By Seth Colter Walls | NEWSWEEK
Published Aug 28, 2009
From the magazine issue dated Sep 7, 2009
To talk about Yoko Ono is to talk about The Scream. An impossibly long, warbling vocal tremor, it confirmed the public’s worst prejudices about Ono—that she was an unmusical self-promoter who’d put John Lennon under her spell and split up the Beatles. Never mind that her experiments with musique concrète played at Carnegie Hall’s recital space five years before she ever met Lennon, or that Ono’s studio art had previously become a pillar of Fluxus, the conceptual-art movement organized around chance. Perhaps it was an unintentional testament to the raw force of her act, but the public’s reaction constituted a frenzied rhetoric beyond the influence of such information. Today Ono recalls being blamed for whatever Lennon’s failings were seen to be by any given group. She says the radical left, frustrated with Lennon’s peacenik refusal to sign up for violent protest, thought her the culprit. So too did Middle America, except that its beef seemed like an after-the-fact explanation for the onetime moptopper’s pivot away from adorableness. “Maybe it made me stronger,” she says today of her time taking shots from both sides of an ideological crossfire. But while the experience may have made Ono tough, it didn’t help anyone construct an honest appraisal of her work.
Then something odd happened—even stranger than a member of Fluxus finding herself the subject of tabloid innuendo. To a younger generation growing up after the baggage of Lennon’s personal life had largely been laid to rest, Ono became an esthetic godmother. As the world itself got noisier, her scream seemed more and more legitimate as a response—to anything from the panic of AIDS to the specter of WMDs. “It is a scream of the human race, in a way,” she says today, and it makes sense: you can think of her music as an aural accompaniment to the paintings of Munch or Bacon. It may have taken a couple of decades, but the world caught up to that sound. It’s difficult to imagine the X-Ray Spex anthem “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!,” the Riot Grrl movement of the ’90s (featuring groups like Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill), or even contemporary dance-punk heroines like Peaches or Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs existing apart from Yoko’s trailblazing, proto-feminist howl.
On her 2007 album Yes, I’m a Witch, Ono attracted a diverse crew of modern indie acts to reinterpret songs from her back catalog. The Flaming Lips, the best-known group to take part, elected to reinterpret the noise freak-out “Cambridge 1969” (from the oft-reviled Unfinished Music No. 2 album she cut with Lennon)—an activist assertion that even Ono’s most out-there music deserves a fresh listen. And not only her old recordings are worth hearing. For more than a decade now, the shadow side to Yoko’s scream has been her fascination with dance and remix culture. This year she became the oldest woman—at 76, likely by a long shot—to notch a hit on Billboard’s Dance/Club Play chart, for the ironically titled remix album I’m Not Getting Enough. Devoid of pain-engorged screams, her exultant play with rhythm still points toward a unifying theme of her work: out-of-body transcendence, whether it be hellish or heavenly.
This September Yoko is releasing a new record, Between My Head and the Sky, that spends some time in both realms – rocking feverishly and then blissing out. It’s credited to the Plastic Ono Band, a moniker last used for 1973’s Feeling the Space. In part, Yoko’s return to that iconic brand is a family matter. While Lennon played the slashing riffs on her first two Plastic Ono Band LPs, their son, Sean, acts as ringleader on the new disc -assembling an impressive roster of musicians from modern-day scenes in New York and Japan. Yuka Honda’s digital sampling and piano work were a principal pleasure of the band Cibo Matto, and she brings a similar buoyancy to Ono’s latest. The production on the album’s second song, “The Sun Is Down,” is credited to electronic pioneer Cornelius, who adds frothy funk to Ono’s arsenal of sounds. And along with in-demand jazz session man Shahzad Ismaily, Sean Lennon lays down some pleasingly dirty guitar and fierce percussion. Which isn’t to suggest that the album is an unremitting stomper. There are a couple of meditative piano interludes, featuring violin and a muted trumpet, during which Yoko employs a talk-song cadence that approaches sweetness. Her voice, which could once fry the treble frequencies on any speaker system, has assumed a fuller quality with age. At times, it even sounds-gulp-pretty.
The album’s greatest weakness comes in the form of some undercooked lyrics. “Time … the great equalizer of all things” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. This comes as no surprise, since several of the album’s 15 songs were improvised live in the studio. Yet there’s a fine line between employing a light conceptual touch and actually sounding insubstantial. Similarly, some of the Zen-like koans that animated John and Yoko’s ’60s politics seem dated today, a reality Ono recognizes. “You guys will have to be much more intelligent than us,” she says. “We did things like waving flags for peace. But now it doesn’t make any impact.” But that scream still carries a charge. On the album opener, “Waiting for the D Train,” Yoko turns in a vocal performance that, for its uncanny marriage of power with nuance, puts most postpunk singers to shame.
Surprisingly, for someone subjected to so much unkind snark over the years, Yoko is an optimist late in life – particularly about the power of the Web. With the help of an assistant who feeds her questions, she replies to Twitter followers approximately once a week. Fear and wonder over the state of the physical being continue to grip her, as she likens the disembodied online community to the concept behind her ’60s-era “bag events,” in which participants covered themselves from head to toe in order to render themselves blind to visual perceptions of one another. “It’s now like we have become spirits on the Internet. The time sense and the physical-location sense is lost. And of course the visual looks are lost, too.” Worrying about appearances is, somewhat charmingly, still on Ono’s agenda—even as she’s invited to headline hip summer festivals from Chicago to London. “You probably shouldn’t say ‘screaming,’ ” she advises me at one point, “or else people will … you know.” But Lennon actually had this issue nailed back on his first solo record, also titled Plastic Ono Band. “Hold on Yoko, Yoko hold on, it’s gonna be all right,” he sings, as though he’s aware Ono’s first record is due for a rough public reception, but also trusts time will deliver some measure of vindication.