Among the many iconic images of Yoko Ono, there is one that is particularly haunting.
Taken in late 1969, she and her husband John Lennon have embarked on their worldwide “War Is Over” campaign. They are huddled together behind a giant placard bearing that mantra, dressed in all white. Her long black hair is parted in the middle, framing her face like draperies. But it is her eyes that are most evocative– dark pools of sadness and mystery.
Though the sign and Lennon occupy the foreground of the photograph, she is its undeniable center, a subliminal message that her husband would have readily acknowledged.
But after that legendary first encounter with Lennon at a London art gallery where she was prepping for a show, Ono and her work began to be subsumed by his fame, becoming the target of racism, sexism and outright bullying by the press and public.
Vilified as a Japanese “dragon lady” who broke up the Beatles—compare the public’s perception of her and the blonde-haired, American-born Linda Eastman, who married Paul McCartney—she was written off as an untalented opportunist. Her music, with its aggressive lyrics and wails that presaged the sounds of punk and new wave, was derided as unfeminine and lacking artistic merit.
In a telephone conversation from her longtime apartment at the Dakota in New York, Ono takes a deep breath as she reflects on those times and her identification with the gay community.
“It’s been very hard, but in a way we all get hard times to experience things and to learn. I feel that it’s almost like a parallel, what you guys went through and are going through, so I feel very close.”
With her turbulent life story and support of LGBT issues, Ono deserves to be included in the great pantheon of gay icons.
At 79, she remains as culturally and politically relevant as ever. Long a vocal supporter of equal rights and marriage equality, she fused her advocacy with her music in 2004 when she released “Everyman/Everywoman.”
A reworking of “Every Man Has A Woman Who Loves Him” from the Grammy-winning Lennon/Ono album Double Fantasy, the single featured updated, gay-centric lyrics: “Every man has a man who loves him” and “every woman has a woman who loves her.” Remixed by Blow Up, the song rocketed to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play Singles Chart.
But lest you think the success of “Everyman/Everywoman” was a fluke, consider this: with the recent release of “Talking To The Universe,” a remix of a song from her 1995 album Rising, Ono scored her seventh consecutive No. 1 hit on the dance charts, following singles including “Move On Fast,” “Give Me Something” and “Walking On Thin Ice.”
She has even taken the stage with Lady Gaga, who has cited Ono as one of her primary influences, performing a dramatic set that included Ono’s “The Sun Is Down,” which has garnered nearly 285,000 views on YouTube.
A fiery, provocative anthem, “Talking To The Universe” contains lyrics that seem to be directly taken from Ono’s life:
You say mustn’t do this and that
You say can’t do this and that
“When I made ‘Talking To The Universe’ originally, I always thought it was a dance song,” she says. “I’m one of those people, when I hear dance music my body starts to move and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Ono has distilled this feeling into a mantra on her official Facebook page: “It’s better to dance than to march through life.” Still, her musical resurgence on the dance charts, in which she has regularly bested singles by artists over fifty years her junior including Lady Gaga and Rihanna, has caught her somewhat off-guard. “I can’t believe it, but it’s great. I get scared in a way, too—what???” Ono laughs softly. “I really want to make the dance charts happen in the grandest way.”
She has a fondness for gay clubs, she says, recalling how she went dancing after the re-release of “Walking On Thin Ice” in 2003. “It was great. I should probably do it again, but these days I’m just busy with all sorts of things. I’m going to all these cities rather than clubs.”
Ono’s international travel centers on her Imagine Peace Project, and sees her regularly speaking out on issues including marriage equality, environmental justice and world peace. “We’re trying to make a better world,” she explains quietly. “I think that we’re going to get there very soon.”
She points to the New York legislature’s decision to legalize gay marriage as a reason for hope. “Isn’t that great? Of course, they’re saying, well, they might get a divorce, haha, or something like that. But the straights didn’t do too well either—I’m just talking about the fact that it’s not so you can be perfect, it’s so that you have the same rights. That’s all.”
Lennon, she says, would have been overjoyed by the decision. “Oh, he would have been very happy. He would have been jumping up and down, saying great, because he always believed in fairness and justice.”
In the decades since his tragic murder on 8 December 1980, Ono has continued their joint legacy of social justice. Yet she has also remained devoted to her own art—the music, of course, but also visual works such as the Wish Tree, which she has installed in cities across the globe. At these sites, visitors are invited to take a pencil and write a wish on a paper tag, tying it to the tree. In the winter months, they are directed to whisper their wish to the tree instead.
Asked if she has a message to deliver to the LGBT community, Ono offers a simple phrase reminiscent of her art. Minimalist yet profound, it says everything: “I love you.”