Yoko Ono is the most vilified character in rock and roll. The Lennon widow. The Dragon Lady who weirded John and broke up your parents’ favourite band. The too old, too ugly, too strange, too foreign (“John Rennon’s Excrusive Gloupie,” read one particularly racist Esquire headline) or otherwise unfit mate to the world’s most cherished songster. She’s the coattailer who became a boldface name by virtue of her bedmate, the gold digger who hung around long enough to profiteer from those blood-spattered glasses, and the administrator of one of the most lucrative estates in rock history, who’s diluted that powerful and noble brand (and grown even richer!) by shilling out her beloved hubby’s likeness for an unending parade of Kmart crap.
If you’ve heard her sing, you probably already know that her shrill turkey call nearly plucked Chuck Berry’s eyes from his skull. You've seen photos of the storied Bed-Ins to protest 'Nam. And if you’ve looked a little further, you know her as the inaccessible artiste. And it’s on that point that I meet you. Ono’s work has a history of being challenging, and at a time when the world’s appetite for art crested at Campbell’s soupcans (I fear it’s worse now), truly challenging work, especially work by a non-white female, tended and still tends to go unknown to the great many. Lennon notably called her “the world’s most famous unknown artist.” It’s often hard to say what Ono’s work is about. It’s trickier to find something that shoots through her entire oeuvre — save world peace and a near Buddhist exploration of “impermanence”— but that doesn’t mean her whole lot is meant for the rubbish pile. In fact, much of her work is quite exciting if you’re willing to give the Dragon Lady just a few moments of your time.
In February, Ono turned 80, and in September, she released her 15th solo album Take Me to the Land of Hell — one of her most playful to date. That she can call on Nels Cline, tUnE-yArDs, Questlove, Ad-Rock and Mike D as session players (or that she could reunite “her good friends,” the recently separated Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, for 2012’s YOKOKIMTHURSTON) says something about her enduring relevance and gravity as an artist. Here’s to shining at least a modicum of light on the seriously slighted, wrongfully vilified avant-garde Wonder Woman — a true artist’s artist. These are ten works you should know by Yoko Ono.
Well before the mop-tops first made schoolgirls swoon with that saccharine "Love Me Do" in '62, Ono was already making a name for herself in the avant-garde art circles of Lower Manhattan. Her first husband, composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, introduced Ono to contemporary pioneer John Cage, who became an early performance partner and mentor. She, along with experimental musician La Monte Young, held art happenings at her Chambers Street loft. She was loosely associated with the anti-art Fluxus movement, which, for a time, included Korean American video artist Nam June Paik. She befriended Warhol. Dada legends Marcel Duchamp (the urinal statue guy) and Max Ernst were known to stop by.
Ono first performed Cut Piece in Tokyo in 1964, repeating the work in '65 at New York's Carnegie Hall (video above). The performance sees Ono knelt on stage as audience members are invited to come and cut from her clothes until she's naked. The performer becomes the canvas and the audience becomes the artist, inflicting their art on her (or him; it's been performed with a male subject), which, with any luck, gets the whole room thinking about humiliation and trust.
Plastic Ono Band - "Don't Worry Kyoko (Mummy's Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow)"
On September 13, 1969, Lennon and Ono appeared by surprise at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival festival at Varsity Stadium — Lennon's first engagement apart from the Beatles. On very short notice, the pair gathered a band under the moniker the Plastic Ono Band — an inside joke between Ono and Lennon about Ono performing solo accompanied by four tape recorders on plastic stands. This incarnation of Plastic Ono Band included Clapton on guitar, Klaus Voorman on bass, and Yes' Alan White on drums.
After bashing through some Lennon hits and rock standards, they played a pair of Ono tunes. Kyoko is Ono's daughter from her marriage to jazz musician and art promoter Anthony Cox. The song is about Ono's custody battle for the child. While the Toronto crowd could easily get down on the heavy, hypnotic jam piece Lennon, Clapton et al. were grooving on, it's hard to say if they were ready for Ono's primal scream — the kind of abrasive vocalization that would become her trademark for a time. This is a mother with her babe in danger. This is anguish. And, without question, it's an absolutely electric rock and roll moment.
Plastic Ono Band - "Greenfield Morning I Pushed an Empty Baby Carriage All Over the City"
Recorded on the same day and using the same players as its counterpart, the more classic John Lennon/Ono Plastic Band, the 1971 release Yoko Ono/Ono Plastic Band was Ono’s proper solo debut. Heavy and intensely psychedelic, “Greenfield Morning” is the leaden heart of the work. Using a discarded recording of Harrison on sitar and a Lennon break beat, Ono exorcises about a miscarriage through that hallmark wailing. Again, this is ancient, primordial stuff. It's also a bit of Krautrock that presages Can's Tago Mago, which dropped about a year later.
Ono's event instructions were an early piece of conceptual art published as Grapefruit in 1964. The instructions are art pieces that are meant to take place in your head. Trippy. Some read like aphorisms from the Tao Te Ching or some other Eastern religious text that values detachment and emphasizes the impermanence of all things. Others read like strips of Cyanide and Happiness. More favourites include: Blood Piece ("Use your blood to paint. Keep painting until you faint. (a) Keep painting until you die. (b)") and Painting to Exist Only When it's Copied or Photographed ("Let people copy or photograph your paintings. destroy the originals.")
Plastic Ono Band - "Death of Samantha"
Supposedly, on election night November 1972, when Nixon was re-elected, Lennon — disappointed that the man who wanted him ousted from America was again named president — got drunk at a party and had some kind of an indescretion with another women. "Death of Samantha," which sounds part Nico and part Kate Bush, is Ono's slow-burner about dealing with that betrayal. It's a powerful and haunting confessional from, to be certain, one cool, hurt chick.
By some lore, this is the piece from the Indica Gallery show in '66 where Ono and Lennon met that endeared the late songwriter to the capricious artist. Ceiling Painting is a ladder setup below a placard with a magnifying glass hanging down that reads "YES" in fine print. Just a wonderful bit of absurdity, magic, and positive affirmation in a time where every other placard read "No this" and "No that" and everyone was anti-everything.
If Cut Piece was about being exposed or vulnerable to the world, Ono and Lennon's bagism was about covering up and disappearing individualities so that we're all made same, so we have no reason to war. In a bit of masterful absurdist performance, the couple get into a bag, their new uniform and a reasonable solution for dissolving barriers and inequities. Though the stunt reeks more of Ono's hallmark, Lennon describes the impetus best: "We're willing to be the world's clowns, because we think it's a bit serious at the moment and a bit intellectual."
Plastic Ono Band - "Walking on Thin Ice"
Released as a single in 1981, Lennon had the final mixes for "Walking on Thin Ice" in his briefcase when he was shot dead outside The Dakota. It's a frigid, dark disco/new wave jam haunted by Lennon's final musical act. A particularly breathy Ono plays with a nervous, near spoken word delivery that other dancey art rockers would knock off for time to come.
Plastic Ono Band - "My Man"
Bask in the campiness of those warm, squashed synth horns; that slappy, round bass; those plasticky toms. This song really cooks after it hits that first chorus, and suddenly all of those laughable flourishes, swells, and hits fall into place. Ono's 1982 "My Man" balances the delicate, gossamer touch of the Cocteau Twins with the Tom Tom Club's oddball call-to-dance for a criminally underrated synth pop tune.
Plastic Ono Band - "The Sun is Down"
A mesmerizing late-career dance track on the front of 2009's excellent Between My Head and the Sky that you could easily mistake for The Knife or LCD Soundsystem were it not for Ono's incanting, the phrase falling out of her mouth over and over like a mantra or a prayer until we can do not but nod along: "Yes, the sun is down." The cult of Ono gains followers slowly, but surely.