YOKO ONO’s ‘quiet revolution ‘ has not always been quiet, and to prove a point she’s just recorded her finest album.
Words by John Doran, The Stool Pigeon.
Photograph by Charlotte Muhl & Sean Lennon
There’s something to be said for delayed gratification, and there’s no small amount of tortoise-versus-hare enjoyment to listening to Yoko Ono’s new album. You get to about track four or five before thinking, “Fuck me, this is actually really good.” And then when you reach the end, you play it from the start again in order to divine whether you’re going through some kind of temporary mental imbalance. You aren’t. The album won’t be enough to silence the haters, but it will stand as testament to her talent for anyone wishing to actually listen in.
Yoko Ono is 76 years old. She’s just released the best album of her career.
Even though she sounds modestly surprised to be receiving superlative-laden, journalist-delivered praise for her new long player, she must have felt in her water that there was something special about Between My Head And The Sky, given that she’s revived the Plastic Ono Band name for it. It’s true that there was a lot to be said for some of the tracks from the 2007 collaborative album Yes, I’m A Witch, which featured The Flaming Lips, Hank Shocklee, Antony Hegarty and Jason Pierce, among others. This, however, is not only the best album she has done since the brittle shock of Season Of Glass (1981); not only the best album since the avant pop of Fly (1971) ; not only the best since Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band (1970), but the best full stop. We’d even go as far as saying it’s better than the Lennon/Ono album Two Virgins, but that means comparing amazing musique concrete chalk with awesome improv pop cheese.
Yoko Ono was persuaded to start work on a new album by her son Sean (it’s out on his Chimera imprint) and with his assistance she assembled a breathtaking band that included Yuka Honda of Cibo Matto and electronica wunderkind Cornelius. The result is a contemporary trip round various revolutionary pop/dance flashpoints of the last 40 years. There is bracing dance punk reminiscent of Gang Of Four and LCD Soundsystem (“Waiting For The D Train’), sleazy techno (“The Sun Is Down!’), squealing NYC No Wave that wouldn’t sound out of place on No New York (“Ask The Elephant!”), metallic psych rock (‘CALLING’) … Actually, she has a good reason for resurrecting the name of her group: “On the first album that people talked about, Yoko Ono / Plastic Ono Band … we were trying to break the sound barrier in a way. We thought we would create a revolution in music. And with this album we thought we would do it again, but in a very quiet way. It is strong enough to match that sentiment.”
Then perhaps she stops and thinks of all the skittering beats, the pylon taut jazz-influenced punk guitars, the guttural and orgasmic cries and she starts giggling. “Well, it’s not that quiet.”
Despite the music bearing little resemblance to what has gone before (the closest link to the past would be ‘Walking On Thin Ice’, her stone cold mutant disco club smash from 1981), she says there is a connection in terms of intent: “The common link between Plastic Ono Band records is that we have never made a phoney record. Everything we have done has been raw and undiluted. I’m not comparing this with my past at all, though. Like on the track ‘Moving Mountains’ – I wanted to create a track that could move a mountain. Then I thought that to move a mountain doesn’t take words. It’s beyond words [starts making wailing noises] . In other words, it is the thought – the emotion and intent – that counts.”
Her vocal performance is key to her success on Between My Head And The Sky. Her earthy ululations and surreal incantations egg the musicians on to even greater heights. One has to wonder how poor Sean felt recording his mother making such, let’s say… sensual noises. She laughs at the primness of the question: “I think he’s used to it! In a way, of course! He’s not used to it in real life, just in my music!”
Yoko – whose name literally translates as ‘Ocean Child’ – has led a fascinating life. She was born in 1933 to one of the richest families in Japan, descended as she is from 9th Century shogun nobility. Her mother Isoko was rewarded for good performance at school with handfuls of diamonds. Interestingly enough, she married far below her status to a struggling pianist Eisuke, who was only accepted by her family after turning his back on music. During the Second World War, when Yoko was just a girl, they suffered extreme hardship because her family’s wealth was confiscated to help fund the war effort. They were rendered homeless and reduced to foraging and begging for scraps of food in the countryside. (Frustratingly, this is the only subject that she steers the conversation away from, while being utterly candid on the subject of suicide, abortion, and mental illness etc. ‘”I always shied away from talking about it,” she states simply. “I just thought that it was not the most interesting part about my life.”‘)
Alter the war she was sent to an all-girls boarding school in the US where she composed her first piece of music at the age of 22. Tellingly, it was more of a conceptual affair, which attempted to transpose bird song into musical notation, called ‘Secret Piece’. It was here in the mid-fifties in New York that she developed a fascination with bohemian art culture, composers such as Cage and Schoenberg and the beatniks, and she insists firmly that her gender rather than her nationality was an issue in her gaining acceptance into the avantgarde art world of New York In the early-sixties: “It was always a battle being a female artist or composer or whatever. The avantgarde world was no different to the jazz world in that sense; It was very macho. I did have a couple of artists who understood me really well. For example, there was George Maciunas of Fluxus who really understood my work and helped to promote it. There were one or two people who really cared for my work, but even then … It was hard.”
Such dislocation depressingly revealed itself in numerous suicide attempts and a stay in a psychiatric institution after she returned to Japan in the late 1950s. Speaking about her desire to take her own life, she says: “I was suicidal in my teens as well; it wasn’t just when I came back from New York. It was always like I felt suicidal, but I never … well, obviously I was never successful, because I am here now! The time that I decided I never wanted to commit suicide was right after I had my first child, Kyoko. And it was pretty amazing. It was unintentional, but I just lost interest in it. It has nothing to do with Japanese society. I think it had to do with being a woman maybe? Her birth freed me from that desire, though.”‘
The notion of artistic creativity being linked to mental illness lies somewhere between cliché and truism. Ono understood this concept metaphorically at least when Grapefruit: A Book or Instructions And Drawings was published. She said at the time that the book was saying something similar to, ” Please accept me, I am mad.” She laughs now, expanding: “Well, I didn’t really think I was mad, it was more like.. . ‘Either I’m mad or the world is mad,’ you know?”
This, however, raises an interesting question because on this, the lower end of the scale, concepts of madness are relative. For example, she may not have been considered mad in New York hanging with the Fluxus set, but she spent some time in a psychiatric institution when she returned to Tokyo. She says: “Oh, you know what that was? It’s an incredible misunderstanding. That institution was like a Betty Ford clinic; famous people used to go there. When I first went back to Japan, there was an incredible commotion about my work and I was not really used to so much attention. I just felt that I wanted to be alone in a quiet environment, So I’m the one who walked in there”
That may be the case, but in a Betty Ford Clinic the patient is not kept so sedated that they can’t talk. One cannot help but think that she is underplaying the event somewhat. Eventually a fellow Fluxus artist, Tony Cox flew to Tokyo and busted her out by pretending to be her US doctor and threatening to sue them for giving her too high a dosage of medication. The romantic gesture did not go unnoticed and the pair married, moved back to NYC and had Kyoko together in 1963. Her book Grapefruit began to take shape soon after. For better or worse, people like Yoko were kicking over the last remaining conventions of art. It was a much-misunderstood time of radicalism, whatever it has bequeathed to us in the long run . She admits that wanting to choose experimental art was a form of rebellion against her family’s wealth: ” Well, I’m sure that they wouldn’t have minded if I had become a kind of accepted artist or an accepted composer in the sense of me being a classical artist. But I don’t think they liked the fact that what I was doing was rebellious. It was just in my nature. It wasn’t like I was intending to be rebellious, but that mode really appealed to me.”
Her instructional art pieces were deceptively simple. ‘Painting To Be Stepped On’ told the reader to leave a canvas on the floor and allow guests to walk on it, and indeed Yoko left unpainted canvases on her kitchen floor and then framed them when they had picked up enough footprints. For ‘Kitchen Piece’, she commanded that art-loving gourmands hang a blank canvas in the kitchen and then throw the day’s leftovers at it. But perhaps the most well known of these edicts was ‘Cut Piece’.
“Well I think ‘Cut Piece’ is one of the things that people talk about,” she says, “The quiet revolution elsewhere in Grapefruit is something else. People are not interested in intellectual work as much as they are in ‘Cut Piece’, which has a kind of sexual connotation, That is what people like, I think.” The debut performance of ‘Cut Piece’ took a lot of organising. And a lot of nerve. She booked the Carnegie Recital Hall in 1965 and then took to the stage and stood stock still, holding a pair of scissors aloft, glinting in the spotlights, while beckoning the audience to join her and cut away at her clothes. Eventually, the exceedingly uncomfortable bunch of involuntary voyeurs got up one by one and started snipping off her garments until she was standing in her underwear. She giggles: “Yes! I was very surprised actually when someone snipped my bra off! ‘
Of course, it’s easy to mock Ono and other Fluxus artists – and many have done – but there was a reasonable rationale behind the art of Grapefruit. “It was a book of instructions so that people can do it,” she explains, “The way it came was… it came naturally, because I come from a musical world – classical music – and in classical music you read scores and you write music scores for one of your works then people can play it, even 100 years later. And that’s the difference between music and painting: painting is something that you do and then maybe someone says, ‘Just don’t touch it! it’s done!’ That kind of thing. I made it so that the painting was also instructional.”
I suggest that nakedness has been a recurring theme in her work. She denies it vehemently. But when the evidence to the contrary is brought up (such as the cover art to Two Virgins, the experimental film Bottoms, her various unclothed peace protests in and out of various beds and bags), she comes round, slightly: “With the film Bottoms [a two hour movie of close-ups of people’s jiggling backsides as they walk on a treadmill], I was thinking of making a graphic experience. The graphic experience of the bottom is four parts when they are walking and I thought the fact that the four parts were moving separately was very interesting.”
And, of course, there was the little matter of her arrest in Belgium for appearing naked on stage in the sixties. “Yes! Ah, ok, ok, ok! Yes I was!”‘ she cries. “But that was not my work, that was a fellow Fluxus artist. He was looking for some people to stand on the stage and protest. Nobody was going to do it. And then this guy – a European with a monocle, no less – was looking at me like he hated this object … this woman he saw in front of him. He was thinking, ‘She won’t do it.’ He thought I was a very low person, so I said, ‘Oh, I’ll do it.’ It was just my rebellion, you know [laughs]”
“I was on a stage and I think it was considered very lewd. So one of the ladies in the audience sued the theatre and me. And when I was back in England, Scotland Yard called me and said, ‘Would you mind coming in, we have something to show you?’ I went in and all of these detectives were laughing and handed me a photo and said, “Is this you?” There were many, many photos of me on the stage with no clothes on [laughs]. So I said, ‘Yeah, it is me, What about it?’ And they said, ‘Well, Belgium is trying to extradite you for trial for obscenity!’
They said not to worry, though: ‘We won’t let them!’ I was like, ‘Oh, phew! Thank you very much!’ And I thought that was the end of the story, but it wasn’t. After that, I met John [Lennon]. He had this beautiful white Rolls Royce and he said to me, ‘We should go round Europe in this car.’ I said ‘Great! let’s do that!’ So we were driving round Europe until he said, ‘Now we’re going to go to Belgium.’ I said, ‘John, er, I have to tell you something!’ And he said, ‘Oh well, let’s just lie low.’ So we were lying down very low in the back of the car. We drove through Belgium on the floor of the car! But they didn’t stop us! It was great.”
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