on thin ice - the music of yoko ono
Written by Robert Palmer
was originally published in Onobox booklet in 1992.
chill, brittle October day in 1960, a small young Japanese woman stood at the
bottom of an endless flight of stairs. Though not truly endless, the stairs led
to what is referred to in New York City as a "fifth floor walkup," and
in New York you can't get to a fifth floor walkup by climbing five flights of
stairs. Ten flights is the norm in buildings like this one, fifteen not uncommon.
How could stairs following such an apparently leisurely gradient, be so broad,
so solid, and still be so steep? Five, ten, fifteen, the stairs were, for all
practical purposes, endless.
they did end, on the top floor, in front of an industrial-strength door. Inside
was one big bare room. "It was a cold water flat, there was no electricity,
the ceiling wasn't very high, it was just a very long room," says Yoko Ono,
the woman who had bounded up the stairs as if they were a path through the woods.
"It had something for bringing heavy things up, not an elevator, you hooked
this huge hook onto what you wanted and pulled it up. The windows in the back
were hopeless, nothing but grime and soot. But there were windows facing the front,
those old kind of windows that have wire in the panes, and they aren't transparent.
And there was a skylight. You could look up and almost feel more connected to
the sky than to the city. I liked the place, and the man who owned the store on
the ground floor said I could get it. The price was $50.50 a month. Getting that
together to pay him every month was hard...he ran a kind of sports store, not
like the kind you see now. They sold hiking equipment."
loft was at 112 Chambers Street, in a rapidly-changing area far downtown in Manhattan,
a jumble of former loft-building sweatshops and storage warehouses, disintegrating
ethnic neighborhoods, fish and produce markets. It was just what Yoko was looking
for; an ample space in which to build her art and her life. The daughter of a
westernized Japanese banker and his traditionally-Japanese wife, Yoko had dropped
out of Sarah Lawrence College, where she was studying composition, and decamped
to New York to become an artist in 1957. In the next two years, she met large
number of artists, particularly musicians. All of them had been drawn to New York,
where something new was about to happen.
has a theory about all these radical young music makers showing up in downtown
Manhattan just as the Sixties were dawning: disparate as they were, they shared
a dissatisfaction with the impossibility of notating on musical staff paper the
sounds they heard in their heads. "You can't translate the more complex sounds
into notation," says Yoko. "The minute you do notate it and someone
plays what you've written, the sound becomes totally different. I wanted to capture
the sounds I'd heard of birds singing in the woods, things like that. And I think
the reason all these artists came to New York and got together at this time was
that all of them had this dissatisfaction about just writing musical notes. They
were venturing into a different area, and that's why we all got together."
(Another kind of music that cannot be notated with any significant fidelity or
accuracy is rock and roll.)
Cage was the oldest and most celebrated of a group that included La Monte Young
(founding minimalist composer, whose first performing group left to join Lou Reed
in the original Velvet Underground), Henry Flynt (composer, violinist, sometime
rocker, and the theorist who coined the term "concept art"), and a brilliant
but now little-known electronic composer, Richard Maxfield. All of these artists
were shunned by the uptown classical-music world. The lines were drawn somewhere
around 14th Street. "In those days," Yoko recalls, "when you said
'concert,' it meant Town Hall, Carnegie Recital Hall, that was it."
a few painters had hazarded the urban pioneering required to turn a downtown industrial
or storage loft into a combination art studio and place to live when Yoko found
her loft late in 1960. The experimental loft music scene that would help make
artists such as Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass into stars and Soho real estate
some of the most expensive in New York was still some twenty years in the future.
When she was looking for her loft, Yoko had finding a performance space in mind.
It had also not escaped Yoko's notice that none of her friends had suitable venues
for giving concerts in New York City.
decided to initiate a series--New York's first loft concerts. Then one day, Richard
Maxfield called her and asked if "they" could join her, since he and
La Monte Young were trying to put together some evenings of the new music. Yoko
planned the initial event for December. "Everybody had advised me not to
do this," Yoko recalls. "They said, nobody's going to go all the way
downtown to listen to this, it's just a total waste. But I had an electricity
line run in from the hall, and an old gas stove that had a fan to sort of spread
the heat around the room. And I had empty orange crates for chairs. At other times,
I would put all the crates together to make a large table, and at night I just
collected them and made a bed out of them."
day of the first concert, it snowed very heavily, and you know how it is, when
it snows you don't get a crowd. Twenty-five people came, most of them from Stony
Point--John Cage, David Tudor, people like that." People hadn't come all
the way from uptown after all; but they had driven down from the wooded area north
of the city where Cage, Tudor and several of their friends and collaborators lived.
Cage had created the first effective, deep-structure blends of Western and Eastern
musical traditions and pioneered electronic music before there were electronic
instruments, using radios and similar hardware as sound sources. Somehow he seemed
to belong there, listening intently, head cocked in that sage way of his, sitting
on an orange crate. The concert may not have been a smashing success, but for
Yoko Ono it was an auspicious beginning.
It is quite likely that having John Lennon
fall in love with her was the worst thing that could have happened to Yoko Ono's
career as an artist. By the time she met the then-Beatle, at her one-woman show
in London's prestigious Indica Gallery in 1966, she was controversial but internationally
known and recognized for her work in music, film, and the sort of conceptual presentations
a later generation would dub "performance art." By the mid-Sixties,
she had given performances at New York's Village Gate, the Bridge Theater, and,
yes, far above 14th Street at the Carnegie Recital Hall. Her first one-woman art
exhibition had been presented by George Maciunas, the same gallery owner who had
given Yoko and her loose band of confederates a name, the kind of name you give
an art movement: Fluxus. There were further exhibitions at American universities
and galleries and in Europe and Japan.
The Carnegie Recital
Hall concert of 1961 must have been particularly memorable. There were electronic
sounds, complete darkness, performers with contact microphones taped to their
bodies hauling heavy objects across the pitch-black stage. "There was a point,"
Yoko told Rolling Stone's Jonathan Cott, "where two men were tied up together
with lots of empty cans and bottles around them, and they had to move from one
end of the stage to the other very quietly and slowly without making any sounds.
What I was trying to attain was a sound that almost doesn't come out. Before I
speak I stutter in my mind, and then my cultured self tries to correct that stutter
into a clean sentence...and I wanted to deal with those sounds of people's fears
and stuttering...and of darkness, like a child's fear that someone is behind him,
but he can't speak and communicate this. And so I asked one guy to stand behind
the audience for the duration of the concert."
this sound like punk rock, in intent if not in execution? The sound of Yoko singing
original songs like What A Bastard The World Is, I Felt Like Smashing My Face
In A Clear Glass Window, Woman Of Salem, Coffin Car, Hell In Paradise, and Walking
On Thin Ice is innovative, dangerous rock and roll that seems to want to grab
your soul by the throat. There is great beauty in Yoko's music as well. But there
can be no doubt that the woman who wrote this music has known fear and darkness.
The man who wrote, in one of his own more celebrated songs, "I know what
it's like to be dead" fell in with a perfect match.
of the things art is uniquely suited to is confrontations with the fear, the darkness.
Some people find art that deals with such themes "depressing," presumably
because thinking about their own mortality gives them the willies. For most, probably
all artists, confronting this kind of material takes courage. And Yoko Ono and
John Lennon hadn't just read about or imagined dark, fearful things: they had
lived them. John's first four years coincided with World War Two. One night in
1945, when Yoko was a child, she huddled with her mother and two tiny siblings
in an underground bunker while the largest number of American B29's to attack
a single Japanese city rained incendiary bombs on Tokyo by the thousands. Eighty-three-thousand
people died; a quarter of the city burned. Yoko's mother Isoko and the three children
joined many of their neighbors in a headlong flight away from the burning city,
out into open country. But the farmers in the countryside were starving and unenthusiastic
about sharing whatever food they had hoarded with this tide of urban refugees.
father was missing and possibly dead in Hanoi. The Onos were reduced to foraging
from farm to farm for food, which they pulled along, with a few belongings, in
an ancient-style wheeled cart.
Yoko's father survived
the war and when Yoko was 19 she joined her family in Scarsdale, New York. The
contrast between war torn Japan and Red-spooked America--as well as the "never
the twain shall meet" cultural mentality that had made Eastern and Western
art and thought seem as foreign as their respective languages--had been looming,
unavoidable perplexities for Yoko since early childhood. The twentieth century,
with its industrialization of the East and the attendant influence of materialism
played off against the steadily Eastward drift of Western culture, art, and even
theoretical physics, was a century of drastic reversals and the constant, unsettling
tectonic-plate rumble of cultural schizophrenia. Yoko's family embodied it perfectly.
Their musical values alone adequately tell the tale. Her father's passion was
Western classical music. Bach, Brahms and Beethoven were as central to his musical
values as they were for any European. He saw to it that Yoko had lessons in piano,
music theory, harmony, all from the Euro-classic rulebook. But he didn't believe
a woman would ever be an exceptional composer. Her mother played a number of traditional
Japanese instruments and knew several archaic vocal styles, and these she imparted
to Yoko. There must have been some skull-rattling cognitive dissonance along the
way, but looking back at it, what a musical education! Especially for an artist
whose most important music would encourage and embody the emergence of the first
truly global popular music, jump-started by rockers.
Night at the Dakota
I was writing for The New York Times
in 1980, when Yoko Ono and John Lennon returned to songwriting and recording for
the first time since the birth of their son Sean, in 1975. When I learned the
Lennons were back in the studio, I wrote a news item about it, and the next day
I was surprised to receive a call from Yoko. I had never met her, or John, and
friends had told me, "Don't even try to get an interview. They don't see
anybody." Over the phone, Yoko said, "Well, do you want to come by the
When I walked in the only people
in the room were, an engineer, Yoko and her co-producer Jack Douglas. Yoko was
absorbed in making production notes on one of her ubiquitous yellow legal pads.
Over the speakers came the immediately accessible sound of Just Like Starting
Over. I looked out into the studio, and there was John, singing vocal overdubs
on the song, layering his voice over and over again on the chorus. Yoko briefly
introduced herself and offered me a seat. I watched, I listened.
he was finished singing, John came into the control room. "You must be the
guy from The New York Times," he said. "I figured because when you walked
in, I got nervous." I stood and shook hands and those penetrating Black and
Decker eyes drilled right into mine. I said something about being a little nervous
myself, maybe it was contagious? John looked into my eyes one more fraction of
a second, and then we all relaxed and laughed. "You were right about this
one," he said to Yoko. They invited me back to their apartment after the
A compact station wagon, kind of an econo-limo, deposited us on the
street outside the Dakota's dark, forbidding entrance tunnel around 2 a.m. and
we walked in, unnoticed, unmolested. Over the next few months, I would walk down
it with John and Yoko many times. In December, John would die in that tunnel.
Upstairs, on that first night, we drank great coffee, gorged
on chocolate cake, and talked music and art. There was non-stop conversation.
John and Yoko shared the wit that had been John's trademark at the Beatles' press
conferences. John and Yoko were surprised and pleased to meet someone who knew
Yoko's art and many of her early associates in the Fluxus movement, as well as
rock and roll. I had a passion for both, but as we talked, and the conversation
turned to their work together, I began to get nervous all over again. Yoko's records
hadn't exactly been pushed by Apple. And when the two were working together so
prolifically, in the late Sixties and early Seventies, I was playing in a band
myself, too broke to buy many records anyway. The fact was, I didn't know John's
solo albums intimately, and Yoko's hardly at all. John wanted to know what I thought
of his guitar playing on Yoko's records, his favorite subject. "Have you
heard the guitar on Why?" he asked. "And O'Wind and Midsummer New York
off of Fly?" Should I tell these people that I really wasn't familiar with
the music? These people? Would they throw me out?
had sized me up in about 60 seconds of eye contact, and both he and Yoko had been
open, friendly, down-to-it with me. I figured I owed them the same honesty and
trust. Not without fear and stuttering, I told them that I had heard the records
they were talking about--their records--quite long ago or not at all. I waited
for a response. John and Yoko looked at each other. They looked at me. Silence.
I was considering melting into the carpet when they suddenly broke into howls
of celebratory laughter. "He hasn't heard it yet!," they were shouting
at each other. They jumped up and began scanning shelves, searching cabinets.
The search soon spilled over into adjoining rooms. "John, I found a copy
of Fly," Yoko would call from one room. "Great," said John from
high atop a step ladder. "I've just finally got Feeling The Space and Live
Peace in Toronto."
The search took nearly half an
hour. Closets were ransacked, and a copy of Approximately Infinite Universe was
finally found on a high shelf near the ceiling. Smiling broadly, out of breath,
they presented me with the records: all of Yoko's solo albums, most of John's.
"Here's your homework," John told me, mock-stern but with a glimmer
in his eyes. "Listen to Yoko's first. We'll be expecting a report. And..."
He went into a list of songs from Yoko's albums that he knew I would find highly
unconventional in sound and execution and as fresh sounding as 1980's downtown
New York post-punk scene. "We want to get your reactions," John explained,
"you know, this is me favorite stuff of anything I've done."
showed me out into the grey light of morning, he told me, "It really stretched
me, playin' with Yoko, just improvising, opened me up. Give a listen and tell
us what you think."
Music in a Jam
Sixties were a period of feverish experimentation and exploratory mixing of media
in all the arts. In pop music, cutting-edge records--by the Beatles, the Yardbirds,
Jimi Hendrix, and many others--often topped the charts, a situation that has not
really been duplicated before or since. The audience for rock and roll was willing
to sit still while artists searched, groped, and noodled their way toward the
occasional epiphany, especially if well-known and much-loved musicians were doing
the searching. Revolution No. 9, for example, did not seem to affect sales of
The Beatles, better known as "The White Album." Some listeners may have
skipped over it after the first few listens; for many others, it was simply "far
out, man." But--and this is a big but--Revolution No. 9 was on a Beatles
album. In fact, it was the first John + Yoko music to reach the public, but nobody
let it out of the bag at the time, and even the cognoscenti took it as "John
being far out."
Nobody, including John and Yoko,
seems to have comprehended the vastly different contexts in which this music was
made and received. Both were acutely aware of, and well informed about, the experimentation
that was going on in all the arts at the time. Yoko had played an important part
in creating a receptive climate for this experimentation through her work in the
avant-garde. John had been aware of at least some vanguard art as early as the
Beatles' Hamburg days, when bohemian art students formed an important part of
the band's coterie.
The tape loop/sound collage mania
that struck with Revolution No. 9 and other early work on Unfinished Music No.s
1 & 2 wasn't just a byproduct of LSD trips; it was explicitly inspired by
the work Karlheinz Stockhausen and other "classical" composers were
doing at the time. The most intensely abrasive of Yoko's vocal improvisation had
as its own wider context the "free jazz" or "energy playing"
that was then widespread (and controversial) in the jazz world. Indeed, Yoko had
initially given such vocal performances in the company of free jazz innovators
like Ornette Coleman. Hostile jazz critics charged Coleman, Albert Ayler, John
Coltrane, and the other leading lights of free jazz with simply "screaming,"
an accusation Yoko soon found herself contending with.
important thing is that the music Yoko was making at this time was part of a musical
revolution already sweeping both classical music and jazz. It was not conceived
in a vacuum, nor was it intended as willful provocation. It had a context, and
it built on an already existing tradition, or more precisely, on several traditions:
Varese, Stockhausen, Coleman and Coltrane, Little Richard and Bo Diddley. The
mass audience for pop music was largely unaware of these traditions. Rock criticism
was in its infancy and was no help at all; the press attention Yoko got was largely
sensational in nature. The rock audience seemed to be tolerant concerning the
eccentricities of a few cherished performers who were virtually brand names in
the context of the pop marketplace. This tolerance had its limits; Yoko exceeded
But the controversy concerning Unfinished Music
No. 1, Unfinished Music No. 2, Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band and Fly should be long
past. The result plays like a suite, or a continuous, densely woven tapestry of
sounds. Listening to it, one gains a new appreciation of just how acutely Yoko
anticipated subsequent developments in rock and free improvisation. To me, this
music sounds as contemporary in 1991 as it did when Yoko and John proudly presented
it to me at the Dakota in 1980.
Recording long free improvisations
and then editing them into shorter, more contained and formally balanced composition
was one early Ono/Lennon strategy. In effect, the recording studio becomes a composer's
tool, roughly analagous to the notation and scoring classical composers use to
formalize their own of-the-moment inspirations. An exceptional passage can be
pulled out of the longer improvisation; additional parts may be overdubbed later
to clarify structure and groove, or simply to add sonic density and impact.
jazz, composer-performers of the highest stature--Charles Mingus, Miles Davis--had
been using tape-splicing and other editing techniques to shape, hone and tighten
recorded performances since the late Fifties or very early-Sixties. Going into
the studio with a rock band and little or no preparation, as Yoko did, may have
been a riskier proposition. But this strategy eventually yielded some of the most
intense and prescient performances --Why, and its companion Why Not are good examples.
sounds especially contemporary. This is partly the result of the free and open
atmosphere that Yoko encouraged and its liberating effect on the musicians. Klaus
Voorman's bass playing charges along, giving the piece an Eighties/Nineties dance-punk
feel, and Ringo Starr keeps coming up with shifting textures and accents while
rocking (and swinging) like crazy. You won't hear him playing like that on any
"O'Wind", "Don't Worry,
Kyoko" from Fly. John, who never considered himself a lead guitarist, was
justifiably proud of his playing in many of the songs. In effect, for Yoko's music
he was forging a new style--extrapolating from, or imaginatively fracturing, an
encyclopedic inventory of rhythm-guitar syntax; by using unconventional playing
techniques to produce utterly original sounds and tone-colors; and, because of
his utter commitment to the music, simply by cutting loose and letting his remarkable
creative energy power his imagination up to peak intensity. He unleashes shattering
sonics, sounding at times like the metal-stress harmonics of a machine shop, or
like William Burroughs' "screaming glass blizzards of enemy flak," on
a number of selections--Why and the latter portions of O'Wind are immediately
impressive but the guitar playing throughout this first disc is a special treat.
Most of it is John, but when another guitarist is brought in--Eric Clapton shines
on Don't Worry Kyoko, and the lovely, occasional slide playing is Chris Osborne
on dobro--the mesh seems equally seamless.
may have sounded unrelenting to early Seventies listeners who were unaware of
the parallel directions being taken in free jazz. But today, in the early Nineties,
with artful noise enthusiasts like Public Enemy and Sonic Youth selling records
for the major labels, the astonishing variety of her vocal techniques and textures
can be more readily appreciated. Her prolific inventiveness is in no way diminished
by a keener understanding of her music's inner and outer sources, and she can
best explain what this music was all about. During a 1971 interview with Rolling
Stone's Jonathan Cott, she described the inner, emotional core of her music this
"The older you get, the more frustrated you feel.
And it gets to a point where you don't have time to utter a lot of intellectual
bullshit. If you were drowning you wouldn't say: 'I'd like to be helped because
I have just a moment to live.' You'd say, 'Help!' but if you were more desperate
you'd say, 'Eioghhh,' or something like that. And the desperation of life is really
life itself, the core of life, what's really driving us forth."
the early-Seventies, recordings of the world's traditional musics were almost
impossible to obtain, sources were severely limited even in New York City. Again,
today's widespread availability of recorded music from around the world, and its
assimilation into rock by Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, and many others,
make Yoko's music and its influences more accessible. More than a decade after
Cott's interview, she enumerated some of her influences when I interviewed her
for another Rolling Stone piece:
"There are so many
ways of using the throat and the vocal chords; you can use different areas, different
parts of the body to express different emotions. As far as influences in my singing,
I got a lot of influence from (Alban) Berg's operas, like his Lulu. I think you
can hear that very strongly on some of Approximately Infinite Universe, and I
think I'm still very influenced by it. There's also a lot of Japanese kabuki influence,
from the old Japanese way of singing. There's one particular kabuki singing style
called hetai, a kind of storytelling form that's almost like chanting and requires
you to strain your voice a bit. I also listened to tapes of my voice playing backward
and tried to make sounds like that. And I listened to Indian singing, Tibetan
singing...all that mixed."
In that particular interview, we had
already talked about another influence that seemed much more obvious: rock and
roll singing. John was her teacher in this particular tradition. If this influence
doesn't seem immediately evident, go right to Midsummer New York. The song is
a bit like a cross between John Lennon's Cold Turkey (especially the bootlegged
John and Yoko home demo of the song, though addiction/withdrawal imagery are common
to both) and Elvis Presley's Heartbreak Hotel. It's frightening, intensely real.
Midsummer New York showed Yoko the avant-gardist and Yoko the budding rocker already
meeting each other halfway.
The 1968-1971 music has it moments of quiet, part
of a shifting array of textures and moods. Yoko's arrangements have elements that
anticipate ensuing developments in rock by at least a decade. At a time when only
a few bands used percussion instruments other than the standard drum kit, the
assimlation of ethnic percussion instruments and rhythms was well underway in
Yoko's music, beginning with the Fly album, the source of most of these early
pieces. One hears Cuban claves, Indian tabla drums, other tuned drums of various
sorts, bells, and the one-of-a-kind percussion instruments, made of metals and
other materials, that Fluxus artist Joe Jones brought to some of the sessions.
O'Wind is noteworthy for its effortless-sounding blend of Indian and African percussion
sounds and rhythms and its constantly mutating instrumentation. It includes percussion
dialogues, a tabla-and-voice duet section, the freest, most imaginative solo in
the extensive discography of longtime Rolling Stones saxophonist Bobby Keyes,
and a John Lennon guitar that chops, splinters, and finally "goes outside"
or "takes the music out," in early-Seventies musician jargon. Sparser
percussion is heard on several other pieces. If Yoko's emotional intensity dominates,
she also reveals an affinity for an almost Miles Davis-like pacing of sounds and
silences in the quieter moments.
Songs And Stories
the music on Plastic Ono Band and Fly and Yoko's later releases seem very different.
Most of the Plastic Ono Band performances are improvisations, deliberate leaps
into the unknown. The performances on the other five discs are songs. The emotional
intensity and experimental edge are still there, but they have been modulated
through predetermined structures of verses and choruses that confirm, though sometimes
rather eccentrically, to the accepted Western notion of song forms.
a larger sense, Yoko's pre-1971 work provides the foundation for everything that
follows. The music is a direct rendering of her emotional state at the time of
the recording, without song forms or other obvious predetermined structures to
mediate between artist and audience. Any listener familiar with this material
will be equipped to sort out and understand everything that follows.
listening without this grounding in the basic elements of Yoko's vocal artistry
has often led to puzzlement, misunderstanding, false assumptions. Hearing her
strain her voice slightly, for example, can lead to the conclusion that her vocal
abilities aren't quite up to the demands of the music. But Yoko wrote these songs
specifically with her own voice in mind. As in the Japanese hetai singing mentioned
earlier, the occasional semblance of vocal straining is deliberate, an approach
in keeping with the emotional imperatives of the songs in which this "straining"
occurs. Other songs find her voice gliding smoothly, with perfect ease, from note
to note, and her sense of pitch is impeccable.
listener is more accustomed to the sort of vocal straining one hears in blues
and soul music, Yoko's use of comparable techniques can sound harsh or strange.
The listener should remember that Yoko's various vocal techniques sound different
because Yoko's sources are different. If one has heard these techniques applied
in atonal opera and traditional Japanese vocal music--or through Yoko--then the
various vocal approaches she uses in her songs are considerably more comprehensible.
It's just that most pop listeners aren't used to hearing multi-cultural and avant-garde
vocal techniques used in what are unambiguously pop-rock tunes. The application
of these techniques to pop-rock material is actually one of the genuinely original
innovations that help keep Yoko's recordings sounding immediate.
recorded in October and November of 1972 were released on the double album Approximately
Infinite Universe. Earlier that year, Yoko and John had recorded their collaborative
album Sometime in New York City. They had only recently relocated in New York
and, through Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, become heavily involved in political
activism. One result was the intentionally telegraphic songs--more like political
broadsides, really--on Sometime, with their almost slogan-like lyrics. Another
result of their activist stand was their collaboration with Elephant's Memory,
a lower east side "people's band" that played at anti-war rallies and
benefit concerts and was closely associated with the "Yippie" underground.
Having "broken in" the group on the Sometime sessions and at the Madison
Square Garden benefit, (captured on the John Lennon/Live in New York City video)
Yoko and John were working smoothly with the Elephants when they co-produced Approximately
Infinite Universe near the end of that same tumultuous year.
Infinite Universe has been a favorite among Yoko's longtime fans, a double-album
with striking songs in a variety of modes, from ballads to street funk to gritty
rock and roll. Many of the lyrics reflect the conflicts of the time, mixing personal,
political, and explicitly feminist concerns, often in the same song. Feminism
had only recently arisen as an issue within the very street-macho, male-dominated
radical activist community, and for many male politicos it was not a welcome addition
to the agenda.
"What A Bastard The World Is",
"I Want My Love To Rest Tonight", "Yangyang", "Death
Of Samantha", "What Did I Do!", "What A Mess", "Looking
Over From My Hotel Window" from Approximately Infinite Universe.
more information on the band Death Of Samantha. The woman represented in What
A Bastard The World Is feels the conflicts of the early feminist movement deeply,
as an interior struggle. "You pig, you bastard, you scum of the earth,"
she rails at her man, only to abruptly temper her outburst with compassion and
need: "Please, don't go, I didn't mean it, I'm just in pain." Compassion
is the dominant emotion, though not the only one, in I Want My Love To Rest Tonight.
Musically, these songs reflect Yoko's extensive training in classical music.
the classical influence is by no means typical of this group of songs and arrangements.
Yangyang is an intense, deliberate out-of-kilter rocker that features stinging
guitar leads and an Eastern European-style clarinet. Death Of Samantha, which
inspired the outstanding 1980s postpunk band of the same name, is a kind of minor-key
torch rocker. The mood recalls the powerful minor-key blues of singer-guitarists
such as Otis Rush, a major influence on Eric Clapton. But the song is not blues,
and neither is the style of the vocal. It's as if Yoko is inventing her own personal
equivalent of the blues, getting a blues feeling without copying any traditional
blues licks or song forms; this is an impressive achievement. What Did I Do! is
mutant funk, New York style. Overdubbed vocal lines weave a criss-cross pattern,
mirrored by the interlocking rhythm guitar patterns contributed by John Lennon
and the Elephants' Tex Gabriel; John would return to this idiom some years later
with his guitar work on David Bowie's Fame. What A Mess is more along the lines
of piano-driven gospel. Peter The Dealer is one of the best rock and roll songs
explicitly about drugs and the drug subculture, and Looking Over From My Hotel
Window is a gorgeously lyrical meditation whose lyric has an astonishingly naked
Yoko had staked out virtually the entire
rock and pop spectrum as her own musical turf on Approximately Infinite Universe,
and was creating a body of work as diverse, and as excellent, as anyone's. The
next step was working with an even more versatile, and more accomplished, group
of musicians, all studio pros. Among other things, 1973's Feeling the Space is
a lasting testament to the originality of two brilliant musicians, drummer Jim
Keltner and guitarist David Spinozza, who made fine music with Yoko on other occasions
as well. Her music challenged and brought out the best in these and the other
One might imagine that the music Yoko
made with these triple-scale musicians would differ radically from her work with
the street hippies in Elephant's Memory. If you listen to the music back to back,
the differences seem strikingly minor. Yoko's unwavering sense of artistic identity
overcomes both the uneven, sometimes disorganized playing exhibited by Elephant's
Memory on their own and the potential musical overkill of the studio musicians'
superchops. The style, sound and feel common to both discs show us just how indelibly
Yoko put her personal stamp on everything she recorded. Despite the variety of
musical idioms present on both discs, her individuality shines brightest.
A Bastard The World Is" from Approximately Infinite Universe. Run, Run, Run
and Coffin Car are nightmarish rockers, with all the emotional immediacy that
had characterized Yoko's music since the beginning. Angry Young Woman digs even
deeper than What A Bastard The World Is in illustrating the consequences of a
heterosexual woman taking a strongly independent feminist stance. Its subject
is women whose wracked emotional lives and compromised personal identities have
fallen victim to the patriarchy that continues to hold onto the real power in
our society--casualties in an undeclared war. Men, Men, Men parodies the idiom
of pre-World War Two cafe society pop music, but in a lightly satirical manner
that treats men as "sex objects." Woman Power seems to anticipate the
heavy metal/rap crossover of the mid-1980's, with its hard-edged guitars, bass
heavy bottom, and funk groove. The choked, whiplashing rhythm guitar sound uncannily
like a hip hop disc jockey's turntable scratching, but in 1973 hip hop and rap
were some seven or eight years in the future.
Lennon is playing rhythm guitar on some of these songs, but it's the rapport between
Yoko and the young guitarist David Spinozza that gives the music from this period
a special warmth. Of all the musicians Yoko has recorded with over the years,
Spinozza is the one whose feeling for the nuances of her songs and her singing
comes closest to the Ono/Lennon chemistry. The most immediately impressive example
is It's Been Very Hard. There's a low but steadily-burning flame alight on this
bluesy after-hours mood piece. Spinozza's sensitive dynamics and immersion in
the music enable Ono to dip into the jazzier side of her singing, using many of
the techniques from the first disc to create a bluesy but utterly personal brand
of improvised vocalese. She uses her voice like a horn; when she and Spinozza
improvise together, a genuine dialogue is taking place.
Story was recorded around the same time as Feeling the Space, in 1973, and includes
more magic. The guitarist takes some killer solos on Onobox's third and sixth
discs. Spinozza sounds as if he's playing from the depths of his soul on Yume
O Moto, a single released only in Japan. But it's important to note the differences
in the musical relationships between Ono/Lennon and Ono/Spinozza. No matter how
tightly Yoko Ono and David Spinozza interact, the "voice" of each participant
remains distinct. There are moments when Yoko and John go further. They are both
reaching for new sonic textures, and at times they find a meeting place where
the individual sounds of voice and guitar meld into a single, indivisible sound
that's like nothing heard before or since.
from the last Lennon/Ono sessions began in the summer of 1980 and ended in December
with John's death. All the songs appeared, alternating with John's songs and using
the same group of studio aces, on their albums Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey,
with four exceptions. Open Your Soul To Me features the same musicians but was
recorded later, around the time of Season of Glass. Previously unreleased, it
appeared on the Onobox compilation. Forgive Me My Love is from the It's Alright
sessions of 1982 and was also unreleased, as was There's No Goodbye from 1983.
Have You Seen A Horizon Lately dates back to the 1972 album Approximately Infinite
Universe. These four tunes and the Double Fantasy/Milk and Honey material add
up to a totality that seems even greater than the sum of its parts.
On Thin Ice" from Season Of Glass (Bonus Track). The last recording Yoko
and John made together was the 12-inch single Walking On Thin Ice. This is, arguably,
Yoko's finest hour. John commented shortly before his death that Thin Ice was
the beginning of a new and more powerfully charged direction for the music the
couple was making together, but this was not to be. Still, we have this last single,
a pop masterpiece. It begins as a pounding dance track, but the mood and lyric
are hardly the stuff of disco dreams. This is a song of uncertainty, bristling
with a sense of danger and foreboding that proved uncannily accurate. "It
Happened", "Tomorrow May Never Come" from A Story. Some of Yoko's
less charitable critics have wondered in print why, if she was gifted with psychic
abilities as has often been claimed, Yoko failed to anticipate--and prevent--John's
murder. Walking On Thin Ice plays like a presentiment of the tragedy to come,
and several earlier songs on make for chilling listening today. It Happened made
a fleeting appearance shortly after it was recorded as the b-side of a Japanese
single. It Happened and the song that follows it, Tomorrow May Never Come seem
in retrospect to anticipate disaster, and on the same disc, O'OH ends with fireworks
sounding like gunfire. Many people have experienced precognitive flashes; the
trick is recognizing and interpreting them. After a tragedy, certain earlier events
can seem in retrospect to have been clear warnings. But such warnings specify
neither the exact nature of the impending calamity nor its specific time and place.
All one feels at the time is a shudder, "like someone's walking on my grave,"
to use a popular cliche. When intimations of doom prove true, the person who felt
something of the sort "in the wind" beforehand may be even more devastated.
Precognition, in real life as opposed to myth, is more a burden than a blessing.
In the autumn of 1980, Double Fantasy reached the ears
of an eager public who had had no new music from John and Yoko for more than five
years. This time, the couple had braced themselves for hostile responses to their
music, especially Yoko's songs. But public perceptions had changed since the late-Sixties.
The first reviews of Double Fantasy surprised the pair as much as the virulent
negativity that had greeted their earliest collaborations, but this surprise was
a more pleasant one. Yoko's new music received critical praise for being more
up-to-date and adventurous than John's comparatively traditional pop-rock approach.
John was delighted that Yoko was finally getting her due. As the sales reports
started to come in, it became evident that Yoko songs like Give Me Something and
I'm Moving On and especially Kiss, Kiss, Kiss were having their greatest impact
in the rock discos, where bands as diverse as the Rolling Stones, the B-52s, and
Joy Division enjoyed frequent play. John's new songs soon were all over the radio.
Musically and in terms of record sales, both Yoko and John were holding up their
end in style. Their original decision to work together had finally been vindicated.
All the musicians
who had worked with Yoko and John on the Double Fantasy/Milk and Honey sessions
rallied behind Yoko and returned to the studio with her when she decided to get
back to work after John's death. They were a well-chosen group of players, effectively
balancing experience and adventurousness. For every versatile studio veteran (guitarist
Hugh McCracken, drummer Andy Newmark) the band included a more radical counterpart
(former Peter Gabriel/King Crimson bassist Tony Levin, frequent Bowie sideman
Earl Slick on lead guitar). If the single Walking On Thin Ice had been Yoko's
single most powerful recording, Season of Glass, a report from grief and delirium,
was her most magnificent solo album. Some of the songs had first been recorded
some years earlier, these recordings were never released; other songs were new.
All of them were appropriate to a moment that was traumatic enough for the rest
of the world, and might have proved too much for Yoko had she not thrown herself
back into her work. The recording studio was a familiar environment where she
could feel safe, collaborating with fellow artists in a known context.
Gets Down On Her Knees", "Nobody Sees Me Like You Do", "No,
No, No" from Season Of Glass. She Gets Down On Her Knees is a particularly
powerful work that approaches the heights scaled in WALKING ON THIN ICE. Nobody
Sees Me Like You Do is the prettiest of Yoko's love songs, with an indelible melodic
beauty and a bittersweet hint of the early-Sixties "girl group" sound
John had loved so much. No, No, No is probably the most forthright and penetrating
account of sexual revulsion in the history of popular music. Having already worked
together so extensively, Yoko and the musicians sound like a real performing band,
with arrangements, group playing, singing, and material all evenly matched. Yoko's
next album, It's Alright (I See Rainbows), recorded and released in 1982. For
the first time since Feeling the Space in 1973, she produced an album on her own;
she had called in Phil Spector to help her on Season Of Glass.
Season of Glass's No, No, No with its dissonant guitar and other avant-garde touches,
several of the songs from It's Alright find Yoko's hard-won pop savvy with her
heritage of avant-garde experimentation meeting each other halfway. Never Say
Goodbye finds massed voices drifting in and out of phase with each other, and
the concluding portion of the tune isn't just dissonant, it's beautiful noise;
this is radical stuff. Let The Tears Dry also blurs the dividing line between
melody and indeterminately-pitched sounds, using synthesizers as something other
than substitutes for conventional instruments. The song has a spaced-out drift
that's appealingly open-ended.
In Dream Love spacious
keyboard textures are expertly blended with oceanic "found sounds" in
overlapping sonic densities. While the overall sound is massive and detailed,
the actual musical processes suggest "minimalist" means. Dream Love
can be compared to the composition Namyohorengekyo. The latter piece, featuring
wordless choral singing and piano and previously unreleased, is from a home tape
made in 1983, a year after It's Alright. Together, Namyohorengekyo and Dream Love
suggest that Yoko had come full circle, her mature musical vocabulary effectively
combined songcraft and the "process music" of her avant-garde period.
"Hell In Paradise", "I Love You, Earth",
"In Cape Clear" from It's Alright (I See Rainbows). By this time, it
was not particularly unusual for avant-garde composers and musicians to work in
pop and rock idioms as well. The outstanding minimalist composer Philip Glass
had produced rock albums, and used singers from popular music on an album of his
own "art songs." Another avant-gardist who had been involved in both
experimental improvisation and rock and pop album producing was Bill Laswell;
Yoko chose him to co-produce her final solo album to date, Starpeace. World music,
an important element in her musical mosaic since Fly in 1971, is equally integral
to Laswell's methods. They gathered a group of session musicians who play on his
projects; a kind of international smorgasbord. The Jamaican reggae rhythm team
Sly and Robbie, Indian violinist Shankar, West African (Aiyb Dieng) and Cuban
(Daniel Ponce) percussionists, and various jazz, rock and fusion luminaries work
together harmoniously. The three songs from Starpeace (Hell In Paradise, I Love
You, Earth and In Cape Clear) suggest that the music world was finally catching
up with Yoko. Her early pioneering in these and other areas has turned out to
be the leading edge of a now well-established progressive music scene, one that
values expression and creativity over labelling and genre restrictions.
Ono continues to move on. If her later recordings brought her full circle musically,
she is now moving in this direction on a broader artistic front as well. Her recent
one-woman art exhibits in museums and galleries around the world have been reminiscent
of some of the extra-musical work she was doing before she met John Lennon--in
a sense. In another, deeper sense, all her work has been of a piece. One suspects
her visual art has benefitted from the compression and specificity she acquired
as a writer and performer of pop/rock songs.
spent her adult life making art in a variety of mediums--sculpture, painting,
drawing, performance art, avant-garde and popular music. Whatever the medium,
her work displays a finely-honed whimsy and dryly devastating wit while addressing
concerns that strike to the roots of the human condition in the late twentieth
century--the need for world peace, the constant struggle between creative and
destructive impulses, the importance of communication and tolerance between individual
humans, between their varying cultures and values. These are serious issues indeed,
and Yoko Ono makes a fundamentally serious kind of art. No matter what, she seems
to be telling us, keep creating; to borrow a phrase from British author Valerie
Wilmer, art can be "as serious as your life."
Palmer, a writer for Rolling Stone and American Film was former chief pop music
critic for The New York Times.
La Monte Young about the loft Concerts series
Key To Open A Universe from Onobox Ultracase