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Yoko Ono: Getting So Much Better All the Time

There’s nothing plastic about the Yoko Ono brand. She's 80, has a new pop-rock album — and a No. 1 dance single!

Portrait of Yoko Ono, 2013. (Lisi Niesner/Reuters/Corbis)

Yoko Ono in February 2013, a few days before celebrating her 80th birthday. — Lisi Niesner/Reuters/Corbis

As Yoko Ono enters her ninth decade, she remains as daring and experimental as she was in the 1960s and '70s, when she collaborated with her husband, John Lennon.

"Seventy is great," Ono recently told Time magazine, "but 80 is even better."

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Ono remains as energetic, too: In the past year, her visual art has been exhibited in galleries and museums across Europe. And she's just completed two music projects — an avant-garde pop rock album called Take Me to the Land of Hell and a remix of her classic "Walking on Thin Ice" that hit No. 1 as a dance single.

In a phone conversation in early October, Ono touched on working with her 38-year-old son, Sean Lennon; her love affair with his father; and why none of us should fear aging.

Q: You say a "second life" opened up for you at 70.

A: It's true! When I became 70, I couldn't believe it. I thought, "What? I haven't spent that much time on Earth yet!" But then I realized I was getting better. And I want to tell you it gets better and better, because you accumulate a lot of wisdom. You accumulate a lot of experience. And you can give a lot.

Q: Your records routinely hit the dance charts. Do you dance?

A: I love dancing. I can do lots of different kinds of dance — waltz, rock 'n' roll, whatever. But I just go by my body movements. When I was 3 or 4 years old, my parents filmed me all the time on 8 mm film. I was just dancing all over the place.

Q: Your new album, Take Me to the Land of Hell, is the Plastic Ono Band's first album in two years. I understand your son, Sean Lennon, persuaded you to revive the band?

A: Yeah, he surprised me with that. He called and said, "Mummy, I have an important question to ask you." Then he told me he really wanted me to revive the Plastic Ono Band. "Whatever for?" I said. But then I thought about it, and I realized it probably means a lot to him, because his dad and mom created it.

Yoko Ono and son Sean Lennon, 2012. (Dave M. Benett/Getty Images)

Yoko Ono and son, Sean Lennon, in 2012. — Dave M. Benett/Getty Images

Q: Sean also helped you shape the new album. What was it like working with him in the studio?

A: Well, I'm very lucky that way — my husband was incredible, and so is my son! [Laughs] When we recorded Take Me to the Land of Hell, I'd say something like, "I have to add this song because I love it."

Then Sean would say, "Well, Mom, that song is too short. I want you to give me a second verse."

I'd say, "Oh, no, the first was good enough."

Sean: "No, no, no, no. Second verse, please. And a third verse, please." [Laughs]

So I added the verses. Sean's a very sensitive guy, and he's always being kind to his mom. And he likes my work, so that's good. Can you imagine if he didn't?

Next page: Yoko reminisces about John. »

John Lennon and Yoko Ono, 1970. (AP Images)

John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1970. — AP Images

Q: The album's title song is a very moving piece about your relationship with John Lennon. You're saying your love brought you heaven, but your fame brought you hell, right?

A: Well, we had a great time in the hell that the media gave us [laughs], but we created a heaven within it. We were totally, totally, strongly in love, so we just ignored the fact that it was hell. Isn't it amazing we had that kind of love? I always thought that was normal. And John probably did, too, because we were very similar. You should have that kind of a love for each other. You have to open yourself and put your emotion out to the world, instead of holding back and being a very logical person who just wants to make money or be known.

Q: We think of you as a serious artist. But you show a sweeter side in "Little Boy Blue Your Daddy's Gone," which you wrote for Sean.

A: Well, if you're only serious, that's a weight around your neck. You have to have a lighthearted side and a heavy side — two sides of the same coin. Life is like that.

Q: There was a time when you felt misunderstood by the public. But you've received a lot of awards and accolades in the last few years, including the Digital Genius Award from MTV in June. How does it feel?

A: Well, I hope it's not just because I'm 80. [Laughs] Whatever the reason is, people are being kind to me. I haven't had that in a while — but I'll take it.

Alanna Nash is a music and culture writer.

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