The Exquisite Corpses of "Six Feet Under"

Feature on the visual poetry of "Six Feet Under" by Joy PressVillage Voice

If you'd asked me what I thought of Six Feet Under last year, I would have shrugged noncommittally. Something about HBO's funeral-parlor series bugged me—the way it seemed so damn proud of its eccentricity and broodiness, even while it resuscitated cheesy gimmicks like talking ghosts, best left to melodramas like Providence and Sisters, and compulsively unleashed soap opera plots (psycho-killer brother, illegitimate baby, etc.). I never got attached enough to these remote, pent-up characters, though I loved Brenda's exquisitely nihilistic sex spree last season (culminating in her ménage à trois with a couple of teenage surfer boys), and I was secretly thrilled by the gradual cracking of Nate's saintly veneer and the prospect of his impending doom via brain surgery.

All my reservations vanished as I watched the first half of the new season—Six Feet Under has been transformed into TV's most visually ravishing experience. (The first three episodes will be rebroadcast together on March 22 if you missed them.) It has achieved a vibe redolent of contemporary photographers like Gregory Crewdson and Philip-Lorca DiCorcia, who create dramatic, magical tableaux out of humdrum, real-life moments. As if to confirm this connection, producer Alan Ball hired Crewdson to shoot the promotional photo for this season, an eerie image of the cast sitting around the kitchen table, the floor engulfed by flowers. Ball told the New York Post, "[Crewdson's] works seems to be about the sort of secret, surreal life that exists just beneath the surface of mundane surroundings—and that's very much what our show is about."

Six Feet Under has been delivering its own startling tableaux in regular doses: A highly strung Hollywood producer hides inside a white cocoon she's made with her Fratesi sheets; frumpy family matriarch Ruth (Frances Conroy) sits alone on a giant, oversized bench, her legs dangling down like a toddler's; strapping ex-cop Keith (Mathew St. Patrick), now demoted to security guard, fishes a dead dog out of a Hockney-esque swimming pool. 

And of course the whole season starts out with the ultimate existential montage. Nate (Peter Krause) hallucinates alternate realities during his cranial surgery, visions that include a serene moment with new-agey girlfriend Lisa (Lili Taylor) and their baby Maya; a more boisterous vision of himself with his ex, Brenda (Rachel Griffiths); and a glimpse of a world in which Nate never existed at all. Although he emerges from the surgery without brain damage, he moves through the series with the glazed look of a man wading through honey. Everything in subsequent episodes seems to radiate out from Nate's near-death experience; instances of déjà vu are scattered all over the place. This lends the show a gentle, hazy pace—a marked improvement on the forced edginess that sometimes afflicted it in seasons past. 

Director of photography Alan Caso, who has shaped Six Feet Under's visual sensibility from the beginning, says he deliberately avoids what he calls "the kinetic, almost chaotic movement style of network TV—you know, the NYPD Blue thing. We don't move the camera a lot unless there's a reason to move it, motivated by the emotional intent of the scene. We do a lot of very formal shots where you let things play out on a proscenium, treating the frame almost like it's a stage."

Caso admits that the show's look changed a lot this season—the crew switched to a wide-screen format that evokes a more cinematic feel, and he's made the lighting moodier. "I feel like we're always in a bat cave. We're in their environment and the rest of the world is always trying to invade, but never really gets into all the dark corners of the Fisher house. Every character on the show is so messed up that the lighting really works with them—there are so many dark areas in their psyches."

He says the main component of "the Six Feet Under look" is the wide lens, which rarely gets used on television. "It gives us a much more in-your-face style than traditional television. Have you ever talked to somebody at a party and they stand a little too close? It's a very creepy, uncomfortable feeling, and that's what we've been doing, putting the audience in the shoes of someone who stands too close, so you feel you've invaded the characters' space."

Although it's set in L.A., you won't see many tan lines or tube tops. A lot of scenes take place inside the family's cloistered kitchen, with its flocked wallpaper and cluttered cupboards, or in the white-tiled embalming room. Yet the show is drenched in indirect light; sunshine pounds so hard on the kitchen windows they ought to break, and it slices through the vertical blinds of the shrink's office where David (Michael C. Hall) and Keith are undergoing a humorous bout of couple's therapy. Now that he's out of the closet, David is venting emotions like crazy. ("I feel shamed," he announces when Keith snaps at him for adding too much pepper to the bok choy.) In Six Feet Under, Californian expressiveness doesn't necessarily lead to happiness, though: Brenda's let-it-all-hang-out psychiatrist parents thoroughly screwed her up, and Ruth's flirtation with a cultish program called "the Plan" left her more estranged from the world than ever.

Even if it didn't have anything else going for it, Six Feet Under has the juiciest, most complex female roles on TV. And unlike Sex in the City's femmes, these women don't have to swap outfits with every scene—Ruth wore identical ankle socks for two years straight. This season, two of the female characters come into spectacular relief—in both senses of the word. While Nate and David appear faded and anxious, unable to find their bearings, redheaded mother-daughter duo Ruth and Claire (Lauren Ambrose) spring to life. No longer do they look like wax dummies left out in the heat too long; now both women glow euphorically, each with the help of an accomplice. In Ruth's case, the angel sent to mess with her coupon-clipping life is Bettina (Kathy Bates), a friend who introduces her to the pleasures of massage and shoplifting. During Ruth's first-ever massage, she makes gasping and squeaking noises as if pleasure is being forced out of her body—one of the series' most grotesque and affecting moments thus far.

Meanwhile, Claire is having a parallel epiphany at art school, as her creepy Eurotrash professor and a gorgeously geeky fellow student shower her with adoration (whether for her talent or her body remains to be seen). You can understand why: Her skin is absurdly luminous and her features in constant motion, clashing thoughts skittering across them. Aside from giving her a chance to blossom, Claire's enrollment in art school allows the writers to weave the show's obsession with light and painterliness into the plot itself.

Although the Fisher family continues to deal with corpses in every episode, death has become the subtlest element ofSix Feet Under—a constant, unremarked presence. The real theme of the series might be that old Bob Dylan line, "He not busy being born is busy dying."

-- March 18, 2003 

The Last Days of Loserville

Saying Goodbye to the old Bowery, street of lost and found souls, Village Voice cover

by Joy Press

It's just a construction site now, girders and planks strewn on the floor. Instead of giant picture windows and balconies, there are unfinished walls and a sheer drop. But use your imagination: In a few months, this will be a glorious 16th-floor penthouse, complete with panoramic views, Sub-Zero fridge, and Italian bathroom fixtures. For $4.4 million, you can hover over all of downtown Manhattan like some kind of god, absorbing the sunlight that once flowed west down Spring Street. 

You can gaze down upon the crumbling tenements far below you, the lamp stores, the scrawny men who shuffle in and out of the flophouse next door. Your address is 195 Bowery and you are part of the transformation of a street once synonymous with bleak failure into a new millionaire's row.

Up and down the northern end of the Bowery, luxury apartment buildings are shooting up over the low-rise thoroughfare like iron weeds, framed by two nearly completed 16-story megaliths: 195 Bowery and Gwathmey Siegel's "Sculpture for Living," a curvaceous glass tower rising above Astor Place, where the asking prices range from almost $3 million to over $12 million. In between is the controversial (and nearly completed) Avalon Chrystie Place at Houston Street, with its giant Whole Foods and YMCA. If you consider all the current and planned activity, there's likely to be at least 600 or 700 pricey new apartments on the street. To keep pace, developers may have to bus in the rich—just as long as they call the buses jitneys. Sure, this instant infusion of wealth sounds like a grotesquely accelerated version of what's happened elsewhere in the city. Except this isn't elsewhere: 

It's the Bowery, a legendary slum.

You might wonder why anyone would mourn the passing of such a hard-luck street. This isn't the loveliest place in New York, though it has a frayed grandeur, a corroded quality that's always attracted artists and writers like Mark Rothko, Nan Goldin, and William Burroughs. It has an assortment of characterful old buildings, but the Bowery is more than just a physical place. For centuries, it has also been an imaginary zone onto which the world projected its most lurid fantasies and anxieties. This was capitalism's wasteland, a refuge for failures and fuckups. And the Bowery bum was a living, breathing cautionary tale for the burgeoning American middle class: Look what happens when you stumble in the rat race.

Some urban preservationists are worried that all evidence of this street's remarkable history will be trampled, its oldest buildings demolished within a few years to make way for mini-skyscrapers. "If the scale and architecture remain, you can use your imagination to understand what was here before," says Andrew Dolkart, a professor of historic preservation at Columbia. "But as it gets replaced so quickly, you're losing that feel that this was a place where history happened. You might as well change its name if it doesn't mean anything anymore." 

At the same time, it's hard to argue for preserving a place that has been the staging ground for so much misery, home to such an ever changing population. As Chinatown historian Peter Kwong says, "This is a city that's very pragmatic. A new group comes and wipes out the old. That's always been the case in New York—but of course it's not always a good thing."

Shamble down the street with eyes peeled and you can still find traces of the Bowery emblazoned on our national consciousness by a hundred novels, songs, and movies. Mottled old buildings huddle next to each other like a mouthful of rotten teeth that have somehow remained intact from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries; houses that survived all manner of despair and abuse stand here today, testament to a city's tender neglect and a thousand happy (or more likely, unhappy) accidents.

Farmland, theater district, battlefield for the gangs of New York, immigrant haven, viceland, street of lost and found souls, cradle of minstrelsy and punk: The Bowery has careened through at least nine lives. In the 1700s, it was just a lane on the outskirts of New Amsterdam used by cattle drovers; at the end of the Revolutionary War, the last of the redcoats marched down the street on their humiliating retreat back to Mother England. By the early 19th century, fashionable entertainment spots like the Bowery Theater had popped up, as well as "pleasure resorts" such as Vauxhall Gardens (located on the block the Voice now occupies on Cooper Square), where locals could eat, drink, and take in music and fireworks.

Even back then, there was a tug-of-war over territory: Wealthy New Yorkers bought into this up-and-coming neighborhood, pushing property prices way up. Jacob Astor actually chopped Vauxhall Gardens in half to create the exclusive enclave of Lafayette Place. And then the fickle rich deserted the area, leaving it to a growing immigrant population and the working poor, some of whom styled themselves as Bowery Boys and Gals.

"The Republic of the Bowery was a powder keg of pre-political class rage that required only a slim excuse to go off," Luc Sante writes in his cultural history, Low Life. Dressed like a dandy, the Bowery Boy (whose legend calcified over the ages into Hollywood's Dead End Kids/Bowery Boys movies) roamed the neighborhood with his gang, looking for pleasure and trouble, occasionally erupting in bloody riots and battles with rival gangs. The Bowery Boys and Gals introduced plenty of raw-knuckled slang into the American vocabulary (bender, blowout, chum, kick the bucket), and patronized emerging popular-entertainment forms like melodrama, vaudeville, and freak shows.

As a shady interzone, the Bowery allowed certain freedoms to flourish. "Fairy resorts" allowed men to cross-dress and use back rooms for sexual liaisons. Slumming parties of respectable uptown folk often trooped down to the street seeking cheap thrills, and locals quickly learned how to exploit the sleaze tourists. One rough bar near the corner of Houston and Bowery became so notorious for the regular suicides that took place there (prostitutes threw themselves out of an upper window, possibly to protest working conditions) that its owner rechristened the place McGurk's Suicide Hall. And a local entrepreneur named Chuck Connors led wide-eyed customers through Chinatown; he showed them ersatz opium dens and bordellos, reinforcing seedy clichés about the exotic new immigrants on the block.

Sensationalist books and magazine articles popularized the Bowery as a den of sin. It slid so far down-market that in 1845, residents between what is now Cooper Square and Union Square successfully petitioned to have the street's name changed from Bowery to Fourth Avenue to separate themselves from its shabby aura. Things only got worse when the city erected an elevated railway that shrouded the thoroughfare in shadows. At the turn of the 20th century, the street became a kind of underclass ecosystem in which, as Sante writes, men "rotated among the missions, the flophouses, the greasy spoons, the barber colleges." Living there meant that you had somehow fallen off the treadmill of the moneymaking world, beyond striving—you'd hit the literal embodiment of the phrase rock bottom. With the pressure of cultural expectations gone, men found a kind of relief in "reaching the finality," as Benedict Giamo wrote in the 1970s, "being there in that place you have feared all of your life."

The bustle of flophouses, nightclubs, and rummy bars had dwindled by the 1940s and the street settled into an industrial twilight. Chinatown businesses gradually started edging uptown. In the '60s and '70s, artists, writers, and musicians moved into ramshackle lofts—figures like Burroughs and Rothko, Kate Millet and Roy Lichtenstein, Nan Goldin and Debbie Harry—attracted by the street's abundant sunlight and dirt-cheap rent, but probably also by its aura of outsiderness and decay. It was no longer just the last resort for those ejected from society, but a refuge for those who rejected it.

CBGB founder Hilly Kristal saw an art colony taking shape in the neighborhood, and in 1969, he rented a dive bar underneath a flophouse called the Palace Hotel. While he was rebuilding the inside of the old bar that would five years later become ground zero for American punk rock, Kristal remembers how the guys from the hotel upstairs—remnants of another era—would line up outside his door "at eight in the morning for the first eye-opener of the day. If they could reach the bar and put down 35 cents, they got a little glass of wine to keep them going."

Now the residents of the Palace Hotel are all but forgotten, and CBGB's status as a cultural landmark has been cemented by the renaming of 2nd Street at Bowery as Joey Ramone Place. Yet Kristal says his landlord has threatened to double his rent, leaving the future of CBGB on the Bowery in question, along with all those joints selling cash registers and chandeliers.

Kristal sounds philosophical about the changes. "The whole Lower East Side is changing," he says. "That new building across the street from me—people say it's so ugly but I think it's a nice modern place. A lot of this neighborhood could be nicer and cleaner. So things are gone, places are gone. You want old stuff? Go to Europe. This is New York."

Maybe the new buildings going up will make us look at the place anew, lifting our eyes from the dingy storefronts. And maybe the juxtaposition between the dilapidated tenements and the angular, avant-garde building soon to be constructed for the New Museum can infuse the whole area with new resonance.

This long unraveled seam of a street marks the border for many neighborhoods but belongs to none—one reason that development has proceeded without serious planning or foresight. Several groups, including the Municipal Arts Society and Rebuild Chinatown, have initiated studies of the area, but no grand plan has been hatched, and historians worry that this current development frenzy will destroy not just the many important old buildings but the whole spirit of the place. "The Bowery isn't long for this world unless somebody pays attention to it," says Municipal Arts Society president Kent Barwick, who's lived around the corner from the Bowery for many years. He believes it's been largely ignored "because it's been a place of degradation and despair—you still see a body bag coming out of a Bowery hotel once in a while—and because it hasn't had a middle-class constituency looking out for it."

Urban landmarking usually focuses on quaintness or greatness. So how do you preserve lowlife? Art projects are one way to acknowledge the past, and in the last few years, the Bowery has been the subject of a few. The New Museum's "Counter Culture" show featured installations that involved local residents and businesses. Brooklyn artists Dave Mandl and Christina Ray (oneblockradius. org) are currently creating a psychogeographic portrait of a single Bowery block, while a group called Place Matters is working on an interactive map of the Bowery.

These art projects aren't really a solution, according to Place Matters director Marci Reaven, but a stopgap measure to instill a sense of what we're losing. "Preserving the memories and stories is important," she says, "but the actual physicality of buildings and streetscape is important too. People use buildings to place themselves in time." Reaven suggests landmarking key sites as well as preserving certain uses—for instance, revivifying the flophouse, a form of shelter that's vanishing despite the city's need for more low-income housing. Barwick of Municipal Arts Society hopes to maintain the hodgepodge of residents, which he insists is the essence of urban-ness: "Old Asian men, young people drinking in bars, businessmen coming to buy dented restaurant supplies—this mix is important. It's also very hard to prescribe." But what disturbs Barwick most is the sudden profusion of 12- and 16-story buildings. "If I were God," he says puckishly, "I wouldn't let them alter the scale of the buildings the way they are."

Not everyone agrees that preservation is the way to go. Kwong is rightly suspicious of this sepia-tinged, bourgeois nostalgia: "If you say you want to preserve culture, you have to ask, what culture, whose culture, and for what purpose? Working-class Chinese people still live here right now ; they have a living culture." And yet even Chinatown businesses and residents face being priced out of the area. "If you say you want to maintain culture when people can't afford to live here," Kwong argues, "then you're basically talking about this being a museum or a tourist shop."

New and old coexist elsewhere in New York, but the transformation taking place on the Bowery right now is truly extreme, from the pits to the penthouse. Experts say that it would take a huge, concerted effort to get the city to intervene. The best-case scenario would be the preservation of some old buildings as well as the construction of more low- and middle-income housing. But in today's market, the latter belongs in the realm of pure fantasy, considering that years of community negotiation on the Avalon Chrystie Place project resulted in just 25 percent low-income apartments and no middle-income allotment. Perhaps the least one can hope for is that the anti-paradise that was the Bowery not be paved over all at once—that some of the sore patches and disheveled dwellings be allowed to remain as monuments to the not-so-distant struggles and furies that once coalesced here.

Erase all traces of the old Bowery and you lose a crucial facet of Manhattan, which always found room for the poor and desolate, not to mention the eccentric and debauched. Once upon a time, this wasn't just a city of winners: The Bowery is proof that New York had a place for life's losers too. [Additional reporting by Halley Bondy]

--February 22, 2005

"Game of Thrones": An epic with a different ring

Game of Thrones premiere feature, Sunday Calendar cover of Los Angeles Times
by Joy Press

Gargantuan dire wolves, frozen tundras, corrupt royals, brutal deflowerings, gullets slit wide open — oh, and don’t forget the debauched dwarf. The chilling slogan “Winter Is Coming” only hints at the epic scope and brooding cinematic feel of the much-anticipated series “Game of Thrones,” which premieres April 17.

Based on George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels, the 10-episode saga is a high-stakes move for HBO — an expensive leap into spectacular fantasy for a network whose reputation was built on nuanced, character-driven dramas geared toward adults. The show’s stars merge actorly skill with genre-movie magnetism: Sean Bean is best known as Boromir in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Lena Headey starred as Queen Gorgo in “300,” and indie movie veteran Peter Dinklage played Trumpkin in “Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.”

“Thrones” has been in development since 2006. That’s when friends David Benioff and Dan Weissdecided they wanted to bring to life Martin’s magnum opus about bloody power struggles, dark mystical forces, and children grappling with the sins of their forefathers, all set in a gritty yet vaguely medieval fictional kingdom.

Benioff and Weiss have known each other for decades, and their meet-cute story is pretty unusual for hot Hollywood show runners: The Americans befriended each other while getting master’s degrees in Irish literature at Dublin’s Trinity College.

“Dan was studying Joyce, and I was studying Beckett,” Benioff says with a slight grin. The pair are sitting in a Pasadena hotel, both looking rakishly groomed, with 5 o’clock shadows in force midday.
Having studied two of 20th century modernism’s towering geniuses and later published literary fiction themselves (Benioff wrote several novels, including “The 25th Hour” and “City of Thieves,” while Weiss penned “Lucky Wander Boy”), it might seem strange that they were drawn to Tolkien-esque fantasy.

But for all their education and high-end novels, Weiss and Benioff quickly point out that they’re not just literary geeks: They are also Dungeons & Dragons geeks. “We were both dungeon masters,” says Weiss, whose novel “Lucky Wander Boy” is steeped in video game culture. In fact, the huge popularity of Martin-style fiction seems to go hand in hand with the immersive, drawn-out and escapist entertainment of video gaming.

The duo’s earliest attempt at collaboration — a horror script called “The Headmaster” — went nowhere. But Benioff got a boost in 2000, when Tobey Maguire took a liking to “The 25th Hour” and enabled Benioff to write a screenplay for the Spike Lee movie of his novel. This launched his career as an in-demand writer on movies like “Troy,” “The Kite Runner” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.”

In the meantime, Benioff married actress Amanda Peet, completing the aura of Hollywood fairy tale. And then “Game of Thrones” landed on Benioff’s doorstep. Literally. Martin’s agent sent him a hefty package of the books, several of which run more than 1,000 pages. Initially the cheesy fantasy covers repelled Benioff, but after he started reading, he was hooked. “At some point I e-mailed Dan and said, maybe I’ve lost my mind, but this is more fun than anything I’ve read in years and years.”

Dan felt similarly exhilarated. “You almost literally disappear into those worlds, and I hadn’t done that since I was 12 or 13 years old. It’s the kind of experience that’s very hard to have as an adult reader. … A crack-like propulsion to get to the next chapter.”

The duo decided that cramming Martin’s complex saga into a two-hour, PG-13 film would be “an act of mutilation” and wondered if Martin might turn down the payday of a “LOTR”-style movie franchise in favor of a cable TV series.

Martin recalls meeting them at a West Hollywood restaurant for lunch: “They were very enthused, they said all the right things. They didn’t even ask, ‘Does it have to medieval, can it be contemporary?’ ”

The 62-year-old Martin — who, with his hulking frame and his long white locks and beard, could be a character in his own saga — had spent a decade working in TV (“Twilight Zone,” Ron Koslow’s live-action “Beauty and the Beast”) and was fed up with scaling down his vision for the screen. “With my first drafts, they’d always say, ‘It’s great, but it’s too long, it’s got too many characters…. Ultimately I’d come up with a shootable script, but I always liked my first drafts with the huge, juicy stuff in it.”

These books were his attempt to escape Hollywood’s constraints and, as Weiss puts it, “write something that you could never, ever make into a television show or movie. And sure enough, we are now making this unmake-able world into a television show.”

Benioff tries to keep his vision for the series — and Martin fans’ expectations — in perspective.
“There are certain things we are never going to be able to do the way Peter Jackson could with ‘Lord of the Rings,’” he says. “On the other hand, we have a lot more time to spend with our characters. And at this point in my life as a 40-year-old man, I am much more excited by George’s stories than I am by ‘Lord of the Rings.’”

“Because Frodo never gets to go to a brothel,” Weiss pipes up impishly, as Peter Dinklage’sfabulously saucy character, Tyrion, so often does.

“Game of Thrones” is much more raw and graphic than most fantasy of “The Lord of the Rings”-”Harry Potter” kind. It offers beheadings and bare breasts, as befits the show’s home on HBO. “The [movie] studio conception of fantasy — and the more you edge toward high fantasy the more this becomes true — is that who would be interested in what is limited to 13- to 15-year-old boys?” Weiss says. “But frankly, a 13-year-old probably should not be reading Martin’s books.”

Having a pre-existing narrative to work from is naturally a huge advantage to the show runners. Unlike the creators of a TV show like “Lost,” they don’t have to make up plots as they go along. “Somebody very, very smart has been thinking about [‘Thrones’] 24 hours a day for the past 20 years,” Weiss says. “It gives you such a head start in terms of structure.”

 “Thrones” arrives amid a boom in historical and pseudo-historical cable dramas, including Starz’s “Camelot” and “Spartacus” and Showtime’s forthcoming “The Borgias” and recently concluded “Tudors.” Although Martin has done much historical research, “Thrones” is not shackled to any specific reality. According to Benioff, “It’s built on a vaguely Western medieval skeleton, but he’s pulling from the Mongols, native Americans, India, all these elements get woven together into this new tapestry that feels very organic and real but also feels fresh.”

Because it is a work of pure imagination, they can throw in a dragon here, a sword-wielding heroine there; they can even invent a new language. And so they did — hiring linguist David J. Peterson to create a Dothraki dialect spoken by the barbarian tribe that beautiful would-be heir-to-throne Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) marries into.

It’s a full-on geek move that should stand them in excellent stead at Comic-Con International, though neither has learned Dothraki yet. Weiss quips, “It’s on my to-do list. I’ve been told Klingon was hard to learn, so we asked that it be easier to learn than Klingon.”

This lapse could be forgiven, considering that the duo spent most of last year on location. (Weiss’ wife gave birth while he was shooting in Northern Ireland, while the Benioffs had their second child during postproduction.) Over the last half decade, they have juggled other projects, like the “Halo” movie that Weiss was attached to for a while and the Kurt Cobain film that Benioff is scripting. Of the latter, Benioff says he’s handed in what he hopes is the final draft of the movie, to be directed by Oren Moverman (“The Messenger”).

But Benioff and Weiss are committed to riding “Thrones” as far as they can, and neither foresee having time to return to writing fiction soon. Did their years as Irish literature scholars go to waste?

Benioff pauses, his mop of curls shaking slightly. “One of the experiences we were studying in Ireland was really close reading,” he says. “Paying so much attention to the text and trying to extract meanings from it. Obviously George’s books are very different from Beckett’s. But he is creating these worlds that are entirely unlike anything I had read before … and we want to do it justice.”

-- March 15 2011

Notes on Girl Power

Riot Grrrl, Jane Magazine and the Mainstreaming of Girl Power 

Village Voice

by Joy Press

From the moment do-me feminism was coined (by a male Esquire writer) in 1994, it was inevitable that a magazine like Jane would be born. Although the term was reviled by the women it supposedly defined—attractive, prosex feminists of the Naomi Wolf genus—it did expose a growing trend among young women: a backlash against the perceived puritanism of traditional feminism, and a move toward the politics of pleasure.

But do-me feminism also described an emerging niche in the marketplace: young, free, and single 18- to 34-year-old women. Targeting this demographic, Jane—the monthly that made its debut last week—is the grown-up sister of Sassy, Jane Pratt's legendary teen magazine of the late '80s. Sassyhad a serious agenda: to break through the sickly sweet fodder of Seventeen and its ilk, and put teenage girls in touch with the pleasure principle. Says Debbie Stoller, coeditor of the zine Bust and one of many then-twentysomething women who guiltily enjoyed reading Sassy, "The other teen magazines were about 'just say no' to everything, whether it was french fries or dick. Sassy was all about yes—the older you get, there's more and more things you can say yes to, and isn't that cool."

Jane arrives with little of this heady idealism. With more than $5 million of Fairchild money riding on it, Pratt's not likely to make many daring moves. At an idle glance, it looks a lot like your standard women's magazine: beauty and fashion advice, and endless ads featuring models so skinny it's hard to see where their internal organs might fit. Yet, within the narrow confines of the genre—one pretty much defined by its ability to stoke female anxieties and insecurities—Jane makes some subtle inroads. It avoids old chestnuts like "How to lose 15 pounds in 10 days," or "How to trap a man," instead continuing Sassy's emphasis on fun and independence with first-person accounts of a nudist retreat, kickboxing, and the hazardous life of a female pirate-radio DJ. The tone is feisty and the attitude is encapsulated in the subscription card: "Ever notice how most magazines are either for teenyboppers or baby boomers—filled with lame stuff about how to get a life? Hey, you've got a life! You're in your prime."

In her debut letter from the editor, Pratt, the perpetual teenager, admits that her first choice for a magazine name was Girlie. The appeal of that word is no fluke. Girl power has come to represent a whole new school of softcore feminism for thousands of (mostly) white, hip, middle-class young women. Girl reserves the right to think about clothes and makeup, but she still expects to be taken seriously. Girl isn't afraid to be obnoxious or snarly for fear she'll be seen as unfeminine. Girl wants a boyfriend but values her female friendships more. Girl knows she's as good as a guy, but she's proud to be girlie and to wield her girl power. Independent but not adult, pursuing a career but not exactly a "career woman," fierce but feminine, girl is a mess of contradictions and conflicts, sure. But when you get right down to it, she expects a lot from the world. As the online girlzine Minx puts it: "Can we please be smart AND want to get laid? We propose: Yes. We demand satisfaction. Meaning: Don't waste our time. Stay true to your word. Equal pay for equal work. And make us come."

At 34, Pratt herself is pushing the upper limits of girldom, heading toward arrested development. Yet she cannily understands that girl power is more than just a passing trend; it represents a new life stage. "It used to be that you would go from your family's home to your husband's home and that family," Pratt told the Voice. "Now there's this whole time in your twenties that gets ignored. The things you're interested in as a teenager don't necessarily drop off when you hit your twenties. Women in their twenties are not all dying to settle down and get married." In fact, in Jane's premiere issue a survey of women 18 to 34 conducted by Yankelovich reveals that "82 per cent believe a woman does not need to marry and have kids to have a full and rewarding life." Even more remarkably, "One in five say they don't know when they will feel like a grown-up."

Jane is a pioneer in the impending gold rush for the girl-power dollar. Waking from a great sleep, marketers, trendspotters, and product developers are discovering that the single-female 18-to-34 demographic is dripping with disposable income. (The average 25- to-35-year-old woman makes $25,000 a year, and spends about $1000 more than her male counterpart.) Several new young women's magazines are now in production hoping to capture this market (one of which, Siren, hit the newsstands this summer with the tagline FOR WOMEN WHO GET IT).

In the wake of Daria, the Beavis and Butthead spin-off about a supercilious teengirl, MTV is developing more female-centered programs, including a video show hosted by a Tank Girllike animated character called Cyber Cindy, and a program created by the editorial team behind Bust.

Lifetime, the cable channel for women, has been working on a block of programming for twentysomething women called The Place, which they hope to spin off into a separate channel someday. Videogame creators, once fixated on the testosterone target, are struggling to create girl-friendly products such as Sega's new Enemy Zero game, which stars Jill Cunniff of the band Luscious Jackson. As for consumer goods, according to Nick Bennett of the brand-design agency nickandpaul, "It'll take about a year, and you'll start to see loads of products that reflect this new idea of femaleness. That's what everyone's salivating to tap into."

Originally, of course, girl power was never meant to be consumer friendly; it was supposed to stick in the mainstream's craw. When Riot Grrrls rehabilitated the word girl in the early '90s, they were looking back to the wild, unsocialized tomboys of prepubescence for inspiration—chiming with sociologist Carol Gilligan's idea that adolescence is a calamity for female confidence and self-esteem. Riot Grrrls had seen firsthand, through their mothers, that being a grown woman involves making awful choices and sacrifices. Whereas girls still had all options open to them—none of life's roads were blocked off yet.

In place of sugar 'n' spice 'n' all things nice, the new grrrl was bratty, angry, and as nasty as she wanted to be (something Courtney Love made visual by wearing frilly, sexy little-girls' dresses that she called her "kinder-whore" look), while brandishing protofeminist slogans like "Grrrl Power" and "Revolution Grrrl Style." These attitudes circulated over the years through bands like Bikini Kill and fanzines with names like Girl Germs, Hungry Girl, Bust, and Bitch and their more recent webzine successors like Maxi,Wench, and gURL. All share a cynical, sarcastic tone—imagine Heathers meets Valerie Solanas with a smidgen of Parker Posey thrown in—that Bust's Stoller calls "shebonics."

Gradually, the shebonic voice and the nasty grrrl attitude hit the mainstream, first through Love, and then, in much diluted form, with the multiplatinum-selling Alanis Morissette. Faint echoes of girl-power edginess persist in such crass post-Alanis pop product as Meredith Brooks's "Bitch," and the Spice Girls' anthem "Wannabe." The Spice Girls' official book, Girl Power!, is plastered with slogans like "Girl power is believe in yourself and control your own life."

Pushing sisterhood ("You stick with your mates and they stick with you") and equal rights ("I expect an equal relationship where he does as much washing up as I do"), the Spice Girls have done the seemingly impossible: they have made feminism, with all its implied threat, cuddly, sexy, safe, and most importantly, sellable. As Paul Bennett admits, "All our clients are like, Find us the next Spice Girls!"

With their boisterously physical, unladylike antics in videos and a kung fu kicking member whose nickname is Sporty Spice, the Spice Girls have tapped into what looks like the next stage of girl power: a weird mix of tomboyish athleticism and coquettish seduction. Call it "rad femme": rad as in surfer and skate-punk slang for cool, femme for the traditionally feminine trappings like lipstick and barrettes.

Gwen Stefani of No Doubt could be the poster girl for rad femme. In concert, she cuts a striking if somewhat unnerving figure: her buff body stomps boisterously around the stage, sweat dripping from her quarterback shoulders and washboard abs as she lunges and leaps, while that squeaky, Betty Boop voice emerges from her heavily made-up, almost doll-like face, complete with lacquered '40s bob. Stefani simultaneously revels in her femininity ("I'm a girlie girl type and I like to...get all made up and do all that stuff," she told the online zine Foxy) while mocking, in the hit song "Just a Girl," those who would rein her in or belittle her.

Marketers seem to be betting their money on the rad femme: Both Lady Footlocker and Mountain Dew have recently run commercials that showcase feisty but feminine girls. Lady Footlocker's ad features a menacing grunge remake of Helen Reddy's saccharine pseudofeminist anthem of the '70s, "I Am Woman," while Mountain Dew's ad relies on a punked-up version of an old standard—the condescending Maurice Chevalier ditty "Thank Heaven for Little Girls"—sung by Ruby (a/k/a Lesley Rankine, formerly the aggressive front woman of Silverfish, for whom she coined the protoRiot Grrrl slogan "Hips, Tits, Lips, Power"). Crooning the patronizing lyric "Little eyes so helpless and appealing," Rankine tilts her shaved head sardonically and sneers, "then they flash and send you crashing through the ceiling." All this is intercut with shots of lanky, raucous girls, and footage of wildwomen—young ski champion Picabo Street, a skydiver, a rollerblader attached to helicopter—careening off dangerous precipices. As they take the plunge, they each let loose a savage girl-holler—the kind of roar you might hear in a Hole or Bikini Kill song, but stripped of anger and transformed into purely joyous exuberance.

It's thrilling to see such female fierceness portrayed on TV, something unthinkable even a few years ago. Yet below the surface lies a very traditional kernel. The commercial ends with a bunch of dopey, awestruck skate dudes who gaze dizzily back at the gang of tough girls; one of the boys bleats, "I think I'm in love." A crucial coda, these boys have been tacked on to reassure the target market of young women that you can be ferocious and girl-powered but also desired.

The rad femme's composite of tomboy and hyperfemininity raises the question: Is this new Mountain Dew-approved version of girl power merely feel-good feminism, with all the struggle and critique removed; a defanged politics that's about being active instead of activist? Probably. But it could be argued that, in this mediagenic age, being stylized and diluted is a fair price for being disseminated throughout the wider culture. Sure, these commercials leech on girl power, but in a weird way they also act as advertisements for softcore feminism as much as for a soft drink. You might even say that the Spice Girls, those sex kittens in rebel's clothing, have given many prepubescent girls their first taste of feminism, however compromised. As Bust editor Marcelle Karp says, "Let [the Spice Girls] get up on MTV or in the movies and remarket feminism and call it girl power. Put that out there, let the girls soak it up and think about what girl power really means."

Girl power may turn out to be fleeting, edged out by the culture's perpetual hunger for ever more risky pursuits, but chances are that in the process, it will expand society's ideas about what is acceptable and what's possible for young women. So perhaps, in the end, it's worth the price. 
-- September 23, 1997

Yoko Ono profile

YOKO ONO PROFILE, cover of The Wire issue 146
by Joy Press

"I never will forget the dawn in the Abbey Road Studio when John and I hugged each other after completing the Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band record. When I was a little girl, I read of Monsieur and Madame Curie discovering radium, with, naturally, the Madame sitting in the driver's seat. That was how I felt...I was a composer who was stretching her ears to the edge of the boundless universe."
- Yoko Ono, liner notes to the London Jam CD, from Onobox

Standing in the vestibule of the Dakota building in Manhattan, I tell the guard: "I'm here to see Yoko Ono." It seems like a stupid, surreal thing to say - like announcing, "I've got a pizza delivery for the Pope" - but he lets me in anyway.

Upstairs, Yoko is sitting in her kitchen, a vast room as big as my entire apartment, with sofas and a television at one end, and a mosaic-topped kitchen table at the other. Dressed in a plain black shirt and stonewashed jeans, she chainsmokes slim cigarettes and speaks in skewed English. Contrary to myth, she turns out to be funny, self-effacing and surprisingly mumsy; when her son Sean shows up, she fusses and frets that he'll be late for his voice lesson.

Every so often I have to remind myself: this is one of the most famous women in the world; a woman who was also, once, a key member of the Fluxus movement, a leading performance artist and 'High Priestess of the Happening', and collaborator with John Cage, David Tudor, LaMonte Young and Ornette Coleman. Her music in the 60s and early 70s was groundbreaking; on such albums as Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band and Fly she merged rock 'n' roll and New York downtown avant gardism. 

Years before Patti Smith, Siouxsie Sioux or Diamanda Galas, Yoko invented 'the scream': a spectacular eruption of shamanic female energy, dervish-whirling through soundscapes as hybrid and chaotically miscegenated as her own East-meets-West upbringing. She was an ardent feminist whose performance art, films and music aggressively addressed women's oppression. Yet her own achievements were eclipsed when she threw in her lot with John Lennon. Suddenly the arc of Yoko Ono's career nosedived; she went from diva of the avant garde to dragonlady.

In 1992, as the world began to re-evaluate some of the liminal figures haunting that edifice known as 'women in rock', Yoko was asked to compile her life's work for a five CD set called Onobox. It got rave reviews and avid attention from young musicians who had only ever known her as a cultural pariah - the woman who broke up The Beatles. Courtney Love, Yoko's modern-day shadow, promptly claimed Ono as her patron saint, and even named a song after her: "Twenty Years At The Dakota".

Now, four years after Onobox Yoko has made a return to her avant garde roots with Rising, her most uncompromising album since Fly. She is accompanied by IMA, a group of ace teenage musicians spearheaded by son Sean Ono Lennon. And later this year, her record company will release remixes and cover versions of songs from Rising, recorded by young Ono fans like Thurston Moore, The Beastie Boys, Tricky, Ween and female Japanese-American art-popsters Cibo Matto.

"I didn't know there were so many brothers and sisters out there thinking in the same direction as me," Yoko tells me. She sounds genuinely astonished.

Remember the holes in your mind

Yoko Ono is descended from emperors and samurai. Her father was a concert pianist turned Tokyo banker who, legend has it, often measured his daughter's hands to see whether they were big enough for her to be a first-rate pianist. (They weren't - she's a tiny woman.) Yoko spent most of her childhood in Japan, including some very hard years during World War Two. When she was 20 the family moved to upstate New York, where she went to Sarah Lawrence College. There she discovered Schoenberg and spent much of her time trying to find the right outlet for her fierce creative impulses.

"I felt that I was a misfit in every medium," she has said. "I thought that there might be some people who needed something more than painting, poetry and music, something I called an 'additional act'."

John Cage changed the course of Yoko's life, pointing the way towards an interdisciplinary art. In 1958 Yoko and her first husband Toshi Ichiyanagi, a young Japanese musician, attended Cage's experimental music composition class at the New School in new York City. The class attracted a panoply of young avant garde painters, writers and musicians -including Jim Dine, Richard Maxfield, larry Poons and Allan Kaprow - who embraced Cage's notions of incorporating indeterminacy and chance into art. By offering her gigantic Chambers Street loft as a performance space, a la Dadaist Cabaret Voltaire, Yoko helped foster this burgeoning experimental scene. Her friend LaMonte Young, newly arrived from Berkeley, performed there, as did Henry Flynt (who coined the term 'concept art'), electronic composer Richard Maxfield and Yoko herself.

At the time, Yoko was working on conceptual art that she called 'Instruction Pieces' (Painting To Be Stepped On consisted of the instruction: "Leave a piece of canvas or finished painting on the floor or in the street"), and doing performance art happenings. One of her earliest happenings, A Grapefruit In The World Of Park, was a multimedia work in which the performers wore contact microphones to capture the sound of perspiration and other "sounds you hear in silence" - her words echoing Cage's statement that "My favourite piece is the one we hear all the time if we are quiet". George Maciunas, soon to be ringleader of the Fluxus movement, was smitten by Yoko's stuff and asked her to exhibit in his gallery. With its Zen humour and interactive/confrontational qualities, Yoko's work fit the Fluxus vision of 'total art' perfectly: action, sound, movement, poetry and visuals brought together in a multimedia soup that melted the membrane between everyday life and art.

Throughout her career Yoko tweaked taboos by flaunting the female body in her work, from the infamous performance Cut Piece to the film Fly, in which a camera follows a fly crawling over the landscape of a woman's nude form. Even today, the concept of Cut Piece resonates; Yoko knelt onstage with a pair of sharp scissors and asked the audience to cut the clothes off her body until she was naked and exposed. Exploring notions of voyeurism, violence, and victimisation, it's one of her earliest and most powerful feminist statements.

In retrospect Cut Piece seems dangerous, even foolhardy. Yoko admits that she can't imagine doing it now. But back then, she recalls, "There was the feeling that I wouldn't respect myself if I didn't have that courage. There was always that notion in me that art should come first to a dedicated artist, and life comes second." Luckily Cut Piece had a built-in obsolescence point, since Yoko always wore her best suit for each performance. "My wardrobe went down very rapidly, until there were maybe two clothes left," she chuckles. "But the feeling was to use my best clothes - for art's sake."

From the early 60s onward, Yoko's voice became her trademark; a visceral wail, Roland Barthes's "language lined with flesh". Her vocal techniques emerged gradually, she says, out of a desire to find new sounds - interior or imaginary sounds. After experimenting with ambient noises and musique concrete, she started reciting poetry in performances, "accentuating syllables in a strange, almost dissonant musical way".

While preparing for a show at the Carnegie Recital Hall in 1961, Yoko had a flashback to her childhood in Japan which further inspired her. "I still hadn't gone through the experience of childbirth then, but I remembered that when I was a very little girl, I overheard these servants talking about how painful it is to bring a child into the world." The servants' yowling re-enactment of labour stuck in Yoko's mind.

"I remember it even now, exactly how it sounded," she explains, panting and moaning for me. "Around that time in 1961, I had a miscarriage... or an abortion," she mutters under her breath. "And that reminded me of those stories. So I thought, I'm going to try to recreate that sound of a woman giving birth." She recorded the groans, but when she went to play it back, she accidentally hit the reverse button. The result was so spooky and weird that "I rehearsed it to simulate the backwards sounds. That's how it all started."

Aside from singing 'backwards', Yoko also absorbed a style of Japanese kabuki called hetai "which requires you to strain your voice a bit". The child of a Buddhist mother and a Christian father, Yoko was perfectly placed to syncretize East and West. Much of her early work was meditative and owed its spiritual force to Buddhism. She said at the time, "I think of my music more as a [Zen] practice [gyo] than as music." And her performance art often drew upon the natural world, as in 1962's Wind Piece, in which she invited the punters to move their chairs aside to make an aisle for the wind to pass through.

Who was in those early audiences? Was it mostly other artists? "The avant garde scene innew York was very large, and a lot of people would show up," she explains. "I had a mailing list of about 200 people. In those days, because I was very work-oriented, I would do a concert or an exhibition once a month almost. I thought that was 'success', you know, not knowing there was another world where a million people buy your records."

Yoko admits that she was hurt by sexism, as rife in the macho avant garde art world as anywhere else. When male artists go out on a limb they are considered brilliant and daring, but when women do the same, they are crazy. "Crazy or downright annoying!" she agrees. "Many times I was not invited to a group show or to perform, so I had to do a concert on my own. In hindsight, maybe that helped me."

Yoko still bumps into some of her old Fluxus colleagues on occasion; thanks to a resurgence of public interest in the movement and various retrospective exhibits, former Fluxus artists sometimes find themselves corralled in a room for group photos. Today, former pals like LaMonte Young and Terry Riley are practically demi-gods to a certain circle of younger musicians, but Yoko seems wary of discussing them.

"I admit LaMonte Young's talent," she says stiffly, "but there should be equal respect, you know?" He doesn't respect you? "Ah, I don't want to go into it...There is always an ego problem amongst artists. I suppose with the kind of work that he's doing, it is very important that he have an incredible pride to carry him along. We were all like that."

Choose your cliche: Yoko the cold, calculating bitch who leeched on Lennon's fame and fortune, or Yoko the martyred wife who sacrificed her brilliant career for her husband. The reality, as usual, wavers between these two extremes. But in terms of the public perception of Yoko Ono, there's no getting around the fact that racism and sexism played a big role in her demonisation.

Think of The Rutles, Eric Idle's Beatles satire, in which Yoko's equivalent was transposed into a leather-clad, goose-stepping Nazi. And Esquire magazine once ran the headline: "John Rennon's Excrusive Gloupie". Of the blatant, unremitting prejudice, Yoko says quietly, "That was a situation that all of us Japanese-Americans went through at the time. But then I was singled out to be personally attacked. What was that about? At the time I was thinking, why, why, why me? But something good might have come out of it, in the sense of making me stronger."

Yoko met John Lennon in 1966. At the time she had showings at two hip London galleries; after years of critical neglect she was finally hitting her stride as an art star. Which is why critics have suggested that, in terms of her career, meeting Lennon was the worst thing that could have happened to her.

"I don't agree with that at all," she insists. "I was stuck in the avant garde thing. Where do you go from there? If I had insisted on staying there, I could've been known as the person who never budged from her belief, and been canonized by now..." Like LaMonte Young? "Yeah. But the fact that I rolled around in the mud, so to speak, was very good for me. By going off with John into a totally different world I got so much inspiration. Yes, on a career level maybe I lost credence totally. Maybe not totally...well, almost totally..."

She takes a deep breath and lets out a nervous giggle. "I always had this innate confidence that my artistic activity will not be killed. Even if I had to stay put for a whole year to get pregnant, that was fine - I thought, one day I'll use that experience to make something out of it."

Surprisingly, Yoko insists that she was an outcast in the avant garde community even before she took up with a pop star. She made a film called Bottoms/Film#4: two hours of bare bums which Yoko called "an aimless petition signed by people with their anuses".

After the film's release, she says, "All my avant garde friends dropped me because I got a tremendous amount of attention and reviews. This nice avant garde artist couple had a dinner party, and the wife told me, 'My husband feels like you sold out and we're not inviting you for dinner...' I was stuck in a strange place, up in the air. I was not in the avant garde world but I was not as big as the [mainstream] world that John was in. 1967 was a very lonely passage, it was like I was in nowhereland. That's when John noticed my work. And he picked me up!"

Not only did Lennon rescue Yoko from her limbo, he also introduced her to whole new kind of music: rock 'n' roll. Ono's radical vocals and mystical mindset combined with Lennon's raw rock sensibilities in a way that was sheer sorcery. Their first joint experiments with looped tapes and sound collages, Unfinished Music No 1: Two Virgins (recorded about the same time as "Revolution No 9", Lennon's Stockhausen-influenced noise collage on 1968's The Beatles) were out-and-out avant garde. But with Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band (1970) and Fly (1971), the couple combined experimental production, freeform jazz spontaneity and rock 'n' roll primitivism.

On the riotous "Why", Ono's voice seems to transcend the limits of her body, searing and soaring over the Bo Diddley-esque beat and Lennon's sulphurous guitar; on its sequel, "Why Not", Ono gargles strangled syllables over a bluesy groove, sounding like a child that's been skinned alive. Consider the John Cale-LaMonte Young-Yoko Ono nexus, and you realise that Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band and Fly - in their exploration of noise and the mantric powers of repetition - are an unacknowledged parallel to The Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat.

"When John and I got together I was not thinking pop music so much as rock," Yoko explains, dragging on her sixth cigarette. "I was interested in that strong, heavy beat, which I equated with the heartbeat. I thought avant garde music is mainly for the head - most male avant garde composers avoided the voice because it was too animalistic. They were into very cool instrumental kind of things. Cool was in, and by using my voice I was a little uncool in their eyes. Strange, isn't it? The sound of my voice was too human and emotional. Because of that, I kind of rebelled against that avant garde tendency and I went more animalistic. When I heard the rock beat, I thought, oh this is what I was looking for! And I never looked back."

Although those records met with a mostly hostile reception from critics and public alike, Yoko says, "We felt, John and I, that we created a whole new sound, a new world. Even though most people were busy throwing our records in the trashcan! We didn't expect that -we thought the whole world would recognize that this is a new sound." So the couple believed they had created a 'New Music' that was a "fusion of avant garde jazz rock and East and West". For Fly, Yoko recruited her old Fluxus pal Joe Jones to create one-of-a-kind sculpture-instruments "which played themselves without any musicians" (as she explained in the Onobox notes). And she utilized various items of exotic percussion like tablas and Cuban claves.

At roughly the same time, the likes of miles Davis, Can and Tim Buckley were on a similar genre-crunching trip. The lock-groove freak-outs "Touch Me" and "Mind Train" (which a strangely humble Yoko edited from 17 minutes down to four for Onobox, to 'spare' the listener) are remarkably similar to the punk-funk jazz fission of Miles's On The Corner. Similarly, "Don't Count The Waves" and "The Path" are proto-dub explorations of echo and studio space that reverberate with cosmic dust and radiowaves. They sound weirdly like parallels to Can tracks such as "Augmn" from Tago Mago.

 Was Yoko aware of what these other artists were doing? "No, I didn't connect that at all," she says icily, and perhaps a little disingenuously. "Okay. So I thought Miles Davis was probably doing something great, but I thought it was just instrumental stuff. And it probably was. The vocal thing I thought of as separate." It seems hard to believe that Ono was unaware of Davis's work on Bitches Brew, a big hit with counterculture 'heads'. But perhaps this brings us back to her earlier point about artists' egos - it was only her unswerving belief that she was out on her own, creating a new musical universe, that propelled her through all the barriers that the art world threw in her path.

These two early albums elicited some of the best playing of their careers out of Lennon, Ringo Starr, and even Eric Clapton How did she do it? "I think it was a lot to do with John," she says. "It was always in the context of doing his [recording] sessions: it was like, you're here anyway, who not do Yoko's song? It's not like we made phone calls and said, 'We're going to do Yoko Ono's stuff now, let's get into the studio.' It wasn't like that at all! 'Midsummer New York', for instance, I think it was two in the morning and all that time we were doing John's stuff. Everbody's tired and John says, 'Let's do this one song Yoko showed me this morning.' And it's like, okay..."

She rolls her eyes in a superb imitation of bored, patronizing musicians. "I was always an afterthought. But it worked out well. On 'Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band', you hear John saying 'Did you get that?' I kept it in because most of the time when we did my stuff, all the engineers picked that time to go to the bathroom. They couldn't stand it probably! A lot of things were not taped, and a lot of things were lost in my life." 

Although many of her early instruction pieces were published in the book Grapefruit, Yoko says that much of her work has vanished over the years. "If I were a guy that wouldn't happen. I heard that Allen Ginsberg's mother kept everything that he wrote since he was three. It must be a big file. But in my life, a lot of things happened to me, and the war..." she says, alluding to her childhood experiences in war-torn Japan. "I'm lucky I kept a few things. Woman's career is not taken seriously, so no one's keeping an archive for you."

There's no way back so just keep walking

After the extremism of those two shattering records, anything less untethered was bound to sound tame in comparison. Yoko's post-Fly work in the 1970s was fervently feminist, but sonically sedate and session-musicianly. She was palling around with Yippies Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin (her Fluxus-honed instinct for the spectacle melded perfectly with their pranksterish sensibilities), and attending to numerous cool causes.

Her collaborative album with Lennon, Sometime In New York City, and her solo records, Approximately Infinite Universe (backed by the hippy group Elephant's Memory) and Feeling The Space, featured such forthright songs as "What A Bastard The World Is" ("All of us live under the mercy of male society/thinking that their want is our need") and "Potbelly Rocker", a loose, jazzy slip of a song dedicated "to wives of rockers who are nameless, who live in the shadow of groupies and who get a weekend loving once every month...between the tours spiced with crabs and gonorrhoea".

Stray moments of intense strangeness found their way onto these records, such as the eerie "YangYang", and "Woman Power", one of the few mid-period songs which really succeeded in fusing powerful politics to equally powerful rock. A stomping Amazonian tirade recorded in 1973, "Woman Power" anticipated the marriage of Metal riffs and rap bombast more than a decade before Run DMC sampled Aerosmith for "Walk This Way".

Despite such strident pro-women rhetoric, Yoko wasn't a big hit with the radical feminists because she stood by her man at a time when separatism was in vogue. To women who felt overshadowed by men, Yoko was living proof.

"You're right - feminists didn't like me either. I was just a rich man's wife to them. That was the initial stage when feminists were totally down on wives and prostitutes!" she says gleefully. Ironically, the late 70s saw Lennon and Ono grow into the ultimate roles-reversed couple: he was house-husband, baking bread and looking after the infant Sean, while she managed a business empire that some estimate at £100 million.

At the dawn of the 80s Yoko turned to electronic technology. "Walking On Thin Ice", the last track she created with Lennon, is one of her best, most disturbing pop songs: over a motorik disco pulse, Yoko croons softly while sonic debris careens and crashes around her. Much of Double Fantasy, Season Of Glass (co-produced by Phil Spector) and It's Alright are peppered with synthesizers and lush, multi-tracked vocals (she used 81 tracks on the epic "Never Say Goodbye", a herculean task in the days before mixing desks were computerised).

"In the 80s, after John's passing, I really fell into music in a way that was like a security blanket," she explains. "I needed to hold onto something. Doing something elaborate, like elaborate harmonies or instrumentals, was a way of getting into a more complex place, which was therapeutic. It made me feel there was a whole new world I was delving into." She chose to use actual gunshots in the staccato, atonal epic "No, No, No," and later wrote that she had finally learned what musique concrete really meant.

When asked for specifics about her interaction with technology, Yoko grows a little vague, saying only that she's always been involved in twiddling knobs in the studio. A statement that seems overly modest, considering that she has produced or co-produced every one of her albums. "Sometimes I get into that kind of thing," she says, "and sometimes I think about the fact that in the computer age we get more and more removed from ourselves, and I want to go back to the simple animal in us. I hate it when things get too academic. If I play with technique, I want to play with it towards an end. Otherwise it can stunt you...In Classical music, people were doing very complex things, for the same of being complex. I leaned that rock, with two simple chords, can bring an incredible communication of the spirit."

The way Yoko tells it, Rising closes a circle that began with Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band, in more ways than one. Firstly, it is a return to uncompromising art rock. The album opens with the roiling Speed Metal pummelling and vocal convulsions of "Warzone". Then there's the requiem "Kurushi" (a Japanese word which vaguely translates into 'tortured' or 'suffocating'), the wonderfully flaky "Ask The Dragon", and "Rising" itself, a lovely song in which plaintive chants dissolve, over 14 minutes, into naked grief and cathartic chaos. 

On a personal level, Rising is also, says Yoko, "a reminder of when John and I did Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band. It was that kind of feeling. I felt that Sean was very supportive of me, just like John. So there were no silly questions - you know: 'Why are you screaming Yoko?'"

When Sean was a small boy, his voice often appeared on Yoko's records. I suggest that he probably absorbed her aesthetic sensibility from the womb onwards. But Yoko insists that she was taken aback by his interest in her music and his desire to play (alongside Sam Koppleman and Timo Ellis) on Rising. "I naturally assumed that when he grew up he would respect his father's work a lot. I never thought he would even listen to mine. I never pushed it or even explained it to him, but then I'm seeing him playing my old records and...I was surprised."

This seems rather self-deprecating to me, and not a little sad. Why wouldn't a son be interested in his mother's work? "My work is the work of an outsider, and his dad is very mainstream..." She pauses. "Well, he created the mainstream! So it's natural for Sean to go to that. But the fact that I was an underdog probably appealed to him. And it's worked out very well for the mother and son relationship!" 

Rising came into being after playwright Ron Destro approached Yoko to write some songs for his play Hiroshima, timed for the 50th anniversary of the bombing of the city. The first song she wrote was "Hiroshima Sky Is Always Blue," recorded with Paul McCartney last year but not included on the album. Scenes in the play's script sparked painful memories: the bombing of Tokyo, hiding in an air raid shelter, moving to the countryside and nearly starving, then returning to the ravaged city where she was surrounded by the walking dead. "I had been wondering why this experience I and all of us New Yorkers are going through now felt familiar - this feeling of tension and insecurity and fear. I was thinking, I remember this feeling, when was the last time I experienced this? And I realised that there was a parallel in my life." 

Yoko's first live performance with IMA was at a memorial event held in an ancient shrine near Hiroshima. The songs on Rising were rewritten for Japanese drum, Chinese gong, didgeridoo and tablas, and IMA wore kimonos. Although she's mindful of the 'One World' idea of melding East and West, she explains that there were practical reasons for the Asian instruments. "It was a thousand year old shrine, a national treasure, and they weren't used to people getting on the stage wearing shoes even. We wanted to respect that - to the point that I think we surprised them. If we used electric guitars we'd have to have heavy speakers and amplifiers, so I made it all acoustic - acoustic and interesting."

Over the years people have despised Yoko One for being too cool, too cocky, too 'inscrutable'. Back in the 60s and 70s, with her hot-pants and black beret, her anger and pronouncements about changing the world, she was as threatening to the pop status quo as any angry young woman could be.

Now aged 63 and a widow, she may find the public more sympathetic. Her rage is still intact, but tempered by a lifetime of humiliations and misfortunes, she seems more like a sage than a virago. The keynote to Rising might be found in the title track: "Have courage/Have rage/We're rising". The message is there ("We're all victims of the immaturity of the human race, and we can all stand up together and do something about it," as she paraphrases it for me), but filtered through some of Yoko's most virulently virtuoso singing.

I ask whether she prepared or rehearsed her vocals in advance. "[For] a song like "I'm Dying", the band started playing and the first words that came to my mind were "I'm dying". And I thought, 'Am I gonna say that?' There was a little resistance, because I didn't want the whole world to think...'Oh, she's dying!' But I thought I should say it - daring to not censor yourself. It is a bit frightening, but that's how it is. My feeling is that it's a matter of attitude - if you think that when you feel now is an accumulation of 60-something years, then anything that comes out now is okay. Then you don't have to prepare. Just let it come."

The Wire ISSUE 146, April 1996