The legendary artist reconvenes Plastic Ono Band for her first local shows in years.
By Jay Ruttenberg, Time Out New York
There’s a great old yarn about an avant-garde figure who emerges from a mental institution in the late ’60s and attends an event downtown. John Lennon and Yoko Ono make their entrance. “Who’s the guy with Yoko?” the avant-gardist inquires.
The anecdote isn’t inconceivable. Before her path collided with Lennon’s, Ono was, of course, a macher in an art underground that paid no heed to popular culture. And although undervaluing the Beatles is a fool’s errand, it is increasingly tempting to view Ono through this underground prism. Her music, derided for decades by that unctuous species known as the baby boomer, gains traction with each passing generation. Last year she unleashed her first album in nearly a decade: Between My Head and the Sky, coproduced by Ono and her son, Sean Lennon, and released on the latter’s Chimera Music imprint. This week at BAM, Ono performs what might be her grandest New York concerts to date, featuring old friends (Eric Clapton, Bette Midler) alongside those who shrieked in her wake (Sonic Youth, the Scissor Sisters). “Sean keeps reporting to me that so-and-so is going to be in the show,” Ono says. “I’m just like, Really?!? I’m totally surprised.”
Interviewing Ono is always a trip. She is cordial yet guarded and perhaps suspicious, keeping assistants on hand to bat people away. A descendant of Japanese emperors and the widow of pop royalty, she emits a cute regality: the black-clad doyenne of downtown art holding court at the kitchen table. In the Dakota, her famed uptown dwelling, all visitors must remove their shoes; the Soho spread where she grants an interview a few weeks before her first local concerts in years is far more modest—a kind of off-site romper room purchased with Lennon a lifetime ago. At 76, she still boasts the massive sunglasses favored by the ’60s art crowd but wears them, age-appropriately, at the tip of her nose.
Between My Head and the Sky is a characteristically unearthly work, by turns mournful and funny, and centered on Ono’s matchless yowl. The album was recorded in Manhattan with a mostly Japanese band, assembled when Sean Lennon beckoned his mother to Tokyo for a club date. “I got onstage and didn’t really expect much,” Ono says. “I was doing an improvisational vocal thing—ah ah ah ah—and when I stopped, they stopped! I turned around and looked at the musicians for the first time. Instead of getting really intense, they were smiling. I thought, Who are these people?”
Ono’s new band included members of Tokyo’s pop vanguard, most prominently Cornelius, but to the singer they were merely Sean’s chums. “When I made music with John’s friends, it was the same thing,” Ono says. “Eric, Ringo…to me, they were strangers.” Along with other rock luminaries, those musicians appeared with the couple in Plastic Ono Band—a conceptual group whose moniker Ono hasn’t used since since the ’70s. “Sean suggested it,” she says. “I’m always rebellious when anything is suggested to me. But I kept thinking about it and realized that Plastic Ono Band was something I did with John. When John passed away, I just blocked it. I thought, It’s my book—I better open it.”
Although the name was conceived by her late husband, the Plastic Ono Band’s mission aligns more with Ono’s world. Similar to her visual art, the group’s work promises an openness that extends from its fluctuating membership to the audience. In the mid-’60s, Ono would appear “without preparation or band,” commanding audience members to climb onstage and perform beside her. “I believe that everybody has super power in their subconscious,” she says. “I try to bring it out from them.”
At BAM, Ono will perform a public rehearsal on Monday, followed by a more official extravaganza on Tuesday. The evenings double as both Plastic Ono Band concerts and Yoko tributes, with her current group joined by a boldfaced legion. The eagerness among young musical cognoscenti to enlist in the Plastic Ono Band is not exactly surprising. “She’s influenced so many avant-garde performers,” says Justin Bond, star of Kiki & Herb and one of the show’s guests. “I wonder what Laurie Anderson would have been like if there had never been a Yoko Ono—or even Antony, with his unique approach to being a vocalist. She was a really important link to the alternative vocal styles that came out of the ’80s and ’90s.”
The artist herself, forever bruised by past vilification, remains diffident. “When people say that they understand my work now—why??” Ono wonders, shaking her head. “It’s very interesting, because I wasn’t understood for such a long time. I really don’t know the reason. It’s a shock to me.”
Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band plays the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House Mon 15 and Tue 16.