Yoko Ono Biography

Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono was born into a wealthy Japanese family in Tokyo. Her mother, Isoko Yasuda Ono, was the grand-daughter of Zenijiro Yasuda, who founded Yasuda Bank. Her father, who was a banker and classical pianist, was transferred to California on a work placement shortly before she was born.

When Ono was only two-years-old, her family came to San Francisco, where she was reunited with her father for the first time. Soon afterwards, however, the whole family returned to Japan to escape the wave of anti-Japanese feeling that swept the United States following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.

She spent her childhood in war-torn Japan, where air-raids were a frequent occurrence and she began studying piano almost as soon as she could walk. The young Ono showed an aptitude for music from a very early age, playing her first public concert at the age of four. As a child she attended the highly selective Jiyu-gakuen Music School in Japan, where many of the country’s leading musical composers have studied at some time. Here, she learned piano and composition and learned to sing classical opera and German lieder. She also attended school with Emperor Hirohito’s son Yoshi, with whom she formed a strong friendship.

In the early 1950s, the Ono family moved to New York City and she enrolled at the prestigious Sarah Lawrence College. It was here that she met her first husband, Toshi Ichiyanagi, who was a music student at leading music academy Juillard. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Ono began to explore and experiment with new approaches to performing in general and performance art in particular. In 1960, she and her close friend La Monte Young began to stage a series of loft events on Chambers Street in Manhattan, which soon attracted the attention of leading members of New York’s avant-garde artistic community. Ono also provided the loft for the renowned contemporary composer John Cage and his experimental musical “happenings”. She collaborated with leading composers of the day, including Karl-Heinz Stockhausen, Nam June Paik, and George Maciunas and the Fluxus avant-garde ensemble.

Ono’s bohemian New York lifestyle caused a rift with her parents and she soon broke away from her wealthy, privileged background. Life was tough financially for her during this period, and she supported herself by working alternately as a waitress, a public school teacher and even an apartment building manager. Meanwhile, her first marriage had run into difficulties and she eventually separated from Toshi and returned to Japan to live with her parents in 1962.

However, she became clinically depressed, leading her parents to commit her to a mental asylum. One of her American friends, Anthony Cox, had travelled to Japan to study calligraphy with Ono and succeeded in securing her release from hospital. That same year, she married Anthony Cox in Tokyo and he subsequently became her artistic assistant. Ono gave birth to a daughter, who was called Kyoko, the following year; but sadly her second marriage was also short-lived, ending in 1964.

Soon afterwards, Ono returned to live in New York with baby Kyoko and renewed her interest and involvement in performance art. One of her first artistic ventures on returning to America was to dream up the idea for a film called ‘Bottoms’, which involved some 365 of her friends and volunteers agreeing to have their buttocks photographed naked and close up! When drafting her advertisement seeking volunteers for the project, she wrote: “Intelligent-looking bottoms wanted for filming. Possessors of unintelligent-looking ones need not apply!” Another controversial piece of performance art staged by Ono involved her wrapping the lion statues beneath Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square in white cloth and tying herself to one of the lions. She also sang in a jazz concert at the Royal Albert Hall with leading jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman.

Whilst living and working in London, Ono met her third husband, musician John Lennon, at the preview for her own art show in November 1966. Lennon and Ono were instantly attracted to each other. However, fans of the famous Beatle musician were outraged and the liaison was not a popular match in the public eye - Ono soon acquired the nickname Dragon Lady. The couple discovered that they had a great deal in common: Lennon had been an art student before becoming a professional musician and still retained a keen interest in the avant garde art movement. They began to formulate a range of musical and artistic projects, which soon began to bear fruit.

Ono’s work was not widely popular because it was frequently so abstract - indeed, many of Lennon‘s fans dismissed her as a fake and charlatan. For example, most of her art pieces were white, which she claimed allowed the observers to imagine whatever colours they liked - even a painting entitled ‘Blue Room’ was actually white. Lennon’s fans were even more dismayed when the famous Beatle began taking part in her controversial public events. The couple appeared together dressed in black plastic bin-liners; this was intended to be a statement about the drawbacks of “judging by appearances”.

They were married on Gibraltar in the spring of 1969, shortly after Ono’s divorce from Anthony Cox was finalised. The couple was never far from the public eye, and took advantage of the publicity surrounding their wedding to hold ‘Bed-ins for Peace’ in their hotel bedrooms in Amsterdam and Montreal: the Montreal event led to the writing of the hit single, ‘Give Peace A Chance’.

However, the couple’s newfound happiness was soon to be blighted. Ono’s mentally unstable second husband, Anthony Cox, applied for custody of their daughter Kyoko, claiming that her drug taking and psychiatric history rendered her an “unfit mother”. Cox was awarded custody of Kyoko by the courts and then disappeared with her into a Christian fundamentalist community called The Walk. Tragically, Ono was not to see her daughter for another 25 years, until they were re-united in 1998.

Soon after their wedding, Lennon and Ono’s album ‘Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With The Lions’ was released, which featured her lengthy improvisations. This was swiftly followed by ‘The Wedding Album’, one side of which featured nothing but the couple calling out each other’s names! In 1970, each recorded an album backed by the Plastic Ono Band, of which Ono’s was the far more avant garde of the two.

In 1972, the couple released their protest song, ‘Sometime in New York City’, which was widely criticised for being too simplistic in its sentiments. Meanwhile, the couple’s relationship was beginning to flounder, against the antagonistic background of Lennon’s ongoing battle with immigration authorities. Despite his fame and fortune, Lennon was constantly battling threats of deportation and this put quite a strain on his marriage. For her part, Ono suffered a great deal of stress on account of her repeated miscarriages. They separated for eighteen months or so, but got back together in early 1975, when Ono was finally able to bear a child. She gave birth to baby Sean, who shared a birthday with his father; Sean Taro Ono Lennon was born on 9 October, 1975.

Following the birth of his son, Lennon dropped out of show business in order to spend time being a father. In essence he became a house-husband, whilst Ono devoted herself to taking care of the family’s business affairs. Meanwhile, Lennon was also working quietly on a comeback album, ‘Double Fantasy’, which was released in 1980. Ono made a substantial contribution to the album, which featured some far more accessible songs than the couple’s previous collaborations. However, tragedy struck on 8 December 1980, when Lennon was shot dead by a deranged fan outside his apartment building in New York.

Following Lennon’s tragic and untimely death, Ono continued her solo musical career, as well as exploring new directions in her art and her life. She expressed her grief in music with the release of the disturbing album ‘Season of Glass’ in 1981, which she followed with a more upbeat and optimistic musical offering, ‘It’s Alright (I See Rainbows)’ in 1982. Over the years she resumed her former career as a visual artist and returned to creating art installations as well as pursuing a newfound interest in photography.

In 1995, she recorded a new album entitled ‘Rising’, in which she played alongside her son, Sean Lennon, and his own band, Ima Rising. She also explored new directions in performance, and wrote a musical play called New York Rock, which was launched off-Broadway. In 2005, she published a book of autobiography called ‘Memories of John Lennon’. Following Lennon’s death, Ono did not re-marry, although she was reported to have been romantically linked to Hungarian antiques dealer Sam Havadtoy for a while - but the couple split up in 2001.

In March 2011, the 78-year-old secured a number one on the US Billboard Dance Chart, thanks to a remix of her song, ‘Move on Fast’. This marked her eighth number one in the dance charts since 2000, although initially Ono was resistant to having her songs remixed for a different market. In an interview with Rolling Stone, she said: “At first I was prejudiced against the idea. I had the pride of a rocker. People can get very elitist very quickly, and that’s how I was.”

Her songs have been reworked by artists including Basement Jaxx and the Pet Shop Boys, and Ono conceded that her initial reservations about the remixes were misplaced. She said: “I was so dumb to be against it. Musically, it was a very, very rich experience for me to hear it.”

Ono recently added an entry on her Twitter account saying that she felt numb about the news of the earthquake and tsunami that had hit Japan. She explained that she had just visited Tokyo and “was delighted how beautiful, clean and quiet the city was” and was shocked that such a thing could happen to “the country [she] loves so much”.

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