Yoko Ono. Photo: Supplied
"Yes, I'm a witch": that was Yoko Ono's declaration in one of her most in-your-face songs. To enforce the point she added, "I'm a bitch" and warned that she had no intention of being "cock-pecked".
During my Beatlemaniac adolescence in the 1960s, when she changed John Lennon from a cheeky, ebullient rocker into a dope-addled peacenik, I thought of her as a harridan with occult powers; the New York apartment building where she now lives is certainly a suitable address for a sorceress. The Dakota, outside which Lennon was shot by Mark Chapman in 1980, is a Gothic folly with spiky turrets and perches for gargoyles and writhing griffins. Here, a randy Satan impregnated Mia Farrow in Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby.
Upstairs, however, I found myself in a Japanese temple, not a witch's cobwebby lair. Shoes must be removed on Yoko's threshold; you then step into a hushed, incense-perfumed zone where white-carpeted corridors extend to infinity and doors of polished stone seal a private sanctum. A butler guided me to the kitchen, through a room full of creamy over-stuffed sofas inexplicably littered with dozens of hats. Barefoot, with feline stealth, Yoko materialised behind me. Aged 80, she is a glamorous crone, slightly stooped, who peered over the rims of dark glasses perched on her nose and disarmed me with a smile. I remembered the 1968 album cover on which she and Lennon posed naked, like a shaggy Adam and Eve, or Annie Leibovitz's photograph, taken hours before Lennon's murder, in which he - nude and needily dependent - curled around her clothed body as she stared sideways, her face impassive in its nest of black trailing hair. These days the hair is elegantly trimmed and she dresses, despite the bare feet, like the CEO of Yoko Ono Inc.
"Have you become respectable?" I asked when we settled at the mosaic-tiled kitchen table. Once so scandalous, she is now venerated. In 1971 in New York she printed posters for a non-existent show at what she cheekily called the Museum of Modern Fart; the prospect of institutional recognition no longer seems absurd. Her retrospective exhibition at the MCA in Sydney opens next month, while another survey of her work is currently on a two-year tour of Europe. "Well," said Yoko, "I am not so very respectable. I think to be respectable is to be close todeath!" Then came a volley of giggles, not witchy cackles. Like many Japanese, she relies on laughter to deflect inconvenient questions, or to create a polite, unruffled atmosphere - the social equivalent of the peace for which she has been campaigning since her Vietnam protests.
No longer strident, her utterances are oblique, deftly evasive. All she would say about the Sydney exhibition was, "It will be beautiful, and memorable, too." Her aim was to tease, though I suspect she leaves the management of such things to her staff of curators and assistants, one of whom sat in on our interview to act as prompter when Yoko's memory faltered. "Will there be a projection on the sails of the Opera House?" I asked. Yoko glanced quizzically at the assistant, then said, "We must wait and see."
She is detached from the work she once did or may yet do, probably because physical execution always concerned her less than mental conception. Her early book Giraffe contains recipes for feats that can be imagined but not accomplished: for instance, carry a bag to the top of a hill, fill it with light, then bring it home and use it in place of an electric bulb. "That's why I called the records of my songs Unfinished Music," she explained. "Others can finish them. To be an artist is not about having a special talent. Everyone is talented." This, in Yoko's early manifestos, was a thrillingly democratic creed, another way of conferring power on the people, though it has since become a justification for the crowds of wannabes on reality TV. "I know," said Yoko. "Every day I get invitations to 50 art exhibitions in New York, and I think, 'Is all this my fault?' "
Yoko comes from a wealthy patrician family; she trained to be a classical musician and in 1951 was the first female student of philosophy at her university in Tokyo. "My parents had their own world and their children barely came into it. I had to make appointments to see my father at his bank! But they were liberal, they understood my need to be independent."
Rejecting their ambitions for her, she dropped out into New York bohemia. Living in grungy Greenwich Village, she made paintings that visitors to her gallery were invited to tread on, or compiled a photographic inventory of the naked buttocks of her friends. Rather than playing a concerto, she sat on the piano stool, lit a match and watched until it went out: that was her performance. Instead of singing German lieder or Italian arias, she emitted sounds fit for animals and insects, with retching and yelping thrown in. "All the same, I think you hear traces of classical training in my voice, no?" she asked when I mentioned these feral cadenzas. It was my turn to giggle evasively.
"I was a downtown person," she said of her avant-garde youth, "and proud of it!" Then in 1974 came the move uptown, to 72nd Street. The Dakota - so-called because when it was built in the 1880s it stood in a wilderness that might have been out west - is one of New York's most fashionable addresses, and other tenants at the time included Leonard Bernstein and Lauren Bacall. When their son Sean was born in 1975, Lennon and Ono reversed roles. John called himself a "house husband", Yoko took charge of their business affairs. "You learn your trade from your parents," she told me, "but I tried to be more involved as a mother than my parents were with me. Now my son has grown up to be an incredibly finicky musician. We just did a concert together in London, and he was so strict with everyone in the rehearsals, always saying, 'That note is wrong!' "
I asked if Sean had been strict with her; her response, given the Japanese aversion to conflict, was predictable. "He said, 'Mommy, you do whatever you like. We are all here for you.' " Does that sound a little too sweet? Perhaps not: she is, I found myself feeling, someone you want to protect, if only because her world view dates from an earlier, almost radiantly innocent time.
"I worried about collaborating with my son," she said, "because of what happened." She was referring to his father's murder, though she edged around the event by explaining, "I mean, John passed away." It was, I thought, a strange way to describe his killing, which for her remains something intolerable, literally unconscionable. Later, when attacking the moral cowardice of politicians, she approached her personal tragedy more indirectly when she said, "It all began with the assassination of President Kennedy. That's when they decided it might be dangerous todo anything bold, because they saw the consequence." It was an oddly paranoid point, but it suggested that for Yoko the deaths in Dallas and outside The Dakota have merged: these were moments when a world ended.
Even so, she has maintained her faith in the "open, beautiful future" that she and Lennon hoped for. Her comments about herself and her work were guarded and elliptical, but when delivering a message to humanity she let loose a burbling flow of idyllic Onoisms. "Future is now!" she said, tapping the kitchen table. "People are getting so intelligent. In the '60s, a guru talking on TV was special. Now it's ordinary, everyone has a guru or therapist, all people meditate. They are standing up, they don't say 'Yes sir' to politicians. See the crowds in Turkey now, or Egypt, or those who occupied Wall Street. It will be an incredible planetary revolution."
But haven't we exhausted our poor old planet?
"Ah," beamed Yoko, "that is negative! I was there at the time of the bomb in Hiroshima, I think doomsday is a waste of time, just reverse romanticism. Why not believe in the goodness of us? Maybe we have to quit this planet, go to a new one. Then if others find our earth, I hope they will say, 'Thank you for leaving it for us, it is beautiful.' "
"So we're off to Nutopia?" I asked, trying not to sound sarcastic. Nutopia was the abstract, imaginary country she and Lennon invented in 1973, which they asked the United Nations to recognise.
"Yes, and you can come along," said Yoko. She opened the kitchen door, beckoning me onto the landing of the back stairs, meant for servants and delivery men. Had I worn out my welcome? No, she wanted to point out the plaque Lennon fixed to the outside of the door, which announced NUTOPIAN EMBASSY. Next to it, a little unfortunately, stood a rubbish bin. Inside again, Yoko presented me with a signed testimonial that accredited me as a Nutopian ambassador. Let's see if it guarantees me a seat on a flight to an alternative galaxy.
Eventually I received a ceremoniously kissy farewell at Yoko's front door. As I fumbled with my shoes, she recalled a dinner for 50 non-Nutopian diplomats she gave in the apartment when raising funds for Strawberry Fields, Lennon's memorial across the road in Central Park. "When one ambassador took his shoe off, there were holes in his socks. He was very upset, and said, 'They weren't there this morning!' "
"Not the Australian ambassador, I hope?"
Yoko tittered, and left me with one of her all-purpose mantras: "Peace. We must fill the planet with love and beauty."
It's a nice idea, I said to myself on the way down in the private lift, but perhaps such bliss is only possible for the cushioned, privileged citizens of Nutopia.
This article originally appeared in Good Weekend.