Ono said, she hoped ticket sales would be stronger, but it wasn't reasonable to expect sellouts on her first tour, and the people who did come to the shows seemed to have a good time. Yes, she realized that many people came to her shows just because she is Lennon's widow, but she hoped they found something of value in her music too.

Yes, she'd be glad to respond to critics who say the tour's whole peace theme is nothing but a "vehicle" for her: "If it was something commercial I wanted, I should do a record of sex and violence. That would push up (the charts) very fast."

Mainly, she spoke about the tour's peace theme. Only one question seemed to throw her: "Are you happy?"

"Well, I never thought of it like that . . . at least the past several years . . . ," she said, finally. "I'm not complaining. I'm sure every widow in the world knows what it means to have to cope with everything herself . . . ."

Noted one observer, "Amazing. I thought . . . it would be a circus. But she was very poised and reasonable. She put them on the defensive."

But there was a catch: Most of the writers doubted they would get much space in the next day's paper. Peace is old news.

Sure enough, the dailies were filled the next day with stories about a female pop star, but it wasn't Ono. The big news--front page in one paper--was a report on singer Sade walking off stage in Frankfurt after telling the audience about a row with her boyfriend.

Ono's concert in the handsomely appointed Wembley Conference Centre--a mini-version of the Universal Amphitheatre--was another success.

Wearing a white suit and a pink, good-luck scarf given her two days earlier by Sean, Ono looked far more authoritative on stage than in the preceding tour stops. She also omitted the countless "I love you's," speaking to the audience in more concrete terms. After the second number, a fan shouted, "We love you, Yoko" and there were shouts of approval.

During the closing numbers, hundreds of fans raced to the edge of the stage and Ono reached down to shake hands. More than a music story, this tour was a tale of survival. Six years after Lennon's death, Ono faced the fears and doubts of returning to a public life--and she emerged victorious in London.

At a celebration dinner at a trendy Thai restaurant, Ono seemed thoroughly at ease as she sat with Sean, Havadtoy and members of her band. Despite the tour de force here, however, Ono knew she would still have to convince a skeptical America that she deserves to be on stage. Still, the first step had been achieved. She had gone a long way in Europe to convince herself that she belongs on stage.

Once more, she reflected on the question of whether she was happy.

"I can't say that I'm happy," she said, lighting yet another cigarette. "But I am an optimist. Just as I believe people will eventually see that peace is the reality and Star Wars is the fantasy, I believe I can be happy again.

"At this point, however, I'm like a city that was bombed beyond recognition in 1980 and you have to rebuild the city, and that takes time. Even after most of the buildings have been put back in place and you look normal to the rest of the world, you have the pain and memory of the old city. The important thing is to maintain your hope. The human race is a very resilient race. We have the capacity to realize our dreams."

The London celebration proved short-lived.

There was no word the next day in the local papers about the concert. The show had been simply ignored, a sign that the press didn't even consider her enough of an artist to comment upon.

There was even darker news at home. Given the poor U.S. sales, it made no sense to proceed with that leg of the tour as planned.

Elliot Mintz, who was Lennon and Ono's closest friend through the '70s, made the announcement in Los Angeles on Tuesday that the North American dates were postponed.

"Yoko is a perennial optimist," he said. "She's not the kind of person who judges what she does by the number of seats in the house. She constantly keeps in touch with her own motives and she knows her motives are sound."

Yet he acknowledged a personal sadness about the slow sales. "In terms of hard-core perceptions, she is still the one who broke up the Beatles, the one who radicalized John Lennon and the one who is viewed as a Japanese peace-oriented feminist," he said. "What happened here in America, in terms of poor advance sales, I think is a microcosm of all that."

In New York, Havadtoy was more upbeat.

"Yoko is a realist," he said by phone. "She knew there would be resistance, but she was very pleased with the reception in Europe. She thought she got her message across to the people who came to the shows and in most of the press conferences.

"She's already looking forward to playing Japan and returning to the United States. We just had lunch with the (tour) agents and I must tell you, she was a lot more concerned with what is happening in Libya today than the tour. She's carrying on. . . ."

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