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

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