(Credit: Jack Mitchell)

From Edith Piaf to John Lennon: 8 songs Yoko Ono couldn’t live without

We’re travelling back to the year 2007 when Yoko Ono picked eight songs that were close to her and without which she simply couldn’t live. Unwinding herself in the BBC Radio Show, Desert Island Discs, Ono’s choice of songs focused more on the personal memories rather than the brilliance of the craft. Nonetheless, the playlist appeals to the audience when connected by her stories.

An avant-garde artist hailing from Japan, Ono was already established in the field of visual arts before she met John Lennon. However, her identity has been trapped into the definition of being Lennon’s wife and “the girl who broke the Beatles apart.” She faced an unfair amount of hatred from the media as well as the general public when she was with Lennon, forcing them to leave Britain and take refuge in America. Following Paul McCartney’s comment in 1995, where he put aside his differences with Ono to work on ‘Hiroshima Sky Is Always Blue’, a song that commemorated the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombings of the Japanese city, people started to look at Ono from a different perspective. McCartney said, “I thought she was a cold woman. I think that’s wrong…she’s just the opposite…I think she’s just more determined than most people to be herself.” Ono agreed with McCartney on this one and defined herself as determined, independent and even narcissistic in the Desert Island Discs episode.

The BBC radio show that started in 1942 has remained a favourite to the artists and the listeners for almost 80 years. The concept of the show is to put the guest in a situation where they have to imagine themselves stuck on a lonely desert island and pick eight songs that would give them solace and company. Apart from the complimentary Bible and a complete collection of Shakespeare’s works, the show offers the guest one book and luxury item of choice. Appearing on 10 June 2007, Ono’s informal interview allowed people to see things through her eyes and experience the moments through her stories.

The songs Ono chose followed the trajectory of her life and interlaced beautifully with her narrative. Beginning in the early years when she lived in Japan and was raised in an elite family, the war years and the horrors that followed after the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings, her life in the US and the beginning of her career, affair with John Lennon to the shocking event of Lennon’s murder and her life after that. Ono is caught in a vulnerable state during these recollective narrations which reflect the depths to which she connects with the songs.

The first two songs on the list bring back the warm and colourful memories of childhood to her. The first one is Edith Piaf’s ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’ and the second is Lale Andersen’s ‘Lilli Marlene’. Talking about Piaf’s 1956 classic, Ono said, “First of all my dad always told me that I was so small…well I was small even for the Japanese actually…and feisty like a Japanese Edith Piaf. And whenever I was down, I listened to song…. in my mind and just felt better.” ‘Lil Marlene’, on the other hand, was a German love song that became popular during the Second World War. Ono recalled that during the 1930s, when she was five or six-years-old and when the war was still a few years away, Ono’s mother used to tell her the tale of two soldiers who got out of their trenches and united for a Christmas making Ono wonder “why didn’t they just stay as friends instead of fighting each other?”

Her third pick was the Irish poet Dominic Behan’s ‘Liverpool Lou’ which was a lullaby. Introduced to the song by Lennon, Ono reminiscence, “I don’t know why but one day John, in England, sang ‘Liverpool Lou’ and said ‘Isn’t that beautiful?’… And when Sean was born, he would just sing this song until Sean went to sleep almost every night.” Ono describes her fourth pick, Bob Marley and The Wailers’ ‘One Love’ in similar terms exclaiming, “Such a beautiful song!”

‘When You grow Too Old To Dream’ by Gracie Fields, the fifth song on Ono’s list, has a “personal memory” attached to it. Ono’s heard her mother sing this song when she was young. One day while Ono was living in New York, she called her mother in Japan and sensed that something was wrong. Soon it was revealed that her mother had suffered an injury somehow. Staying miles apart, Ono felt helpless but also knew that she had to do something to comfort her mother. It is at this point that she started singing the song saying “Ok mommy. Let’s sing that song…remember that song you used to sing?” Ono kept repeating the line until her mother sang the entire line. “I was so choked up,” she said, recalling the emotional moment.

The next two songs on the list are ‘Beautiful Boy’ by John Lennon and ‘Magic’ by Sean who is Ono and Lennon’s son. Both the songs evoke the father-son bond John and Sean shared. After the birth of Sean, Lennon left music and became a full-time parent. He decided to start making music once Sean was five years old. ‘Beautiful Boy’ was written for Sean, by Lennon a few months before his death. Ono said, “Well I like most of John’s songs… I like them all actually…But I really appreciate the fact that John made this song for Sean.” The whisper “Goodnight Sean, see you in the morning” following the line “Darling, darling, darling Sean” is the most tender moment of the song that highlights Lennon’s deep affection for his son.

Lennon’s sudden death naturally affected young Sean deeply. Ono can see this pain captured in Sean’s song ‘Magic’: “I like this song very much but, in a way, it is very painful for me to listen to this song. But somehow it attracts me always. It is a song of loss and pain.”

Ono’s eighth and final record defines the present Ono, the person she has evolved into. It doesn’t connect to an individual but a place; Iceland. “Iceland happens to be my new love. It’s a beautiful country. There’s a purity about it. So, when you go there you get a whiff of clean air and good clean water. It is a beautiful, magical country.” And the instrumental piece that captures the essence of Iceland according to ono is ‘Seoul’ by the girl band amiina.

At the end of the show, Ono leaves a message saying: “Thank you for the beautiful planet we live on and enjoy. And the most interesting, exciting and the enlightening time of the history of the human race. Each of us was born at the time to fulfil a mission. Together, we are in a process of healing and creating a better world for the lives on the planet. Our work is not yet done, but it will be done soon.”

To know which book Ono chose and what she wanted for a luxury item, listen to the full episode online on the BBC Sounds site.

Yoko Ono’s eight favourite songs:

  • Edith Piaf – ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’
  • Lale Andersen – ‘Lili Marlene’
  • Dominic Behan – ‘Liverpool Lou’
  • Bob Marley and The Wailers – ‘One Love’
  • Gracie Fields – ‘When I Grow Too Old To Dream’
  • John Lennon – ‘Beautiful Boy’
  • Sean Lennon – ‘Magic’
  • amiina- ‘Seoul’
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