Yoko Ono turns 80 with no thought to slowing down

Ono and son Sean Lennon chat aboard a bus on the way to visit fracking sites in Pennsylvania. Along with actress Susan Sarandon, they did a protest tour last month of the state's fracking sites.
Ono and son Sean Lennon chat aboard a bus on the way to visit fracking sites in Pennsylvania. Along with actress Susan Sarandon, they did a protest tour last month of the state's fracking sites. (RICHARD DREW /Assciated Press)
Posted: February 17, 2013

On Monday, Yoko Ono, a collaborator with everyone from John Cage to John Lennon to Dirty Loud, will turn 80. She'll be a rocktogenarian. They say it's her birthday. Happy birthday to her.

Artist, poet, musician, philanthropist, activist, performance/conceptual art pioneer, Ono is now a world-beating disco diva, having enjoyed nine consecutive No. 1 hits on the Billboard Dance charts. She's become a favorite artist for the mashup/remix DJs of the moment.

"I say I'm a lucky girl," Ono says by e-mail.

An explosion of Ono-related activity greets her 80th. There's a bunch of books. Of her own work, there's the lovely Yoko Ono: An Invisible Flower, of drawings and one-line poems, and The Infinite Universe at Dawn. And Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies, by Nell Beram and Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky.

There are art retrospectives around the world, including Half-A-Wind Show, which opened Friday at the Schirn Kuntshalle in Frankfurt, Germany, from which it will tour the world.

All of her albums will be reissued this year. A new one's in the works with her floating orchestra, the Plastic Ono Band.

The indie band tUnE-yArDs has released a 10-inch single with a new version of her 1972 rocker "We're All Water" and a remix of her 1973 tune "Warrior Woman." It's to benefit the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance, which funnels aid to the region hit by Hurricane Sandy.

Many musicians of the last 40 years look to Yoko Ono as a pioneer and idol. She is widely revered by punk rockers as one of the first to do real punk. New Wavers see her as a mom to the movement.

She has cowritten and released a new dance tune, "Hold Me," with DJ Dave Audé, with remixes by Dirty Loud, Emjae, Tommie Sunshine, and R3hab. Lady Gaga's a Yoko Ono scholar, as are RZA and Polyphonic Spree.

Sandy. Fracking. Peace. The Beatles. Punk. Disco. Even to her, it must seem surreal sometimes.

"I wandered into doing music with the most prominent musicians in avant-garde, jazz, rock in history, and now this," she writes.

Her first husband, Toshi Ichiyanagi, was an avant-garde composer. Together, they performed with John Cage. Her friend Ornette Coleman helped invent free jazz. She brought to John Lennon's music things she'd been up to for decades already.

As for the music of 2013, she likes the creativity and sonic iconoclasm of the mash-up generation.

"I think the producers in the dance world are the stars now. They bring over 10 thousand music lovers to the festivals, whenever they decide to do one. That's because their field of music is creating a revolution in music. I respect them and love the field."

She and the planet have seen many revolutions since her birth in 1933 in Tokyo. Her father was an international banker, and the family moved frequently, to San Francisco in 1935, back to Japan in 1937, to New York in 1940, back to Japan in 1941.

Twelve-year-old Ono huddled in a shelter during the March 9, 1945, firebombing of Tokyo (though in a distant neighborhood). Her family saw hard times for a few years, but by the early 1950s, they had moved to New York, and Ono was at Sarah Lawrence College, where she excelled at music theory and sight-singing.

Ono was a regular at the bohemian/Beat gatherings and loft concerts of the 1950s, forerunners of the "happenings" of the 1960s. Her 1969 Bed-Ins with Lennon, protesting the Vietnam War, were but one stop in a lifelong activism for peace. Her Imagine Peace Tower, a column of skyward searchlights on Viðey Island near Reykjavík, Iceland, will light up Monday for her birthday. On her Twitter account, Ono encourages people to tweet the Tower (@IPTower) with good thoughts.

She and son Sean Lennon launched Artists Against Fracking in July. They and actress Susan Sarandon did a protest tour last month of Pennsylvania fracking sites such as Franklin Forks.

You have to ask: Where does she get the energy?

"When you are in love," Ono says, "when you are crazy about something and doing it because of that, there is no scheduling challenge, and it is never a burden. . . . I get the energy from loving what I do."

Could anybody really write her biography? "I don't think it is that necessary to have a biography of me," she says. "One will never be able to check the whole of me. Even I couldn't."


Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406

or jt@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter, @jtimpane.

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