Banter With the Beast

Yoko Ono Takes Anti-Fracking Crusade to Andrew Cuomo

John Lennon’s widow, a passionate opponent of fracking, is campaigning with son Sean to persuade the governor to ban the process in New York. She tells Lloyd Grove about her effort—and getting blamed for the Beatles’ breakup.

02.11.13 9:45 AM ET

Yoko Ono Lennon—or just plain Yoko, since she’s instantly recognizable by her first name alone—has met practically everyone worth meeting on the planet.

A conspicuous exception is Andrew Cuomo.

“The thing is, I think he’s probably advised by people around him saying, ‘You don’t want to do that. You don’t have to do that,’” Yoko tells me in her Japanese-accented English, speculating on why she hasn’t been granted an audience with New York’s governor.

Perhaps Cuomo believes the discredited canard that Yoko broke up the Beatles?

“Maybe that’s exactly the kind of thing that’s been told to him in his letters,” she agrees with a laugh.     

Yoko and her son, Sean Lennon, a rock musician himself, have been trying for months to get some face time with the governor to make their case against hydraulic fracturing, a.k.a. “fracking,” the economically attractive but potentially harmful process by which energy companies inject water at high pressure, laden with exotic and even toxic chemicals, to extract oil and natural gas from shale rock deep underground.

In August Sean, 37, wrote an impassioned New York Times op-ed on the subject. In January Yoko led Susan Sarandon and various journalists on an expedition to snowy Dimock, Pennsylvania, where residents blame fracking for contaminated water and other threats to health. “These people have been there for generations and generations. They don’t have pure water, clean water,” Yoko says. “It’s brown water. It’s terrible, and most of them don’t have enough money to buy clean water every day. So, then, what are they supposed to do?”

This week, under the aegis of Artists Against Fracking, the group she founded to fight industry efforts to legalize the practice in New York state and beyond (with the support of Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and Robert De Niro, among others), Yoko is airing a new television commercial in which she appeals to Cuomo personally, telling him, “Since you haven’t met with me about the dangers of fracking, I will show you now on TV!” This is followed by video of brackish well water, flammable sink water, a methane-powered well geyser, and a forest-scarring pipeline construction site, all to the accompaniment of “Gimme Some Truth," John Lennon’s anthem against “narrow-minded hypocrites” and “pig-headed politicians.”

Cuomo, who signaled in June 2011 that he was ready to lift a then-three-year-old moratorium on fracking in the Empire State—while continuing to ban it in upstate watersheds serving New York City and Syracuse—ultimately delayed the action after objections from environmental groups. Weighing economic benefits against environmental risks, the governor could decide as early as February 27 whether to permit the controversial practice.

“I’m sure that some people convinced them it’s going to be all right,” Yoko says about Team Cuomo’s initial fracking-friendly stance. “But how would he know? He’s not a professional engineer or anything. But I think, by now, he has a little more knowledge about it. I really believe he’s an incredibly intelligent governor. You can’t say that about all politicians.”

Yoko’s crusade against fracking—begun after she and Sean learned a few years ago that an energy company was planning to lay a pipeline for fracked gas near the Lennon family farm in the Catskills—is only one of the goings-on in her life. Leveraging her association with the world’s most celebrated rock band to pursue causes in the spotlight, she annually hands out Lennon Ono Grants for Peace from her Spirit Foundation (2012 recipients included Lady Gaga and the late Christopher Hitchens, and on February 3, she bestowed her Courage Award on embattled WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange); she occasionally picks up various prizes for herself, such as Germany’s human rights medal for peace activism in December; her conceptual art, both pre- and post-Lennon, continues to be featured in exhibitions, such as her 2008 work “Liverpool Skyladders,” currently on display at London’s Walker Art Gallery; she recently designed an avant garde, sexually cartoonish menswear line; and she periodically tours in concert with the Plastic Ono Band. 

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Lest we forget, Yoko is marking her 80th birthday on February 18. Which is not to say that everything is sweetness and light. Fabulous wealth and reflected fame have not protected her from trips to hell and back—the worst of which was witnessing the December 8, 1980, murder of her husband by a deranged, gun-wielding stalker.

 “Of course, it was a very difficult time,” she says, “and even now the fact that my husband is not around is really something I feel very difficult about. I’m not saying it just for personal reasons, but it is really bad for everybody that we have so much merchandise—gun merchandise.” Not surprisingly, Yoko supports President Obama’s effort to enact stricter controls on guns and ammunition in the wake of the December 14 Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. “I think it’s a beautiful thing that Obama is doing,” she says.

Meanwhile, rabid fans will never stop blaming her for the death of the Beatles, never mind that no less an authority than McCartney recently absolved her of the crime.

“I was being hated for about 40 or 50 years by the whole world,” Yoko says, “but it did not destroy me and it did not ruin my health. And the reason is because I just did not answer them. I had my own life.” She adds: “I think that when you feel so much energy, either from hate or love, you can use that to make your life creative. That’s what I did, and I think you can do that, too. Don't worry about being hated. And sometimes being loved so much might be like getting too much sugar or something. You have to keep on your own pace in life, and you’ll be fine.”

As for her occasionally stormy relationship with Sir Paul, “We’re good friends,” she insists. “I think it was very nice of Paul to say something about the fact that I didn’t break up the Beatles [in an Al Jazeera interview with David Frost]. I really appreciate that. It’s probably hard for him to say that, because people write to him and say, “How dare you say that?’”

Yoko has long since reunited with Kyoko, her grown daughter from a previous marriage who four decades ago was taken by Yoko's ex-husband in violation of court-ordered custody. And she is close to her son, Sean, her partner not only in the fight against fracking but also in music. Sean worked with her on a new record album set for release in May.

“It’s a blessing,” Yoko says, “because I was doing all these things with activism stuff with my husband, and after that, by myself. It’s a lonely trip, but I didn’t want to involve my son so much because I didn’t want to be influencing him in any way ... So now it’s me and him. I feel so good he’s extremely into it.” She can’t resist adding: “He’s a very good musician. Whenever I say anything good about his music, and it's true, he'd call me and say, ‘Mommy, please don't say that. It's embarrassing ... You're just a mom.’”