Yoko Ono Reflects On 'Giving Energy' to Lennon's Fans
Time has been good to Yoko Ono. Once derided by fans as a divisive force in the Beatles universe, Ono is now the trusted guardian and quality control overseer of her late husband John Lennon's legacy -- all while maintaining her own career as a vital musical and visual artist and peace activist.
Ever since she completed "Milk and Honey" in 1984, Ono has presided over a continuing series of reissues and repackagings from Lennon's vaults -- including the "Lennon" boxed set in 1990, the "Acoustic" compilation album in 2004, the limited-edition set of vinyl singles released in April to mark Record Store Day and a remastered edition of VH1's "John Lennon: Behind the Music" -- as well as such ongoing projects as the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus and the John Lennon Songwriting Contest.
Video Below: Everyone from Devo to Phoenix to Carlos Santana to the XX to John Legend to Soundgarden to the Jonas Brothers share thoughts and memories of John Lennon with Billboard.
Her master stroke, however, comes with this month's "Gimme Some Truth" campaign to mark the 70th anniversary of Lennon's birthday on Oct. 9, involving multiple releases by EMI Music in North America on Oct. 5 (and one day earlier in the rest of the world). The campaign features eight remastered Lennon solo albums and new titles, including "Power to the People: The Hits," which will be available in two different versions; "Gimme Some Truth," a four-CD boxed set with songs divided thematically rather than chronologically; the "John Lennon Signature Box," with the eight remastered solo discs plus three discs of home tapes and Lennon's singles; and "Double Fantasy Stripped Down," which answers fans' long desire for a more raw representation of the comeback album that came out just three weeks before Lennon was shot to death on Dec. 8, 1980, outside his home in New York.
Ono was an active force in putting all of these together -- sitting in EMI's Abbey Road studios to remaster all 121 of Lennon's solo tracks, helping to group the compilations, choosing Lennon's own artwork to accompany the releases, even mending an estranged relationship with "Double Fantasy" co-producer Jack Douglas to bring him into the "Stripped Down" project. It was arduous, exacting and emotional, she says, but ultimately a satisfying endeavor that gave even Ono new insight into and respect for Lennon's music, which she's trying to pass on to fans through these additions to his catalog.
Billboard: How do you view your role with John's catalog and legacy? As a curator?
Yoko Ono: Curator doesn't sound right. Protector, maybe.
What was the point of transition when you assumed that role? Was it immediately after his death?
I was always a protector, I think, but especially after John's passing. Before that, I was putting all my energy into the partnership we had and protecting John. John was the one who needed protection. John was the famous one out there. I was in the shadows, so I didn't need to have much protection. So I was doing that job, and when John left suddenly, I thought, "What am I going to do? Where am I going to put this energy?" Of course I have my son [Sean], but that's a different story. There's a big, big, empty space there. Then I thought, "OK, I can give my energy to John's fans that I gave John." So I announced that every year I'm going to give you something, and I think I was thinking one thing every year -- but it turned out to be more than one thing, I think. I was doing my own thing as well, on the side, but with John's thing I think I've done quite a lot.
You do, in fact, have your own career in music and visual art, among other things. How do you balance those with what you do with John's catalog, or do they complement each other?
It's not that they complement each other. I would have felt guilty if I ignored John's work or did not do as much for John's work and concentrated on my work. So I concentrated my energy and effort more on John's work, and mine was more like, "If it happens, it happens." And it did happen, actually, but without my plan, in a way.
Prior to his death, did you and he ever talk about how you'd like each other to handle your individual legacies?
Well, no. We didn't think we were going to die. We thought ... Well, John said over and over again that one day we'll be in our rocking chairs together, watching the ocean or something, and waiting for Sean's postcard to come, that kind of thing. We were thinking of our old age.
This all began with "Milk and Honey" in 1984. What was your vision for that album?
Well, there was no vision. When we were working on "Double Fantasy," that was the title that John coined, and I came up with "Milk and Honey" and saying, "The next one should be 'Milk and Honey.' " And John said, "Yeah, yeah, let's do that."
We had all the songs ready for "Milk and Honey," except that there were several songs of mine, like "You're the One," [that were] definitely created afterward. But I made it into basically featuring John, John's songs that he wanted on "Milk and Honey" to make it still a conversation, a dialogue between a man and a woman.
How did the "Gimme Some Truth" campaign take shape?
As you can imagine, this 70th birthday thing is really big. It was planned by Capitol and EMI initially, but when they told me this big plan, it's a kind of thing they've never done before, or I don't think that any record company has done, just presenting the ultimate John Lennon as a Renaissance man, in a way. It's not just music; it's some collages and things that have never been out there. I was really impressed that they were going to gamble with something like that, so I wanted to drop everything and join them.
Does what's coming out represent the initial vision for the project or did you adjust some things in the plan?
I didn't really tweak it or anything. I just wanted to make sure the quality was tops -- that's where I came in, I suppose, down to photos and everything. I wanted to make sure that I improved it, improved the choices. I was interested in every part of this project, actually, to the point where ... I went to Abbey Road studios and remastered all John's songs; 121 of them.
What kind of experience was that?
That was sort of a big job for me, and it was kind of trying in a way, both physically and emotionally. I didn't think I was going to feel anything personally because I have been doing John's work for the past 30 years, so I thought I can just do it how I should do it -- professionally. But when I was doing that, I suddenly realized this was a new experience for me in a sense that I suddenly discovered or started to discover how good John was as a professional musician and as an artist, and that really got to me. I wish John was here so I could say, "Hey, you're good." [laughs]
What was it you heard that gave you that enhanced perspective?
Well, it started to happen when I would listen to the "Double Fantasy" stuff of John's. You know, in the '70s and '80s, around that time, the music world had a way of remixing things so the instruments were extremely big, strong, powerful, and they kind of buried the voice. And I used to say, "Let's just push up John's voice a little," and I couldn't do that as much as I wanted do. So this time, because it's "Stripped Down," we kind of dropped a few instruments and suddenly you hear John's voice and how he's singing, and his lyrics are very clear.
I didn't know that John was so good and unique --not just unique, but the classical diction. His diction was so perfect in a way that just that alone impresses you. It's almost like listening to a very professional actor doing Shakespeare. And of course you know the language is not Shakespeare, but I felt John was the Shakespeare of our age.
In listening to all of his music, what kind of insights did you get into his development and growth as an artist?
It was very interesting. What happened was listening from "John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band" [in January 1971], which was a brilliant work and affected the world very much -- and not just the music world but the world per se-to "Imagine" [in October 1971], which in its own way is fascinatingly brilliant.
And then "Mind Games" [in 1973], which was not accepted too well at the time-in fact, it was kind of ignored-but it's a brilliant work. And then you go to "Walls and Bridges" [in 1974], which I think is exactly as good as "John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band."
And then "Rock 'N' Roll" [in 1975], that was pretty good. That kind of showed his roots, his musical roots. He had the roots and the training and the love for that music, and he sang so well. At the time there was a lot of difficulty for him in L.A., and everybody was talking about that. But he managed to create two beautiful albums, "Walls and Bridges" and "Rock 'N' Roll." So I started to have new respect for him, and that was very hard for me to start to respect him again in that way instead of just in abstract. It was not an abstract thing at all; I was remastering and I was listening to every note. And it was hard for me. [Ono begins to choke up] It really was.
Did you come away with the impression that he was a fearless artist?
Definitely. He was an inspired artist, and when he was inspired to write something and record something, he didn't have to do it twice. It just came from him. I don't know how to describe it, but when you go through it, when you go through all of this you will have a picture of an incredibly talented, brilliant man whose work actually changed the world-or it changed the map of your brain, let me put it that way.
Was that his intent while he was making this music?
Well, I don't know. He was meant to do it. I think he was an inspired artist. He could not control himself; he just dished out all the things he was inspired to dish out. But also, he was aware it was very, very dangerous. I knew that he knew he was playing a dangerous game. "Gimme Some Truth" is what he was thinking, so he was pushing that to the point that it might have been dangerous, and he was probably too daring for his own good. He knew that. He always said, "It's a little bit much, isn't it?"
Do you feel he was always like that, or did he reach a transition point as an artist to be more daring?
He was dying to be daring when he was with the Beatles, and he was in certain ways. But also he was very caring about his position. He did not want to do something that would be hurtful for others or be hurtful for the reputation of the Beatles as a band. He did manage to do some things that were not particularly good for the band, I suppose- --bigger than Jesus" or whatever -- and he knew that. So it was very difficult for him.
He was really trying not to do anything that would be too controversial when he was a Beatle. And when he became an individual, he was free and, from the beginning, being himself. "John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band," that was a pretty daring album, and you can go from that to "Imagine" and whatever else he did and see it too.
As musical collaborators as well as a couple, how did you feed off of and push each other?
I don't know-just by being us. Just by being me and being him. We were not trying to influence each other so much; just the fact we were together. [Being] in close proximity is what did it, I think.
It's interesting that you chose the original mixes for the remastering the eight solo albums rather than those you yourself supervised when the albums were first reissued in 2005. Why?
Because this is what John did originally. I did my best back then, too, but this is obviously better. This came out better, and that's probably because I did it from the original [mixes].
Why was it important to have "Double Fantasy Stripped Down" be part of this campaign?
Well, part of it is I hear about all these "stripped down" things and lots of people were doing it. So I was like, "Why don't we do that, too?" I'm one of those people-and John was, too -- we're just open to any interesting possibilities that are presented to us for creative work. So I thought, "That's a good idea. Let's do it."
Did you have any apprehension about bringing Jack Douglas into the project?
I was a little nervous because of the years that we have not communicated and I thought it was going to be hard. But I felt good about that decision because a lot of water passed under the bridge. Actually, it worked so well. He was very nice about it, and I was very impressed with Jack for his sensitivity, musically, but also in the partnership. It reminded me how good he was, too. We worked very well together. We were on the same page and we just did it very quickly.
The "Gimme Some Truth" boxed set is very interesting, too, in its grouping of songs by theme. How did that come about?
I didn't come up with the idea. EMI came up with the idea, and I really went for it. Some people like to not listen to the activist kind of songs and they just skip it. So by doing [the boxed set] it's, "OK, anybody who wants political songs, there you have it. Anybody who wants romance, now you have it." I think it's very accommodating to the people who want to buy these things.
How is working with John's catalog jibe with and different from your role with Beatles projects?
Well, they're John's songs in the Beatles, too, and I mainly try to protect John's end in the Beatles. Olivia [Harrison] is doing that for George, too. We all share and I have my opinion as representing John.
Is it a relatively smooth relationship these days?
Well, Olivia is such an incredible, intelligent woman, and I respect her very much and most of the things she comes up with I'm usually on the same page with her. Paul [McCartney] and Ringo [Starr], too, they're very intelligent guys, and, actually, if the world can do the same thing we have done, it would be a very peaceful world. We became kind of mature enough to know that it's so wasteful to argue so much and to be in opposition to each other. So unless there's something really wrong, we're usually in the same boat.
What are the Beatles projects you've been particularly happy with?
Well, Cirque du Soleil [which created a Beatles show in Las Vegas and the related "Love" album] is something that George and Olivia brought. That was a very good one. And the "Rock Band" [videogame] is something [George Harrison's son] Dhani thought of, and that was good, too.
What have you turned down through the years?
Not much, really. I think "The Beatles Anthology," the film, that was an earlier time. The Lennon camp's vision of the whole thing was slightly different from the other three at that point.
Where do the ongoing projects, such as the songwriting contest and the tour bus, fit into the overall philosophy of preserving John's legacy?
I really like to promote things that are positive, and I think that John would have loved the fact we're doing all these things. I think it's important that we think of helping the next generation rather than putting them in a very difficult position, which we are doing politically. But I think that at least on a music level I want to make sure that we do something for them.
Do you hear much of the music that gets submitted to the songwriting contest?
Oh, yeah, it's incredible. The music is so exciting, but also children are so quick to take to it. I think that the future is going to be beautiful because this planet is going to be a planet of music.
Do you think John would still be making music at 70?
Well, if he wanted to, he would. I find through my experience that it's almost easier to make music now, and the experience helps. And it's such a pleasure and it's good for our health, so more people should make music as they get older.
You mentioned earlier the goal of giving us something related to John every year. The "Gimme Some Truth" campaign is a mother lode, but what's next?
Wow [laughs], this is the bonanza year, so I don't know what we can do next year -- but already there's things we're planning.
Anything you can mention, or will it have to be a surprise?
Exactly, but you're going to know anyway, because we want you to know -- when we're ready to tell you.