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American Masters: LENNONYC – Yoko Ono and why New York is very Liverpool

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American Masters: LENNONYC - Yoko Ono and John Lennon
Yoko Ono and John Lennon in New York during the 70s © Ben Ross

This year celebrates what would have been John Lennon’s 70th birthday. It also is the 30th anniversary of his tragic death. PBS’s American Masters: LENNONYC takes an intimate look at the time Lennon, his wife Yoko Ono and their son, Sean, spent living in New York City during the 1970s.

Yoko Ono came to the TV Critics Association last summer to speak with us about her life with John and their special relationship with Manhattan.

What made New York City such an attraction for John and such a welcoming home for both of you?

American Masters: LENNONYC - Yoko Ono
Yoko Ono at TCA © PBS

Even after John’s passing, when I think about New York, even when I’m in Europe, I think of John in New York because he loved New York so much.

He said, ‘I wish I was born here.’ I don’t know why. The other thing that he used to say was, ‘New York has docks. It’s very Liverpool.’ And the taxi drivers are not speaking normal English, so he thought, ‘It’s very Liverpool!’

In the film it shows he had the freedom there to be a human being, people didn’t bother him.

American Masters: LENNONYC - Yoko Ono and John Lennon
Yoko Ono and John Lennon on cycles in New York © Ben Ross

That’s true. They did approach him in a very nice way. In London we had a very bad time, obviously, because I was there. Everybody hated John for being with me. And I felt very bad, but that was the reality.

Was it mostly the press?

No. Fleet Street is famous for being rather severe, but it wasn’t just the press. It was the people.

When John and I were arrested for drugs, which we didn’t have, it was planted, we were going into this police station and I had long hair, and some girl was pulling it.

It was very painful. But that’s how it was.

Was there anything in this documentary that surprised you?

American Masters: LENNONYC - Yoko Ono
Yoko Ono at TCA © PBS

It seems like you know everything about us. And I thought so too. When they showed me the rushes, I was so surprised that they got so much footage that I didn’t even know.

I said, ‘They were filming us when we were doing that?’ I think American Masters is very famous for thorough research. But their research even went into films I didn’t know existed.

When I first saw the rushes, I thought, ‘Okay, this is something that John would have approved and John would have wanted the world to see because it’s the part of his life that he really loved, because it’s New York.’

When you do a project like this and revisit a lot of these things, what is it like for you emotionally to get close to that era again?

Since John’s passing, I’ve felt sort of empty, and I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’ because I was putting all my energy focusing on our relationship. And suddenly he’s gone.

Then I thought, ‘Okay, I can put my energy and my feelings for his fans because they had John, but now they needed  me to sort of bring him back in a way.’

I promised that I would put out one thing of John’s every year. And I’ve been doing this for 30 years.

In the beginning, it was very difficult, and I would faint when I’d hear John’s voice. But now, I’m used to listening to John’s songs, and (with this project) I’ve had to listen to so many of his songs.

This was very heavy. And I loved it in a way because it was like John coming back to let me know that those are the songs that he created when we were together.

You want to preserve this wonderful image we all have of John as being a marvelous musician, brilliant songwriter, but can you tell us the human being side of John that we don’t know, as a wife? I’m sure he wasn’t always perfect?

American Masters: LENNONYC - Yoko Ono
Yoko Ono at TCA © PBS

There are many gritty moments in this film. And I’m thinking it’s okay, because you should know him as a three-dimensional person, not just a flat, two-dimensional person that you may have known up until now.

There are some parts of it that are kind of painful for me, and it might be painful for John too. But I think John wants that to be shown in a way. (If you) always think that you’re living with God, you can’t live. You can’t breathe. So he was just a husband to me.

Sometimes when events like this happen, people leave behind the place it happened. Can you talk about your decision to stay in New York?

American Masters: LENNONYC - John Lennon and Yoko Ono
John Lennon and Yoko Ono in New York during the 70s © Ben Ross

People say, ‘Why are you still living (at the) Dakota?’

I think it’s a slightly sexist remark, because I’m sure that many people are living in their own house, own home, that he or she shared with their spouses, even after the spouse has passed away, especially because they passed away, because there are a lot of memories.

Also you built the place with the spouse. I’m not going to leave that and go to some strange house that I never went to. This is something we built, and when you go inside, you see that each room is something that we made for us.

If John had lived, do you think he would have reunited with the Beatles?

That’s possible. Anything is possible, but I think he was not really thinking about that because he was enjoying what he was doing at the time.