High Times Greats: Yoko Ono, Dragon Lady or Lady Madonna?

A candid conversation with one of the world’s most controversial women from the May, 1983 issue of High Times.
High Times Greats: Yoko Ono, Dragon Lady or Lady Madonna?
Gilles Larrain/ Contact

In a wide-ranging interview from May, 1983, Yoko Ono explored the problems of wealth, power and life without John with interviewers Bob Fass and Cathie Revland. Just in time for Yoko Ono’s birthday February 18, we’re republishing the interview below.

She apologizes and leads us, sock-footed, into a room located somewhere between the Tigris and the Euphrates. On the ceiling, clouds hover in a peaceful sky. Palm trees reflect in smoked-glass mirrors. Under our feet, a carpet the color and give of bleached white sand. Deep beneath the carpet, the rumble of several New York City subway lines. On the walls are pictures of father and Sean. There’s a white upright in the comer. A chambered nautilus Tiffany lamp rests on a presidential-size Princess Isis desk. Either item could feed a family of four for about 20 years.

The money thing again. The money thing will not go away. Elvis could squander, and who cares how much Rod Stewart or even the Paul McCartneys spend, but John Lennon and Yoko Ono— well, they were supposed to be different. Maybe they were supposed to give it all away. Imagine no possessions and all that. Whatever the reason, when it comes to the money, a barrier goes up between Yoko Ono and the world and neither sees the other clearly.

And there are so many barriers. What’s it like to pay the cost of 10 Tiffany lamps a year for eight-foot moonlight from the NYPD? What’s it like to be hounded for more than 10 years by the hostile government of a country you happen to want to live in? (Pat Nixon, it is said, despised Yoko with that particular brand of racist-inspired California vengeance.) And what’s it like to have your husband die in your arms?

Whatever the impediments, one thing is perfectly clear: Yoko Ono wants to be understood. She wants to talk about “delicate differences.” The following condensed transcript from an interview with Bob Fass, John Kalish and Cathie Revland is an attempt to squeeze through the barriers to some rock ‘n’ roll grokery. The conversation was taped on the evening of December 8,1982, and broadcast that same night on “Radio Unnameable” over WBAI-FM in New York City.

Yoko Ono: Once every ten years or whatever we go through some panic, you know, in the society itself. And I’m old enough to remember the 1950s or whatever, when suddenly there’s a panic in America, and everybody’s building shelters and sort of hoarding canned goods. Where are those shelters now? And the only thing that is dangerous is that we panic, because I think the world is what we make of it, and the world is a result of our dreams. The dream makes the world.

We first project it, and then the world is made. And, for instance, our human race, we dreamed about [Intake of breath, almost a sigh] flying. We wanted to fly. Now we can fly. We dreamed about expeditions, exploring, you know, exploring out, not I mean inwardly, but outwardly, and there are many stories of islands and whatnot. Now we don’t have those stories because all the islands are discovered.

There was a dream about going to the moon, you know. Always the moon was in poetry, what’s it like there. And there’s always a sort of balance, you know. Some destruction, some construction. But now we’re coming to the point where maybe the destructive force might end the whole thing. Well, that’s how we’re feeling it.

The other side is that John and I said in 1980, “the ’80s are going to be beautiful, starting over,” and I still think that stands.

B.F. and C.R.: We live in a world now where Irwin Corey said that the cost of one battleship is more than Jerry Lewis has raised in all the years that he’s been trying to raise money for muscular dystrophy. So imagine if they had bought one less battleship and spent the money to cure muscular dystrophy, we would never have had to hear of Jerry Lewis.

Yoko: Well, that is typical masculine logic. The reason is because by saying that, you’re projecting the society’s wrong. I don’t believe in that.

B.F. and C.R.: You don’t believe that things are going in an insane direction?

Yoko: I don’t believe that money is what cures people. I think it goes deeper than that. Well, this is the amount of money we’re using. We don’t have the money and therefore we can’t do this—

B.F. and C.R.: But it can save lives. You don’t think that money can save lives?

Yoko: I think that we were here before monetary systems. And I think that trusting too much in monetary systems—and a lot of socialists do that too, because—

B.F. and C.R.: Are you a socialist?

Yoko: No, I’m not saying that—

B.F. and C.R.: Was John?

Yoko: Look, we were just people, all right. But what I’m saying is that some people are concerned about society—let’s put it that way—and they feel that they could do something about it, you know. Really concerned about people. They start to fall into a trap of thinking that if we only had money we can do this or do that. And the money is used badly. Now, that’s one way of thinking, but I really don’t think that that is the basic issue.

B.F. and C.R.: I mean, we have a refrigerator, and there’s a container of milk in the refrigerator. Now you can either use that milk to throw against the wall, or you can make breakfast for a child with it.

Yoko: So?

B.F. and C.R.: We live in a country where trillions are being spent for weapons of destruction, whether or not they’re used, the resources are not being spent for people. When I hear your music, when I read the lyrics of your songs, John’s songs, I see a fierce commitment to human use of human resources and human needs being more important than money.

Yoko: Exactly. That’s what I’m saying.

B.F. and C.R.: But money is a fact. It’s real, it… kills people—

Yoko: Oh, really. We are more real and more of a fact than money.

B.F. andC.R.:True, but—

Yoko: And I think that by attacking the people who are misusing money, somehow we fall into the same trap of—

B.F. and C.R.: How should money be used?

Yoko: Wait a second. Why don’t you focus your attention and energy on something other than money?

B.F. and C.R.: Most of my energy is focused on something other than money because I don’t have any.

Yoko: Good. But we are talking about money now.

B.F. and C.R.: But it’s inescapable, because everyone in the world, whether it’s true or not, thinks that you are very powerful because you have money.

Yoko: I don’t think that is my main power. I hope people don’t think that, and if some people think that that’s my main power, that is their understanding and their problem and it doesn’t matter to me. But at the same time, I think that my power comes first. Rather than the power of the money.

B.F. and C.R.: Well, you have money because you have answered people’s needs. John had money because he saved people’s lives with his music.

Yoko: So? But it’s the music that saved, not the money.

B.F. and C.R.: That’s right, but then again there are people who are dying for want of a simple operation, or who are blind around the world because they can’t afford an operation that costs pennies now, and there are things that could be done if the resources of the world were used with human needs paramount.

Yoko: That way of doing it is fine too. I’m not attacking that. Okay?

B.F. and C.R.: No, I’m thinking of that whole wonderful vibe that was in all of those albums that made such an impact on everyone’s souls—

Yoko: Well, those songs were not made out of money, those songs were made… directly from human emotion.

Instead of saying we are spending so much money on a ship and rather than using the money for this or that, if we just kept on doing something that is positive and creative, hopefully all of us will just be ignoring all the negatives and just keep on doing all we can do, that is positive, those negative things will lose a function and eventually disappear…

I just saw on TV a program about this new method of saving retarded children, when they’re born they have this method, which was in effect, in a very early stage you catch it, in a sense of just sort of giving stimulation, a lot of stimulation, sort of almost like an amount of stimulation that you think you shouldn’t give an infant, you know. Shaking or patting.

B.F. and C.R.: Patterning, it’s called.

Yoko: Yes. And it’s marvelous. Because of that, some children suddenly grow into, because he’s stimulated enough or she’s stimulated enough, somehow they’re very alert and they sort of saved themselves from the fate of whatever the doctors said they’re going into. And that’s all of us.

B.F. and C.R.: Right. Retarded!

Yoko: Now for instance, people come to me and say, “What can we do then? What are we going to do?” I say, “What do you mean—we’re ready to do something.” And I was thinking, well, I have to be practical about this. The first thing I said when we did the bed-in, and they’d come and say, “What’s the solution?” is to say, “We’re not the ones. You’re the ones.” Which still stands.

I do not feel that I am particularly more powerful than any of you. I think we are all very powerful beings, there’s no reason why I should tell you what to do…

And I just sort of had a flash of all of us sort of basically sitting at home, these days, because if you are an old lady or whatever, you think twice about going around the corner… Now if the truth may be told, people say, “What kind of life do you lead?” Well, my life is very simple. I’m mainly, sort of, I don’t want to use the word “stuck”… I am mainly in my apartment. Other than that, I may go to the studio to make something. I feel very thankful if it’s a beautiful day and I can walk in the park… Luckily, I can afford security guards, but maybe on the other hand the amount of pressure and attention I’m getting justifies that. It’s sort of like the same kind of situation. So I am with you, I am living in the same city.

B.F. and C.R.: Was there ever a time when you thought about not living? About wanting not to be alive?

Yoko: Well, we all go through that too, probably. I went through that when… after what happened, you know… what happened. I said, well, look, we had a good scene, do I not want to go on? I mean, I’ve seen everything, and I’ve done everything, and what’s the point? And then I saw these two large dark eyes, sort of staring at me. This little being called Sean, my son.

B.F. and C.R.: You have a daughter too.

Yoko: Yes, well I don’t see my daughter, as you know, that’s a long story.

B.F. and C.R.: Perhaps people would like to know about that.

Yoko: Oh… [Almost singsong recitation]… well, you do know that my daughter was kidnapped by my ex-husband and I haven’t seen her and she’s going on nineteen and I… I wish she’s happy, whatever she is doing. But anyway, so here’s my son looking at me intently. And I think, oh, well, I cannot make him an orphan. I have to survive, I have to stay alive and I have to protect him and I have to make sure he’s all right. It’s a genuine emotion, no reason, no logic. And, that kept me alive. And of course you might say, as a human being you owe it to yourself to live and what about that, but in a moment of thinking what’s the point of living, that was the one that sort of held me there… that was the one that woke me up, you know?

Some people said, “Look, you know, you showed strength after what happened, and sort of, well, it’s incredible.” I don’t see it that way. I see it as a human conditioning. For some reason, I was put in a condition or situation where I was acting that way. Maybe for survival. Survival is not a term that you can use only for a situation like starving and this and that, you know. There’s survival on this level too. So what I’m trying to say is some of us are feeling like this is doomsday, the end of the world, et cetera.

I don’t think like that. I feel that this world is extremely young. We wanted to explore violence. The limits of violence, how far we can go. It’s almost like, a symbol of how much power we have. Violence was a mystery that we wanted to explore. Now we did to the point that we know that the mystery’s over, we can even kill the universe, thank you.

John and I quite often felt that we know it all, and well, what-else-is-there-to-know kind of attitude… and then bam, last year I had to face why? The big why in my life.

I was moving to an area that has no reference point. I couldn’t ask anybody about it because nobody had that kind of experience before. And, I realized… at my age… [Laughs] that I don’t know anything. [Laughs more] And there’s a lot to learn, so I’m just thinking that’s how it is with the world. I’m not comparing myself with the world, but really world is us in us. The world is us and us is the world.

B.F. and C.R.: What do you think of Nancy and Ronald Reagan?

Yoko: Okay. I think you’re being very naive. I think that if you could dispense your responsibility, blame it all on Reagan, or something like that, you’re a happy person. I couldn’t see myself that way. And my feeling is that he’s only a person too, and he’s doing probably his best.

B.F. and C.R.:I have a whole list of people that I would like to ask you about.

Yoko: No, no, no—

B.F. and C.R.: I don’t believe that you don’t have a reaction to certain public figures or public images, just as people hear your music and they have an image, a dream, they dream of you. I would like to know the dream that you dream of Ronald Reagan or Bob Dylan.

Yoko: I don’t dream about specifics.

B.F. and C.R.: Do you think of them when they make statements, when they put art into the world? Don’t you form an opinion?

Yoko: I’m jumping right to the future. I’m smiling to the future and the future’s smiling back to me. There’s beautiful rainbows all over the place and there’s a beautiful world, a beautiful peaceful world, with green, and the sky’s blue, and everything is so clear, the air is clear, and we’re all smiling and there’s a very delicate but very definite communication between us, without using too many words or whatever… and the kind of world where there’s no government because we don’t need it really. But I’m not an anarchist, I’m not saying that…

Now, you are maybe making a detour by filling your mind with all these names, and what about them, and what are they doing—let them do whatever they want.

B.F. and C.R.: I’d like to ask you how you felt about J. Edgar Hoover making it almost impossible for John and you to pursue your life in this country.

Yoko: If J. Edgar Hoover was the only person who made it impossible for us to stay in this country, then that logic stands. That is naive. I don’t think that’s reality at all, if you really look into it. For instance, for this peace march I wanted to order a plane to go in the sky and write “Imagine”—okay? That was my contribution. So I called, and this marvelous person who usually does “Happy Birthday” to John, or whatever, very nice, the minute my assistant said we’d like “Imagine” in the sky, he said, “We don’t deal in any political or controversial or dangerous statements.”

If you said to Reagan, for instance, Mr. Reagan, “Do you think that ‘Imagine’ is a dangerous word, and do you think you’re going to punish this person who did this in the sky,” he probably would laugh. “Well, ‘Imagine,’ that’s a good slogan, imagine four more years.” But what I’m saying is, this guy presupposing what the authorities might think, what the people might think—we’re too scared. Now Edgar Hoover himself, just one person, could not have done that to us. It was the other people who were afraid what he would want, or maybe cater to the way that he might think. Many innocent people who are frightened and therefore who presuppose what the world should be or what they should be doing. It has nothing to do with what they’re thinking, or reality at all. And that is the danger. I don’t think one person did us in.

B.F. and C.R.: I think it was the climate, and it was a fear. It was fear of your power, fear of the way people loved you. In the Playboy interview, I see John saying, this is not a quote, I’m sorry, but he said all the world hates lovers.

Yoko: [Long pause and a sigh] There’s that too, probably. But anyway, the reason why they hate it is because they’re afraid of that reality, they’re suspicious of that reality. They are afraid that they may not be able to have it. If they only knew, that we were just part of them. And what we did for each other, made it possible for us to do something for other people.

B.F. and C.R.: Well, you’ve just gone into a studio and spent months putting an album of songs together—you call it a play. An air play.

Yoko: Yes, hopefully.

B.F. and C.R.: And this is a statement that you’re making about your part of the human experience.

Yoko: Well, I was trying not to make a statement. It’s all right, it’s more like a prayer to me.

B.F. and C.R.: I think we’re looking for “signs of wonder amidst the signs of doom,” and so I’m grateful for the album.

Yoko: Also, the other thing is very strange things happened, when I was making this song, I see rainbows. And nobody knew that I was making a song, just the studio people. But somehow, lots of letters—because I gets lots of letters these days, which is very nice, thank you, thank you, thank you—but anyway… these letters had rainbows in it.

B.F. and C.R.: It’s funny because when I first looked at the album, and I saw “It’s Alright,” I thought what does that mean? And I said it a few times to myself, and then finally I said, oh, it’s all right. It isn’t a grandiose statement—

Yoko: Well, yes. See, I’ll tell you why, because this summer while I was making a record, there was some sort of frightening sideshows going on in my life, where I felt totally panicked. So I thought to myself, I better change this. Turn it around. Change the channel. I started writing what I am thankful about.

What do I have to be thankful about? Oh, yes, I’m healthy, Sean’s healthy and we’re together, thank you, thank you. I kept doing that and still… this little sort of cold feeling in my tummy or whatever. And then I thought, oh, well, my security blanket, which is the piano. I went to the piano, rushed to… it’s all right it’s all right, just like a prayer.

B.F. and C.R.: I think your openness and your vulnerability is part of what makes you so wonderful. You’ve spent practically your whole life trying to wrench yourself open. You spoke about the guilt in this society.

Yoko: Which I share.

B.F. and C.R.: Which you share, and even recognizing the fact that we are guilty is a tremendous contribution that you make.

Yoko: We’re not guilty, but we feel guilty.

B.F. and C.R.: An artist is an important kind of human being—

Yoko: We’re all artists. Part of us which is the artist, somehow in this society they have this feeling that artists are parasites or whatever. But we are like the trees in the park you see. You think it’s nothing, so you want to just cut all the trees and build a condominium or something. Once you do that, then you miss the trees.

B.F. and C.R.: In Brazil they’re clearing enormous forests because they want to build roads. But twenty percent of the oxygen in the world is generated by the greenery in South America. The artists may seem, to some, to be a useless, nonproductive element of society. But the artists help us to—

Yoko: I said about the war memorial, it’s good that because soldiers are people, and they were victims of the society, and it is very important that we recognize that and we pay respect to what they did.

But also may I report to you that there’s a Peace Day, and right now some people are trying to ask the United Nations to approve of it. It just so happens to be my husband’s birthday, but that is not the thing that is said up front, which is nice too in a way. It happens to be October 9th. But some people are thinking that every country has a War Memorial Day, why not a Peace Day as well? And, a few countries are starting to agree, and starting to try to do that. And my feeling is not to knock the War Memorial Day and have the Peace Day. No, we coexist. That’s the idea. The yin and yang. And if we can allow that to happen, if we’re going to say we cannot allow the War Memorial Day, they can say we cannot allow the Peace Day.

B.F. and C.R.: It’s more likely that they will say that.

Yoko: No, well, that is presupposing here. If you went to war, maybe you’re the first person who wants peace.

B.F. and C.R.: Yes, of course. But, militarists are not known for their dedication to peace.

Yoko: That is another label, just like they call some people peaceniks or hippies or whatever. You’re calling them militarists.

B.F. and C.R.: I would say that Alexander Haig is a militarist. Then that’s a label that fits.

Yoko: Oh, I don’t know that.

B.F. and C.R.: I would say that George Bush believes in the CIA.

Yoko: There was a time—I think you’re being naive—because there was a time, when I was a dragon lady and that was accepted… Some people… do become dragon lady because they’re called dragon lady. They might just be at the verge of being something else, and you call them militarists, they’re going to be militarists. You are creating a militarist by stating that. He is many things, whoever you said. He might be a father, he might be a husband. He might be a little boy who remembers about his mother dearly, et cetera, et cetera. His heart is ticking, it’s the same heartbeat as yours.

B.F. and C.R.: What would it be like for you if you were a young person, coming into New York as a musician, as an artist today? Where would you put your energies?

Yoko: In my work.

B.F. and C.R.: Do you think your work would be the same? Because your experience is so… different and unique. You are Yoko Ono. People believe that you are a god.

Yoko: [She laughs] I can only say that I would say please listen to yourselves, that’s where the answer is. And nobody else can give you the answer. Now, instinctively… and instinct is something so precious that we have ignored so much of it, abused so much of it… We’re starting to say, no, I am not right, my instinct is not right, what they say on the TV’s right, or whatever. And I say to people who send me letters saying “What was John like? Are these things that are said about John, terrible things said about John, are they true?” or this and that. I say to them, “You’ve got his words, you’ve got his songs, you hear his voice, what you hear from that… trust that.”

B.F. and C.R.: Can you say something about the individual songs on the album… each of the songs.

Yoko: Oh. Well, basically, I’ll just give you the overall, because each song probably means something different to each person. It’s like my diary that I went through… last year, this year… and it’s like I’m thinking about my man, you know, a love song to John… Never say goodbye… loneliness, tomorrow it’ll come, hold me or whatever, all that different emotions… that a human being goes through… and I’m just saying, hey, I’ve got the same kind of emotions that you’ve probably got too, and here I am saying hello, you know. And that’s the nice side… Around December 8th or whatever, I was feeling really heavy and feeling sort of down, you know… and then, side two, it’s all right… it’s very important I thought, to me, it’s important… it was Sean who says, “Wake up, wake up, mommy.” Like an angel that came and said, “Wake up!” “Oh, yes, I know, I know, don’t worry, I know it… oh, what time is it?” 8:36, oh! Okay! And it’s… this is the day that starts and then I’m saying, Okay, it’s all right is it? Wake up and dream love, and let the tears dry and I see rainbows. And sort of I’m saying all that. In result of Sean waking me up, see? But to say that well I went through the same thing, and then my child woke me up and I had to get my act together.

B.F. and C.R.: Just one final question. How’s Sean?

Yoko: Oh, it’s a very difficult question to answer. One part of me wants to immediately say he’s fine, he’s very strong and he’s very sort of together person… but the same thing, I’m sure, a lot of people have said about me, and I know that I have the vulnerable side… which I tend to hide or whatever, and he has the tendency, even though he’s sort of… I know he still cries about his daddy because other people report to me about it. He never does that in front of me. It’s a bit sort of protecting me from that side… and acting like a man in the family. You know. [Laughs] But I think that because this is the only reality he knows, and the reality he knows is something that is so different from my childhood, or John’s childhood, so that there’s no way of knowing what it’s like. But at the same time, there’s no way of him knowing what it would be like otherwise. That’s his only reality. So I’m just… to him, he’s just coping with life, and I’m just praying that it’ll be good.

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