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Interview:
Yoko Ono protects and serves John Lennon's legacy
 

By GARY GRAFF
of the Oakland Press

» See more SOUND CHECK

After John Lennon was murdered by a deranged fan on Dec. 8, 1980, outside his apartment in New York City, Yoko Ono sought a new role for herself.

She was no longer the former Beatle’s wife and collaborator. And she had no desire to be the perpetually mourning widow.

So instead, Ono, a musician and visual and performing artist in her own right, elected to be the “protector” of Lennon’s legacy and catalog — including a wealth of new releases, dubbed the Gimme Some Truth campaign, that are due out this week to commemorate what would have been his 70th birthday on Saturday, Oct. 9.

“I was always a protector, I think,” says the Tokyo-born Ono, 77, “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) and all that, but that’s a different story. There’s a big, big, empty space there.’

“Then I thought, ‘OK, I can give my energy to (Lennon’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.”

“Quite a lot” is an apt description of what will hit stores on Tuesday, Oct. 5. At the behest of EMI Music, Ono herself went into the company’s famed Abbey Road studio to remix all 121 of Lennon’s solo tracks that will be released in three separate configurations ranging from a new hits collection to two ambitious, catalog-encompassing box sets (see sidebar for details). The project also includes “Double Fantasy Stripped Down,” an unvarnished version of the Lennon/Ono 1980 “comeback” album that came out just three weeks before his death.

They’ll be accompanied by the John Lennon Box of Vision, a limited-edition box approved by Ono that’s designed to store Lennon’s entire solo catalog and comes with a 166-page book containing all of his LP artwork, a lavishly illustrated discography and a pair of special recordable DVDs and CDs for fans’ use.

Among the other activities celebrating Lennon’s 70th are: a new documentary, “American Masters: LENNONNYC,” about his days living in Manhattan, which will debut at 9 p.m. Nov. 22 on PBS affiliates; and three Lennon time capsules containing archival material that will be buried in three locations — the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, the John Moores University in Lennon’s birthplace of Liverpool, England, and the John Lennon Peace Tower in Reykjavik, Iceland — after they’re dedicated on Friday, Oct. 8, in Cleveland.

“John was a Renaissance man,” says Ono, who met Lennon at a showing of her artwork in 1966 in London and married him on March 20, 1969. “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?’ ”

Nevertheless, Ono says Lennon’s fearlessness and willingness to be controversial in support of women’s rights, protecting the environment, ending the Vietnam War and promoting peace and tolerance made a lasting impression that went well beyond pop music.

“He’s a brilliant man whose work actually changed the world — or it changed the map of your brain, let me put it that way,” she explains.

The charge to showcase that work for Lennon’s 70th birthday came from EMI, but Ono says that when presented with the scope of the plan “I just wanted to drop everything and join them. It’s a kind of thing I don’t think any record company has done before. I was really impressed that they were going to gamble with something like that.” And her view of responsibility in the process was clear.

“I just wanted to make sure the quality was tops — that’s where I came in, I suppose, down to photos and everything,” Ono says. “I just wanted to make sure that I improved it, improved the choices. I was interested in every part of this project, actually.

Not surprisingly, immersing herself in Lennon’s catalog was arduous, emotional and “trying,” and even months later Ono chokes up a bit when recalling the days she spent listening to her late husband’s voice over the studio speakers.

“I didn’t think I was going to feel anything personally because I have been doing John’s work for the past 30 years or something, so I thought I can just do it how I should do it — professionally,” she says. “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!’” she adds with a laugh.

For many, the highlight of the Gimme Some Truth campaign is “Double Fantasy Stripped Down,” which removes instrumentation and other studio sheen from the original release — which won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1982 — to focus more on Lennon’s vocals. “Suddenly you hear John’s voice and how he’s singing,” Ono notes, “and his lyrics are very clear and ... his diction was so perfect in a way that just that alone impresses you.”

The recasting of the album is ironic in that original co-producer Jack Douglas told Britain’s Uncut magazine in 2005 that “my immediate impressions were that I was going to have a hard time making it better than the (Lennon) demos because there was such an intimacy in the demos.” And even though she had a falling out with Douglas years ago, Ono reached out to him to join her in producing the “Stripped Down” release.

“I was a little nervous because of the years that we have not communicated and I thought it was going to be hard,” she acknowledges. “But I felt good about that decision because a lot of water passed under the bridge. 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.”

Ono’s “protector” role extends beyond Lennon’s solo work, of course. She represents the “Lennon camp” in all of the Beatles projects as well, which last year included a Rock Band video game as well as remastered re-releases of the group’s studio albums. And Ono takes pride that the once fractious world of the Fab Four has learned that love — and cooperation — is indeed all you need.

“We all share, and I have my opinion as representing John,” Ono explains. “If the world can do the same thing we have done it would be a very peaceful world. We became kind of matured 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.”

Now that the Gimme Some Truth mother lode is arriving, Ono is turning her attention to other projects, including a new version of the Plastic Ono Band that she and Lennon christened in 1969. But she’s still sworn to produce some sort of Lennon project each year, so she’s starting to consider what 2011 will bring.

“This is the bonanza year, so I don’t know what we can do next year,” Ono notes, “but already there’s things we’re planning. You’ll know what ... when we’re ready to tell you.”



GET SOME "TRUTH"

What would have been the late John Lennon’s 70th birthday on Saturday, Oct. 9, has inspired a wealth of new releases — all with remixed sound supervised by his widow, Yoko Ono — showcasing his solo work after the Beatles’ split up in 1970. Due out on Tuesday, Oct. 5, are:

The John Lennon Signature Box: An 11-CD set featuring the eight solo albums he made while he was alive (including the newly created “Double Fantasy Stripped Down”), a disc of non-album singles and a CD of rare and previously unreleased material.

Gimme Some Truth: A box set that assembles Lennon’s songs into thematic discs — “Roots” for his rock influences, “Working Class Hero” for his socio-political tracks, “Woman” for his love songs and “Borrow Time” for Lennon’s philosophical compositions.

Power to the People: The Hits: A new best-of collection that features 15 of Lennon’s most popular songs, including “Imagine,” “Power to the People,” “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” and “Give Peace a Chance.”

John Lennon Box of Vision: An adjunct box designed to house Lennon’s releases in style, along with a 166-page book documenting his LP artwork, a lavishly illustrated discography and a pair of special recordable DVDs and CDs for fans’ use. Available via www.boxofvision/johnlennon.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff

 



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