For Yoko Ono, John Lennon's Spirit Still Soars

By Marco R. della Cava / December 8, 2011

John Lennon left this earth on Dec. 8, 1980. But the way Yoko Ono sees it, the Beatle's joyously populist specter has never been busier.

"Now that John's a spirit, he has a different effect on people than when he was alive," Ono, 78, says during a call from Tokyo, where she'll attend a concert of Japanese musicians performing her husband's works.

"Spirits talk on a pure level and don't get distracted by people saying things like, 'That's nice, but why's he wearing that?' " she says in a slightly weary voice that betrays the midnight hour. "Of course, it would still be better if John was around."

Lennon will be very much around Saturday, when musicians such as Steve Forbert and Marshall Crenshaw gather at (Le) Poisson Rouge in New York for the 31st annual John Lennon Tribute concert. Last year's 30th anniversary show recently appeared on CD and iTunes (Live From the Beacon Theater NYC), and features the likes of Jackson Browne (You've Got to Hide Your Love Away) and Aimee Mann (Jealous Guy). Both concerts are benefits for the Japanese Red Cross.

"The event has its own power source," says Joe Raiola, co-founder of the concerts for the non-profit workshop Theatre Within. "You put people in a room and ask them to play John Lennon songs, and people get happy."

That Lennon catalog has in fact earned standards status, says Simon Vozick-Levinson, associate editor of Rolling Stone. "You can't overstate Lennon's importance as an artist or his influence on the culture, whether it's having his songs covered on American Idol or giving comfort to people in the Occupy Wall Street movement."

Ono agrees that Lennon's message is especially timely now. "John was about making the world a better place. He sang Gimme Some Truth, so when I see all the activism out there today, I feel like we will turn the corner soon," she says.

The conceptual artist will travel next to India for an exhibit of her work; she was recently in England, where she met Queen Elizabeth at the opening of the Museum of Liverpool, the gritty town that gave the world the Fab Four.

Ono says that there isn't much of her husband's music that hasn't been released, adding that last year's 11-CD John Lennon Signature Box was meant as a permanent record of his oeuvre. While the project was led by Ono, hearing his music summons both magic and pain.

"I play John's songs all the time, but mainly because (musicians) are asking if they can do this song or that," she says. "But I don't listen for pleasure. When I do, it chokes me up to remember when it was written."