In Your Mind: The Infinite Universe of Yoko Ono
An interview with the author
Oh, Yoko! A more polarizing figure in music history is hard to find, but soldiering on in the face of criticism is part of what Yoko Ono has always done and continues to do - without apology or excuse - even as she enters her 90th year. Not only has Yoko persevered after witnessing the death of her husband at the hands of a madman over 40 years ago, but since that fateful day she has lived a second life and continued to create meaningful art while cultivating a thoughtful voice both online and beyond.
As society grapples with many of the long-held societal beliefs that have rightly or wrongly been held over the last few centuries, now is as good a time as any to probe the common narratives that have exhaustively dogged Yoko. Exploring Madeline Bocaro’s newest book titled, The Infinite Universe of Yoko Ono (Conceptual Books) is likely an ideal place to start. Bocaro makes no excuses for her idolatry of Yoko; in fact, the first page indicates that the book is a, “love-letter to Yoko.” However, the goodwill that this author harbors toward her subject makes her compositional approach all the more sincere and forthright. The book has also been added to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s Library and Archives.
While the book’s main focus is on - of course - Yoko Ono, readers will uncover surprising details about John Lennon, Paul and Linda McCartney, and more characters who you imagine might appear in Yoko’s story. While Yoko’s tale is sure to captivate, those ancillary figures add rich and surprising context to the story, especially considering that those towering personalities wouldn't be considered “ancillary” anywhere else. In fact, Olivia Harrison herself even gave an online shout-out to the book.
Importantly, it’s not just Bocaro’s voice that spins the yarn. The book is constructed with copious quotes taken directly from Yoko and those within her sphere helping to maintain the project’s balance. At least, balanced by using any opinions emanating from direct sources of those inhabiting the rarefied orbit of her world. Bocaro has done some heavy lifting when it comes to her quote compiling skills. In this day and age of Tweets and tiny - quickly forgotten - news clips, one of the things that still has not been perfected is a way to quickly and neatly access these varied materials. This book’s strength is that it reveals comments and interview snippets that have been hidden in plain view for many years, yet contextualizes them in a way that may serve to reframe the story of The Beatles, John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
Madeline Bocaro was kind enough to allow me to explore her expert understanding of Yoko Ono so that readers might glean a clearer understanding of how this author approached a cultural figure who has been thoroughly documented, yet still remains somewhat mysterious and misunderstood.
Evan Toth: Tell our audience a little bit about your background and describe your latest work, The Infinite Universe of Yoko Ono.
Madeline Bocaro: I am a native New Yorker and a passionate fan of music. This began with seeing The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 when I was six years old. After a brief career of writing for publications, I retired from day jobs and immersed myself in writing about music, and the artists whom I love, mostly on my blog (madelinex.com).
This is entirely different from all other books about Yoko Ono. It is the first complete biography, with abundant detail about every aspect of her extraordinary life. It is a collection of stories I had written over decades to explain Yoko’s work to friends and fans. I assembled it in a unique way, to tell her story and convey her essence.
Yoko’s true story goes way beyond what most people know. Even her fans will learn a lot more. One reviewer said, “I like how you break the fourth wall and write as a fan and not just an author - it's more intimate.” Another called it “The Bible of Ono”.
It explores her incredibly interesting ancestry, a lonely and terrifying childhood in Japan during the bombings of WWII, her three husbands, working as an avant-garde artist in New York, Japan and London in the late 1950s and early 1960s, her films, writings, activism and feminism. There are chapters about her music – every album and every song (with and without John Lennon). Each album reflects her life story.
There were twelve years of activity with John before his violent death, which occurred right in front of her, in 1980. I include how she survived to raise their son through much difficulty, and the forty years of work she has done since John’s murder. I have spent many precious moments with Yoko, which has given me deep insight.
An amazing and historic time in which many of us grew up (the swinging 1960s and the turbulent 70s) is illuminated. Introducing Yoko’s work and philosophy to younger people is important.
ET: Where do you recall first learning about Yoko Ono and - for you - when did she become a figure apart from the orbit of The Beatles and John Lennon?
MB: My first sighting of Yoko was in Time magazine in 1967. She was pictured in front a screen, showing her film Bottoms (1967). I thought it was cool that someone made a film of naked behinds. She looked beautiful in the photo. I saved it, and started collecting everything I could find about her. Soon I learned that she had gotten together with John Lennon!
John and Yoko were always there throughout my young life, as one spiritual entity – flickering across television screens, dancing through airports trailed by cameras and crowds, talking in bed, smiling and kissing. They understood the power and responsibility of celebrity, and always radiated positivity. I was enveloped in their sincerity and admired their love for each other.
ET: Your biography describes this book as the “ultimate” Yoko biography and many reviewers seem to agree with that assessment. Why should your latest work on Yoko be considered the be-all, end-all of Ono’s story?
MB: It goes very deep and debunks all myths. Yoko has always been a victim of cruel and unwarranted hatred, because of lies written in the media. It’s tragic that such a brilliant woman has been greatly misunderstood. Despite this, she never stopped trying to promote love and peace. She’s not only an important artist, but an important thinker.
Yoko’s story is fascinating. As a rising artist, she marries a Beatle and they embark upon a worldwide peace campaign. The incredible love story of John and Yoko is interwoven through the book. John Lennon loved Yoko above all else. They were only together for twelve years, although it seemed like much longer.
They are monitored and followed by the F.B.I. Her young daughter is kidnapped by her ex-husband. After a separation, she gives birth to John’s son Sean – on John’s birthday in 1975. Her husband is murdered right before her eyes in 1980… and that’s only half of her life. The next 40 years are just as interesting and important.
Yoko was way ahead of her time. She inhabits the future in her mind, and manifests the subconscious. Her ideas are mostly metaphysical. Yoko’s goal is to make us aware of our own inner power. She alerts us to our dangerously misplaced values (gold is not more valuable than water) and believes that art should not have a monetary value. Art is an interactive tool for communication. Most of her work is to be completed IN YOUR MIND – which is the book’s title.
She has also done a lot of pioneering feminist work. Yoko is a relentless activist and a generous donor to worthy causes.
Honesty and truth are the main elements in her work. The intent is mainly therapeutic – for everyone. She constantly needed to free herself from the burden of loneliness and tragedy, which began in childhood in Japan as a child of WWII, when American bombs destroyed her home city of Tokyo. We all need to fill a void in our lives, and to heal. That is why her work is so endearing and relatable. Yoko’s unfinished work asks us to imagine or complete a thought. It releases us from physical and mental limitations, taking us into the realm of extrasensory perception.
ET: What have been your interactions with Yoko?
MB: We had been corresponding by mail, and I met her in 1984. Yoko was thrilled that I understood her work, and was always happy to discuss it at length with me. She invited me to the openings of her exhibitions and to her concerts. She once wrote in a letter, “Your intelligent observations always touch me.”
My inspiration was my lifetime of loving and appreciating Yoko’s spirit and her work. She is a genuine humanitarian. She tries to guide us toward the light. I feel that it’s my responsibility to share her amazing insights about the world, her wisdom and humor. She sees the world in an entirely different way, and it all makes perfect sense.
ET: It’s obvious that you have a great deal of admiration and respect for Yoko, in fact you mention on the first page that this book is, “a love letter to Yoko.” As an author, how did you separate your feelings and approach your subject to produce a work that wasn’t too one-sided?
MB: The most important thing was to tell Yoko’s true story, because so many lies have been fabricated about her. There is only one truth – she is sincere, determined to be truthful, to help people to heal and change the world. When you meet her, you can immediately tell why John Lennon loved her.
I’ve always known the importance of Yoko’s work. I was able to create a complete picture that could only come from my experience growing up during events of her life as they unfolded. I gained special insight from spending time with her.
I enjoy biographies written by fans, full of important details, rather than complex analysis by critics, researchers or historians. I broke a lot of rules and kept it simple, which readers find refreshing. You can read each short chapter on its own, or skip around without losing the plot.
ET: Don’t give away too many details, but what new perspectives about Yoko do you hope readers will walk away with after reading your book?
MB: It was important to clearly illuminate Yoko’s personality and spirit. She communicated in very simple language, almost like haiku. Readers find Yoko’s cosmic consciousness uplifting and healing. They’ve been re-reading their favorite bits of profound wisdom, or favorite chapters. They like the succinct format. Everyone is familiar with all the people and situations in the story, yet they may have a completely misinformed view. There are many revelations.
Yoko has turned extreme hardship into constructive life-lessons in positivity and survival. She never thought of making art for money. She had side jobs before meeting John, and lived sparingly, although she was from a prestigious and wealthy Japanese family.
Most importantly, I wanted to show that she and John were not just celebrities. They were a family. I included poignant quotes like this one (which she said after his death) about John and their three cats, "When John's songs came on the radio, I'd go to switch it off because I couldn't stand it. But all the cats would jump on the radio, remembering his voice. It was so painful."
ET: People understand that Yoko served as a muse for John, but what concrete, sonic, or compositional elements did Yoko bring to John’s music? What might people not realize about Yoko’s musical influence on John?
MB: Yoko was classically trained in music since childhood, but retained an avant-garde sensibility in reverence to twelve-tone composers and to John Cage. Her music might not appeal to everyone, but she liberated John from the constraints he was under as a Beatle, musically and in every other way. She freed his mind, allowing him to be himself. She helped to produce much of his music, and she finally got credit for co-writing the song “Imagine.” Yoko continues to release John’s music, continuing his legacy.
ET: The concept of wind - and nature - in Yoko’s life and work comes up often in your book. Can you explain that role in Yoko’s world?
MB: In the chapter Remember Nature, I discuss the reverence of nature in Yoko’s work. It comes from her Japanese influence. She rarely uses paint and instead prefers the palette of nature. When asked about her influences in 2015 she said, “It’s the sky, the stars, the moon, and the sun. The birds chatting, the wind bringing stories, while the ocean shines like the memory in my heart.”
She uses existing forms in her work; an apple, acorns, trees, water, snow... Yoko is extremely mindful of energy and vibrations, and the importance of invisible things, like air and wind. She points out that we have strayed far from nature. We have unhealthy societal rituals which distract us from natural things that are needed in our lives. She sees that our unnatural cravings create a disparity between what our bodies want and what our minds want.
ET: There’s an interesting quote from Klaus Voorman (German chum of the early The Beatles, artist of Revolver’s cover art, and bassist on many Lennon - and other solo Beatle - albums) where he describes how aimless and lost John was prior to meeting Yoko in 1966. He said that once John connected with Yoko, “he bloomed.” What were some identifiable before and after characteristics of John?
MB: Individually John and Yoko were fragile and lonely. Together they were strong, grounded and entwined – soul mates who created their own dream world so that they could exist.
They had each suffered from wartime childhoods and parental abandonment. John was trapped within the insane infamy of The Beatles. Yoko was extremely lonely and shy. They saved and nurtured each other. Together, they were strong and invincible. They allowed each other to shine. It was noticeable in their eyes and in their smiles. John was full of joy. They were merging - John was becoming an artist, and Yoko was becoming a rock star. They wanted us all to share in their happiness.
People were antagonistic toward John and Yoko, partly because they saw such a deep love, and were fearful that they might never attain it themselves. Yoko said in 1983, “If they only knew, that we were just part of them. What we did for each other made it possible for us to do something for other people.”
They were selfless, and were all about giving, as Yoko said in 1971, “It's natural for us to give because we have a lot. If we don't give, in a sense that's going against the laws of nature, which takes tremendous energy… That would be very bad for us. If we have more than we need, we'd rather let the money flow out naturally... It's just wisdom... And if people don't have that wisdom, if you're using all that unnecessary energy, it's going to get back at you one way or another. You're going to get cancer or something. And it just isn't worth it.”
ET: While John may have “bloomed” with Yoko in his life, I enjoyed the story where, in 1977, John organized a family reunion of Yoko’s relatives in Japan. She was apparently not keen on the idea at first, but photos exist that demonstrate the good time that everyone had, including John. While Yoko was older, socially connected, and well-schooled, what voids did John fill in Yoko’s life?
MB: Her parents disapproved of John. If anyone else told their parents that they were marrying a Beatle, they would have been thrilled. Not Yoko’s family!
John filled Yoko’s void of extreme loneliness. He totally understood her art, and her spirit. He was supportive, protective, and elated that she was in his life. While she set him free, he grounded her. Yoko said in 1984, “He had very astute observations about people – on a very realistic level – that I didn’t have... Surrealism is very natural for me. It’s easier for me to describe my emotions in a surrealistic way, a symbolic way. But here was this guy who was very straightforward… He’d say, ‘What do you really mean?’... You know how you can read a surrealistic poem and not know what it means? It’s just word-weaving. Or mind-weaving. You think, ‘what’s the point?’ I would have headed toward that, maybe... Instead, John gave me back the body. He woke me up from my mind game. That was very healthy for me.” (Record magazine, December 1984)
John was Yoko’s biggest fan. She said in 1985, "It was always John’s intention to make the world aware of my work. But it was hard for him to do that because the world was never accepting…”
ET: In the not-so-distant past, Yoko was vilified primarily for being the reason behind The Beatles’ break up. However, many of those rumors and assumptions have been disproven. In fact, there are some quotes from Yoko in your book where she explains that she wasn’t initially happy that The Beatles were breaking up, fearing it would impact her own artistic freedom. What did you notice in the transition of Yoko's reputation and credibility during the last 20 years?
MB: That quote about The Beatles is revelatory. It disproves the most horrible accusation imposed upon her. She was nervous when John told her he was leaving the band, saying, “Now it’s just you and me!” The recent Get Back documentary film visually disproved the myth of her involvement in their break-up as well.
There is a more positive view of Yoko now, by younger people who have not grown up with a bombardment of memes and lies. Women respect her more. They are sensitive to her plight.
ET: The structure of your book is an almost hypertext narrative wherein a myriad of quotations from Yoko - and others - are painstakingly compiled and used to help thread the needle through the different compartments of Yoko’s life and experiences. How did you manage to catalog and separate all the quotations and how did you use them most effectively?
MB: I grabbed quotes from media in my chronological archive which I have amassed since the 1960s (obscure and popular articles, audio interviews, and her social media). I can recall when Yoko had spoken about certain topics. Yoko’s voice is prominently featured because she is so eloquent, sometimes mystical - and has an amazing sense of humor! Most journalists didn’t allow Yoko to speak much about herself. They mostly asked her questions about John or The Beatles. Everything fell into place, partly because of my detailed knowledge, and some divine intervention!
There are numerous quotes from John, their son Sean and others, who definitively back up all the facts with their own voices. I include historical statements from Pete Townshend, who sees Yoko as a revolutionary using peaceful techniques to shock us into a reaction, with a goal to save the world. Phil Spector talks about the deep love between John and Yoko. Paul McCartney speaks of his relationship with Yoko after John’s death. I assembled these perfectly fitting puzzle pieces to tell a true and cohesive story.
ET: There’s an interesting segment about the dynamic between Paul’s relationship with Linda and John’s relationship with Yoko. What did you learn about Paul’s relationship with John from the perspective of Yoko?
MB: It was complicated between John and Paul. They were each too macho to make amends after being torn apart by legal issues and the immense pressures of fame. Yoko said in 1998, “During the Beatles’ sessions, Linda and I quickly learned that our husbands were not all buddy-buddy. John and Paul were both talented but very strong-willed people. There was some tension there. Linda and I left them alone... We both stood by our men...”
Linda McCartney said it best in 1984, “The sad thing is that John and Paul both had problems and they loved each other, and boy, could they have helped each other! If they had only communicated!”
They were slowly coming together and easing into a more mature friendship just before John was murdered.
ET: I did not know about the nuts and bolts surrounding John and Yoko’s separation in the 1970s and Paul’s role in bringing them back together. Even though this information has been available for many years, I suppose it’s not really covered because it doesn’t fit the convenient narrative that may not really have been true to begin with. Do you think people will be surprised at learning this story?
MB: Yes, I think people will be surprised. Neither Paul nor Yoko ever said much about it, but a 1986 audio interview exists, in Paul’s own words (which I quote in the book), and Yoko acknowledged it later in 2010, “I want the world to know that it was a very touching thing what he did for John. He was genuinely concerned about his old partner. Even though John was not even asking for help. John, Paul all of them were too proud to ask for anything. He helped. John often said he didn’t understand why Paul did this for us, but he did."
ET: Can you imagine an alternate reality in which Yoko and John did not connect? John - of course - would have always known for his work with The Beatles. But can you speculate on what Yoko’s life might have been without the weight of John’s legacy in it?
MB: Had they not connected, it would not only have been their loss, but ours. The ripples of what they created together still resonate. Even though John is no longer here physically, they continue working together. Yoko said in 1981, “Remember that old man in Star Wars who disappeared to join a bigger power so he could do what he couldn’t do before? It’s just like that. John left to become a Great Force. And I’m thinking, ‘Oh, so we’re doing it like that, eh?’ We’re still a duet. He’s doing what he can upstairs. And I’m doing what I can down here.”
I doubt that either of them could have existed in this world without each other. Yoko never remarried, and never left the home that they shared together.
ET: As Yoko enters her 90th year, what do you think her legacy will be many years from now?
MB: I included a bold quote from the artist (Yoko’s colleague) Charlotte Moorman in the book. She told The New York Times in 1989, "The Beatles were fantastic. They left their mark. But a hundred years from now, it's Yoko Ono the world's going to remember, not John Lennon or The Beatles.”
This may or may not be true, but it is a possibility! As for Yoko’s wish, she said in 2018, “I want my epitaph to be/Here is a woman who loved life, and still does.”