The room is cool and still, the furniture mostly white and soft. Dim lights shoot up softly from the floor to clouds frozen on the high ceiling by a painter's brush.
An oil portrait sits above an upright piano, man and child under a warm sun, the kind of pose that is more often woman and child. In this room, designed to be much like the inner chamber of a traditional Japanese home, Yoko Ono, widow of former Beatle John Lennon, lives -- emotionally and artistically -- in the long shadow of his death two years ago today.
On the cusp of 50, Ono, the conceptual-artist-turned-rock-singer, looks a decade or more younger than she is. She once described herself as "a 'moving on' kind of girl"; she's moving on again.
"Naturally, things don't stay still," she says. "That's healthy and I don't think we should hold onto anything. We should let things change organically. It's unnatural to try to change it as fast as possible. You have to let it take its own time; that's what I'm doing."
She has just released a new album, her sixth. "It's Alright" is a decidedly different affair from "Season of Glass," the anguished, bitter, accusatory album that came out six months after Lennon's motiveless murder outside the portals of the Dakota apartment house. The new album confirms much about her own commitment to music, and perhaps the immense changes inspired by her intense 14-year relationship with the mind and heart of the Beatles. "It's Alright," which is about healing and reconciliation, also begins to define the dichotomy between public and private memory.
"The confusion is that because John belongs to the world, fans feel that John belongs to them," Ono says, quietly curling into a sofa chair, a pack of Gitanes always within reach. Her face is unlined, her expression somber.
On the back of "It's Alright," Ono describes herself and 7-year-old Sean Lennon as "keepers of the wishing well." She explains: "John's words and statements and music will go on living and they will probably be part of many, many people's lives, so that's true. They feel sort of antagonistic about somebody that has a special sharing with him. They feel that he's a public figure, and that is true as well; but he also had a private life, because he was human and that's good, thank you, thank you, thank you." Ono raises her eyes as she recites this little litany; it's one that she uses often. Lennon used it, too.
"John and I had a lot of love between us, but at the same time we were very aware about the world and that we were part of the world. If they had accepted us as a couple, we could have given so much. In a way, we did things despite the pressure and rejection . . . We could have blossomed . . . a lot of creative things might have happened."
The Lennon-Ono story is one of love-crossed stars. But until Dec. 8, 1980, Ono was a roadblock in the psyche of Beatles fans and general public alike. She was perceived as the woman who broke up the Fab Four, the woman who changed John Lennon; if the Beatles in their brotherhood had seemed accessible, John and Yoko as the couple seemed exclusive. Ono admits that from an industry viewpoint she damaged an icon, but from her point of view, she was also the salvation of an individual. Lennon himself repeatedly said, "She was there when I was the real nowhere man."
There had been a giddy time in 1980 when Lennon and Ono resurfaced after five years of quiet domesticity and parenting (his) and intense business manipulations (hers) with a new album, "Double Fantasy," and wholly renewed energies. And then there was Ono as the grieving widow and mother, surviving through her music.
"There's something that's happening in my life," she says, "where part of me is very confident -- I think of myself as a chess game player, knowing it all -- but the other part, I'm told somehow from a bigger power, 'No, you don't know anything.' There are so many things that I encounter that I still can't figure out why."
The public has its own set of whys, but Yoko Ono is not about to answer them all. She and Lennon were as reclusive and private in raising Sean between 1975 and 1980 as they had been public from 1968 to 1975 with their bed-ins and "bagism" phase. Both were compulsive artists who redefined themselves on the social level, he becoming the househusband, the childkeeper, the breadbaker, she the policy maker, the dealer, the breadwinner (with the security of a $275 million estate).
Musically, his reach encouraged her grasp. When "Double Fantasy" came out espousing conjugal happiness and the joys of parenting, it was almost as shocking as the famous nude cover on "Two Virgins" in 1968. Despite the snickers and the cynicism, it was an accurate portrayal of their relationship. "Double Fantasy" closed with the hopeful "Hard Times Are Over (For A While)."
John Lennon did not invent Yoko Ono; she had taken care of that herself years before. Born into a prominent Tokyo banking family and raised by nannies, she moved in 1951 to Scarsdale when her father became president of the Bank of Tokyo in New York. Even as a child in ultra-conservative pre-war Japan, Ono had her own ideas about art and drama, and a flair for dramatic gestures. As a college student in Tokyo, she began to pull at the bonds that defined the Japanese woman. When she moved to Scarsdale, a Japanese professor wrote in a commendation that Ono could be "a bridge between the United States and Japan."
She enrolled at Sarah Lawrence and eventually eloped with Toshi Ichiyanagi, a Juilliard-trained pianist, whom she eventually divorced. Moving to New York, Ono became a part of that city's avant-garde scene; her conceptual art and stage performances were more noted than appreciated. She was married a second time, to filmmaker Tony Cox, who fathered her daughter, Kyoko. But Ono resisted settling down to a non-artistic life and eventually divorced Cox; she has not seen Kyoko since 1968, when the child and Cox went into hiding after losing a custody battle.
By the time Lennon and Ono met in 1966, they had both defined themselves through creative roles. She was shy but tough, the kind of strong, independent woman Lennon had never known. Their romance moved from a long period of platonic privacy to the great publicity of Lennon's divorce from both Cynthia, his first wife, and the Beatles. "John's in love with Yoko and he's no longer in love with the three of us," Paul McCartney said in 1968. An era had ended.
The next decade was turbulent, musically and emotionally. Both Lennon and Ono defiantly pursued a self-indulgent methodology that sometimes produced eclectic insights, but more often mediocre music. Both steered their traumas through public therapy, but fewer people were buying albums, his or hers. In Ono's case, matters were worsened by her bizarre vocal abstractions, frequently likened to caterwauling. "She pushes pain into a kind of invigorating and liberated energy, just as a stutterer gives birth to a difficult word," wrote Jonathan Cott (who edited the new book, "The Ballad of John and Yoko") in Rolling Stone in 1971.
Despite her independent spirit, "I was also playing the game that most women find themselves playing," Ono adds, "which is being creative, taking the role of encouraging the husband, making him happy, and in return he turns around and makes the world happy or whatever. There was that side of us in our relationship. So now John's upstairs and I'm downstairs; he belongs to the world, but we're still a partnership, we belong to each other.
"Before that, we cherished a private relationship and were trying to belong to each other. If that was bad, if John's death was a punishment to me . . ." Ono stops for a moment, catches her breath, speaks again, more softly. "Maybe we were too exclusive to each other. We didn't feel guilty about it or anything then, but since John died I kept thinking, why, what did we do wrong, what did I do wrong to get this sort of horrible punishment? . . . Maybe it was just something that happened, or maybe it's part of a big design? I don't know. I still don't know why. If we did anything wrong, we were too caring about each other and our relationship."
Ono pauses while a member of her staff comes in for a flurry of check signings and quick decisions. She seems to vacillate between confidence and confusion, between eagerly anticipating the future and reluctantly exorcising the past. It's a quality that, matched with Ono's tendency to metaphysical speculation, has made some people uncomfortable.
The back cover of "It's Alright" shows Yoko and Sean in Central Park, with Lennon superimposed in black and white, a warm but separate presence. Ono has always been literal in her mix of grand and ghostly imagery: when Kyoko was 1 year old, Ono brought her out on stage as "an uncontrollable instrument." The recorded fetal heartbeat of a later-miscarried baby was used on "Baby Heartbeat" in 1969. Ono used loud shot-noises on "Season of Glass" and "It's Alright," on which she also surreptiously taped Sean asking her to "Wake up," to support a central theme that runs through the album. She refuses to concede or to buckle under the weight of battered memories.
"People ask why I'm still living here at the Dakota . This is very organic for me now; every day I encounter things that John and I touched together; but if I'd just shut myself off from that and moved out to another country or something after his death, maybe initially it might have been all right. But later I would have something to sort out in myself; this way I'm sort of gradually changing . . ."
Ono has spoken of Lennon's death as a springboard to sanity in violent times, a harsh lesson and an inspiration for world peace. As for the man who pulled the trigger, Mark David Chapman, "I don't think about him at all," she says quietly. "There's still a big question, 'Why?' That's my true feeling. We had a beautiful scene together and John was very happy and we were talking even that day about another 10 years and let's stay together until we're in a wheelchair and who's going to push who . . ." Her voice trails off and in a moment she picks up another, different thread that leads away from thoughts of death.
Still, those thoughts never leave her for long. Earlier this year, Ono was stalked by two gunmen, forcing her to move briefly to a hotel. She has also received a number of Beatles albums with bullet holes in them. Bodyguards accompany Sean to school every day.
Just as Ono had freed Lennon to experiment and fail, he freed her to succeed by expanding her pop sensibility. Where Lennon's Beatles work had been totally accessible, Ono's aggressively avant-garde ministrations were synonymous with artistic isolation. But with each new album from "Two Virgins" on, Ono inched closer to the pop fold. Lennon essentially took her out of the gallery and introduced her to the street.
And they shared a creative energy -- on film, in music, with poetry, through art. "For a couple who had been together for over 10 years, surprisingly we kept our independence and therefore there was a dialogue," Ono says. "We were partners, but we were two definite elements in the partnership. There was a dialogue which I thought was very healthy, and that's why there was a double fantasy rather than one fantasy between us."
"In 'Season of Glass,' I felt definitely the emptiness around me. I was really in a state of shock, and making the album was very therapeutic. The first time I went to the studio, of course, there was this seat where John always used to sit and I didn't have the heart to sit there. I'd sit in the seat that was next to him, which was my seat always. 'Season of Glass' was an album that belonged to that period, the past, the period of the sentence or whatever. This one is almost like starting over for me . . . my first solo album, my debut into my new life . . . whatever that is.
"This time, because John is not here, I got all these beautiful letters and telegrams from people, they keep coming with their love and prayers. Somehow that force was very important for Sean and myself. It kept us going in hard times. When I went into the studio, I realized I was having a dialogue with them, not with the fellow artists who live in the Village, but the 'family' that suddenly emerged. Instead of sending each a letter, it's my way of saying hello to them."
"Of course the album is again a story. I like to make it into a theme, the first side, which I vaguely call 'night.' The songs are contemplative, introspective, showing the barren emotions and emotional level that I went through. And then on the B side, 'day,' Sean is saying 'Wake up,' you know? I know I have to; I'm sort of saying goodbye to John, going through all that and Sean's the angel who's saying 'wake up.' Okay, 'It's Alright' and 'Wake Up,' 'Let the Tears Dry' and 'Dream Love' and 'I See Rainbows' all song titles from the B side of the album . That's the story, huh!"
As on "Season of Glass," some of the songs are old. " 'My Man' was written in 1980, 'Wake Up' also. 'Tomorrow May Never Come' and 'Loneliness' were both written in the early '70s when I was separated from John." "Wake Up" is the kind of innocent, optimistic message that first brought the two together at a London exhibition of Ono's work, where Lennon stalked up a ladder to look into a spyglass: what he saw was the word "Yes." Later, she'd send him cards saying "Breathe," "Dance," "Smile." As Ono points out, she had a career and a reputation, albeit small, long before she met and married Lennon. In all her efforts, there has been a thread of childlike wonder, an acceptance of unbounded possibility; it's art that was sometimes obvious or mischievous, yet often challenging. "Imagine," perhaps Lennon's best known post-Beatles song, was directly inspired by Ono's instructions for conceptual art: "imagine the clouds dripping; dig a hole in your garden to put them in . . ."
Sean Ono Lennon turned 7 on Oct. 9; that day, John Lennon would have turned 42. Sean is pampered and protected, kept well away from the public eye. Until Lennon's death, he had spent almost every waking hour of every day in the care and company of his father. The sudden deprivation must bear emotional consequences; already, there's the edgy fatalism heard briefly on the haunting cut from "Season of Glass" where Sean begins "It's just a little story . . . it could end anytime." In most pictures, he does not smile, just as Ono herself is seldom seen smiling.
"I don't know how he's going to solve this thing in him, but he's doing his best," she says of Sean. "He's a very strong, intelligent boy. Whether he likes it or not, this is the only life he knows. Objectively, we can say he doesn't have an ordinary childhood, and I think about that . . . I hope he'll survive and survive well and be the kind of person who can cope with this himself in the world. He's very quick-witted -- which came from John, probably; a bit shy, probably from me. He's a combination of us but also very definitely himself. He must cope in the best way that he can, and he's doing it."
With the weight of role reversals, Ono (who had been a reluctant and distant mother to Kyoko) could not compensate for the warm, loving figure who had bathed his child, slept with him, been a constant companion and teacher. "I don't know how I survived it, actually, handling the shock, business, being a parent. What Sean had was something that I can never replace; I can never replace John, he was like a mother and father. They were together 24 hours a day, and it was very painful for me to discover the first time Sean and I walked in Central Park afterwards and Sean would say, 'There's a tree Daddy would climb' or 'When we got on this carriage, the horse jumped' or 'Daddy said don't tell Mommy or she'll be worried.' All these little discoveries were painful."
Yet there's been another of what Ono calls "a twist of fate." "This 7-year-old child seems to be taking the role of Daddy, he thinks that he's responsible for me and he's protecting me. I started to find that being a parent is not boring at all; it's very interesting to be with him and we've started to have a marvelous relationship." Sean was at the studio almost every day during "It's Alright," and Ono now says "I'm eternally thankful that this being is here. John and I were very close and I didn't feel we'd need a child, but now he's such a joy. He understands that I'm not trying to replace his dad, I can't, but at the same time he's starting to know me separately."
With "It's Alright," Ono is obviously hoping more people will get to know her separately. She knows it's a hard road: "Double Fantasy" sold more than 3 million copies; "Season of Glass," despite strong reviews and the expected curiosity of Lennon fans, sold only 125,000.
There are many hours of Lennon tapes reportedly in Ono's possession, most of them demos or rehearsal tracks, but she so far seems uninterested in exploiting unfinished work. "John was a very prolific person and there are many little bits that he did; his artistic endeavor and creative efforts are all a part of the world, and the world should share it. I have the responsibility for bringing them out, but at the same time I'd like to make sure that they're done right. I know that he would have wanted me to present them at the right time and in the right way."
With the same explanation, she has resisted offers for an autobiography, denying reports that she has kept a journal. "Around 1972, we were going on a cross-country trip, driving, and I was writing a diary but at a hotel, somehow it disappeared and then we found out that it was auctioned. Since then I have never kept a diary." A book, Ono says, "would be like a purging of things. There would be a good reason for me to write something, but it's too early. There are sides of us that people don't know or things that we did that people don't know and it might help to know about them. . . . There's a lot to come out, really."
"I have all my personal reasons; maybe one reason is to correct writing about my life, because I had other lives before and after John. It's so viable monetarily, but it's a rip-off of my husband and I just don't want to do that now. One day there will be a sense of balance, and when I do write, people will understand the reasons."
Ono will surely try to erase the dominant image of her as a mother figure who encouraged a childlike dependency in Lennon. "There's no way that anybody can dominate John Lennon," Ono says emphatically. "He was a very energetic and vibrant force. Most people would have been smashed underneath if they lived long enough with him.
"Neither one of us was dominant, but if a woman is equal at all with men, they consider her dominant. I was just an 'English wife' -- one who's very intelligent and very strong, determined and very protective of her husband and quite independent and caring also. And John was an English husband who was used to seeing that type. If I were blond and blue-eyed, there's no problem, but if I'm an Oriental, they expect me to be subservient."
From disparate lives, Lennon and Ono managed to come together in a unique, exclusive way. "We had to because we were very lonely. John was the only one who understood me and I was the only one who understood him in the way that he thought he wanted to be understood . . . If he was away from that, he missed it. If I was away from that, I missed it. So we had to put up with each other. And we found a way to do it."