in recent years, Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon have enjoyed a mother and child reunion in the form of creative collaboration, with Sean’s band IMA supporting Ono both on stage and in the studio. Recently, Ono spoke with Salon about the similarities between John and Sean, and the differences between now and then.
Was working with your son different from previous recording experiences?
It was very different from previous experiences, but it was also a reminder of when John and I did Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band. It was that kind of feeling. I felt that Sean was very supportive of me, just like John. So there were no sort of silly questions, you know, like “Why are you screaming Yoko?” [laughs]. It was good. Sean and others in the group, Timo Ellis and Sam Koppleman, they’re from the now generation, but they found it easy to communicate.
Did Sean absorb your aesthetic sensibility by osmosis? It seems like a mother and son might have a pretty organic bond.
Very organic. But I naturally assumed that when he grows up he would respect his father’s work a lot. Never thought he would even listen to mine. I never pushed it or even explained it to him, but then I’m seeing him playing my old records and all that — I was surprised.
Why wouldn’t he be interested in his mother’s work?
I automatically expected that because my work is the work of an outsider, and his dad is very mainstream. Well, he created the mainstream. So it’s natural for Sean to go to that. But the fact that I was an underdog probably appealed to him. And it’s worked out very well for the mother and son relationship. If I was successful he might’ve gone the other way. But he is very much into Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, all the oldies. I think this generation — not just him but his friends, too — have an incredible amount of musical knowledge. They’re lucky to have such a rich history.
Did you ever pull rank on him as a mom?
On a musical level we understood each other well. I was expecting some musical arguments but there wasn’t much of that. But there were things I wanted to teach him — you don’t waste session time, time is valuable in the studio. You don’t keep doing it over and over. You do it right the first time, and maybe I’ll give you a second chance, but not a fourth or fifth. It’s a good attitude to learn in the beginning, it will make him more focused on it. That’s the kind of thing I try to tell the band — this is not play time, it’s doing it right time.
Did the other guys in the band treat you like Sean’s mom?
No. Well, there was a little bit of that, you know, ‘We can be lax because she’s only Sean’s mom.’ But once they got into the music, it was very productive. And the way Sean was supportive was similar to how John was in the studio.
It seems to me that the keynote of the new album is that line in “Rising”: Have courage/Have rage/We’re rising. Do you believe anger is an energy, as John Lydon once put it?
Yes. But not if it’s misdirected, at your friends or your close family. Usually we do that because we have this innate anger, which started probably when we were born, when they slapped us and cut the umbilical cord before we wanted it cut, you know? It’s a big shock to come out into a new world and start life like that. And then you’re subjected to all these misconceptions in life, all sorts of illusions and myths we have to live through, and the anger increases.”
I think people are only just now beginning to reconsider how much racism and sexism played a part in your public demonization.
I understand how people felt about it, especially considering the times. It must have been very hard on them that suddenly their hero is standing with a woman. It’s hard enough to see him with a woman, but an Oriental woman at that! Of course I was pained by the fact that they were angry at me. At the same time, it was a lesson that we learned together in a way. Now, maybe, when they see an Oriental or somebody from a different race, they might have a different feeling about it. Something good might have come out of it in the sense we all learned from it.
At that time, women were leaving their husbands because they felt they were being overshadowed — and there you were, living proof. I’m sure John didn’t want it to be that way, and yet your work was overshadowed.
But that was a typical woman’s life. John was very concerned about it because he was a new breed of man in a way. Well, he wasn’t before then — he was pretty macho — but he was trying to be politically correct, in now language. At the same time, it was hard for him, for most men. He felt lonely, he didn’t feel there was a gang of brothers who were agreeing with him about this stuff. It was a strange time.
I’ve noticed some younger female artists, like Courtney Love, are reclaiming you as a heroine. Love even wrote a song about you with Hole called “20 Years at the Dakota.”
There’s something parallel about our lives. I felt it too. I felt there’s a similar situation [with Love], a vibration there that we can easily understand each other.
What inspired the leap from avant garde experimentalism to more mainstream, structured pop? Were you wanting to address a larger audience?
In 1967 when I was doing the “Bottoms” film, and John and I still hadn’t gotten together, there was that pop atmosphere. I did “Listen the Snow is Falling” — not in a very pop way, just on a tape. It was a one-off thing. I don’t know what I was thinking — for me it was an experiment. When John and I got together I was not thinking pop so much as rock — I was interested in that strong, heavy beat — I equated it with the heartbeat. I thought, the avant-garde music is mainly for the head, you know. Most male avant-garde composers avoided the voice because it was too animalistic; they were into very cool instrumental kinds of things. Cool was in, and by using my voice I was a little uncool in their eyes. Strange, isn’t it? It was too physical, the sound of my voice was too human and emotional. And because of that, I kind of rebelled against that avant-garde tendency and I went more animalistic. When I heard the rock beat, I thought, ‘Oh, this is what I was looking for!’ It was almost like I met what I wanted to meet. And I never looked back.