After years of being ridiculed for her conceptual art and atonal music, and after being pilloried as the woman who broke up the Beatles, Yoko Ono senses a thaw.
John Lennon's widow is on good terms with the three surviving Beatles, having given them the Lennon home tapes that they turned into the new "reunion" recordings "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love."
Her own album, "Rising," was warmly reviewed last fall, and her body of work has found a sympathetic hearing with the young rock generation--Tricky, the Beastie Boys and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore are among the contributors to a new album of remixes of the "Rising" songs.
"Rising's" genesis was in some songs that Ono, 63, was asked to write for Ron Destro's play "Hiroshima"--a fitting commission for a longtime peace activist who spent part of her childhood in war-torn Tokyo. The recording became a family affair when her and John's son, Sean Ono Lennon, 20, asked if he could play on it with his band, Ima.
That makes "Rising" the formal debut of the young Lennon, and tonight's show at the Roxy will be Ono's first performance ever in Los Angeles. In successive telephone interviews from their New York office, Lennon and Ono discussed his emergence and her evolving image.
Question: Yoko, how did you feel when Sean asked you if he and his group could record your album with you?
Ono: I really liked the idea of working with Sean. . . . First I was very nervous, because I thought, "Well, here's a great chance for mother and son to start arguing." Musicians, they usually do. We have such a nice mother-and-son relationship, and I don't want to break that.
Q: Don't mothers and sons argue?
Ono: They do probably, but we were a very miraculous case, where we were sort of protective of each other, because of the way John passed away and all that. And I think Sean was especially protective of me. . . . It felt like us against the world.
Q: Do you think that the public's perception of you is changing?
Ono: I suppose it is gradually changing. I think I'm very lucky that I survived it all in a way. Of course it was painful for the Beatle fans as well, and now I know that and I feel sorry about that--that they had to go through the pain of watching their hero standing side by side with a woman suddenly, instead of three boys. Or three guys, excuse me. And on top of it she happened to be an Oriental. So that was a very painful experience, I'm sure. That experience, maybe that was what we had to go through, and we are wiser for it maybe.
Q: The Beatles' "Anthology" album last year was a huge success. Why do you think they remain so popular?
Ono: I knew what I was doing when I gave them "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love," because I thought it was a great thing to happen. I think this world is so depressed and a lot of people are feeling directionless and everything, that for them to have an "up" feeling is great, even if it's just three minutes.
Q: What did you think of the completed versions of those songs?
Ono: I thought it was pretty good. I know there are many people who say this and that, there's always a down opinion about everything, I'm sure. But my feeling is that in the big picture there's only two things: war industry and peace industry. And in the war industry people are very much together. They're united in their thinking and they're quick in action. And the peace industry people are very selective and choosy people, so each one has their own opinion and we can never get together, and we kind of criticize each other so much. And my feeling is that we should just be more generous with each other and more loving and kind to each other. And let's hope the peace industry will survive.
Q: Did you always figure you'd give music a chance?
Lennon: Not really. I was always kind of deterred from playing music. I was always asked by people, "When's your record coming out?"--when I was like 6. So it kinda made me not want to do that, and I kind of denied my musical inclination for a long time.
Q: What changed your mind?
Lennon: I don't know, it got out of control. I started playing all these instruments and I listen to music all the time. I'm just clearly a musician, I think. Not in that I'm good, but in that I enjoy it so much. So there was like nothing I could do.
But in a way I have chosen to do this too. I could have been a visual artist, but I guess in a way it's my biggest emotional challenge. I'm kind of grabbing the bull by the horns in that music is the one thing that if I do I'm gonna be completely ridiculed or at least compared with my father. Any other career I would have chosen would have been much easier in terms of me developing some kind of personal validity. I guess that's partly why I'm doing this. I like challenges.
Q: Are you intimidated by the legacy you've inherited?
Lennon: Of course. Totally intimidated. I'm intimidated by everything, let alone the Lennon legacy. But I'm not trying to overcome my father or fill his shoes or reach any kind of level that he did. We're talking about a Mozart of rock music. I don't think of it in those terms. If I can communicate something creatively and artistically to a small number of people who are actually listening, I will feel like I've succeeded in life.
Q: Did you learn anything from your half-brother Julian's experience in the music business?
Lennon: Well yeah, that really freaked me out, you know what I mean? That made me not want to do music. 'Cause like the world was really mean to him, I thought. You know, he had a lot of trouble, and he's a really talented guy. . . . If he was anybody else he would be totally successful. The guy has a great voice, he's a good songwriter, he's a good musician. But he's had a lot of trouble because everybody's [saying], "Oh, you're trying to be your father, so therefore we won't listen to you."
I don't think you can avoid it. I think it's just a part of being a Beatle kid. I don't care, though. I'm really satisfied playing to like 150 people in some club. That's like the greatest experience in the world.
Q: Is it frustrating that you can't just go out and play anonymously, without it being a big deal because of who you are?
Lennon: Well, there are worse things, you know what I mean? Like it's not that bad. . . . Most musicians are dying and starving. At least I can get gigs at clubs, so I'm not gonna complain that people know who I am. I mean, being famous is a blessing. So many people complain about it. I think that's bull----. Being famous is having the power to really implement positive change in the world, and it gives you the power to do what you want. I'm really grateful for it because I can play music and people will listen.
* Yoko Ono and Ima perform tonight at the Roxy, 9009 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, 8 p.m. Sold out. (310) 278-9457.