by Kimberly Chun, SF Bay Guardian

MUSIC The simplest, most singular words and images have always been Yoko Ono’s most potent artistic tools — depth charges designed for maximum impact, unexpected wit, and subtly change-inducing effect. And though words like “empowerment” feel too tapped-out to draw from the same power source as Ono-connected words like “yes” (the title of the retrospective that opened a new generation’s eyes to the woman too long associated with her late husband John Lennon), it’s outright empowering to see the septuagenarian Ono continuing to harness the same intuitive courage that led her to create 1960s performance art works like Cut Piece (1964).

Exhibit one: A Hole (2009) – a plate of glass pierced with a bullet hole, beneath which are the instructions “A HOLE GO TO THE OTHER SIDE OF THE GLASS AND SEE THROUGH THE HOLE” — on display in December at Gallery 360 in Tokyo. Playing off the image of holes that recurs in her work — and nodding to the title phrase’s femme-y glory and, er, half-assed curse — Ono entreats us to look at gun violence from both the shooter’s and the victim’s perspectives, while clearly harking to Lennon’s shooting death.

It’s a startling window — or portal, much like the tunnel to the Dakota where Lennon was killed — leading back to one of the darkest periods of Ono’s life. “There are so many windows like that in the world now,” Ono says by phone, surprisingly girlish-sounding on the edge of 77 and her Feb. 18 birthday, and off-the-cuff (“We can wing it — come on!” she urges, when I bring up that her people asked to see my questions). “One is the shot, one is the hole that you see when you’re shooting, and the other is the hole that you see when you’re shot!”

Sean Lennon, Bette Midler, Scissor Sisters, Yoko Ono, Klaus Voormann, Jim Keltner, Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore backstage at the special Plastic Ono Band concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on February 16, 2010 in Brooklyn, New York

Ono’s mind is clearly on her February NYC Plastic Ono Band shows, which will include original members and big-wiggies like Eric Clapton and Klaus Voormann, as well as wildly disparate successors such as Scissor Sisters and Kim Gordon. (Plastic Ono Band’s plastic lineup includes son Sean Lennon, Cornelius, and Yuka Honda when it tops Noise Pop on Feb. 23.) But the thought of A Hole is obviously still charged for her.

At first she didn’t recognize it as a piece triggered by Lennon’s killing. “At the time there were four shots — that was for my husband. Then, I think — I don’t know if it was intentional or not — but the idea was to first get John and then get me, too. So when I was going around the door [at the Dakota at the time of Lennon’s shooting], I saw the glass made a hole, and a hole toward me. But luckily, the angle of the bullet didn’t come at me.

“It’s amazing, you know,” she continues with a sigh. “For the longest time I was creating canvases with a hole to see the sky. Then suddenly I didn’t want to do another hole to see the sky. I thought, ‘OK, why don’t I do a glass with a hole-way — and I didn’t connect it with John’s death at all. I was just thinking about all the holes that are made by shooting people in the world now. There are so many wars. Then I realized it might be coming from that experience.”

Few can face their most horrific moments and darkest fears and make art from them — and amid a decade-shift of such uncertainty, the time is now to look to Ono’s bravery under the burn of the spotlight. In response to the sexism, violence, and hatred she’s encountered, she continues to ply her own unique, unabashed voice, influenced by Kabuki and traditional Japanese music. Her page-size ads announcing “War Is Over! / If You Want It” appear even now in weeklies like this one. She still makes music and art in the face of the boos and hisses she’s caught from backward Beatles fans who think of her as the “ugly Jap” who broke up the band of lovable mop-tops.


Exhibit two: Ono’s latest album, Between My Head and the Sky (Chimera, 2009), her first release working with the name Plastic Ono Band since 1975’s Shaved Fish (Apple). Plastic Ono Band is a name Lennon dreamed up when told about an Ono performance utilizing four plastic stands with tape recorders in them. The loose gathering of rock cohorts — encompassing not only Clapton and Voormann but also the Who’s Keith Moon, Billy Preston, Yes’ Alan White, and Phil Spector — is a precursor to that utopian, gang-of-like-minded-friends quality embedded in so many experimental rock ensembles today.

Lennon and Ono’s son — and Ono’s current music director — Sean Lennon suggested resurrecting the project. “Sean said, ‘Mommy, would you mind if we record as Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band? Bring up Plastic Ono Band again!” Ono recalls. “‘Why do we do that? You want to do that?’ I said, and I thought about it and thought the reason why I was blocking that name was because John and I used it and, I mean, John thought of it, and for me. And when John passed away, I just blocked it, you know.”

“The thing is, many people are, like, ‘Are you kidding? You don’t do it with your son! You just don’t do it — it’s just the most difficult thing to do,'” Ono continued. “And I got a bit scared. I said, ‘Oh, dear, did I say anything I shouldn’t have?’ But my position was right. I didn’t have any problem about it, and it just worked out very well.” The album does stand out among Ono’s shockingly deep discography. It embraces elegiac acoustic beauty and poetry (“Memory of Footsteps”), playful and still-surprisingly sexy funk (“Ask the Elephant”), and ambient experiments (“CALLING”) that recall her most brilliant avant rock recordings, à la Fly (Apple, 1971), in addition to her call-outs to the dance-floor (“Walking on Thin Ice”).

The key, Ono believes, is that Sean listened to everything by his mother and father, as well as the Beatles. “He knows all of them, but not in the way that most fans just listen to something. Because he’s a musician, he knows the intro, the bars, the what-comes-next kind of thing musically, very well. So if I say, ‘Why don’t we do it something between “Why” and “Mind Train”? He’s, like, ‘OK.’ So it’s very, very good that way. Our creative conversation didn’t start from scratch. It started from all the knowledge that he had of my music, you know.”

Sean’s studies take on an air less of filial obedience than newfound respect when one considers the last time he collaborated with his mother, on Rising (Capital, 1995). “He was 17 and he was a very different animal then,” Ono says chuckling. “Luckily, he’s grown up to be a very unique and talented musician. But in those days … I went with him and his band — and it was a bit difficult. You know, just 17, and they were very cocky. They really felt like they were doing a favor for me! Of course, I just wanted to give Sean a musical experience.”

As gratifying as it is to see Sean and younger generations finally appreciating her work, Ono continues to be propelled by other forces. Despite her well-documented activities, including seeing to the licensing of Lennon’s music for products like last year’s The Beatles: Rock Band game, she still jots down ideas for new artwork and song lyrics. “It’s my security blanket” she explains matter-of-factly. “In a sense, without art or music or being able to express myself that way, I would have died a long time ago, I’m sure.

“You see, I think music is a very important thing for the world, and I just want to cover the world with music and art,” she continued. “I think art — meaning art with a capital A, is the thing that can really bring change in the world,” Ono muses. “Politicians don’t have much respect for art — that’s why they just ignore it — and we can just do whatever we want in a way, through that kind of situation where there’s a big hole. They think we’re not powerful, so they just ignore us — that’s where we can do all sorts of things and change the world.”


The Fox Theater, 1807 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland, California [map] (Noise Pop Festival)
Tuesday 23rd Feb 2010 at 8pm.
US $39.50



YOKO ONO PLASTIC ONO BAND are YOKO ONO, Sean Lennon, Yuka Honda and Cornelius: Keigo “Cornelius” Oyamada, Hirotaka “Shimmy” Shimizu, Yuko “mi-gu” Araki & Shahzad Ismaily.

The historic Fox Oakland Theatre is a 3,800-seat movie theater, located at 1807 Telegraph Avenue in downtown Oakland, California. The theater was designed by Weeks and Day, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and reopened on February 5, 2009